Prasanta Chakravarty – Of Demos, Innovation and Affect
by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY
In the wake of the development debates around the nation, one witnesses an interesting array of articles—polemical as well as academic—that takes on headlong issues of political intervention by developing the terms of negotiation and deliberation in a certain direction. And that is the story of growing up—that democracy is the story of pragma, of mature understanding of the contestatory space. These are reminders that politics of good intentions is benign self-deception. Worse: it is apolitical, prophetic, self-indulgent.
Indeed, who would deny the role of tactical moves and innovations in our everyday existence? David Runciman once noted that hypocrisy is a noble tribute that vice pays to virtue. It binds together the social contract. Besides, politics is also an ever-evolving domain and newness in ground reality must be complemented with newness in conceptual innovation. It is in such a context that Partha Chatterjee’s recent piece in EPW makes sense. He has indeed clarified to a large extent the role of his foundational idea of the political society in current conditions.
But surely political moves and contestations can take different directions; innovation and gaming evolve sometimes from another significant attribute in politics: vigilance—possibly another name for demokratia—originally the power of the people. The crucial notions of institutional violence, engaging with ethical apathy and consequent watchdog associational formations play an important role in such a concept of the vigilant society. Strategic usages of subjective concerns—simple indignation at the state of affairs, for instance, can also play a distinct part in democratic negotiations. So, in the context of Chatterjee’s piece I wish to address two issues that seem to beg for a larger framework of innovation than he allows: the idea of democracy itself and the issue of affect and solidarity formation in contemporary India.
Democracy as Principled Pragmatism
If we take the term democracy seriously, both as a form of government in India as well as a political principle, one would notice Chatterjee pitches his arguments at the level of what can be called moderate mainstream liberalism, but writing stylistically as a member of the critical left. He carries his legacy of working closely with the subaltern studies initiative ingenuously. There is a sleight of hand involved here. Consider for instance, the works of Joseph Schumpeter, who famously brought back the nihilist idea of creative destruction in order to make a case for corporatism. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, he advocates a theory of democracy in which the idea of the rule of the people is undesirable and unrealistic. The competitive structure of representative democracy precludes participation in a deeper sense. Rather, sooner the people realize the strategies of democracy and enjoin the game, the better equipped they are for their well being. Chatterjee’s political society is Schumpeter’s dream come true: the use of violence in peasant agitation has “a calculative, almost utilitarian logic” and yet cannot be framed wholly within the structures of govermentality, Chatterjee informs us. The political society works in relative electoral strengths as opposed to majoritarian equations, critiques property and privilege and yet it is desirous of living in the non-corporate structures of capital, fundamentally glad to participate within the ethos of the poverty-removal programs and rehabilitation packages that the managerial class has to offer it. The crucial question is whether this double tendency of the political society is democratic, nay, political in the first place.
Let me address the question of democracy from three angles and view Chatterjee’s diagnosis of the contemporary Indian scenario. This is important also for the historicist argument that Chatterjee offers—that the readings of the demos in India today has to be different than what was offered 25 years ago. One, considering democracy to be coterminous with the evolution of modernity in the West, beginning sometime in the seventeenth century. Two, to bring into the table a more recent and politically influential term: radical democracy, especially while evaluating the idea of the political society. And finally, and more significantly, whether one can salvage and associate an innovative classical notion of the term with what we are witnessing today, in the arguments with the discourse of development from Nandigram to Raigad.
Suppose we take democracy to be coterminous with the story of modernity, we will come across two distinct strands. One begins in the universal rights theory of medieval Europe—one that reaches Thomas Hobbes via Vitoria, Molina, Bodin, Suarez, Grotius and Pufendorf—and which use that very idea as an excuse for building empire in the two Americas to begin with. Most of these apologists of rights are royalist sympathizers and use the idea of individual enterprise, not unlikely as a creative innovation, a la Schumpter. John Locke, famously the designer of The Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas in 1669 was at the same time a co-conspirator in the Rye House Plot, which planned to assassinate Charles II and future James II around 1682-83. Parliamentarians too have routinely played this double game of political innovation.
There is a different line of liberalism though—which has obvious material concerns, believes in political franchise and structures of representative democracy, and yet hark for associations and collectives. Concerns for individual liberty, material equality and communitarian ethics have been the cornerstone for many radical republicans, agnostics and sectarians. John Lilburne, the maverick early modern Leveller talked about democratic principles and property rights in tandem with Coke’s dictum on ancient laws in England. Ideas of common law got transferred into natural, participatory laws in Leveller demands. Significantly, subjective pietistic innovation (without being necessarily messianic) was a prime basis to such associational politics—and I’ll argue still is. But more on this later. In more recent times one recalls people centered governance councils. The Habitat Conservation planning under the US Endangered Species Act emphasizes the holders to evolve governance arrangements that will satisfy human relationship bonding as well as the protection of endangered species. The Participatory Budget of Porte Allegre, Brazil, likewise enables residents siphon off finance away from patronage payoffs to secure common goods that are actual problem centered.
