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Fears of Contagion?

This paper suggests that the recent and ongoing debate within the left in Kerala between the proponents of decentralisation and the critics reflects the widened political space achieved by oppositional civil social movements and has made it difficult to view the broader context of the decline of politics itself. It also argues that the threat of depoliticisation and the attendant growth of public cynicism about all forms of politics are the more ominous phenomena we need to combat in a highly literate, steadily urbanising and media-saturated society like Kerala.

Fears of Contagion?

Depoliticisation and Recent Conflicts over Politics in Kerala

This paper suggests that the recent and ongoing debate within the left in Kerala between the proponents of decentralisation and the critics reflects the widened political space achieved by oppositional civil social movements and has made it difficult to view the broader context of the decline of politics itself. It also argues that the threat of depoliticisation and the attendant growth of public cynicism about all forms of politics are the more ominous phenomena we need to combat in a highly literate, steadily urbanising and media-saturated society like Kerala.


erala’s tryst with democratic socialism has generated a large body of scholarship by now. Since the mid-20th century, Kerala has witnessed the continuous expansion of state welfare – a combination of policies for food security, land reform, improvements in educational and healthcare facilities and social security [Ramachandran 1997] – which has led to its consecration as an alternate model of development. Politics has been recognised as the major arena in which battles over social development were fought and won here [Sen 1997; Parayil 2000], and the left’s hegemony was remarkably stable from the 1950s at least until the mid-1980s. What Kerala had, indeed, was a strong political society that mediated between the masses and the state, which successfully presented the demands for the basic amenities of life to the state committed to socialistic national development. It is no surprise, then, that to observers this scenario seemed outright threatening at times: full-blooded political contests threatening the seams of the liberal political framework. Bureaucratic power was considerably mitigated by the formidable presence of political society as a mediator between specific groups of the poor and the bureaucratic machinery, and demanding welfare as a collective right did foster a sense of participation in politics for the poor.

This is illustrated in many stories that still circulate about the way things “got done” in the “earlier” days – especially clear in the recent interviews with subaltern men once active in public politics [Madayi 2005; Sasidharan 2005; Interview with ‘Goa’ Mammu 2005]. They stress the heroic and wholly unafraid nature of the early communists in dealing with the bureaucrats, the elite

– and the law itself – in the interests of the poor. Importantly, these interviews also reflect a deep sense of loss, disappointment with the “decline” of the organised left and all it once stood for. This mood was probably shaped by a range of factors, including global events such as the downfall of east European communism. However, what is interesting about these narratives is also their interweaving of the concern about the demise of lefthegemonised political society and deep disillusionment with politics itself.

The neoliberal turn of some socialist and social democratic parties of the west under globalisation is well-studied by now [Huberand and Stephens 1998; Piazza 2001; Clift 2002]. These issues have, of course, attained an extraordinary visibility in the wake of Nandigram. In Kerala, such anxieties have, indeed been palpable as the Communist Party (Marxist) (CPM), triumphant in the 2001 elections, riding the wave of a “people’s man”, V S Achuthanandan, seems to be increasingly veering towards neoliberalism.

The anxieties about the imminent neoliberal turn in Kerala voiced a few years earlier, were focused on political decentralisation steered by the left. As will be evident, this debate served largely to obscure the widening of the political achieved by oppositional civil social movements, and made it difficult to view the broader context of the decline of politics itself. This article draws attention to the polemical exchanges that took place in Kerala a few years back, which voiced precisely such anxieties. It argues that the threat of depoliticisation and the attendant growth of public cynicism about all forms of politics are indeed the more ominous phenomena we need to combat. This is especially relevant in a highly literate, steadily urbanising and media-saturated society like Kerala. It also seeks to raise the question of articulating constructive political positions in the face of the shrinkage and devaluation of the field of politics. This rather acrimonious debate was between a group of intellectuals who claimed that the dominant left was seeking a neoliberal ‘avatar’ by abandoning class politics for “civil society”, and other intellectuals associated with the well known people’s science movement in Kerala, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat (KSSP), a major player in Kerala’s civil society with close links to the organised left [Zachariah and Sooryamoorthy 1994].1 A third, but silenced, presence in these exchanges, is of the oppositional civil society, in which the “new social movements” have taken root.

It is also important to note that developmentalism has often been noted to have intensely depoliticising effects [Ferguson 1990]. However, in Kerala since the 1950s, it has actually provided the terms within which the leftist vision of a united Malayalee (sub)nationality was imagined [Devika 2006]. It served to legitimise militant leftist redistributive politics which often breached the boundaries of legality, though it did invisiblise other axes of social power. Here I use the term to capture a broader set of forces.2 We use it in Zygmunt Bauman’s sense, to refer to the effects on the political of the apolitical representation of systemic problems such that people recognise them as biographical crises and seek non-political solutions. With depoliticisation people are driven to alienation and cynicism about the efficacy of politics itself. While the erosion of the dominant left cannot explain depoliticisation, the latter certainly hastens the decline of left-hegemonised political society.

