The Implosion of ‘the Political’

Posted: 14/05/2009 by Aditya Nigam in Capitalism, Democracy, Governmentality, Nation-state, Politics, Theory
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Aditya Nigam

[This essay was first published in the Journal of Contemporary Thought, No 27, Summer 2008]

Nicos Poulantzas once made a distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘politics’ as such. In his rendering ‘the political’ referred to what can be called, with appropriate modifications, the juridical-political level of ‘the state’ (and we can include parties, elections and mobilization), while ‘politics’ referred to political practices (Poulantzas 1968: 37).[1] ’Political practices’ referred in his writings to ‘class practices’ but we can once again, suitably modify the term to include different kinds of political practices along different axes – class, caste, gender, religious or linguistic community and so on. Politics, thus seen, pervades life as such. We can also call it, after Michel Foucault, the micropolitics of power. Politics is there wherever there are power relations. And as feminism once struggled to establish, at this level, the personal is political. That is to say, from relations within the family, to relations between ‘loving couples’ and between parents and children, nothing is free of the relations of power. Indeed, the world has never been the same after that devastating intervention, however much formal political theory may try to ignore it. The great classical distinction between the polis and the oikos, reworked by moderns into the public and the private, seemed to suddenly wither under that attack.

At this stage I would also like to point out that what applies to ‘the private’ domain also holds for the more everyday and local forms of domination and power such as in the ways in which the caste rules operate in the villages or acquire a somewhat modified class/caste form in towns and cities, structuring what appear might to be ‘inter-personal’ relations. We can witness this in the hundreds of daily interactions, say for instance, between middle class families and their domestic employees, or their interactions with rikshaw pullers, vendors and such like. These are certainly not ‘private’ but bear the characteristics of the private insofar as they lack ‘publicity’.

The feminist intervention did not, of course, claim that there is no value whatsoever to the distinction between the private and the public. For, while it does draw our attention to the fact that the private is not devoid of politics and power relations, and forces us to recognize that transformations in supposedly private domains follow altogether different logics, it does not really challenge the belief that the public realm is the realm of freedom. That what goes on in the private sphere also may need to be often brought out into the public. The great liberal idea that publicity and transparency are the fundamental guarantors of liberty is, if anything underlined by this claim that the personal is political. The underlying assumption is that ‘appearing in the public’ and engaging in ‘rational dialogue’ are necessary conditions for both resolution of conflicts and freedom. Or, put in its more radical Arendtian version, to act politically (i.e. in public, in the polis) is to be free.

In the following two sections, I want to briefly consider the distinction between this idea of politics and that of ‘the political’ and underline the relationship of the latter with the idea of publicity and representation, which I will do with the help of a discussion of recent Indian history.

The Domain of ‘the Political’

Elsewhere, I have identified the conjuncture of 1989-92 as the ‘discursive break’ (Nigam 2006). This conjuncture, I argue, sees the coming together of three different currents, each with their own different histories. First, the anti-reservation (more generally anti-affirmative action) discourse, acquiring explosive and violent proportions around the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in August 1990. Second, the discourse of neo-liberalism, instantiated through the structural adjustment programme initiated under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund, in 1991. Third, the arrival of a new, aggressive and unprecedented mass mobilization of the Hindu Right, threatening open violence against minorities, that appeared in the immediate aftermath of the Mandal Commission, in form of LK Advani’s rathyatra, and reached its climax in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. These different political currents had their own discrete histories, which cannot be repeated here.[2] What was crucial about the conjuncture was that it marked a fundamental and complete break from the dominant discourse of earlier times – the discourse of the Nehruvian era.

If the decade of the 1990s was quickly assumed to be marked by the so-called ‘retreat of the state’, it soon became clear that such was hardly the case. It was the state that was indeed assuming the role of reconstituting the economy in very fundamental ways. The strategic retreat of the state from certain sectors and responsibilities did not at all mean that there was going to be a free contest between different interests and classes/ social groups. The intervention of the state was essential in the reconstitution of the labour market for instance, and it has been noted that the entire sphere of capital-labour relations underwent a major transformation without a word being changed in the statute books.[3] A similar situation can be seen in the interventions by the state in clearing out the urban space of poorer populations who had been living in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai Hyderabad and Bangalore. Needless to say, this clearing of cities has to do once again with making the city available for the high consumption life-styles of the globalized middle classes, for the construction of shopping malls, car parks, IT parks, amusement parks and so on. In many instances it was quite clear that the clearing of small neighbourhood markets peopled by vendors and hawkers also had to do with making the market and consumers available for new retail chains and malls. The state’s and the judiciary’s intervention in forest and other environmental matters, where free play is being allowed to mining corporations at the expense of the environment, further underlines this new role of the state. Clearly, the ‘retreat’ was a misnomer; the presence of the state in the liberalization era is ubiquitous. The state or the political appears here as a critical instance in the restructuring of class relations in the liberalization era.

On the other hand, if we look at the period preceding the onset of liberalization, especially before 1991, what do we see? How did the Nehruvian state, organized along very different lines, switch over to the neo-liberal mode? That attempts at liberalization had been made earlier as well, especially in 1982 when the government went in for an IMF loan and more decisively in 1985, when Rajiv Gandhi and his men took over the reigns of power, is well-known. Both these occasions, especially the second one, had generated a vigorous public debate and laid the ground for the eventual triumph of the new vision. There is no doubt that this debate actually assumed the form of a battle that was fought in all institutional spaces including the bureaucracy, the judiciary and so on. It was fought out between the trade unions and the government, between beneficiaries of the old regime and the new entrants; it was fought in academic and media spaces. It is important to remember that on all these occasions, the change was initiated by an elected government. The third and most decisive moment of this transformation, that of 1991, was actually initiated by a minority government supported by the Left.

