Rewriting Biopolitics? The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat and the Left

[This is a response to many who ask me why I chose to be part of the KSSP’s ongoing Kerala Padayatra, which seeks to highlight crucial issues in development and governance in Kerala.]

The Kerala Sastra Parishat — more generally known as Kerala’s People’s Science Movement — has been an important, even decisive, presence in development discussions in the region at least since the 1980s. It has never been an oppositional movement though. More often than not, it has been a convenient vehicle for many supporters of the powerful communist parties who sought to forge an internal critique of these, and a civil social voice rather than a presence in formal politics. This was so even when it disagreed powerfully with the communist parties over development issues — for example, over the hydroelectric project that would have submerged the Silent Valley, which was the centre of an acrimonious debate in the 1980s. In this debate, the KSSP rejected both state developmentalism as well as the romantic resistance of poets and cultural figures which, at least in some writings, involved a yearning for a prelapsarian nature. Rather, the KSSP stayed within technocratic terms, emphasising the utility of a proper cost-benefit analysis and argued that the Silent Valley scheme was more likely to produce loss rather than benefit. Also, right from the 1980s, the KSSP has never represented the ‘outliers’ of the Kerala Model — dalits, adivasis, and the fisher communities even though it has advocated bringing them within the eye of the welfarist state. As for the abjects of Kerala’s twentieth century social reformist and social development legacies — the sex workers, queer people and others — KSSP’s (arguably limited) perception of their presence has followed state recognition, not preceded it

The history of KSSP is however of interest to those who follow the vicissitudes of liberal governmentality in twentieth century Kerala and after. Unlike in other parts of India where Nehruvian governmentality was hegemonic among the elites at least in the early decades after independence, in Kerala it came to be challenged and revised under leftist hegemony in precisely the same period. In Kerala, this shaped a regime of welfare in which the organized sector male worker was the central agent, who was elevated to the statuses of ‘family bread winner’ and (minor) property- and home-owner between the 1940s and 1970s. However, this revision retained the pillar of Nehruvian developmentalism and the state’s central role in it. In the 1980s, this revised liberal governmentality did not seem to be expanding life-choices and indeed, it seemed decidely lacking in its ability to generate positive power in the field of development.

KSSP’s interventions sought to highlight aspects of this stasis — decay, almost. In the 1990s, however, the opening up of the Indian economy posed fresh challenges in a context of ineffective governmental techniques. KSSP’s effort to build a bottoms-up model of local governance in the 1990s could perhaps be read as refurbishing governmental techniques to combat the possibility of unbridled capitalism. It is worth noting perhaps that both capitalism and govermentality are equally invested in generating the vital forces of humanity — that is, both are oriented towards productive power, towards maximizing and optimizing it, but not necessarily to the same ends. Both are potentially endless. Capitalism relentlessly uses up labour and resources without an endpoint– it does not mind wasting these and definitely this endless production of value does not stop at meeting the demands of human existance. Governmental biopolitics too carries on and on, cutting categories thinner and thinner, probing deeper and deeper, and relying, more and more, on those who it targets.

No matter how unsuccessful and clumsy its efforts in the mid-1990s were — and indeed, there were many fatal flaws in that effort including the failure to ally with oppositional civil society instead of the dominant left seeking to renew itself — the KSSP made an attempt to change the nature of liberal governmentality through the People’s Planning Campaign and support to local governments after. It tried to intervene in the politics of data, trying to expand the eye of the state through enhancing popular participation in knowledge-creation exercises. Most importantly, perhaps, instead of a faceless population that biopower seeks to target and manipulate it sought to bring the focus on the local — and the neighborhood. It must be remembered that the physical neighborhood represented the ‘ primary social’ for many communities excluded from elite caste-community life in Kerala. For the new elite caste-communities, social life unfolded in the network of institutions that stretched from families to community institutions, including temples and reform organizations — elite neighborhoods were merely one node in these network, unlike the non-elite for who physical neighborhoods housed the social.

This is not to say that the KSSP succeeded in creating a new base for an alternate imagination of the social that could function as an adequate foundation for a new, more democratized governmental order. Sadly enough, even its best minds were unable to free themselves from their own elite social moorings. Theorists of the People’s Planning Campaign, like M P Parameswaran could envisage it only in terms of ‘the joint families of the past’ — tragically, indeed, at a time in which dalit and adivasi struggles focused primarily on building physical neighborhoods and local spaces to house their own renewed and rejuventated politics of the social (remember the struggles at Sachivottamapuram, in many areas of Wayanad, and so on, in the 1990s). Nevertheless, the focus on the local and neighborhood as a potential site of a new sociality that could be harnessed for a more democratically-oriented biopolitics was unmistakable. It is true that this almost inevitably ended up, irrespective of intentions, in reinforcing neoliberal governmentality that reduced groups excluded from the ‘Kerala Model’ to governmental categories of beneficiary-status, But in many places in Kerala, many such groups became visible to the welfarist state afresh, however minimally, as citizens who could be the consumers of government services such as roads, water supply, and electricity — for the first time. The failure to build this up into a new sociality has led to a great many unintended consequences which now threaten local governance in Kerala — from unbridled individualism that renders collective interests invisible to the breakdown of governmental technology in many crucial points, such as collective ecological well-being. Most damningly, it failed to stop the march of natural-resource extraction-fuelled capitalism which now extends its tentacles all over Kerala.

