What is ‘anti-statism’?
What do I mean by ‘anti-statism’? It usually is defined as an intense dislike for any form of intrusion by the state into any aspect of human existence – social, economic, or personal. To me, this attitude appears to share a close kinship with anarchism. However, in this article I will use the term in a more mundane sense. By ‘anti-statism’, I only mean the snobbish disdain commonly displayed towards the Indian state in a lot of the English-language media and academia. Let us say that it is a kind of ‘we are holier-than-the-state’ airs assumed by many of our journalists and learned folks.
The Demographic of Anti-Statism
It is the elite. The English-language print and electronic media in India are still dominated by them. The reason is simple. Employment in these fields requires a kind of command over the English language which you mostly acquire only after attending a very expensive school and an elite college. There are, thus, more than a fair number of Doon School and St. Stephen’s College alumni employed in our English-language periodicals, news websites and television channels. Anti-statism seems to be fashionable among these elite; all the more so now, since the Indian state is being run by a political party they dislike. This aversion, among other things, is evidenced by the tenderly sympathetic coverage given to the ‘urban naxals’, a group of plotters committed to the long term goal of overthrowing the Indian state, and the likes of Umar Khalid and Sehla Rashid. It is also expressed in the enthusiastic and relentless celebration of an ‘author-activist’, known for her militant anti-state posturing, in the English-language press. One can also often see her receiving affectionate screen time on a ‘cerebral’ English-language news channel (sinking now, for no one watches it). She is a vocal votary of the Naxals and Kashmir’s azaadi from oppressive Indian ‘occupation’. She once described the former as ‘Gandhians with guns’. A lot of our senior journalists, frequent in the posh chattering circuits of the India International Center (IIC), India Habitat Center (IHC) and the Press Club of India (PCI), cannot love her enough. One of them edits a news website prone to especially ‘anti-establishment’ positions. For example, a little more than a year ago it had published this article by one Partha Chatterjee in which he seemingly likened the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, to the British General Dyer (who carried out the Jalianwala Bagh massacre). Though the country at large was outraged, I was not particularly surprised. As I have observed, this website is not very interested in depicting reality with a great deal of exactitude. It gives truth a generously long wire (presumably, so that it may hang itself) in its endeavors to undermine the Indian state.
The elite in our academia are not far behind their kindred in the media in their anti-statism. They are to be commonly found in the social sciences, both as masters and pupils. Since studying them does not quite assure you a job, the social sciences generally tend to deter the hoi-polloi and attract those with inherited status, wealth and connections. It is due to them that our top public universities – for example, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Delhi – are rife with loud and assiduous criticisms of the ‘unjust and oppressive’ Indian state. In the JNU, as I had shown in an earlier article (The Uneasy Relationship of JNU and the Indian Nation-State), they either insinuate that the Indian state is some sort of a bourgeois fraud or term it a ‘Brahmanical and patriarchal construct’ whose sole purpose is to oppress and exploit the Dalits and women. Of course, this is due the political hegemony of the Left that prevails there and its incursions into cultural politics (‘cultural Marxism’). Though it is not quite so in the University of Delhi, its students’ union leans to the right, a lot of teachers in its social science departments have a pretty similar opinion of the Indian state. In fact, they can be occasionally a lot more demonstrably ‘radical’ than their counterparts in the JNU. A year and a half ago, to cite an instance, the roving revolutionary Umar Khalid received an invitation to speak at the Ramjas College (located in the North Campus of the University of Delhi). Though Mr. Khalid’s talk did not eventually take place due to protests by students, this invitation would definitely not have been extended to him unless the institution had a few teachers enamored by his ‘radical’ views. If you grew up in the nineteen-nineties, as I did, you might remember this ad film in which Sachin told us that a certain health drink is the secret of his energy. Similarly, what is the secret of our elite’s anti-state militancy? What intellectual resources is it driven by?
I Think, it is the Social Sciences
While working on this article, I Googled some star ‘anti-establishment’ opinion makers and anchors in the English-language print and electronic media. My intention was to gather information on their educational backgrounds. What I found was revealing. The editor of that news-website with a wiry disdain for truth and reality has been to the London School of Economics. A star woman news anchor, formerly with that ‘cerebral’ and sinking English-language news channel, has attended Columbia University. Remember that lady news anchor who had once alleged that balloons filled with the male procreative body fluid are being thrown about on Holi? She had to unceremoniously leave the news channel she worked for when it changed ownership in 2014. Well, she went to the University of Oxford. So did her even more intellectually challenged husband, another star news anchor. What did all these people study in the premier institutions of higher learning they attended? Exact information was not always forthcoming on the internet, but it seemed to me that it was the social sciences in some form (journalism is quite allied to them). These media insurgents have received the best possible education in the social sciences in the very best institutions. Consequently, what do these elite have in common with those in the academia, besides their anti-statism? It is the social sciences. And anti-statism (as in a snobbish disdain for the state, the sense in which I use the term) has been in fashion in the social sciences for several decades now.
