Politics, ‘Political Society’ and ‘the Everyday’
Lineages of Political Society, by Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2011. Pages: 278, hardcover, Rs 750.
Over a decade ago, political theorist Partha Chatterjee embarked on what was a novel journey in the history of political thought in India and perhaps, in the postcolonial, non-Western world. Bringing together the results of decades of his own intellectual engagement with Indian politics and the question of subalternity in particular, Chatterjee began articulating a concept that has now acquired wide currency: his concept of ‘political society’. ‘Political society’, in Chatterjee’s hands, was a way of recuperating a sphere of politics that had been a permanent source of anxiety for theorists of Indian (and postcolonial) modernity and democracy – the vast domain that existed outside the designated spheres of modern politics, where the untutored masses made claims on the state and formed their own associations and organizations, unmindful of the formal grammar of rights and citizenship. A crucial part of what defines activities in this domain is ‘illegality’, or, at any rate, non-legality, where the state itself places the law in suspension in order to recognize the claims of the governed. Thus for instance, squatting by the poor on government land that is strictly speaking, encroachment in legal terms and can never acquire the status of a ‘right’, is nevertheless allowed by governments to continue through the recognition of some kind of moral claim of the poor on governments and society at large.
Much of what goes on in these domains, marks our modernity as incomplete or distorted in the eyes of political and social theorists – the signs of a permanent ‘lack’. Democracy and modernity in India and other postcolonial societies, from this vantage point, always seem to be striving to be like the ‘real thing’ that exists, apparently, only in the West. Chatterjee’s intervention made two simultaneous moves: First, it rejected the dominant narrative of modernity and modern politics as being grounded in the formal discourse of rights and individual citizenship and insisted that there are other modes in which politics takes place ‘in most of the world’, that needs to be seriously contended with, theoretically speaking. These modes of politics, Chatterjee argued, were a constitutive part of the story of postcolonial modernity and were not just prior stages on the way to our final arrival into real (western) modernity. Second, in doing so, Chatterjee did not take recourse to arcane notions of ‘indigenous tradition’ as many theorists in the past have, getting caught, in the process, in the whirlpool of textual exegesis or worse, making endless programmatic speeches about the ‘imperialism of categories’. In other words, even while recognizing the cultural and historical specificity of the Indian/ postcolonial situations, his intervention recognized the ineluctable modernity of the experience of politics that one needed to confront. That meant a recognition of the fact that no body of traditional political and social thought could be equal to the task of theorizing the contemporary experience of politics and that political theory in our parts of the world had a twofold task: Even while challenging the universalist pretensions of Western thought, it would have to desist from the easy option of simply valorizing ‘our’ cultural difference and would have to take up the task of producing a body of theory that would be context-transcending – though not universalist – in its ambition.
Many of these background assumptions are implicit in Partha Chatterjee’s earlier work. Lineages of Political Society, for the first time makes them explicit and in fact, produces a critique of the dominant mode of doing political theory in the West, namely normative theory. Interestingly, even as he spells out his critique of normative theory, there is a very interesting attempt in this volume to recast his argument on political society by positing it vis-à-vis the two traditions of dharma and niti in classical Indian political thought (chapter 3). Almost analogous to the Foucault-inspired distinction between the normative framework of rights and sovereignty on the one hand and the ‘tactical’ one of governmentality on the other, Chatterjee deploys the distinction between a normative dharma tradition vis-à-vis the pragmatic niti tradition to restate his argument about governmentality and political society.
The ‘Introduction’ discusses what Chatterjee calls the ‘mythical space of normative theory’, where he takes us through an interpretative journey of the mutual imbrication of western thought and its colonial career. Through an extended consideration of the controversy following the trial of Warren Hastings and the debate in the British Parliament between 1781 and 1792, Chatterjee traces the evolution of what in more contemporary, pragmatic language can be called ‘policy’, whereby the deviations from the code (or norm) could be allowed for, as specific cases that required government intervention to bring such exceptions in line with the norm (7-9).
In other essays collected in this volume, some of which have been published earlier and some reworked especially for this volume, Chatterjee delves further into the concept of political society, bringing in aspects and dimensions that he has so far not taken into consideration. Thus, one the one hand, he raises the issue of contextual-but-arbitrary judgements (as in local, relatively traditional forms of dispute resolution) as opposed to non-arbitrary, equal and universal law, positing the former as some kind of possible critique of a certain modernity (16-17); on the other hand, he explicitly brings in issues like violence and patriarchy in political society (20-21). Clearly, in many of these moves, Chatterjee is responding to the often-sympathetic critiques made of his rendering of political society by many other scholars.
Two important issues emerge from the newer elements that Chatterjee introduces into his discussion of political society that are worth discussing at some length. The first set of issues revolve around what Chatterjee concedes are ‘analytical refinements obtained through productive engagement with actual empirical situations on the ground’ (90). Among these are Nivedita Menon’s proposal that civil and political society are better seen as two distinct modes of engagement with politics, rather than as domains that can be neatly separated and that of Stuart Corbridge and others, which sees these as ‘interlocking political practices’ (90). Clearly, these proposals arise from the difficulty of thinking of the civil and the political in terms of the spatial metaphor inherited from western political theory, which does not seem to work beyond a point. To take one instance, can ‘civil society’ and ‘political society’ be divided along the lines of the elite (modern) and ‘the popular’ (domain of transactions and mediations)? How does one see, in that case, other illegalities indulged in by the non-poor and overlooked by the state? [Indeed, at one point Chatterjee actually asserts that ‘civil society in India today [is] peopled largely by the urban middle classes’ (219)]. As long as one sees these as ‘domains’, there is also the continuous difficulty of having to decide what falls within and what lies outside political society, as we find Chatterjee doing when he discusses certain kinds of violence in tribal areas.
