Book Review: The Politics of the Governed, Part 2

[This is part 2 of a two part review of Partha Chatterjee's The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. You can read the first part here.]

Chatterjee’s book is divided into two parts. The first part consists of three lectures delivered at Columbia University in 2001. This is the tightest part of the book, in which he develops the arguments I mentioned in the first part of my review and which I will continue to focus upon below. The second half consists of a series of other lectures on a variety of issues, including globalization, the war on terror, and India’s urban development. Because of the fragmentary nature of this book, we really only get a hint as to the nature of “political society” and its utility as a concept. There is certainly more depth to the discussion that the brief account I’ve laid out so far, but it is frustrating that many of the most difficult questions are avoided. The first, would be the applicability of the concept to the developed world; but the second is even more pressing: Chatterjee shies away from tackling the history of communal violence in India and the alliances which marginalized political societies often make with the most reactionary political groups. I understand why, he does this. He is intent on showing the democratic potential of political society and wishes to challenge India’s left-leaning middle classes to actively work with political societies rather than shunning them. In this sense the history of communal violence forms the context in which such a book is written. Nonetheless, if we we want to really demonstrate the analytical usefulness of the category it can’t just be presented as a progressive phenomena.

Another question I like to ask whenever I see an author introduce a new analytic term is whether or not the concepts can’t already be handled by existing terms, specifically Gramsci’s term “civil society.” Chatterjee’s main criticism is that civil society is elitist:

Civil society as an ideal continues to energize an interventionist political project, but as an actually existing form it is demographically limited. (39)

One of the best articles written on the concept of civil society in Gramsci’s work is Joseph Buttigieg’s 1995 Boundary 2 article, “Gramsci on Civil Society” (JSTOR link). (Buttigieg was the other discussant on that 1996 AAA session I mentioned.) In that article Buttigieg makes it clear that, contrary to how many people use the term today, Gramsci never intended for civil society to be thought of as a realm of freedom and democracy exiting in opposition to the state; rather, for Gramsci “civil society as an integral part of the state” (424). As such, it is incorrect to view civil society as the realm of freedom it is often conceived of today (especially as used by neoconservatives who are really interested in little more than expanding markets). As Buttigieg puts it:

for Gramsci, civil society is best described not as the sphere of freedom but of hegemony. Hegemony, to be sure, depends on consent (as opposed to coercion), but consent is not the spontaneous outcome of “free choice”; consent is manufactured, albeit through extremely complex mediums, diverse institutions, and constantly changing processes. Furthermore, the power to manufacture consent is not evenly distributed in society … (427, emphasis added)

So, even in Gramsci’s writings civil society is already portrayed “demographically limited”! It was because of this that Gramsci sought to forge an Italian “national-popular” culture. Gramsci hoped that such a culture, forged by “organic intellectuals” in cooperation with Italy’s workers and peasants would counterbalance the existing civil society maintained by “traditional intellectuals” working in universities, churches, and for the state. I’ve always seen the distinction between these two kinds of intellectuals as essentially Weberian, reflecting the degree that intellectuals have been incorporated into the institutions of civil society. This creates problems because the definition of an organic intellectual is essentially negative. Although Chatterjee does not engage with Gramsci’s theory of the intellectual, the concept of political society suggests a positive definition of such intellectuals by defining them in terms of the unique structures of political society as opposed to civil society.

One might argue that Gramsci’s entire conception of subaltern society is largely framed in negative terms. In this sense Chatterjee’s concept of political society opens up a potential space for developing Gramsci’s model in a more anthropological direction. Chatterjee’s anthropological approach comes to the distinction between political and civil society by inductively generalizing from the experience of the rural poor in India. This gives his term weight, but it also means that he is unable to live up to the grand theoretical ambitions implied in this work. He claims to speak to “politics in most of the world,” but doing so would require him to abandon some of his empirical caution and propose a general model of political society applicable to more than the few cases presented here. Hopefully he is working on just such a project. If not, I think that there are enough tantalizing hints here that I’m sure we will see others testing the range and applicability of the term to vastly different contexts.