Book Review: The Politics of the Governed, Part 1

Columbia University Press recently approached Savage Minds, asking if we would like to review new books from their catalog. Not ones to turn down free books, we jumped at the opportunity, and you can expect to see several CUP books reviewed here in the near future, as well as those from any other publishers who might wish to do the same (hint, hint). In discussing how to approach these reviews we decided two things: one, we would make it clear when a review has been solicited by the publisher, and two, we would keep the reviews “bloggy” (i.e. informal and focused on whatever interests us about the book rather than doing all those things one is expected to do in a standard book review.)

I chose to review Partha Chatterjee’s The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. As someone interested in subaltern studies and Gramsci I’ve long been interested in Chatterjee’s work, Chatterjee was a discussant on my first AAA panel in 1996 (Jason Greenberg and myself were co-organizers). At the same time, I’ve always had reservations about Chatterjee’s work. In my thesis I criticized Chatterjee’s book on nationalism for falling into the standard trap of equating hegemony with elite discourse (the main source of data used in the book) and over-generalizing from the Indian case (a fault he himself acknowledges).

The Politics of the Governed still takes India to stand for “most of the world,” but it makes important strides in rectifying the focus on elite discourses. In fact, it does much more than that. It radically challenges our understanding of the term “civil society” by highlighting how the politics of civil society marginalizes the politics of poor people and offers up an alternative term, “political society” as a framework for understanding the popular politics of marginalized groups. In doing so he draws heavily upon the Foucauldian tradition of governmentality studies to argue that there is a gap “between the lofty political imaginary of popular sovereignty and the mundane administrative reality of governmentality” (36).

Central to his argument is a distinction between “citizens” and “populations.” Populations are the object of the welfare state, but Chatterjee crucially distinguishes between the different history of the welfare state in the developed world and the post-colonial world.

postcolonial states deployed the latest governmental technologies to promote the well-being of their populations, often prompted and aided by international and nongovernmental organizations. In adopting these technical strategies of modernization and development, older ethnographic concepts often entered the field of knowledge about populations – as convenient descriptive categories for classifying groups of people into suitable targets for administrative, legal, economic, or electoral policy … Thus caste and religion in India, ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, and tribes in Africa remained the dominant criteria for identifying communities among the populations as objects of policy. (37)

These populations cannot be treated the same way as citizens because it is impossible to generalize their needs to those of the entire population. There are two reasons for this. First is their status as minority populations, and the second is caused by the constraints of limited state resources. The first argument draws on the questions posed in Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question,” regarding the ways in which the “universal” values of the modern state presuppose the cultural values of the dominant population. Chatterjee recasts (no pun intended) this problematic in terms of the role of untouchability in the creation of modern India:

The colonial government, for all its homilies about the need to uplift those oppressed by the religious tyranny of traditional Hinduism, could only look after the untouchables as its subjects. It could never give them citizenship. Only under an independent national constitution was citizenship conceivable for the untouchables. yet, if independence meant the rule of the upper casts, how could the untouchables expect equal citizenship and the end of teh social tyranny from which they had suffered for centuries? Ambedkar’s position was clear: the untouchables must support national independence, in the full knowledge that it would lead to teh political dominance of the upper casts, but they must press on with the struggle for equality within the framework of the new constitution. (14-15)

The second problem with treating the rights of populations the same as the rights of citizens is that doing so would strain the state’s capacity to “deliver those benefits to the entire population” and would “only invite further violation of public property and civic laws” (40). As a result, there is a catch-22 whereby the need of marginalized populations to engage in illegal activities in order to secure their livelihood reinforces the state’s inability to legitimate those illegal activities, thus ensuring that the relationship of these marginal groups to the state remains purely instrumental. It is within this space that Chatterjee’s “political society” emerges. It is a space where “the demands of electoral mobilization, on the one hand, and the logic of welfare distribution, on the other, overlapped and came together” (135).

The engagement of poor people in electoral politics is precisely one of the areas that sets India apart from the United States, as such it is fair to ask how relevant the concept of “political society” is to the “West.” And Chatterjee himself argues that the history of Governmentality in the global “South” is quite different as a result of the colonial encounter. In the West “the story of citizenship … moves from the institution of civic rights in civil society to political rights in the fully developed nation-state,” only then developing the techniques of governmentality discussed by Foucault. But that order was reversed in the colonies, where the “technologies of governmentality often predate the nation-state” (36) (e.g. anthropometry in India).

Having said that, I do find the concept of “political society” tremendously useful in the Indian context. My own limited experience in India comes from making a film about a community long-associated with illegal activity and we observed first hand the tensions that were created by civil society institutions treating the community as “subjects,” and the birth of a new political society intended to negotiate entitlement claims with the state. The discourses of “reform” through education and labor used by Indian NGOs conflicted with community desires to be treated as citizens with rights. The community then faced difficulty establishing these rights because of their own marginal status. For instance, how do you get the government to improve the sewage when the community has not been paying taxes? You could start paying taxes, except that this would require the state to collect those taxes, which it hasn’t been doing (collecting bribes on the other hand …), and even if they could get the state to collect the taxes, the community doesn’t want to have to pay all its back taxes all at once. A similar farce ensued when the community recently sought to file a “right to information” petition. I just learned that it has been impossible to do so because there is no government officer appointed to the community who is able to receive the petition. In this Becketesque context, it makes sense that politics should take the form of a group of young people engaged in Brechtian street theatre.

Chatterjee cites numerous similar examples from West Bengal, even including theater troupes! “The People’s Welfare Association” created by a squatter settlement along the railroad tracks cannot receive the same recognition as other civic societies because its goal is to establish the legitimacy of an illegal community.

The squatters, on their part, admit that their occupation of public land is both illegal and contrary to good civic life. But they make the claim to a habitation and a livelihood as a matter of right and use their association as the principal collective instrument to pursue that claim. (59)

In framing their petition they define themselves in terms of the very categories of governmentality, a laundry list of subject “populations”: “Refugees, landless people, day laborers, homestead, below the poverty line …” and yet they insist that they form a “single family.” This move is crucial in order “to give the empirical form of a population group the moral attributes of a community” (57). Population groups are made up of subjects, whereas communities are made up of citizens. “Political society” is the politics of subjects who wish to have the same rights as citizens, but are excluded (by dint of their very marginalization) from civil society.

[This is the end of Part 1. In part two I look more closely at how the term “political society” relates to existing theories of “civil society.”]