All through the 1980s and early 90s [U.S. army intelligence officers] recognized that 'the most serious threat to U.S. interests was not secular Marxist-Leninism or organized labour but liberation theology'. - Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood.
Politics Beyond the State
by Brother Filippo Mondini, Abahlali baseMjondolo
Michael Neocosmos argues that there is a politics beyond the state and that, within this form of politics, lies the true and trustworthy alternative to the status quo. This 'politics beyond the state' is carried out by active citizens who think, and who engage themselves in politics as militants rather than as politicians. In Neocosmos' words, citizenship, from an emancipatory perspective, “is not about subjects bearing rights conferred by the state, as in human rights discourse, but rather about people who think becoming agents through their engagement in politics as militants/activists and not politicians”.
The 'politics' which emerges from active citizenship is completely different from that of the state and the political parties. It is a politics which requires communal thinking, direct engagement, and new (different) style of leadership. It is a politics where everyone is important because every idea matters. By contrast, the politics of the state is a politics which requires only “opinions” concerning “ideas” thought by other people, intellectuals, NGO, churches and so on.
Several features of this concept of active citizenship which can be traced in the intellectual work and praxis of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM):
Firstly, Active Citizenship is inclusive. In a context of struggle, distinctions are made on the basis of the devotion to the struggle and not on the bases of other categories such as classes, races or religious beliefs.
Secondly, Active Citizenship enables the right to think by suggesting the possibility of something different to one way thought. It is the thinking done in the community and with the community that opens spaces for new possibilities that are completely different from the status quo. The aim of this communal sharing of ideas is not to grab power but to transform it.
Thirdly, Active Citizenship enables the formation of a moral community of active citizens where “one’s duty to the community is connected directly to actively engaging in political activity for the common good” (Neocosmos, 3).
“The Children of the Resurrection”
We have observed that the process of struggle is of pivotal importance. It is within this process that people become aware of their dignity, ontological goodness and possibilities. Fanon argues that “the 'thing' which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself” (Fanon, 1963: 36). It is through the struggle that people discover that it is possible to fight oppression and challenge power.
The rise of AbM struggle therefore, can and must also be understood theologically. We need to find theological categories which might help us to read these striking signs of our times. The fact that impoverished people come together to fight oppression and cry out to the world that they are human beings able to think and determine their own future, is the verification that a ‘politics beyond’ the state is possible. It is the proof that the AbM embodies the idea of an active citizenship and this is the main thing which has to challenge and inform theology.
The rise of AbM, their struggle and their politics, can be read with the theological category of Resurrection. Surely, the paschal mystery of Jesus as a whole, his crucifixion, death and resurrection, helps to understand theologically the rise, praxis and politics of the movement. It is also impossible to separate and comprehend only one of the events in the sequence without taking into account the others. Nonetheless, the particular experience of AbM, and its understanding of politics and its humanity, encourage us to stress Jesus’ victory over death.
A theology which has as its starting point the Resurrection and not the Calvary, stresses Jesus’ final victory over every evil force. It is clear however, that the dimension of people’s suffering is not diminished - shack dwellers suffer because of fire, floods, violence, insecurity… - but this suffering, as the struggle of AbM has demonstrated, is not the last word.
Jesus’ resurrection stands as an analogy to the struggle of the people. As Jesus did not remain silent in the tomb, so too have people from various settlements of kwaZulu Natal not been overcome by their suffering and pain. As Jesus did not remain nailed on the cross, so too have 'bahlali started to break the chains of their oppression.
When we recognise people who are involved in the struggle as “children of the resurrection” (Lk 20:36b) - and not as poor people nailed on the cross - the 'usual' ways of the church relating to them are completely disrupted. There is something of a crisis when it is realised that they cannot be cast as the beneficiaries of our charity; when it is no longer possible to assume that they are 'voiceless' people to whom some intellectual or church lends their voice. They are, on the contrary, the moving principle of every church action and a source of inspiration for society. They are the embodiment of the Reign of God because they are sacrament of Christ’s victory over evil.
When we say that this theology starts with the resurrection and not at Calvary, we say that these people have something to teach and that they are not students; we say that they are a gift for the church and for society, and that they are not people who need someone else to defend and represent their rights on their behalf.
In this way then, people’s struggle represents the “Upper Room” because it is the theological site where the crucified and risen Lord manifests Himself as the Lamb who overcomes death, misery and oppression.
Reading people’s struggle with the theological category of the resurrection, allow us to understand that people’s attempts to resist oppression and to found goodness and justice, is a response of faith to God’s project. God’s project for humanity has been made manifest in Jesus, and it is therefore in Jesus that we find the model of the new humanity. Jesus’ life remains the ultimate example for Christians and, in our specific case, for people involved in the struggle. When we look at Jesus’ life from the perspective of the struggle for a dignified life, we understand in a new way God’s project for the world. The rise of AbM helps us to understand that when God manifested Himself or Herself in Jesus, S/he revealed a God who dreams a society of equals where goods are shared among people and where every person is important. Utimately, God dreams happiness for His/Her people. 'Bahlali from several settlements have discovered this image of God. They have unveiled a God who dreams something different from oppression. This is a very powerful discovery and, it is this breakthrough that reveals to churches and society at large a new face of God. This is the God of the poor. This God, the God revealed in Kennedy Road, is a God who bears scars of suffering and pain but also expresses Joy - a subversive Joy which streams out of the awareness that evil can be defeated. Thus, paraphrasing Fanon words, we can say that through the struggle the “thing” not only becomes man but also becomes aware that God’s project is a project of happiness and joy and not a project of suffering and alienation.
God’s intention and project is 'the Reign', and the Reign is made real and present whenever Christ overcomes the power of evil. To consider people involved in struggle as “children of the Resurrection” is to assert that, through their struggle, they are collaborating in establishing the Reign of God. It is within the process of struggle that the Reign is built and discovered as a gift from God. Holloway affirms that “In the process of struggle-against, relations are formed which are not the mirror image of the relations of power against which the struggle is directed: relations of comradeship, of solidarity, of love, relations which prefigure the sort of society we are struggling for” (2005:143). These new relations that are forged in the process of struggle, and their more general and decisive impact in the community and individuals, are therefore a sacrament of the risen Lord.
One of the most beautiful things that the struggle, through the individuals involved in it, does, is to historicize eschatology and the Reign of God. Thanks to the process of struggle and the individuals involved in it, we rediscover that the Reign of God must be understood as a historical reality. The Reign of God is something in which human beings are called to cooperate with now, in this world, and in this time. AbM has shown this mystery of this collaboration with God. The work AbM has been doing is like the work of the man of the parable (Mk 4:26-29) who scatters seeds on the land but the sprouting and growing of the seeds is God’s work. The Movement has only the task of harvesting them and welcoming the fruits as God’s gift. Understanding the Reign of God as a historical reality therefore also makes clear that the Reign is God’s gift to humanity. It is in the fidelity to this gift that humanity can discover its freedom. Consequently, the struggle of AbM, their cooperation with God, is gift and prophecy for the world and the churches because they are collaborating with God in making this world a better and more just place to live in. The astonishing fact is that all these things are happening now, in our present time. Of course, in and through these struggles of movements, the Reign is not realized in its fullness. The scars of a life lived in a shack remain. The suffering and pain is not cancelled. The way ahead is still long. But now they have shown that God’s dream is possible, that Jesus’ resurrection is not a pious religious fact but an event able to transform history and people’s life. That is why the ordinary struggles of ordinary people, become sacrament of God’s presence and proclamation of resurrection. When the struggles of oppressed people are understood as part of salvation history, they become the way to overcome the sin of the world, the instrument of God’s restoration and a practical way of understanding resurrection. This is why Marcelo Barros says that in situation of oppression “resurrection means insurrection”.
Jesus’ resurrection from the death is an attestation of God’s fidelity. The resurrection from the death in fact, is not something that Jesus does out of his own will or action. On the contrary, Jesus wins over death because the Father remains faithful to the crucifix, to His/Her son, to the man of Galilee. Once Jesus is nailed on the cross, the only thing He can do is to commit His spirit in the Father’s hands. Jesus dies believing that the Father will resurrect Him; and the Father fulfills His promise by bringing Jesus back from the death.
In our context we see God’s fidelity realized in what is happening in the struggle of AbM. As the Father remained faithful to Jesus, in the same way He is faithful to people’s suffering. It is possible to affirm that, when people come together to fight for a better life, as in the case of AbM movement, the Father’s fidelity takes flesh in them and, in this way, God’s action of resurrecting Jesus becomes a concrete fact in history. The rise of AbM is the proof therefore, that death and suffering are not the last words. As the Father raised Jesus to new life, so S/he is taking care, in fidelity to his/her being, to the people in struggle. The story and praxis of the movement therefore, tells us that God will never forget his/her children - as the prophet Isaiah says: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. Should you pass through the waters, I shall be with you; or through rivers, they will not swallow you up. Should you walk through fire, you will not suffer, and the flame will not burn you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Liberator. (…) Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Is 43:1-5).
Finally, we see a strong link between what Neocosmos described as a truly emancipatory politics and Jesus’ praxis. Jesus' critique of earthly powers (the Temple, Religion, Empire…) was not aimed at some reforms. Jesus did not occupy any form of position but started His movement from the margins, from a despised place such as Galilee.
Moreover, Jesus’ critique of power is evident in several accounts, especially in John 6:15 “Jesus, as he realized that they were about to come and take him by force and make him king, fled back to the hills alone”. Jesus proclaimed a “New Jerusalem”, and a “New Heaven and the New Earth” which do not come from the centre but from the periphery. The Reign of God is not something that is given from above but, on the contrary, it is built up from the bottom. What really matters in this action of building up from the bottom is the popular-democratic-participative method which the builders employ.
From this point of view therefore, it is not important for the oppressed to gain power and position on the terms established by the existing orders of power. In a profound sense, the oppressed who struggle are already living out what they are demanding. This is the Reign of a God that is not a solitude but a communion in relationship.
To understand the concept of 'Event' as the radical French philosopher-activist, Alain Badiou, has articulated it, it is important to start with the question of agency. Badiou argues that “it is not so much a question of how a subject can initiate an action in an autonomous manner, but rather how a subject emerges through an autonomous chain of actions within a changing situation” (2007:15). According to Badiou therefore, it is not everyday actions and decisions that provide evidence of agency but those extraordinary events which isolate an actor from their context. Those actions which show that a human being can be a free agent are important and a sign of agency. As a result, Badiou affirms that ‘not every human being is always a subject, yet some human beings become subjects; those who act in fidelity to a chance encounter with an event which disrupts the situation they find themselves in’ (2007:15). Thus, there is no universal conception of an ethics founded on human subjects; and that is why there cannot be projects, like the State or the human rights discourse, founded on human beings.
Badiou describes the Event as something which points to alternatives to what it is. The Event is the possibility of something different. Moreover, an Event names the void, the absence, what was considered simply impossible, that which is not imaginable from within the situation. The Event, therefore is something which radicalizes and transforms people into militants or seekers of truth. An example from our context may help to clarify the concept of Event: S'bu Zikode, in referring to the famous road blockade (WHEN?), affirmed that “the struggle that started in Kennedy Road was the beginning of a new era”. (‘The Third Force’).
Speaking a different language
To understand the idea of the Event theologically, we turn to pneumatology. It is the Spirit in fact, that transforms people and situations. The iconic Spirit action is the Pentecost event. (Acts 2:1-13)
Firstly, accounts of the Pentecost event make plain that the Spirit is given to a community of people and not to someone special. It is all the community of Jesus' disciples that receive the gift of the Spirit. The fact that the Spirit is a gift to a community and not to select individuals, is in turn reflected in the praxis and politics of the movement that the Event establishes. The style of leadership, the efforts at wider inclusion of all the residents, and the particular popular democracy, are signs of a communitarian action.
Secondly, it is the gift of the Spirit which transformed frightened and dispirited people into bold witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Through the gift of the Spirit, the apostles were able to think the impossible, to name the ‘void’ and thus go out to proclaim the good news of the risen Lord.
Thirdly, the gift of the spirit enables the apostles of Jesus to speak new languages, languages which can be understood by everyone. The spirit did not transform fishermen into scholars but gave them the possibility of speaking a kind of language which everyone can understand, a language which speaks directly to people’s hearts. It is not a difficult language; on the contrary it is a language of hope which everyone waits for. This is the language of possibilities which point to alternatives.
Lastly, the gift of the spirit is a threat to the status quo: “Some, however, laughed it off. ‘They have been drinking too much new wine’, they said” (Acts 22:2:13). Frightened people, according to society, must always remain frightened people; that is the way it works. It has always been like that. It is very difficult to accept that marginalized and oppressed groups could raise their voice and speak new languages. Thus, the system tries to bring order back through criminalization, repression and other methods.
A theology which starts in the Upper Room where the Spirit was poured onto the disciples, and that tries to be relevant within the rebellion of shackdwellers' communities, speaks of Gratuitousness, Epiphany, and Transformation.