In a certain sense, the early 1990s represented a conjuncture where different currents were condensed into a situation where the switch became imperative. A reconfiguration of class relations had already taken place. This reconfiguration is witnessed in the rise over the 1980s of a new type of corporate capital – signified in the most extreme in the rise of the Reliance or the Sahara groups – that is a complete outsider to the old game of the sophisticated bourgeois. This new capital is at once more ruthless and populist and does not much care for the rules of the game set up by the old ‘cultured bourgeois’ of the club that dominated the earlier dispensation. It also has a very large vernacular component.[4] The reconfiguration is also evident in the parallel decline, over the 1980s, of the power of the organized trade union movement. This decline has to do with the inability of the trade unions to deal with the rapid changes – both through the arrival of new technologies as well as structural changes in the economy. There is a third aspect of this reconfiguration as well. This is the emergence of a more aggressively self-centred consumerist middle class – much more aggressively anti-poor and anti-working class.  The rise of this middle class, it ought to be noted, is tied very closely to the rise of the new kind of capital and the changed nature of capital markets, as well as with the new availability of credit for consumption. This new middle class is therefore, also structurally tied to the new global imaginary of hypermodernity. This reconfiguration receives a dramatic impetus through the collapse of the socialist bloc – and it is the symbolic significance of that collapse that is important here – that deprived the old order of much of its legitimacy.

Let me now turn to another aspect of this conjuncture. This is the rise of the Hindu Right from the beginning of the 1990s – almost coeval with the supposed ‘retreat of the state’ from the economic. Through the decade the rise of the Hindu Right parallels a major discursive shift where the institutions of the state – especially the judiciary – are seen to participate in a new project of redefinition of nationhood and intercommunity relations. I am mentioning the judiciary in particular because other arms of the state like the army or the police seemed to have fallen into this game much earlier.[5] As the rise of Hindutva marked what seemed like a radical shift from earlier times, what was truly stunning, once again, was the ease with which institutions of the state moved in to perform this new role.

It seems in retrospect that the state was itself actually deeply implicated in the very structure and reordering of (inter)community relations very much like it was implicated in the structure and reordering of class relations. From the days of Nehruvian secularism to the days of post-Hindutva restructuring of community relations, with the Muslim now decisively marked out as ‘Other’ (and later additionally as a ‘threat to national security’) in official state discourse, the signature of the state was very much apparent in the way things developed. Once again, it is not difficult to see that the sudden shift at the all-India level in the 1990s only formalized what had been the informal ‘style’ of state agencies at the local level in past decades – from Bhiwandi, Jamshedpur, Aligarh, Hashimpura, Maliana to Biharsharif and Bhagalpur. The minorities had always experienced different local arms of the Indian state in exactly the same ways in which they now appeared at the ‘national’ level. There had been localized occasions in the past when in particular states, the different arms of the state had behaved in ways that were communal in almost the same way as say, Narendra Modi’s police was. Once again, we could say that the molecular, local changes began to resonate in the macro level of the state around the beginning of the 1990s.

The point that I am making here is that the moment at which the slow, imperceptible and molecular changes at different levels of the social begin to come together at the level of the state is the moment of its irruption into the temporality of the political. That is when discrete developments begin to resonate together, producing an entirely new situation, reconstituting even the state in its wake. It is rather like what Deleuze and Guattari say of the Nazi state: ‘fascism is inseparable from a proliferation of molecular focuses that skip from point to point, before beginning to resonate together in the National Socialist State’ (Deleuze and Guattari: 214). Neither the rise of the new bourgeoisie nor of the new middle classes, nor indeed the decline of the trade union movement and of radical mass struggles can be explained purely with reference to the activities of the state, even if certain signals sent out by the state in 1982 and 1985, may have galvanized the new processes that were already taking shape. Similarly, it is not possible to reduce the rise of Hindutva over the preceding decades to any single factor. We have enough evidence to show that, for decades, the call of Hindutva politics went practically unresponded. If some developments that provided it fresh impetus around the mid-1980s (the Muslim Women’s Act and the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid) did bear the state’s signature, its rise cannot be reduced to an effect of that moment. We are now beginning to see the evidence of how the newly emerging vernacular middle class and capital (let us call them together the new bourgeoisie), excluded from power by the old regime, began to emerge as the bridge between neo-liberalism and Hindutva. Excluded by English-speaking secularism of the Nehruvian kind and the exclusive club of the old bourgeoisie, this new bourgeoisie seems to have become the vehicle of new transformations.

The levels at which these developments take place before irrupting into the temporality of the political, then, are multiple, complex and layered. For these developments are implicated here in everyday living, consumption, desire, power – all at once and these defy any simple delineation of the political and the social, or the economic. It is only when these different and discrete tendencies/discourses irrupt into ‘the political’ that they begin to be ‘visible’ in ways there were not earlier. ‘Visibility’ in the public domain is the condition of their emergence into the political – parties, elections, media or all of these being the vehicles of such appearance.

In the remainder of this essay, I wish to discuss tendencies, social groups or practices, that precisely because of their subalternity, always prefer to remain outside the domain of the political, which is also to say, outside the domain of visibility, representation and publicity. ‘Citizenship’, we have seen is intimately tied to this idea of publicity and representation. Here I wish to underline some of the ways in which this assumption about the public appears increasingly problematic today. I wish to do this by focusing on certain difficult areas where ‘going under the radar’, avoiding the all-powerful gaze of the ‘biopolitical state’ often appears as the condition of survival – and maybe ‘freedom’ in a sense very different from the way political theorists see it. Before doing that however, a small detour on media and the idea of the public.

