Rajarshi Dasgupta & Prasanta Chakravarty
This dialogue, written in 2008, tried to unpack the terms of thinking about the transformations in Indian politics, especially in West Bengal, following the turn of events in Nandigram. It tried to appraise left-liberal issues of governance, and develop new categories to understand some of the forms of resistance at that time. The speakers were also conversing, at the same time, with a shared sense of the changing topography of the political. New kinds of spaces, new practices and interventions, new kinds of concerns were presenting unfamiliar gestures within the familiar structures of power. Things looked new but also disturbing. Much has changed now, of course. The dialogue approaches these questions with three interwoven but distinct engagements: a resurgent conception of ethics, the problems of realpolitik and the political role of aesthetics. The outcome is not a standard article of political science, but a revisionist excursion with a touch of lightness, which raises questions about the desired forms of life and practices in a democracy like India. The discussion tries to go beyond the familiar Marxist and liberal arguments on agency and self and re-frame the role of subjectivity and matter in politics. Keeping the predominant institutional forms of politics like the parties and election in the background, the exchange speculates on the new kinds of political associations and potential communities waiting on the wings of democracy.
Hope was twelve hours gone/And frightful a nightfall
folded rueful a day/Nor rescue, only rocket and
lightship, shone, /And lives at last were washing away.
The Wreck of the Deutschland–Gerard Manley Hopkins
Prasanta: Whether the succession of events that have unfolded in West Bengal over the past two year or so, reaching a sort of crescendo in the months of October-November, 2007, are momentous enough to make any tangible difference in the social and political life of the state is still an open question, but going by the sheer volume of protests and the visibility factor, these are extraordinary times. The processes of institutional politics are still unfolding though, with some interesting results coming up in the 2008 Panchayat elections. Having a long-standing interest in studying left politics in India and thinking about the language of politics in more general terms, I was wondering about your reactions on certain key points that have been emerging since. There are certainly diverse issues of interest involved here, but one important talking point pivots around questions of ethics, or their lack of, in everyday politics in West Bengal.
Rajarshi: It is a testing time for the Indian Left, I agree, but I don’t think it will lead to a change in the power structure or in the language of everyday politics too soon. I also doubt if questions of ethics are being raised directly and pointedly, even if we sense a moral overtone in the indignation of some segments of society and in their unusual modes of protest. This may have more to do with a growing disquiet with our party system’s tiresome monopoly over representative politics, seen as instrumental, manipulative, unsavory and untrustworthy by many. The blackmail of having no rational alternative, flogged by the left, right and centre alike, has narrowed the political space so much that any intervention begins from a place called ‘apolitical’, hence, mistaken as ethical. This doesn’t mean there is no ethical side to what is happening. But I want to be careful in thinking how exactly such dissent is ethical: because it is not political? I will disagree with that. It is useful to separate the ethical and moral here, as the latter has more currency in common sense and what we might describe as the liberal contractual language. Indeed, most party discourses contain appeals to morality: we know their competing notions of virtue and good life; we hear them pledging truth all the time. But the sense of these properties has become a matter of cynic polemic and superficial reasoning, as we know, in such opaque terms that only cadres can administer and make careers out of them. As Nandigram shows, the language of politics has been replete with moral appeal on both sides, yet it sadly remains bereft of justice, tolerance, transparency and equal decision-making to a great degree. Besides, how is the moral lack of a ruling party at all relevant if it continues to enjoy electoral majority? (Should we not consider Narendra Modi’s election as a lesson?) It seems to me a crisis of the techniques of representative politics, a crisis of the parliament seemingly lacking energy for democratic change, which must be underlined before we discuss the ethical side.
Prasanta: One appreciates your distinction between the moral and the ethical, but in popular imagination one can still see that a language of virtue and conscience being coupled with a scathing criticism of an ossified and dangerous culture of totalitarianism that has become synonymous with West Bengal. It is here that one notices a real possibility: the collective across the civil society discourse and the one around extra-parliamentary political order both would galvanize around the ethical language of virtue and conscience. But this could of course be dangerous. Both these groups have thus can rise, in fact have risen, above the contractual language of moderate mainstream liberalism as well that of official Marxism. There is a sudden and momentous realization among sections of the much vilified Bengali middle class at least, that there is something more to politics and society than the metaphors of merit or equality around which much of our contemporary political discussions revolve. There is some hope but it could be mistaken too. But, I have two questions here. One, what constitutes this new language? And why would this language of virtue itself be not a platform that would demand a certain kind of austerity that would be equally top-down and closed?
Rajarshi: That is the question I have in mind too. What is new about this new language? If we are to go by the discourse generated by Singur and Nandigram’s resistance, we find the traditional Marxist polemic argued in terms of the political economy, coupled with alternative frameworks of development argued in terms of rights and social justice. There is along with this a lonely but steady defense of the so-called ‘non-modern’ ways of life by the likes of Mahasweta Devi, who comes closest to voicing a radical ‘language of conscience’ in this context. But there is also another, ‘modern’ way of life promised by the government and the ruling party, which opposes this language with another call to conscience – to uphold law and order, to see the bigger picture, to ensure ‘peace’, even if one is deeply pained by Nandigram. Now, do you want to destroy the peasants and their way of life at a time when they are starving and committing suicides? Conversely, do you want to condemn a communist party at a time it is fighting the American sway and helping the Congress to keep the BJP at bay? What communists are doing in West Bengal must be balanced with their deeds in the past, and what they are doing elsewhere. Similar kinds of dilemma are rife in the e-mails, entries and exchanges found in the internet about Singur and Nandigram, especially in development-dialogue-blogspot and www.kafila.org. The catch is that if A claims B is no more communist, B already claims that A is anticommunist, and if C says B is undemocratic, D can say C supports violence anyway. And where does our conscience lie? So you will understand if I remain skeptic with regard to a ‘language of conscience’ opposing a ‘culture of totalitarianism’, which has been the language of radicalism for long. There is a tendency in such language to bypass the patient reasoning necessary to tackle the ways of power and the pressing needs of a society. Such a language often voices no more than the ambition of a section excluded from power, without ever saying how it will differently wield if given the power. This is the sense we may get very strongly from looking at the BSP today for instance. Think of the sixties. Are we not looking at a ruling clique in West Bengal that shouted hoarse over violent and unethical ways of the Congress back then? Can we distinguish between the aggressive style of that Congress establishment and that of the CPIM all that much? I think we should be actually asking if a ‘language of virtue and conscience’ can be an integral part of ‘cultures of totalitarianism’, if their opposition is only superficial, if they actually nurse the same kind of oppressive power. Such issues may mobilize both civil society and extra-parliamentary politics but they cannot mean the same thing to those with different stakes in the social order. I agree we have to think about what you refer to as ‘lack of ethics’ in a sense, which has to do with the hypocrisy and deception circulating in the field of democratic politics. For a career in politics now it seems you need a competence bordering criminal – that too on a systematic scale only some parties are able to muster. More than anything, one must have a brutal monopoly over violence like a muscular and aggressive nation state. This is how the US offers freedom to Iraq, how the BJP has ushered growth in Gujarat, how the CPIM plans to bring development to Nandigram. If there is an ethical side to the current crisis it needs to address this powerful mechanism of duplicity globalization has gifted to democratic politics. Though I don’t seriously think a new language of political ethics is emerging, there is it seems a clear exhaustion with the existing one.