It speaks of the Gratuitousness of God, because the spirit is first of all a gift and this gift speaks of God’s love. God’s fidelity to the people therefore, is not something abstract and far-away but concrete and historical. The promise that God will not leave the people alone becomes concrete in the struggle of AbM. The fact that people organize themselves, speak together with one voice and make their ideas heard, is proof that God has not forgotten his/her people. Moreover, God becomes their companion in the journey towards a better future pouring onto them his/her spirit. That is why the struggle can be considered also an act of love, the love of God towards the people and the love of the people towards other fellow human beings. It is a love which arises from the conflicts of the struggle, from the comradeship created in the many difficult moments and from the sharing of the burden of thorny decisions. The Love which arises from the struggle is therefore a subversive Love, a Love which prefigures the form of society we are struggling for.
Our theology speaks of epiphany, because we understand the struggle as a revelation of God. If it is because of the gift of the spirit that people are able to struggle and speak for themselves, the struggle itself becomes a manifestation of God. God reveals his/her loving face in the rising people of Kennedy Road and all the other “… Road” in rebellion. As God the Father revealed himself in the Event of Israel's liberation from slavery and as Jesus revealed his healing power amongst the poor, excluded and oppressed, so the same love and caring is been made manifest in the struggle of AbM. It is the being of God that is revealed. In fact, God is also struggle for liberation. Reflecting/Acting theologically from the viewpoint of people’s struggle helps to discover God’s radical call to freedom.
Our theology speaks of social and personal transformation because it is the spirit which makes all things new. God’s work in history is carried out by the action of the spirit. However, the spirit does not act as a demiurge. The spirit is manifest only in through the people’s collaboration and availability. The struggle of AbM is a typical example of such a collaboration. This kind of struggle, as a matter of fact, is a spiritual struggle in the sense that the spirit struggles within/with people and thus transforms society in order to make the world a better place to leave in.
However, the struggle of AbM has also highlighted the fact that the transformation brought by the spirit is also a personal one. The spirit allows people in the struggle to recognize their ontological goodness and the fact that they are created in God’s image. It is the spirit, through people involved in the struggle, which reminds us of the presence of the divine person in the concrete history of creation. In this sense too, we again stress that the struggle, to a certain extent, is a self-communication of God. People in the struggle recognize that the Son became incarnate in order to divinize human beings, and that the Spirit dwells in us in order to unify all things and to lead all creation to the Reign of the Trinity.
The vacuum named by the spirit is this divinization of the human being. Marginalized, oppressed, poor people recognized that their destiny is to be drawn in the Trinitarian life and this fact opens up new possibilities of commitment, inspiration and critique for the context they live in.
Fidelity in Badiou’s theorization is the attempt to sustain the consequences of the event in thought. It is a refusal to return to the “status quo ante”, to return to the idea that what happened was impossible. Fidelity to the event is not something granted and obvious. It requires a “disinterested-interest” on behalf of the participants. Therefore, the perseverance of the “being-subject” remains uncertain. A being, in order to be transformed in subject, has to remain true to disinterest. There is no certainty in this process. The Stalinists, the vanguards, 'know' the way ahead - we don’t. We believe that the “alternative, the direction of our struggle, will come out of the thinking that we do in our communities” (S’bu Zikode, ‘The greatest threat to future stability in our country Vs The greatest strength of Abahlali baseMjondolo movement s.a.’).
According to Badiou, “politics begins when one decides not to represent the victims but to be faithful to those events during which victims politically assert themselves” (Neocosmos, 2007:18). This is the uncertain way of fidelity to the Event.
“…He made his face firm to Jerusalem…”
The theological category which expresses this fidelity is the Cross. In order to understand this we have first of all to highlight some classical interpretations of such category. These are interpretations which were developed in the past and that, within a context of struggle, are no longer useful, and do not help to read this particular reality.
Firstly, throughout history Jesus’ death has been interpreted as an expiatory sacrifice for the sins of his people. According to this theory no human sacrifice suffices to placate God’s wrath. Then the incarnation created the possibility of a perfect, spotless sacrifice that would win God’s entire pleasure. Jesus undertook to be the sacrifice that would represent all people before God. We have to admit that, this theory presents a vindictive aspect of God. This image of God does not fit very well with the image of a merciful God revealed by Jesus Christ. A second theory presents the death of Jesus as redemption as ransom. According to this model Christ’s death is regarded as the price demanded by God in ransom for all human beings held in Satan’s snare. The shortcoming of this model resides in the underpinned vision of human beings, understood only as mere spectators. They are not participants, they are not considered as inserted in history. A third theory considers the death of Christ as vicarious satisfaction. According to this theory, human beings, through sin, have violated the order of creation and thereby offended God. The divine justice demands that this order should be healed and restored, but how can a finite human being make an infinite reparation before an infinite God? Only God can achieve infinite satisfaction. Therefore, God must become a human being and, as human being, God will be able to do what a human being must do: make reparation. Jesus’ death healed the scar of sin and restored the order of the universe. The shortcoming of this theory is the one of portraying a vindictive, cruel and sanguinary God.
In all these theories the elements of Jesus’ life and praxis is practically absent. Jesus’ death is not seen as a consequence of his life. On the contrary, the good news is that Jesus died because of his life, his option for the poor, his fidelity to the Kingdom and his radical solidarity with human beings. Also according to Paul, the Cross is a symbol of the full story of Christ’s becoming human, suffering and dying. That is the good news! Jesus remained faithful to the project of the Kingdom and in this way entered in solidarity with all those who are bearing a Cross for their fidelity, love and liberating actions. This is the meaning of the Cross! In his death, Jesus transformed the cross from an instrument of humiliation into an instrument of struggle against slavery, oppression and death. This can also be seen in Luke’s Gospel. The evangelist centers his Gospel on Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. Lk 9:51 is the turning point of the Gospel: “When the days drew near for Him to be received up, He made His face firm to Jerusalem”. This journey towards the centre of political and religious power symbolizes Jesus’ fidelity to the Father’s project and this is what led Him to die.
Therefore, the cross of Jesus can be understood as a consequence of His fidelity. In the same way, Jesus’ disciples are called to follow Him along this path. It is very meaningful that immediately after Jesus’ resolution, Luke tells us of some “would-be” followers of Jesus: “As they travelled along they met a man on the road who said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go’. Jesus answered, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another to whom he said, ‘follow me’, replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ But he answered, ‘leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you Sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’” (Lk 9-5762). In this passage are described the hardships of the discipleship and the cost of Fidelity. We do not know if these people had followed Jesus or not, but this is not the point. What is important is to understand that following Jesus means to assume His project and carry the heavy burden of a cross which results from the fidelity to the Reign. The way to Jerusalem is the way of the cross, the way of the rebel and this journey requires renunciation, courage, fidelity, truth, commitment and love.
It should be clear by now, that there are two different kinds of suffering: that provoked by oppression and that provoked by the struggle to overcome such oppression. Only this second can be understood as Cross. This idea should be made clearer by the fact that the cross was the instrument that the empire used to execute political rebels. Thus, the Cross opposes two logics: that of the empire (the state, civil society, human rights discourse…) and that of the reign (politics beyond the state…). When militants, subjects, act in fidelity to the Event usually face repression, pain and suffering. It is at this point that they become the embodiment of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and with Him they challenge earthly powers, unmask false images of God and disclose their truth to the world. Jesus’ subversive journey becomes theirs. continue reading
Monday, 23 June 2008
All through the 1980s and early 90s [U.S. army intelligence officers] recognized that 'the most serious threat to U.S. interests was not secular Marxist-Leninism or organized labour but liberation theology'. - Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood.
Sunday, 22 June 2008
Jacques Rancière interviewed by Sudeep Dasgupta in the Dutch journal Krisis. Translated by Dirk Haen and republished on the Jacques Rancière blog.
The reflections of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière shift in between literature, film, pedagogy, historiography, proletarian history and philosophy. He came to prominence when he contributed to Althusser’s Lire le capital (1965) and, shortly after, published a fervent critique of Althusser – La Leçon d’Althusser (1974). He is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Paris VIII (St. Denis) and continues to teach, as a visiting professor, in a number of universities, including Rutgers, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley. A recurrent motif in Rancière’s work is capturing the relation between politics and aesthetics, and their various meanings in different contexts. Much of his work can be characterized as an attempt to rethink and subvert categories, disciplines and discourses. On October 30 2007, a Dutch combined translation of Le partage du sensible and L’inconscient esthétique was presented in Amsterdam. On this occasion Sudeep Dasgupta
interviewed Rancière on sensory experience, the play of art, and politics as a form of disturbance.
The first moment in your intellectual career was your engagement with Louis Althusser and marxism, in particular with the notion of philosophy as having a strong function in defining or in distinguishing science from ideology; philosophy was closely linked to a strict definition of science, producing concepts. You made a big impression with your important essay on critique in Marx. After that, you turned away from a particular way of thinking about philosophy and went to the archives, particularly to research on nineteenth century workers in France. What motivated that turn away from philosophy to the archives, which is not a very common turn that philosophers take? What did you hope to find there? Could you connect it to how your work developed subsequently?
I am not the first philosopher who decided to go to the archives. There was, of course, the example of Foucault. He did something very surprising for my generation; it was the first time a history of madness appeared. What was it? A book of a philosopher and it’s all about questions of the poor, of medicine, of asylums. There already was this model and it was not a bad model, I think. Second, it was the leftist movement of ’68; it became obvious that something was wrong with the idea that people were exploited and dominated because they didn’t know the law of exploitation and domination; so the sciences were there to bring them the knowledge of what they wished to know. There was a sort of vicious circle: the people cannot understand the place where they are in the system because it is precisely a law of the system that it conceals itself. It was a kind of tautology.
Science was supposed to free people and to give them the knowledge in order to emancipate them, but what science basically would explain is what people necessarily are to ignore, that is, what science could tell of their position. People were dominated because they were ignorant and they were ignorant because they were dominated.
So what I tried to do was get another idea of that vicious circle. First, of course, I had a kind of naive idea: let’s go to the archives to see the reality of social movements, of workers’ movements; let’s find a sociology of workers’ practice, workers’ movement, workers’ thinking and workers’ emancipation.
But what appeared to me in this research is that it was impossible to oppose something like an ‘authentic’ workers’ thought to Marxist thought. It was impossible to deduce the workers’ movement, socialism and revolution from a lived experience from popular culture and so on. Why Precisely? Because of the vicious circle. Just a little earlier Ruth Sonderegger explained in which way Plato said everything about the workers’ condition. According to Plato, workers have to do just their own business. They cannot do anything else but their own business for two reasons. The first reason is that they have no time. The second is that they have the aptitude fitting that business, which is the same thing as saying that they have no other aptitude. They have the aptitude to do this, and to be in this place, and to be in this space-time – which of course is the reverse of their exclusion. What interested me, and what I’ve discovered, is that the possibility of workers’ emancipation is to transform the circle in a kind of spiral by getting out of that workers’ identity which was not just a condition but a whole sensible world, that is, of domination and exploitation. It was a matter of what could be seen, what could be sensed. What does it mean, the distribution of the sensible? What kind of world is given to you, and how do you make sense of that given sensory world? What I’ve tried is to build from their collectivity a new kind of subjectivity. This means that proletarians had a possibility of getting away from that workers’ identity, that workers’ culture, that workers’ body. Emancipation would be about creating for themselves a new body, a new lived world. And so it was clear that the problem was not that they ignored their condition but that for them it was being able to ignore it. To do as if they were not in that position. There is this famous text of Kant, Critique of Judgment, saying that aesthetic judgment asks us only to be sensible of form. When standing in front of a palace, it does not matter that it was built out of the sweat of the poor people; we have to ignore that, says Kant. I think Kant was right. At the same time I came upon a text written by a joiner, a floor-layer, and he explains precisely what he sees as he is laying a floor in a rich house. He decides to acquire an aesthetic perception of the room, of the garden, of the whole perspective. So he decides to do as if he had a disinterested gaze, and could get an aesthetic judgment, notwithstanding the fact that he is poorly paid, that he works for a boss, and that he works for the rich. For me this was important. It reminded me of my view of aesthetics – aesthetics not being a sociology of art but as being a form of experience. That is, an experience of disconnection. This has been conceptionalized by Kant and Schiller in terms of disconnection: there is something that escapes the normal conditions of sensory experience. That is what was at stake in emancipation: getting out of the ordinary ways of sensory experience. This thought has been important for my idea of politics, not being about the relations of power but being about the framing of the sensory
Where do you locate your work? This has been a problem for a lot of people over the years: What is Rancière? Is he a philosopher? Is he a literary critic? Your books cover fields from pedagogy, the writing of history, philosophy, cinema and literature. You’ve occupied a position in philosophy and in aesthetics. Yet you have very strongly stated that you are neither a philosopher of politics nor are you a historian of art. Would you say that your work, through the decades, has leaned or been closer to a particular discipline, or could you say the point of your work has been precisely to critique them and if so, how? What kind of central themes come up?
You are interested in an object and you try to understand it. For instance, you try to understand how people can change the sensible frames of existence – as was the case in the process of emancipation. So you go to the archives, to see documents about workers’ conditions, workers’ thought, et cetera. At that point you are supposed to be in the field of the historian. Historians ask you: what is your historical method? You have to apply a historical method. My question became: what is historical method? You only try to understand something; therefore you go to materials that may help you to understand. Then you try to make sense of them. What kind of method is this? You use your brains. You try to find something and you use your brains to make sense of it. Historical method does mean something; I am not saying it does not mean anything. It means you have to be located in this place, because this object is social history. Workers’ thought was part of workers’ life, workers’ experience, the expression of that experience. There was a leading social historian of the working class in France who made a bibliography about literature on workers. And it happened that my book was put in the subcategory ‘cultural and religious conscience of work’. The right method of the philosophers, sociologists, the literary critics, is just the same as the Platonic commandment: you have to do your own business. But, of course, if I do my own business, it means I have to give up my object. My object is people who don’t want to keep to their own business.
