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A Text Self-Consciously Realist and Never Utopian

Lineages of Political Society by Partha Chatterjee (Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2011; pp xiv + 278, Rs 750.

A Text Self-Consciously Realist and Never Utopian

Rajan Gurukkal

his book by Partha Chatterjee, a leading political theorist, is a thoughtful analysis of postcolonial democratic practices in India. Ten independent essays, grouped under three major heads: Genealogies, Popular Reason and Democracy, constitute an accomplished volume of original thinking.

The opening essay, “Lineages of Political Society”, which is the hermeneutic thread that binds all the essays together, traces the lineage of normative political theory back to the conclusion of the epoch of tyrannical power historically marked by the French Revolution, the British Reform Acts and the civil rights legislation in US in the 19th century, and discusses the mythical space-time of normative theory, the norms, senses and exceptions, the divide between the civil and political, containment of violence, and normative redefi nition.

The section, Genealogies, consisting of three essays, examines 500 years of fear and love towards the European aspects of the rule of subjects, the debate between Nabin Chandra Sen and Rabindranath Tagore on the issue of public condolence on Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s death, and implications of Tagore’s non-nation perspective. Likewise, the three essays in the section Popular Reason seek to analyse the people in utopian and real time, the sacred circulation of national images, and critical facets of popular culture. The last section, Democracy, discusses in three essays themes such as community and capital, demo cracy and economic transfor mation, and the nature of empire and nation today.

The central thesis in the book revolves around three insights: first, the most significant site of transformations in the colonial period was that of civil society; and the most signifi cant transformations

Economic & Political Weekly

march 24, 2012

book review

Lineages of Political Society by Partha Chatterjee (Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2011; pp xiv + 278, Rs 750.

occurring in the postcolonial period are in political society. Second, the question that frames the debate over social transformation in the colonial period was that of modernity, and in political society of the postcolonial period, the framing question is that of democracy. Third, in the context of the latest phase of globalisation of capital, we may well be witnessing an opposition between modernity and democracy, i e, between civil society and political society.

Epistemological Encounter

Unlike Chatterjee’s previous book, The Politics of the Governed, this book is an epistemological encounter with hegemonic western political theory broadly called “liberal political thought” and the universal normative standard that it discursively set. It is maintained that the discourse of western political theory has been rendering plausible the representation of differences about democratic practices in south Asia as deviations from the universal normative standard and hence as imperfections. Every essay either illustrates or anticipates or supplements the central thesis that differences seen in postcolonial democratisation processes are historically contingent characteristics. The author challenges the normative status of liberal democratic theory as it exists today by using the rapidly accumulating empirical evidence for differences in India’s postcolonial democratic experiences. He underlines the need for an epistemological reconstitution of normative political theory in the light of the richness of empirical proofs.

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The discursive effect that exasperates the author is the prejudice that the differences manifest in democratic practices of non-European countries are signs of political immaturity, for they are deviations from the normative universals. He raises the question as to “how normative

political theory as practised in the West managed to fortify itself against the turmoil of the real world of politics and assert the continued validity of its norms as pronounced at its moment of creation”, over the past 300 years. He asks as to how the variety in the struggles against colonial exploitation has managed not to displace the modern political theory from its stable discursive location of normative reasoning. He wonders as to how “the normative political theory was never pushed into constructing a theory of the nation, or of gender, or of race, or indeed of class, except by marginal fi gures, whose efforts were often greeted with hostility”. He asks in annoyance as to “how could it be that the entire conceptual history of modern politics was foretold at the birth of modern political theory”. The questions do evoke serious interventionist concern beyond mere heuristic interest within historical empiricism.

In his cognitive encounter, Chatterjee is trying to point out that the constitutionally ordained norms of civil society, drawn from the particular history of western liberal democracy, were incapable of ensuring justice or fairness for all citizens in a country like India. Hence the compulsion for deviations as improvised in response to current conditions of existence, which, in the absence of an alternative normative order, often turned out to be illegalities or even violence. The author’s encounter with western normative theory is destined to expose the inadequacy of its universal standard rather than to fill the gap with any alternative normative model of the future political order. Chatterjee strongly believes that the paths to our normative future will diverge from those taken in the past, but their direction remains uncertain and open. The perspective is self-consciously realist and not utopian, as he clarifi es.


