In the Ruins of Political Society – A Response to Partha Chatterjee
Partha Chatterjee’s post, following on Shuddha’s Hazare Khwahishein… is something of an eye-opener for me. I will not enter into a debate with him on his reading of Shuddha’s post as Shuddha and I have had our long online and offline exchanges and I have learnt immensely from these exchanges, even if a core of disagreement persists. I do think, however, that Partha is mistaken in thinking that this is the first time the question of corruption has been discussed on Kafila or elsewhere but since I am not interested in discussing that question here, I will leave that matter aside. I think I have said pretty much what I wanted to say on the movement and the myriad issues related to it and so I am no more interested in going over that territory all over again. Interested readers can see the Kafila archives if they so wish.
What has been an eye-opener for me is the way a certain other Partha Chatterjee has emerged, as soon as his theories were brought face to face with the hurly-burly of politics. The imprint of this other Partha is clearly evident in every word and sentence of this post, but most clearly in the concluding sentence where he claims that the indepdent Left has ‘its populist moment in Nandigram’. This sentence encapuslates the gist of our disagreements. It was this assessment that led Partha to write the essay, ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation‘ where, in some elliptical fashion, his own discomfort with popular politics found expression. That is when he extended the definition of ‘political society’ to say that it was the sphere of ‘management of ‘non-corporate capital’ (of course, by capital and government). That Partha links his discomfort over the Anna Hazare movement to his discomfort over Nandigram, is in my view, a sign of the fact that his idea of ‘political society’ lies in ruins, that it collapsed at the precise moment of its encounter with the popular.
I say this as someone who has not only found Partha’s work enabling for my own, but as someone who has impatiently waited for everything he writes, to consume it, mull over it and use it as part of my own theoretical/ conceptual paraphernalia. As an Ekalavya would, I have no shame in acknowledging this debt to my Dronacharya. I had built a statue – perhaps of a Dronacharya of my own imagination – and learnt my political theory at its feet. I have long engaged with the idea of ‘political society’ itself as one of the central categories I work with.
The core of my disagreement here concerns the very idea of politics. Let me start with the very early attempts made by Partha – most notably in Land Question in Bengal – of distinguishing between a domain of organized politics and a domain of unorganized politics. The point of this distinction clearly was that there was a way in which politics exceeded ‘the political’ – the way in which peasants conducted their politics was seen as fundamentally different from elite politics. As we know, through the work of Ranajit Guha (especially, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India), the idea of politics was expanded – far beyond what its European/ Western antecedents allowed: what was seen as ‘pre-political’ (because marked by religious symbolism and not in tune with the secular domain of ‘politics’, was placed by Guha squarely in the domain of politics. The entire project of early Subaltern Studies as I understand it, was centrally concerned with the autonomy of subaltern consciousness, with an exploration of the ways in which subaltern politics always exceeded and escaped the control of the nationalist elite. In other words, it was not so much about the ways in which the colonial government and nationalist elites ‘managed’ subaltern populations but, on the contrary, the ways in which, the subaltern escaped the mechanisms of control. And it is from the work of Subaltern Studies that we had some of the most fascinating accounts (especially works like Shahid Amin’s ‘Gandhi as Mahatma’ and later his book on Chauri Chaura) that showed how subaltern politics made its own sense of nationalist calls and slogans. Thirty years after Subaltern Studies, I am somewhat stunned to see Partha tell us that ‘corruption’ is an unthought issue and that people supporting it (in Ramlila Maidan or in thousands of different locales across the country), are actually the kith and kin of the same corrupt who they rail against. There is apparently no moment of disjunction here between the call of the Hazare Team and the people who flock to support him. The moment of excess, of escape, of overflow – are all now over, subsumed within that overarching logic of governmentality that brooks no flight. In his disdain of the popular, I hear the voice of the normative theorist here, not that of one of the key figures of Subaltern Studies.