From my point of view, there is no real field of discipline. The borders of a discipline just mean: you are not supposed to go outside of this. To understand the question I just had to go outside. I had to put together things that do not go together. Namely, Plato’s text about workers’ lack of time, and a worker’s text in the nineteenth century – thousands of years after Plato – dealing precisely with what it meant to have no time. So if I want to understand, I have to cross the borders of disciplines. This kind of delineation of borders is the other face of an inner prescription.
There are two ways of thinking. There is the thinking of the poor, which is the expression of his condition. And there is the thinking of a thinker, who makes the bibliography and who organizes the category. And this thinker knows he can encompass the totality and understand that in this totality are some manifestations of thought. But thought is just an expression of a condition. So basically when my work doesn’t belong to a discipline, it belongs to an attempt to break the borders of the disciplines. Because borders are only there to say you must not cross the border, and
to say: there are two kinds of thought, two kinds of thinking beings. What I’ve tried to demonstrate is there is only one kind of thinking being and that everybody uses his or her own brains to try to understand something. So a discipline is a fiction. This does not mean it is imaginary. It means it is a kind of construction of a territory with a population, with forms of sensory representation, with ways of making sense of things. It is also a political, or a meta-political, fiction. If you think of sociology, for instance, and the way Bourdieu ‘discovered’ the habitus and so on, it reminds us of the fact that sociology is not a kind of science that has fallen from the sky at a certain time. Sociology was politics. It emerged in the nineteenth century, that is, after the revolution, because there was the big concern at the time that people are no longer at their place, that there are no more
common representations uniting people, no monarchy, no religion, no feudality. Thus we had to invent a new form of aggregation of society and new forms of collective thinking. And in this case, of course, new forms of anomie and of heresy, a form of modern thinking about emancipation, about being different from oneself, had to be pushed aside.
Part of the growing importance of your work and its reception in the art world, has been your very strong critique of a certain kind of teleology, a certain kind of historical narrative, which goes, very quickly put: realism, modernism, postmodernism. You have also been very critical of contemporary art which claims to be political, to the extent that it is very critical of capitalism, for example, and the fact that we are all caught up in the consumer culture, and you have argued that what art keeps doing in this kind of denunciation of capitalism is to bear
witness to its own powerlessness. You reject this narrative of realism/modernism/-
postmodernism, and you’ve brought up three regimes: the ethical, the representative, and the aesthetic regime. The aesthetic regime has been crucial to a lot of your arguments in different fields. If there are problems with the realism/modernism/postmodernism-narrative, could we see the ethical, representative and aesthetic regimes as a kind of parallel historical narrative?
To put briefly, is it one narrative rejected by you and replaced by another, or is there something specific about these three regimes that make us rethink how to think about our relation to history? I am thinking in particular of the category of the ‘aesthetic regime’.
My first problem with the narrative of realism/- modernism/postmodernism is that it doesn’t help us to understand what happened in art and in aesthetic experience during the last two centuries.
Take for instance the case of realism – and in Bram Leven’s talk about literature – what is the signification of the realistic novel in the nineteenth century? It is not at all a kind of peak of representation because it would represent everything in all kinds of ways. It was a break with a regime in which only some things could be and had to be represented in a certain way. So what realism means is not a kind of fanatical imitation of reality. What the realistic novel means, on the contrary, is the disruption of the dominant way in which reality was represented. If we think that for
realism that every subject is good, this means ultimately that there are no subjects – very well sensed by Flaubert – that all subjects are equivalent and that ultimately there are no subjects at all. This counts for the realistic novelists, as well as for abstract art. There is no subject matter at all. So this opposition between realism, modernism and postmodernism is all a fake imagination. We really have to get rid of it. Take, for instance, the idea of modernism as the autonomy of the arts. Historically modernism was about the contrary: it was the idea that art had to be committed to modern life, the idea that art had to create forms of life – no more paintings and symphonies and so on.
It’s not that I want to replace concepts with better concepts. What is bad about those categories for me is that they rely on an idea of historical necessity. In the case of the three regimes I try to define three forms of function. But this does not mean: three historical ages. The aesthetic regime is the regime in which all forms can coexist. At the same time, the aesthetic regime is defined by a specific form of aesthetic experience. But basically, this regime is of coexistence. Let us look at the notion of the classics. This notion is a modern invention; an invention of the aesthetic regime. Before, we had the distinction between the ancients and the moderns. The very idea of ‘the classics’ is to re-qualify and to re-inscribe ancient literature in the present. In the seventeenth or eighteenth century nobody ever played Sophocles, or Aeschylus. They were praised, but not played. And now they are played. The point is that the aesthetic regime allows old forms to coexist with new forms. It is fascinating if you think of cinema. What cinema did in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and specifically in Hollywood, was to reinvent definitions of genres, and old separations disappeared. For instance, look at the directions of the great Hollywood producers: the idea that a plot must be like this. The idea of action and plot was the same as the idea in the eighteenth century about theatre. This also means that the aesthetic regime is a regime of ambivalence. Aesthetic experience is experience of the ambivalent. The aesthetic experience is set up as a kind of disruption. In Kant and Schiller, for instance, there is a kind of experience that is distinguished from the ordinary connections of experience. At the same time, we know, as it is disconnected from the hierarchical organization of the sensible, it became the basis of a new idea of revolution and a new idea of community where people are equal as sensible creatures and not only as citizens. So the aesthetic regime gave a new form to ethical thinking. It is clear that revolutionary art is a kind of wavering between the idea of aesthetic experience and of art that is supposed to create new forms of life and to suppress itself. So what I tried to do is to substitute teleological concepts and historical necessity, by categories that help us to understand the entanglement of different logics.
Let’s turn to the question of political or politicized art. Are there any criteria or valid foundations on the basis of which we can judge whether an artwork is political or not? Or what the politics is of a particular artwork? Your response has been: there are no criteria, only choices. But in your readings in cinema (in Eisenstein’s The General Line for example) you talk about the narrative that desires to produce a certain meaning but which always gets interrupted or in some way thwarted by an element in the artwork which is non-signifying, which cannot as quickly be ascribed to a meaning. So there is this kind of play between meaning and materiality in an artwork. Connecting that argument of yours, which you have shown in literature but also in cinema, could you say if that would be, if not a foundation, a way to judge whether the artwork is political or not? Would that be going some way towards it by highlighting this aspect of meaning and its interruption? Does that relate to politics and aesthetics?
First of all, we cannot enclose the question in the concept of politics of art. What is efficient is not art in and of itself; art is part of a certain distribution of the sensible – part of a certain reconfiguration of experience. What was important, in the case of workers’ emancipation, was the possibility of leisure and the ability to see paintings, much more than specific words or paintings. People were not emancipated by revolutionary painting. But they could acquire a new kind of body, a new gaze out of this availability of any kind of painting. There is something wrong with the idea that political effects are to be located in the artwork itself or, in particular, in the intention of the artist. What happens in the aesthetic regime of art is that artists create objects that escape their will. Sometimes it denies their will. There are democratic works that are made precisely by artists who were not at all democrats.
Secondly, there is a political potential where there is a disruption of a given organization of the relation between the sensible presentation and forms of meanings. We know that this idea was implemented by political artists – like Eistenstein. Eisenstein was playing a double play: on the one side, Eisenstein was playing on the rigours of editing and cutting, the organization of the shots as a production of a meaning. And at the same time, he plays on something quite different. There is a kind of lyricism in the sequences of The General Line that is obviously borrowed from the tradition of Russian painting. Let us look over and over again at the political artist, who plays on the disturbing element; I am thinking of estrangement in Brecht, of course. I would say estrangement is also a kind of double play, because there is this kind of straight line, you actually choose something that is strange; but as you choose it, it is disturbing in the very scenery of the sensible.
This disturbing element must lead to the awareness that there is something wrong with the social order. But obviously there is no reason to believe that civil disturbance, as an effect, will lead to an awareness of the political situation of the world and to mobilization. On the one hand, Brecht’s view of estrangement relies on the Marxist theory of alienation; on the other hand it relies on the surrealist and Dadaist practice of disturbing elements. But in this case the disturbing element leads to no specific form of awareness or mobilization. This politics of the uncanny elements is always ambivalent because of the meaning and the withdrawal of meaning. When you look at this play, you can define a politics of aesthetics – using some forms of disturbance or the uncanny. But what’s important: you cannot define the effects of it. The politics of literature, or the politics of art, is not oriented at the constitution of political subjects. It is much more oriented at the reframing of the field of subjectivity as an impersonal field. In a certain way, the political interpretation of the uncanny in terms of effects is always a kind of negotiation. Art is going elsewhere. And politics has to catch it. The problem is not what artists have to do to become political; the question has to be reversed: what do political subjects have to do with art?
You’ve talked about the constitution of the subjects as an impersonal field. In your books you have made very clear that one cannot ascribe a certain set of qualities to a certain group of people, which is exactly the ‘police regime’. There is no prescribed subject of the revolution as in the old days we used to talk about the working class, et cetera. In a sense, then, your theory about the subject, who would be related to the practice of dissensus, is always in formation and hybrid. The hybridity of the subject becomes very clear in The Nights of Labor. These workers are workers, but the problem is they are something else. So you have developed a theory of the subject as hybrid, as changing, and in a way as errant – wandering in a place they shouldn’t be wandering. How would you relate this theory of the subject to the rise of identity politics, theories of our identity both within and outside the academy? One field is postcolonial studies, where there has been an ongoing critique of the unified subject with a fixed essence. How would the development of your theory of the subject throughout your work relate to some of these ways of thinking?
As you probably know, I am French [laughter]. In France there is no identity politics, there are no postcolonial studies. This means I never had to address those kinds of issues that are crucial in other countries. They are systematically ignored in France. So my dealing with the question of the subject never was an attempt to address issues of identity politics or hybrid, postcolonial identities and so on. Basically I have no interest in creating a theory of the subject. When I was young, in the time of Althusserianism, there were these strong statements about the subject who is ensnared or entrapped in the symbolic order and we would know what happens when the subject wants to get out of the trap. My interest was to define subjects in terms of capacity and not in terms of incapacity. Also I did not want to define natures of subjects, but processes of subjectivization.
This was thirty years ago; I wanted to get out of a certain description of social identities like, for instance, the idea of popular culture, workers' thinking, and so on. What I’ve tried to define is the way in which every form of subjectivization is a form of dis-identification. Certainly there you can see some relations between my dealing with identity and subjectivity, and the problems in postcolonial studies. I’ve only taken a different perspective. But I don’t like so much this notion of hybridity, because it seems to refer much more to the constitution of a subject rather than to processes of subjectivization.
You have been extremely critical in many of your books about the turn towards a kind of politics which gets reduced to the state, and in particular, about the ways in which experts, philosophers, sociologists, other intellectuals and administrators withdraw into something like a state apparatus which then claims to function as a democracy. Here in the Netherlands, we have a certain history of the partage du sensible as well, which is the ‘zuilensysteem’ or so-called pillar system. All kinds of groups had gotten their own institutional spaces and society was neatly divided between all of these communities. Around the late 1990’s that started falling apart when certain discussions came up around the immigrant – in particular the “not well-educated, preferably Muslim” immigrant. There was an attack on the way
Dutch society was structured; an attack on the so-called elites in The Hague. There was almost a kind of attempt of repartition of what society would mean here. The pillar system is bad, elites are wrong; and there should be a politics in the name of the people. There is this vague, amorphous thing called ‘people’ without any fixed subject. Could this development in the Netherlands be seen as an example of dissensus? And does dissensus have any political leanings? Can you think of a partage du sensible which is right wing, or not emancipatory?
I am not arguing for people or against the elites. I argue about two forms of structuration of the community. The logic of police versus the logic of politics does not mean the elites are the bad ones and the people are good. What I try to distinguish are not two categories of populations, but two logics of functioning. The logic of police is the logic of separate competence; that there is a specific competence for governing people. The logic of politics is the logic of equal competence of anybody. It rarely happens that the people agree with this idea because they think that there are parts of the population that obviously are not competent and should be put aside. We are in a situation where there is this kind of oligarchic attempt to erase the political stage. When this stage tends to disappear you can see new forms of strange organization, or restructuration, of the community
and of the relation between the same and the other, and so on. This happened in France with Le Pen. What was the basis of the success of Le Pen? Precisely this void of the political stage: the possibility to present a kind of caricature or perversion of politics in the name of the people. But the question is: in the name of what people? continue reading
Saturday, 21 June 2008
by Richard Pithouse, The Struggle for the City, 16 June 2008
The industrial and mining towns on the Eastern outskirts of Johannesburg are unlovely places. They’re set on flat windswept plains amidst the dumps of sterile sand left over from old mines. In winter the wind bites, the sky is a very pale blue and it seems to be all coal braziers, starved dogs, faded strip malls, gun shops and rusting factories and mine headgear. All that seems new are the police cars and, round the corner from the Harry Gwala shack settlement, a double story facebrick strip club.