Chatterjee exposes the fact that “normative debates of modern political theory take place in the time-space of epic proportions, which manifested only after the victorious end of an epochal struggle against the historical despotic power, the normatively unacceptable for the present”. To him the curious thing is that “this negatively designated historical past could even be found to coexist with the normatively constituted order of modern political life in a synchronous, if anomalous, time of the present”. The negatively designated past, he says, “is limitlessly elastic in its capacity to include any historical place and time as stages to be overcome – this phase of backwardness coexist with the normatively constituted order of modern political life in a synchronous time of the present”. The particular sequence in which the different processes of democratisation occurred in western history, he rightly points out, need not be repeated elsewhere. He is impatient of the deviation being called a historical lag that had to be made up, for deviation from liberal norms meant necessarily retardation or corruption of democracy

– a prejudice engendered under the i nescapable discursive control of abstract normative political theory.

Hermeneutic Turn

A book of sustained engagement with the conceptualisation of ideas, institutions, relations and structures, enabled by being strongly anchored in both the empirically given and the theoretically presupposed, Lineages of Political Society is path-breaking. It is not a text of new empirical details but new knowledge created through discovery and interpretation of new meanings and relations in old details, which has an enlightening effect on many things that we take for granted about political practices of our times. It is a shift in the science of interpretation too, providing new concepts and analytical tools that are fit to understand the formation of democratic p ractices in the non-western world. The new knowledge goes against old ideas about the nature of democracy, which grew predominantly out of notions and practices in the west. It exposes the judgment on political practices in the non-western world as instances of imperfections and immaturity, a discursive prejudice based on the construal of democracy in the western world. Chatterjee’s interpretations pieced together constitute a powerful theory in defence of the contemporary Indian democratic practices as differences rather than d eviations. It enables an independent explanation of histories of modern p olitical institutions which are not part of the genealogy of western democracy.

Although the book does not boast of a new normative theory as an alternative to the western, its critique of liberal political theory, understandings of contemporary capitalism, interpretation of nationalism and populism, conceptualisation of nationalist thought and colonial world, and formulation of “political society” marks a rupture with the discursive notions engendered by western concept of democracy. One experiences the rise of a new political theory of postcolonial democracy, and a hermeneutic turn in the historiography of the contemporary Indian politics. Even though most of the illustrations in the book are drawn from India, the conceptual presuppositions behind them render comparisons with postcolonial democratic processes in countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, plausible. The reason is that democracy, perhaps in most of the present-day world, cannot be brought into being, or even fought for, in the image of western democracy as it exists today, for the norms of the latter once thought to be the universal standard, hardly hold good anymore.

Political Society

The main fallout of Chatterjee’s epistemological encounter with “Western normative political theory” is his concept of “political society”, an empathetic construct. “Political society”, he argues,

is a domain of politics where particular population groups organise to press upon governmental authorities their specifi c demands for basic necessities such as housing, food, livelihood, daily amenities, and so on, which they have thus far, provided for themselves by violating the law or administrative regulations or established civic norms. They may be squatters on public

march 24, 2012

land or ticketless commuters on public transport, or illegal users of water and electricity, or hawkers on city streets, or manufacturers in the informal sector violating pollution or taxation or labour regulations.

This is the domain that distinguishes Indian democracy from other capitalist democracies. These groups do have the formal status of citizens and use the space of democratic politics to make their demands, sometimes even violently. Governmental authorities accommodate them as exceptions within the general structure of normative regulations, but without treating them as proper citizens belonging to the civil society. “They make their claims on government, and in turn are governed, not within the framework of stable constitutionally defi ned rights and laws, but rather through temporary, contextual and unstable arrangements arrived at through direct political negotiations”. Chatterjee’s contention is that a great deal of democratic politics in India is about such negotiations. According to him what made Indian democracy different is a split between a domain of properly constituted civil society and a more ill-defined and contingently activated political society.

The uncertain institutionalisation of this domain of political society, he says, can be traced to the absence of a suffi ciently differentiated and fl exible notion of community in the theoretical conception of the modern state. There are two basic features of what he calls political society: One is its demands belong to the interface of legality and illegality pressurising administrative policies to negotiate between claims and benefi ts. The other is the inseparability of its acts between the voluntary and coercive. This is a domain contingently activated as a contrast of the properly constituted civil society. Chatterjee’s proposition is: “Civil society is where corporate capital is hegemonic, whereas political society is the space of management of noncorporate capital”.

