Infantilization dates from the 19th century, a response to two developments: the consolidation of the Atlantic slave trade and modern colonialism. These were, arguably, the first serious attempts at globalization. If a cross-continental trade in live human beings, and a political economy touching four continents – on which the sun reportedly never set – are not global, then what is? Fittingly, it required a global war to bring an end to colonialism and remove the blatant institutionalized racism that was the bequest of slavery in North America.
Lest we forget, slavery and colonialism became global systems after the Enlightenment had made deep inroads into European society. Republicanism and the ideas of scientific rationality and progress had become part of the everyday language of politics. Indeed, it was the Enlightenment connection that distinguished modern colonialism from its older cousins who specialized in blatant exploitation and pillage and seeking legitimacy in religion. The new colonialism talked of ‘civilizing mission’ and ‘the white man’s burden’ and saw itself as an agent of progress based on the principle of rationality.
In a secularizing world, infantilization quickly became a moral posture and a theological necessity. It allowed the main actors in slavery and colonialism to make peace with their own consciences, and the intelligentsia and the Church to produce a powerful mix of justifications for the new world order. It allowed glib talk of the historical necessity to care for the retrogressive, irrational, ignorant savages and the Christian responsibility to guide them towards a better future.
* * *
However, another form of legitimacy for these brand-new institutional arrangements came from a scientized language of the body, with a new politics of the human lifecycle riding piggyback on it. This language supplemented the metaphor of gender with a metaphor of the prerogatives of maturity and age. First, childhood lost part of its shine as intrinsically valuable; it was redefined as incomplete, imperfect adulthood. In that imperfect stage, ‘childlikeness’ continued to be valued as a symbol of Biblical innocence, purity and authenticity; but ‘childishness’ needed strict discipline and ruthless, authoritarian control. Once the metaphors became common currency, the likes of Cecil Rhodes could speak of the African as ‘half-savage, half-child’ who needed close supervision and re-socialization, so that one day in the distant future they, the Africans, would grow up to bear the responsibility for their own lives. That process of growth was later to be given many attractive names – modernization, development and progress being the best-known of them.
Second, the older societies like China and India, brought under the dominance of the emerging global order, were reclassified as ancient civilizations that had seen better days but were now decrepit, decadent and disposable. Naturally, they had to be run by youthful nation-states that had become the carriers of the ideology of productive, masculine adulthood. Their obsolete, yet occasionally lovable cultures were now museumized, to be viewed and marvelled at during the weekends.
The dominance that the masculinity principle established in the public sphere in the 19th century is well known. Less known are the authoritarian upbringing, exploitation and sheer cruelty towards children in the Victorian age. Phillip Aries in his _Centuries of Childhood_ and Lloyd de Mause in his explanations of psychohistory have told the story in lurid detail.
* * *
No-one emerges from large-scale violence and oppression unscathed; certainly not the perpetrators. Victimhood and infantilization are indivisible. Once you turn institutionalized violence into a system and run it, your self-definition begins to adjust to the systems you have set up. Predictably, the hierarchies based on gender and lifecycle not merely became metaphors of inescapable stages of history and a new language of triumphalism for European civilization, but also shrank the role of women, children and the elderly in Europe and the Americas. Some in the backwaters of the Southern world were ungracious enough to suspect the various theories of stages of history to be actually mouse-traps of history; but that was to be expected and no-one paid any attention.
The seductive charms of infantilization today, tacitly shaping the idea of modern citizenship, are a direct product of this psychological and cultural journey. So is the contemporary idea of democracy, championed by societies that have a long, not-very-enviable record in the matter of democratic rights in the Southern world. The violent, oppressive past survives in both the rulers and the ruled. For the rulers, it survives as academic history, manicured and washed clean of all emotions – as if it were a record of something fishy someone did to someone else. For the ruled in the ahistorical, darker continents, it survives as shared memory that underwrites cynicism and frequent attempts to turn against one’s own self – and also as part of an epic consciousness that is yet to find full expression in music, art and literature.