But then these were studies that came out of the Gramscian-Guhaian phase of Subaltern Studies. It was in the second phase (the late subaltern studies?) that what Sumit Sarkar described as the ‘Disappearance of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies actually occurred. Partha’s work is emblematic of this phase. Thereafter, we had the sharp move away to a preoccupation with nationalist elites and nationalist discourse as the object of SS – and an easy insertion of SS into the happy binaries of ‘colony’ and ’empire’ that postcolonial studies entrenched in the Western academy. I do not agree with Sumit Sarkar that this was the inevitable result of a turn to Edward Said and Foucault but, there is, it seems, a point in that observation. It seems the subaltern can neither speak, nor even silently escape. Elite knowledge and politics – and the Partha-ian notion of governmentality-as-welfare, become the insturments of discipline and control. The wilder side of Foucault – the insurrection of subjugated knowledges, biopolitics, sexuality, activism for prison reforms and so on – are carefully excised, in order to produce for us a Foucault that is palateable and insipid. It is with this notion of governmentality that Partha then proceeds to bring popular politics under control.
My initial response to his idea of ‘political society’ was that it was a momentous intervention in political theory that inscribed the postcolonial (in a generic sense), at the heart of political theory. It now turns out, it is just another version of ‘management of populations’, where the initiative is always, without any disjunction, only and only in the hands of the governmental state. If the Habermasian public sphere dreamt of arriving at consensus between rationally acting , disinterested subjects, Partha’s political society seems to simply modify that now to define another arena – that of negotiated settlement. This negotiated settlement now seems to be another version of the Habermasian consensus – except that here, in postcolonial societies, governments arrive at it with unlettered people who are forced to live in different degrees of illegality and para-legality – in other words, with those who cannot be dealt with as rationally acting citizens. This settlement is not based on transparent, rational speech – since this population is incapable of it – but rather on mobilization, forming of associations and representation. In his early writings, Partha included in this domain not only the formal political domain of political parties but also social movements and non-governmental organizations, which provided the different forms of associational life and forms of organizationa and mobilization to these populations. Now, with Anna Hazare, clearly his definition of politics has been abridged to excise everything but political parties and elections.
Clearly in line with the overall thrust of his argument in recent times, is his claim that
The present “Anna” moment is an exact populist moment (in Ernesto Laclau’s sense in On Populist Reason) where “the people” have identified an “enemy of the people” in the entire political class, including the government bureaucracy.
This is Partha’s Laclau (like his Foucault). For this is not the key thesis of Laclau’s book. On Populist Reason carries forward Laclau’s investigation of populism from the 1970s, and this thesis on the division of the political space into two camps is only a tangential part of his argument. If I may, not only does Laclau not posit populism against politics, he in fact claims, on the contrary, that populism may indeed be the royal road to the constitution of the political.
Indeed, in his discussion of populism in this work, Ernesto Laclau refers to the political mobilizations of Adhemar de Barros in Brazil, whose campaigns in the 1950s had as their motto ‘Rouba mais faz’ (‘He steals but keeps things going’). Laclau describes the politics of de Barros as ‘essentially clientilistic’, one that involved an exchange of votes for political favours (Laclau 2005: 122). The element of populism is given to this politics, says Laclau, ‘by the presence of an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization’ and ‘an appeal to the underdog’ (Ibid: 123). But this populism exists at the heart of the political itself. It is also the same with Peronism in Aegentina. And do we need to go very far to find out examples of populism in India that not only exists within the political domain but is in some ways, fundamental to the way it is structured.
It is useful at this stage, then, to mention that Nandigram and Singur, did not remain a populist moment (in Partha’s sense) that has happily passed. It led, in the event, to a transformation in the political domain itself and a government that has ruled for thirty-four years with an iron fist, was voted out of office. In the case of the Anna Hazare movement, the call was explicitly for the enactment of a law that would keep, among other things, the political class of representatives in check. And it was not articulating a demand that came from outside the political domain: the Lokpal idea, I need hardly remind Partha, was mooted in the parliament and delayed for over four decades, brought on the table six times (or thereabouts) and pushed under the carpet each time. It was a demand, in other words, that came from within the political system. The neat divisions between the domains do not work here – except in certain exceptional moments when politics irrupts outside the boundaries and in apparent violation of conventions of ‘the political’.
I had once thought that there was tremendous potential in the idea of political society and that one needed to continue working on and refining the concept. I now feel, that one should do to ‘political society’ what Partha does to ‘civil society': keep its use restricted to its ‘original’, authorial meaning of management and control of populations. Only then will one see that this is a concept that reached its dead end precisely when it encountered the popular that often overshoots (either through direct struggle) or simply escapes (by going outside the state’s radar) the formal domain of politics.
It is here that I stand, in this field, haunted by words from a not-so-distant past, when the subaltern was not always only an instrument of elite manipulation.