[A slightly shorter version of the full paper will appear in French and English from France in January]
The Naked Ape
According to the primatologist Frans De Waal, bonobo—also misleadingly known as ‘pigmy chimpanzee’—is a rare species of primates. Bonobos have a pacifist, egalitarian, and non-dominating social structure under female patronage. They lead remarkably peaceful lives organized around complex forms of cooperation and sex. When conflicts on resources such as food arise, bonobos, irrespective of gender, age and social identity, engage in sexual gratification before they settle down to share the resource. However, bonobos are only distantly related to the hominid section of the general primate line (De Waal 2005).
Chimpanzees are our nearest living ancestors. As De Waal points out elsewhere, chimpanzee colonies are brutally dominated by the largest, most muscular and aggressive male. Usually the rule is enforced with the assistance of other, slightly less-endowed males who are willing to co-operate with the leader with a combination of guile, servitude, and mutual benefit. The chimpanzee society teems with violence, jealousy, conspiracies, cunning, cheating, and subterfuge, with females and juniors the worst sufferers (De Waal 2016, 218-22).
With such direct evolutionary lineage, it is no wonder that, in recorded history, most human societies have been structured around exploitation and undemocratic authority, often headed by despotic figures. In their semi-fictional mode, misty-eyed historians sometimes report some exceptions to this rule. But even these rare cases do not seem to stand up to scrutiny. H. G. Wells wrote of the emperor Ashoka in his book The Outline of History ‘Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star’ (cited in Das 1991).
Ashoka is accorded such an elevated status because he marshaled a fine-tuned propaganda machinery. According to the legends spread by powerful Buddhist pundits and by Ashoka’s own carefully scripted edicts planted across the country, Ashoka changed into a saintly emperor after he witnessed the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people by his own army in the Kalinga war. Incidentally, Ashoka killed his way to the throne itself by eliminating all his competing relatives: the estimates of people so killed varies in number between six and ninetynine. Before his alleged moral transformation, he was one of the most ruthless, war-mongering rulers the ancient world ever witnessed.
In any case, even after giving up direct warfare and adopting Buddhism as the religion of his vast empire, he neither renounced his monarchy nor disbanded the huge, ferocious army. Ashoka’s empire was in effect a vast police state with a strict watch over other religious sects. The army was used to enforce his absolute rule and unconditional compliance to Buddhism. For example, while Ashoka’s father Bindusara was said to be a follower of Jainism, Ashoka himself took stern steps to weed out Jaina sects, such as the Ajivikas. In one case, he issued order to kill all the Ajivikas in Pundravardhana. Around 18,000 followers of the Ajivika sect were executed as a result of this order. Such narratives abound. Needless to say, he retained his large and opulent harem, sometimes ordering execution of an inconvenient inmate to find room for another one. (Strong 1989, Popovski et al. 2009)
So much for the lonely star among the tens of thousands of monarchs that crowd the columns of history. The general scene didn’t seem to have changed significantly even after the gradual disappearance of monarchies and emergence of various forms of formal democracy, not to mention a wide array of dictatorships, oligarchies and military rule. The brief history of formal democracy in the West and the rise of communism across the world is replete with imposition of extreme forms of autocracy, aggressive militarism, frequent mass slaughter of people and brutal plunder of the planet. Since the history of the East and the West converge on this count, Gandhi’s trenchant remark on the idea of civilisation applies everywhere, including his own.
Keeping to the post-war scene in US, Noam Chomsky concludes, after a careful survey of every US president from Truman to George Bush I, ‘if the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged’ (Chomsky 1990). Chomsky made these remarks in 1990. If asked to do so now, he will certainly include Bill Clinton, George Bush II, and Barak Obama. To recall, Nuremberg trials were conducted to bring Nazi war-criminals to justice, and many were hanged. For now, it is important to note that Chomsky is treating all presidents of US on par with Nazi operators in the context of war-crimes, the subject of Nuremburg and Tokyo trials. He is not saying that US presidents are fascists. I return to Chomsky’s more recent thoughts below in the context of this significant caveat.
(To be continued)