Debate on the Erosion of the Left

Recent debates in Kerala have revolved around two themes that were largely marginal to left politics in Malayalee society: civil society and identity politics. These came up in the context of polemics over the ‘People’s Planning’ experiment in decentralisation in governance and planning initiated by the left [Isaac and Franke 2000], and its sources of funding. The allegation made by one group of intellectuals, some of who are allied with the radical left, was that this was virtually a Trojan horse of neoliberalism seeking to destroy the leftist political ethos of Kerala through the CPM. The other group, against whom the allegations raised, were closely associated with civil social organisations, was put on the defensive. There was, however, a striking convergence in their diagnosis of the decline of the left.

Of these, the “radical” position identified the eclipse of class struggle in decentralisation as symptomatic of the erosion of lefthegemonised political society. P J James, a prominent member of this group, pointed out that the abandonment of the centrality of class struggle by the CPM was a result of its ideological crisis in the wake of the disintegration of the USSR and communist east Europe. He claimed that a new “Kerala model” that sought to displace the “old Kerala model” was emergent in the ideological discussions that took place in the CPM on the eve of People’s Planning, which, “…accords strategic prominence to civil social organisations, NGOs and new social movements” [James 2004: 44]. This, it is claimed, happens because the CPM has surrendered to the forces of globalised capitalism and abandoned antiimperialism. People’s Planning and decentralisation, it seems, conform to the prescriptions of global finance capital and US imperialism for ailing third-world economies [Sudheesh 2003].

And what were the ideological sources identified as displacing class struggle from the heart of left politics? Many of these authors pointed to post-Marxism as the chosen instrument. P J James, for instance, argued that the post-Marxists and the neoconservatives advocates of Foucaldian micro-politics, “academic intellectuals” – in short anyone discontented with the primacy of class politics – converge on the idea of civil society as an alternative for class struggle. For that reason, it is implied, they jointly serve imperialist designs [James 2003]. The major target of all these authors was the KSSP, which was alleged to have sought to unseat the primacy of political society to instead consecrate a space independent of the state, hijacking the left government’s decentralisation programme for this idea. The critics charged the KSSP of receiving funds from U S imperialism to experiment with forming local bodies that were to be apolitical and generative of social capital, in order to weaken political society. Further, it was faulted for having encouraged “decentralised democracy”, “[a] sphere in which the cooperation is mostly between apolitical organisations and new social movements which handle marginal issues and mostly receive funds from imperialist agencies. Here is the power of [class] cooperation and not the power of [class] struggle that is unleashed” [Azad 2005; Sudheesh 2005].

Three things about this position are striking for our purpose. First, the erosion of the dominant left that emphasised class struggle is taken to constitute all of depoliticisation. That is, the decline of the left is readily identified with the decline of interest in politics and in understanding social problems as systemic and not merely individual. This is because class-based struggle is recognised to be the only legitimate form of politics and antiimperialism. Secondly, alternate politics are not only rendered politically illegitimate (as vitiated by imperialism), they are also “unnatural” and immoral [Sudheesh 2004: 54-55]. Or, some of them are ultimately reducible to “general interests”, and in any case, trivial. This latter sort of dismissal is evident in, for instance, the manner in which the major figure of this group, M N Vijayan, writes of feminism. In this piece he claims that alternate politics focuses on “convenient” issues for which public assent is more or less readily obtainable: “You cannot say that the destruction of the environment is desirable, that love for dalits is not needed, that literacy is unnecessary. You cannot say that women’s liberation is unnecessary. The decimation of the class agenda through foregrounding issues that you cannot deny, is a technology” [Vijayan 2004]. This relegates feminist politics to a secondary issue (probably fully resolvable within the problematic of class struggle), but which is now falsely and deliberately ascribed independent status so that class politics will be overshadowed. In other writings, he even goes to the extent of turning a completely blind eye to feminist struggles [for instance, Vijayan 2003], which have been particularly visible in the Malayalee public in the 1990s [Devika and Kodoth 2001; Erwer 2003]. In other words, civil social movements if at all are acceptable only when they stay subordinate to class struggle and the Marxist political problematic [Nair 2004; Azad 2004; Pearson 2004].

