Lineages of Political Society
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Lineages of Political Society

Studies in Postcolonial Democracy

Partha Chatterjee

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eBook - ePub

Lineages of Political Society

Studies in Postcolonial Democracy

Partha Chatterjee

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About This Book

Partha Chatterjee, a pioneering theorist known for his disciplinary range, builds on his theory of "political society" and reinforces its salience to contemporary political debate. Dexterously incorporating the concerns of South Asian studies, postcolonialism, the social sciences, and the humanities, Chatterjee broadly critiques the past three hundred years of western political theory to ask, Can democracy be brought into being, or even fought for, in the image of Western democracy as it exists today?

Using the example of postcolonial societies and their political evolution, particularly communities within India, Chatterjee undermines the certainty of liberal democratic theory in favor of a realist view of its achievements and limitations. Rather than push an alternative theory, Chatterjee works solely within the realm of critique, proving political difference is not always evidence of philosophical and cultural backwardness outside of the West. Resisting all prejudices and preformed judgments, he deploys his trademark, genre-bending, provocative analysis to upend the assumptions of postcolonial studies, comparative history, and the common claims of contemporary politics.

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Year
2011
ISBN
9780231527910
The Mythical Space of Normative Theory
It is sometimes said that modern political theory of the normative kind takes place in an ahistorical timeless space where perennial questions about the right and the good are debated. In fact, that is not quite the case. Rather, it would be more correct to say that these normative debates take place in a time-space of epic proportions which emerged fully formed only after the victorious conclusion of an epochal struggle against an old order of absolutist, despotic, or tyrannical power. There is, thus, a definite historical past that is posited by modern political theory as an era which has been overcome and left behind, even if it appears only as an abstract and negative description of all that is normatively unacceptable today. Sometimes, this abandoned past is given a location in real historical time, as, for instance, the absolutist order of the ancien régime overthrown by the French Revolution, or the restricted rules of suffrage extended by the Reform Acts in Britain in the nineteenth century, or the regime of racial discriminations undone by the Civil Rights legislation in the United States. But it is also clear that, in its abstract and negative character, this historical past is limitlessly elastic in its capacity to include virtually any geographical space and any historical period, and to designate these as the past that must be overcome for modern politics to become possible.
The curious fact is that this negatively designated historical past could even be found to coexist with the normatively constituted order of modern political life in a synchronous, if anomalous, time of the present. Thus, when the demand became vociferous in many Western countries in the early twentieth century in favour of unrestricted voting rights for women, the existing restrictions were described as unacceptable remnants of a past order. If there is, in some not too distant future, a serious campaign for the abolition of the House of Lords, the existing upper house of the British parliament will, I am sure, be similarly consigned to a pre-modern past. Thus, even in its apparent indifference to the historical mode of argument, modern political theory of the normative kind uses a definite strategy of historicization in order to demarcate and serially redefine its own discursive space.
If I am permitted to adopt, somewhat insincerely (but only partially so), a position of externality in relation to the space-time of Western political theory and take a panoramic view of its progress since the beginning of the modern age, I would end up with the impression that there is an elemental sameness in all of modern political theory over the last three hundred years. It is as if all the major political developments of the modern world were anticipated, indeed foretold, at the birth of modern political theory in late-seventeenth-century England. Thus, whether we speak of the abolition of feudal privileges, or independence from an imperial power that refused to grant representative government to its colonial subjects, or the abolition of slavery, or universal adult suffrage without discrimination on grounds of religion, race, class, or gender—the basic structure of arguments appears to be contained within modern political theory from the moment of its formation. Consequently, it doesn’t really matter if John Locke could not even imagine women as fully rational members of the commonwealth, or if Immanuel Kant could do little more than hope that the Prussian monarch would be enlightened enough to rule according to the dictates of reason. Those views of individual political philosophers were remnants of a pre-modern political order that had managed, in a purely empirical sense, to coexist in the same contemporaneous time-space as modern political life. They could, by an appropriate historicizing strategy, be explained away from the normative space of modern political theory, which would then be left free to traverse the entire discursive field opened up by its epic victory over absolutism. Needless to say, this discursive field can only be abstractly constituted.