An unencumbered grasp of what political society means and how it works is fundamental to Chatterjee’s book and the methodology sought to achieve the objective is that of genealogical investigation and empirical analysis. Some of the

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essays vindicate the author’s search for the genealogy of political society back to the 18th century, along the course of Indian response to colonial forms of government, and within certain strands of anti-colonial politics. It was his attempt to understand the evolution of Indian democracy in the 1990s, which led him to formulate the concept of political society as a disjuncture within the democratic process itself. He seeks to try and provide theoretical self-justifi cation for conceiving political society as distinct from civil society by developing on the Gramscian hunch about the possible disjuncture between the political and the civil spheres. In liberal political theory, political society is the sphere of political organisation of citizen’s demands through representation, voting, political parties, etc, whereas civil society is the associative public sphere of economic and cultural life, but with the same principles of freedom, equality, rule of law, and so on, prevailing in both spheres, suggestive of no disjuncture between the two.

Chatterjee makes liberal political theory’s normative characterisation of the two spheres irrelevant by elaborating on the disjuncture, valid within classical Marxism. Empirically well anchored in the changing democratic practices of the vulnerable vote-force, which let the legal and illegal or the peaceful and violent converge, Chatterjee locates his political society in a volatile space-time and empathetically defines it, igno ring the highbrow scepticism. One is convinced of the intelligibility and analytical viability of the category of political society when he elaborates for the fi rst time on its features such as populism or the informal sector of production or the role of violence.

Future Democracy

Chatterjee shows insights into the features and dynamic of future democracy through his probing of the transformation processes of capital, peasant politics and governmental technologies. In the chapter, “The Rule of Subjects”, he works out the archaeology of the modern Indian republic by tracing its genealogy from dharma (ethical postulates)

Economic & Political Weekly

march 24, 2012

through niti (justice) to prajatantra (statecraft). He thinks that the more the will of the subjects shifts from an engagement with sovereignty to a concern for the daily nitty-gritty of governmentality, the more the principles of dharma yield to those of niti. He argues that as prajasakti (citizens’ strength) a sserts itself, the demands mount for governmental services just as ever newer methods of politics get devised to s ecure them. But the ruling powers as a class coalition normally resist the a dvance of the citizenry. To him it is through this power struggle between the subjects and the rulers that the f uture practices of Indian democracy get defi ned.

Chatterjee believes that it has become important to revisit the question of the basic structures of power in Indian society, especially the position of the peasantry. This is not because he thinks that the advance of capitalist industrial growth is inevitably breaking down peasant communities and turning them into a proletarian workforce, as has been predicted innumerable times in the last century and a half. On the contrary, he argues that the forms of capitalist industrial growth now under way in India will make room for the preservation of the peasantry, but under completely altered conditions. Chatterjee begins by referring to the incidents of violent agitation in different regions of India, especially in West Bengal and Orissa against the acquisition of agricultural land for industry. He sees the “peasant insurgency thesis” inadequate in today’s context. So is the case with the “vanishing village” thesis of Dipankar Gupta. Although proletarianisation and dissolution of the peasantry as historical consequences of primitive accumulation are still continuing, there is a reverse effect exerted by governmental technologies that have been expanding in India in the last three decades, as a result of the penetration of the developmental state under conditions of electoral democracy. Chatterjee says that the State is no longer an external entity to the peasant community, but internal to its everyday life as an agency providing education, healthcare, food, roadways, water, electricity, agricultural technology,

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emergency relief and so on. In that sense, the relation between peasant and the state has been, and is still being, redefi ned.

Chatterjee argues that a corres ponding transformation has taken place in the structure of political power too. There is the “dominant class coalition model” ably put across by Sudipto Kaviraj, based on Gramsci’s concept of “passive revolution” as a blocked dialectic, which ascribes to the process of class domination in postcolonial India its own dynamic. Power had to be shared because no one class had the ability to exercise hegemony on its own. Chatterjee does agree that “passive revolution” is still valid for India, but to him it is crucial to notice the fact that its structure and dynamic have undergone a change. He says that changes introduced since 1990s such as the dismantling of the licence regime, greater entry of foreign capital and foreign consumer goods; and the opening up of sectors such as telecommunications, transport, infrastructure, mining, banking, insurance, etc, to private capital, have transformed the framework of class dominance. All this, according to Chatterjee, has led to a change in the very composition of the capitalist class. Governmental technologies have deeply penetrated and turned the peasants into a highly state-dependent community. He thinks that the forms of current capitalism in India under conditions of electoral democracy require new conceptual work, for none of the known theories is appropriate to explain them.