Thirdly, these authors, with a few exceptions, usually identify the source of depoliticisation as external: in most of the writing this threat is of global capitalism, laying siege to the remaining areas of socialist influence. One of the exceptions, for instance, highlights an internal condition – “fall in values” of the CPM – that, it is argued, prepared the ground for the external forces to take root [Pearson 2004a]. Consumerism is also largely treated within this framework, as a cultural tendency that has corrosive effects. Or the other way around – M N Vijayan claimed that the successes of leftist political society left Kerala less wary of imperialist contagion, which accentuated mindless consumption [Vijayan 2003].

These criticisms were aimed against a group of leftist intellectuals who have mediated between the communist party and the KSSP since the 1980s. T M Thomas Issac, a leading member of the CPM, presently the finance minister of Kerala, known to be the main architect of the left-sponsored People’s Planning, and M P Parameswaran, the major ideologue of the KSSP and closely associated with the CPM, have been the major targets of criticism. M P Parameswaran, whose evocation of a “Fourth World” perspective on contemporary challenges to the left created quite a furore, finally led to his expulsion from the party. These authors had made clear the differences that exist between their positions; however, the differences are not really so acute as they are made out to be, though they look quite drastic at first glance.

The defenders of decentralisation agreed that class struggle is the crux of leftist politics and that this is a period of transformation of the class problematic. However, Thomas Isaac, in his intervention in the debate, seemed to be arguing that the crisis of the left emanates from the threat to the surviving zones of socialism from global capitalism. The general impression that the book gives is of a still-robust, uneroded left in Kerala ready to face the challenges ahead. Thus for him the period of transformation must be a period of class reassertion, of the leftist politics widely identified to be the drive behind social development in Kerala, but in new ways [Isaac 2005: 88]. Isaac claimed that the left-supported democratic decentralisation is

Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007 only a continuation of the pursuit of “people’s democracy”, a goal adhered to by the CPM officially. It is merely instrumental, strategic “intervention and work” within civil social groupings with the furthering of left interests clearly in mind (p 176); therefore, he criticised Parameswaran’s position as “civil societycentric” and “petty bourgeois” [Isaac 2005: 162, 172, 176]. Parameswaran, however, was not so optimistic about the left. He identified an additional source, the decline of people-centred orientation within the left, and more importantly, the lack of creative reflection within the left, and sought to address this. He proposed that the divide is between the global elite and all people increasingly impoverished as a result of globalisation.

Yet, both did converge on the necessity to spread out to new constituencies other than the working class, and build broader alliances across party and even ideological differences. Thomas Isaac pointed out that people’s planning was not envisaged solely as a means towards better governance, but as a way of democratising society and government – and also as an instrument to combat imperialism. In his answer to the charge that decentralisation is apolitical, Isaac implicitly supported the idea that the challenges of global capitalism can be met not by the left alone, but only through widening the circle of the agents of development and also by including those outside of or opposed to the left [Isaac 2005: 88-89]. Parameswaran acknowledged this in explicit terms, calling for a “more comprehensive worldview” which he finds essential to reverse the effects of globalisation and liberalisation. He spoke of the limitations of party politics. Parameswaran prefered to view this building of cooperation between potentially hostile local groups as a redrawing of left politics – reshaping the contours of class struggle, in the view of heightening antagonism between the globalised elite and the increasingly exploited workers and the impoverished masses around the world [Parameswaran 2005].

For our purpose, it may be useful to notice three features of these positions. First, as is clear from the above discussion, irrespective of whether these authors deny or admit to the erosion of the dominant left, the need to move beyond class politics to some degree is conceded. Isaac, as we noted, was close to denying that leftist political society has serious weaknesses; M P Parameswaran does admit this distinctly [Muralikrishnan 2003]. But both do agree that development is the major terrain of anti-imperialist struggles, and, that wider alliances have to be built here, to different degrees. In this respect they differ significantly in their understanding of the state of the dominant left from the group of authors discussed earlier in that they view the loosening of class politics not to be depoliticisation, but rather a remedy to it.

Secondly, the above does not mean that this group is more open to alternate forms of politics than the first set. This is the second noteworthy point. This is despite the fact that Parameswaran did quote approvingly the World Social Forum’s espousal of differences and unity against the common enemy. Isaac, as quoted earlier, tended to argue for instrumentalist appropriation of these movements and their issues in the wider interest of class politics. Parameswaran’s evocation of civic engagement served to gloss over the sharp and real conflicts between different interests in civil society. It cannot, therefore, envisage it as a space that allows for politics – the negotiation of diverse interests – beyond familiar party-politics. Not that it does make any such suggestions – but they are woefully inadequate. It is pertinent to point out that Parameswaran’s advocacy of local neighbourhood groups closely echoes Robert Putnam’s conception of civil society, composed of private voluntary associations; Putnam recommends “networks of civic engagement” fostered by “civil associations” of all kinds, such that “[T]he denser such networks in a community, the more likely that its citizens will be able to cooperate for mutual benefit”. In that sense, it does not weaken the state, as critics allege, but rather, as Putnam continues, “social capital, as embodied in horizontal networks of civic engagement, bolsters the performance of the polity and the economy, rather than the reverse: Strong society, strong economy; strong society, strong state” [Putnam 1993: 173, 176]. The role of civil society depends crucially on the larger political setting; in Malayalee society in which non-class identities still occupy an extremely small corner of the political field, it is important to note the political consequences of this size-and-scope reduction of civil society.

