Sunday, 31 July 2011

The politics of the governed: reflections on popular politics in most of the world

The second chapter from this book, 'Populations and Political Society' is online here. The entire book is online here.

In this brilliant set of essays, Partha Chatterjee develops an original thesis about what used to be called the Third World. Contrary to accepted wisdom, he argues that the growth of democracy there does not depend primarily on the strengthening of "civil society" (where modern citizens exercise their rights in relation to one another and to the state) but on something else: the increasing entry of the rural and urban poor into "political society." This is the space of governmentality, in which marginal population groups are able to compel the post-colonial state to negotiate their entitlements -- often in illegal ways. The Politics of the Governed is a deeply thought-provoking book, skillfully combining rich ethnographic detail with important theoretical insights. It moves effortlessly from describing the political struggles of shanty-town dwellers in India to analyzing the contradictory effects of global capitalism and discussing the moves of American imperial power around the world. No one who is seriously concerned with understanding the political predicament of the contemporary world can afford to miss this humane and illuminating work.
 (Talal Asad, distinguished professor of anthropology, City University of New York

His book offers some hope in the attempts made by disenfranchised people to formulate an effective politics that refashions aspects of modernity and the state to their own needs.
(Siddartha Deb The Nation Autumn / Winter 2004-05)

This project signals a real turn in subaltern studies tradition of South Asian scholarship insofar as it pushes us to investigate political resistance as emergent out of, rather than operating outside of, the state. The Politics of the Governed makes new conversations possible, and for this alone, it is well worth reading.
(Genevieve Lakier South Asia News )

An applicable and inspiring text, with true imaginative power.
(Munir Fakher Eldin Arab Studies Journal )

A rich collection... The Politics of the Governed deserves a wide audience.
(Glyn Williams Cultural Geographies )

A review by P. Kerim Friedman, Savage Minds

The Politics of the Governed still takes India to stand for “most of the world,” but it makes important strides in rectifying the focus on elite discourses. In fact, it does much more than that. It radically challenges our understanding of the term “civil society” by highlighting how the politics of civil society marginalizes the politics of poor people and offers up an alternative term, “political society” as a framework for understanding the popular politics of marginalized groups. In doing so he draws heavily upon the Foucauldian tradition of governmentality studies to argue that there is a gap “between the lofty political imaginary of popular sovereignty and the mundane administrative reality of governmentality” (36).

Central to his argument is a distinction between “citizens” and “populations.” Populations are the object of the welfare state, but Chatterjee crucially distinguishes between the different history of the welfare state in the developed world and the post-colonial world.
postcolonial states deployed the latest governmental technologies to promote the well-being of their populations, often prompted and aided by international and nongovernmental organizations. In adopting these technical strategies of modernization and development, older ethnographic concepts often entered the field of knowledge about populations – as convenient descriptive categories for classifying groups of people into suitable targets for administrative, legal, economic, or electoral policy … Thus caste and religion in India, ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, and tribes in Africa remained the dominant criteria for identifying communities among the populations as objects of policy. (37)
These populations cannot be treated the same way as citizens because it is impossible to generalize their needs to those of the entire population. There are two reasons for this. First is their status as minority populations, and the second is caused by the constraints of limited state resources. The first argument draws on the questions posed in Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” regarding the ways in which the “universal” values of the modern state presuppose the cultural values of the dominant population. Chatterjee recasts (no pun intended) this problematic in terms of the role of untouchability in the creation of modern India:
The colonial government, for all its homilies about the need to uplift those oppressed by the religious tyranny of traditional Hinduism, could only look after the untouchables as its subjects. It could never give them citizenship. Only under an independent national constitution was citizenship conceivable for the untouchables. yet, if independence meant the rule of the upper casts, how could the untouchables expect equal citizenship and the end of teh social tyranny from which they had suffered for centuries? Ambedkar’s position was clear: the untouchables must support national independence, in the full knowledge that it would lead to teh political dominance of the upper casts, but they must press on with the struggle for equality within the framework of the new constitution. (14-15)
The second problem with treating the rights of populations the same as the rights of citizens is that doing so would strain the state’s capacity to “deliver those benefits to the entire population” and would “only invite further violation of public property and civic laws” (40). As a result, there is a catch-22 whereby the need of marginalized populations to engage in illegal activities in order to secure their livelihood reinforces the state’s inability to legitimate those illegal activities, thus ensuring that the relationship of these marginal groups to the state remains purely instrumental. It is within this space that Chatterjee’s “political society” emerges. It is a space where “the demands of electoral mobilization, on the one hand, and the logic of welfare distribution, on the other, overlapped and came together” (135).

The engagement of poor people in electoral politics is precisely one of the areas that sets India apart from the United States, as such it is fair to ask how relevant the concept of “political society” is to the “West.” And Chatterjee himself argues that the history of Governmentality in the global “South” is quite different as a result of the colonial encounter. In the West “the story of citizenship … moves from the institution of civic rights in civil society to political rights in the fully developed nation-state,” only then developing the techniques of governmentality discussed by Foucault. But that order was reversed in the colonies, where the “technologies of governmentality often predate the nation-state” (36) (e.g. anthropometry in India).
Having said that, I do find the concept of “political society” tremendously useful in the Indian context. My own limited experience in India comes from making a film about a community long-associated with illegal activity and we observed first hand the tensions that were created by civil society institutions treating the community as “subjects,” and the birth of a new political society intended to negotiate entitlement claims with the state. The discourses of “reform” through education and labor used by Indian NGOs conflicted with community desires to be treated as citizens with rights. The community then faced difficulty establishing these rights because of their own marginal status. For instance, how do you get the government to improve the sewage when the community has not been paying taxes? You could start paying taxes, except that this would require the state to collect those taxes, which it hasn’t been doing (collecting bribes on the other hand …), and even if they could get the state to collect the taxes, the community doesn’t want to have to pay all its back taxes all at once. A similar farce ensued when the community recently sought to file a “right to information” petition. I just learned that it has been impossible to do so because there is no government officer appointed to the community who is able to receive the petition. In this Becketesque context, it makes sense that politics should take the form of a group of young people engaged in Brechtian street theatre.

