Beyond ‘Middle Class’ and ‘Corruption’: Jeebesh Bagchi

Guest post by JEEBESH BAGCHI

I have been thinking that If we drop “corruption” and “middle class”  we may find some other way to understand what we sense unfolding from Ramila grounds and television studios.

The term middle class has bloated so much that it now holds within it Narayan Murthy to Shekhar Gupta via Nandan Nilekani to a student in Sonepat to all people in this list and on facebook.  And on the other hand corruption seem to have bloated much further in which commissions from infrastructure deals (in lakhs of crores), commissions for arms deals, someone delaying papers, to admission costs, to a hawker buying some uninterrupted time in the street (20 rupees) is all melted down.

Could one start from some other point?

In the many assertions around UID’s efficacy, it was stated that the State needs to know its “poor” through a population registry. Here poor and population replaced people and the idea that State is not-knowledgable about its population was put forward by State and its various crusaders. The feeble argument against it through ideas of “citizens right to privacy” somehow did not look meaningful to these crusaders. It was clear to them that “poor” and “population” accounts for an adequate language to speak to the governed and is without consequence.

What is this lack of knowledge about the “poor” on which the whole edifice of the spectacle of UID was launched?

The question could be maybe asked in another way:

What did the “poor” or the “population” hold back from the State over the last century that needed to be brought into visibility and legibility?

This stages an enormous battle over ways of life and its tacit knowledge in our times. Much more substantial than what was encountered from the mid 19th century to the end of the last century.

Now lets look at another plane. The question of land assembly for industry. Capital needs substantial territory to produce and accumulate. It cannot rest with rent-based assembly. It needs a coverage that is long term and all plots are contiguously available to it. This can only be achieved by the State apparatus through its legal curative and punitive modalities. This has not been easy as we all have seen in the last decade. The Special Economic Zone law was passed by parliament without a parliamentary standing committee going through it. And we are told now that the standing committee is at the heart of parliamentary form as it receives petitions, recommendations, and makes amendments to the bill keeping in mind plurality of interest and the long view.

Land Acquisition, Special Economic Zones and UID all open up a space where we can start examining the vexed relation between sovereign and the people and capital and its accumulative drives.

The division of labour that the State and Capital had performed was based on an idea of moral authority of the state and its knowledge of its subject. Capital on the other hand performed meritocracy, growth and innovation. This was sought to be best mediated by a form of democracy as it consolidated after world war 2. Through elections and welfare this seemed to have stabilized into a legible system, a well oiled machine to some, who thought this would be eternal.

The last two decades witnessed the fusion of Capital and State displayed with impunity. No fear, no danger, no restraints, only frenzied ambition. As if both have risen above life and its uncertainty.

Everywhere in the world, there is a clear dissipation of the “moral authority” of the state, its claim about knowing its subjects, and its ability to protect plurality of interests. This dissipation will only accelerate as the “state/soveriegn debts” increase and consumes more and more of the global surplus. (Now it is 41 trillion, a 69% of global GDP, added 19 trillion in the last 10 years). Within its own territory “harsh measures” will be launched along with “stimulus packages” to some in hope of an eventual balancing point in some future date.  And externally sword fighting, scramble and occasional gobbling of resources or states will be in view.

From 16th August onwards the events in Delhi ambushed the state functionaries and the political dispensation at the helm of affairs. This has opened up the question of moral authority in a substantial way. The reduction of the idea or practice of democracy to the events of elections exposed itself. Who can rule, how will it rule, why at all rule and who decides on the future? These questions usually get asked in the name of the people. The fracture deep inside the contradiction – of the people and for the people – keeps reasserting and agitates. This is how the space called in by democracy asserts and extends.

But we do know it never gets asked directly. It is a question that occurs through events, dispersions, reversals, leakages, inchoateness, seepage, invasions, ploys, disguises. It travels through sentiments, conscience, instincts. Once forces have been released they will search options, flows, and gradients.

My guess is we are in a moment that will be confusing about the meaning and purpose of rule.  Sediments of consensus stand cracked, leaky and eroded. The event horizon of this looks fuzzy.  It definitely has exhausted the established formulas. It was funny to see Shekhar Gupta do a walk the talk with Aruna Roy. He has been for the last 7 years doing a shrill campaign against her and all civil society usurpers of power. So we know these are intersecting and colliding times.

Things will move with clamor, reversals, failures, mistakes. It may be worthwhile to take time to undertake a fresh rethinking of all that is at stake.

6 thoughts on “Beyond ‘Middle Class’ and ‘Corruption’: Jeebesh Bagchi”

  1. The author’s integrity and accomplishments are beyond cavil. He asks us to look at what is happening abstracting from our notions of class and class-based nomos.

    Evelyn Waugh, satirized the middle-class when he made Paul Pennyfeather say ‘a contempt for irregular perquisites has always been the hallmark of the gentleman’ (quoting from memory- Waugh wouldn’t have said ‘hallmark’ which decidedly ‘non-U’). The joke, in the book, is that the real ‘gentlemen’ in it can conceive of no access of wealth that is not a perquisite, no matter how irregular in origin, because it is sanctified by their own receipt of it, provided it is wastefully spent.

    Clearly our notion of ‘brashtachar’ arises from the notion of who becomes an ‘acharabrashta’ within our own intellectually endogamous, if not incestuous, casteist niche.