But even here the battle for land continues. The poor are loosing their grip on the scattered bits of land which they took in defiance of apartheid more than twenty years ago. The state is, again, sending in bulldozers and men with guns to move the poor from central shack settlements to peripheral townships. In every relocation many are simply left homeless. It is very difficult to resist the armed force of the state but people do what they can. Officials are often stoned. In principle the courts should provide relief from evictions that are not just illegal but are in fact criminal acts under South African law. There have been notable successes but it is often difficult to get pro bono legal support, legal processes are slow and the evictions continue.
In the Harry Gwala settlement the poorest women are on their hands and knees searching for bits of coal to bake into lumps of clay to keep the braziers burning. S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and Ashraf Cassiem from the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town are here to meet with the Harry Gwala branch of the Landless People’s Movement. These are all poor people’s movements that have been criminalised and violently attacked by the state. The meeting is to discuss strategies for holding onto the urban land that keeps people close to work, schools, libraries and all the other benefits of city life. This is what it has come down to. Militancy is about holding onto what was taken from apartheid.
Here in Harry Gwala forced removals started in 2004. That was also the year in which the Landless People’s Movement declared a boycott of the local government elections and were subject to severe repression, including the police torture of some activists. In August of the following year 700 residents marched on the Mayor demanding an end to forced removals and the immediate provision of water, electricity and toilets. Provincial Housing Minister Nomvula Mokonyane declared that the evictions “marked another milestone for housing delivery” and explained that “We are doing all this because we are a caring government and want to give you back your dignity”. The Municipality’s website responded to the march by noting that “Although there was an initial reluctance on the part of the Harry Gwala residents to move, the metro and the [private housing] company met them to work through any objections and give them reasons why such a move would be worth their while.” But in May 2006, when the Municipality tried to move ahead with the forced removals in earnest, it became clear that residents were determined to hold their ground. The Johannesburg Star reported that “police fired rubber bullets and bulldozed their way into the Harry Gwala informal settlement near Wattville after residents barricaded themselves in with burning tyres. Shots rang out and people scattered in all directions as metro police fired at them. Twelve people were injured and were taken to hospitals in the area.”
In Harry Gwala the evictions are remembered as a war. Now the settlement is recovering from a different kind of eviction, a different kind of war. It is to this that the discussion soon turns. The Freedom Charter adopted in Johannesburg in 1955 as the manifesto of the struggle against apartheid declared that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” But for two terrible weeks in May people unable to pass mob tests for indigeneity were intimidated, beaten, hacked, raped and burnt out of shack settlements and city centres across South Africa. The attacks began in the shack settlements around Johannesburg. In Harry Gwala the homes of two Shangaan families, one whom had come from Maputo in Mozambique and the other from Giyani in South Africa, were burnt and demolished. All that is left is squares of burnt earth. The local Landless People’s movement moved swiftly to condemn the attacks and to work with the local police, with whom they have often been in conflict, to stop them from spreading further. In the nearby Makause settlement, which is not organised into an oppositional movement autonomous from the state, things were far worse. Here the settlement is dotted with burnt out and demolished buildings. There is also a terribly empty 200 metre long strip where, in February last year, 2 500 shacks were unlawfully demolished at gunpoint by the state and the residents forcibly moved to a ‘transit camp’ 40 kilometres out of town.
In the second week the pogrom spread to the city centre and there were clashes at the Central Methodist Church, a well known haven for undocumented Zimbabweans, where residents successfully barricaded themselves in with piles of bricks for defence. In January there had been a much more damaging attack on the church. On that occasion the attack came from the police. They stormed in with dogs, pepper spray and batons and arrested 500 people. The church told the media that people were assaulted and robbed in the attack and that even those with documents were arrested.
In the second week the pogroms also spread to Durban, Cape Town and the small towns in the hinterland. In Durban the first attack was on a down town Nigerian bar and was followed by attacks on Rwandese and Congolese people living in city flats and then attacks on Mozambicans, Zimbabweans and Malawians living in shack settlements. In Cape Town it began with the Somali shopkeepers, who have been murdered at an incredible rate for years. The state has dismissed the clearly targeted nature of the ongoing killing of Somalis as ‘just ordinary crime’.
Some of the mobs were singing Jacob Zuma’s campaign song, Bring My Machine Gun. Some came out of shack settlements and migrant worker hostels linked to Inkatha. Some were just drunk young men. The most widely reported tests used to determine indigenity, such as seeing if people know the formal and slightly archaic Zulu word for elbow, were taken straight from the tactics that the police have used for years. The mob definition of foreigner always centred on foreign born Africans but in some instances Pakistanis and South Africans of minority ethnicities, especially Shangaan, Venda and Tsonga people, were also targeted. There are a number of credible allegations of police complicity in the pogroms but in some places community organisations were able to work with local police stations to bring the violence under control. There are many accounts of individual acts of brave opposition to the attacks by both South Africans and migrants. In the Protea South shack settlement in Johannesburg migrants were able to successfully organise themselves into self-defence units and to protect themselves with round the clock patrols. It is striking that in many, although not all, of the areas under the control of militant organisations of the poor that have been in serious conflict with the state there were no attacks at all.
After two weeks 62 people were dead, a third of them South African citizens, and figures for the number of people displaced ranged from 80 000 to 100 000. Some had fled the country and others were sheltering in churches, at police stations and in refugee camps. Conditions in the camps are often grim. Human rights organisations have issued strenuous condemnations and there have already been threats of collective suicide, clashes with the police and demands for the United Nations to take over management of the camps from the South African state.
Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency was, in the spirit of Pan-Africanism, animated by a vision of an African Renaissance that would finally redeem the world historical promise of the Haitian Revolution. On the first day of 2004 he resisted considerable international pressure and stood with Jean Bertrand-Aristide in Port-au-Prince to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of that Revolution. Six months later Mbeki welcomed Aristide to Pretoria with an uncharacteristically warm hug on a red carpet. This followed Aristide’s kidnapping and removal to the Central African Republic by the American military on the last day of February. Aristide still lives in Pretoria.
Some saw these acts of solidarity as a concrete step towards Pan-African solidarity. Mbeki’s detractors on the left pointed to the voluntary adoption of a structural adjustment programme in 1996, or the decisive moves to bring popular politics under party control from 1990, to argue that he was merely Africanising domination. But others argued that he, in the spirit of realpolitik and mindful of the fate of Toussaint l’Ouverture, Bertrand Aristide and their revolutions, had made a tactical decision to use the wealth of South Africa to make his global battle against anti-African racism a bourgeois initiative secured by the technocratic management of the poor.
Most of the slaves that made the Haitian Revolution were born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their revolution offered citizenship, black citizenship, to everyone who fought in it, including Polish and German mercenaries who deserted their posts to join it. Citizenship became a political question rather than a matter of indigeneity or ethnicity. But for those two weeks in May it wasn’t safe to be Congolese in many of the poor neighbourhoods in South African cities. There are still places where Aristide, whose excellent but French accented Zulu could easily mark him as Congolese or Rwandese, would be unwise to tread without security.
Contrary to much of the discussion in the media this state of affairs is not new. Indeed a month before the recent attacks 30 shacks were burnt and 100 people displaced from the Diepsloot settlement in Johannesburg. When the police eventually arrived their only response was to arrest twenty Zimbabweans for being undocumented. Migrants have been driven out of shack settlements in sporadic conflagrations since October 2001 when hundreds of Zimbabweans were hounded out of the Zandspruit settlement, also in Johannesburg. Three weeks before the attacks in Zandspruit the Department of Home Affairs had announced ‘Operation Clean Up’ in which people in the settlement were asked to support the Department in ‘rooting out illegal immigrants’. Between 600 and 700 people were rounded up and deported to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. When many of the people deported to Zimbabwe found their way back a few days later, and refused a demand to leave within ten days, they were driven out by their former neighbours.
The extreme hostility with which the post-apartheid state has responded to African migrants is well documented in numerous human rights and academic reports. Migrants to South Africa confront a notoriously ungenerous policy regime that is compounded by a bureaucracy and police force that are both systemically corrupt and prone to extorting money from migrants, documented or not, on the threat of arrest and deportation. There are many cases where South Africans have also been arrested and deported to countries they have never previously visited because they could not speak Zulu well, didn’t have the ‘right’ inoculation marks or were ‘too black.’ If the police suspect that someone may be an ‘illegal immigrant’ and she doesn’t have papers on her she will be detained in a holding cell and then sent to a repatriation centre to await deportation. If she is documented but doesn’t have papers on her she may still end up being deported as it is people picked on suspicion of being illegal that have to prove their legal right to be in the country. There is no burden of proof on the state. There is a right to one free phone call from the police holding cells and another from the repatriation centres but that right is routinely denied. Sometimes people whose presence in South Africa is perfectly legal just disappear. Their families only discover what has become of them after they have been deported. One consequence of this is that any one who thinks that they may be under suspicion has to carry their papers with them at all times. The similarity with the apartheid pass system has not escaped the notice of migrants.
The Lindela Repatriation Centre looms with a particular malevolence in the fears of migrants. Set in an old mining compound on the outskirts of Johannesburg its function is to hold illegal immigrants while they wait to be deported. The phrases ‘gross violations of human rights’ and ‘concentration camp’ role out with the word ‘Lindela’ in the language of human rights organisations as naturally as the word ‘criminals’ goes with ‘illegal immigrants’ in the language of the politicians, police and much of the popular media. Yet none of this resolute condemnation, much of which is undergirded by exhaustive empirical detail, has had any significant difference. Detailed human rights reports going back to 1999 describe routine violence, deliberate sleep deprivation, sexual assault, the denial of the right to a free phone call, appalling and appallingly limited food, a total lack of reading and writing materials, endemic corruption, unexplained deaths and extended periods of detention with out judicial review. There have been riots in Lindela going back to at least 2004. It is still hell. Senior people in the ANC Women’s League, including Nomvula Mokonyane, have financial interests in Lindela.
The state has not been alone in this. On radio talk shows, in newspapers and university lecture theatres it quickly becomes clear that the fears and stereotypes that white people projected onto black people under apartheid are now often projected, unapologetically, onto the poor in general and shack dwellers and migrants in particular. Things that can no longer be publicly said about black people can still be said about the poor, with and without papers. It is not unusual for middle class black people to take this up with enthusiasm. It’s been an open season for a long time. The fear and hostility of the old order have been redirected rather than overcome in the new order.
The most important attempt to theorise xenophobia in South African is a book by Michael Neocosmos called From ‘Foreign Natives’ to ‘Native Foreigners’: Explaining Xenophobia in Post-Apartheid South Africa. The book was published by Codesria in Dakar, Senegal in late 2006. Codesria do not have a distribution network equal to the quality of the work that they have published over the years and it has been more or less impossible to get a copy of the book in South Africa. But Codesria have put it online and a book that seemed to have fallen stillborn from the press is suddenly being widely read and discussed in the wake of the May pogroms.
Neocosmos rejects fashionable attempts to explain xenophobia in terms of postmodernity and globalisation and notes that it was in 1961 that Frantz Fanon described the kind of situation where “foreigners are called on to leave; their shops are burned, their street stalls are wrecked.” For Neocosmos, following Fanon and the work of the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, the essence of the problem is in the structure of the post-colonial state.
Neocosmos, following Ernest Wamba-dia-Wamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also takes Alain Badiou very seriously. He rejects the largely economistic understanding of politics that has typified influential sections of the academic left in South Africa in favour of a political understanding of politics. He argues that the debates on the academic left have largely been in favour of the state against the market and have tended to exclude any consideration for the agency of ordinary people. He sees in the statist orientation of this left a considerable complicity with the politics of liberalism which, in his diagnosis, can only see rights as something to be awarded and secured by the state.
His book gives a history of how apartheid denied South African citizenship to Africans and attempted, via the Bantustan system, to manufacture foreigners as a political and cultural identity. He also shows how this was continually challenged by popular democratic conceptions of citizenship. For instance Black Consciousness posited the lived experience of blackness as a principle of unity rather than ethnicity and so, against both the apartheid idea of ethnic Bantustan citizenship and the multi-racialism of the ANC, included Africans, Indians and people of mixed race in one non-racial political movement. Some trade unions, and in particular the National Union of Mine Workers, developed an understanding of citizenship based on place of work rather than place of origin. The mine workers’ union was even able to take this principle into the first moments of the post-apartheid state by securing citizenship for workers from Lesotho. And in the 1980s the United Democratic Front posited a citizenship based on opposition to apartheid which saw white and black people on both sides of its conception of the nation and its enemy.
For Neocosmos the radicalisation and democratisation of the popular struggles against apartheid in the second half of the 1980s, a process that in his analysis was forced on the leadership from below, created a new nation in struggle. He argues that the demobilisation and corporatisation of that politics, a process that began in 1989 and was more or less concluded by 1993, enabled a return to the exclusive power of the state to define citizenship.