In Medias Res…

A word about the idea of the public and publicity in the contemporary is in order at this stage. In contemporary society the public realm or sphere has come to mean the sphere of media representation. In some strange way, the media has become the public sphere itself. This is interesting, especially because political theorists, whose business it is to theorize the public (the polis, the political) seem to have not taken any serious note of it. When Habermas was writing of the public sphere in its ‘pristine form’ (and that is what we are concerned with here, namely the concept), he was thinking of the salons and coffee houses where speech would be free and ‘unmediated’. Individuals engaged in rational-critical discourse, and could only engage in such discourse, when they met face to face. So, at least among those who could enter the public sphere – and in principle, it was to be universal, Habermas underlines – there operated a condition of unmediated exchange. Thus when Habermas began thinking about the ‘structural transformation’ of the public sphere, one of the two critical factors he held responsible for its decline, for the decline of ‘rational-critical discourse’, was indeed the rise of the mass media which distorted, in his view, rational public debate by posing a serious threat to individual reason, submerging it under mass public opinion.[6]

Today, the mass media saturates our lives. It not only provides us information – ostensibly for making an informed choice – but it also envelops the entire domain of ‘the public.’ There are no publics outside the mediated and mediatized publics, nor public spaces where unmediated argument can take place. More importantly, ‘the public’ (as in people) is that elusive category whose ‘opinion’ has to be continuously sought, daily, hourly, through SMS’ or newspaper and television polls and the like because the voice of the public is no longer heard in public square, the chowk, a parade ground, or a boat club. The erasure of the public and the political from the street and its re-inscription in the television studio, packaged as statistic, in tables and flow charts, is one of those epochal events of the last few decades that have led to the ‘implosion of the political’. To ‘appear in the public’ now is to appear in the television or in print.[7] We then have a media-saturated public realm where it is difficult to say any more ‘what would have been’ had there been no media. Thus Baudrillard, unlike Habermas, argues: ‘We will never know if an advertisement or an opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills, but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement’ (Baudrillard 2001: 213). Never, in future, says Baudrillard, will we be able to separate reality from its statistical simulation in the media. This leads, he suggests, to a new kind of uncertainty that stems from an excess of information, not its lack (Ibid: 213). In Baudrillard’s argument, of course this destruction of the political by opinion polls and the media leads him to propose another, quite unexpected way of understanding the popular, the ‘masses’ now reduced to mere statistical representations. ‘Is it the media that neutralize meaning and that produce the “formless” (or informed) mass, he asks, ‘or is it the mass which victoriously resists the media by diverting or absorbing without reply all the messages they produce?’ (Ibid: 220)

What is equally interesting in Baudrillard’s account is the larger conclusion that he draws about the ‘masses’ or the popular, a conclusion that goes far beyond the media and its effects: will, knowledge, power, representation are all concerns of the ‘enlighteners’ who have a certain defined role for the masses. The masses, one might say, paraphrasing him, are the construct of these elites. The masses seem to operate on a reverse strategy: devolition, or a secret form of the refusal of will, leaving the business of power and the burden of representation to ‘the mediators, whom Baudrillard describes as ‘people of the media, politicians, intellectuals, all the heirs of the philosophes of the Enlightenment in contempt for the masses’ (Ibid: 218-19).

Baudrillard’s ‘refusal of will’ or de-volition, is not necessarily a turning-away from the media. Diverting or ‘absorbing without reply all its messages’ must be understood as describing a more intricate relationship or strategy than mere boycott. In fact, it is the first condition of a strategy of a silent and secret refusal that it must never lay all its cards on the table; never draw a clear line of demarcation. Indeed, the very adoption of such a strategy inevitably pushes the agent to lead a ‘double life’ – one always outside or beyond the grasp of power, be it media or the state. A part of life always remains unavailable to the logic of representation, while the other appears in public, participating in all the rituals of public life like a good citizen.

In what I discuss below, I will highlight precisely this ‘refusal to appear’ or to represent the ‘other self’ in any public manner, in the context of the state – moving away from Baudrillard’s specific concern, that is, the media. The relentless drive of what Foucault called the biopolitical or governmental state, to enumerate, classify and target populations and population groups (for policy) has another side to it, especially in contemporary India. This is the drive of the state to bring all activities, especially economic activities, of subaltern populations within the ambit of the formal economy, its accounting, its taxation net, and so on. It also merges with another purpose of the national security state, that of identifying ‘aliens’ or ‘illegal migrants’ (‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘Pakistani’ being the common sign for such population groups). To appear in public is to appear in the state’s radar and almost always within a particularly paranoid discourse of ‘violation of law’.

Political Society as the ‘Constitutive Outside’

In his recent work, Partha Chatterjee has been developing the idea of political society as a central category with which we might grasp the nature of the political. He has suggested that in the very heart of postcolonial democracies, lies a contradiction – that between ‘modernity’ and ‘democracy’.[8] Democracy in the postcolonial world, says Chatterjee, has been pitted against the search for modernity.[9] In my view, this formulation of Chatterjee’s can be properly grasped only if we understand ‘democracy’ as the point where politics meets the popular, rather than as a specific set of institutions, rule of law and such like. Chatterjee sees the sphere of civil society in its ‘classical’ sense, as the sphere of modern civil institutions governed by contractual relations of entry and exit, of rights, sovereignty and citizenship. This domain that constitutes the high ground of modernity, he argues, represents a very limited sphere in societies like India. The state, on the other hand, with its welfare functions, targets the majority of people as ‘population’, and dispenses welfare to those who in practice, do not count as rights-bearing citizens. These people, the majority, live often in different degrees of illegality and negotiate with the state, through the various mobilizational avenues provided to them by democracy.

