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Theorising the Present: Problems and Possibilities

The usefulness or otherwise of the kind of theory that Chatterjee offers is decided by its ability to offer a symptomatic reading of significant trends and trajectories. Does the essay on democracy and economic transformation in India meet this test?

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Theorising the Present: Problems and Possibilities

Mary E John, Satish Deshpande

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footprint (compared to the heavier and more all-encompassing theorising of the past), and in the constitutive (rather than merely illustrative) role of empirics.

At its best, such theory proves to be specially fertile in the productive criticism it provokes, including attempts to question,

The usefulness or otherwise of the kind of theory that Chatterjee offers is decided by its ability to offer a symptomatic reading of significant trends and trajectories. Does the essay on democracy and economic transformation in India meet this test?

This response originated in conversation with Partha Chatterjee and has benefited from discussions with Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam and Mihir Shah. The usual disclaimers apply.

Mary E John ( is at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi and Satish Deshpande ( is with the Department of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

november 15, 2008

ver the past two decades, Partha Chatterjee has offered a productive brand of social theory that could be called “open source”. By analogy with software, such theory encourages u sers to adapt, amend and in general to take apart and reassemble according to their own agendas. It is transparently modular, and consists of relatively simple but powerful conceptual schemas fleshed out with a minimalist but critical set of empirical e xamples that animate the schemas and render them historically plausible. While Chatterjee builds on the “grand theory” inherited from the past (notably Marx, Gramsci and Foucault), his theorising is done in a distinctively contemporary style. Abs tract theoretical schemas are strategically yoked to selected slices of history in a flexible and synergistic manner. This kind of theory is distinctive in its lighter and smaller extend, reformulate or refute. These routes have yielded significant dividends, for example, with Chatterjee’s schemas on the evolution of nationalist discourse, the nationalist resolution of the women’s question, or the split between civil and p olitical society. The most important question to ask of such theory is not whether it is accurate or comprehensive, but whether it is useful to think with – or against. For the usefulness or otherwise of this kind of theory is decided by its ability to offer a symptomatic reading of significant trends and trajectories. Does Chatterjee’s recent article, “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India” (abbreviated hereafter as DET) meet this test? This question is tackled here by: (a) reflecting on the functions of transition narratives such as the Marxist notion of original accumulation; and (b) examining the “fit” between empirical examples and conceptual schemas


in the urban and rural variants of Chatterjee’s prognoses.

DET can be seen as, first an attempt to extend to the countryside his recent thesis on the delayed but decisive embourgeoisement of the Indian city; and second, as the beginning of an attempt to revisit his initial concerns with modes of power in rural society. Chatterjee suggests that the decade of the 1990s marks a significant turning point in the post-independence trajectory of India. Claimed to be new or different in this phase are: (1) an unprecedented consensus within the urban middle classes regarding the inevitability of the corporate capitalist path to d evelopment, with an explicit abandonment of all alternatives; (2) a parallel recognition that corporate capitalism will necessarily “exclude” a very large part of the population especially in rural areas, whose “livelihoods” would need to be minimally protected through alternative (non-corporate) mechanisms; (3) the ubiquitous presence of the state machinery and its deep penetration into rural society and consequent internalisation; (4) increasing levels of despair and distress at the non-viability of the agrarian economy; (5) rising disenchantment with the rural “way of life” and a desire for the city; (6) a decisive shift in the language and forms of struggle and resistance, with demands being couched mainly in terms of discrimination and exceptional status (rather than exploitation); and (7) the emergence of a third sphere of politics largely restricted to tribal areas, where the usual mechanisms of political society (i e, negotiated semi-legal arrangements prompted by electoral leverage) do not operate.

Rethinking Original Accumulation

The centre piece of Chatterjee’s account is his assertion – via the work of Kalyan S anyal – that the familiar Marxist notion of primitive accumulation has been decisively modified in recent times. While the processes of differentiation of the peasantry continue to divorce petty producers from access to the means of production, there is now in place a countervailing attempt to “reverse” these effects through various devices designed to postpone or prevent destitution through the protection of livelihoods. Thus, while small producers are constantly being assaulted by market forces they are also being propped up by state and non-governmental organisation (NGO) schemes like self-help groups, the N ational Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), and other measures for improving social security.