    The author speaks of a crisis of legitimacy, or autocritas, of the modern nation state. He points to sovereign debt. He makes the telling point that it will be used to cut entitlements, ‘transfer spending’, and Public Good provision. One way of looking at this is along the lines that the author points out- viz. it is an abdication of the State’s omniscient gaze, the episteme of welfarism. Clearly, if the State can say ‘we don’t know how to help people because we don’t know, we can’t know, about their essence (to assume otherwise is Fascism) and thus must be content with a night-watchman role.’

    If the State can’t ‘see’ collectives, does it follow that collectives- freed from that Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, inaugurated by Instrumentalized Rationalism’s vision, be it Enlightenment’s dazzling gaze or the Benthamite Panopticon prison- will begin to see each other and, in that mirror, recognize their own possibilities?

    Not if Education is state controlled. Now while we have a full blown Cliodynamic credentialist crisis on our hands. Not while Profits are most secure in sectors which supply ‘bread and circuses’.

    I used to wonder why big Corporates funded the Naxals. Now I understand. They’ll deliver raw materials and a cowed and disciplined work-force- as North Korea does- at a cheaper price. The Environment can go hang.

    Okay- I admit I wasn’t quite sober when I watched James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’. Still, its message was clear. Krishna, cowboy incarnation of Vishnu, was the original undercover Smurf.


    1. Vivek@
      thanks for comment tougher to understand than Badiou.only one silly empirical doubt. we can all doubt naxals and their ideology. But as per your claims, if naxals are funded by corporates(source?), martyr Azad would have been paid by Tatas to get killed by their own state. wow!…even Arundhati….!And north Korea is Maoist!. Maoist themselves call it revisionists.What is your school of marxism-old soviet…What about gulags?


  2. forget fighting corruption, anna’s Real achievement is making jeebesh write! :-) wonderful piece. hope for more in the future!


  3. I don’t understand the meaning of much of what this article says. I can only fully understand the last two lines-“Things will move with clamor, reversals, failures, mistakes. It may be worthwhile to take time to undertake a fresh rethinking of all that is at stake.” The rest of it is just too above my head, it is like it is written in another language I don’t understand.

    “Motto:Rid corruption. Method:Lokpal Result:End of corruption” is a simple formula, too simple for many people to understand. It is so simple that there is no uniform interpretation of what it means; so confusing that some people, especially those who think too complicatedly, could not take a stand immediately. Such people, including me, waited for things to unfold. Perhaps we waited for some blemish in the nature of the movement or its leaders’ past to come to light. Thankfully he is an alleged manuvadi and some of his supporters are allegedly antireservationists, and some people told us that the movement is an urban middle class affair. Now, we could safely take the stand against him. The problem of depending on other people’s op-eds for information on what is really happening.

    “Motto:Rid corruption.
    Result:End of corruption” can perhaps be clarified as follows–
    “Motto:RTI-companion legislation.
    Method:Active citizenry
    Result:Private sector-like efficiency and accountability in public sector”

    When I say Private sector-like efficiency in public sector I mean that while private enterprises from the smallest to the largest establishments, have a way of pleasing the customer, a demonstrated respect for the customer, a real need for retaining the customer’s loyalty, a genuine emphasis on demonstrated results-no matter how stressed the employees may get, the customer matters, the result shows. Something lacking in the govt machinery. Which is why people like to send a child to a private school rather than a free govt school. In the govt machinery, no matter how stressed the customer(ordinary citizen) gets, the employees will do as they please. People who in their youth trusted political parties and leftist ideologies to deliver improvements in daily life, also like their children to have a good education that can get them a good job that pays well, so the children will not have a sense of dependence on political parties and ideologies and make the mistake they did.

    When I say active citizenry, I mean citizens who do their duties and ask for rights and fight for what they are constitutionally entitled to. The Lokpal is not an end in itself. If ever a strong Lokpal comes into being, the multiple fights (against “money-corruption” of govt servants and elected functionaries and the “laziness-corruption” and “arrogance-corruption” and “unaccountability-corruption” of misgovernance and maladministration) will have to be fought as individual battles by hundreds or thousands of individual people on many different fronts and scales.

    When I say “RTI-companion legislation” I mean that the people who will eventually make use of the Lokpal/Lokayukta provisions effectively will be those people who embraced the RTI and made maximum use of it and fought those small fights but saw their fights end up in nothing. The activist community you could say. Not only the full-time, “professional-activists” of NGOs. But also the “little people” outside any identifiable formation who saw potential in RTI and still believed/believes in fighting individual battles. This bunch of activists and little people are not that Godhra mob that secularists so fear, or those antireservationists that reservationists so fear, or those neoliberalists(? i am not sure, am I using the right word on this) who lefties so fear, or those maoists those neoliberalists so fear, that mobocracy that elected people fear. This is a minority, not a majority.

    This is my freewheeling interpretation of the Anna phenomenon, inspired perhaps by today’s morning news that Anna’s three core demands are citizen’s charter, lower bureaucracy and Lokayukt. I am still eagerly waiting for things to unfold.


    1. Aparna@
      if private sector can do every thing, why bother. leave every thing to bush/obama/manmohan/tata/ambani. They will take care of everything from walmart to iraq. let us all enjoy salmankhan’s ‘Ready’.


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