This is also well-illustrated, for instance, in how Parameswaran conceived of the social arrangements putatively designed to deliver gender equality in his imagining of the fourth world. Here it is interesting that his major recommendations revolved around ensuring equal representation for women in public institutions and fostering the conditions that would enable women to pursue an active public life. Despite approving references to new social movements, he was still unable to make even a primary liberal case for women organising locally as an interest group in their own right. His description was of a “post-patriarchal” situation, which may apparently be brought about by ensuring the conditions for women’s representation and participation in public bodies, and through anti-globalisation struggles. It is also interesting to note that it was the cause of environmental activism that he stressed the most, something that also seems more amenable to become a “general” cause [Muralidharan 2003; Parameswaran 2004]. So also, his claim that the rethinking of revolutionary politics stemmed from a coming together of Marxists interested in creative critical response to changing capitalism, and others convinced of the futility of following “academic armchair intellectuals who opposed ‘all ideologies’ betrayed a yawning ignorance of both the history and the intellectual production of these movements” [Parameswaran 2004:.69]. In this sense, while these authors refrained from the open and vicious homophobia of the former set of authors, by no stretch of imagination can they be said to be more sensitive to alternate forms of politics. At best, they allow an instrumentalist recognition, at the worst, absorption under unfavourable terms.

Thirdly, these authors too indicated more or less that the source of depoliticisation is largely external: it is mostly an effect of the onslaught of global capitalism, which disarms socialist resistance. However, here too, to some extent, the “fall in values” argument was applied to characterise the decay of the left and the rise of consumerism. Indeed, these authors generally failed to analyse Malayalee consumerism in any detail, beyond denouncing it as an undesirable universal effect of late capitalism. Parameswaran viewed it as a major cultural instrument of global capitalism that the anti-capitalist new world ought to actively battle. Isaac, however, would claim that this is mistaken, as the need is to “control the ostentatious consumption of the rich minority” of the developing countries, and that there is no general spread of greed [Isaac 2005: 170].

Thus there is a fair convergence between the “radicals” and the “reformers”, apparently ranged on opposing sides, in the manner in which they regard civil society. Despite their radically different views on the political significance of civil society, both reduce it to an instrument to democratising the state, viewing it in descriptive, rather than critical terms. This is typical of the post-1989 liberal democratisation theory – it uses the notion of civil society to merely refer to various sets of non-state institutions, and its significance is limited to the representation of various interests to the state. This is certainly not the most radical use of the idea: for instance, this stands in conspicuous contrast to the ways in which the new social movements were understood as elements of civil society in Latin America. Here, contra liberal theory, they were not understood as representing purely particular interests, but rather as the agents in a counter-hegemonic project. These movements sought to reclaim politics as a constituent element in social life, recognising the infiltration of everyday life by capillary forms of power. It was not the seizure of state power that concerned them but the much more long-term strategy of eroding such power through the continuous transformation of the subject. In sum, they aimed to create a different social power, not seeking to replace the state but to construct an alternative society [Slater 1985]. Such reduction as above seriously limits the debate around the notion itself: as if one is forced to either take civil society understood in exclusively liberal-democratic terms or dump it.

What is also interesting is the common way in which the two sets of authors regarded the hostile effects of the media. For M N Vijayan, the media becomes apolitical because it is increasingly subordinate to global capitalism:

Today journalism is corporate practice. There is increasing monopolyover news. It may also be manipulated. From a period when weused to risk our lives in journalism we have moved to another period.Journalism is accommodative now. If you do not have a discomfortor a pain that haunts you, all these are things easily skipped. Thingsthat are read today, discarded tomorrow [Vijayan 2004: 22].

The same stress on corporate infiltration of a formerly alert media is to be found among authors of the opposite camp as well [for instance, Isaac 2005: 177-87].