Now, let me concede a point here. It is not necessary that our elite in the media and academia always consciously employ the intellectual resources furnished by the social sciences while resorting to anti-state posturing and virtue signaling. Since 2014, this tendency has definitely been partly engendered by the loss of political patronage (appointments in the higher academia are very, very political) and access to the corridors of power in South Block. Further, several of these people do not seem to possess the IQ levels required to employ intellectual frames derived even from a Chacha Chaudhary comic book, leave alone the social sciences. To put it bluntly, if you think that a man can produce enough procreative fluid to fill a balloon, you are a retard. It is not biologically possible. However, all said and done, when one considers the totality of opinions expressed by this posh demographic (its ‘discourse’), one finds that it has displayed some level and intensity of anti-statism for a considerable length of time. That activist author of two novels, for example, was feted by the English-language media even before 2014. Similarly, anti-statism has always been in vogue in the JNU and social science departments of the University of Delhi. In my view, this can only be because the elite in the Indian media and academia, due to their education, have imbibed and internalized a particular way of looking at and talking about the state. For instance, this is almost certainly true for the editor of that news website given to giving truth a long wire. His alma mater, LSE, is known for its ‘radical’ scholarship. It is true also for that militant ‘author-activist’. Though she is an architect by training, I find traces of postcolonial and postmodern critical literature, the stuff of the social sciences, in her political essays and activism. She has definitely read some of that stuff.
The Social Sciences and Anti-Statism
How do the social sciences foster anti-statism? Well, they do so by giving the state, what can be termed, some ‘bad press.’ Initially, the social sciences had begun doing so under the influence of classical Marxist scholarship which subscribed to the “class-domination theory of state.” The old guard of Marxist scholars saw the state as “an instrument in the hands of the ruling classes….”[i] Though this crude class-domination theory is no more fashionable in the social sciences, various intellectual tendencies within them continue to nurture an aversion for the state.
Take post-colonialism, for example, an intellectual attitude that has much influenced various branches of the social sciences – history, literary studies and political-science, just to name a few. What exactly is postcolonialism? It is rather hard to define, being a great amorphous mass of critical approaches and attitudes (directed against the west). One of the things that the postcolonialists do is critique the western knowledge systems that do not give sufficient credit or recognition to the ‘other’, non-western ways of being human. Take the celebrated postcolonialist Edward W. Said, for instance. His much quoted book Orientalism is a lengthy complaint against the way the Arab Muslim world has been represented in western scholarship. Western representations, the late Prof. Said alleged, made the Arab Muslim east (‘orient’) an inveterate ‘other’ of the west. It was made to be everything that the west was not, irrational and not quite civilized. A postcolonialist is likely to trace the roots of such ‘othering’ in the anthropocentrism inherent in western Renaissance humanism, an attitude concerned “with the celebration and cultivation of human achievements.”[ii] The problem from the postcolonialist point of view is that this humanism apparently celebrates the achievements of the (by default upper class) white western male alone, “it imposes a series of cultural, social and economic constraints on the very quality of human-ness.”[iii] Simply put, this humanism does not regard all humans fully human. As the German philosopher Heidegger had observed, it identifies a Homo humanus (a civilized, fully human individual) and a Homo barbarus (an uncivilized, barbaric human individual).[iv] The former is always the upper class white western male. Ultimately, the grouses nurtured by the postcolonialists against western knowledge systems and humanism can lead them to view the state in poor light. This is because renaissance humanism valorizes the state “as the proper end of knowledge” and aspires to establish “a symbiotic relationship between culture – or knowledge – and the state.”[v] Whose knowledge is this? Of course, it is the knowledge of the Homo humanus, the upper class white western male. Thus, the postcolonialist might allege, the state embodies the privileged, western masculine way of knowing.
A lot of anti-statism in our academia, as I see, mimics the postcolonial disaffection with the state. Indian academic anti-statism assumes that traditional Indian Dharmic thought is anthropocentric after the western fashion (though it is not) and installs the upper caste Hindu male as the Indian equivalent of the western Homo humanus (though it does not). What naturally flows from this assumption is the belief that the Indian variant of anthropocentrism has formed an alliance with the Indian state and celebrates the upper caste Hindu male way of knowing. That is why this constant insinuation emerges from the ‘radical’ (illiterate in Dharma and Indic thought) margin of Indian academia that the Indian state is ‘Brahmanical and patriarchal’. Its attempts to normalize beef consumption (through beef parties on university campuses and claims that the meat is essential to the Dalit or adiwasi diet) too have stemmed from the same assessment of the Indian state. Using beef as the weapon, the ‘radical’ academic fringe has been seeking to combat what it perceives to be its essential character. Their efforts find support in some of the English-language media, the insurgent news websites, for example, because the people in charge there are very likely familiar, and in agreement, with their source – postcolonial ideas.