Is India a democracy without association? It would seem that the twin pressures of party politics on one hand and religious and caste affiliations on the other, have paid put to any meaningful democratic associationism in India. But such claims have been discredited at least since the late nineteenth century when voluntary associations worked towards community and public end, and not always pragmatically. Consider especially the associations that sprung forth around JP, taking a cue from the Sarvodaya principles in the seventies. The Navanirman Yuvak Samiti in Gujarat and Chattra Sangharsh Samitis and Janta Sarkars in Bihar in early seventies are sites that remind us of deeply democratic associations in India that worked on principles not congruent with Chatterjee’s political society. One crucial difference, of course, is in the key area of demand of popular control over collective decisions. The political society clearly will be more interested in self-aggrandizement and only secondarily and pragmatically on collective bargaining. Chatterjee’s arguments and examples are historical and contemporary though and he does assert his conclusions on the basis of field study. The groundswell of solidarity, sometimes surely and astutely strategic, in Bengal at least on both sides of the divide, in and around the Nandigram massacre since October last year eludes him, because the interpretive burden of such an analyses will destabilize the neat applecart of the political society. The vigilant society, as I refer to the groups of local organizers, bloggers, community bodies, civic networks that mobilized (and is still working on) itself cautiously and gradually operates, did always operate, via hidden and sometimes not so hidden transcripts. Regardless of the recent panchayat electoral fallout, that has not been too flattering for the strategic political society anyway, the vigilant society carries on crying hoarse over exploitation, and not merely discrimination.
One has to also mark some key points here about a schism that bothers Chatterjee in his formulation of the political society. And that schism has to do with state violence and ethical apathy—attributes that are not part of his imaginative terrain in the transformed democratic India. I am referring to the difference in political gradient between peasant mentalite and formations of the urban lower class. While Chatterjee is almost certain that non-corporate capital in the cities and middling towns are gravitating towards civil society in matters economic, he is less certain about peasants in rural India, what with the spiraling suicide rates and their skepticism about market mechanisms in general.
The idea of civility is also crucial. Partha Chatterjee’s civil society is already sold to acquisitive and possessive incentives and hence is out of bounds for political intervention. This is narrowing down the democratic possibilities from the other end of the spectrum. If one buys to a modern urbane Hegelian notion of the civil society, or to the notion of the patrician or to a purely utilitarian variety of it, Chatterjee’s formulation does make sense. But there is an older definition of the civic that is participatory and other regarding, relying on the principle of vita activa civilis. It relies on messiness and discord in building up political decisions around issues.
This leads us to a more classical notion of democracy, something that has always conceptually eluded Chatterjee. I am thinking of Leo Strauss, Eric Havelock or Josiah Ober’s works on ancient liberalism. I also recall John Pocock on Florentine political ideals, especially the associations around the minor guilds and the subsequent Ciompi (wool carders) revolt n 1378 when republicanism truly took a radical shape. The civic overlapped with the ludic, as it were. A brooding sense of politics, which unites the demos with chaos and cosmos is one reigning concern in such a political imagination. It provides political actors with a sense of humility. Political change is highlighted time and again in conceiving sovereignty. The stakes lie with the polis, not with the purse. Trust is an important notion: not sentimental balderdash but a certain judicious judgment, a state of constant public hope, shall we say, prevail among citoyens. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is a good example that highlights such optimism. This sense of buoyancy, paradoxically aligned to forces beyond the immediate, is alien to Chatterjee’s middlebrow political society.
I am not for a moment suggesting a telos around virtue or implying that Bengal has suddenly transformed into such a world. That would be absurd and culturally meaningless. It is the structural reverberations that I refer to rather. What is unmistakable after Nandigram is that there is a momentous realization in certain key sections of the much-vilified middle class that there is more to politics than the usual metaphors of merit or equality. The story from denationalization to the emergence of civil society has not been uniform in India. An altered notion of the civic is in the air for sure. Part of the civil society, I’d argue, is getting radically vigilant; not romantically but at the level of political programmes too. Undoubtedly, such a swing in mood has to do with strategies and maneuverings within existing possibilities, but the intentions and incentives are not always managerial.
Affect and Solidarity
The first end note to the piece narrates an interesting story of the razing of entire village of Gobindapur in 1758 by the British in order to erect Fort William in Calcutta and the surrounding ground called the Maidan, now often revered by radical environmentalist as a gift of Gaia or mother earth to the city. Chatterjee relativizes the issue of violence by harking on to the notion of forgetting: “Forgetfulness is a necessary attribute not only of modernizers but also of its critics,” he ruminates.