Fast forward to the present — and we see resource-extractive capitalism as relentless, heartless, and actually dubious value production tightening its grip on Kerala through a bunch of crony capitalists. Some of them operate across global, national and local scales — connecting the wealth of feudal rulers in the Gulf countries and local agents who guide, protect, and foster the investment of it in Kerala, or representing ‘national interests’ through their overt connections with hegemonic political forces. While resistance to these attacks has not been negligible, it has often been highly unequal. The so-called progressive forces that hold power in the state actively connive in making possible the dispossession of the most socially, ecologically, and economically vulnerable people in the interests of capital.

As an organization that once guided the left in Kerala towards expanding liberal governmentality, the KSSP has increasingly tasted not just failure but also the bitter brew of outright rejection by the post-socialist oligarchy that now enjoys power in the state. Increasingly, these oligarchs are unhindered in their expressions of contempt towards both democracy and even liberal governmentality — and their minions, the CPM social media troll army, increasingly bays for illiberal governmentality and technocracy as a solution for the inconveniences of democratic dialogue and the hindering of capital by oppositional civil social formations. The result has been the increasing lumpenisation of the dominant left social media commentators who violently attack and silence dissent of any degree — making dialogue and collective deliberation as well as any critical examination of or demand for data almost impossible. Iliberal governmentality seems to be a contradiction in terms: biopolitics turning against life, data being mobilized to the end of the destruction of lives and livelihoods and in favour of the insane and never-ending production of value.

In such a context, the KSSP seems to be reexamining its history. It sees that liberal governmentality is almost at a dead end; sovereign power seems to have hollowed it out and now it is almost a mere mask. After many decades of close alignment with the dominant left in power, KSSP broke ranks: it openly criticised the state’s blind rush towards a capitalist technocracy that beneifts mainly crony capitalists and their allies, the post-socialist oligarchs, or the power-mongers in the dominant political parties. One of the most charged of such confrontations was over the semi-speed railway line called the K Rail or the Silverline, a pet project of the Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan and supported by all major political parties across the political spectrum. It deployed its familiar technique of questioning the state’s numbers, projections, calculations, and development imagination, forcing the state into a public debate, and probably kicking awake a serious internal crisis of consensus within the dominant left. It also announced a number of local-centric studies of development issues in Kerala’s districts — irrespective of qualities, this is a challenge to illiberal governmentality and to ‘hazardous governance’ that is the result of the erosion of institutions in face of growing neoliberal policy and crony capitalism in the state.

I was especially intrigued by this walkathon — a 34 -day march from the north to the south — which the KSSP has organized (it culminates in Thiruvananthapuram tomorrow). It seeks to generate face-to-face conversations as opposed to social media debates in which the possibility of violence is literally inbuilt — as members of the padayatra are received by groups of people in local places en route. The padayatra points to the need to focus on issues relevant to the twenty-first century Kerala and to rid Malayalis of the unhealthy fixation on the achievements of the past — and tries, once again, to build a collective focus in seeking solutions. The padayatra is interesting precisely because it challenges the overweening dominance of crony capital, the complacence of the authorities, the menace of illiberal governmentality, and importantly, it tries to overcome, albeit symbolically, the divides, violence, and anti-dialogic pressures that have taken over debates around development in the state. To express its committment to openess and humanity in dialogue, the KSSP invited a diverse range of public intellectuals, researchers, literary writers, scientists, political activists, and others to join the yatra as ‘captains’ for the twenty-kilometre walk each day. The CPM’s post-socialist oligarch leadership sees the potential of this and has chosen not to resist it — and indeed, has encouraged its supporters to join it, but not without offering first a subtle and reductive interpretation of it as a march for ‘scientific temper’.

This is the reason why I chose to join the padayatra. We live in strange times in which the state may wear a progressive garb, but maybe only to hollow out the progressive credentials granted to it. We live in times in which many advocates of democracy, including mainstream feminists and others, actively pursue a peculiarly mendacious existance which demands the avoidance of themes and issues that may irritate the state, even as they overflow with self-righteousness in ‘safe’ occasions that permit the display of intense political correctness. In such a context, it takes considerable courage to raise a finger against both illiberal governmentality and the crony capitalist-oligarch nexus that strangles society today.

Yes, there is much that is imperfect, loose, vague, and fuzzy about the positions taken by the KSSP; nor are they free of elitisms colouring their socio-political analysis. I still can imagine only a critical relationship of distance with them.

But which of us is perfect in that regard? Not even members of the oppressed communities which are now internally fragmented and riven by intersectional axes of power. In any case, error in politics and policy is typical of the human social endeavour, but courage in the face of very menacing power is rare. Rarer still, I would say, is the courage to stand up to friends — and many activists in the KSSP who are part of or close to the dominant left are showing precisely that, in the most admirable way.

One thought on “Rewriting Biopolitics? The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat and the Left”

  1. I feel the KSSP was much stronger during the Save Silent Valley Movement. They questioned the mode of “development” chosen by both the Right and Left Fronts in Kerala. And they had to face stiff resistance from trade-unions.
    The KSSP was able to mobilise writers, scientists, intellectuals, students and part of the media. They argued that ecology and alternative economy are not incompatible concepts.
    Would you say that the KSSP was able to build some kind of “cultural hegemony” inspired by Antonio Gramsci to save the Silent Valley?
    And after participating in the recent KSSP’s Kerala Padayatra, do you believe they could renew the same experience inspired by Gramsci in today’s Kerala?

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