Post-People Politics: A Liberal Critique

Simool Sen

Democracy is ideally considered to be by, for, and of the ‘people’: the concrete, integrated plurality of active political subjects. The following essay wants to suggest a new analytical category: post-people democracy for today’s Indian democracy, which lacks traditional popular legitimacy. Three indices, namely, popular sovereignty; popular will, popular representation will help to build the argument.

In the last twenty post-globalized years, growth of media, both in real and virtual, creates illusion of an expanding Indian liberal civil society. But surprisingly in the reality, state seems to be authority in structure subsuming citizens’ stake. Therefore, democratic ideal has shifted to governmentality from popular sovereignty. [1] As soon as gang-rape incidents are exposed, say for instance, the non-citizen people in form of a mob and crowd denying the ideal role of liberal-rational-conscious-active-democratic individual attributed in republican constitution: demands a violent non-juridical solution of ‘immediate justice’ from the statist administration. After the Hyderabad rape incident on 2019 November, ‘justice’ was delivered and ‘governance’ was ensured by the state realizing brute encounter. State acted as transcendental and omnipresent subject without any a-posterior juridical evidence granted by normative Western republican ideal in face of civil society’s euphoric demand of immediate action.  Today’s discourse marks the fundamental shift in case of governance: contrary to the former Prime Minister acting ‘slow and inefficient’ Mouna-Mohan, Modi regime assured ‘maximum governance’ in 2014 electoral campaign. The visible rise of efficient and skilled bureaucratic, technocratic and managerial apparatus (PMO, electoral strategists) in today’s Indian democratic business by substituting older trustees of popular sovereignty (parliament, legislative representatives, judiciary and media) bear testimony to this. Benefits than rights; administrative-bureaucratic policies than legislative-juridical acts are more important in Indian democracy today. Rights, therefore, belong to domain of governmental ‘assurance’ now. Populist, self-interested, growth-oriented rhetoric of bijli-sarak-pani, where the state acts and citizen passively benefits (‘development’ and ‘vikas’) is shifting traditional righteous idea of roti-kapda-makan, where the political citizen is assumed to play the role of sovereign actor in the system.

A typically-‘post-political’ condition is constantly evoking fetish for ‘benefits’ by shifting the state-citizen relationship into a provider-customer relationship at one level, which is famously argued to be conditioned by neoliberal reason. Commodification and consumption of politics are structural results of free-market ideologies. 2014 marked the change. In 2014 campaign, gigantic advertisements branded PM Modi’s face as object of ‘desire’ with potential ‘brand value’ voters could invest in. This necessitates an alternative ‘consumer democracy’[2] and post-political marketization of politics at global level beyond traditional domain of popular sovereignty, legitimacy and rights.

Question of right, has therefore, been replaced by demands. But do the people demand them at all? Today’s manufacturing consent plays not within the Gramscian hegemony where ideologies are internalized to subjects. Post-ideology post-hegemony political climate doesn’t depend on conscious discourses any more, but makes unconscious affect. Does human will act for general public good and does it have conscious autonomous agency at all? Post-humanist theories can be a good rebuttal here to the basis of liberal democracy, which argues that human brains are not endowed with divinely enlightened independent consciousness, reason, common sense and free will. Instead it’s a mere algorithmic number-crunching carbon-based machine based on intelligence and not consciousness. Behavioural dynamic of voters can be determined and calculated by using   artificial intelligence, brain-mapping and human computation. The democratic will, devising new tools of surveillance and discipline, could be ‘engineered’. Keeping the question of manufactured consciousness aside, it’s important to interrogate the popular psyche and crystallization of new identities of citizenship, however. Left intellectuals note the decline of public interest in today’s democracy, but at the same time it is equally important to register the imagination of an essentialized culturalist Indian spirit, thereby neutralizing attempts of the allegedly ‘imported’ notion of modern institutional democratic politics.  Dichotomy of matter and spirit is eternal in philosophical traditions. In Nehruvian times, material progress of science-technology seemed more important for nation-building. Democratic ideology, today, is oriented towards the formation of a-priori Indian spirit or essence, idealist in nature, which can potentially resolute and transcend material dialectic too. Pertinently, John Rawls once remarked that since democracy is premised on public reason, therefore it’s doesn’t promote metaphysics.

Here I locate the grammatical ontological problem of representation in a liberal democracy in light of Hobbes’ Leviathan. According to Hobbes, the disunited multitude is personified as indivisible and unalienable representative of ‘one will’ after the covenant is done. Similar to the subject-verb-object schemata of a simple sentence, Hobbes attributes the personified entity (capable of being grammatical ‘subject’) called ‘Commonwealth’ the act of acting the action of its political subject once the voluntary right of action is done via social contract. Simultaneously, the authorial agency ‘who owneth his (actor’s) words and actions’ is also transferred. Therefore, the tautological paradox comes when Commonwealth enacts itself in terms of its own authority. Author and actor collapses, the Leviathan state voluntarily represents the Leviathan state itself.

Who owns the acting agency in traditional democracy? It’s the people: citizen. But in Leviathan state, it’s the state that represents itself. Taking recourse to linguistics we can transpose author and represented with ‘signified’; actor and representative with ‘signifier’. It’s a kind of ‘myth’, which, in linguistics denotes an utterance that is transcendental, a priori, self-evident, necessarily true, and most importantly: a tautology where the subject predicates itself in collapse of signifier and signified. Today’s Indian democracy goes against the laws of representation. It doesn’t represent popular will and lacks popular sovereignty in traditional terms which gives birth to a curiously new phenomenon where the subject of modern democracy, citizen, is being considered to be the axiomatic non-citizen, and it’s upon the citizen to prove himself as a legal citizen in a bureaucratic system of NRC.

I call this unique Leviathan-ish democratic business post-people politics: democracy beyond the limit of people. Ideal democracy is embodied and legitimized by the general consent of concrete integrated whole of ‘conscious’-‘rational’ individual citizens which forms popular sovereignty that works for absolute universal emancipation. In this essay, I tried to locate the crisis of legitimacy in Indian democracy: in terms of rights, sovereignty, will and representation. At the same time, phenomenon of post-politics people needs to be factored in also separately. However, in future, I speculate that the need of AI might be generated as an enlightened despot capable of ‘providing’ the ‘best governance’, replacing ‘weaker’ democracies. To negotiate this, the people as a category need to reclaim democratic agency in India: by imagining deep future to resolute universal issues like population, climate change and cyborg; in the domain of now: transcending the modern ritualistic institutional apparatus of politics, in form of historically-located everyday ethical praxis.

Simool Sen studies history at the postgraduate level in Jadavpur University. His primary interest lies in multiple facets of intellectual history. He has contributed to many journals both in Bangla and English.  


1. I developed this argument from Partha Chatterjee’s book Niti Neta Prajatantra. His article implicitly notes the subtle shift in politics from ideology to realpolitik (from dharmaniti to kutniti), namely post-ideological polity which I will be showing later in this essay.

2. Wendy Brown argues this ‘marketization of politics’ in the book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. The lexicon of ‘consumer democracy’ is derived from Margaret Scammell though.

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Dec 21, 2020

Simool Sen

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