Prasanta: One focal concern that you have raised already is the crisis of parliamentary techniques in politics. I underline your use of the word technique, in the sense of craft or art, as opposed to political practice that is perhaps more direct and transparent, shall we say. This particular approach to the political you find fundamentally undemocratic and corruptible. On the other hand, you have implied a few markers or positive traits of the ethical, which could be interesting starting points: justice, tolerance, transparency and equal decision-making. While you are correct in identifying that the language of virtue and conscience have somewhat lost their sheen by repeated and utterly irresponsible usages, I think such metaphors, if wielded carefully, can become powerful political rallying points, and be even consonant with the ethical attributes that you broach. I am referring to a politics of virtue in the deep sense of the term. Let me make myself clear through a distant example. In Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 classic Sansho the Bailiff, set in eleventh century feudal Heian Japan, a brother and sister, children of a highly liberal nobleman, journeying to meet their exiled father, become separated from their mother and are sold into slavery. As a political allegory the film raises important ethical questions about Japan’s contemporary social hierarchies as well as about its disastrous military adventurism in the 1930s and 1940s. Seen from a political point of view, the film seems to expound the purest liberalism. Against tyranny it sets law; against captivity, freedom. The story takes place, as the opening caption informs us, “in an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings,” and charts rather imaginatively the early stirrings of proto-democratic consciousness. All viewers remember the words that the father teaches his son before being sent into exile: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.” And at this point the father delivers this message over a miniature effigy of the Buddhist goddess Kwannon, entrusted to the boy as a parting gift. The film here takes a meaningful ethical turn that takes the ideas of tolerance and equal-decision making above democratic activist politics, as we know it today. For though the message of concern and care is compatible with liberalism, in another way it seems to raise it a notch higher. When the son eventually frees the slaves and resigns his title as a governor, viewers appreciate the full implications of such a virtuous terrain that is also just and transparent. Power and office are mistrusted, sacrifice and simplicity vindicated. We shall come to the relationship between art and politics, especially in Bengal, in greater detail shortly but I want to underline a point right here. Mizoguchi does not sentimentalise his subject and that gives a spare force to his vision that distinguishes it successfully from the morality of virtuous politics that you are sceptical about. I am not for the moment equating Heian Japan with present day West Bengal, but I feel there is a possibility of rummaging and re-discovering a language of politics that can deepen the usual preoccupations of the liberal left—debates on individuality or equality, for instance. One would expect a similar deep sense of virtue from the author of Andher Sparsher Moton (Touch of the Unsighted—Pranabesh Sen Memorial Lecture, 2007), where he highlights, taking a cue from Tagore, a language and tone of calm resolve in our daily social and political transaction that may lead to a poiesis far deeper than craft. May be, in spite of their many differences with Sankha Ghosh, many on the fringes or outside of the parliamentary system and disillusioned with its functioning, will agree on this simple ethics and give it a far more radical but practical political shape in West Bengal rather than fan idioms of retribution and reprisal.
Rajarshi: Before talking about the ethical side, let me clarify that I am not opposing the word technique to practice, like one opposes artificial to natural. I am only trying to deepen the sense of what practice involves, technique is a way of thinking about that in a more differentiated manner. Also, by justice, tolerance, transparency and equal decision-making I meant the essential values of democracy rather than defining traits of ethical, which we may be approaching differently. Correct me if wrong, but you seem to see the ethical like a near-perfect order – of a subject embodying restraint of being, learning to speak a language of virtue, which everybody from the civil society to middle class, parliament, public, etc will recognize as ethical and protest in absence. I will not deny this, for it will be impossible to communicate without such a language in the first place. But this line of thinking may neglect a most critical aspect of the ethical – an attitude, propensity, craving and movement, against the received ethics of normal, to intensify, to push the ‘normal’ and take it to its limits. This attitude per se may not be linked to civil society, republican values or middle class life, but it must be seen as forging a certain relation to freedom and power. It is difficult to give this a name with positive property; but it is easy to see how it renders an opposing attitude as unethical. The important thing is to understand the source and limits of our dominant sense of the ethical, which turn unethical as these limits are breached, often by minor articulations. I have not seen the Mizoguchi film, but something strikes me immediately about the plot – how virtue or proto-democratic consciousness is highly religious – piety to be precise. It is piety that later transforms into a gesture of renunciation for the son, beneath the secular fabric of the act, valued by radicals, left, liberals and religious believers alike. I have spoken elsewhere about a sacrificing feature of Indian Marxists whose act of renunciation also mobilized a moral authority and likely coercive power, where this gesture gave control over other lives insidiously. Let us ask what a sacrifice seeks to consolidate – is it not a model of life we feel has authority everybody should be subject to? Is it not a new mode of power imposed on the plane of difference and equality? Does it not reduce individual life to an outcome calculus like a function of production? But you are also talking of a deep sense of virtue, which goes beyond petty individual reasoning to care for the others, what we come across in poetic discourses. I agree that a deep sense of ethical can open up new questions; we could talk later about this at more length. But I don’t think it is a case of ‘simple ethics’. Beyond the calm repose, I believe, poetic discourse carries the attitude I could describe as critically ethical, which moves towards a new sense of justice, beyond what is already the law. This operation is by no means simple or natural. It does not want to simply restore by reason a balance lacking in the present, but more to engage the madness to figure out how to cope with the present in other ways. It is a strategic relation with power, rather self-contradictory attack on the monumentality of political event and centrality of the citizen subject. My favorite example is Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, where the partition of India is taking place inside an asylum, whose inmates are wondering where their native places are going to go; which nation they would not care to join. One man climbs up a tree and refuses to come down; another one cants a parody of nationalist slogans, while Toba Tek Singh dies in a spot in between the two nations. I think the greatness of the story lies in straddling two different frameworks of ethics – the historical one where the nation is a just outcome, but not quite so in another one. There is a third frame here as well, where moral reasoning is made available to madness, where a different sense of justice lurks in the minority, eluding our comprehension. I am interested in that kind of sense of the ethical.
