At the recent Historical Materialism conference held in Delhi from April 3-5, a panel was organized with great fanfare – an official panel by the HM editors – around Vivek Chibber’s new book Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. This panel was billed to be a decisive refutation of Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial theory, not only by the chief theorists and organizers of Historical Materialism but by many other Indians – most of whom in any case have little more than a religious faith in ‘Marxism’ and understand little of Marxism and its history. There was glee all around and one came across the hurried announcement of a Centre for Marxist Studies that was to host further events around this book against the demon that Chibber had apparently slain. After all, Chibber was backed by the likes of Slavoj Zizek, Robert Brenner and Noam Chomsky, all of whom had endorsed his book as the death knell to Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial theory. The glee was to be short-lived.
On April 28, at the New York conference of Historical Materialism, the organizers made the mistake of inviting Partha Chatterjee (a representative of a spent force, already buried at the Delhi HM Conference!) to debate the new star on their horizon. The meticulous demolition of Chibber that followed, embarrassed even his most ardent supporters, who had hoped to see the redoubtable Partha vanquished in person. And Chhibber, let our marxist brethren note, is reduced to finally accepting that he is more inclined towards contract theory than towards Marxism!
Partha, whose years of meticulous engagement with Marxism can hardly be taken on cavalierly by any upstart on the horizon, calmly tore Chibber’s claims to shreds. Many supporters of Chibber’s book have, in social media, glumly described the 28 April event as a great setback to their cause…
Here is Partha in debate…
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.
Continue reading Politics, ‘Political Society’ and ‘the Everyday’
Guest post by GYAN PRAKASH
In following the discussion on the Anna Hazare phenomenon, I have found the references to populism very interesting. In response to Partha, Aditya reminds us that populism should not be dismissed as non-political or anti-political. Partha clarified that he does not regard Anna Hazare’s populism as anti-political but as anti party-politics and anti government. Team Anna narrowly defines politics as the domain of party politics and the government, which it then identifies with corruption. Om Puri’s rant and Kiran Bedi’s vaudeville performance expressed this sentiment. Politics means netas, who are corrupt. References to 2G, CWG, Kalmadi, and various land scams refer to politics in this sense. Such a definition of politics allows the claim that the gathering at Ramlila was non-political or beyond politics. Anna as a saintly Gandhian figure who does not seek office, and the status of Kiran Bedi and Kejriwal as civil society members, contributed to the representation that the mobilization of the “people” transcended politics.
Continue reading On Populism – A response to Partha and Aditya: Gyan Prakash
Guest post by SWAGATO SARKAR
I have been trying to make sense of the Anna Hazare event. I agree that it was historical, but was it a tragedy, or a farce? The swift exchange between Partha Chatterjee (PC) and Aditya Nigam (AN) and their reference to Ernesto Laclau and ‘populism’ have given me a familiar frame to enter into the debate around the event. Here, I will concentrate on the question of populism and its normative status. However, unlike PC and AN, I have got nothing to offer to ‘the Left’ (Independent or Dependent), because I am not a leftist, rather one who likes sitting on the fence on a nice arm-chair and this piece will perhaps bear an imprint of that position. Also, apologies are due to the readers of Kafila as I have not read, just browsed through, the two pieces written by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, which have been wildly popular – if Facebook is an indicator – and have been referred to by both PC and AN. Therefore, I might be repeating what Sengupta has already said.
Continue reading Populism and the Anna Hazare Event: Swagato Sarkar
Partha Chatterjee’s post, following on Shuddha’s Hazare Khwahishein… is something of an eye-opener for me. I will not enter into a debate with him on his reading of Shuddha’s post as Shuddha and I have had our long online and offline exchanges and I have learnt immensely from these exchanges, even if a core of disagreement persists. I do think, however, that Partha is mistaken in thinking that this is the first time the question of corruption has been discussed on Kafila or elsewhere but since I am not interested in discussing that question here, I will leave that matter aside. I think I have said pretty much what I wanted to say on the movement and the myriad issues related to it and so I am no more interested in going over that territory all over again. Interested readers can see the Kafila archives if they so wish.
What has been an eye-opener for me is the way a certain other Partha Chatterjee has emerged, as soon as his theories were brought face to face with the hurly-burly of politics. The imprint of this other Partha is clearly evident in every word and sentence of this post, but most clearly in the concluding sentence where he claims that the indepdent Left has ‘its populist moment in Nandigram’. This sentence encapuslates the gist of our disagreements. It was this assessment that led Partha to write the essay, ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation‘ where, in some elliptical fashion, his own discomfort with popular politics found expression. That is when he extended the definition of ‘political society’ to say that it was the sphere of ‘management of ‘non-corporate capital’ (of course, by capital and government). That Partha links his discomfort over the Anna Hazare movement to his discomfort over Nandigram, is in my view, a sign of the fact that his idea of ‘political society’ lies in ruins, that it collapsed at the precise moment of its encounter with the popular.
Continue reading In the Ruins of Political Society – A Response to Partha Chatterjee
Guest post by PARTHA CHATTERJEE
Shuddhabrata Sengupta has done a great service by opening up the question of corruption which lies at the heart of the Anna Hazare movement but which has been, surprisingly, accepted quite uncritically as a universally known and universally condemned evil. It is actually quite puzzling how this effect has been achieved. It is a question which, I think, touches the core of the populist mobilization brought about by the Anna Hazare movement.
Think of it. Who are the beneficiaries of corruption? The entire middle class in India (lower, upper, aspirant lower to upper, whatever category one wants to use) seems to think that it is the victim of corruption. “It touches the lives of everybody”, as Nivedita Menon said in her recent piece in Kafila. But then who are the engineers, the accountants, the babus in the offices, the touts who surround the courts and the hospitals and the railway ticket counters? Aren’t they our uncles and nephews and sisters-in-law? The corrupt people of India are blood relations of those who are flocking Ramlila Maidan. But, needless to say, no one you meet there will accept that.
Continue reading Against Corruption = Against Politics: Partha Chatterjee
Guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY
The remarkable Singur Land Development and Rehabilitation Bill, passed in the West Bengal Assembly on June 14 became an Act on June 20. The Act scrapped the previous Left Front government’s deal with Tata Motors and has provisions to return land to unwilling farmers. Consequently, Singur land was taken over by the State government prompting Tata Motors to legally challenge the whole Act and a judicial battle has ensued between them and the newly elected State government. The State government may continue to return land in right earnest since there is no legal bar to that as of now. One would think that by many standards, this is a landmark bill that challenges and confronts policy consensus in issues of land transfer, models of enclosing and a concomitant notion of development that marks our nation at this point of time.
Reactions to this enactment have been thick and fast—alarmist and cautious to generous and triumphant. Continue reading The Singur Act and the Deontological Reaction: Prasanta Chakravarty