What is often expressed in mainstream discourse (of international agencies, the state, NGOs, etc) as “structural adjustment with a human face”, “inclusive growth”, “globalisation and social protection”, and so on, is here being rendered in revisionary Marxist terms as the simultaneous

o peration as well as reversal of processes of primitive accumulation. In other words, what is elsewhere described as the contradictory features of the liberalisationprivatisation-globalisation (LPG) era, are here presented as integral aspects of contemporary capitalism in its post-1990s realism. This is a realism that has stopped pretending that capitalist growth will eventually trickle down to all, but also that those left out or left behind can be p olitically ignored. This is what Chatterjee believes to be the most characteristic feature of the present era – the newfound recognition that, in order to be sustainable, the economic dictatorship of corporate capital must also meet the minimum requirements of formal democracy. However, Chatterjee also believes that this leaves “us” with no credible transition narrative; in fact, it is only corporate capital itself and its middle class constituency that has a plausible transition narrative pointing to the promised future of full capitalism.

There are at least two problems here. First the quick and somewhat careless empirical account is sure to provoke justifiable scepticism about the newness of it all. Chatterjee is surely as aware as anyone else that expressions of concern for the poor and attempts to manage poverty are not new and could be claimed to be as old as capitalism itself. If – as we assume – DET is engaged in thinking through the intuitively persuasive notion that the present is different, then this needs to be done more carefully. Perhaps the problem is not so much that the prior state of affairs remains undescribed but that it is unevenly specified. His account of the earlier regime is confined to the relative autonomy of the state – its protectionism vis-à-vis foreign capital, its leading role in industrialisation and regulation of manufacturing, as well as the r estricted power of i ndustrial capital over the central government, all of which is contrasted today to the rise of finance capital and a globally confident class of corporate capitalists. There is no mention here of earlier forms of welfarism.

Had DET provided a fuller account of prior welfarism or developmentalism, it could be argued that the present is different in that, for example, contrary to older expressions of state concern for the poor, current versions are clearly framed in minimalist and palliative terms. Unlike garibi hatao, which was projected as the central concern of the state, its very raison d’etre, current attempts to prop up the social sectors are unmistakably peripheral. Even large programmes such as the NREGS are – from the perspective of the ruling oligarchs – politically dictated afterthoughts forced on to the agenda by electoral compulsions, and are in fact e xplicitly a cknowledged to be such.

The second problem is that DET appears to equate intentions with outcomes. The strategic need to “reverse” the effects of original accumulation may, indeed, be felt and articulated by capital, but this still needs to be accomplished on the ground. Is this happening? Are palliative measures actually successful in undoing processes of dispossession and pauperisation? Is original accumulation actually being r eversed?

It may be useful to revisit the Marxist notion variously translated as primitive or original accumulation. In Marx, the term is used in two different senses. The first is as a sort of the origin of the story of capital, how it first came to be born in western Europe and specially in England. This is the well trodden Marxist terrain of English history between the 17th and the 19th century, with its detailed historical a ccounts of the enclosure movement, the “great vagabondage”, the poor houses, and the emergence of the factory system and capitalist farming. As different from this primarily historical sense there is also the theoretical sense of original accumulation as the process by which the wage labourer and the capitalist come into b eing and are bound to each other. This latter sense is the one which has been


p redominant and has helped establish original accumulation as a key term in Marxist theory. The term has three basic components: (a) creation of the wage worker through processes of dispossession which cut-off access to the means of production; (b) creation of the capitalist via processes of concentration of capital and the internalisation of market discipline;

(c) as a combined result of both (a) and (b), the creation, spread and sustenance of capitalism. It is noteworthy that DET deals only with (a) leaving (b) and (c) implicit.

If each of these components is a necessary feature of original accumulation, what if the historical processes that are sought to be given this name fail to fulfil one or more of them? For example, Chatterjee (invoking Sanyal) suggests that the first requirement of creating wage labourers is not being fulfilled in the classical manner, i e, dispossession is being “reversed” by the ameliorative sustenance of otherwise unviable livelihoods through state and non-corporate initiatives. Does this mean that, while the means of production are indeed being concentrated and centralised in capitalist hands, the concomitant emergence of the “free” l abourer is being thwarted? Or does it mean that the emergence of capitalist a griculture is also jeopardised? In other words, what is the implication that protection of livelihoods holds for the development of capitalism in Indian agriculture today? Needed also is an accompanying account of what precisely is new in the r ecent phase of the development of capital in agrarian India, and at the broadest level, a description of the new wrinkles and folds in the shape of contemporary capitalist society.

