Politics, power and society
V. K. NATRAJ
A vigorous defence of politics, power relations, culture, and class analysis
POWER MATTERS Essays on Institutions, Politics and Society in India: John Harriss; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.
There is an increasing tendency today among international organisations, some sections of academics and policy makers to regard politics as dirty, not truly representative, and of course as an inefficient system for delivering development. There is growing emphasis on civil society, social capital, and participation. Against this backdrop, this volume strikes a very different and refreshing note. It is fundamentally a vigorous defence of the issues that are coming to be sidelined by mainstream development literature politics, power relations, culture, and class analysis.
Centrality of politics
The book consists of 10 essays, some of which are products of Harriss' early work in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. These are reproduced since, in the author's view, they relate to questions which are of relevance even in the present. Of the principal premises on which this volume stands anchored the first is the centrality of politics. Harris distinguishes between `old politics' and `new politics'. The former with its focus on political parties and trade unions is seen as dirty whereas `new politics' with its strong association with `technocratic rationalising modernism' is perceived to be good. As he argues at several places, the accent in today's discourse is on participation and problem-solving, no matter that in this participatory system the poor are marginalised.
Concern with `class'
Related to this overarching theme is Harriss' concern with `class', something that `new politics' and `social capital' have successfully managed to do away with. It is best to let the author speak for himself: "it is in the interests of the powerful that the significance of class relationships should be denied or covered over." There is a further point that shares a contextual, and more importantly, an intellectual nexus with this which the author calls `culture' and expresses in the following words: "culture matters because all human action is culturally embedded, and we cannot understand, for instance, the ways in which economic institutions work without taking account of their embeddedness in culturally given understandings". (Incidentally this is one example of idiomatic complexity which, given Harriss' general weakness for style and elegance, should surprise readers familiar with his work). This line of analysis naturally takes Harriss to the question of power and the title of the volume is, therefore, apposite. He subscribes, rightly in the view of this reviewer, to the centrality of power and disagrees with those like the advocates of New Institutional Economics who attempt to graft a theory of political change onto a doctrinal text founded on neo-classical economics.
In an incisive discussion on the `mode of production' debate which occupied the centre stage in India in the 1970s, Harriss acknowledges its major contribution in furthering our theoretical understanding but argues that it produced nothing comparable in the analysis of politics, culture, and ideology. He believes that the debate ultimately resulted in `economic reductionism' and makes the proposition that this is one reason the left was not able to take up a well-reasoned position on issues such as the farmers' movement.
It is this holistic approach towards development as well as the role of the state that prompts Harriss to raise a few more fundamental questions. One of them is the way citizens relate to the state. Harriss, who by and large adopts the analytical frame he and Chris Fuller developed (Fuller and Benei [eds] The Everday State in Modern India 2001), is not persuaded that the modern state as such does not exist meaningfully in India. He is also not convinced of the culturalist critique of the Indian state. A related point he makes is important. He is critical of the anthropological use of the concept of `encapsulation', which in his view succeeds in abstracting both the state and the village from reality. More significantly, this denies the very real prospect that changes within villages can influence changes in the state; in other words there is denial of a dialectical relationship between the village and the state. Throughout the work, Harriss pleads sometimes directly and often by implication, for more insightful and deeper inquiry into the character of the modern Indian state.
In a chapter devoted to the dialectics of decentralisation the concept is subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Harriss is rightly critical of the way decentralisation is offered as a panacea to all societal and political problems and of the manner in which the discourse resonates buzz words such as participation, social capital, and civil society and the need for good governance to transcend democracy. But at the end of the chapter, this reviewer was left with a feeling that some of the complexities involved in decentralisation may have received short shrift. However, the author's basic conclusion that political society holds the key to decentralisation is indisputable.
This volume is specially recommended to those who are in pursuit of an apolitical representative system that is sterile, free of the stench of poverty and messiness of democratic noise. They should first read Harriss if only to realise how falsely conceived their utopia is.
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