The nature of human knowledge

Democracy is used as an image and to project power, without ever coming in touch with ground realities.

Asad Zaman August 18, 2011

It is widely believed that human knowledge captures truth. Influential French philosopher Michel Foucault proposed the startling alternative that power creates and shapes knowledge. This article illustrates theories which relate to power rather than truth.

Our first example is the theory of Malthus which states that poverty is caused by excessive breeding of the poor. To prevent a replication of the French Revolution, the British aristocracy initiated many welfare programmes for the poor. However, the budgetary burden and consciences were relieved by Malthus, who argued that the poor were to blame for their own poverty. This theory became widely accepted and led to the curtailment of welfare programmes and introduction of new harsh measures aimed at eliminating the poor, rather than eliminating poverty. Even though it is easily refuted, the Malthusian theory continues to command widespread support because it relieves the rich and the powerful from the responsibility of helping the poor and the oppressed.

A related second example is the widely believed theory that famines are caused by the scarcity of food. Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize for showing that this is not true. Multiple famines leading to millions of deaths and the annihilation of villages and communities were caused by stringent British enforcement of free market principles in India. At the height of the famines, with streets littered with starving people, grains guarded by soldiers were shipped to distant locations for profits. These inhumane policies were supported by Malthusian assertions in favour of weeding out the unfit portions of humanity.

As a third example, consider the theory that free trade is in the best interest of all nations, which is widely believed and touted by economists. Instead of examining evidence in favour of or against this theory, let us look at how it serves the interests of power. The theory of free trade first became popular in England in the time of Adam Smith, when England had a 50 year lead over other European countries in industrialisation. Application of this theory led to the expansion of English trade, together with recession in Europe. German economist Friedrich List developed the ‘infant industry’ argument to justify protective tariffs in Germany. He argued that free trade was fine among equals but infant industries needed protection to survive and grow. Tariffs in Europe did, in fact, lead to recovery of the European economies by protecting them from British competition. If free trade does provide equal benefits for all, then it is a mystery why all the English demanded from China after winning the Opium Wars was the ability to trade freely. Similarly, Admiral Perry of the US led an invasion of Japan for the sole purpose of obtaining the rights of free trade. This historical context provides far greater illumination than hundreds of dry technical papers full of arcane mathematics in current economic journals which prove that free trade is beneficial for all parties.

As a fourth example, consider the issue of democracy and Pakistan. Instead of the stale debate evaluating the relative performance of political parties and military regimes, let us consider the historical context. The Encylopedia Britannica of 1930 does not contain any entry for the word ‘democracy,’ which became popular only after the US became a world power. Once we go beyond slogans, there are serious disputes on the definition and complete agreement that an ‘ideal democracy’ has never actually existed in the world. Examination of history reveals that democracy is used as an image and to project power, without ever coming in touch with ground realities. A prime example is the contrast between the image of bringing democracy to Iraq and the reality of the Iraq war. Similarly, democracy, or its lack, has been used as an excuse for political interventions, coups and wars all over the world. The image of the US as a democratic country is very popular and useful to those in power. There is a serious question of how much democracy exists in a country where millions are homeless, hungry and without adequate healthcare at the same time that trillions are being spent on foreign wars.

The invisible chains which bind us to colonial patterns of cheap raw material exports and high priced final good imports are forged by power structures and masquerade as knowledge. Liberation requires the ability to see through these structures and the capacity for independent thought.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2011.


Zehra | 12 years ago | Reply

A good read, though the writer's composition skills could be improved to allow greater clarity. This is obvious in the comments as the writer's subtle criticism of the knowledge and power structures of today has been read as another populist tirade against the free market.

The criticism of modern economics, as evinced in the first three examples, is valid and obvious to anyone who has delved into the capitalist system and economics practised in the academia (western.) However, the author's criticism seems dated and off-balance. Surely there is selective presentation of material here, as apparent in your fourth example which relates to politics. Why do you not feel the need to critically engage with some of the equally 'powerful' religious narratives that are claiming heart and mind, and, body and soul, especially in Pakistan? This is not to take away from the criticism of 'western' modes of economics/power, but it seems intellectually criminal to ignore other facets of this 'knowledge/power' story more active closer to home.

SK - Salman | 12 years ago | Reply

@Zahid Qureshi & @Sameer: I have read many posts of Mirza Sahib and have concluded that he takes the first opportunity to tout how beautiful the U.S. is and how everything is hunky dory there. And, if by chance, there are any problems in the U.S. then of course it is only because it is not a fascist country and cannot impose solutions on anyone. Drone attacks??? Hey they pay for their own bombs, so they can drop it wherever they wish, can't they??? And since you are a beggar nation, you have lost your right to humanity also. And, after all, they invented Democracy, just like Al Gore has invented the internet. As one of you have stated Mirza Sahib needs to grow up and notice that there are equally worthy points of view worth consideration. Trust me, you could live there for the entire lifetime but you will not be accepted as one of them, just like Fareed Zakaria, no matter how brilliant he is, is always taken as dispensing a foreign point of view.

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