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An Embedded Politics of Civil Society?

While contesting the politics of exclusivism and arguing in favour of uniting the oppressed sections through a substantive class politics for fundamental social transformation, this comment on the article 'Fears of Contagion? Depoliticisation and Recent Conflicts over Politics in Kerala' (June 23, 2007), calls for recognising both the specificities of particular social contradictions and the need to address the question of primacy among them, at any given point of social development.

DISCUSSIONmay 3, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly68The author thanks P R Gopinathan Nair, M Kabir and V J Varghese for comments on an earlier draft.Gilbert Sebastian ( is with the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.An Embedded Politics of Civil Society? Gilbert SebastianWhile contesting the politics of exclusivism and arguing in favour of uniting the oppressed sections through a substantive class politics for fundamental social transformation, this comment on the article ‘Fears of Contagion? Depoliticisation and Recent Conflicts over Politics in Kerala’ (June 23, 2007),calls for recognising both the specificities of particular social contradictions and the need to address the question of primacy among them, at any given point of social development. The article, ‘Fears of Contagion? Depoliticisation and Recent Con-flicts over Politics in Kerala’ by J Devika(June 23, 2007) was a response to the polemics in the Malayalam media in recent years on decentralised plan-ning and “anxieties about the imminent neoliberal turn” of the dominant left (p 2464). In this polemics, concerns were expressed about “abandoning class poli-tics for civil society” (p 2464), especially through left-linked organisationslikethe Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP). It is commendable that J Devika (hence-forth referred to asJD in this write-up) recognises “the threat of depoliticisa-tion” (p 2464) and has not fallen intothe snare of “cynical passivity” (p2470).Itis also positive that she follows a norma-tive approach that steers clear of objec-tivist pretensions. On this count, she does not hide her aversion to “radicals” (p 2470) and “the left-hegemonised political society in Kerala” (pp 2469, 2467,2464) and the inclination she has to-wards “civil society and identity politics”, “two themes that were largely marginal to left politics” in Kerala (p 2465). She de-fends them without, however, going into the substantive content of these political trends. The article is an articulate state-ment of the positions of the incipient glo-bal civil society movements (GCSMs) in the state, a content analysis of which could yield insights into the politics ofGCSMs. We would argue that her diagnosis of and prescription for the maladyofdepoliticisa-tion are questionable on several counts. Variants of Civil Society We would hazard a distinction between “oppositional civil society movements” (OCSMs), i e, non-state forms of sociability and associative activities in the public sphere that genuinely strive for the demo-cratic transformation of society; and GCSMs that act in collusion with global capitalist forces and promote their interests. It is a distinction that is not obtainable inJD’s analysis.1 She prefers to lump these two together asOCSMS or as an undifferenti-ated“civilsociety”, which means an ap-propriation of OCSMs for the cause of the GCSMs that could lend greater credibility to the latter. If we go by the view that state is the legitimate monopoly of violence in society, in the Trotskyian/Weberian sense and many of the incipient political move-ments are either states-in-the-making or partake of state power within the existing system, the vital role of OCSMs cannot be overemphasised. Even an incipient state subsuming independent voices from with-in civil society is a matter of real concern. But it is of even greater concern when civilsociety organisations indulge in an “embedded” politics (evocative of “em-bedded journalism”) acting as cronies of global capitalist forces. An uncritical valourisation of civil society is, in any case, uncalled for since it is ridden with class/social divisions. Moreover, even the fascist movement has its origins from within the civil society. The use of the term, “political society” in the flat sense in which it appears inJD’s analysis is not useful in that it suffers from a lack of engagement with the important theorisation on this by Partha Chatterjee. For him, political society has to do with political transactions of “underprivileged population groups” excluded by both the state and a modernist elite civil society [Chatterjee 1998, 2001]. Plurality of Political SpectrumSpeaking of “the neoliberal turn” of the dominant left in the state,JD says, “in Kerala, such anxieties have, indeed been palpable as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), triumphant in the 2001 elections,riding the wave of a “people’s man”, V S Achuthanandan,seemstobe increasingly veering towards neoliberalism” (p 2464). Wittingly or unwittingly, this statement involving a subject confusion serves an outcome of lumping together re-visionist, social democratic and neoliberal huesofpolitics and foreclosing revisionist orsocial democratic political alternatives.