Chatterjee elaborates this idea through a discussion of the now well-known instance of a squatters’ settlement in Calcutta, on government land, which the squatters cannot ‘rightfully’ occupy. Yet, the government must, in discharging its governmental functions, take cognisance of its responsibility to the population at large. It is on this terrain of governmental practices that the moral claim of the population is recognized, even though their illegal claims cannot be addressed as rights. In another instance taken from West Bengal, he discusses this notion in the context of the political negotiation of the death of a leader of a religious sect, whose followers believed that he had merely gone into samadhi, and therefore, refused to let his body be removed. As the body lay rotting and threatening to become a health hazard, the rationalist press and public raised a big hue and cry about the government surrendering before obscurantist and reactionary elements. The resolution of the dispute and the forcible removal of the body eventually took place after a long round of negotiations and strategic manoeuvres, through which the Left Front that rules the state, sought to get public opinion to its side. This negotiation too, says Chatterjee, was a negotiation that was accomplished on a terrain distinct from that of rights, once again on that of the responsibility of the government as government. Strictly speaking, legally the government would have been well within its rights to remove the body but the compulsion of not antagonising the followers had to lead to prolonged rounds of negotiations. It is this domain – the domain of the daily negotiations of the majority with the state – he calls political society. This sphere does not always obey the rules of civil society, governed as it still is by ‘the imaginative power of a traditional structure of community’ – even though it is ‘wedded to the modern emancipatory rhetoric of autonomy and equal rights’ (Chatterjee 1998a: 282). This political society, in his opinion, ‘is built around the framework of modern political associations such as the political party.’ The political party, of course represents here a paradigmatic instance, but as Chatterjee himself elaborates at different points, these associational forms include non-party political formations, movements and such other institutions (Chatterjee 1997: 32).

It can be seen from the above that political society to Chatterjee is another way of conceptualizing what we have been referring to as the political. The major departure from conventional Western political theory here is that this move dislocates ‘political society‘ in its more classical usage as synonymous with the state to another terrain. This terrain, distinct from both the state and civil society, is the real domain of politics in postcolonial societies. Here, in this always open domain of negotiations with the state, even populations living otherwise semi-legal or illegal lives, form associations, represent themselves and make demands on it.

For many of us this notion of ‘political society’ has provided an unprecedented opening, a possibility – that of thinking the ‘unthinkable’. I will go so far as to say that the enunciation of the idea of ‘political society’ has been one of the most important conceptual interventions of ‘postcolonial’ political theory – that is to say, political (and social theory) produced from/in the postcolonial world; an intervention in theory that for the first time brings the postcolonial experience into its very heart. I shall even claim that the potential and possibilities of this concept are of far wider applicability than the geographical ‘third world’ and can provide a lens for looking at the so-called first world itself. I will return to this point briefly towards the end.

For the present, I want to underline that when the idea was first put forward, it appeared to provide a way to enter a world that is not amenable to the neat and sanitized categories of what goes in the name of political theory – and most certainly of political philosophy. Let us quickly recall some of the most significant points of this idea: political society is that which civil society is not; it is a domain where claims of its inhabitants can only be addressed in a language other than that of rights. It is the domain of not-yet citizens, those who are not modern, individuated citizens (in the specific sense this has come to acquire in western political and social theory) and whose imaginative world is governed by notions of community. These populations of the not-yet citizens are not on the way to becoming full-fledged citizens; they will most probably never be. At least, one might say this is one possible reading of the notion of political society. If I may borrow and paraphrase an evocative expression by Ranabir Samaddar, made in another context: political society is peopled by those multitudes who are forever suspended in the space between the former (traditional) community and the not-yet citizen (Samaddar, 1999: 108).[10]

We need to understand the meaning of this figure more clearly. There is no teleology here for, even if they so desire, the denizens of political society will never become full and proper citizens. If any proof is required of this, one only has to look at what Hannah Arendt was at pains to point out to us: the figure of the ‘refugee’, the ‘boat people’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ as the direct product of the working of the idea of citizenship and the nation-state; of the idea of membership (with entitlements that can only accrue to members) in a political community. In a discussion of a relatively obscure article entitled ‘We Refugees’ by Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben notes how she ‘overturns the condition of the refugee and person without country’, the refugee who has lost all rights, yet stops wanting to be assimilated at any cost. He cites her as saying: ‘For him history is no closed book, and politics ceases to be the privilege of the Gentiles. He knows that the banishment of the Jewish people in Europe was followed immediately by that of the majority of the European peoples. Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people’ (Agamben 1994). Re-reading this piece by Arendt almost half a century later, Agamben sees in the refugee ‘perhaps the only imaginable figure of the people in our day’ (Ibid). Thus Agamben: ‘Indeed, it may be that if we want to be equal to the absolutely novel tasks that face us, we will have to abandon without misgivings the basic concepts in which we have represented political subjects up to now (man and citizen with their rights, but also the sovereign people, the worker etc) and to reconstruct our political philosophy beginning with this unique figure’ (Ibid).

Agamben refers to the history of the ‘first appearance of refugees as a mass phenomenon’ at the end of World War I, with the collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, when ‘the new order created by the peace treaties profoundly upset the demographic and territorial structure of Central and Eastern Europe.’ Millions of refugees resulted from those developments.

Closer home Papiya Ghosh’s recent study (Ghosh 2007), shows how the Partition produced refugees in their millions, some of whom, stranded between Pakistan and Bangladesh continue to live illegal lives. The close connection between the logic of the nation-state and the production of ‘unassimilated minorities’ is now a story too well-known to be repeated. Samaddar’s study referred to above remains a trail-blazer in bringing the figure of the ‘refugee’ under a broader field of reflection of the postcolonial ‘nation-state.’

This illegal non-citizen is a ubiquitous figure of contemporary societies – not simply an external ‘infiltrator’. The ‘illegal migrant’ in late 20th and 21st century India (and in other parts of the world) is not just the ‘Bangladeshi’ or the ‘Pakistani’. It includes the torrent of development refugees flooding the postcolonial city. These ‘development refugees’ – uprooted from their own habitats through mass displacements – have lately been labeled by the Supreme Court of India (Justices Ruma Pal and Markandeya Katju) as encroachers, pickpockets, and thieves.

