Here’s an idea that isn’t said nearly often enough in North America’s political discussions as it should. It comes from Partha Chatterjee’s observations about the kind of social organizing that he calls ‘political society.’
It’s an insight that cuts to the heart of several of the stark, intense divisions among political activists of the left and right in the West today. That explodes our usual ideas about legitimacy, the rights of citizens, and the responsibilities of government.
|India's Parliament building|
We’ve become so democratic in the 20th century that we’ve undercut the original foundation of democracy itself.
Let me explain. The original conception of democracy was literally that all the citizens of a community would gather together in an assembly to decide on the actions for the government. All the citizens would lead the community as a team.
That was no longer possible in the democratic structures of the nation-state with its massive territory. But we could do the same kind of deliberative leadership in representative assemblies. A few hundred or so people elected to represent citizens in different regions of the country.
We could still tell ourselves that representation and transparent deliberations in parliament brought the real concerns of all the citizens to the decision-making table.
The argument’s been made that this representation was always a sham – that’s one of Antonio Negri’s major messages. But whether representation could ever actually bring the wills of thousands to a single room, we believed it.
And democratic assemblies did carry out these functions. Political parties represented genuinely different philosophies of how the state should act, and they presented themselves to the public as standard bearers of ideologies. They were the bearers of conversations about our direction as a society.
This is still how the civil state works, but it isn’t the only function of government anymore. The government has taken on so many more responsibilities, because one of the goals of politics has become general human uplift. We can no longer let the very poor remain poor. And that demand carries over to our government.
The government is no longer only about the philosophical direction of our community as a whole. It’s about human welfare.
|India's lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, in session|
Libertarian political thinking today is defined by their opposition to this. It’s the ideal behind any right-wing political philosophy that focusses on restoring small government. The only legitimate function of government is the civic function: the discourse, the venue that unites a diverse set of populations into a nation.
Us Westerners, we take that civic function as the essence of the nation-state, the primary purpose of state institutions. Largely, that’s a historical matter. For a long time, I’ve thought most concepts of the essential in political thinking were actually historical contingencies.
That’s because I think of pretty much all human existence as historical contingency. Even facts that are universal to humanity are historical contingencies – you just have to expand your view of history to periods of millions of years instead of a few hundred or thousand.
But reading Chatterjee calls to mind another reason for the historical contingency of our institutions’ primary responsibilities. That’s the real historical foundation and creation of many modern states.
The institutions and purposes of forging civic national union were grafted on to existing frameworks that were entirely administrative. The people who ruled India for the 200 years before its emergence as a contemporary nation-state* had no interest in encouraging a common feeling and concept of civic nationalism across the country.
* In the post-colonial world, the term now has to have a very loose application.
Those rulers were the British. You don’t want your dependent colony to have a common sense of civic nationalism – that causes revolution.
So in India – as well as former colonies across Asia and Africa – the state and its administration was well-established. Then civic institutions plopped on top.
If the civic institutions of democratic representation and national unity are an afterthought to your administrative institutions, can you still be a democracy? . . . To Be Continued