Prasanta: I am certainly not trying to politicize virtue, nor wish to imagine a telos of perfectibility, or flourish. I do believe though that there can hardly be an easy equation between a deep language of virtue and normalcy. I think, and you have noticed rightly, that it is highly unusual and out of bounds for everyday received notions of ethics to inculcate a truly simple sense of everyday interaction. And in this context, I was referring to simplicity, again not in the sense of natural repose but as an attribute that needs to be acquired, honed with great tenacity and practice or sometimes may be epiphanic or revelatory (in a utopian way, not in a divine sense), chanced in moments of inspired dementia may be. Such a revelatory moment may be passing by us in Bengal now. For instance, that the ruling left front lacks transparency in governance and its leaders constantly use political legalese in order to obfuscate issues may give rise to a simple sense of repugnance, which in turn might accumulate into unusual but positive kinds of ethical-political action. In other words, is it possible for the madness of Tek Singh to get translated into something as subtly constructive, and in an equally grand scale, that highlighted his death in no man’s land? The dominant and fashionable sense of the ethical, as I see it, are rather marked by narrow activism or uncritical nostalgia, attributes that erode the possibility of a genuine complex demos. A far-reaching political vision about West Bengal needs to forge such inspired madness with the possible; be conscious and inclusive about its political goals, without letting go off the trace, the residual, the unknowable. Everyone, including the minority, has an investment in such freedom. Everyone, given a situation, an event, may experiment and cross the limits posted by the banal mediocrity of the existing political-economic choices.
Your other query touches a very nodal area in our discussion. The central point about Sansho is not renunciation and sacrifice, which are incidental and only taken recourse to after the political and social acts of an other-regarding nature, of abolishing slavery and feudal excesses, are taken care of. I would, however, be cautious before concluding that such an attitude necessarily stems from piety or compassion, traits that can have distinct patronizing and righteous overtures, depending on the context, and can take us back to what you began by questioning: a vapid moral virtuousness. I could not have agreed more with you that such pursuits for a pure domain of ethics have often quickly led to consolidation of authority. The care that the father-son duo symbolizes in the film, on the other hand, is rather highly political and democratic, so that the materiality of the decisions and gestures are never ever high browed or condescending, never descends into a search for purity. All players interested in constructively radicalizing a polity, not least in West Bengal, could well appreciate this crucial distinction.
Let me now address another of your observations quickly. Like many, I do share your tiredness with the existing language of hypocrisy and deceit that underlines the nation state and what runs as democratic political language today in West Bengal. To take one critique against liberalism seriously, politics is always about understanding and fighting your enemy; it cannot be about consensus building, regardless of the political system. Politics is an art practiced within constant and unfolding anarchy. Guile, deviousness and even violence have been the basis of running a polity in any real sense. Ethics, if deployed at all, has to be discussed within the parameters of the techniques of real politic. The left liberal ideas of stability and progress are mirages, needless obfuscations that distance us from what actually constitutes the political. Are we then sentimentalizing politics by highlighting the luxury of tiredness and ennui? You can see that I am in a sense arguing against myself here.
Rajarshi: I am somewhat interested in the luxury of tiredness and ennui, both as a particular kind of relation to doing things and as a chance to question their meaning. I believe the negativity attached to them has less to do with being human and more with living like a subject made responsible for doing things in a particular way. If the tired runs away from this boring duty, if ennui offers an escape, why not – what is bad about escape? The important thing to see is if there is a sense of responsibility outside an oppressive subjectivity, if it generates new kinds of capacities and possibilities of being, which do not necessarily have to be respectable from our perspective. I think we find strongly competing notions of justice in such ways of being that deceive the normal sense of the ethical, in Foucault’s use of the normal. Our sense of the relation of power and ethics must involve an understanding of the relation of this normal and ethical, how a set of values are allocated through the techniques of governing, how they are modified or displaced by other techniques. Let me give an example. Many perceptive social scientists working on village politics have noted long enough that the same family will distribute its members into supporting different and opposing parties, like diversifying the risk of political investment. This certainly is not the sense we have of political affiliation in the urban middle class families or in the civil society, which is perhaps more uniform. In both rural and urban cases, cadres now oversee the mobilization and the CPIM has the best managerial crop of cadres, with a highly developed surveillance mechanism that tally votes at the household level. It is then all the more intriguing to see how new techniques are emerging to slip through this totalizing mechanism in a way that can disturb our sense of what is ethical. That is precisely the problem of citing a substance as ethical and its absence as lack of ethics right away. We are looking at a shifting ground the moment we step into the political. This shift, which constitutes the new political move, may have acquired three features worthwhile to note: Firstly, it is not about aberration and correction of human nature, like a progressive self-critique of society. Secondly, it is increasingly turning less towards knowledge or an ideological narrative and more towards audacity and taking risk as the crucial political assets. Thirdly, it is becoming attuned to a gaming sensibility with regard to capitalism, which follows but also bends rules in a way that carries a process beyond the intention.
Prasanta: In more radical spheres there is always this issue of governmentality as a by-product of Enlightenment that has to be purged from politics. Existential issues have always been an important factor to the thinking left who have never trusted the ruling party. And yet I have some misgivings. Notice, for instance, Dilip Simeon’s point in a private mail: “It gets more complicated. Cabals always have an exoteric versus esoteric sphere of discourse. In inner circles, they will admit wrongdoing. In public, they might confess to a ‘mistake’. But—and this is crucial—the wrongdoing is always an intellectual error. It is never a moral failure, because Science is beyond ethics, and scientists separate truth and reason from the notion of the Good.” The basic issue is to question politics as a science or vocation. The whole idea of intellectualism is being shunned as non-ethical, corrupt per se. I find that quite disturbing simply because it might lead to a common sense notion of ethics that will demand a far stringent language of dutiful passivity. I would rather argue for a democratic space where the angst is thrashed out in public, not internalized. It is interesting to see that that ruling left is now using Vidyasagar, its bete noire for decades, in order to legitimize an anti-enlightenment scheme of accommodating ‘religious right’, after the Taslima fiasco. This is the danger of indulging in an anti liberal metaphor too doggedly. I think, such reactions make it all the more necessary to spell out the tenets of this new ethics that everyone is talking about, so that it is not hijacked by opportunists and right-wingers. What is your sense on this one?
Rajarshi: Instead of opposing in toto it is better to study governmentality, not simply as a product of the Enlightenment because there may be many kinds of governmentality, if that means flexible strategies of rule over a population. But there is a specific subject and specific ways of subjectivation given to a particular system of governance, which we must realize rather than taking subjectivity and governance as mutually opposed terms. In other words, let us not think of looking away from governmentality to existentialism, but look at their conjugation–how certain governments need to create certain kind of subjects. I think that becoming a particular subject is aligned to a kind of docile subjectivation, which is related to being ruled and living in a particular government without any fuss. The knowledge of other forms of governmentality may feed into possible resistance by multiplying the forms of subjectivation, though some might set store with complete ungovernability. This can be the topic of a longer discussion if you want. But I am tempted to read the mail of Dilip Simeon differently, keeping the word ‘cabal’ side-by-side with his gloss on ‘Science’, throwing up a ‘cabalistic science’, of deceptions and subterfuge. This drift is not anti-intellectual or anti-science but opposed in a way to their basic abuse, to collapsing science and ideology in order to justify a Left party’s violence on the peasants, by some Left stalwarts, like Professor Prabhat Patnaik for example. I feel much of the reaction we are looking at is bound to have a neurotic edge, especially for those who have taken Marxism seriously, on both sides of the Nandigram issue. However, Vidyasagar has never been the bete noire of mainstream Left, but of the Naxalites. The CPIM admires the full range of the ‘Bengal Renaissance’.