As someone from the postcolonial world introduced from a very young age to the normative verities of Western political theory, I must confess that I have found all this quite baffling. How was it possible, I have asked myself, that all the bitter and bloody struggles over colonial exploitation, racial discrimination, class conflict, the suppression of women, the marginalization of minority cultures, etc., that have dominated the real history of the modern world in the last hundred years or so, have managed not to displace in even the slightest way the stable location of modern political theory within the abstract discursive space of normative reasoning? How is it that normative political theory was never pushed into constructing a theory of the nation, or of gender, or of race, or indeed of class, except by marginal figures whose efforts were greeted at best with bare courtesy, and more often with open hostility? How could those contentious topics have been relegated to the empirical domains of sociology or history? How could it be that the entire conceptual history of modern politics was foretold at the birth of modern political theory? I have often heard it said, to the accompaniment of derisive sniggers, that Hegel’s confident pronouncement in the early nineteenth century—“what the spirit is now, it has always been implicitly … the spirit of the present world is the concept which the spirit forms of its own nature”1—was only a piece of idealist mystification, or worse, German delusion. I am not sure that Hegel’s detractors among contemporary political philosophers are necessarily free from that defect, even if they do not share the same national cultural traditions.
I should clarify that by normative Western political theory I mean the corpus of writings, principally in English, French, and German, that represents what is broadly called liberal thought and that has come to enjoy a position of dominance not only within the academy but in general public discourse in all contemporary democracies around the world. Needless to say, there have always existed contrary views to liberal political thought. The most important such tradition in Western intellectual life is Marxism, which we will have occasion to discuss several times in the subsequent chapters of this book. The reason why I think Marxist thought failed to offer an effective challenge to normative liberal political theory is, first, the tendency in a great deal of Marxist thinking of subordinating the political to the economic, and thus of regarding political principles as the instrumental means for securing economic ends; and second, the failure of Soviet socialism to offer a coherent normative account of its political institutions. The power of Marxist thought has been acknowledged in the Western academy mainly in its contribution to social history, political economy, political sociology, and cultural criticism, not to normative political theory. This is not to deny that there have been in the last three or four decades several innovative thinkers in the West who have challenged the claims of normative liberal theory by drawing upon the tradition of critical Marxism. One such figure is Michel Foucault, who will appear several times in the following chapters, but there are several others who will also be discussed and cited. Like postcolonial theorists, they too are engaged in the critique of globally dominant liberal political theory.
Having searched for several years both within and outside the domains of liberal normative political theory, I think I now have the outlines of a possible answer to the question—“How has normative political theory as practised in the West managed to fortify itself against the turmoil of the real world of politics and assert the continued validity of its norms as pronounced at its moment of creation?” The answer will take us well outside the philosophically well-tempered zones of the Western world.
Two Senses of the Norm
Although the epic time of modern political theory appears to begin in seventeenth-century England, the conceptual innovations that enabled that abstract time-space to be constructed and secured against the incursions of the real world of politics appeared, I think, only around the turn of the nineteenth century. By then, European countries had, of course, had the experience of conquering and ruling over vast territories in the Americas. But the European empires in the Western hemisphere never seriously posed the problem of having to incorporate within a European political order the forms of law, property, and government of the indigenous American peoples. The latter were not regarded as having a credible political society at all that needed to be integrated into the new imperial formation. Only the colonial settlements of Europeans and mestizos mattered—and these came to be organized on the most modern European normative principles of the time. In fact, the indigenous societies of the Amerindian peoples frequently served as examples of the pre-political natural condition of mankind that had to be superseded for the political and commercial societies of civilized people to emerge. But the European conquests in Asia that began in the second half of the eighteenth century posed entirely different problems. The existing political institutions of those defeated Oriental kingdoms could not be entirely set aside, for utterly “real” political reasons. They had to be given a place within the new imperial order of European rule over its Eastern colonies. Thus began a new journey of normative Western political theory.
