Figure-Centric Student Politics

IT is needless to say to begin with, that students, no matter how non-partisan they claimed themselves to be, cannot escape from politics. It is rather a common confusion that when a student says that he (or she, of course) is a non-partisan, he is also assumed as non-political. So first off, I think that that confusion should be resolved first before I go into my main points. One can be non-partisan, but one is sure cannot be non-political. As Aristotle put it in his famous quote, “Man is a political animal”. We are doomed to live a life full of politics – only the levels in which we are playing politics differentiate us from one another.

Speaking the language of politics, it is not wrong for me to say that the end of politics is power. Sure, there are student leaders – or any political leaders for that matter – that use the bourgeois-friendly rhetoric of welfare and the common good. Nonetheless, the way to materialize those is through the grasp of power. But then, one question needs to be answered first; where does the power come from?

Two different answers will emerge; power is either residing in the institutions or individuals.

The former is actually the most common answer. It is understandable as the same answer was once proposed by Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), a French philosopher whose interest is in the theories of power. In Discipline and Punish, he criticized Jeremy Bentham’s (1748 – 1832) idea of the Panopticon, an observatory tower surrounded by prison cells where the warden can see the inmates but the latter cannot see anyone in the all-seeing (hence, pan-optic) tower.

As a powerful construction of discipline, Foucault saw the Panopticon shows that power resides in the institution as “any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine”. It dis-individualizes power; no one has power on his own unless when put in an office or institution where power resides.

It is true only to a certain extent, that is, how that top dogs in the office can use the power that comes with the institution to influence their subordinates. But this does not mean that the power resides in the person, even after being granted by the office.

It is the relationship between a person with the others that actually constitute the presence of power.

As a person gains power from the institution, and are being exercised towards his subordinates, it creates a power structure between them which may be emphasized by the leader’s ethos. This constant relationship thus creates a dynamic where sometimes the leader’s figure takes hold of the inferiors’ mind.

Then, a second question comes to mind; why does this happen? We can say that the leader’s ethos would grasp the heart of the supporters, but sometimes the supports given are beyond rational – rationale that, in the first place, initiate espousals for the powerful individual due to his leadership skills. When it comes to a stage beyond well-reasoned support, any decision or act made by the leader, despite its irrationality, would be defended by his subordinates. This is the inception of figure-centric politics.

It exists in all stages in politics and here is the problem that I want to propose, the problem of figure-centric in politics, especially the one that I want to accentuate – student politics. Malik Bennabi (1905 – 1973), in explaining his civilizational vision, associated civilization’s psycho-sociological development with individuals’ mental development. He proposed that our actions are guided by three things; objects, persons, and ideas, each has its own stage and ways that shaped our thoughts.

As being mentioned by Bennabi in The Question of Ideas in the Muslim World, “… no action can be performed without a given scheme that encompasses, simultaneously with visible elements, an ideational element that represents its motivations and operational patterns.”
In student politics, objects play quite a minimal role lest we undertake decisions that are materialistic in views, thus creating policies that are not sustainable – as temporary as the objects themselves.

Student politics, then, move on to the second stage, a stage where most of us cling to. Admiration to the student leaders usually leads to problematic figure-centric politics. Great leaders are, of course, packed with ideas themselves. The problems do not start with them but the cult of personality that surrounds the student politics.

The relations which constitute power, however, can be exploited. The leaders could become something that Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) said as “Guardians” who hold a position over mere people who usually do not apply reasoning to their actions, but follow whatever the Guardians – in this case, student leaders’ – asked of them.

In the long run, and for the sake of the sustainability of campus politics, this is a harmful turn. The progress of the students’ ideas and development would be stunted if their whole idea is all about leaders per se, rather than the leader’s ideas.

That is the final stage of individual development according to Malik Bennabi; the stage of ideas. If student politics is about the ideas brought by the leaders, then it is safe to say that progress will be made. Ideas are developable beyond persons. The leaders could have already left the movement he started, but the ideas would still be there and brought by other members.

The dangerous part of the problem of figure-centric student politics is the same as a cult; it is hard to differentiate and the persons in it are easily exploited. Students are the agents that uphold the spirit of enlightenment. If they themselves could not escape from dogmas, or cult of personality, then the ideal type of both students and student politics could not emerge.

I hold no keys and solutions to the problem, but I do have the experience of being a student blinded by the brightness of leaders, that I eventually follow their persons, not the light of ideas that make them great. Surely, the students that read this piece is better than I am in term of evaluation of this problem and would easily identify if they are following the leaders or the ideas.

I end my article with the beginning of Kant’s essay, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.”

Aliff Naif Mohd Fizam is the Head Operation of VIRTUE IIUM and a reader of SOLIDARITAS.