Prasanta: This also leads to the question of goodness, and here I think we might agree that there is a large section of people in West Bengal who are strongly interested now more than ever in rising above the contractual language of the market place, the party dictates and the metaphors of ‘spontaneity’ and cycle of violence. What then constitutes a modicum of goodness around which people might feel secure and politically rejuvenated? The question of goodness often inevitably leads to an Aristotelian schema of polis or a Gandhian pattern of austere and self-disciplined life. Do you envisage such alternatives in West Bengal in future? Does such a language of virtuous citizen not clash with the neo-liberal aspirations of the middle class? Also, given that the various political options are not in a terrible hurry in such exercises in ethics, is there scope for pushing the idea of goodness that will have electoral or other fallouts?
Rajarshi: I will disagree with the notion of ‘modicum’ because it reduces ‘goodness’ to the minimum needs of survival – finally a promise, often not kept, of protection against untimely death. It does not extend to what might be called different ‘forms of life’, but makes mere survival the only thing that rights are good for. That is again provided one is capable of wielding the language of a rights-bearing individual and access the law. At the same time, the individual is free to experience the absence or presence of goodness in the place everyone must belong to, the market. And is not the might of modern capital precisely a concurrence of opposites? Does not one miss goodness more in the market? Do we not obey immoral power freely? Let us look around to recognize how goodness can be objectified, into consumption affect and commodity, into wicked and sacred relations, into prosperity and hardship in lifestyle, into the basis of coercion. I think the opposition between the neo-liberal middle class individual and a virtuous citizen stands overstated if virtue is to function as a therapy for individual – a homely supplement to the commodity calculus. Why should we settle for a ‘modicum’ of goodness, when the ethical demand is potentially infinite, as many philosophers point out? Unless we let go the proper subject, the cultivation of a particular personhood, the lifestyle that has it all, the ethical will not come into its own. Can we discover wholly new modes of sociality instead that disrupts the economic use of the ethical of plugging the leaks of individual citizen?
Prasanta: All power is immoral by definition. We must build in that aspect in any discussion on ethics. A classical definition of goodness cannot be too quickly equated with the language of rights and market, as also with therapy, I would tend to think. The votaries of John Locke and Tom Paine are fundamentally different from those concerned with a radical agnostic and heretic demos. The very imagination of the polity in case of democratic agnosticism is other-regarding, to begin with. A certain notion of ethics of religion (non-Kantian) is a strong component in democratic republicanism, rare in moderate- mainstream liberalism. Unfortunately, well-meaning and self-conscious radicals in the subcontinent exploring political novelty routinely conflate the two rather hastily. One must rise above the old commodity argument if we are to act meaningfully against the common economic consensus across political spectrum that threatens us today. This is not to say commodifcation is a bygone phenomenon. Far from it. I’d begin by bringing back a radical political, rather than submitting to a commonsensical economic definition, (the lifestyle question, as you have put it) of liberalism onto the table. That might seem minimalist to you. But, at the risk of repeating myself, can I ask you about the nature of this infinite that you refer? Contrary to a therapeutic virtue, what would constitute these new modes of sociality?
Rajarshi: I don’t have a ready response to your question as I am still working with these ideas, but let me say how they have a bearing on our dialogue. Who are the ‘large section of people’ you think are interested in rising above the language of market place? How big are they with respect to the people who can’t enter the market or who don’t understand its language, though they are part of the market? Would these latter sections agree with the idea of goodness that rises above the market, and reject the practices of corruption that open up the consumer’s rank? Can we ascertain if they already lack a sense of discipline, if they are seeking a new subjectivity? Unless one assumes a total transparency of representation, and a vanguard sensibility like Marxists, it is difficult to answer these questions. The universality of goodness is conditioned by the particularity of experience in every empirical case, and I don’t think it loses this finite character even if we can reduce it to a common minimum index. Like the idea of ‘population’, that will amount to aggregating ‘individuals’ in such a way as to look at them in a series and therefore without their singularity, without contradictions, transgression or reasoned differences, let alone any sense of outside. There will be some exceptions decided by those who agree on a certain role of capital, certain modes of power and certain ways of living in the society. Is the ethical sustainable along these lines if we take the question of the ‘other’ seriously? Who decides about the inevitability of only certain forms of social relations like the family as legal, the ethnic community as natural and the territorially bound state as democratic? With regard to these formations I would like to invoke other forms of sociality that make the individual volatile and slip into what one could see as the multitude. The multitude is a different concept that cannot be realized around a modicum of goodness or virtue. For it does not suppose a doing subject but a subjectivity of witnessing what are the ways of being different from an individual self. The implication is that we look at lives beyond the pale of self-fashioning, to submit our basis of thinking about ethics to what we have not experienced but are still able to think. Is this not how we think of margins, of difference and others, how we want to be free? How does one think of new forms of sociality with regard to the multitude? It may be a shift to the register one may call minor after the work of Gilles Deleuze. How the minor will relate to new modes of sociality could be taken up later, if you want to separately bring up the relation of politics and aesthetics.
Prasanta: Many insightful commentators are also arguing that Nandigram and indeed Singur are not to be seen in isolation. Rural Bengal is seething with discontent. This could well be a recipe for disaster is the long run—could lead to a spiral of sorts. The ruling party consolidated earlier land based peasant claims and backed these up with sharecropper registration in the state. Land has been an important point in Bengal politics. Yet, an even more fundamental issue has over shadowed the question of land: hunger. The food riots in Bankura and Purulia of the last few months have amply shaken the ruling front. In a recent article, Mahesh Rangarajan has commented thus: “The non-availability of cereals in the ration shops angered large sections in a state where official records show about one in five rural people are hungry or malnourished. This again is ironical for in the 1967 elections that saw the CPI (M) emerge as a co-sharer in power the first time, the food issue was paramount in adding to its appeal.” Do you see this essentially a failure in governance? Or does it also have an ethical dimension, for ‘hunger’ is one point around which even the most doctrinaire of Marxists would rally philosophically. This is surely not a civil society issue. Is it then a failure of ethics at the most basic economistic level for the ruling front?
Rajarshi: Perhaps the CPIM is not too bothered with the daily lot of working class and the peasants in this state now, other than as population it must govern as constituencies. However, I don’t think Singur and Nandigram reflect the rural West Bengal’s attitude in general. There is of course a serious problem as agriculture apparently has reached a ceiling in terms of economic growth and capacity to generate profitable vocations. At the same time, the CPIM’s partisan style of administrative decentralization has given a rather restricted character to local governance and development in the villages. But rather than talking about hunger and land question as symptomatic of CPIM’s ethical drawback, we might have a better picture of what is going on by thinking if it is a phase of primitive accumulation of capital. That will help us to situate CPIM’s politics with regard to globalization and the larger governmental imperatives of this juncture. The brutal destruction of extant resources could be necessary for a new imperative of generating economic energies, which is so impersonal that human cost ultimately does not matter. There are techniques to make it invisible. The CPIM’s failure is the stark visibility of this human cost in Nandigram, unlike say in Rajarhat. Again, this could be another long discussion. There is a new book by Kalyan Sanyal on this area that Partha Chatterji has discussed in a recent article on postcolonial governmentality. However, neither this discussion, nor the new kind of studies of everyday rural politics appears to address the ground that ruling communists are gradually losing in the state.
