Individual vs public

Print edition : May 02, 2014
The book opens up many vistas for those who have been associated with political and social movements.

POLITICAL praxis in the past two decades decidedly foregrounded the “citizen” as one of the most important political categories in India. Ostensibly, it marked a maturing of India’s democracy. At the global level, this foregrounding meant that India began to be seen as a respectable state which was ready to talk about its citizens and their rights. The focus on the “individual” as opposed to the “public”, which was crucial to this foregrounding, was propelled by a resurgent civil society that set the parameters of oppositional politics strictly within the limits of constitutionalism and legality.

As opposed to traditional Marxist-Leninist politics, which clearly demarcated the problems of Indian society within structural inequalities perpetuated by a bourgeois state and classified the Indian public along class lines, civil society attempted to blur these classifications. It believed in the Indian state’s inherent capacity to deliver substantive justice.

Civil society is a loose term applied to people working under various non-governmental institutions, necessarily practising oppositional politics. Conceptually, civil society became an “individualised” site, independent of both the state and the market. Since the focus of its politics targeted the “individual” or “the citizen” as opposed to an inconvenient and non-fragmented “public”, both the government and the market responded positively to this brand of politics because of the “civility” it involved. As a result, most of the resources and intellectual capital of civil society groups came from a neoliberal economic pool.

The willingness of the government to hear out civil society’s demands made these groups successful. Their influence started growing in most social movements in the last two decades. As a result, social movements began to play the role of an arbiter between the state and its people. Politics of resistance, which essentially calls for social transformation, became some sort of a quid pro quo between the social movements and the government. Such practices were legitimised in the name of “effective, non-confrontational political strategies”.

It is in such a political context that Ajay Gudavarthy’s Politics of Post-Civil Society assumes importance. Not only does the author attempt to theorise the politics of civil society in terms of its linkages with the state and the market, but he also contests the puerile assumptions made about the so-called “independence” of civil society. Without sounding pessimistic, he explains how political practices, such as constitutionalism and rights, offered by civil society as the only modes of operation are essentially limited in nature. Gudavarthy, who teaches at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, seeks to debunk the synthetic fragmentation of issues, and therefore the Indian public, that civil society’s practices entailed in the last two decades. He opines that such fragmentation brings about artificial conflicts and limits the socially transformative scope of political movements.

In advocating that political movements should essentially focus on one “primary contradiction” as Karl Marx had propounded, he questions civil society’s practices and its autonomy. “At one level, the different practices of civil society, such as constitutionalism, citizenship, legality, rights, autonomous intermediary institutions, voluntary spirit, diversity, cultural plurality, secular-associational values, among many others, interact and mutually condition each other in such a way that far from progressively and cumulatively leading to expanding free spaces, as scholars of civil society have been claiming, they in fact delimit, regulate, and impose restrictions on the fuller articulation of ‘contradictions’, leading to a ‘blocked dialectics’.…The multiplicity and the tension between the practices of civil society that express themselves as ‘the ambiguities of civil society’, as [Neera] Chandhoke refers to, are not contextual or contingent in the sense of being neutral vis-a-vis dominant power relations, but constitutive in the sense that the very processes that they seem to inaugurate, in the name of democracy and democratisation, become hegemonic—in actively replicating and reproducing dominant and structural power relations.” He goes on to point out: “It is, therefore, argued that ambiguities are a modality of power in civil society and the disparate looking practices of civil society intersect—reinforce—one another in reproducing power relations: economic, political, and cultural.”

State-market convergence

He dismantles the notion of a “neutralised space”, which is assumed by civil society, and shows how state, market, and civil society converge in terms of ideological practices, thereby limiting the scope of political transformation that civil society seems to offer. He argues that civil society is nothing but a celebration of “individual” as opposed to a unified “public” that offers more conflicts than resolutions. He says emotions such as voluntary spirit and moral obligation, which give shape to a civil society group, are decontextualised constructions of this state-market convergence that puts forward civil society as its instrument to contain/appropriate the politics of resistance.

“The state-market convergence, then, is not possible without either civil society-market or state-civil society convergence. Civil society and market converge with increasing marketisation of social relations, both ‘ideologically’ and structurally .…Civil society is a site for individualism and pursuit of private interests, but this is sought to be moderated through nurturing ‘moral sentiments’, or regulated through legislation by the state, institutionalising formal and contractual relations between citizens. In assuming the neutrality of the civil society is the implicit assumption that the state is unbiased (for instance, in class terms) and the market is marked only by exchange relations to be set apart from personal relations based on solidarity and mutual empathy,” he writes.

The author argues that civil society is a visible and the most explicit symbol of the “privatisation of the public” ensured by the market-state convergence. “We are witness to a more explicit change where the public—as in the state, for instance—is getting increasingly privatised in its role and purpose, while the private—as in the corporate—is beginning to perform more public activities through their expanding philanthropic activities that include support to health care and education, among many other such activities.” While this phenomenon assists the “marketisation of society”, civil society flags its spirit by involving itself in political movements, limiting the latter’s scope for radically altering structural power relations in society. In fact, he says, the participation of civil society in political movements reasserts the modality of exploitative power relations.

Gudavarthy substantiates his arguments by tracing the history of contemporary political movements, which felt constrained by civil society practices and, therefore, tried to go beyond its approach to a political praxis, which he calls a post-civil society discourse. It is this resistance of a political movement towards the synthetic contradictions perpetually presented by civil society that Gudavarthy discusses in detail. He calls these efforts of political movements the “politics of post-civil society”. He expounds on the activities of the human rights, environmental and women’s movements and the Dalit and naxalite struggles in the last two decades and explains how they have gone beyond the space offered by civil society.

For instance, he shows how Dalit politics in India has substantially framed a post-civil society discourse. “They have reinstated their dialectical mode of functioning in order to circumvent the dispersed social power, and the disciplinary effects of civil society made visible in its selective celebration of identity politics,” he writes, substantiating the argument that Dalit movements, of late, have combined “recognition” with “redistribution”, and interlocking internal resistance of sub-castes with an emphasis on Dalit unity. Similarly, he also shows how feminist movements across the country have moved beyond legal activism and the securing of legal rights for women, a practice that civil society advocated, and foregrounded the politics of “recognition” as their primary agenda. Structural inequalities, redistribution of resources and adjusting power relations have been at the forefront of the concerns of these movements. Gudavarthy advocates that only a persistent perusal of the “dialectics of struggle” can lead to a withdrawal of false multiplicity of practices that civil society propagates. Limiting political praxis to methods such as legal resistance, or voluntary struggle, or sensitisation programmes congeals democratic space. He says the contradictions that come up in the course of a political movement can be addressed only through a dialectical struggle.

Politics of Post-Civil Society is undoubtedly one of the best Marxist critiques of the limitations of civil society as a transformative force. Gudavarthy has successfully scrutinised civil society initiatives and its limitations and in doing so he also evaluates the neoliberal political economy and its impact. He shows the interlinkages of the state and the market in producing resistance in a neoliberal polity, a fact one needs to be wary of. The book, despite belonging to a purely academic genre, opens up many vistas for people who have been even faintly associated with political and social movements.

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