This story cannot be assimilated into the well-known fable of Marxist Wonderland – the Fable of Primitive Accumulation, supposedly a historical process that necessarily accompanies capitalist development. In some versions of the primitive accumulation story it lays the basis of capitalism – thereby ante-dating it. It is difficult to see how it can both lay the basis for and accompany capitalism. If it antedates capitalism, as is the case historically and in Marx’s own reading of it, then its relationship to capitalism can only be contingent. At any rate, it cannot be that historical development everywhere in the world will always first dispossess peasant populations so that capitalism may come and take hold of them as free labour. In any case, such a clear correlation, even Marx admits (“it’s most classic form”, he says), exists only in England. Not even in other parts of Europe do we find such a replication. These development refugees, then, are not produced by any objective historical process but by the active and planned attempt by the state elites to ‘become modern’, to usher in modernity. If capitalism – especially the individual bourgeois right to property – is the sign of that becoming modern, then so be it. There are according to some estimates, roughly 21 million such development refugees in India today. Towns like Tehri and Harsud (not to speak of thousands of villages) that are now under water did not perish under the effect of an inexorable objective historical process such as primitive accumulation; they perished under a well-deliberated plan, codenamed desiring-modernity.

In Kalyan Sanyal’s recent rendering (Sanyal 2007) such dispossession is an inevitable consequence of primitive accumulation. Sanyal follows Marx in this but then goes on to delineate what he understands to be the specificity of postcolonial capitalism. Sanyal argues that even though primitive accumulation necessarily accompanies capitalism, the difference here is that postcolonial capitalism appears at a time when a governmental state is already in existence. This is a pastoral state that takes care of its population. It must see that the population does not starve, that it gets some alternative ways of earning a living. The discourse of ‘development’ in Sanyal’s reading, serves precisely this function. Now, according to Sanyal, these dispossessed people constitute the wasteland of capital but the specificity of postcolonial capitalism lies in the fact that these dispossessed must go through a process that he calls ‘de-capitalization’ and be re-united with their means of labour and will eventually constitute the informal sector, thanks to governmentality and the development discourse. Sanyal calls this the sector of noncapital – a term I prefer to Chatterjee’s non-corporate capital, though the precise dynamics of this domain still need to be worked out. Chatterjee agrees with his exposition adding that it is not merely national governments but also globally circulating technologies of poverty management, and the overall normative climate (globally) that enable governments to put in place mechanisms that thus reverse the effects of primitive accumulation (Chatterjee 2008). In this last intervention, Chatterjee thus adds a further dimension to political society: it now becomes also a domain to manage non-corporate capital. It is here that I think that the immense promise of the concept, in terms of enabling us to think the unthinkable has given way to just another version of a negotiated social peace.

Let me elaborate a bit on what I mean by the ‘unthinkable’, in the context of the idea of political society. The idea clears a space, potentially that is, and opens a window into the ‘other’ of civil society. This ‘other’ is not simply unthinkable; it is unthinkable because it is unrepresentable. In most modern, contemporary societies, there exist large sectors of the population who live a semi-legal or illegal existence. Some of them may ‘form organizations’ and associations and ‘make demands’ on the state and negotiate with the government but they often do not. Even those who do, lead a double existence – one ‘for the state’ and another, far away from its watchful gaze, as I have mentioned earlier. James Scott called this the ‘hidden transcript’ (Scott 1992). His context was the relations between the dominant and the dominated in the village – the landlord and the poor peasant, for instance. Now, one cannot disagree with Chatterjee’s position that rural life in India has changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five years and the old kind of landlord does not exist any more. I also agree that gradually the lure of modernity and the city has transformed the imaginative horizons of the peasant but that is not the issue here. What is important is that these hidden transcripts operate in this world of this ‘other’ existence vis-à-vis the very government with whom they perforce interact and on whom they make demands. Not only peasants, we all live – to a greater or lesser extent – this same double existence, it is just that given the asymmetries and inequities of power, this is much more significant in subaltern life. Much more in subaltern life remains illegible before the gaze of the state.

Here, I also want to point to another aspect of this life. This aspect is encapsulated in the figure of the ‘pirate’ – a pervasive figure of our times, the nightmare of corporate capital and a product of post-fordist information capitalism in particular. Recent work done by colleagues in Sarai-CSDS and Alternative Law Forum for instance, illustrates the world of this newly resurrected character. It shows that the simple pleasures of sharing – from seeds and everyday medicinal knowledge to music – can in one fell swoop, through a definitional fiat, be transformed into the illegal and thus pushed into this netherworld of civil society. If large populations in the postcolonial world live this double existence and if the second realm remains always beyond the possibility of representation, articulation and expression, then the idea of political society needs to be conceptualized differently. Rather than approach it from the side of the state and see it as a space for ‘managing’ social conflicts, we need to approach it from the other end – that of subaltern life. We will then be able to see how, even what appear as ‘negotiations’ and resultant social peace from one vantage point, might appear as something entirely different from the other end. The daily brush with the state in all its manifestations might appear, as Samaddar suggests in another context, as just one more hurdle, one more mine to be successfully negotiated in order to go about the daily business of living.

Unfortunately, it is precisely these explosive possibilities that are not incorporated by Chatterjee into his exposition of political society. They are all relegated to the ‘outside’, thus domesticating and taming political society and making it palatable for liberal tastes. What logical justification do we have to relegate a vital part of this civil society’s ‘other’ to the outside of political society? What if, one might ask, political society itself were the outside, the constitutive outside – of civil society?[11] What if – and here we step into the domain of the truly unthinkable – political society were the constitutive outside of all government and state? Why would there be anything like governmentality, were everything to be legible and rationally orderable into clear-cut principles of rule? Governmentality only makes sense because there is something that escapes the high principles of rule and threatens them. What if, in that case, government and state were not the decisive element but this outside that determines the structural limits and possibilities of all government? Let me push this question a bit further. What if one were to extend this logic into the domain of capital and noncapital? That is to say, what happens if we see noncapital as the constitutive outside of capital and capitalism? In other words, what I am suggesting here is that we see both the domains of state/government and capital not as enclosed totalities but as incomplete ‘structures’ that confront this outside (political society, noncapital) as externalities. In other words, I am resisting here the dominant modes of understanding capital and capitalism that see all forms of noncapital as merely functional appendages of capital.