Prasanta: You are right. Primitive accumulation seems to be a plausible explanatory paradigm, as discussed by Kalyan Sanyal in Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism. But I would tend to think that such a situation has a strong ethical component associated with it, something that primitive accumulation approach does not address fully, in two related senses—one philosophical and the other sociological. Primitive accumulation in its pristine sense is the means of divorcing the producer from the means of production, right? The robbery of the common lands and usurpation of clan property into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism is directly connected to enclosure movement in early modern Europe, a variation of what we are seeing in changed global circumstances today in India. I would think primitive accumulation itself is constitutive of an ethical move: from an ethics of community to that of austere self-discipline. Hindu rate of growth and local ties and affinities must give way to a Weberian ethics of possessive individualism. It surely is impersonal and yet the ethical shift is not lost upon us. Certainly, the welfare entitlements to labour law provisions to provisions for community review of land use decisions that the State now shuns has a civic dimension embedded to it and hence a particular ethos of living associated to it. This is changing in the era of primitive globalisation and subnational mercantilism, if I may borrow a term from sociology, to denote what has been happening in India of late. There is no sense of concomitant international economic integration. Such State fragmentation inevitably fails to suggest sustainable forms of social action and hence thwart innovative modes of governance. But there is an ethical loss in this shift too, in the sense that severs cross-class, cross-race, cross regional and intergenerational social exchanges that stand in the way of short-term economic activity.
Rajarshi: I largely agree with what you say here. Why don’t you expand on the possible parallels between the enclosure movement and primitive accumulation today?
Prasanta: Again, conditions for enclosure movement in medieval/early modern Europe and today are largely different, so drawing of a parallel may be hasty. But certainly, there are configurational similarities on the face of it. One would then often speak in terms of ‘agricultural revolution,’ apparently marked by indicators like increase in productivity. But dwelling on other indices like land use or labor productivity would not also mean much without connecting them to issues like the establishment of private property rights in land, the replacement of feudal tenures and estates with leaseholds for a period of years, changes in the size of the farms, and changes in the ways in which people were employed by others on the land—issues that are creating similar problems in Bengal or Goa right now. One is simply overawed to notice over a few centuries, beginning the sixteenth may be, how copyholders and other unfree tenants are gradually being extinguished out of their common rights by royal and parliamentary enclosures. Land and, really a way of life, were thus enclosed in piecemeal landholding schemes. Sure there were resistances: ranging from direct non-payment of rents and stopping labor inflow to the more hermeneutic, religious and eco-ethical approaches. Intersubjectivity and common preservation are often constant themes in such movements. But once again, the central problem of radical reformation was that its Old Testament ethical core of virtuous simplicity and righteousness could never be translated into a vision of politics because it was at heart challenging governmentality without providing a coherent alternative. Sheer anti-privilege, anti-prerogative prophetic pamphleteering failed to get the broad middle rally along with it against the developmental schemes of monarchy and especially the parliament. That is the similar problem that besets us today right—how (or is it at all possible!) to cohere the ludic and the civic, against the ruling left? The deluge of broadsheets and blogs that deal with subjectivity issue as a bulwark against the economism that marks organized left is astonishing, and yet the broad middle is not sufficiently enamoured by such purity, such righteousness.
Rajarshi: Perhaps our problem is more complicated. The West Bengal CPIM in fact represents a very successful translation of an alternative type of governmentality, supported by the ‘broad-middle’ who believes in a progressive ruling power. The CPIM has combined in this regard the meta-critique of capital with the advocacy of capitalist development. Having delivered the pro-poor land reforms it now must reclaim the farmland for a pro-rich industrialization. So where is the ‘broad middle’, what does it want? It wants the government to pursue land acquisition with minimum violence, and it wants the protestors to be more practical. For the broad middle is on the threshold of a new “cosmopolitan” lifestyle – shopping mall, big housing, big business and cheap family cars are on their way. Is any party likely to oppose the trend and expect people to vote them to power? No. That renders any resistance outside the pale of an electoral majority that gets to decide which ways of living, which ways of doing and speaking are essential and adequate for everyone. Such decisions must totalize life into governmental subject and politics into sheer disciplinary power. But are there no other ways of being and of being political? Can there be alternative clues for politics in cultural practice?
Prasanta: I must say I am hopeful about a section of the middle, in spite of its routine capitulations. May be it is not as homogenous as you suggest. Anyway, moving on to cultural practice, you have been working with a certain kind of imaginative literature, and given that a large number of creative people have come out in the open for what is essentially a political battle, do you think there is a possibility of aesthetics positively influencing politics in the state? I am asking this advisedly because among the many habits that have engulfed the Bengalis, the one in the field of aesthetics is most stupefying. Surely, there have been new literary experiments which have political ramifications—the names of Nabarun Bhattacharya and Mihir Sengupta—come to one’s mind immediately. A couple of young playwrights have also come up with powerful political allegories against the prevailing power structures. And yet they still have a cult following, unable to make inroads into living rooms of the Bengali middle class. The contemporary language of protest and spontaneity is yet to be transferred into any meaningful constructive ethical language. Are we then to return to old masters for direction? What is your sense of the ethical component in literary writings and art that can catch our imagination once again?
Rajarshi: Let me return to where we left the discussion on the minor register and new modes of sociality, which is useful to probe a productive relation between aesthetics and politics. Creative practices always carry serious concern about justice, which rises to the surface only in some artistic exercises that directly engage radical and progressive ideas. Both nationalist politics and vernacular socialism have had major exchanges particularly with progressive literature, along with art and music in the undivided India and Bengal. However, these exchanges were not identical, ranging from simple propaganda to criticism to offering new epistemological frameworks. Simplifying largely, one may find that much of the political role of these practices has been understood in terms of what the actors thought they were doing. Yet, this is not the only way of looking at the politics in art. There is another level at which the symbolic investment in art practices embody the politics of a period, which relates to a larger process, in a less apparent way perhaps. A different kind of intervention can be located here in some works that make certain aspects and things visible which are otherwise unthinkable in the dominant sensibility of a time. It is here that we observe new relations emerging into the field of reasoning that cannot be added to the given framework but demand a total reorientation of the subject. A major difference in the way it appears in a writer like Nabarun Bhattacharya and the avant garde authors of yesterday is that there is no more a speech of the protagonist. The narrative is not about ‘what is to be done’ even if it is eminently political in that it is not about placing the missing norm but about displacing readers to testimony from margins. This is often how artistic efforts that work, for example, with the dalit question and that of sexuality can be seen ‘doing’ politics, through a strategy of witnessing, as underlined in the case of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer in Malayalam literature. Let me give an example of how it may conjure a new form of sociality from another area. The example is from an autobiographical writing of a Bangladeshi author, Ahmed Chhaffa, describing life in the new rented flats in the late twentieth century Dhaka, where one is pursuing literary work and activism for the left in Bangladesh. The writing, however, sews this life with small anecdotes of gardening and cultivating aubergines inside the university campus, planting trees and meditating on the form of life that trees represent. In course of these activities, Chaffa discovers some professors who share his passion and teach him the tricks of cultivation, and some who make fun of it. A new kind of community-founding gesture takes place, which undercuts the distance between the urban literary intellectual and them that are not. The political implication is a subtle multiplication of lifestyles and subjectivities, an awareness of the shifting of values that make up the new morality, and a circumspect meeting with the powers of representation. I think this is where aesthetic works can open up new ethical grounds before politics.
