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Imagining Governance and Governing our Imagination

December 3, 2007

Manmohan Singh from the Indian Express two days ago:

I sincerely pray and hope that we remain a functional democracy. But democracy has certain disadvantages. I have a friend in the International Monetary Fund, who went to Korea in the days it was run by an authoritarian system. They were discussing the issue of devaluing the currency. When my friend talked with the finance minister, he said, “That’s a very difficult question. You don’t expect me to give an answer right away.” When my friend asked him how much time he would need, the finance minister said, “I will take half an hour, I have to book a call to the president.”

We have to work, therefore, to create a new mindset. Some ten days ago, I was in Singapore and had the privilege of meeting Premier Wen Jiabao of China, for whom I have great admiration, both for him and President Hu Jintao. The type of leadership that China has produced since the days of Deng, I think, is the greatest asset that China has. [Link]

Narratives, says French philosopher DeCerteau, go ahead of social practices to make way for them. In the decades of heady nationalism and state-planned growth after independence, a narrative of nationalist developmentalism dominated Indian political economy. We know today that this dream has passed. Increasingly, the state today refuses to claim the role of a provider, and refuses, therefore, to be the site where the marginalised can demand inclusion. This is not to romanticise the state of the past decades. Welfare for all citizens never actually existed in reality, but it did arguably exist as an ideal. The commitment of the state to welfare allowed the marginalized to demand inclusion within the ideal, however failed its application. Political citizenship implied a right to expect inclusion, however flawed and unequal. Economic inequality, therefore, was the result of a failed capacity or corruption or inefficiency of the state, but its removal remained a shared, publicly articulated ideal that governance was judged against. This ideal is long gone. The question we are left with is to ask what aspirations have taken its place, and how our claims to inclusion and rights must change as well.

For many, governance post-1991 is a simple shift to map. Uncomplicated marketisation, privatisation and other -ations and -isms have invaded all spheres of our lives and made the state and all else redundant. I don’t think the picture is this simple. Easy as the pleasure of the damning critique is, and ample the ammunition to do so is, “neoliberalism writ large” offers us little nuance and even less hope. As a great fan of hope, let me suggest another track. Much more useful is an analysis of how an economic logic has entered and shaped our politics, insitutions, and notions of justice and citizenship. We must look, therefore, not for a “neoliberal” state and economy, but a state that uses technologies and techniques of neoliberalism, selectively and not always with full control, and not without other logics and motivations in contexts that vary greatly. Spotting these techniques in particular sites offers us the first articulations of effective counter-discourses. Sometimes, this is a far easier task than one might imagine. Sometimes your prime minister simply questions democracy in a leading daily.

What does neoliberal governance look like? The conventional economic notion sees a neoliberal state as a government that leaves governing and resource allocation to the market and itself remains minimal, downsized, and de-fanged, just the way many would like it. Indeed, the “demise” and/or “withdrawal” of the state is oft lamented in development literature. Yet what the Prime Minister is telling us is a different story. The neoliberal state is not a shrinking violet, and, indeed, it is far from dissapearing. It is, however, playing a different role according to a new set of values. A defender of the market, its role is to ensure that growth is not hindered by the ugly realities of poverty, citizenship, other systems of valuing goods, people, or welfare. “Democracy has its disadvantages,” says Dr Singh…. “and governance’s role is to protect the market from them” is the unsaid second half of his statement.

The trick then is to understand how electorally-accountable [lets not call them democratic] governments subtly begin to shift discourse that aligns both their use of neoliberal moves with the remnants of welfare and equity-centred notions of governance, and an ever present popular electoral politics. A new narrative is needed for the state. New stories need to be told. The Prime Minister is doing just this discursive play. The narrative now is a tale of good governance that has a new set of value labels: order, execution, effficiency, decisiveness, and growth. The messiness of “democracy” that so greatly troubles the good Dr Singh is reframed as an impediment to the poor’s market-based salvation. This is not the language of a shrinking state. It is a statement of values of an emerging neoliberal governmentality that is simultaneously negotiating its own welfarist history and its [at least functionally] democratic public.

It is not a coincidence that Bombay no longer tries to be Manhattan. Our public aspirational ideals today are Dubai, Singapore and Shanghai — three centres of wealth that are also exemplars of a type of governance: one based on the firm hand of order and efficient execution, not of process and democratic rights. It is not just their skylines and their per capita wealth that we emulate, it is their greatest asset: “leadership”. In understanding Nandigram, slum displacements in Delhi, the parcelling of public lands into SEZs, and proposals of the privatisation of water, we must recognise the new values by which we are meant to understand and assess governance: a system of market-optimal distribution of resources, where citizenship is determined by the ability to compete in the market rather than the ability to belong the national developmental project. Governance that values “time”, as Dr Singh reminds us. Governance that matches the speed of the market and disposes of what stands in its way.

Yet governance is never about authority alone. Neoliberal governments seek new kinds of citizens: free individuals who are then induced to self-manage according to market principles of discipline, efficiency, and comeptitiveness. A growing conception of self-governance and a language of market participation has replaced the notion of state patrimony and indeed changed our understanding of democracy. Citizens are increasingly “freed” of the state and able to provide for themselves and optimize their market participation to increase their wealth and their consumption. On the flip side, they must also now negotiate access to services and work without state patrimony. For the elite and the new middle classes, this is a welcome freedom from what they perceive as a bureaucratic and inefficient state, the “License Raj” of the 1970s and 80s. For the poor, it is the placing of a new burden of responsibility but with little or no change in their capability to bear it.

Where does this leave us? I’ve argued that a new set of values has come to define citizenship and governance. It is against this set of values that the poor today are judged, whether it be in the courts and in interpretations of law; in economic governance and the selective punishment and support to certain occupations over others; in the selective understanding of public interest; in the decision to demolish certain settlements and regularize others; or in media and socio-cultural imaginings of the aesthetics of the “world-class” city. These are not values that are not being met with resistance. It is not my intention to give them a sense of being absolute. I trace their emergence only because authority and power always create subjects and subjectivities that they did not intend. It is these new subjectivities that I seek, these new positions and locations and claims that will form the basis of effective counter-discourses and new logics to safeguard rights and citizenship. The battle is not new, but the terms of the fight have changed yet again.

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