This kind of theorization has held and continues to hold sway over our understanding of capital – though it is true that neither Partha Chatterjee nor Kalyan Sanyal hold such a position. In such a theorization, once free labour was seen as essential to capitalism. However when dealing with slavery and the color line in the modern working class, such an understanding encounters no difficulty in claiming that slave labour is also ‘essential’ in some sense to capitalist profit. Everything from the sixteenth century on is seen as a part of this capitalist world-economy because integrated into a world market. If the different social and economic forms had not, despite centuries become capitalist in their organizational structure and had not been fully incorporated into the logic of accumulation, there was always the unhappy theory of the ‘formal subsumption of labour under capital’ to tell us that they are already integrated into the capitalist market and will therefore, soon, be fully incorporated.

The simple fact that I wish to underline here is that despite two centuries of colonialism and another sixty years of independent capitalist development, fifteen years of frantic ‘globalization’, India still remains a predominantly agricultural country and still not fully incorporated into the logic of accumulation. The same holds for most of Asia and Africa, even South America. Neither colonial ‘rule of property’ (Ranajit Guha) nor the passive revolution of capital has made these parts of the world capitalist. I agree with Chatterjee that we need a new conceptual framework and also think that the intervention made by Sanyal is of critical importance in explaining the inability of capitalism to develop ‘fully’ in the postcolony. Sanyal’s notion of de-capitalization or the ‘reversal of the effects of primitive accumulation’ through governmental interventions provides an important lens through which to see the continuous reproduction of the ‘informal sector’ (or noncapital) through the very workings of capitalism and governmentality. However, what we need to also account for is the fact that in India and most of the world, the predominant forms of noncapital are not reversals of primitive accumulation; they are continuations of other forms of life reinvented and reconstructed to deal with or survive in the world of capitalism but continuations nevertheless.

This is a problem that has worried many ideologues of capitalism. The entire activity of IMF and the World Bank, after all, is geared towards implanting bourgeois institutions including the individual property right in all parts of the world. That was their brief and we could say with confidence that it has not succeeded. More recent theorizations of property by the ideologues of capital point to something very interesting. In a strangely perverse way, they give us an insight into the contemporary crisis of capital as well as to the difficulties of instituting bourgeois property rights as the sole form of ownership. I am thinking here of Hernando de Soto, whose work has provided new impetus to institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, as well as to a whole new range of NGOs, obsessed with the idea of instituting formal property titles and ‘documenting’ all property into deeds and individual entitlements. The Title of Hernando de Soto’s book is telling: The Mystery of Capital – Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. As the title itself shows, the book investigates what is sees as capitalism’s colossal failure (‘failed everywhere’). What de Soto means by this ‘failure’ of course, is precisely that the bourgeois property form has failed to take root everywhere, frustrated by the modes of living and being in the Third World. Let me quote him:

‘Imagine a country where the law that governs property rights is so deficient that nobody can easily identify who owns what, addresses cannot be systematically verified, and people cannot be made to pay their debts. Consider not being able to use your own house or business to guarantee credit. Imagine a property system where you can’t divide your ownership in a business into shares that investors can buy, or where descriptions of assets are not standardized.’

This, in de Soto’s view, is the general picture of life in the ‘developing world’, home to five-sixths of the world’s population. He believes that life in these parts of the world shows how, contrary to the Western perception that sees capitalism as the answer to global underdevelopment, it hasn’t even been tried here yet. For, ‘in a capitalist economy, all business deals are based on the rules of property and transactions which do not even exist in the Third World. Their property systems exclude the assets and transactions of 80% of the population, cutting off the poor from the global capitalist economy as markedly as apartheid once separated black and white South Africans.’

This last bit might lead us to believe, as it has misled many well meaning NGOs, that the intention here is to draw the poor into the charmed circle of development (one can almost see Sanyal smiling!). The assets of the poor can also be legally titled and the potential capital trapped inside can be released, he says. Nothing of the sort is actually intended. The real problem, it seems, is that capitalism has entered a serious crisis, largely because, in most of the world it does not have the kind of ‘market’ it wants. This is a very specific market; not a market of consumer goods.

This is best understood in de Soto’s own rendering. Some years ago, Hernando de Soto was invited by the Indonesian government to advise it on identifying the assets of the overwhelming majority of Indonesians living in the ‘extralegal sector’ – said to account, according to him, to close to 90 percent of the population. Though no expert on Indonesia, he says, as he strolled though the rice fields of Bali, he noticed that a different dog would bark as he entered a different property. The dogs knew very well which assets their masters controlled. To determine who owned what in Indonesia, he advised the Cabinet to begin by ‘listening to the barking dogs.’ One of the Ministers responded, he says, by exclaiming: ‘Ah, jukum adat—the people’s law.’