After postcolonialism, anti-statism is encouraged by postmodernism, another approach whose traces are to be found today in every single branch of the social sciences. About forty years ago, the French philosopher Jean Francis Lyotard defined postmodernism “as incredulity towards metanarratives”[vi], or great stories possessing a unity and unfolding through history. These could be stories with great heroes and great goals. Lyotard gives the example of the putative story of the triumph of science and the emancipation of the human mind from unreason and priestly tyranny. Here the hero will be science and the great goal attained will be the liberated human mind. Rejection of metanarratives, Lyotard contended, “refines our sensitivity to differences.”[vii] A postmodernist displays this sensitivity to differences by being open to the possibility of numerous little narratives, or stories – it is not necessary that people’s minds may be emancipated by science alone, it could done by other forces too. Each emancipated mind may have its own story, its own experience of emancipation. On the other hand, one need not justify science citing only the ostensibly liberated human mind. One could find that justification in whatever ethical, social, or political beliefs that determined one’s actions[viii], little stories again.
A postmodernist does not like the state since it is a great story – it claims a long history, a metanarrative, through which it exists, or forms, and emerges upon the present. Further, the postmodernist contends that the metanarrative of the state, by default, belongs to the elite. It is the story of the privileged, those who wield power and run and shape the state. In the Indian academic context, once again, the postmodern bent is exhibited in the constant claim that the Indian state is ‘Brahmanical and patriarchal’. It is seen to be the outcome, and also representing an existing reality, of a metanarrative of upper caste Hindu male dominance. And what little narrative is celebrated to counter this metanarrative? Well, today, on the campuses of our public universities, it is often the little narrative of Islamism. Why else do you think a character such as Afzal Guru was openly celebrated and mourned in the JNU till very recently? Though the mainstream English-languages media has not gone to the extent of celebrating convicted terrorists yet, it does give pretty indulgent coverage to Umar Khalid and Sehla Rashid, closet Islamists both. I believe, it would not have done so if some important people in it had not shared the same assumptions about the character of the Indian state with those in the Indian academia. Coming to that militant author-activist, there is a very obvious imprint of both postcolonialism and postmodernism in her many idiocies. That is why she hangs out with noxious Kashmiri Islamists and makes noises in favor of the naxals. She is engaging with these little narratives which are taking on the upper caste Hindu male anthropocentrism and metanarrative of the Indian state.
The third approach that promotes anti-statism in the social sciences is ‘subalternism’. I request the reader to please not Google the word. It is a neologism that I have coined. Google will yield ‘subaltern’, not ‘subalternism’. Before I explain what I mean by subalternism, a little on the subaltern. Originally the word denoted a junior officer (below the rank of captain) in the British army. The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), used the word to mean all those who did not belong to the ruling classes and, hence, to history. History, as per Gramsci, belonged to the ruling classes. They found their “historical unity” in the state (since they ruled it, they could be found as a coherent mass in history with reference to it), he wrote, “and their history is essentially the history of States and groups of States….”[ix] On the other hand, Gramsci observed that the “history of subaltern groups is…fragmented and episodic.”[x] Apparently taking these Gramscian observations as the premise, a group of scholars in the early nineteen-eighties began to produce these Subaltern Studies volumes. It seems fair to assume that a part of their motivation also came from postcolonialism and postmodernism (both of which, as we have seen, are prone to seeing the state as an entity in hands of the elite). The object of the Subaltern Studies project was to look for the subaltern, the subordinate non-elite, in history by exploring the “history, politics, economics and sociology of subalternity” as reflected in “class, caste, gender and office or in any other way.”[xi] In plain language, the project’s objective was to trace in history the factory workers, the peasants, Dalits, adiwasis and women, as well as that underpaid and overworked clerk employed in a private firm. Subaltern Studies sought to find the ‘small voice of history’ by rejecting statism – the idea that “the life of the state is all there is to history.”[xii]
Now, looking for the voice of the downtrodden in history does sound like such a noble intention. But this intention is marred by a serious problem. The problem is that, somehow, very patronizingly, the contributors to the project assumed that the subaltern is inveterately irrational and violent. Most of them, thus, sought to find the subalterns in history by looking for their most irrational or violent acts. It is this fascination for irrationality and violence that I call ‘subalternism’. It has been recognized by none other than the formidable Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, feminist scholar and literary theorist, herself a contributor to the Subaltern Studies volumes and very sympathetic to the plight of the subaltern.[xiii] She found the project dissonant with the “thesis of the subaltern’s infantility.”[xiv] The subaltern, she felt, emerges not as a properly capable historical agent, but an angry, petulant infant, in the efforts of the Subaltern Studies scholars.