Because the argument of DET has not been located in relation to the rich literature on the development of capitalism in Indian agriculture, it is possible that an argument that is actually about incremental changes (i e, about the most recent phase of this long process) can be mistaken for an argument about the larger trajectory as such (the history of modes of production). This becomes all the more important in the light of the well-known “peculiarity” of agriculture and its refusal or inability to follow classical paths of capitalist development. A lot more is needed on the specifics

Economic & Political Weekly

november 15, 2008

of agriculture before the modular account in DET can be put to work.

Transition Narratives and Language of Politics

DET suggests that the loss or unavailability of a transition narrative is a significant thing, but does not make explicit the consequences of such a loss. What could such consequences be? For example, it could be said that successful transition narratives link the past to the future, and thereby invest the present with meaning and purpose. They enable us to give the future a name and thus harness its teleological e nergy; they offer, in short, the promise of praxis. Not having such a narrative robs the present of initiative and direction. Are these the sort of consequences that DET wishes to invoke? Given that Chatterjee’s account is intended to be primarily about the structure of power and the shape of politics, the absence of explicit discussion of these questions makes for an avoidable and debilitating ambiguity. O ften, the vantage points adopted in DET (other than that of capital) are not quite clear. For the sort of overview that is a ttempted here, it may be necessary to outline the possible futures of different groups, classes or class fractions.

If the classical narratives of transition are no longer the only ones available, can some of the significant socio-political trajectories of today qualify as transition narratives? For example, could we conceive of the desire for the city on the part of rural youth as a sort of script for other futures? Or what of some other narratives of transformation not considered in DET – from exclusion to power-sharing in contemporary demands for reservations, for instance?

Given his own concerns, it is reasonable to expect a broader and richer account from Chatterjee of changing modes of power in the countryside today, even at an indicative and modular level. It could be argued that DET is too narrowly economic, even economistic in its interpretation of primitive accumulation. The term needs to be applied to modes of power rather than to modes of production alone. Would we not then require a much more wide- ranging description of the multiple axes of power and domination, such as those based on caste, ethnicity, or region?1

We said at the beginning that in Chatterjee’s (2006) mode of theorising, examples are not merely illustrative but constitutive. Here we discuss some discrepancies in the “work” that examples do in DET as compared to his earlier writings on the city. The earlier urban examples described how marginal urban groups such as v endors and squatters were able to carve out a space for themselves within the distinctive modalities of political society. These examples take the form of effective “thin descriptions” of very specific groups that occupy a liminal zone framed by the tension between their formal illegality (in terms of civil society) and electoral i mportance (within political society). This liminal zone is dominated by noncorporate forms of capital (petty production in the service or unorganised sectors) but is also able to create and sustain e ffective forms of political mobilisation through local associations and links to mainstream parties.

In contrast to this fairly detailed depiction of the urban scene, the rural situation (in DET) is rendered in much broader strokes. As against relatively specific and “micro” groups like vendors or slumdwellers, here we have only the macro sweep of a peasantry assaulted by capital and fragmented by governmentality. This “big picture” is on a scale that is not commensurate with the scale of the argument in DET, and this discrepancy, given the constitutive status of examples, threatens the viability of the argument. Could some of the passing references in DET be reworked into effective examples? For example, widespread suicides by indebted f armers could become illustrations of the tragic and extreme breakdown of political society, while disenchantment-triggered migration to the city could be an example of alternate transition narratives.

Though DET does not compare them, it is noteworthy that its urban and rural scenarios seem like mirror images of each other. Vendors and squatters are to one side of govermentality – without legal status and yet able to negotiate a precarious yet resilient existence through political mobilisation. Rural beneficiaries of the reversal of primitive accumulation, on the other hand, have a well-established de jure status in policies sanctioned by the state


and international agencies, but have to continually struggle to c onvert this into de facto survival.

There are also other discrepancies that require attention. In Chatterjee’s essay on the city, political society first emerges in the 1970s and 1980s, out of the turmoil of the Emergency and the political movements of those years. Indeed, the 1990s mark a decisive shift as the urban middle classes and civil society become increasingly intolerant of political society. The essay on the city – without the benefit of the concept of the reversal of primitive accumulation – ended on a note of profound uncertainty about the future of hitherto relatively secure marginal groups in a newly bourgeois metropolis. DET does not echo this view and is content to present the urban underclass as h aving adequate resources for survival in petty entrepreneurship or non-corporate capital. Does this imply, then, that Chatterjee now sees the urban have-nots as being more secure than the rural have-nots? The last decade, how ever, provides evidence of the opposite trend: campaigns to evict the underclass from u rban civil society have generally succeeded, while attempts at land acquisition in rural areas have met with stiff resistance.2

In the context of his discussion of changes in the countryside, DET also mentions the idea of an “outside” to political society. The example given is that of sections of tribal communities at the margins of agriculture, excluded from political society b ecause they are electorally insignificant and hence unable to make claims on the state. This brief delineation remains unsatisfactory because it lacks positive content. Although the notion of political society coined by Chatterjee also began life as a negatively defined residual (that which is outside of and unlike civil society), it has since acquired enough descriptive content to render it workable. Something similar is needed for this third sphere.