In his view this was the worm that hid in the rose of the new democracy from the beginning. He points to the distinction in the constitution between citizens and persons and notes the consequent logic in frank statements by the ANC that it “can’t extend human rights to non-citizens.” But he is not replacing economism with legalism. He also argues that a considerable part of the motivation for the immediate commitment to the idea of ‘fortress South Africa’ was driven by an assumption that ‘hordes of foreigners’ would threaten South Africa’s aspiration to build a powerful modern state that could take its ‘rightful place on the international stage’. The continuities with apartheid thinking about South Africa as somehow outside of, superior to and endangered by Africa are clear. He also shows that the idea that the state could manage the poor by delivering basic services to a passive population led to an assumption that efficiency in this regard, and consequent gains in social cohesion, would be compromised by an increase in the number of citizens. For Neocosmos the ANC “is unable to think beyond the confines of exclusion and control…Popular organisational and militant democratic struggles are no longer within its ambit of thought.”
He acknowledges the work done by NGOs to catalogue the rights abuses suffered by migrants at the hand of the South Africa state and provides a harrowing overview. Some of the evidence adduced is particularly striking. For instance while many instances are cited of politicians ascribing crime to undocumented migrants and conflating the categories of ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘criminal’ the fact is that 98% of people arrested on criminal charges in South Africa are legal citizens. Equally striking are the statistics for the numbers of Germans, Americans and British people who overstay their visas but are not arrested and do not end up in Lindela and are not deported. In the first months of 1996 the figure stood at 26 000. Neocosmos does not shy away from the strength of popular xenophobic sentiment but stresses that empirical research indicates that “popular attitudes towards foreigners are much more contradictory and not as systematically oppressive as in the case of state agencies.”
While he accepts the symptomatic observations of the human rights NGOs he rejects their diagnosis of the cause of those symptoms and their prescription for a remedy. In his view their extensive and detailed cataloguing of state and popular xenophobia has been undertaken in order to ensure that migrants are able to access their human rights, something which is “seen as the responsibility of the state under pressure from those same NGOs”. Human rights discourse is orientated around appeals to the state, not a popular democratic politics. It therefore lacks both the capacity to issue compelling prescriptions to the state and to undertake the practical work of engendering better modes of life within communities. All it can do is to make requests. Although he does not say this, it is notable that neither the advances in this discourse, nor its institutionalisation in formal civil society, have resulted in meaningful progress from the perspective of someone picked up by the police for being ‘too black’ or speaking Shangaan or French.
For Neocosmos “xenophobia and authoritarianism” are “a continuation of apartheid oppression” that are, in the end, a “product of liberalism”. He proposes, against the state centric politics of liberalism, a recovery of popular emancipatory politics. This argument certainly has much more going for it than most of the views bandied about after the May pogroms, many of which took the form of simultaneous recommendations for firmer police action, better state intelligence and more projects to educate the poor about human rights. With some modifications it may also be able to explain some aspects of the other forms of popular reaction that have been growing in intensity.
In recent months there have, in some areas, been public attacks on lesbians and women dressed in trousers or in skirts deemed too short. It is certainly the case that as poor women are expected to take over more and more of the work needed to keep families and communities going there is an implicit gendering to decisions about the price of water, the numbers of taps and toilets that are provided to shack settlements, the need for volunteers to take on cleaning work, the care of the sick and so on. But it is certainly not the case that, as with xenophobia, these kinds of attacks can credibly be said to directly follow the logic and practices of the state or to be in any way complicit with the law.
While racist arguments about culture are often still used to explain the attacks on women progressives tend to argue that they are due to a general economic disempowerment. There is certainly a systemic disempowerment consequent to the endless economic crisis that ordinary people must confront, even in boom times. But there is also a systemic disempowerment consequent to both the complimentary authoritarianism of technocratic state and NGO responses to poverty and the top down party control over most of the political spaces through which ordinary people can access the state. It is notable that these kinds of attacks on women have not occurred, and are in fact simply unthinkable, in places where grassroots movements in which women are strong have created a political space for the collective self empowerment of the excluded. The fact that these are not the only spaces in which these kinds of attacks are unthinkable does not diminish the record of democratic grassroots political projects in this regard.
As Neocosmos has noted in a recent essay the popular movements that have rebuilt a democratic grassroots militancy were able to successfully defend and shelter people at risk in the May pogroms and, on at least one occasion, confront attackers head on. There was not one attack in any of the more than 30 settlements where the largely Durban and Pietermartizburg based shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo is strong. Despite being crowded into ever fewer bits and pieces of urban land, all of which remain under threat from a state determined to ‘eradicate shacks by 2014’, the movement was also able to offer shelter to some people displaced in the attacks. In a widely circulated and translated statement Abahlali baseMjondolo declared that “An action can be illegal. A person cannot be illegal. A person is a person where ever they may find themselves. If you live in a settlement you are from that settlement and you are a neighbour and a comrade in that settlement.” The Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg and the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town were also able to mount some opposition to the pogroms. In Khutsong, a town to the West of Johannesburg where popular conflict with the state has probably been most acute, the Merafong Demarcation Forum was also able to ensure safety. All of these organisations have, in the face of considerable repression boycotted elections and sought to build a militant grassroots politics outside of the party structures beholden to the state.
There is a sense in which crises are confrontation with the real. Certain kinds of assumptions, claims and speculations that can survive without a direct challenge melt away in the face of this kind of shock. Others emerge on a firmer footing. Neocosmos’ book has come out of the crisis with a lot more life than it had in April. But if the May crisis has appeared to offer some support to his analysis that analysis should certainly be extended. One obvious way in which the critique of the politics of liberalism should be developed would be to consider the various ways in which the South African poor are also excluded from substantive citizenship and the desperate rivalries that this can produce.
With an entrenched unemployment crisis that excludes around 40% of people from formal employment now compounded by the sudden escalation in food and transport prices there’s not much disagreement about the depth of economic exclusion. Of course people do invent new modes of solidarity and survivalist communalism to cope but a dangerous desperation is also rife. Not everyone is in a position to confront the prospect of entering their 30s without ever having had a decent job with equanimity. For people bent on plunder anyone who is vulnerable, as undocumented migrants living under a hostile state most certainly are, is at risk.
Exclusion from substantive citizenship is also a question of space. The South African state is seeking to reverse the popular desegregation of cities achieved since the 1980s. There are major projects to drive the poor out of flats in the city centres in the name of creating ‘World Class Cities’. Centrally located shack settlements are also under attack from a full fledged programme to ‘eradicate’ shacks by 2014. While most cities have one or two well funded projects to upgrade centrally located shack settlements they are the exceptions that legitimate the rule. The fact is that the state is beating the poor out of the cities in the name of ‘slum clearance’, the precise phrase used by apartheid, and before that colonialism, for the same purpose. The poor are being driven out of urban spaces over which there is sometimes a considerable degree of autonomous self management into regulated and commodified contemporary versions of the peripheral apartheid township – a space separate in every way from the fantasy of world class cities but far enough out of town for this fact to be tolerable. An often politically innovative urban proletariat which appropriated urban land, as well as electricity and water, and often, although not always, turned it into a commons organised with a considerable degree of popular autonomy from state power is being recomposed into an individualized set of consumers safely warehoused on the urban periphery. The return to forced removals is a direct attack on people’s livelihoods, access to education and health care, desire for an urban life and identity as citizens. With regard to the latter it is worth recalling that the denial of the right to the city was a central part of the denial of citizenship to Africans under apartheid. Every successful eviction increases the already severe overcrowding in the spaces that survive and escalates competition for space that can take all sorts of forms including ethnic and racial conflict amongst South Africans.
Despite more than 3 years of vigorous protests by the grassroots left across the country against local party councillors and their ward committees the reality of political exclusion doesn’t have much elite currency. Civil society doesn’t always easily recognise that democracy isn’t only about elections and NGOs. People who appropriated or forged substantive rights to citizenship through the insurgent popular struggles of the 80s, or who were promised full social inclusion in Mandela’s image of the nation, now find that, what ever their identity documents may say, they have been excluded from a key aspect of substantive citizenship - the right to speak, to be heard and to co-determine their future. Developmental processes are overwhelmingly technocratic and expert driven and the party is, for the very poor, now a top down structure that is used more for social control than as a space for popular discussion. In fact in many shack settlements party structures are the armed enforcers of state discipline. Many of the thousands of popular protests over the last few years (often clearly misnamed as ’service delivery’ protests by both the NGO left and the state) were aimed at trying to subordinate local party structures and representatives to popular power. It has been very striking that in many of these protests the people organising them have declared that they have returned to struggle because they have, again, ‘been made foreigners in our own country’. This crisis in the popular sense of substantive citizenship has expressed itself in some remarkable mobilisations that have united people with and without legal citizenship to struggle to democratise society from below. But in the absence of democratic organisation it can also take the terrifying form of a desire to assert one’s own citizenship by turning on the ‘real’ non citizens.
The popular democratic politics in which Neocosmos invests his theoretical hope is the practical politics that was able to defend and shelter people targeted in the May pogroms, and has previously, although covertly, offered the same protection from the state. It is a politics that moves from the bottom up and which the state and many NGOs, including those on the left, consider to be outside of professional civil society and its aspirations to manage the poor and, therefore, criminal. The police have been trying to beat it into submission since 2004.
Mbeki repressed the return of this politics and could travel to Haiti in his own jet. Aristide embraced this politics and was forced to leave Haiti in an American jet. But in Port-au-Prince and Johannesburg, against the odds, against the soldiers and the police, against the mob that have decided to become the police, against the expert and against the NGO it endures, fragile, wounded but alive.
Richard Pithouse, Durban. 16 June 2008
 It is available at the Codesria website at: http://www.codesria.org/Links/Publications/monographs.htm
Saturday, 14 June 2008
by Partha Chatterjee, first published in Economic & Political Weekly 19 April 2008, republished in Kafila, 13 June 2008
With the changes in India over the past 25 years, there is now a new dynamic logic that ties the operations of “political society” (comprising the peasantry, artisans and petty producers in the informal sector) with the hegemonic role of the bourgeoisie in “civil society”. This logic is provided by the requirement of reversing the effects of primitive accumulation of capital with activities like anti-poverty programmes. This is a necessary political condition for the continued rapid growth of corporate capital. The state, with its mechanisms of electoral democracy, becomes the field for the political negotiation of demands for the transfer of resources, through fiscal and other means, from the accumulation economy to programmes aimed at providing the livelihood needs of the poor. Electoral democracy makes it unacceptable for the government to leave the marginalised groups without the means of labour and to fend for themselves, since this carries the risk of turning them into the “dangerous classes”.
The first volume of Subaltern Studies was published in 1982. I was part of the editorial group 25 years ago that launched, under the leadership of Ranajit Guha, this critical engagement with Indian modernity from the standpoint of the subaltern classes, especially the peasantry. In the quarter of a century that has passed since then, there has been, I believe, a fundamental change in the situation prevailing in postcolonial India. The new conditions under which global flows of capital, commodities, information and people are now regulated – a complex set of phenomena generally clubbed under the category of globalisation – have created both new opportunities and new obstacles for the Indian ruling classes. The old idea of a third world, sharing a common history of colonial oppression and backwardness, is no longer as persuasive as it was in the 1960s. The trajectory of economic growth taken by the countries of Asia has diverged radically from that of most African countries. The phenomenal growth of China and India in recent years, involving two of the most populous agrarian countries of the world, has set in motion a process of social change that, in its scale and speed, is unprecedented in human history.
1 Peasant Society Today
In this context, I believe it has become important to revisit the question of the basic structures of power in Indian society, especially the position of the peasantry. This is not because I think that the advance of capitalist industrial growth is inevitably breaking down peasant communities and turning peasants into proletarian workers, as has been predicted innumerable times in the last century and a half. On the contrary, I will argue that the forms of capitalist industrial growth now under way in India will make room for the preservation of the peasantry, but under completely altered conditions. The analysis of these emergent forms of postcolonial capitalism in India under conditions of electoral democracy requires new conceptual work.
Let me begin by referring to the recent incidents of violent agitation in different regions of India, especially in West Bengal and Orissa, against the acquisition of agricultural land for industry. There have also been agitations in several states against the entry of corporate capital into the retail market for food and vegetables. The most talked about incidents occurred in Nandigram in West Bengal, on which much has been written.
If these incidents had taken place 25 years ago, we would have seen in them the classic signs of peasant insurgency. Here were the long familiar features of a peasantry, tied to the land and small-scale agriculture, united by the cultural and moral bonds of a local rural community, resisting the agents of an external state and of city-based commercial institutions by using both peaceful and violent means. Our analysis then could have drawn on a long tradition of anthropological studies of peasant societies, focusing on the characteristic forms of dependence of peasant economies on external institutions such as the state and dominant classes such as landlords, moneylenders and traders, but also of the forms of autonomy of peasant cultures based on the solidarity of a local moral community.
We could have also linked our discussion to a long tradition of political debates over the historical role of the peasantry under conditions of capitalist growth, beginning with the Marxist analysis in western Europe of the inevitable dissolution of the peasantry as a result of the process of primitive accumulation of capital, Lenin’s debates in Russia with the Narodniks, Mao Zedong’s analysis of the role of the peasantry in the Chinese Revolution, and the continuing debates over Gandhi’s vision of a free India where a mobilised peasantry in the villages would successfully resist the spread of industrial capitalism and the violence of the modern state. Moreover, using the insights drawn from Antonio Gramsci’s writings, we could have talked about the contradictory consciousness of the peasantry in which it was both dominated by the forms of the elite culture of the ruling classes and, at the same time, resistant to them. Twenty-five years ago, we would have seen these rural agitations in terms of the analysis provided by Ranajit Guha in his classic 1983 work Elementary Aspects of Peasant
Insurgency in Colonial India.
