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On State-Society Relations in the Study of Subaltern Politics

by Alf Nilsen on June 15, 2015
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How do subaltern groups negotiate and resist dispossession, disenfranchisement and stigma in neoliberal India? This is the question at the heart of a recently published volume, which I have co-edited with Srila Roy, entitled New Subaltern Politics: Reconceptualizing Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India (Oxford University Press). Drawing on contributions from leading scholars in the field of critical South Asian studies, and exploring case studies that range from the struggles of the urban poor in Gujarat to the activism of sexual subalterns in eastern India and the mobilisation of artisanal fishing communities in Tamil Nadu, the book engages this question in critical dialogue with the analytical templates developed in and through the Subaltern Studies Project.

NSPCOVERSMALLIn this post, I introduce my contribution to the volume – a chapter called “For a Historical Sociology of State-Society Relations in the Study of Subaltern Politics” – which presents an interrogation of the ways in which state-society relations have been theorised by different members of the Subaltern Studies collective as well as in more recent perspectives which draw on Michel Foucault’s concept-metaphor “governmentality”.

State-Society Relations in the Subaltern Studies Project

As is well known, the Subaltern Studies project departed from the foundational claim that elites and subalterns inhabited different and opposing political domains during the Indian struggle for freedom. This claim also had ramifications for how different members of the collective conceived of the state and state-society relations. In the work of Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj in particular, it is possible to detect a conceptual narrative that runs as follows: the precolonial state was a very distant entity for most subaltern groups, who seem to have inhabited something akin to what James Scott refers to as “non-state spaces”. Despite intentions and attempts to the contrary, the marginality of the state in relation to the lifeworlds of India’s subaltern minorities was reproduced under colonialism.

Crucially, the narrative goes, this marginality was again reproduced in the postcolonial context. In Kaviraj’s well-known formulation in the important essay “On State, Society and Discourse in India”, the modern Indian state – which is portrayed as a transmogrification of its colonial predecessor – failed to “create or re-constitute popular common sense around the political world, taking the new conceptual vocabulary of rights, institutions, and impersonal power into the vernacular discourse of rural or small-town Indian society”. Similar ideas were mined by Partha Chatterjee in his crucial book The Nation and Its Fragments, which has had significant influence on postcolonial scholarship. And his more recent work on “the politics of the governed” is predicated on a modified version of this claim in the sense that it insists on a bifurcation between, on the one hand, “civil society” as a domain of elite politics where the liberal precepts of citizenship reign, and, on the other hand, “political society” as a domain of subaltern politics where claims are negotiated around governmental technologies of rule.

In my contribution to New Subaltern Politics, I argue that the basic problem with this perspective is that it fails to resonate with the actual nature of subaltern politics – both historically and in the contemporary context. Precolonial forms of peasant protest were clearly founded on a moral economy of rule which defined what was and what was not legitimate in terms of how relations between kingly rulers and their subjects were organised. And I have argued in a previous contribution to Progress in Political Economy, peasant uprisings during the British Raj combined idioms from this moral economy with elements of imperial ideologies of dominance – and eventually also nationalist political idioms – in what was essentially contentious negotiations of the terms of their incorporation into the colonial political economy. In the contemporary context, the proposed division between civil and political society collapses in the face of the actual political practices of subaltern groups – documented, for example, in the work of Ajantha Subramanian, Jeffrey Witsoe, and Rina Agarwala – which draw on and appropriate existing idioms of citizenship. In doing so, of course, they arguably expand the meaning of citizenship in contemporary Indian society.

Alf 1The Foucauldian Turn and its Impasses

For some time now, important new ground has been broken in the study of Indian state-society relationships by an emergent body of scholarship that shows how exploited and oppressed groups utilise the state in a myriad of ways. Many of the key contributions to this literature draw on a Foucauldian understanding of power relations and state power. As I show in my chapter through a discussion of the work of Akhil Gupta and Aradhana Sharma, Foucault’s notion of governmentality is put to use to understand how state-sponsored programmes geared towards improving the welfare and enabling the empowerment of poorer groups provide interstitial spaces where subaltern groups can articulate new forms of political assertion.

A key virtue of the Foucauldian turn in the study of subaltern politics in contemporary India is that it has enabled a conceptual shift away from the assumed existence of political domains that are hermetically sealed off from each other and towards an engagement with the relational nature of subaltern engagements with and experiences of what is sometimes referred to as “the everyday state”. In doing so, it has advanced research in the direction of being able to engage analytically with the complex and composite dynamics that characterise actually existing subaltern politics in India today. However, there is a serious lacuna in this body of work, and that lacuna is ultimately rooted in its theoretical underpinnings. I argue in my chapter that the Foucauldian emphasis on the decentred nature of power comes with the limitation of not being able to properly explain how and why, at specific and contingent conjunctures, the exercise of state power achieves a certain unity across dispersed sites. Ultimately, this makes it difficult to consider the ways in which the state simultaneously enables and constrains subaltern agency and the limitations that exist to pursuing oppositional projects from below in and through the state.

To move beyond this impasse, I argue, will necessitate the crafting of a historical-sociological approach which is capable of conceptualising how the micro-politics of situated state-society relations and the political economy of capitalist development and state formation as “master change processes” are mutually constitutive. The objective of such an exercise will be to investigate the ways in which specific constitutions of this relationship will contain both conjunctural possibilities for and structural constraints to pursuing subaltern resistance in relation to the state.

Alf 2

Gramscian Resources for an Alternative Perspective

What I propose in my contribution to New Subaltern Politics is an approach to such an historical sociology that draws on key resources from Gramsci’s work. First of all, this entails understanding subalternity not as a distinctive way of being, but as a form of adverse incorporation into sets of intersecting power relations. It is this incorporation that enables the exercise of “the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of subordinate groups”, and as Gramsci was at pains to point out, the construction of hegemony proceeds through the making and unmaking of unstable equilibria of compromise between subaltern and dominant groups.

State formation plays a crucial role in hegemonic processes. As Gramsci argued, dominant groups under capitalism seek “to construct an organic passage from the other classes into their own”. And this organic passage is constructed in no small part through the fusion of political and civil society in what he referred to as the integral state – that is, a distinctively modern form of state which, in Peter Thomas’s formulation, achieves “an increasingly more sophisticated internal articulation and condensation of social relations within a given state form”.

These orientations have ramifications for how we understand the collective agency of subaltern groups. At a very general level, the central point is that the embeddedness of subaltern groups in hegemonic formation entails that their collective agency will also tend to proceed through contentious appropriations of what Adam Morton has called “the social condensations of hegemony”. More specifically, because state formation is so crucial to the building of organic passages between dominant and subaltern groups, such appropriations will also encompass the institutions, idioms, and technologies of rule of the state.

Now, given that these politico-bureaucratic forms – despite being moulded through concessions and compromises – ultimately buttress the reproduction of hegemony, subaltern groups are likely to encounter limitations and constrictions as they contest their adverse incorporation; subaltern groups, as Gramsci noted, “are always subject to the activity of ruling groups, even when they rebel and rise up …”. But then again, it is precisely the experience of such limitations that might propel subalterns to develop forms of self-organisation that are better suited to advance their oppositional projects.

There is no once-and-for-all answer to how these equations will work themselves out. Rather, it is the task and the challenge of historical sociological inquiry to trace the links between specific sets of state-society relations and the conflictual unfolding of capitalist development and state formation as master change processes in specific conjunctures in order to illuminate the achievements and limitations of particular trajectories of mobilisation, and the prospects for advancing further along “the line of development towards integral autonomy”.

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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