Chatterjee cites numerous similar examples from West Bengal, even including theater troupes! “The People’s Welfare Association” created by a squatter settlement along the railroad tracks cannot receive the same recognition as other civic societies because its goal is to establish the legitimacy of an illegal community.
The squatters, on their part, admit that their occupation of public land is both illegal and contrary to good civic life. But they make the claim to a habitation and a livelihood as a matter of right and use their association as the principal collective instrument to pursue that claim. (59)
In framing their petition they define themselves in terms of the very categories of governmentality, a laundry list of subject “populations”: “Refugees, landless people, day laborers, homestead, below the poverty line …” and yet they insist that they form a “single family.” This move is crucial in order “to give the empirical form of a population group the moral attributes of a community” (57). Population groups are made up of subjects, whereas communities are made up of citizens. “Political society” is the politics of subjects who wish to have the same rights as citizens, but are excluded (by dint of their very marginalization) from civil society.

Chatterjee’s book is divided into two parts. The first part consists of three lectures delivered at Columbia University in 2001. This is the tightest part of the book, in which he develops the arguments I mentioned in the first part of my review and which I will continue to focus upon below. The second half consists of a series of other lectures on a variety of issues, including globalization, the war on terror, and India’s urban development. Because of the fragmentary nature of this book, we really only get a hint as to the nature of “political society” and its utility as a concept. There is certainly more depth to the discussion that the brief account I’ve laid out so far, but it is frustrating that many of the most difficult questions are avoided. The first, would be the applicability of the concept to the developed world; but the second is even more pressing: Chatterjee shies away from tackling the history of communal violence in India and the alliances which marginalized political societies often make with the most reactionary political groups. I understand why, he does this. He is intent on showing the democratic potential of political society and wishes to challenge India’s left-leaning middle classes to actively work with political societies rather than shunning them. In this sense the history of communal violence forms the context in which such a book is written. Nonetheless, if we we want to really demonstrate the analytical usefulness of the category it can’t just be presented as a progressive phenomena.
Another question I like to ask whenever I see an author introduce a new analytic term is whether or not the concepts can’t already be handled by existing terms, specifically Gramsci’s term “civil society.” Chatterjee’s main criticism is that civil society is elitist:

Civil society as an ideal continues to energize an interventionist political project, but as an actually existing form it is demographically limited. (39)
One of the best articles written on the concept of civil society in Gramsci’s work is Joseph Buttigieg’s 1995 Boundary 2 article, “Gramsci on Civil Society” (JSTOR link). (Buttigieg was the other discussant on that 1996 AAA session I mentioned.) In that article Buttigieg makes it clear that, contrary to how many people use the term today, Gramsci never intended for civil society to be thought of as a realm of freedom and democracy exiting in opposition to the state; rather, for Gramsci “civil society as an integral part of the state” (424). As such, it is incorrect to view civil society as the realm of freedom it is often conceived of today (especially as used by neoconservatives who are really interested in little more than expanding markets). As Buttigieg puts it:
for Gramsci, civil society is best described not as the sphere of freedom but of hegemony. Hegemony, to be sure, depends on consent (as opposed to coercion), but consent is not the spontaneous outcome of “free choice”; consent is manufactured, albeit through extremely complex mediums, diverse institutions, and constantly changing processes. Furthermore, the power to manufacture consent is not evenly distributed in society … (427, emphasis added)
So, even in Gramsci’s writings civil society is already portrayed “demographically limited”! It was because of this that Gramsci sought to forge an Italian “national-popular” culture. Gramsci hoped that such a culture, forged by “organic intellectuals” in cooperation with Italy’s workers and peasants would counterbalance the existing civil society maintained by “traditional intellectuals” working in universities, churches, and for the state. I’ve always seen the distinction between these two kinds of intellectuals as essentially Weberian, reflecting the degree that intellectuals have been incorporated into the institutions of civil society. This creates problems because the definition of an organic intellectual is essentially negative. Although Chatterjee does not engage with Gramsci’s theory of the intellectual, the concept of political society suggests a positive definition of such intellectuals by defining them in terms of the unique structures of political society as opposed to civil society.

One might argue that Gramsci’s entire conception of subaltern society is largely framed in negative terms. In this sense Chatterjee’s concept of political society opens up a potential space for developing Gramsci’s model in a more anthropological direction. Chatterjee’s anthropological approach comes to the distinction between political and civil society by inductively generalizing from the experience of the rural poor in India. This gives his term weight, but it also means that he is unable to live up to the grand theoretical ambitions implied in this work. He claims to speak to “politics in most of the world,” but doing so would require him to abandon some of his empirical caution and propose a general model of political society applicable to more than the few cases presented here. Hopefully he is working on just such a project. If not, I think that there are enough tantalizing hints here that I’m sure we will see others testing the range and applicability of the term to vastly different contexts.