In trying to provide positive content to the “underside” or “outside” of political s ociety, it may be useful to focus on mechanisms or processes of political disenfranchisement. Needless to say this has to be thought of in a sense broader than electoral politics as such. What are the processes of disenfranchisement that marginalise some segments of the population to such an e xtent that the political system can ignore them with impunity? Looking at the phenomenon from the opposite angle, why do the very modalities of politics that are effective elsewhere fail to work in this “outside” zone? Yet another way of thinking about such zones of disability is to see them as “proto-political” zones, where the struggles that secured the informal negotiations operative in political society are yet to begin or have not yet succeeded. Once we begin to think of what is happening within such zones, they prove to be much more than the mere “outside” of political society

– indeed, they point to the fact that the latter cannot be sustained as a single monolithic concept and is in need of disaggregation. An added advantage is that we are encouraged to think not just about the state and its actions or inaction, but also of forms of struggle, ideological contestation and related processes that help determine the shape of practical politics.

Examples of this kind of shadow zone could include the adivasi struggles that C hatterjee gestures towards but does not explicitly discuss (including the Maoist mobilisations in parts of rural India that have seen the worst forms of primitive accumulation and state repression). Another example on a much smaller scale is that of domestic workers in affluent and middle class urban homes, who could also be thought of as being outside political society. Since they work within individual households under conditions marked by “feudal” ties of servitude, and since they lack political organisation, domestic servants fall outside the usual definition of non-corporate capital. This is changing, as placement agencies begin to manage domestic workers (mainly adivasi girls), and as they begin to form unions of their own. It is possible – but far from certain – that such workers will be brought within the ambit of political society with the state recognising their claims for basic security. Finally, a third example of an entirely different kind could be Muslims in India t oday, who are slowly being pushed outside the frame of mainstream politics by the contradictory pressures of emasculation via “vote bank-isation” and radicalisation born of extreme deprivation and alienation. There are major variations across region, and by class and broad caste groups, but it could be argued that Muslims as a whole are currently enmeshed in processes of disenfranchisement of a quite profound sort.

Since this response has focused almost exclusively on the ambiguities and shortcomings in DET, it may be useful in conclusion to reiterate the reasons why we believe this kind of argument to be important. Social theory today needs to find strong and productive ways of linking the trajectories of rural and urban society. One-sided assertions – whether of the growing “disconnect” between the rural and the urban, or of the rapid industrialisation of agriculture and the death of the village – no longer suffice. We also need enabling analyses of the changing forms of political mobilisation and the transformed language of politics. How, for e xample, do we understand the “NGO-isation” of a wide variety of forms of collective action or political mobilisation? What are the implications of the shift from traditional class-based languages of p rotest or assertion to those based on “identity”? In what ways are our present and our possible futures affected by the d ominance of new vocabularies of discrimination over the older lexicon of e xploitation? DET invites engagement b ecause it enters this terrain and attempts to identify the strategic points where t heoretical forward posts need to be built. Moreover, it does this in an “open source” spirit that should provoke others to join in the effort.


1 For example, one could think of the 1950s and 1960s as a period when the original accumulation of “caste capital” took place. These decades witnessed the large-scale conversion of upper caste land rights into credential capital (in the form of higher and professional education), thus creating a middle class that was almost exclusively upper caste. Deshpande (forthcoming).

2 For example, the Delhi government drives to evict polluting industries and to clear large slum clusters were carried out with impunity, in spite of efforts to mobilise against them. On the other hand, the stories of sustained resistance (though at great cost) to rural land acquisition are many, the best known instances being Kalinganagar, Goa, Singur and Nandigram.


Chatterjee, P (2006): “Are Cities Becoming Bourgeois at Least?” in Mary E John, Praveen Jhan and Surinder S Jodhka (eds), Contested Transformations: Changing Economies and Identities in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Tulika Press).

Deshpande, Satish (forthcoming): Caste as Capital: Retelling the Story of Our Modernity, mss.

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