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 3, 200869Similarly, later in the article,JD upholds “civil society” and forecloses other options of “rescuing welfare and fighting globali-sation” or “militant class politics dismiss-ing all others” (p 2469).It is well known that the thumping elec-toral victory of the CPI(M) in mid-2006 (not 2001, as mentioned) owed much to the campaign led by V S Achuthanandan (VS) against the various kinds of mafias let loose over the years especially during the erstwhile United Democratic Front (UDF) government led by the Congress Party.TheCPI(M) had already purged out the revolutionary line from within its fold by 1968, i e, following the Naxalbari revolt. TheVS-line which is in a minority within the party, in our view, represents the “old left” of the revisionist lineage akin to that of the first “communist” government in the state led by E M S Namboodiripad. We understand revisionism as the ideological influence of the dominant classes, particu-larly that of the bourgeois ideology within the communist movement. On the agenda of economic development, even the VS-line of IT parks and tourism zones may make little difference with the Pinarayi faction. But it is decidedly true that by trying to recover the encroached assets of the state running into hundreds of acres of land and by seeking to bring in back the welfarist functions of the state, the VS-faction has been able to regain, in some measure, the fast-eroding credibility of the political. We would view that the dominant Pinarayi faction, i e, the right wing faction of the CPI(M), represents the social demo-cratic trend withinCPI(M), increasingly oriented towards neoliberalism and the GCSMs. By social democratic trend, we mean an orientation towards the politics of the welfare state, i e, playing a rather dubious mediatory role between the polar classes and a clear abdication of revolutionary politics. The revisionist and social democratic political lines are clearly distinguishable in the day-to-day political discourse in the state. The straitjacketing involved in the aforementioned statement byJD makes these contending political lines appear deceptively similar and in turn, breeds cynicism about party politics in general. Similarly, in her conclusions, whilebeingcynical on the one hand, about materialising the possibility of “an atmos-phere which needs the overwhelming dominance of a constraining Other”JD speaks in the same breath about the desir-ability of “genuinely collective anti- globalisation initiatives” on the other hand (p 2469). This reminds us of the contra-dictory social location of the GCSMs, which make a show of opposing neoliberal globalisation, with a view to garner sup-port from the popular classes and collude with global capitalist forces in funda-mental ways as they are tied to the apron-strings of the latter through sources of financing. Cynicism of fundamental social transformation is also a fertile breeding ground of this brand of politics as local accounts from certain other states also indicate. Revisionism, social democracy and GCSMs are different facets of the mediatory role played between the basic producing class-es and the dominant classes in society. All of them, in turn, weaken the independent assertion of the labour movement. Question of PrimacyFor all the disinclination of JD towards the radicals, it is they who first recognised how the ‘Trojan Horse of neoliberalism’ (p 2465) is being smuggled in through the CPI(M) and its affiliates like the KSSP both as a neoliberal political line and in the form of GCSMs. P J James and (late) M N Vijayan are prominent representatives of the radical viewpoint inJD’s account. The sectarian approach by P J James tended to view class as an abstract category, anti-imperialist class struggle as a pure phenomenon and the struggles of non-class deprived social groups as diversionary. M N Vijayan was more dialectical in speaking against the abandonment of the primacy of class politics: “The decimation of the class agenda through foregrounding issues that you cannot deny, is a technology” [Vijayan 2004; cited on Devika 2007: 2465].JD counters this from an angle of exclusive feminism that “this relegates feminist politics to a secondary issue (probably, fully resolvable within the problematic of class struggle) …” (p 2465). She also fears that some variants of “alternate politics” may be considered by radicals as“ultimately reducible to ‘general interests’, and in any case, trivial” (p 2465). She opposes an “instrumentalist appropriation of these … in the wider interest of class politics” (p2466). These, in turn, would require some analysis pointing to the need for au-tonomy and interconnection among socio-political movements. What we find in the analysis byJD is a unilateral emphasis on the autonomy of a particular social liberation struggle. Other social liberation struggles, such as of oppressed castes, ethnic groups, minorities, etc, could stake similar claims to complete autonomy. The problem of exclusiveness, or “ours and yours” [Mohanty 2004: 396] – a scenario of oppressed sections con-tending each other on the basis of narrow, parochial and rigid identities, of course, with some bases in the material reality, could cause a fissured social basis for struggles against a regressive state and imperialism. Conversely, it could provide an optimum situation for the exploitative incursions of global capital and make these movements vulnerable to repression unleashed by forces of the established order. We would hold that the plausible way-out is to distinguish between non-antagonistic contradictions among the masses that can be resolved amicably and antagonistic contradictions vis-à-vis the major oppressive social structures – against semi-feudalism, a regressive state and the decadent global capitalism in par-ticular.2 Obviously, a perspective uphold-ing both the autonomy of the sectional movement on grounds of the specificity of the social contradiction and its inter- connection with the political movements for fundamental social transformation is something that is sadly missing from the author’s approach. Further, what is wrong in asserting the primacy of class politics in a primarily class-divided society? We would hold that it is through a substantive class politics that the contending (and often conflict-ing) claims of deprived social identities could be mediated on a common ground of universality. We consider theGCSMs diversionary not because they address the non-class contradictions but precisely because totality/the principle of primacy is missing from their approach. While the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that exemplify the GCSMs, represent a definite