Indonesia represented to de Soto all that is wrong with the third world economies. It was the great merit of capitalism in the West, he believes, that governments adapted the ‘people’s law’ into uniform rules and codes that all could understand and respect. ‘Ownership once represented by dogs, fences, and armed guards is now represented by records, titles and shares.’ This was what transformed the entire logic of capitalism in the West. With titles, shares and property laws, houses were no more mere use-value (as shelter); they could now be used as capital (security for credit to start or expand a business). (From “The Hidden Architecture of Capitalism”,

This is of capital importance. It is not enough to own individual or family property. If it remains simple use-value, it is simply ‘dead capital’. Every bit of property should be able to live a double life – as credit security, as share and such like.  The astute eye of de Soto is quick to realize that

‘(T)hroughout the Third World and the formerly communist countries, neighborhoods buzz with hard work and ingenuity. Streetside cottage industries have sprung up everywhere, manufacturing anything from footwear to imitation Cartier watches. There are workshops that build and rebuild machinery, cars, even buses. In many countries, unauthorized buses, jitneys, and taxis account for most public transportation. Often, vendors from the shantytowns supply most of the food available in the market, from carts on the street or from stalls in buildings they built themselves. The new urban poor have created entire industries and neighborhoods that have to operate on clandestine connections to electricity and water’ (De Soto, Citadels of Dead Capital,

But alas! All this remains dead capital till it is brought within the fold of the formal economy. To conclude, it will be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the words ‘dead capital’ a bit. To be sure, from de Soto’s own descriptions, this capital is anything but ‘dead’. It is very much alive and happens to provide livelihood for millions of people across the globe.  More importantly, this ‘capital’ is a source of constant anxiety for both ‘formal capital’ and the state, though for different reasons. To ‘formal capital’ it poses a threat to its profits, especially in the figure of the ‘pirate’ that has now become a pervasive metaphor for the illegal, the unruly and the unregulated.  The pirate today is one who copies, multiplies and distributes or sells with scant respect for the original except as object of consumption. The pirate produces the ‘copy’ or the ‘fake’ and throws it alongside the ‘original’ into the market, duping the original branded producer. Often, though, s/he who is called the pirate, merely shares information and products with others. ‘Intellectual property’, copyright and trade mark have thus become the new banners of capitalist aggression – as it stands threatened by such pirate or contraband capital – its own cheap copy. To the state, it poses another kind of threat by depriving it of what it believes are its legitimate revenues – all the transactions in this domain being completely ‘off the record’.

Given all this, such contraband capital can be considered to be dead only by not being available for corporate capital and the state. But it precisely by being outside the pale of the formal economy, that it eludes the mechanisms of disciplining and policing that are put in place by state elites in countries like India in order to bring the entire ‘economy’ within the domain of the ‘formal’. It is not simply a question, I submit, of ‘managing non-corporate capital’ as Chatterjee puts it. Political society and noncapital, must certainly be seen as analogous and even overlapping domains, but precisely for that reason, always threatening to government and civil society.

Let me also point out that this figure of the pirate or of noncapital is a pervasive figure even of contemporary Western societies. Even a cursory look at the China Towns in the various American cities is enough to show that the idea of political society, thus redefined, is a pervasive domain of contemporary Western societies as well. Recent battles in the US over ‘illegal immigrants’ and their claims to citizenship have brought out unprecedented numbers of people on the streets of US cities illuminating at least one thing: Civil society in the form in which Chatterjee sees it, does not exhaust the public life of Western societies. Even in the citadels of world capitalism, people in their millions live double lives – one always away from the surveillant gaze of the state.

To conclude then, we could say that the political today faces a double implosion: At one level, with the media taking over the entire space of ‘the polis’ and the sheer excess of ‘noise’ – the endless flow of packaged information, images, statistical simulation – that Baudrillard so beautifully captures. At another level, its concept too is imploding as it becomes clear that a whole domain of life that was hitherto supposed to be on its way to being integrated into the logic of citizenship and rights, is probably not waiting for that elusive goal. Not any longer. Maybe it never was!

[I thank Ravi Sundaram, Awadhendra Sharan, Ravi Vasudevan and Rahul Govind for their comments on parts of this essay and for the ongoing conversation on some related questions. I am especially grateful to Nivedita Menon for going through successive drafts. I also thank Moinak Biswas for having provoked me to write a part of this essay as a response to Partha Chatterjee.]


Agamben, Giorgio (1994), ‘We Refugees’,

Baudrillard, Jean (2001), Selected Writings. Edited and introduced by Mark Poster, Standford University Press, Stanford, California.

Chatterjee, Partha (1997) “Beyond the Nation? Or Within?”, Economic and Political Weekly, Jan. 4-11

—————————- (1998a) “Community in the East”, Economic and Political Weekly, Feb. 7

————————–(1998b), “Introduction”, Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State, Oxford University Press, Delhi

————————– (2004), The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Permanent Black, Delhi

——————— (2008), ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 19 April 2008

Deleuze , Gilles and Felix Guattari (2005), A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London

Foucault, Michel (1994), Power, Essential Works of Michel Foucault Vol 3, Edited by James Faubion, The New Press, New York

Ghosh, Papiya (2007), Partition and The South Asian Diaspora – Extending the Subcontinent, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London, New York and New Delhi

Menon, Nivedita and Aditya Nigam (2007), Power and Contestation: India Since 1989, Zed Books, London and Orient Longman, Delhi, Hyderabad.

Nigam, Aditya (2006), The Insurrection of Little Selves: The Crisis of Secular-Nationalism in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi

Poulantzas, Nicos (1968), Political Power and Social Classes, Verso, London

————————-(1978), State, Power, Socialism, New Left Books, London

Samaddar, Ranabir (1999), The Marginal Nation – Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal, Sage Publications, New Delhi & London

Sanyal, Kalyan (2007), Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism, Routledge, London, New York, Delhi

Scott, James (1992), Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Yale University Press

[1] I put ‘the state’ within quotation marks because I am not entirely convinced about the analytical value of the category any more and would like to eventually unpack it. Thus even when I do not use speech marks, it should simply be read as a broad descriptive category.

[2] The interested reader may see Nigam (2006) and Menon and Nigam (2007) for further details.

[3] Presentation by lawyer Mihir Desai at the “Judicial Nineties” workshop organized by the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore, 10-11 May 2008.