Prasanta: Since you have drawn a thread between new modes of sociality and what you call the minor register, let me mark that while I concur with you on imagining in terms of the multitude while working within the parameters of democracy (which itself is a relatively new experiment in historical terms), I am slightly hesitant about relating the subjectivity of witnessing the variegated ways of existence wholly with the minor. The idea of addressing the margin and the different are powerful indicators of a radical democratic imagination but you will agree that fetishizing them have often have led another kind of universalist logic which in turn leads to mistrust and politics of retribution on both sides of the divide. History is replete with instances when the idiosyncratic margin, invested in liminal motifs in search of a radically new political language take either an inward, contemplative turn, or an outward, all embracing skeptical position, or at times both, so that it rather suicidally manages to blunt its own radical edges. This is not to deny that art is all about the variegated, the joyous and the suicidal! It indeed is. Rather that these inclinations toward fragmentation and difference may well do with a subtly constructive component; the best of utopias do hover within such a domain of hope, the not yet.
You will probably agree that certain conspiratorial views, which see the aesthetic merely as a domain of ideology (the Lukacian line leading to Terry Eagleton, for instance), are self-defeating. On the other hand, aesthetic breaking out as a Marcusian formula for universal human emancipation often prove to be rather cultist and quick, an impetus that have had powerful votaries in Bengal right from Swadeshi days till date. I would like to go back to your earlier thrusts over a certain gaming sensibility and courage. It sounds instructive to me that a political actor is at the same time taking a courageous step (of distributing the family members into rival camps and hence making the decisive choice of standing up to the party statistician) and on the other, practicing an evasive, slippery gaming sensibility (which itself could be either calculative or creative). There is almost a helical interdependency between the moment of decision and the moment of escape here, although you have not put it that way. I believe that imaginative artists who dwell within such risky eschatological framework also probably show an elusive gaming sensibility and at the same time take certain resolute, courageous actions via the tools that he often fashions on his own. And in the best of political artists, this dual gesture, though often challenging the reader via certain shifts and adjustments through unfolding of the narrative, does not necessarily fall headlong into romantic nihilism or moral relativism. In a related way, I think it is the greatest paradox of utopian, prophetic political thinking that it derives its strengths from a fierce intellectual pessimism and yet is metachronic, hopeful about the future.
One pivotal idea in poet William Blake, for instance, is that of ‘honest indignation,’ at things commonsensical and cautious, creations unnourished by love, inspiration, vision: in short, things that hinder and distort perception of the infinite. The voice of the infinite addresses such social and political distortions in Blake. And he works from within the visionary imaginative expansion of the senses, but not letting off perception. The indignation is acutely political, deeply aware of the human material circumstances, and not pious. Reason and energy are coupled in a free dialectic. And hence he manages to avoid playing the vanguard mystic, a know-all saint with his nuggets of wisdom to dispense, you know, the familiar kind we often have met in swadeshi and far left terrains, asking acolytes to be passionless and ascetic. In Visions for the Daughters of Albion, for instance, he links economic oppression, sexual repression, priestly manipulation of power, and militarism in a superb critique composed in a most clear, limpid prose. The world of suffering meets with that of simple indignation. And, the mocker of art is the mocker of Jesus. How effortlessly could Blake say “The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me,” threading himself in line with Job and Boehme, Milton and Pascal, Hopkins and Dostoevsky. No doubt, with what you say, I sense a soulful structural connection between Chhaffa and Blake here—both actually disturbed by what D.H Lawrence would call, ‘a tragedy of ugliness.’ An aesthetic that mediates with birds and aubergines indeed gives me a Learesque sense of trying to bridge the primal with the political, a sensibility that, if you allow, I may call classically romantic. I wonder though, do these ruminations of art and the political, the kind we are discussing, not have a touch of Fourier and St. Simonians? I mean, even as we dwell on the political, the artist and his art object, do we not need to address more forcefully the politics of it all? Are the prophetic, the utopian, the ur-romantic in art foredoomed to hover in the domain of the political, neatly getting around blood and grime?
Rajarshi: If politics left out domination we could do without margins; similarly, there would be no difference if politics did not impose an order. But insofar politics is the domination of a particular order it is equally about the creation of margins and difference. It is how the relation of power operates, fetish or not, which does not become visible of its own accord. We need the reflections from difference and margin precisely to bring this operation of power into focus. These words are not really new sets of ‘subject’ or ‘object’, but describe the relation between the subject and object – showing their syntax in our perception. They help to problematize that politics, in other words, which is resistant to electoral changes as well as rapid radical disruptions. So they need to trouble the very matter and representation of ‘politics’, especially in the way it leads us to construe life. It is this grammar telling us that the despite political indignation Blake was writing poetry and despite religious rhetoric Bush was making a political speech. We must realize that politics is also, as Jacques Ranciere says, a ‘framing’ of perception – a way of partitioning what is perceptible from what is not perceptible in the experience by our senses. It means that politics will obscure certain areas of its power through epistemic protocols. To perceive that of course involves another ‘framing’, but also the awareness of the intrinsic problems of ‘framing’. Since no ‘framing’ can offer a picture of the whole, it cannot be expected to recommend an ideal state of justice with regard to class, caste, gender and race all at once. It must be a variable framing in relation to what is being repressed in a particular hegemonic system. We need a very supple construction to see that alternatives are always a possibility, without digging up a final theological solution of sorts. That is why the reluctance to dwell on a messianic moment or to forecast a ‘utopia’.