What remains in the shadow in the above debate – the oppositional civil society – took shape over the last two decades of the 20th century. Sceptical voices raised against the dominant left from civil society began to be heard more frequently from the late 1970s, ranging from the transformed manifestations of Naxalite politics, to public pleas on the behalf of incarcerated psychiatric patients. The well known instance, of course, is the struggle around protecting the ecologically-rich rainforests of the Silent Valley in the early 1980s. The twin pillars of political society – large-scale development and social justice rooted in the rhetoric of class struggle – came to be questioned. The first came under attack with an increasing reflexivity regarding industrial development, a sharper perception of risk. The second was destabilised when, from the early 1980s into the 1990s, the groups that were marginal to Kerala’s social development – women, tribal people, fisherfolk, dalits – began to emerge into public view. The feminist groups that sprouted in the late 1980s challenged the fundamental understanding of the political that animated entrenched politics. In the 1990s, they brought up issues that demonstrated the extent to which the entrenched notion of politics completely bypassed non-sovereign forms of power, and indeed, were quite supportive of them. The 1990s and afterwards also saw the beginnings of gay-lesbian mobilisations in Malayalee society and of the sex-workers by NGOs. Despite their differences from and with other constituents of the oppositional civil society, they too revealed the limits of dominant Malayalee progressive politics in stark terms. Besides, these movements crucially widened the scope of politics, expanding it to institutions deemed external to it, and bringing in a host of new issues to be legitimately regarded as “political”. Indeed, the fact that the left has been eager to co-opt many of these testifies to the dent they have made. Despite their closer interaction with the state from the 1990s, there has been no dearth of confrontations. As we have seen, these movements are an unseen, abjected presence on both sides of the present debate.3

Depoliticisation and Political Society

The crisis of politics in most welfare states is most visibly linked with their increasingly structural incapability to deliver welfarist promises. Kerala is no exception. Crudely put, on the one hand, the state is now ever more committed to produce and maintain the conditions for a robust private economy; on the other, it needs to generate enough popular assent. This it can do only by trying to mitigate the excesses and the negative externalities of private capital and offer a basic minimum level of health, safety and living standards, which however, is resisted by private capital. However, the forces of depoliticisation, especially rising consumerism and the “dramatisation of politics” in and through the expansion of the mass media also feed the crisis.

As may be evident, the participants in the above debate often viewed depoliticisation in Kerala as the erosion of the dominant left, caused by mainly external forces like global capitalism or subjective ones like the deterioration of ethics among politicians. Certainly, consumerism in Kerala has been hugely accentuated by migration since the early 1970s. That no section of the left has made any serious effort to analyse Malayalee consumerism in any detail probably reveals that their (minimal) critique is not a political, but a moralistic one, which only serves a sharp and belligerent distinction between inside (leftist Kerala) and outside (global capitalism). Many participants in the above debate view consumerism as cultural-ideological contamination, which weakens political subjectivities and accentuates the alleged downward progression of left values. This does not really tell us about the specificities of consumerism in Kerala, which make it very difficult to criticise. A historical account that would throw light on the shaping of modern individuality in Kerala and its relation to the emergent practices of consumption may be useful here. Though this task is beyond this article, I would hazard a few observations.

In Kerala that the idea of the welfare state has had deep roots and an eventful history, right from the pre-independence princely states, to the famed “public action” of the post-independence decades which resulted in the widespread public provision of education and healthcare. As many observers have noted, the lefthegemonised political society was indeed successful in securing access to literacy, basic healthcare, and a degree of public participation for the poorest. However, what remains unnoticed in most histories is the steady and massive expansion of the modern bourgeois domestic ideal, which continued to underwrite even the radical articulations of public citizenship, right through the 20th century. The modern (gendered) ideals of early 20th century Malayalee society foregrounded not so much the free citizen, as the responsible householder/home manager, ensconced within a modern community. The march of the bourgeois domestic seems to have continued unabated even as left-hegemonised political society reached the limits of its social justice agenda in the early 1970s, and as new radical articulations of the political emerged in the 1980s. By late 20th century, the bourgeois ideal of the family and conjugality seems to have attained near-universal acceptance in Kerala.

This domestic domain was assigned two activities: the shaping of full-fledged productive individuals and consumption. These have accentuated in the present-day, visible in the pathological “child-crafting” which parents undertake in Kerala, and in the enormous prestige accorded to consumption. The other side of

Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007 child-crafting is a withdrawal from the public, a concentration of time, energies and desires on shaping children into products saleable in the global job market. Together, obsessive child-crafting and home-centred consumption adds up to “domestication” – in the sense of a “taming”, a certain political docility. The “public action” of the mid-20th century did not really alter this course. Indeed, demands were made precisely on behalf of the domestic, than on behalf of the individual citizen. The sanctity of the family and its primary claim on resources was rarely or seriously challenged in the public (an exception would be the writings of the mid-20th century feminist author, K Saraswati Amma). The intertwining of family-based upward mobility and consumerism perhaps serves to blunt criticism of consumerism to a large extent: while criticism of soft-drink consumption is common, criticism of ostentatious marriage expenditure is desirable.