I believe that analysis would be inappropriate today. I say this for the following reasons. First, the spread of governmental technologies in India in the last three decades, as a result of the deepening reach of the developmental state under conditions of electoral democracy, has meant that the state is no longer an external entity to the peasant community. Governmental agencies distributing education, health services, food, roadways, water, electricity, agricultural technology, emergency relief and dozens of other welfare services have penetrated deep into the interior of
everyday peasant life. Not only are peasants dependent on state agencies for these services, they have also acquired considerable skill, albeit to a different degree in different regions, in manipulating and pressurising these agencies to deliver these benefits. Institutions of the state, or at least governmental agencies (whether state or non-state), have become internal aspects of the peasant community.
Second, the reforms since the 1950s in the structure of agrarian property, even though gradual and piecemeal, have meant that except in isolated areas, for the first time in centuries, small peasants possessing land no longer directly confront an exploiting class within the village, as under feudal or semi-feudal conditions. This has had consequences that are completely new for the range of strategies of peasant politics.
Third, since the tax on land or agricultural produce is no longer a significant source of revenue for the government, as in colonial or pre-colonial times, the relation of the state to the peasantry is no longer directly extractive, as it often was in the past.
Fourth, with the rapid growth of cities and industrial regions, the possibility of peasants making a shift to urban and nonagricultural occupations is no longer a function of their pauperisation and forcible separation from the land, but is often a voluntary choice, shaped by the perception of new opportunities and new desires.
Fifth, with the spread of school education and widespread exposure to modern communications media such as the cinema, television and advertising, there is a strong and widespread desire among younger members, both male and female, of peasant families not to live the life of a peasant in the village and instead to move to the town or the city, with all its hardships and uncertainties, because of its lure of anonymity and upward mobility. This is particularly significant for India where the life of poor peasants in rural society is marked not only by the disadvantage of class but also by the discriminations of caste, compared to which the sheer anonymity of life in the city is often seen as liberating. For agricultural labourers, of whom vast numbers are from the dalit communities, the desired future is to move out of the traditional servitude of rural labour into urban non-agricultural occupations.
2 A New Conceptual Framework
I may have emphasised the novelty of the present situation too sharply; in actual fact, the changes have undoubtedly come more gradually over time. But I do believe that the novelty needs to be stressed at this time in order to ask: how do these new features of peasant life affect our received theories of the place of the peasantry in postcolonial India? Kalyan Sanyal, an economist teaching in Kolkata, has attempted a fundamental revision of these theories in his recent (2007) book Rethinking Capitalist Development. In the following discussion, I will use some of his formulations in order to present my own arguments on this subject.
The key concept in Sanyal’s analysis is the primitive accumulation of capital – sometimes called primary or original accumulation of capital. Like Sanyal, I too prefer to use this term in Marx’s sense to mean the dissociation of the labourer from the means of labour. There is no doubt that this is the key historical process that brings peasant societies into crisis with the rise of capitalist production. Marx’s analysis in the last chapters of volume one of Capital shows that the emergence of modern capitalist industrial production is invariably associated with the parallel process of the loss of the means of production on the part of primary producers such as peasants and artisans. The unity of labour with the means of labour, which is the basis of most pre-capitalist modes of production, is destroyed and a mass of labourers emerge who do not any more possess the means of production. Needless
to say, the unity of labour with the means of labour is the conceptual
counterpart in political economy of the organic unity of most pre-capitalist rural societies by virtue of which peasants and rural artisans are said to live in close bonds of solidarity in a local rural community. This is the familiar anthropological description of peasant societies as well as the source of inspiration for many romantic writers and artists portraying rural life. This is also the unity that is destroyed in the process of primitive accumulation
of capital, throwing peasant societies into crisis.
The analysis of this crisis has produced, as I have already indicated, a variety of historical narratives ranging from the inevitable dissolution of peasant societies to slogans of worker-peasant unity in the building of a future socialist society. Despite their differences, the common feature in all these narratives is the idea of transition. Peasants and peasant societies under conditions of capitalist development are always in a state of transition – whether from feudalism to capitalism or from pre-capitalist backwardness to socialist modernity.
A central argument made by Sanyal in his book is that under present conditions of postcolonial development within a globalised economy, the narrative of transition is no longer valid. That is to say, although capitalist growth in a postcolonial society such as India is inevitably accompanied by the primitive accumulation of capital, the social changes that are brought about cannot be understood as a transition. How is that possible?
The explanation has to do with the transformations in the last two decades in the globally dispersed understanding about the minimum functions as well as the available technologies of government. There is a growing sense now that certain basic conditions of life must be provided to people everywhere and that if the national or local governments do not provide them, someone else must, whether it is other states or international agencies or non-governmental organisations. Thus, while there is a dominant discourse about the importance of growth, which in recent times has come to mean almost exclusively capitalist growth, it is, at the same time, considered unacceptable that those who are dispossessed of their means of labour because of the primitive accumulation of capital should have no means of subsistence. This produces, says Sanyal, a curious process in which, on the one side, primary producers such as peasants, craftspeople and petty manufacturers lose their land and other means of production, but, on the other, are also provided by governmental agencies with the conditions for meeting their basic needs of livelihood. There is, says Sanyal, primitive accumulation as well as a parallel process of the reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation.
Examples of Processes
It would be useful to illustrate this process with some examples. Historically, the process of industrialisation in all agrarian countries has meant the eviction of peasants from the land, either because the land was taken over for urban or industrial development or because the peasant no longer had the means to cultivate the land. Market forces were usually strong enough to force peasants to give up the land, but often direct coercion was used by means of the legal and fiscal powers of the state. From colonial times, government authorities in India have used the right of eminent domain to acquire lands to be used for “public purposes”, offering
only a token compensation, if any.1 The idea that peasants losing land must be resettled somewhere else and rehabilitated into a new livelihood was rarely acknowledged. Historically, it has been said that the opportunities of migration of the surplus population from Europe to the settler colonies in the Americas and elsewhere made it possible to politically manage the consequences of primitive accumulation in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. No such opportunities exist today for India. More importantly, the technological conditions of early industrialisation which created the demand for a substantial mass of industrial labour have long passed. Capitalist growth today is far more capital-intensive and technology-dependent than it was even some decades ago. Large sections of peasants who are today the victims of the primitive accumulation of capital are completely unlikely to be absorbed into the new capitalist sectors of growth. Therefore, without a specific government policy of resettlement, the peasants losing their land face the possibility of the complete loss of their means of livelihood. Under present globally prevailing normative ideas, this is considered unacceptable. Hence, the old-fashioned methods of putting down peasant resistance by armed repression have little chance of gaining legitimacy. The result is the widespread demand today for the rehabilitation of displaced people who lose their means of subsistence because of industrial and urban development. It is not, says Sanyal, as though primitive accumulation is halted or even slowed down, for primitive accumulation is the inevitable companion to capitalist growth. Rather, governmental agencies have to find the resources to, as it were, reverse the consequences of primitive accumulation by providing alternative means of livelihood to those who have lost them.
We know that it is not uncommon for developmental states to protect certain sectors of production that are currently the domain of peasants, artisans and small manufacturers against competition from large corporate firms. But this may be interpreted as an attempt to forestall primitive accumulation itself by preventing corporate capital from entering into areas such as food crop or
vegetable production or handicraft manufacture. However, there are many examples in many countries, including India, of governments and non-government agencies offering easy loans to enable those without the means of sustenance to find some gainful employment. Such loans are often advanced without serious concern for profitability or the prospect of the loan being repaid, since the money advanced here is not driven by the motive of further accumulation of capital but rather by that of providing
the livelihood needs of the debtors – that is to say, by the motive of reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation. In recent years, these efforts have acquired the status of a globally circulating technology of poverty management: a notable instance is the microcredit movement initiated by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and its founder, the Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Yunus. Most of us are familiar now with stories of peasant women in rural Bangladesh forming groups to take loans from the Grameen Bank to undertake small activities to supplement their livelihood and putting pressure on one another to repay the loan so that they can qualify for another round of credit. Similar activities have been introduced quite extensively in India in recent years.
Finally, as in other countries, government agencies in India provide some direct benefits to people who, because of poverty or other reasons, are unable to meet their basic consumption needs. This could be in the form of special poverty-removal programmes, or schemes of guaranteed employment in public works, or even direct delivery of subsidised or free food. Thus, there are programmes of supplying subsidised foodgrains to those designated as “below the poverty line”, guaranteed employment for up to 100 days in a year for those who need it, and free meals to children in primary schools. All of these may be regarded, in terms of our analysis, as direct interventions to reverse the effects of primitive accumulation.
It is important to point out that except for the last example of direct provision of consumption needs, most of the other mechanisms of reversing the effects of primitive accumulation involve the intervention of the market. This is the other significant difference in the present conditions of peasant life from the traditional models we have known. Except in certain marginal pockets, peasant and craft production in India today is fully integrated into a market economy. Unlike a few decades ago, there is almost no sector of household production that can be described as intended wholly for self-consumption or non-monetised exchange within a local community. Virtually all peasant and artisan production is for sale in the market and all consumption needs are purchased from the market. This, as we shall see, has an important bearing on recent changes in the conditions of peasant politics.
It is also necessary to point out that “livelihood needs” do not indicate a fixed quantum of goods determined by biological or other ahistorical criteria. It is a contextually determined, socially produced, sense of what is necessary to lead a decent life of some worth and self-respect. The composition of the set of elements that constitute “livelihood needs” will, therefore, vary with social location, cultural context and time. Thus, the expected minimum standards of healthcare for the family or minimum levels of education for one’s children will vary, as will the specific composition of the commodities of consumption such as food, clothes or domestic appliances. What is important here is a culturally determined sense of what is minimally necessary for a decent life, one that is neither unacceptably impoverished nor excessive and luxurious.
3 Transformed Structures of Political Power
To place these changes within a structural frame that describes how political power is held and exercised in postcolonial India, I also need to provide an outline of the transformation that, I believe, has taken place in that structure in recent years. Twentyfive years ago, the structure of state power in India was usually described in terms of a coalition of dominant class interests.
Pranab Bardhan (1984) identified the capitalists, the rich farmers and the bureaucracy as the three dominant classes, competing and aligning with one another within a political space supervised by a relatively autonomous state. Achin Vanaik (1990) also endorsed the dominant coalition model, emphasising in particular the relative political strength of the agrarian bourgeoisie which, he stressed, was far greater than its economic importance. He also insisted that even though India had never had a classical bourgeois revolution, its political system was nevertheless a bourgeois democracy that enjoyed a considerable degree of legitimacy not only with the dominant classes but also with the mass of the people. Several scholars writing in the 1980s, such as for instance, Ashutosh Varshney (1995) and Lloyd and Rudolph (1987), emphasised the growing political clout of the rich farmers or agrarian capitalists within the dominant coalition.
The dominant class coalition model was given a robust theoretical shape in a classic essay by Sudipta Kaviraj (1989) in which, by using Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the “passive revolution” as a blocked dialectic, he was able to ascribe to the process of class domination in postcolonial India its own dynamic. Power had to be shared between the dominant classes because no one class had the ability to exercise hegemony on its own. But “sharing” was a process of ceaseless push and pull, with one class gaining a relative ascendancy at one point, only to lose it at another. Kaviraj provided us with a synoptic political history of the relative dominance and decline of the industrial capitalists, the rural elites and the bureaucratic-managerial elite within the framework of the passive revolution of capital. In my early work, I too adopted the idea of the passive revolution of capital in my account of the emergence of the postcolonial state in India [Chatterjee 1986, 1998 and Chatterjee and Malik 1975].
