On first reckoning this would seem a truly indefensible proposition. Not only does it fly in the face of the most basic common sense, it is an idea so seemingly audacious as not to even merit consideration. Hypocrisy, in contemporary life, has been raised to the status of the seven deadly sins. What could ever be the defence of an action that goes against the very principle which it professes?
Bear with me as we spend the next few minutes unravelling the idea of hypocrisy, its social function and implications. The definition of hypocrisy is the origin of my defence of this practice.
The dictionary meaning of hypocrisy is: “The practice of professing beliefs, feelings or principles that one does not hold or practice.” Why should a person profess beliefs, feelings or principles that he does not hold or practice? There could be two answers for this. One reason for this disconnect between the beliefs and principles one holds dear and what one practices could be due to social, political or even economic pressures that this person suffers. What this means is that this person cannot live by his ideals because he is forced otherwise. For example, a journalist who believes in the free press and reporting the truth may practice self-censorship and report falsities under threat of fines, closures, imprisonment and even death under a dictatorship. This cannot be termed hypocrisy in the true sense since the person involved is not a free agent.
The second situation of disconnect between a person’s actions and his professed ideals and principles is when the person realises that his actions are somehow wrong and unethical. He realises, deep in his heart, even though he is loath to accept it openly, that what he is doing is contrary to the ethics and morals he himself professes or actually aspires for. Here this person acts on his free will, without any significant threat to him if he acted to the contrary. This is the true hypocrite and his actions are true hypocrisy.
So why should one defend such practice? The answer to that lies in the context that defines hypocrisy.
We live in a world dominated by capital whose primary, nay sole, purpose of existence is to maximise its profit. Capital will move heaven and earth, zip from one continent to the other, overturn centuries-old customs and dislocate millions in pursuit of profit. This is such a stark historical fact that it hardly needs repetition. But what needs to be highlighted is that the cultural, ideological mirror of this relentless drive to profit is selfishness — complete self-centredness of the human person. The right-bearing autonomous individual, whom capitalism celebrates, is so necessary to the success of capitalism precisely because this right-bearing, autonomous individual is concerned, first and foremost, for himself. His concern for others, family, friends, society, nation, nature is driven by this concern for oneself.
Over the centuries capitalism has entrenched itself in our consciousness, not merely as a system of production, but as a way of looking at and understanding the world. The ideologues of capitalism have come up with hundreds of theories to explain this extreme self-centredness of the human individual at the heart of this system. Without going into a detailed reference to these theories, a few examples would suffice. The saying, “God helps those who help themselves” merely underlines this sentiment, as does the entire political philosophy of “enlightened self-interest”, which claims that each individual, by pursuing his or her own self-interest, ultimately propels the interest of all. Each of us, if we spend some time reflecting on proverbs, famous quotations, philosophies, epochal novels and generation-swaying songs, would come up with our own set of examples where the individual and his/her self-interest is celebrated and reinforced.
This celebration of self-interest, its foregrounding is unprecedented in human history. At no point, before the advent of capitalism, has any human society ever celebrated self-interest so pervasively. Self-promotion, self-indulgence, selfishness, egoism and crass greed are mere extensions of this self-centred universe that capitalism has given birth to. These vices are not conceptually different from self-centredness, but merely different forms of this core idea.
But, despite all the protestations of the ideologues of capitalism, self-centredness cannot become a universal virtue like justice, liberty or fraternity. Every person can aspire to justice and a just life; similarly, all humans can conceivably be free and it is surely not difficult to visualise a situation, however hypothetical it may appear at present, where all are linked in fraternal relations with each other. But the same cannot be said of self-centredness. As the virtue which subscribes only to capital (being the cultural, ideological mirror of the profit maximisation principle), it can only be fully practised by the owners of capital. Being capitalists, they are in no need to shield their self-centredness. They can be, and are, brazen about their pursuit of profit. Those who are bereft of capital (or property), the proletariat or property-less workers, do not have the material basis to practise self-centredness; rather, they are open to actualise the ideals of justice, liberty and fraternity.
It is the middle classes, which have one foot in the camp of the propertied and one in the camp of the working people, who are wracked by a contradiction of ideals and practice. While their ownership of property and access to privilege makes them practice self-centredness, their need to labour for their living makes them aspire for the ideals of liberty, fraternity and justice. Hypocrisy is the forte of the middle class.
So what is the defence of hypocrisy from this somewhat idiosyncratic analysis of class and virtues? As a Marxist observer of this world, it appears to me that when the class struggle is strong and the challenge of the working people to the rule of capital is a significant, if not primary, political battle, the middle classes are driven by hypocrisy. Their material interests drive them towards the ideology of the capitalists, the ideology of self-centredness, but the political challenge of left-wing activism shows to them the position of servitude they are destined for under the rule of capital and makes them aspire for the virtues of liberty, fraternity, justice and equality. On the other hand, as and when the politics of the left is in retreat and the rule of capital is in the ascendant, the middle classes dump all affiliation to such political ideals and hitch their ideological boat firmly to the flotilla of capital. The political expression of this abandonment of hypocrisy is the rise of fascism with its naked threat to virtues mentioned earlier.
Hypocrisy is a statement that while the material conditions are such that the person benefits from an abandonment of virtue, he still retains some sense of guilt and shame, some ideal of a better world that prevents him from a brazen rejection of these virtues. In a world where self-centredness, self-indulgence, egotism, national chauvinism (a form of collective egotism) and greed are continuously celebrated, where fascism is rearing its head in a hundred places on a rejection of the ideals of justice and equality, hypocrisy is not a small relief. It is a testament to the perseverance of human virtues in the face of the most intense attacks. It is therefore, a testament of hope.
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This article was published in my weekly column in The Post, on 25 July, 2007.