The processes of individualisation accentuated in Malayalee society in the 20th century, and the evocation of (productive) labour as the condition for inclusiveness in the public gained intensifies as the 20th century progressed. However, the ideal of the successful producer came to be gradually regarded with suspicion. The planter was the sole member of this species that received at least a cursory approval and that too, only within the progressivist narrative of “man’s triumph over nature”, or when implicated as wealth producer within the developmentalist vision of the nation state. The rags-to-riches hero of capitalism enjoyed only weak approval in Kerala. The “Gulf boom” accentuated these tendencies. Importantly, the nouveau riche Gulf migrant lacked alternate avenues for self-assertion other than that of consumption. The (more commonly male) Gulf migrant was in most cases was not a producer, but merely an employee, and even if he were so, it was not in the service of the nation. There was little chance of the Gulf migrant’s self-assertion as a hero of political society leading struggles for redistribution, either. Consumerism grew in Malayalee society as a powerful competing route for self-assertion, even as alternate forms of politics were taking shape and offering new modes of political self-assertion in the 1980s. As has been widely pointed out, it provides a relatively easy route for self-assertion as it rarely involves the serious questioning of – or reversing of – entrenched socioeconomic structures (though it may require some degree of challenge to prevailing ideologies) [Bauman 1997: 61-62]. This is why the critique of consumerism needs to highlight its depoliticising effects; we need to go beyond critiquing its cultural effects, wastefulness or inaccessibility. This critique is also distinct from the by now familiar argument which views consumerism as the major instrument of the cultural flattening that globalisation allegedly brings about, which abounds in public debate and in academic discussions). My point, rather, is about how consumerism fulfils a certain function in social life, which makes it attractive for individuals, and therefore, harder to name and criticise, irrespective of whether it flattens culture or not.

Along with this in the late 1980s television attained considerable spread. The moral condemnation of television conceives of “influence” in excessively simple terms. What needs to be acknowledged, perhaps, is television’s power to “shape” reality: the “real world” which television seeks to represent seems to consist of brief pictures, self-enclosed episodes, and above all, a solid focus on the individual, even in the representations of movements and processes. Importantly, television is not merely a medium for advertising, which certainly boosts the market (most criticisms of television point to this), but also connects with the “consumer mode of accessing freedom” in deeper ways.

Martin Esslin’s two observations of television as a medium seem to be of use here. He argues that TV is characterised by the deployment of “the dramatic mode of communication” [Esslin 1982: 8]. Politics is represented on TV as if it were repeatable min-dramas, episodic, never really conclusive, following on from yesterday. It is thereby turned into spectacle, a consumable, akin to various dramatised stories telecast, usually sandwiched between them. Further he points to the centrality accorded to the individual in this dramatised representation (p 20) – just as in the imagined world of the “free consumer”; the consumer’s actions are central. The dramatic code of TV allows an effortless representation of issues in terms of the views, actions, motives and ambitions of individual politicians. The fact that the visual media in Kerala has been a major target of politicians’ ire confirms rather than contradicts this observation. This critique is quite distinct form the commonplace charge about “media misrepresentation”, “conspiracies engineered by the media”, etc. It is a not a point about the veracity of the content, but about the very form in which politics is represented as “news”, “current affairs”, etc. Competing with TV, the press in Kerala has also generated strategies to dramatise politics, for instance, in their staging “debates” that pit people of different views but ultimately interested in a democratic future as “irreconcilable opponents” with no shared ground at all.

Political society’s responses to these threats have been characterised by varying degrees of tameness. Even those who take seriously the threat posed by consumerism (like some of the “reformers” in the recent debate) do not seem willing to probe deeper into the historical roots of consumerism. Thus a serious critique of the contemporary Malayalee domesticity and its colonisation of social energies is still lacking here. The strategies of the dominant left – for instance in its ventures in the visual media, have gone along with the tide rather than against it. The oppositional civil society too has indeed been heavily reliant upon the media. The unprecedented number of “sites of enunciation” for these movements opened up especially in the visual media in the 1990s have had uses, but also they have a depoliticising effect. The representation of feminist politics for instance, has been focused on prominent individuals. Internal debates have always been cast in dramatic terms – as fight-to-death dramas between completely opposing sides. In such cases, the participants in public debate slip easily into the polarised oppositions marked out for them and what they share remains invisible to both participants and the spectators. While environmental activism has often successfully highlighted the politics of consumption (in the Placchimada struggle) whether it has been able to free itself from being “dramatised” and represented through prominent individuals is a moot question.