The characteristic features of the passive revolution in India were the relative autonomy of the state as a whole from the bourgeoisie and the landed elites; the supervision of the state by an elected political leadership, a permanent bureaucracy and an independent judiciary; the negotiation of class interests through a multi-party electoral system; a protectionist regime discouraging
the entry of foreign capital and promoting import substitution; the leading role of the state sector in heavy industry, infrastructure, transport, telecommunications; mining, banking and insurance; state control over the private manufacturing sector through a regime of licensing; and the relatively greater influence of industrial capitalists over the central government and that of the landed elites on the state governments. Passive revolution was a form that was marked by its difference from classical bourgeois democracy. But to the extent that capitalist democracy as established in western Europe or north America served as the normative standard of bourgeois revolution, discussions of passive revolution in India carried with them the sense of a transitional system – from pre-colonial and colonial regimes to some yet-to-be-defined authentic modernity. The changes introduced since the 1990s have, I believe, transformed this framework of class dominance. The crucial difference now is the dismantling of the licence regime, greater entry of foreign capital and foreign consumer goods; and the opening up of sectors such as telecommunications, transport, infrastructure, mining, banking, insurance, etc, to private capital. This has led to a change in the very composition of the capitalist class. Instead of the earlier dominance of a few “monopoly” houses drawn from traditional merchant backgrounds and protected by the licence and import substitution regime, there are now many more entrants into the capitalist class at all levels and much greater mobility within its formation. Unlike the earlier fear of foreign competition, there appears to be much greater confidence among Indian capitalists to make use of the opportunities opened up by global flows of capital, goods and services, including, in recent times, significant exports of capital. The most dramatic event has been the rise of the Indian information technology industry. But domestic manufacturing and services have also received a major spurt, leading to annual growth rates of 8 or 9 per cent for the economy as a whole in the last few years. There have been several political changes as a result. Let me list a few that are relevant for our present discussion. First, there is a distinct ascendancy in the relative power of the corporate capitalist class as compared to the landed elites. The political means by which this recent dominance has been achieved needs to be investigated more carefully, because it was not achieved through the mechanism of electoral mobilisation (which used to be the source of the political power of the landed elites). Second, the dismantling of the licence regime has opened up a new field of competition between state governments to woo capitalist investment, both domestic and foreign. This has resulted in the involvement of state-level political parties and leaders with the interests of national and international corporate capital in unprecedented ways. Third, although the state continues to be the most important mediating apparatus in negotiating between conflicting class interests, the autonomy of the state in relation to
the dominant classes appears to have been redefined. Crucially, the earlier role of the bureaucratic-managerial class, or more generally of the urban middle classes, in leading and operating, both socially and ideologically, the autonomous interventionist activities of the developmental state has significantly weakened. There is a strong ideological tendency among the urban middle classes today to view the state apparatus as ridden with corruption, inefficiency and populist political venality and a much greater social acceptance of the professionalism and commitment to growth and efficiency of the corporate capitalist sector. The urban middle class, which once played such a crucial role in producing and running the autonomous developmental state of the passive revolution, appears now to have largely come under the moral-political sway of the bourgeoisie. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the result is a convergence of the Indian political system with the classical models of capitalist democracy. The critical difference, as I have pointed out elsewhere, has been produced by a split in the field of the political between a domain of properly constituted civil society and a more ill-defined and contingently activated domain of political society [Chatterjee 2004]. Civil society in India today, peopled largely by the urban middle classes, is the sphere that seeks to be congruent with the normative models of bourgeois civil society and represents the domain of capitalist hegemony. If this were the only relevant political domain, then India today would probably be indistinguishable from other western capitalist democracies. But there is the other domain of what I have called political society which includes large sections of the rural population and the urban poor. These people do, of course, have the formal status of citizens and can exercise their franchise as an instrument of political bargaining. But they do not relate to the organs of the state in the same way that the middle classes do, nor do governmental agencies treat them as proper citizens belonging to civil society. Those in political society make their claims on government, and in turn are governed, not within the framework of stable constitutionally defined rights and laws, but rather through temporary, contextual and unstable arrangements arrived at through direct political negotiations. The latter domain, which represents the vast bulk of democratic politics in India, is not under the moral-political leadership of the capitalist class. Hence, my argument is that the framework of passive revolution is still valid for India. But its structure and dynamic have undergone a change. The capitalist class has come to acquire a position of moral-political hegemony over civil society, consisting principally of the urban middle classes. It exercises its considerable influence over both the central and the state governments not through electoral mobilisation of political parties and movements but largely through the bureaucratic-managerial class, the increasingly influential print and visual media, and the judiciary and other independent regulatory bodies. The dominance of the capitalist class within the state structure as a whole can be inferred from the virtual consensus among all major political parties about the priorities of rapid economic growth led by private investment, both domestic and foreign. It is striking that even the CPI(M) in West Bengal, and slightly more ambiguously in Kerala, have, in practice if not in theory, joined this consensus. This means that as far as the party system is concerned, it does not matter which particular combination of parties comes to power at the centre or even in most of the states; state support for rapid economic growth is guaranteed to continue. This is evidence of the current success of the passive revolution. However, the practices of the state also include the large range of governmental activities in political society. Here there are locally dominant interests, such as those of landed elites, small producers and local traders, who are able to exercise political influence through their powers of electoral mobilisation. In the old understanding of the passive revolution, these interests would have been seen as potentially opposed to those of the industrial bourgeoisie; the conflicts would have been temporarily resolved through a compromise worked out within the party system and the autonomous apparatus of the state. Now, I believe, there is a new dynamic logic that ties the operations of political society with the hegemonic role of the bourgeoisie in civil society and its dominance over the state structure as a whole. This logic is supplied by the requirement, explained earlier, of reversing the effects of primitive accumulation of capital. To describe how this logic serves to integrate civil and political society into a new structure of the passive revolution, let me return to the subject of the peasantry.
4 Management of Non-Corporate Capital
The integration with the market has meant that large sections of what used to be called the subsistence economy, which was once the classic description of small peasant agriculture, have now come fully under the sway of capital. This is a key development that must crucially affect our understanding of peasant society in India today. There is now a degree of connectedness between peasant cultivation, trade and credit networks in agricultural commodities, transport networks, petty manufacturing and services in rural markets and small towns, etc, that makes it necessary for us to categorise all of them as part of a single, but stratified, complex. A common description of this is the unorganised or informal sector. Usually, a unit belonging to the informal sector is identified in terms of the small size of the enterprise, the small number of labourers employed, or the relatively unregulated nature of the business. In terms of the analytical framework I have presented here, I will propose a distinction between the formal and the informal sectors of today’s economy in terms of a difference between corporate and noncorporate forms of capital.
My argument is that the characteristics I have described of peasant societies today are best understood as the marks of non-corporate capital. To the extent that peasant production is deeply embedded within market structures, investments and returns are conditioned by forces emanating from the operations of capital. In this sense, peasant production shares many connections with informal units in manufacturing, trade and services operating in rural markets, small towns and even in large cities. We can draw many refined distinctions between corporate and non-corporate forms of capital. But the key distinction I wish to emphasise is the following. The fundamental logic that underlies the operations of corporate capital is further accumulation of capital, usually signified by the maximisation of profit. For noncorporate organisations of capital, while profit is not irrelevant, it is dominated by another logic – that of providing the livelihood needs of those working in the units. This difference is crucial for the understanding of the so-called informal economy and, by extension, as I will argue, of peasant society. Let me illustrate with a couple of familiar examples from the non-agricultural informal sector and then return to the subject of peasants. Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon of street vendors in Indian cities. They occupy street space, usually violating municipal laws; they often erect permanent stalls, use municipal services such as water and electricity, and do not pay taxes. To carry on their trade under these conditions, they usually organise themselves into associations to deal with the municipal authorities, the police, credit agencies such as banks and corporate firms that manufacture and distribute the commodities they sell on the streets. These associations are often large and the volume of business they encompass can be quite considerable. Obviously, operating within a public and anonymous market situation, the vendors are subject to the standard conditions of profitability of their businesses. But to ensure that everyone is able to meet their livelihood needs, the association will usually try to limit the number of vendors who can operate in a given area and prevent the entry of newcomers. On the other hand, there are many examples where, if the businesses are doing particularly well, the vendors do not, like corporate capitalists, continue to accumulate on an expanded scale, but rather agree to extend their membership and allow new entrants. To cite another example, in most cities and towns of India, the transport system depends heavily on private operators who run buses and autorickshaws.
Here too there is frequent violation of regulations such as licences, safety standards and pollution norms – violations that allow these units to survive economically. Although most operators own only one or two vehicles each, they form associations to negotiate with transport authorities and the police over fares and routes, and control the frequency of services and entry of new
operators to ensure that a minimum income, and not much more than a minimum income, is guaranteed to all. In my book The Politics of the Governed, I have described the form of governmental regulation of population groups such as street vendors, illegal squatters and others, whose habitation or livelihood verge on the margins of legality, as political society. In political society, I have argued, people are not regarded by the state as proper citizens possessing rights and belonging to the properly constituted civil society. Rather, they are seen to belong to particular population groups, with specific empirically established and statistically described characteristics, which are targets of particular governmental policies. Since dealing with many of these groups imply the tacit acknowledgement of various illegal practices, governmental agencies will often treat such cases as exceptions, justified by very specific and special circumstances, so that the structure of general rules and principles is not compromised. Thus, illegal squatters may be given water supply or electricity connections but on exceptional grounds so as not to club them with regular customers having secure legal title to their property, or street vendors may be allowed to trade under specific conditions that distinguish them from regular shops and businesses which comply with the laws and pay taxes. All of this makes the claims of people in political society a matter of constant political negotiation and the results are never secure or permanent. Their entitlements, even when recognised, never quite become rights. To connect the question of political society with my earlier discussion on the process of primitive accumulation of capital, I now wish to advance the following proposition: Civil society is where corporate capital is hegemonic, whereas political society is the space of management of non-corporate capital. I have argued above that since the 1990s, corporate capital, and along with it the class of corporate capitalists, have achieved a hegemonic position over civil society in India. This means that the logic of accumulation, expressed at this time in the demand that national economic growth be maintained at a very high rate and that the requirements of corporate capital be given priority, holds sway over civil society – that is to say, over the urban middle classes. It also means that the educational, professional and social aspirations of the middle classes have become tied with the fortunes of corporate capital. There is now a powerful tendency to insist on the legal rights of proper citizens, to impose civic order in public
places and institutions and to treat the messy world of the informal sector and political society with a degree of intolerance. A vague but powerful feeling seems to prevail among the urban middle classes that rapid growth will solve all problems of poverty and unequal opportunities.
Organisation of Informal Sector
The informal sector, which does not have a corporate structure and does not function principally according to the logic of accumulation, does not, however, lack organisation. As I have indicated in my examples, those who function in the informal sector often have large, and in many cases quite powerful and effective, organisations. They need to organise precisely to function in the modern market and governmental spaces. Traditional organisations of peasant and artisan societies are not adequate for the task. I believe this organisation is as much of a political activity as it is an economic one. Given the logic of non-corporate capital that I have described above, the function of these organisations is precisely to successfully operate within the rules of the market and of governmental regulations in order to ensure the livelihood needs of its members. Most of those who provide leadership in organising people, both owners and workers, operating in the informal sector are actually or potentially political leaders. Many such leaders are prominent local politicians and many such organisations are directly or indirectly affiliated to political parties. Thus, it is not incorrect to say that the management of non-corporate capital under such conditions is a political function that is carried out by political leaders. The existence and survival of the vast assemblage of so-called informal units of production in India today, including peasant production, is directly dependent on the successful operation of certain political functions. That is what is facilitated by the process of democracy. The organisations that can carry out these political functions have to be innovative – necessarily so, because neither the history of the cooperative movement nor that of socialist collective
organisation provides any model that can be copied by these noncorporate
organisations of capital in India. What is noticeable here is a strong sense of attachment to small-scale private property and, at the same time, a willingness to organise and cooperate in order to protect the fragile basis of livelihood that is constantly under threat from the advancing forces of corporate capital. However, it appears that these organisations of non-corporate capital are stronger, at least at this time, in the non-agricultural informal sectors in cities and towns and less so among the rural peasantry. This means that while the organisation of non-corporate
capital in urban areas has developed relatively stable and effective forms and is able, by mobilising governmental support through the activities of political society, to sustain the livelihood needs of the urban poor in the informal sector, the rural poor, consisting of small peasants and rural labourers, are still dependent on direct governmental support for their basic needs and are less able to make effective organised use of the market in agricultural commodities. This challenge lies at the heart of the recent controversies over “farmer suicides” as well as the ongoing debates over acquisition of agricultural land for industry. It is clear that in the face of rapid changes in agricultural production in the near future, Indian democracy will soon have to invent new forms of organisation to ensure the survival of a vast rural population increasingly dependent on the operations of non-corporate forms of capital. What I have said here about the characteristics of non-corporate capital are, of course, true only in the gross or average sense. It is admittedly an umbrella category, hiding many important variations within it. Informal or non-corporate units, even when they involve significant amounts of fixed capital and employ several hired workers, are, by my description, primarily intended to meet the livelihood needs of those involved in the business. Often, the owner is himself or herself also a worker. But this does not mean that there do not exist any informal units in which the owner strives to turn the business toward the route of accumulation, seeking to leave the grey zones of informality and enter the hallowed portals of corporate capitalism. This too might be a tendency that would indicate upward mobility as well as change in the overall social structure of capital.