If we see the civil and the political then as modes or kinds of political practice, it seems to make more sense to actually drop the spatial metaphor of domains. For the continued use of the suffix ‘society’ inevitably pushes towards the need to find empirically separable domains. An alternative possibility lies in seeing ‘political society’ not as an identifiable domain but as perhaps the dark shadow of civil society that changes shape and form at different times of the day. In responding to some other unnamed critics, Chatterjee seems to be actually opening the way for such a possible rethinking, especially when he states that political society ‘is an always negatively constituted field of exceptional practices that deviate from those that are approved of in proper civil society’ (231). The present reviewer, among others, has also been arguing that this domain is better seen as some kind of a negative ‘other’ of civil society, indeed as its ‘constitutive outside’. The difficulty with Chatterjee’s formulation continues, however, because it does not theoretically confront this ‘negatively constituted field of exceptional practices’ and simply takes features like violence and patriarchy as add-ons. If civil society is the domain of modernity, rule of law and and rationality, the question of political society, as its negatively constituted other, cannot but be one where the problem of the ‘irrational’ erupts in politics. After all, this has been one of the big anxieties of the twentieth century, especially since the rise of Nazism and a whole range of other political mobilizations that defy notions of subjectivity as propounded by the Enlightenment: as autonomous, self-willing, rational. One of the questions that these experiences posed was precisely of the agent who did not want to be free and take decisions but to simply transfer her agential ‘powers’ on to some Leader or Party.
The second issue relates to the question of ‘the everyday’. Lineages has all the marks of a work written after Nandigram and Chatterjee’s troubled engagement with some of his unnamed critics (‘my critics’, as he chooses to call them). Nandigram was certainly an insurrectionary moment but it would be wrong to read it as simply that. Quite rightly, therefore, Chatterjee resists this understanding. The theme of ‘resistance’ and ‘insurgency’ is a recurrent one in the book and Chatterjee is at pains to underline that while these are revealing moments in subaltern history, they are ephemeral (150) and that his interest is really in ‘the everyday’ that ‘most scholars’ find excruciatingly boring. Once again he does not name them. There are times when Chatterjee seems to be addressing his friends on the independent left in West Bengal but often he seems to be addressing academic adversaries. The point here, however, is not that insurrectionary moments like these encapsulate some yearning for a world beyond, a utopia. Those who argue thus, among his adversaries, are easy to dismiss, for they can only justify their utopianism with reference to some metaphysical claims about ‘History’ and its telos. It is possible to argue, as I would, that moments like these constitute crucial moments of re-negotiation of the everyday. It is not therefore, simply that life continues as before once that ephemeral moment has passed; rather, it is the ephemeral moment of the uprising that transforms the terms of everyday life, as it indeed has in post-Nandigram West Bengal. And it is of little importance here whether life under Trinamool Congress today is susbstantially better than what it was under the Left Front. What is of far greater importance is that never again in the foreseeable future will either of these formations be able to take the support of the peasants for granted. The thirty-four years of LF rule are now irrevocably behind them.
The problem, however, is not that all of Chatterjee’s critics find the everyday boring, as he seems to suggest; rather it is his very specific rendering of the everyday as an arena fully constituted by the state and its governmental practices that they might be objecting to. For if one were to go by Chatterjee’s rendering, there is no outside to the state’s governmental practices anymore. Thus, in his view, even insurgencies, including those involving prolonged violence, only ever ‘seek an exceptional place within the order of governmentality’ (93). Chatterjee’s notion of ‘the everyday’ is that of a given, a static notion where negotiations take place only within a given configuration of power and provides no scope for thinking of mass actions and uprisings as moments of negotiating the terms of power and the content of that everyday.
Further, this view of state and governmentality allows of no overflows, leakages and even a ‘turning away’ as far as ordinary people are concerned – the popular is always and only oriented to governmental welfare, seeking simply as it were, a place under the sun. Sympathetic critics of Chatterjee’s have however, pointed out that this rendering ignores the fact that not every aspect of subaltern life is ‘representable’ before the state and that often people simply wish to avoid the blinding heat of the sun; that the daily encounter with the state’ representatives is not something people look forward to. One only has to observe the everyday entanglements of ordinary poor people with the municipal corporation and the police to be able to understand this. Subaltern life, therefore, always preserves a part that is not legible to the state.
Indeed, one can even go further and argue that it is precisely to maintain the fictions of being legible and participating in the state’s rituals that people play the game of elections and representation. When you decide to jump on to a truck to participate in mass rallies of political parties, for instance, you often do so because you are playing a game with the local neta whose channels to power you may need to access at some point; you do so because you do not wish to let him or her know that you will be voting against his/her party in the next election. There are any number of reasons, in other words, why people participate in this game called democracy and not all actions can be simply read off the way Chatterjee seems to, as wanting a place in the sun. One is in fact tempted to suggest that it is precisely because of this that ‘the everyday’ is fascinating. It would indeed be quite boring if one were to simply see people clamouring for the benign recognition of government(ality).
[This is a slightly altered version of the review published in Book Review, March 2012, Vol xxxvi, No 3]