It’s a valid point. The division is stark though. There exist a lot of intermediate positions between a deep ecologist and an instrumental rationalist. Some stand outside of that spectrum. Most classically oriented modernizers hardly envisage peppering the city with foliage, nor with doing away with the quotidian humdrum that a city provides. Thus, in poet and litterateur Buddhadeb Bose’s writings we find an intense imagination of the urban soundscape: factory siren taking off, an odd generator whizzing, drone of a steamer plying over Ganga and so forth. Or take Mihir Sengupta, whose literary oeuvre has a direct bearing upon the politics of the subcontinent. He has imagined the experience of a pre-partition Barisal district by evoking the metaphor of a backyard canal— pichharar khaal—in his work Bishadbrikkho. This tour de force is no celebration of unsullied, pristine nature and yet gives us wider ontological connection to our surrounding. Relationships are formed and nurtured within diverse elements, the canal facilitating the ups and downs in the narrative. Forgetfulness is as much a human attribute as memory and belonging, Sengupta reminds us. It is a layered appreciation.
To appreciate this relational structure between diversity is essential if we are to understand the idea of land or property acquisition by some entity that is outside of such structures. I would tend to think that land grabbing has a strong ethical component associated with it, something that primitive accumulation approach does not address fully, in two related senses—one philosophical and the other sociological. Primitive accumulation in its pristine sense is the means of divorcing the producer from the means of production, right? The robbery of the common lands and usurpation of clan property into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism is directly connected to enclosure movement in early modern Europe, a variation of what we are seeing in changed global circumstances today in India. I would think primitive accumulation itself is constitutive of an ethical move: from an ethics of community to that of austere self-discipline. Hindu rate of growth and local ties and affinities must give way to a Weberian ethics of possessive individualism. It surely is impersonal and yet the ethical shift is not lost upon us. Certainly, the welfare entitlements to labour law provisions to provisions for community review of land use decisions that the state now shuns has a collective dimension embedded to it, and hence a particular ethos of living associated to it. This is changing in the era of primitive globalisation and subnational mercantilism, if I may borrow a term from sociology, to denote what has been happening in India of late. There is no sense of concomitant international economic integration. Such state fragmentation inevitably fails to suggest sustainable forms of social action and hence thwart innovative modes of governance. But there is an ethical loss in this shift too, in the sense that severs cross-class, cross-race, cross regional and intergenerational social exchanges that stand in the way of short-term economic activity.
Affect is an elusive entity in Chatterjee. He begins by writing off Gandhi, Gramsci, Mao and Ranajit Guha and effectively doing away with solidarity based on moral economy owing to the deepening reach of the developmental state under conditions of electoral democracy. The state has now solved this existential crisis of rural life and hence romanticism for a pre-capitalist society is useless. But on the other hand, we learn from him towards the end that the political society is not all anaemic and lifeless, even as it functions within the terrain of govermentality. He turns cautious lest his political society looks utterly indifferent and mechanical. Hence, while discussing the rural peasant axis of his political community, he expects from time to time some emotive responses and militant action from them. Emotion is almost a safety valve that legitimizes political society and its negotiations with the state. This fails to take seriously a deluge of events and concomitant critical literature that has burgeoned in the last two decades dealing with the notion of the political in a deeply subjective fashion. The dialectic of enlightenment goes both ways.
Indeed, mutuality of relations based on justice and fairness does not always address relationality in its fullness. Those who function within the moral economy framework may not have delved deep enough in excavating relational entities. Charles Taylor cautions us in The Secular Age that a relational political condition cannot be understood in terms of mere human flourishing but must be located in the interspace between subjectivities. If we are to make sense at all of political passion, one has to give in to a deeply ringing world where relationships happen independently of us. Objects and agents impose themselves upon the members of the vigilant society, bringing them into their field of force. And such agnosticism does function within the material register, within the everyday.
However, there is something to be learnt from Chatterjee in this context. His piece can be effective as a timely reminder that sheer anti-privilege, anti-prerogative prophetic pamphleteering fails to get the broad middle rally along with the margin against the developmental schemes. We cannot afford to go back to varieties Fabianism or cultural conservatism. Nor is it always useful in the long run to form alliances of convenience as is the trend is some places in Bengal today. The deluge of broadsheets and blogs that deal with the subjectivity issue marking it as a bulwark against the economism that marks the liberal state is astonishing, and yet people are not sufficiently enamoured by such purity, such righteousness. In fact, there is a thin line between existential left and emotive right.
In his memoir Rajani Kothari talked about democracy as a powerful myth, the belief in which cannot be questioned. Neither the Liberal nor the Marxist nor even the Gandhian or the still deeper spiritual ideological conceptions provides us with a workable entry point in the emancipator logic of democracy, was his conclusion. Effective dictatorships require great leaders; effective democracies needed great citizens, Kothari said, and such citizens need to dwell deep into their own psychic, cultural and existential areans of striving in order to conceive a throbbing polity. Such grandeur of imagination has been rarely matched in the political imagination of the subcontinent. A political philosophy of principled pragmatism can only aspire to look soulfully at such classicality.