Chatterjee argues that with the continuing rapid growth of the Indian economy, the hegemonic hold of corporate capital over the domain of civil society is likely to continue. To him this will inevitably mean continued primitive accumulation ensuring more and more of primary producers likely to be divested of their means of production, most of whom are unlikely to be absorbed in the new growth sectors of the economy and quite likely to be marginalised and turned into a “dangerous class”.

Critical Appreciation

The political society of Chatterjee, a quite creative construct, that draws a conceptual map of emerging practices


of new political societies of the eastern world, is a historicised projection of the empirical present, not in the track of any pre-established interpretative scheme heading towards any predetermined meaning. In Chatterjee’s own words, it

is a different conceptualisation of the subject of political practice as concrete selves necessarily acting within multiple networks of collective obligations and solidarities to workout strategies of coping with, resisting, or using to their advantage the vast array of technologies of power deployed by the modern state.

The conceptual map of emerging practices in a democracy is profound and the contemporary empirical detail rich, albeit the historicised projection tends to be hasty and hence not painstakingly rigorous.

Chatterjee’s conceptualisation, like Jean-Luc Nancy’s, dissolves the Hegelian/ Marxian binaries like the self and other, form and content, essence and appearance, base and superstructure, and so on. It is structuralist Marxism together with leftist creative pragmatism that works as a leavening influence in Chatterjee’s conceptualisation, as in the case of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou and others. One experiences the Marxist creativity of Laclau, Negri, Michel Hardt and Nancy in his essays. It empowers us to imagine community politics setting aside sovereignty and domination as conceived by Jean-Luc Nancy who sees no distinction between ontology and ethics. Chatterjee’s is the Zizekian position of taking ontological determination of capital as the real, which is like Nancy’s equidistance between Heidegger and Marx.

Mapping Theory

Chatterjee claims to be consistently adhering to Marx’s methodological pre mise (not as a traditional Marxist), with a view to positioning his political theory against global capitalism. The bearing of his i nterpretations on the power of negativity draws them closer to Marxian social t heory, notwithstanding the fact that his hermeneutics as such is not Marxian. He thinks that even Marx, the most powerful critique, failed to offer an effective challenge to normative liberal political t heory, probably due to the latter’s subordination of the political to the economic. Historians who seriously base their hermeneutics on historical materialism cannot agree with this argument, because this subordination is only in the last instance, and hence regarding political principles as the instrumental means for securing economic ends, is mecha nical Marxism. They, holding the primary source fi rst, go by the economy – polity simultaneity u nder overdeterminism.

The historicised projection of the empirical present is seemingly an untailored appendage to what Chatterjee views as a principal task of political theory today – a conceptual mapping of the contemporary democratic practices. Any historian viewing process-analysis fundamental to her methodology cannot be happy about Chatterjee’s hopping above the course to rush with conceptual mapping. A Marxist historian would expect

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march 24, 2012 vol xlvii no 12


him to have grounded his political philosophy on the social theory of the simultaneity of material and ideational processes at the micro level, but with the causal primacy in the last instance clear. It is my feeling as a historian that this would have helped him speak about the material process of philosophical differentiation rather than the cultural process of the phenomenon of difference. Nevertheless, no historian can push the demand that it is only a matter of opinion beyond a point, for Chatterjee has strong points of theoretical justifi cation for his choice of focus and ways of doing political philosophy. A critical left, he insists, to hold fast his right to be critical.

People with the hangover of liberal political theory tend to quarrel with

--Chatterjee over the differentiation between the civil and political societies as well as organised and unorganised politics. The reason is that Chatterjee’s characterisation of the civil society, like his “political society”, transcends the current puzzle around the former (civil society) and precludes its overlapping with the latter (political society).

His view, that just because populism is the most pervasive democratic politics, all populist moves are not worthy of support, provokes the postcolonial radicals who take every populist surge as ideal, and therefore quarrel with him.

A lot more secrets about postcolonial democracy come undone in this wonderful narrative, steady and systematic, exploring a new domain of the contemporary democratic relations and practices.


’ -

Any attempt to summarise them is sure to be superfluous. Every essay in the volume is too exhaustive for us to make an attempt to wrap-up things in any form. Chatterjee’s interpretations there will have a remarkable methodological influence on areas of knowledge such as political philosophy, social theory, postcolonial historiography and culture studies. The mode of perception and conceptual appreciation that his book exemplifies will be indispensable for anyone wishing to understand the nature and history of democracy, its practices and functions in the contemporary nonwestern world.

Rajan Gurukkal ( is with the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala.


Economic & Political Weekly

march 24, 2012 vol xlvii no 12

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