Four clear traces are already visible in this dominant strain of democracy. First, after their momentous triumph at the end of 1980s, the victors in the cold war are now more confident that it is the end of history. They are less sceptical about a production process that ensures a steady supply of ‘normal’ citizens as part of normal democratic governance. There is even less reason to feel diffident about deploying the same vague social evolutionary principles that first legitimized their global dominance. Indeed, there has grown a deeper suspicion of their own ‘immature’ ordinary citizens and a fear that, if left to them, they will not exercise their political choices wisely.
Second, during the long cold war some democracies came to feel that, in the battle against the communist regimes, they were handicapped by the freedoms and rights their citizens enjoyed. They tried to build closed systems within an open, democratic order. Years ago Robert Jungk argued that in all societies, democratic or totalitarian, there was the same authoritarian culture of secrecy, surveillance and censorship built around their nuclear establishments. Such closed systems within open societies have now become standard in domains such as national security, foreign affairs, technological choices and development, increasingly outside political debates and legislative control. These domains are now presided over by experts who are supposedly above politics and beyond criticism. What the authoritarian regimes failed to do through the coercive machinery of the state, the victors in the cold war have done without much effort, with the consent of a passive, carefully depoliticized citizenry. Third, the explosive growth of media and the idea of unlimited entertainment have brought governance within the ambit of what can be called the happiness industry. This has helped politics to become a ‘manageable spectacle’ and to enter the living rooms of citizens, turning them into receivers of one-way messages and willing captives of a virtual world that promises to exile all death and suffering from politics. Simultaneously, politics has become more open to those from the entertainment industry than to those coming through the representational process, for the former are seen as more adept at the technology of electoral politics.
In large parts of the world, the citizens are primarily spectators of politics, with only the right to vote once every four or five years. The rest of the time they see politics as a spectator sports on television, enjoying vicariously a feeling of active participation in public life. Even the electoral process is becoming more media-sensitive and turning into brand wars over market share. The de-politicization of politics is no longer a catchphrase in the ‘advanced’ democracies. It is reflected in the increasingly poor voter turnout in some of the most powerful democracies in the world. In the United States, voter turnout is usually half of what it is in India. Increasingly, some of the central political problems of our time – such as mass poverty, loss of security at the bottom of society, threats to life-support systems and environment, and loss of vocations – are pushed out of political debates in many democracies. The sense of sheer impotence and irrelevance forces many to opt for ideologies that seek to restore agency to the individual, if not as a responsible, self-conscious citizen making personal choices, at least as an agent of a trans-human, cosmic power presiding over a moral universe.
Fourth, the definition of a happy citizen itself is changing in modern democracies. Citizens are free to vote, consume, travel and entertain themselves to death. These activities mark one out as an active, responsible, happy citizen and keep one occupied. Those who are unhappy despite these freedoms are seen as maladaptive discontents, forever looking for reasons to be disgruntled. The Soviet Union used to get them certified by psychiatrists and put in asylums. They were unhappy in a utopia – and that was culpable. In open societies, they are advised to go to psychotherapists or are prescribed anti-depressants.
Even democratic initiatives in matters of political rights and disaster management in distant parts of the world have been fitted within this model and have led to the infantilization of entire populations. Whether it is food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa or tsunami victims in South and Southeast Asia, it is the same story. Even survivors of genocide are quickly classified as traumatized and incapable of taking care of themselves. Post-traumatic stress disorder has become a handy diagnostic category that deprives traumatized communities of all agency, which is then transferred to experts belonging to international bodies.
* * *
If infantilization has been so central to violence and oppression in our times, should not there be a history of infantilization? Of course, there can be. That is what we are moving towards now. That history, true to its Enlightenment heritage, will predictably exile all human subjectivities as so much flotsam, and confine itself to the archives so adored by historians. In the post-War era some psychoanalysts did try to sneak into history to de-sanitize it, but their efforts have done more to widen psychoanalysis than to broaden academic history. Once a ‘proper’ history of infantilization and that of the new post-Enlightenment forms of violence take shape, they will dutifully exclude any reference to the inner world of the victims and the categories they use. The experience of suffering of millions will have to survive at the margins of human awareness the way it usually does – either as fading memories handed down from generation to generation; or as fragments of an unwritten epic that cast their shadow only on the unofficial, vernacular modes of political and cultural self-expression.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.