I can’t quite remember how I got my hands on Partha Chatterjee’s The Politics of the Governed. Was it from my friend The Wiz liquidating a bunch of his books before his move to the USA? Was it a book giveaway at McMaster? It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I have it.
One unfortunate hole in my education was that, no matter how much I read of current and historical political thinking, it was all Western. In so much of the humanities academy, non-Western thought is a minor, largely neglected specialty subject.
Yet ignoring non-Western political thinking and problems means ignoring the situations of literally half the world’s population.
As a Western person who writes about political ideas, I have something of an obligation at least to look into and understand the core concepts that drive political movements in the rest of the world. We can’t just act as though the history and traditions that have shaped the Western political mind-set apply universally.
If you want to take a really aggressive view of that false universality, you can call it cultural imperialism. I prefer to think of the belief in that false universality as ass-ignorant insularity.
But there are all kinds of different ways for non-Western political ideas to diverge from the presumptions of Western thinkers and people. This isn’t a matter of West v East.
Collapsing all the diversity of the world beyond the directly European descended cultures into a single category of East oversimplifies so much that it’s completely inaccurate. India, the subject of Chatterjee’s thought, is itself an immensely diverse country.
There are caste, class, religious, ethnic, and cultural divergences, all varying with location within the country, all the variety that such a massive society of more than a billion people can muster.
I had dinner with my old friend Bombay Blaque tonight, who’s lived in Mumbai for nearly two years now. India is a wildly diverse society, a land of so, so many.
So of all the difference that could exist, what’s the first one that stood out for me? Chatterjee introduces his book discussing a key divergence in European and Indian political histories.
In Europe, the civil nation was the focus of the state’s creation. It was to create a political body and political discourse that would unite the people as such – not as inhabitants of a town, or subjects of a kingdom – as the people of a nation.
So the public function of a civil nation – how people primarily encountered their state – was as a legislature creating their laws and civil contracts. That’s how we Westerners think of the primary function and purpose of a state, because that’s how we developed out own political culture and thinking. But that isn’t how the modern state formed in India.
In India, the modern independent state exists in people’s lives primarily as a service provider – the welfare state came before the civil state. So the state isn’t primarily the vehicle for legislation to articulate the general will of the people as a unified nation.
Instead, the state in much of the non-Western world breaks down when it tries to institute national unity. Its primary function is to identify differences – needs, situations, problems, inequities, social situations, and ecological relationships – and provide these differences the resources they need to thrive.
Of course, the state in many parts of the world doesn’t come nearly close to satisfying all these obligations. But what matters to people’s conception of their state isn’t what it achieves, but its purpose. When the welfare state comes first, the purpose of a state is primarily redressing real physical and cultural needs and grievances.
As the West confronts yet another growing wave of violent nationalism in its history, we may have something to learn from a political philosophy where the role of the state is redress and welfare.
There’ll definitely be more to come on Chatterjee. And as many other thinkers from beyond the West as I can find.