Social scientist Ranabir Samaddar’s new work throws light on ‘populism’ – especially in Bengal after the end of the Left rule
Ranabir Samaddar | February 2, 2023
Imprints of the Populist Time
By Ranabir Samaddar
Orient BlackSwan, 352 pages, Rs. 1105
The crisis of liberal democracy in the neoliberal world—marked by massive labour flows, migrations, and informal conditions of work—has led to the emergence of new forms of claim-making and a new sense of rights even as governments try to garner popular support and legitimacy through strategies termed as ‘populist’ gestures. Today, populism is integral to the daily discourse of politics and discussions of democracy, governance, and people.
Ranabir Samaddar’s new work, ‘Imprints of the Populist Time’, investigates populism as a historical phenomenon, examining its dynamic nature and role as a set of specific political practices. Lending a postcolonial perspective to the global study of populism, Samaddar examines the trajectory that West Bengal politics took following the end of Left Front rule in 2011.
Through a fragmented narrative structure that builds on commentaries on contemporary events, which highlight the recent history of populism in West Bengal, the volume explores how populism works around the ‘crisis of representation’ in democracy by centering the subaltern and constructing a ‘people’; the problematic figure of the ‘citizen’; popular engagements with the Constitution; the city as a crucial site of contemporary populism; the role of gender in populist governance; and the counter-intuitive economic logic of the populists.
The volume studies various modes of populism—elections, the language of populist politics, and the rampant ‘illegalism’ in populist conduct, and asks key questions: Has there ever been any democracy without populism, or any nationalism without its populist articulation? Can we think of the popular and the people without the populist? Is populism a form of subaltern resistance to neoliberal depredations?
Here is an excerpt from the book:
How can an interrogation of unfamiliar things of the present help us to understand the past? Bizarre as this question may appear, it makes sense at times to ask this because often as we try to understand what is happening now, we begin reflecting on what happened in the past. Through this ‘presentist’ approach to the past we become less hostile to our time. The problem I have in mind while raising this question is the much talked about ‘crisis of political representation’, which supposedly has given rise to populism today, but it is a crisis that plagued democracy since its beginning. Yet, exactly as today, there were in the past other ways to make sense of what now is known as ‘populism’—not as a crisis of representation, but as a way of making self-rule possible, indeed a way to make democracy and a different society. In the style of Pierre Rosanvallon one may term it as ‘counterdemocracy’. As a living phenomenon, populism in this way has had an active relation with the past as it continuously challenges our understanding of the past and suggests a different story of its genesis, indeed an alternative tale of legitimacy in politics.
The features of the so-called ‘crisis of representation’ are known. People no longer think of their rulers as their representatives; they show their annoyance by voting for far right or the populist parties. At times they demand more direct forms of representation. Governments think that it is all a problem of communication, so they introduce new styles and modes of communication. Yet sociologists and communication specialists can help little to resolve the ‘crisis’. The representational theory, whatever form it takes, believes in a social body of the people, awaiting ‘representation’. The populists, however, challenge the notion of such a social body already configured and received. For them, there is no such body awaiting representation. With this attitude, populists appear as strange to the present time of representative democracy because they have twisted the logic of representation. The populists are the people who will make the government their representative. Outside the populist platform of identity of its constituents and rule there cannot be any natural unity of people and their representatives, and thus there cannot be any ‘evidently coherent totality’ of representative democracy. Only after the populists have given an identity to a ‘people’, can we say that the people have been constituted. Thus, people have been constituted through their actions, claims, desires and demands. This is where populists mark themselves out as distinct from parties, unions and various pressure groups, through which individuals are supposed to feel connected to larger bodies and the state, and thereby feel represented. But populist platforms (some of these platforms in course may turn into traditional parties) do not simply mirror existing preferences of people in being represented. They damage and when possible destroy the old representational dynamics, or at least mould them so that these dynamics acquire new meaning and coherence.
Individuals no longer feel represented by their rulers due to the incapacity of political parties, unions, knowledge institutions, and academic and policy discourses to structure society for the good of the people and offer individuals an identity, as distinct from the identity of institutions and agencies of representation, such as the parties and unions. Lack of participation of citizens in politics has to do with control of various associations and institutions, social surveillance and the consequent distrust of citizens in these institutions and associations. The problem is not then how to represent people in power but how to make the people an organic and coherent collective. Populists will make the people.
This, of course, puts the populists in permanent attrition with the received past of democracy, because the history of democracy is at loggerheads with what is now termed as ‘the history of the political’. The institutional history of democracy is marked by an opposition to an order that claims to be transcendental, that was born out of the conviction that no generation can be deprived of the right to determine its own fate by an earlier social pact of the forefathers—a conviction perhaps most associated with Tom Paine, but a mood best expressed by Marx, who regarded the tradition of ‘dead generations’ as a ‘nightmare on the brain of the living’. Conservatives who built democracy called this opposition as ficklemindedness, which is why the ideal of the rule of law is against rapid changes within the framework of the political. Yet democratic indeterminacy will remain a permanent element of politics, creating a constant crisis of political language. The same factor will make the historical venture of populism eternally fragile.
Yet historical investigation shows that dilemmas and fragility of populism are those of democracy also. While there may have been some specific stable periods in democracy’s life, by and large there has been no democracy without the populist opposition to democracy—particularly democracy in institutional form. In order to understand the symbiotic relation between democracy and populism, it is not enough to appreciate the link between them. The fundamental point is that the history of democracy cannot be equated with the history of the political. This history of the political has among its components the persistent history of populism. This history of the political is not social history, or simply a history of the present political moment, but a history built on a more dynamic notion of political life. The history of the political enables us to view politics beyond the received history of institutions. Similarly, it enables us to focus on the present political moment in a way where the ‘political’ acquires immanent character.
In this way populism urges the society to read and understand itself. This is a political urge as this ability to read and understand itself visibly and legibly adds to the power of the society. Through this mode populists try to escape the representational bind. Their mission is to enable the society to acquire a new coherence. This is not simply nationalism, or sub-nationalism. It is a related but different quest. The urge of the populists in Bengal to continuously draw inspiration from the nineteenth century, dubbed by a sarcastic media as the attempt by the ignoramus to emulate a cultural past, has to be seen in this perspective. Bengal can become great again if it can retrieve and relive the greatness of the past—especially the nineteenth century—to face the enemies of society and the larger challenges of the present time.
[The excerpt is reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]
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