A comment of ‘self-interest’

Taimur Rahman is an academic, political activist and the lead musician of Laal Band of Pakistan. He is based in Lahore. For details, visit the band’s site and facebook page.

Taimur Rahman

When I was in college we studied an ideological construct called rational choice theory. The theory stated that everyone makes rational choices in their self-interest.

At first glance this seems to be absolutely obvious and uncontroversial. But upon closer examination one discovers that the theory actually explains nothing. Self-interest is defined so broadly that it can include completely contradictory activities. So for instance if I choose not to give money to a person in need, I am doing so out of rational self-interest (that is, preserving the money under my command). Alternatively, if I choose to give money to a person in need, I am also doing so out of rational self-interest (that is, charity makes me feel better). In other words the thesis is completely unfalsifiable because all activities can be subsumed under this broad and understanding of “self interest”. Even Bhagat Singh sacrificed his life, according to this theory, out of self-interest (rational choice theorists would argue that he derived great utility from knowing that he was destroying the British empire).

A very similar sort of unfalsifiable theory has wide currency in Pakistan with respect to left-wing political activists. Anyone who opposes the Taliban, the military establishment, fundamentalist forces, religious obscurantism, landlords, capitalists, in other words, anyone who argues for progressive values, secular values, democratic values, and “God forbid” socialist values is doing so basically out of self interest. This absolute premise is a given. All that remains on our part is to discover what that self-interest is.

The first hypothesis is always that the concerned individual or organization is saying what it is saying in order to earn US dollars. Hence, according to this paradigm all NGOs, and civil society organizations, human rights organizations, research organizations can be dismissed without any further arguments. It doesn’t matter how thorough their research is, it doesn’t matter how just equitable their demands may be on any given issue, it doesn’t matter whether they place themselves in harms way and display great courage, as long as they are receiving assistance from any international organization, their arguments, conclusions, activities, research, writing, scholarship, thinking, understanding everything can be dismissed without further ado.

But what is to be done about those individuals or organizations that do not receive funding from abroad? The answer is quite simple. They are doing it for fame (another form of self-interest). They want to become popular in the West, or in the media, or amongst the public. They crave popularity, they are desperate for attention, and they are motivated completely by self-interest. It doesn’t matter, again, whether they display courage, make personnel and financial sacrifices, research their subject meticulously, bring evidence to the table. None of that matters. They are doing everything for popularity and their arguments can be dismissed without further ado. 

Although many of you will recognize that the origins of this theory are to be found in the reactionary and right-wing circles of Pakistan that wish to stop the development of the left in the country. However, you will also frequently come across these arguments within progressive circles.

Every political activist, no matter their ideological persuasion, will always seek avenues for the widest possible dissemination of their ideas. One cannot be a political activist if one is not trying to reach the public. If one is speaking only within one’s close circle of friends that is really not political activism, or at least not very effective political activism. Hence, it is all the more easy to stamp progressive activists with the label that they are seeking popularity, given that if they are political activists, and good political activists, they will always be seeking avenues to popularize their idea.

Hence, we can now conclude that everyone on the left is seeking only his or her self-interest, whether in the form of fame or fortune. It is proved beyond doubt that no one is committed to his or her ideas.

Now if all these so-called activists are merely pursing their self-interest (and not really fighting for the people selflessly), why should I selflessly support them? It is far better to go about my business, pursue my career/work and advance my own individual economic condition. Collective struggles can wait for the emergence of a leader about whom it can be proven without a doubt that they are absolutely selfless (an impossible task given our rational choice sort of definition of selflessness).

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this great myth is a powerful ideological tool that helps to keep the system intact by demobilizing millions of people who would otherwise stand up for those issues and demands. It not only demeans the contribution of those who seek to change society. It provides a convenient logical fallacy that helps, in minds, “refute” any of the actual arguments, logic, or evidence presented by activists. And finally it absolves us of all moral responsibility of joining in that struggle to change circumstances. Case closed. Now the system can continue as before.

And for the record, if you think this is a new construct. Please examine the record of the propaganda of ruling classes against revolutionary leaders from Spartacus to Lenin you see the same argument again and again and again still. One would have thought that in 4000 years of history the exploiting classes could have come up with something a little more original. But no.

What is perhaps worth pondering about is why we continue to be befuddled by this argument despite the fact that it is now the most ghissa hua, pitta hua argument in the arsenal of the ruling class.

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