A key moment in the British history of the emergence of its modern empire was the debate in Parliament from 1781 to 1792 over the conduct of Warren Hastings as governor-general of India. Charged with corruption and high crimes, Hastings, in his defence, argued that India could not be ruled by British principles. If he had, in his own conduct, deviated from British norms, it was because Indian conditions demanded it. “The whole history of Asia is nothing more than precedents to prove the invariable exercise of arbitrary power…. Sovereignty in India implies nothing else [than despotism].”2 Edmund Burke, in his reply, was merciless. “[T]hese Gentlemen have formed a plan of Geographic morality, by which the duties of men in public and in private situations are not to be governed by their relations to the Great Governor of the Universe, or by their relations to men, but by climates, degrees of longitude and latitude …”3 This was a license for corruption and abuse of power. “My Lords,” Burke thundered in Parliament, “we contend that Mr. Hastings, as a British Governor, ought to govern upon British principles…. We call for that spirit of equity, that spirit of justice, … that spirit of safety, that spirit of protection, that spirit of lenity, which ought to characterise every British subject in power; and upon these and these principles only, he will be tried.”4 Burke’s claim was that Indians had their own ancient constitution, their own laws, their own legitimate dynasties. A British governor, ruling by true British principles, ought to have respected those institutions and customs and not, like Hastings, arrogantly cast them aside in order to introduce British forms with the substance of despotism.
The impasse created by debates such as this in the domain of normative theory was resolved, in the tumultuous age of revolutions, by a set of conceptual innovations that had little to do with the great political conflicts of the time. Writing his Principles of Morals and Legislation, published in 1789, Jeremy Bentham declared that the methods and standards of legislation he was proposing were “alike applicable to the laws of all nations.”5 More interestingly for us, in an early essay, “The Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation,” Bentham proposed the following method:
I take England, then, for a standard; and referring every thing to this standard, I inquire, What are the deviations which it would be requisite to make from this standard, in giving to another country such a tincture as any other country may receive without prejudice, from English laws? … The problem, as it stands at present, is: the best possible laws for England being established in England; required, the variations which it would be necessary to make in those of any other given country, in order to render them the best laws possible with reference to that country.6
In providing an instructive example of this method, Bentham chose a country that presented “as strong a contrast with England as possible.”
Such a contrast we seem to have in the province of Bengal: diversity of climate, mixture of inhabitants, natural productions, face of the country, present laws, manners, customs, religion of the inhabitants; every circumstance, on which a difference in the point in question can be grounded, as different as can be…. To a lawgiver, who having been bred up with English notions, shall have learnt how to accommodate his laws to the circumstances of Bengal, no other part of the globe can present any difficulty.7
But Bentham also insisted that “human nature was everywhere the same” and that different countries did not have “different catalogues of pleasures and pains.” Then why should not the same laws hold good for all countries? Because the things that caused pleasure or pain were not the same everywhere. “The same event … which would produce pain or pleasure in one country, would not produce an effect of the same sort, or if of the same sort, not in equal degree, in another.”8 But these grounds of variation were not all of the same kind either. Some were physical, such as the climate or the nature of the soil, and these were invariant and insurmountable. Others, no matter how difficult or inexpedient, were subject to intervention and change, such as “the circumstances of government, religion, and manners.”9 Different sets of laws would be appropriate for different circumstances. Further, by the application of appropriate laws, the mutable circumstances could be subjected to the forces of change.
Bentham thought of these variations as amenable to more or less precise and detailed qualitative and quantitative comparison—that is to say, they were all subject to some common measure. He suggested that the legislator should be provided with two sets of tables relating to the country for which he was legislating. One set would consist of the civil code, the constitutional code, a table of offences and punishme...

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