5 Peasant Culture and Politics
In a recent lecture, the sociologist Dipankar Gupta has taken note of many of these features of changing peasant life to argue that we need a new theoretical framework for understanding contemporary rural society [Gupta 2005]. One of the features he has emphasised is the sharp rise in non-agricultural employment among those who live in villages. In almost half of the states of India, more than 40 per cent of the rural population is engaged in non-agricultural occupations today and the number is rising
rapidly. A substantial part of this population consists of rural labourers
who do not own land but do not find enough opportunity for agricultural work. But more significantly, even peasant families that own land will often have some members engaged in non-agricultural employment. In part, this reflects precisely the pressure of market forces that makes small peasant cultivation unviable over time because it is unable to increase productivity. As the small peasant property is handed down from one generation to the next, the holdings get subdivided even further. I have seen in the course of my own field work in West Bengal in the last two years that there is a distinct reluctance among younger members of rural landowning peasant families – both men and women – to continue with the life of a peasant. There is, they say, no future in small peasant agriculture and they would prefer to try their luck in town, even if it means a period of hardship. Needless to say, this feeling is particularly strong among those who have had some school education. It reflects not just a response to the effects of primitive accumulation, because many of these young men and women come from landowning families that are able to provide for their basic livelihood needs. Rather, it reflects the sense of a looming threat, the ever present danger that small peasant agriculture will, sooner or later, have to succumb to the larger forces of capital. If this feeling becomes a general feature among the next
generation of rural families, it would call for a radical transformation in our understanding of peasant culture. The very idea of a peasant society whose fundamental dynamic is to reproduce itself, accommodating only small and slow changes, would have to be given up altogether. Here we find a generation of peasants whose principal motivation seems to be to stop being peasants. Based on findings of this type that are now accumulating rapidly, Dipankar Gupta has spoken of the “vanishing village”: “Agriculture is an economic residue that generously accommodates non-achievers resigned to a life of sad satisfaction. The villager is as bloodless as the rural economy is lifeless. From rich to poor, the trend is to leave the village…” [Gupta 2005: 757]. I think Gupta is too hasty in this conclusion. He has noticed only
one side of the process which is the inevitable story of primitive accumulation. He has not, I think, considered the other side which is the field of governmental policies aimed at reversing the effects of primitive accumulation. It is in that field that the relation between peasants and the state has been, and is still being, redefined. I have mentioned before that state agencies, or governmental agencies generally, including NGOs that carry out governmental functions, are no longer an external entity in relation to peasant society. This has had several implications. First, because various welfare and developmental functions are now widely recognised to be necessary tasks for government in relation to the poor, which includes large sections of peasants, these functions in the fields of health, education, basic inputs for agricultural production and the provision of basic necessities of life are now demanded from governmental agencies as a matter of legitimate claims by peasants. This means that government officials and political representatives in rural areas are constantly besieged by demands for various welfare and developmental benefits. It also means that peasants learn to operate the levers of the governmental system, to apply pressure at the right places or negotiate for better terms. This is where the everyday operations of democratic politics, organisation and leadership come into play. Second, the response of governmental agencies to such demands is usually flexible, based on calculations of costs and returns. In most cases, the strategy is to break up the benefit-seekers into smaller groups, defined by specific demographic or social characteristics, so that there can be a flexible policy that does not regard the entire rural population as a single homogeneous mass but rather breaks it up into smaller target populations. The intention is precisely to fragment the benefit-seekers and hence divide the potential opposition to the state. One of the most remarkable features of the recent agitations in India over the acquisition of land for industry is that despite the continued use of the old rhetoric of peasant solidarity, there are clearly significant sections of the people of these villages that do not join these agitations because they feel they stand to gain from the government policy. Third, this field of negotiations opened up by flexible policies of seeking and delivering benefits creates a new competitive spirit among benefit-seekers. Since peasants now confront, not landlords or traders as direct exploiters, but rather governmental agencies from whom they expect benefits, the state is blamed for perceived inequalities in the distribution of benefits. Thus, peasants will accuse officials and political representatives of favouring cities at the cost of the countryside, or particular sections of peasants will complain of having been deprived while other sections belonging to other regions or ethnic groups or castes or political loyalties have been allegedly favoured. The charge against state agencies is not one of exploitation but discrimination. This has given a completely new quality to peasant politics, one that was missing in the classical understandings of peasant society. Fourth, unlike the old forms of peasant insurgency which characterised much of the history of peasant society for centuries, there is, I believe, a quite different quality in the role of violence in contemporary peasant politics. While subaltern peasant revolts of the old kind had their own notions of strategy and tactics, they were characterised, as Ranajit Guha showed in his classic work, by strong community solidarity on the one side and negative opposition to the perceived exploiters on the other. Today, the use of violence in peasant agitations seems to have a far more calculative, almost utilitarian logic, designed to draw attention to specific grievances with a view to seeking appropriate governmental benefits. A range of deliberate tactics are followed to elicit the right responses from officials, political leaders and especially the media. This is probably the most significant change in the nature of peasant politics in the last two or three decades. As far as peasant agriculture is concerned, however, things are much less clearly developed. Small peasant agriculture, even though it is thoroughly enmeshed in market connections, also feels threatened by the market. There is, in particular, an unfamiliarity with, and deep suspicion of, corporate organisations. Peasants appear to be far less able to deal with the uncertainties of the market than they are able to secure governmental benefits. In the last few years, there have been hundreds of reported suicides of peasants who suddenly fell into huge debts because they were unable to realise the expected price from their agricultural products, such as tobacco and cotton. Peasants feel that the markets for these commercial crops are manipulated by large mysterious forces that are entirely beyond their control. Unlike many organisations in the informal non-agricultural sector in urban areas that can effectively deal with corporate firms for the supply of inputs or the sale of their products, peasants have been unable thus far to build similar organisations. This is the large area of the management of peasant agriculture, not as subsistence production for self-consumption, but as the field of non-corporate capital, that remains a challenge. It is the political response to this challenge that will determine whether the rural poor will remain vulnerable to the manipulative strategies of capital and the state or whether they might use the terrain of governmental activities to assert their own claims to a life of worth and dignity. It is important to emphasise that contrary to what is suggested by the depoliticised idea of governmentality, the quality of politics in the domain of political society is by no means a mechanical transaction of benefits and services. Even as state agencies try, by constantly adjusting their flexible policies, to break up large combinations of claimants, the organisation of demands in political society can adopt highly emotive resources of solidarity and militant action. Democratic politics in India is daily marked by passionate and often violent agitations to protest discrimination and to secure claims. The fact that the objectives of such agitations are framed by the conditions of governmentality is no reason to think that they cannot arouse considerable passion and affective energy. Collective actions in political society cannot be depoliticised by framing them within the grid of governmentality because the activities of governmentality affect the very conditions of livelihood and social existence of the groups they target. At least that part of Indian democracy that falls within the domain of political society is definitely not anaemic and lifeless. Interestingly, even though the claims made by different groups in political society are for governmental benefits, these cannot often be met by the standard application of rules and frequently require the declaration of an exception. Thus, when a group of people living or cultivating on illegally occupied land or selling goods on the street claim the right to continue with their activities, or demand compensation for moving somewhere else, they are in fact inviting the state to declare their case as an exception to the universally applicable rule. They do not demand that the right to private property in land be abolished or that the regulations on trade licences and sales taxes be set aside. Rather, they demand that their cases be treated as exceptions. When the state acknowledges these demands, it too must do so not by the simple application of administrative rules but rather by a political decision to declare an exception. The governmental response to demands in political society is also, therefore, irreducibly political rather than merely administrative.
I must point out one other significant characteristic of the modalities of democratic practice in political society. This has to do with the relevance of numbers. Ever since Tocqueville in the early 19th century, it is a common argument that electoral democracies foster the tyranny of the majority. However, mobilisations in political society are often premised on the strategic manipulation of relative electoral strengths rather than on the expectation of commanding a majority. Indeed, the frequently spectacular quality of actions in political society, including the resort to violence, is a sign of the ability of relatively small groups of people to make their voices heard and to register their claims with governmental agencies. As a matter of fact, it could even be said that the activities of political society represent a continuing critique of the paradoxical reality in all capitalist democracies of equal citizenship and majority rule, on the one hand, and the dominance of property and privilege, on the other.
But the underside of political society is the utter marginalisation of those groups that do not even have the strategic leverage of electoral mobilisation. In every region of India, there exist marginal groups of people who are unable to gain access to the mechanisms of political society. They are often marked by their exclusion from peasant society, such as low-caste groups who do not participate in agriculture or tribal peoples who depend more on forest products or pastoral occupations than on agriculture. Political society and electoral democracy have not given these groups the means to make effective claims on governmentality. In this sense, these marginalised groups represent an outside beyond the boundaries of political society.
The important difference represented by activities in political society, when compared to the movements of democratic mobilisation familiar to us from 20th-century Indian history, is its lack of a perspective of transition. While there is much passion aroused over ending the discriminations of caste or ethnicity or asserting the rightful claims of marginal groups, there is little conscious effort to view these agitations as directed towards a fundamental transformation of the structures of political power, as they were in the days of nationalist and socialist mobilisations. On the contrary, if anything, it is the bourgeoisie, hegemonic in civil society and dominant within the state structure as a whole, which appears to have a narrative of transition – from stagnation to rapid growth, from backwardness and poverty to modernity and prosperity, from third world insignificance to major worldpower status. Perhaps this is not surprising if one remembers the class formation of the passive revolution: with the landed elites pushed to a subordinate position and the bureaucratic-managerial class won over by the bourgeoisie, it is the capitalist class that has now acquired a position to set the terms to which other political formations can only respond.
The unity of the state system as a whole is now maintained by relating civil society to political society through the logic of reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation. Once this logic is recognised by the bourgeoisie as a necessary political condition for the continued rapid growth of corporate capital, the state, with its mechanisms of electoral democracy, becomes the field for the political negotiation of demands for the transfer of resources, through fiscal and other means, from the accumulation economy to governmental programmes aimed at providing the livelihood needs of the poor and the marginalised. The autonomy of the state, and that of the bureaucracy, now lies in their power to adjudicate the quantum and form of transfer of resources to the so-called “social sector of expenditure”. Ideological differences, such as those between the Right and the Left, for instance, are largely about the amount and modalities of social sector expenditure, such as poverty removal programmes. These differences do not question the dynamic logic that binds civil society to political society under the dominance of capital.
Let me summarise my main argument. With the continuing rapid growth of the Indian economy, the hegemonic hold of corporate capital over the domain of civil society is likely to continue. This will inevitably mean continued primitive accumulation. That is to say, there will be more and more primary producers, i e, peasants, artisans and petty manufacturers, who will lose their means of production. But most of these victims of primitive accumulation are unlikely to be absorbed in the new growth sectors of the economy. They will be marginalised and rendered useless as far as the sectors dominated by corporate capital are concerned. But the passive revolution under conditions of electoral democracy makes it unacceptable and illegitimate for the government to leave these marginalised populations without the means of labour to simply fend for themselves. That carries the risk of turning them into the “dangerous classes”. Hence, a whole series of governmental policies are being, and will be, devised to reverse the effects of primitive accumulation. This is the field in which peasant societies are having to redefine their relations with both the state and with capital. Thus far, it appears that whereas many new practices have been developed by peasants, using the mechanisms of democratic politics, to claim and negotiate benefits from the state, their ability to deal with the world of capital is still unsure and inadequate. This is where the further development of peasant activities as non-corporate capital, seeking to ensure the livelihood needs of peasants while operating within the circuits of capital, will define the future of peasant society in India. As far as I can see, peasant society will certainly survive in India in the 21st century, but only by accommodating a substantial non-agricultural component within the village. Further, I think there will be major overlaps and continuities in emerging cultural practices between rural villages and small towns and urban areas, with the urban elements gaining predominance.
I have also suggested that the distinction between corporate and non-corporate capital appears to be coinciding with the divide between civil society and political society. This could have some ominous consequences. We have seen in several Asian countries what may be called a revolt of “proper citizens” against the unruliness and corruption of systems of popular political representation. In Thailand, there was in 2006 an army-led coup that ousted a popularly elected government. The action seemed to
draw support from the urban middle classes that expressed their disapproval of what they considered wasteful and corrupt populist expenditure aimed at gaining the support of the rural population. In 2007, there was a similar army-backed coup in Bangladesh where plans for parliamentary elections have been indefinitely postponed while an interim government takes emergency measures to clean the system of supposedly “corrupt” politicians. Reports suggest that that move was initially welcomed by the urban middle classes. In India, a significant feature in recent years has been the withdrawal of the urban middle classes from political activities altogether: There is widespread resentment in the cities of the populism and corruption of all political parties which, it is said, are driven principally by the motive of gaining votes at the cost of ensuring the conditions of rapid economic growth. There is no doubt that this reflects the hegemony of the logic of
corporate capital among the urban middle classes. The fact, however, is that the bulk of the population in India lives outside the orderly zones of proper civil society. It is in political society that they have to be fed and clothed and given work, if only to ensure the long-term and relatively peaceful well-being of civil society. That is the difficult and innovative process of politics on which the future of the passive revolution under conditions of
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Emory University, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, and Delhi School of Economics. I am grateful to all who participated in those discussions. I am particularly grateful to Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ayca Cubukcu, Satish Deshpande, Ranajit Guha, Sudipta Kaviraj, Atul Kohli, Aditya Nigam, Kalyan Sanyal, Asok Sen, K Sivaramakrishnan and Ashutosh Varshney for their comments.
Partha Chatterjee (email@example.com) is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and also with the Columbia University, United States.
1 There is a great story to be told of what I believe is the first such project undertaken by the British authorities in India – the building of the new Fort William in Calcutta by razing to the ground the entire village of Gobindapur in 1758. Property owners were compensated (out of the massive moneys extracted out of the puppet nawab Mir Jafar as compensation for Siraj-ud-daulah’s
attack on Calcutta). The result was the new fort, which still functions as the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, and the surrounding grounds called the Maidan, the focus of much anxious attention of environmentalists who treat it as a pristine patch of grass gifted to the city by Mother Earth. That the Maidan was a densely populated village 250 years ago has been wholly forgotten. Forgetfulness is a necessary attribute not only of modernisers but also of its critics.
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