One of the effects of the ongoing devaluation of the political has been the strengthening of state, especially the judiciary and the ever-expanding development bureaucracy. The judiciary did appear in crucial moments as an ally of oppositional civil society: for instance, the anti-dam struggle around Silent Valley in the early 1980s was greatly aided by the stay orders secured from courts, which gave them the time to strengthen the struggle. In these decades, judicial activism became the favoured mode of settling public issues in Kerala to an enormous extent. The limits of this mode have indeed been revealed in the present. Constituents of oppositional civil society who were especially dependent upon the judiciary have been rudely flung down recently, for instance, in the judgment on the infamous Suryanelli sex-racket case. The women’s movement, for instance, leaned heavily upon the judiciary and on the media in their struggles against sexual harassment in the 1990s.

While this gave feminists a high visibility, it also rendered the women’s movement less attentive to building ground support.

The present rhetoric of women’s empowerment, which is pivoted on the creation of state-centric civil society, may indeed serve to strengthen the state. In the absence of political engagement there is every likelihood that political decentralisation and the new poverty alleviation schemes – like the well known ‘Kudumbashree’ – will become (if they have not already taken these forms) mechanisms of shaping people into clients dependent upon the petty bureaucracy, or of “managing” the poor, both profoundly undemocratic outcomes. Importantly, the crisis of the welfare state intensifies in the background of depoliticisation. It induces a vicious cycle of quality deterioration: more frequently, public goods become what one has to be content with when one cannot participate in the market; a certain stigma begins to be attached to them. This leads to the paradox Bauman outlines: “those who can make an impact on political decisions [as the source of public services] have little stimulus to do so, while those who depend on political decisions most have no resources to influence them” [Bauman 1997: 84]. When the users have no clout, the quality of services worsens. This has the twin effects of loss of faith in politics (which is expected to keep a watch on public goods and services), and the fostering of further dependence on the market for those goods and services. Thus politics is discredited as incapable of preventing the decline of the welfare state. Its value, increasingly, is linked to its representation as a spectacle to be watched; a set of never-ending mini-dramas played out by individual characters. No wonder, then, that a range of authorities on solutions to individual life-problems ranging from semi-religious cults to counsellors offering privatised solutions to political issues proliferate. This bodes ill for all forms of democratic politics.

Thus the welfare state buckles under contrary pulls; the dominant left veers between populist rhetoric and management rhetoric; parallel to these developments, public cynicism about politics is taking deep root. The debate on the “decline of the left” discussed earlier clearly reveals two major limitations of engaging with the question of the decline of the political as if it were reducible to the crisis of the dominant left. On the one hand, that debate rendered the oppositional civil society and the possibility of widening the scope of politics it upholds completely invisible. On the other, it does not allow for sustained critical reflection on the larger forces of depoliticisation, identifying these largely as contagion from the “outside”. The latter does have serious consequences for both the left and the oppositional civil society – for both orthodox and heterodox notions of the political – in that growing public cynicism may undermine both. But, perhaps more for the latter, given the agility with which the left elite has been moving away from political resolutions of social conflicts and inequalities and towards technocratic management of “social problems”. Hence, the need for thinking about revitalising the political.

Revitalising the Political

I argue that fighting cynicism about politics is a political task citizens can afford to ignore only at our own peril [Keenan 1998]. Reflections on revitalising the political may have to begin from the realisation that there is no simple going back: it is neither possible nor desirable to return to the politics in which lefthegemonised political society in Kerala mediated between the masses and the state. Groups that are by no means oppressed, like, for instance, the traders, have appropriated those tactics of mobilisation. The exclusions engendered in and through such mobilisation are only all too evident now. The charged political atmosphere in which individuals made the greatest personal sacrifices and braved the strongest opposition to join political movements, as in the freedom movement or in the later communist struggles, is not available anymore. There is every reason to think that such an atmosphere which needs the overwhelming dominance of a constraining. Other may not materialise in any general sense. Consumerism continues to offer tantalising possibilities to the individual self, and in the world of consumption, it is the significance of the difference between social positions, rather than the positions themselves that matters. The successes of some do not deter the others who have not from trying again and again; indeed, it ties them ever more firmly into the rat race. This is probably why that we remain distant from genuinely collective anti-globalisation initiatives, despite having felt the ravages of globalisation. The suggestions about rescuing welfare and fighting globalisation by either “building” on the vestiges, or creating new institutions as well as the cries for militant class politics dismissing all others are products of capitalist conspiracy both ring hollow in the light of these observations.