Working within the parameters of democracy, as you said, as an ethical horizon, if I may add, there is a utopian dimension to daily small interventions, but in a different sense. It is not a specific blueprint of future that gives the hope to keep on suffering. Is not the not-yet fairly dated in that sense, having to keep to a promised format? Democracy however offers other possibilities, where new senses of a better future can become an orientation, the basis of an ethical responsibility to the present. Even if such a future is unrealizable in the strictest sense, it does not fail as logic for intervention. Let us consider, for instance, what kind of utopia motivates feminist politics, which could very well appear unmarked by blood or grime regardless of unremitting violence. Only a different ‘framing’ will render this violence visible and the resistance meaningful, which is not, let us note, about an alternative governmentality. The utopian dimension is not a given outcome, if given at all, but rather like the practical basis of a judgment. Its relation to ‘consciousness’ is not like a belief in the ultimate nature of human beings and their fate. There is a meta-humanist framing in the latter case, which renders the role of capital and technology basically as ‘de-humanizing’, alienating from our ‘primal’ nature, which poetics seemingly wants to recover for politics. This is where critical theory is often tempted to take an existentialist turn to authenticity. But I want to insist on another ‘framing’, which takes the role of capital and technology precisely as ‘humanizing’, and poetics as a way of ‘de-familiarizing’ this human being, making it accessible to politics and philosophy in new ways.
We have been touching too many points here, sometimes fleetingly what deserves a separate discussion altogether. But if I try to recall our points of difference once more at this stage, a good way of putting them is how we posit the newness of the moment. You seem to argue that it presents a major break in the given forms of politics by throwing up an ethically motivated section of people who can create through civic practices a much more democratic form of self-governance. Their efforts stand to be enriched by tapping into a radical stream of republicanism, but you suspect that even they might fall prey to power. My guess is that they would, and there is no foolproof plan to prevent this beforehand. I see the newness of this moment in our chance to overcome this vain project, of trying to narrate politics around a subjective economy of self, which will logically ensure goodness in the society. I find it hard to believe that politics will simply be a means to this kind of self-making end of a good society, which is often the image of a politics looking for moral legitimacy.
We need to consider what such a selfhood and identity conceal in its naturalness – the given order of difference, the context of exercising power, the premise of making law for the others. The truths about self and goodness, spoken by such operations, come to rest very often on a vague understanding of the ‘growth’ of an ethnic community, a region and the nation-state, whose rise and flourish must be that of global capital ultimately. So I would see the newness in turning away from the humanist emphasis on subjectivity and morality as a foundation for grasping political practice. In fact, there is a new and exciting emphasis on practice in some very recent works, like that of Srirupa Roy, moving away from the frame of subjectivity imagined from below. Also shaping up is a new kind of history of ideas, for instance by Benjamin Zachariah, underscoring class and cosmopolitanism of the post/colonial subject, opposed to a deep vernacular sensibility. I feel such works represent the translation some of us are looking for between theory and practice, clearing new fields for intellectual politics. But I think it is also necessary to pursue the questions of self and good life beyond the humanist framework, to see how the ethical could emerge in forms-of-life that are no use to the prophet or the nation-state, yet essential to biopolitics today. You may have different things to say to that.
Prasanta: There is no doubt about the newness of the moment; in fact, that is what prompts us to this dialogue, right? But one must realize subjectivity is one important but finally limiting cog if we are to conceive the political, especially considering the highly structured and ruthless climate that the organized left is functioning and the equally polarized manner the far left and right organizations are responding. Let me then slightly modify your delineation of my overall position. Modern art and literature have shown an inherent tendency away from classicism in perfection of form toward romanticism in concern for feeling that overrides form. So, as a whole the object of modern politics may be seen as a drive to consistently push for differences and margins as extra-constitutional democratic forces that may overcome the restraints of the state and its machineries. Hence, the demand for more subjectivity and creativity. I am rather convinced that while informed romanticism is necessary for plotting politics, to consider politics bereft of human intervention—via a benign nature or theodicy for instance—is to turn away from democratic politics in crucial ways. In fact, we are bound to revert to moral legitimacy unless we consider the political in its own terms, without sentimentalising. Machiavelli’s one great contribution is his intense concern for forms that must be made and remade by learning how and when to introduce innovations. The idea of political innovation in the face of overwhelming fortuna, say the kind of organized left-liberal machinations that we are now discussing, may be akin to what you are calling a gaming sensibility, but I am of course talking from within a dialectical framework whereby selfhood need not be radically decentred. Your idea of framing and orientation by not delving into transcendental politics is also highly interesting in this context. But right now one of my primary concerns is to understand politics as a mode where innovations, having a utopian dimension, are married to prudence. I am belabouring the point that such civic-agnostic prudence cannot afford to be ethically neutral if is to tackle the unleashing of the mercenary statism that we are discussing. Could we conceive the growth, stability and imagination of West Bengal in a different way rather than relinquish the issue altogether as one more hegemonic schema of the nation state paradigm? In this context, you will recall Tagore’s critical exhortations on Gandhian charkha politics in the sense that in spite of his praise for the innovation aspect of such symbolism, he is scathing on the shortsightedness of the prudential side. Tagore is certain that such a miraculous moment of a wholesale conversion stuns our mind and eclipses our judgment, raising high hope of easy realization that is very much like the boom in the business market. So, Tagore, the arch romantic, is loath to take that extra step and espouse rabid anti-modernism and politics of miracles that the charkha might spawn. This seems to me to be a considered political position. In other words, a realizable utopia could possibly use the realism and dynamism of modernity by accepting the romance and myths of the ancients and vice versa. Adorno and Horkheimer saw this possibility long ago. I am then much less doubtful than you would allow about the possibility of a radical republicanism in Bengal at some point. I think it can at once flummox libertarian statism and chisel sectarian breakaway politics.
Rajarshi: What if we asked did Rabindranath Tagore do a prudent thing criticizing the charkha? Certainly this criticism did not generate an alternative stream of mass activist programs; it troubled and qualified the existing ones. Then was Tagore not, deliberately, undermining nationalism? It is possible to think that he was undermining at the same time that he was supporting it in this odd way, an intimate disagreement that is both uncompromising and fraught with misunderstanding. That will be my way of looking – a critical and oblique relation to ‘the politics’, making an eminently political gesture – that anticipates the changing sense of ‘the political’ we are probing in relation to aesthetic works. But this is not really going to explain or influence the results of an election, because such gestures are unrecognized in the institutional forms of politics as yet. Whether we talk about ethical questions or aesthetic interventions, as you said, their implication for the institutional forms of politics, like votes, remains a difficult question. Part of the problem is the electoral and chiefly administrative preoccupation of the institutions, which highlight public legitimacy and ‘representative’ aspects of democracy over its ‘deliberative’ practices. It is here that the picture of the state accumulating capital is cancelled by the picture of the state distributing welfare, making development policies. The ‘representative’ institutions are not unwilling to expand in the grassroots – the panchayat is an example, but they simply don’t encourage deliberative participation. One can vote or not vote, but there is no space to weigh up the nitty-gritty of a policy, to discuss if elections are good enough to decide on a new economic policy, to ask if votes have not become like an insurance, to ask which people are casting votes out of compulsion. If we are witnessing new civic practices by an ethically motivated section of people, as you say, the challenge for them is to create spaces for such deliberation that can generate new institutions of participatory democratic practice. This is perhaps where we the need the element of innovation to the utmost, not only to tackle the censor of deliberative gestures but also to perceive the changing form of the political. One of the most interesting aspects I thought in the civil society’s reaction to Nandigram was an arguable absence of the political act in a theatrical mode – staging oratory and performance. There was a sense of conversation in relative silence, a sense of using new technologies like the media, mobile phones and internet, and a sense of anonymous communities formed across party loyalties. Is it possible to see such communities becoming a new civic feature, as basic to the exercise of citizenship, as a new form of democratic participation? Is it possible to see such community-making gestures as new kind of political act – that signals a movement of the disenchanted to reshape democracy?