[4] This is not to say that the new entrants were all vernacular, populist and cutthroat. Indeed there is a substantial mix of different kinds, but this section seems to me to have been the most decisive in effecting this transformation.

[5] The army seemed to have been less implicated than the police and seemed to enjoy a greater trust as an impartial player during communal violence. However, in other areas, like Kashmir or most parts of the North East, it was and is generally a hated institution.

[6] Early products of the print medium such as books, periodical and journals could still be seen as a part of the public sphere, still ‘unvitiated’ by mass media culture.

[7] In practice, one should probably make a distinction between the televisual and the print as the latter, even though controlled by powerful interests, at least cuts out the ‘noise’ where debates simply become versions of the Big Fight or the World Wrestling Federation. At least on less controversial matters the individual voice can appear occasionally without the ambient noise of the screaming television anchor.

[8] I have paraphrased this part of his argument in the discussion that follows, from some of the earlier texts by Chatterjee (1997, 1998a, 1998b).

[9] This particular construction about democracy is mine.

[10] Samaddar’s formulation about the postcolony is well-known: it is forever suspended in the space between the former colony and the not-yet nation.

[11] The notion of ‘constitutive outside’ is taken by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe from Derrida’s writings and deployed in the political field. At one level, this notion suggests a radical openness of the ‘structure’ as opposed to the enclosed ‘totality’ that it becomes in structuralism. It therefore introduces a radical indeterminacy into the very idea of a ‘totality’ or ‘structure’, where its content is determined, not so much by what it is, but also, equally what it excludes. This outside, at another level, then can be seen as something that gives the structure it’s meaning.

  1. marcos says:

    Thankyou for this extremely interesting article (and the others on the site). I had two thoughts that came to mind: I wondered in your opinion what it takes for a country (if indeed, that should be the correct frame of analysis) to be “fully subsumed under the logic of accumulation”? You don’t seem convinced by the Marxian notions of ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption, and you seem luke-warm towards Sanyal’s notion of the ‘wastelands’ of capital – those displaced into various forms of need economy yet refused a full relationship with capital as self-expansion of value. I’m just not sure where you draw the line (qualitative? quantitative?) on what it means to be “subsumed under the logic of accumulation” and whether such a notion even makes sense in terms of nation states as a unit of analysis?

    Second, the concept of “the pirate” is greatly interesting, and adds some punch to Chatterjee’s ideas. This is a very interesting line of analysis – I don’t suppose you could suggest a more direct link to some of the research on this topic that you make reference to? My worry is, however, that in your piece ‘piracy’ seems to cover a whole range of activities that rest upon qualitatively different social relations and forms of consciousness. This perhaps weakens some of the force of your argument because the concept tries to do too much. At first, the label of pirate seems to be thrust upon marginalised populations through the extension of intellectual property rights (a form of accumulation by dispossesion). Elsewhere in the article, piracy appears more as a deliberate act of mimicking capital – the large-scale copying of DVDs, fashion, music, software, etc, the sale of which is tacitly accepted by local state apparatus across many cities in South(east) Asia. Surely the huge qualitative differences between farmer cooperatives creating seed banks (the ‘pleasure of sharing’ or survival strategy) and often quite large forging/hacking/copying operations that make significant profits need to be differentiated more fully? I’d love to read more stuff on this line of analysis if you had any suggestions.

    Finally, just wondering if you have written a more explicit critique of de Soto? I’m surprised by the lack of critical engagement with this guy. A couple of articles by Timothy Mitchell are the only substantive critiques that I’ve read.

    Many thanks once again for your rich and enlightening article.

  2. Aditya Nigam says:

    Thanks Marcos, for the very very thought provoking comments. As it happens, I am still thinking about some of these issues.
    I think that nation-states or countries do form a kind of unit for analysis in some specific senses, if for no other reason but that the state and the political form is critical in ‘determining’ the direction in which capitalist development in that specific instance proceeds. However, it sound quite odd and strange to say that ‘a country is (or is not) fully subsumed under capital’. My sense is that if pushed, I would state it thus: While the overall economy is capitalist in the sense that the ‘commanding heights’ are in the hands of capital and that is also what governs common sense, this economy is permanently bedevilled by huge tracts/ areas/ sectors that refuse to be incorporated into its logic of accumulation.
    The ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption logic seems to me to simply institute a teleology derived from a very specific experience into a world historical frame. My own understanding is that this is not even empirically sustainable and capitalism may not be limited simply by itself (‘limit to capital is capital itself’) but by virtue of its inability to erase without trace all these other economies. My lukewarmness towards Sanyal’s formulation also arises form this fact: he too sees primitive accumulation as the universal history of capital which is reversed in the postcolonial context only because of governmentality-as-welfare. I do not draw an immutable line between these two kinds of economies for I think the two are equally modulated by the presence of the other. I do not give capital the ontological priority that many Marxists want to, whereby it has to supplant all the other forms because it is historically progressive. I think there is enough evidence to show that capital itself is modulated by the presence of these other forms, as much as they are by capital. So that these forms also do not simply remain in their pristine form, uncontaminated by capital.
    On the ‘pirate’ question, I am using it as a kind of shorthand for all those forms that have been made illegal by capital. In other words,it is not a positive self-description but simply turns around the description imposed by capital.
    And about de Soto, I too have seen very little serious critiques of his except by Timothy Mitchell. But there seems to be no lack of engagement, for it seems that from UN organizations to NGOs, he has just been lapped up. I may be wrong but that is the sense I get.
    Thanks again for your very thoughtful comments.

  3. quynh says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your article! I’ve learned a lot and particularly enjoy your point about noncapital and political society as the constitutive outside as well as your emphasis on the double existence of the postcolonial/subaltern; the latter resonates well with what I’ve read from Bhabha in The Location of Culture and Mbembe in On the Postcolony. Many thanks again!

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