DISCUSSIONMay 3, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly70advance over a crass individualist ethos and “domesticated” life in the private sphere and at times, they do engage in genuine relief work, often they tend to isolate one or the other contradiction from the rest of the contradictions, bringing the less determining ones to the centre-stage. There is no recognition of the fact that at any given stage of social development, certain contradictions are principal in that they shape and determine other contra-dictions. By overemphasing the autonomy of a particular contradiction, they become sectarian and create divisions among op-pressed masses. Not addressing the ques-tion of primacy could be the reason why JD finds a dichotomous relationship between neoliberal globalisation which is designated as “the contagion from the “outside”” and “the larger forces of depoliticisation” (p 2469). The Radical Alternative The representative figures whose writings JD has chosen to represent the view-points of the radical school are those having a penchant for viewing the issue of depoliticisation and GCSMs from the angle of a conspiracy theory as related to the sources of funds. She maintains a studied silence about the other shades of opinion within the radical school. We mean to refer to Malayalam periodicals likeMunnaniporaliand Janakeeya Paatha. Here again, it is the fallacy of the straw-man that she resorts to. The refusal to include the Maoist revo-lutionaries within the radical school is a serious omission. Speaking of the political currents since the early 1980s, she says, “The twin pillars of political society – large-scale development and social justice rooted in the rhetoric of class struggle – came to be questioned” (p 2467). Here again she tends to view “political society” as a homogeneous whole. Indeed, the issues mentioned were raised differently by the Naxalite/Maoist movement since the late 1960s as the two major tasks of the “new democratic revolution”, namely, “development of productive forces” and “democratisation of society”. The “multidimensionality of the social being” [Camfield 2004-05] cannot be cap-tured by a reductionist/exclusivist analysis of class or any other social category. Along with Manoranjan Mohanty, we would hold that the struggle for liberation and libera-tion itself have to be multidimensional. In other words, it is a “multidimensional transformation of society” that is called for and to this end, there is need to ensure a preservation of both autonomy and spontaneity of social movements on the one hand and the inter-connection among these movements on the other [Mohanty 2004]. DecentralisationUnderstandably, JD feels greater affinity to M P Parameswaran, who used to repre-sent the line ofGCSMs within the CPI(M) and Thomas Isaac – a key player in the decentralised planning initiative in the state – owing allegiance to the right-wing Pinarayi faction of the CPI(M), although she feels that they are not sufficiently “sensitive to alternative forms of politics” (p 2466) that she espouses. She says, “these authors refrained from the open and vicious homophobia” (p 2466) of the radicals. Noticeably, these authors are speaking from a position of power and privilege by attacking which alone could the radicals assert their positions.Arguments to the effect that the decen-tralised planning initiative was a foreign-funded andCIA-inspired initiative, by S Sudheesh, M N Vijayan and others within theCPI(M) may be considered a mechani-cal understanding based on conspiracy theory. Probably, Kerala’s “big bang decentralisation” was initiated in 1996 in a bid to regain the eroding support-base of the left parties during the lull following the land reforms. Its gains in terms of development more sensitive to people’s needs in the local areas cannot be over-looked. The unrepresentative and conde-scendingly messianic character of NGO activity is also largely overcome within the framework of representative institutions under decentralisation. Nevertheless, the emerging thrust towards own resource mobilisation and market orientation indi-cates how it could go to complement the project of neoliberal reforms.Resortto terms like “people’s plan campaign”, “democratic decentralisation” and “anti-imperialism” cannot whitewash the reality that it is the “depoliticised development and welfare” whichGCSMs promote that is also the basic orientation of the decen-tralised planning initiative. An ‘Embedded’ PoliticsFrom the approving statementsJD makes about the World Social Forum (WSF), it is more than apparent that the “alternate forms of politics” (p 2466) she means to uphold does not go far beyond the mini-malist vision of the WSF.3 JD goes with Parameswaran and Isaac on “the need to move beyond class politics”, “that devel-opment is the major terrain of anti-imperi-alist struggles, and, that wider alliances have to be built here”, “the loosening of class politics not to be depoliticisation but rather a remedy to it” and in this respect “they differ significantly” with the radi-cals (p 2466). In response to this, we would contend that while having wider alliances in anti-imperialist struggles (though not merely in the realm of devel-opment) is eminently desirable, it should be no pretext for compromising on the leadership of the basic producing classes, the working class in the informal sector in particular, if we are to achieve fundamen-tal social transformation. Apparently, the author’s consistent thrust towards finding common grounds between contending political positions reflects the political orientation of the GCSMs that promotes collaborative efforts which could take the steam out of political conflicts that in her own words, could threaten “the seams of the liberal political framework” (p 2464).JD wants civil society to be understood in the way in which “new social move-ments were understood as elements of civil society in Latin America” (pp 2466-67). Once again, there is no attempt herein to distinguish betweenGCSMs and OCSMs among these movements. Given the fact that GCSMs are products of neoliberal globalisation, it could cost us dear if we, as “late globalisers”, ignore the important warning that is served from the experi-ence of Latin America which embarked on structural adjustment since 1970s. James Petras (1997) explains how the local, “self-help” projects of NGOs turned attention away from the resources of the state and the wealthy classes. They created an “apo-litical” ambience through their fragmen-tary logic dividing the oppressed sec-tions. The “pragmatism of the NGOs was


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