None other than Ranajit Guha, an editor of, as well as a contributor to, several Subaltern Studies volumes, seems to be giving credence to the idea that the subaltern is inherently irrational and violent. He found the political aspect of peasant protests and uprisings in colonial India manifest in large scale acts of wrecking, burning, looting and eating (of looted food) by the peasants.[xv] The commonplace triggers for these ‘political’ acts were rumors.[xvi] Why did the Indian peasants choose a general idiom of violence to express their ‘politics’? It is because, Guha contends, the organizing principle of Indian society was nothing other than dominance by the social superiors. This reality did not let peasants form, or learnt to form, proper associations.[xvii] The British colonial state, which served as the context for these peasant uprisings, was a crude form of dominance too.[xviii] And the post-independence state that replaced it, Guha delicately insinuates, is not different. For the “destruction of the colonial state was never a part of the project”[xix] of the Indian bourgeois who led the freedom movement. Nothing really changed in 1947. The current Indian state is actually in continuity with the British colonial state. That is why, dear readers, that fellow called Partha Chatterjee wrote that piece equating General Bipin Rawat to General Dyer. He is a Professor of Political Science and a contributor to the Subaltern Studies series. Read his article, still afloat on the internet, carefully. It is implicitly sympathetic to the Kashmiri stone pelters, he refers to them as an “insurgent populace.” In Subaltern Studies jargon that is not such a bad thing. Insurgency, for the likes of Guha and Chatterjee, is politics. It is the distinctive politics of the subaltern (in this case the poor, suffering stone pelter) since he is intrinsically violent. And this unity of violence and politics is justified, for isn’t the Indian state no different from the British colonial state? It is just a crude form of dominance. What option does the subaltern have? This is the sum of ‘subalternism’, the morbid fascination with irrationality, riot and violence. Dear reader, if you are on the verge of breaking into a smirk, finding these ideas somewhat ridiculous, please don’t. Having attended both the University of Delhi and JNU, let me tell you that these ideas are dangerously commonplace on the radical fringe of our academic system (among both teachers and students) which terms the Indian state ‘imperialist’ (since it is allegedly in continuity with the colonial state) very matter-of-factly. In my alma mater, JNU, there are people who seriously believe that Burhan Wani is equatable to Bhagat Singh. The assumption underlying the belief is that, as a Kashmiri Muslim, he was a poor subaltern and was perfectly justified in waging jihad against an Indian state that is an oppressive imperialist force in Kashmir. Such ideas have also, to an extent, infiltrated our English-language media. Some wiry editors of news websites are clearly sympathetic to them. A lot of opinions of that author-activist about town also seem to come from ‘subalternism’, she too just adores the Kashmiri separatists. Doesn’t she? In case you do not know, she has also termed the Indian state an ally of ‘corporate colonialism’.
[i] Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development. Principles of Marxist Political Economy, Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2016, p.243.
[ii] See Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory. A Critical Introduction, OUP, New Delhi, 1999, p.45.
[iii] Ibid., p.48.
[v] Ibid., p.50.
[vi] The Postmodern Condition: A report on Knowledge, translated from the French by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Mnneapolis, 1984, Introduction, p.xxiv. The original French tract had been published in 1979.
[vii] Ibid., p.xxv.
[viii] Ibid., p.40.
[ix] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (eds.), Orient Longman Private Limited, Chennai, 2004, p.52.
[x] Ibid., pp.54-55.
[xi] Subaltern Studies I, Writings on South Asian History and Society, Ranajit Guha (ed.), OUP, New Delhi, 1994, Preface by Ranajit Guha, p.vii.
[xii] Ranajit Guha, ‘The Small Voice of History’ in Subaltern Studies IX, Writings on South Asian History and Society, Shahid Amin and Dipesh Chakravarty (eds.), OUP, New Delhi, 1997, p.1.
[xiii] See ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp.271-313.
[xiv] Subaltern Studies IV, Writings on South Asian History and Society, Ranajit Guha (ed.), OUP, New Delhi,1994, P.346.
[xv] Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Duke University Press, 1999, p.136.
[xvi] Ibid., p.256.
[xvii] Ibid., p.225.
[xviii] See ‘Dominance without Hegemony and its Historiography’ in Studies VI, Writings on South Asian History and Society, Ranajit Guha (ed.), OUP, New Delhi, 1994, pp.210-309.
[xix] Ibid., p.213.
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The author is Assistant Professor of History at O P Jindal Global University