Prasanta: Yes, coming from different directions, Tagore as well as a quasi-mobilized civil society, both abhor histrionics of a certain kind, keeping safe distance from tearjerking staging. This is instructive. Tagore’s point to Gandhi stems from a humanist’s dislike of sentimental nationalism, not nationalism per se. An aesthete’s dislike of garishness too is involved. Tagore has always been sceptical about absolute alternative systems, especially if mass leaders hobnob too much with pure transcendence or rituals, be it Gandhi or the swadeshis. He will then, as you rightly suggest, even take the risk of undermining ‘questionable’ strands of nationalism. The institutional experiment of Vishwabharti is formally and fundamentally different from Tolstoy Farm or Sevagram in this sense; it finally builds up over an immanent frame rather than take to mobilizing aesthetics or politics around any renunciatory platform.
One must be on guard though, that such immanent moves, stories of human flourishing, especially conceived by a lesser player, can quickly turn into uncritical celebration of rationalism within anonymous private spheres, whose formal manifestation would often mean holding on to some kind of constitutional patriotism, to borrow a phrase from Habermas. It is constitutional, because one would rally around legal moral principles, but it is patriotism because we are fiercely attached to our particular historical project of realizing these aims. This easily generates chauvinism of a certain kind, familiar in our times in such metaphors like “largest democracy,” “cultural superpower” or “naturally multicultural,” and certain feelings of smug superiority when we look at some unfortunate developments in a nearby country. You would recall not long ago West Bengal had famously been imagined by the ruling front as a peaceful haven, an oasis of sorts, the state’s rule of law being favourably evaluated to other regions, until that very idea of ‘law’s empire’ was quashed by deploying the friend/enemy distinction even as parts of East Midnapore was handed over to organized mercenaries. Decisionism prevailed. Shall we call this uneasy cocktail constitutional provincialism?
The kind of issues that we are discussing, on the other hand, probably offer a different poser: how to translate political gestures and innovative strategies into meaningful institutional practice, avoiding at once constitutional and theological choices that are being offered. The conundrum lies in the fact that political structures need to be checked if not adjourned, and yet one cannot do away with structures altogether. A purified non-code or a transcendental non-structure, ruling forever, is a noble chimera, an exercise in trompe l’oeil. And yet, one suspects, especially after the recent panchayat election results in West Bengal, that other options and coalitions may have surfaced, and the cue is being provided by the demos, not the other way round. The point is that such options might not remain democratic in the sense that we are talking as long as merely remain deliberative in the communicative sense. Civic introspection can ill afford to remain procedural.
The possibility and institutions of self-government is at the core of a democratic civic world that I have in mind. And it is not as much about directly participating in the institutional processes as being eternally vigilant in the face of despotic encroachment. This idea of vigilance against political equilibrium, which goes beyond mere constitutional procedurals, had long vanished from Bengal. Whether we are witnessing a resurgence of such a mentality is an open question, but in a vigilant community, a public network of decision-making that will be deeply subjective in its core could offset discretionary decisionism. Mind you, I am not referring here to middle class vigilante media and judicial activism that we witness on television. But a subjective condition rather, a constant watchdog mode that cuts across class, caste and the urban/rural divide—leading to the kind of anonymous conversations and new communities that you refer. Legislative processes themselves will be affected if such a mode takes a sustained public dimension and may discourage back room bargaining on the basis of sectional interests, at least in the short run.
The complementary component is to realize that our ability to marvel at the micro-orders of creation—nature, art, grace—go hand in hand with the idea of secular civic liberties. May be this sense of a larger cosmic order going beyond party or community or regional loyalties or even humans can provide institutions, even in a modern democracy, with a sense of durability, however contingent that might seem in the immediate present. And relative silence, as you say, is a good beginning I’d think. Silence is dialogic, not communicative. Silence is meditative, and hence masks ludic potentialities. It could well burst out in new civic relationships. But I also notice a shrill noise beneath. Who knows which way things might turn! This developing political platform might well be a ruse, though now with possibilities. But for the time being, this silent unrest may remind Bengal one more time that the representatives are but people’s creatures.
Selected References: Prasanta Chakravarty
Kenji Mizoguchi, Sansho the Bailiff (1954).
Sankha Ghosh, Andher Sparsher Moton: Pranabesh Sen Memorial Lecture 2007 (Kolkata: Gangchil, 2007). .
Aristide Tessitore, Reading Aristotle’s Ethics: Virtue, Rhetoric and Political Philosophy (SUNY Press, 1996)
J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and The Atlantic Republican Tradition. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003).
Mahesh Rangarajan, “Crisis of Legitimacy for Remorseless Bengal Left.” Mail Today, (Delhi, 26 November 2007).
Kalyan Sanyal, Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism (New Delhi: Routledge, 2007).
Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975).
Andrew Macrae, God Speed The Plow (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996).
Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000).
Paul Nizan, Watchdogs: Philosophers and the Established Order (Monthly Review Press, 1972).
William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793).
Rabindranath Tagore, The Cult of Charka (1925).
Anjan Chakrabarti, Anup Dhar, Kathapokathane Marx O Rabindranath: Unnayon O Bikalpo (Kolkata: Gangchil, 2008).
Selected References: Rajarshi Dasgupta
Sa’adat Hasan Manto, “Toba Tek Singh”, Savera 1953, trans. by M Asaduddin in Manto, Black Margins, ed. by M U Memon, 2001.
Ahmed Chhaffa, Pushpa, Brikkho ebang Bihango Puran, 1996.
Mihir SenGupta, Bishadbriksha, 2005.
Nabarun Bhattacharya – Herbert, 1997.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. by Dana Polan, 1986.
Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Literature, SubStance – Issue 103 (Volume 33, Number 1), 2004.
Udaya Kumar, “Ethics of Witnessing: Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and the Subject of Historical Narration”, in E. V. Ramakrishnan ed. Narrating India: The Novel in Search of a Nation, 2005.
Srirupa Roy, Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism, 2007
Benjamin Zachariah, Developing India: An Intellectual and Social History, C. 1930-50, 2005.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Care of the Self, trans. by Robert Hurley,1986.
Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson, 1992
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 1922, 2005.
Giorgio Agamben, Means without end: notes on Politics, 2000
Prasanta Chakravarty was then Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore.
Rajarshi Dasgupta was then Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.