Being politically sensitive is now all the more a painful task, especially when the market advances such an enticing alternative for self-assertion. But what is striking today is the absence of spaces of political education that promote free discussion and opinion formation, which would help people move away from the notion of freedom, well-entrenched in Malayalee modernity, as the right of the individual to pursue the happiness of her/his own household, to which even the poorest are today bound. It is necessary to distinguish these spaces from, say, the discussions on TV talk shows. Most often the latter are limited to showcasing various opinions on topics, and remain bound to a notion of freedom that emphasises the possibility of debate and discussion, the “right to one’s own opinion”, rather than freedom as the right to intervene in public affairs. The spaces of political education must be based on an entirely different sense of freedom – they are not merely spaces in which to speak one’s mind, but also to make self-clarifications, take positions effectively, with an orientation towards changing the terms of collective living. Further, watchfulness and critique of institutions like the judiciary and the media will have to be created out of such spaces. Besides, while consumerism remains a mode of self-assertion that is very often supported by society, there are few means to effectively cushion the social rejection that individuals have to face when they make political decisions to change their lives. Revitalising the political, in practical terms, may have to meet such challenges.

It is not difficult to see that this gestures at “civil society” initiatives. Very clearly, it builds on an already-existing notion of civil society, conceived as oppositional space, one from which citizens may construct critiques of power, both sovereign and non-sovereign. It does not even rest upon the republican dream of constructing self-governing spaces insulated from power. Indeed, it would take seriously the observations of the theorists of governmentality who note that power is productive and not merely coercive, and that community, indeed is not simply the territory of government but the very means of government. It would be fully cognisant of the present context in which the political elites seem to have largely resigned themselves to the global neoliberal order that increasingly escapes the clutches of local political institutions and operates beyond politics. Political work would have to take on the abrogation of public responsibility by global market power directly [Bauman 1999].

Economic and Political Weekly June 23, 2007

Anti-globalisation positions in Kerala frequently adopt moralism as a political strategy, as evident in the writings of the “radicals” discussed above. Moralistic appeals are made from a claimed position of political correctness and try to achieve their ends by inducing a sense of guilt in those addressed. This facilitates a grim divide between the perfect “us” and the contaminated “them” and blinds one to internal fissures of “us”. As Keenan (1998) notes, while a degree of moralism may be necessary in any oppositional struggle against the powerful, it can paralyse political work, if embraced as a compensation for the experience of political powerlessness. In Kerala such moralism abounds within oppositional civil society itself, which is corrective in many ways. The insight that dialogue and collective analysis that treats difference as a strength work better to build alliances than violent accusations that polarise and rigidify identities and their mutual exclusions may be useful for all constituents [Brown 1993]. Indeed, given that the present phase of democratisation in Kerala effectively reduces the politics of the non-abjected marginal groups to interest-group politics, and refuses to address the needs of the abjected groups, negotiating difference in the interest of common livable futures cannot be overlooked. The crucial step will be to find ways of encountering difference – “practices of democratic self-limitation” – [Keenan 1998]. Lastly, while it sounds fashionable, the insight that all political ideals are saturated with power can only breed cynical passivity when it appears without explicit commitment to democratic and egalitarian ideals.




[I would like to thank C Gouridasan Nair, whose contribution to this paperhas been invaluable, and Ritty Lukose and Nissim Mannathukkaren who helped me to gain in clarity on the issues discussed above. The errors are, of course, mine.]

1 The KSSP has had strong informal links with the dominant communist parties; its challenge to leftist developmentalism has been centred around an argument in favour of regarding “people” as the agents, rather than beneficiaries, of development, thereby challenging the mediatory role of left-hegemonised political society. Instead, it installed the knowledgecentric authority of the (mostly male, middle-class, left-leaning) “people’s intellectual” between the state and the “masses”. In the 1990s, the KSSP grew much closer to the state, and was a key presence in the People’s Planning Campaign of the mid-1990s.

2 “Depoliticisation” has been defined with specific inflections in different contexts, but generally foregrounds the marginalisation of politics. Forinstance, Abdeslam Maghraoui uses it in the context of Morocco, to refer to the “marginalisation of questions of legitimacy or sovereignty and…the concomitant primacy given to economic issues” [Maghraoui 2002: 24].

3 This account of this “ideological debate” is certainly not a full one. While the major participants were these starkly polarised groups, many others tried to think through these issues beyond polarities [for instance,Ilayidam 2005; Madhu 2005; Rajeevan 2005] – but were unable to turn the tide of the discussion. For an intervention from oppositional civil society, see Neelakandan 2004.


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