For some time now, important new ground has been broken in the study of Indian state-society relationships by an emergent body of scholarship that shows how exploited and oppressed groups utilize the state in a myriad of ways, ranging from quotidian manipulations of the local state to the seizure of state power through participation in electoral politics, to challenge their adverse incorporation in the structures of power that constitute the political economy of contemporary India.[1]

This body of work is important for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it helps us to move beyond the stale binaries of the Subaltern Studies project, in which elites and subalterns are thought to inhabit separate and substantially opposed political domains (Guha, 1982; see also Chaturvedi, 2000 and Ludden, 2003). In terms of their understanding of the state, this binary is inscribed in the work of Ranajit Guha (1998, 1999), Partha Chatterjee (1982, 1983, 1986, 1993) and Sudipta Kaviraj (2010, 2011, 2012) in particular. In their writings, the modern Indian state is understood to be a transmogrification of its colonial predecessor, which has failed to ‘create or re-constitute popular common sense around the political world, taking the new conceptual vocabulary of rights, institutions, and impersonal power into the vernacular discourse of rural or small-town Indian society’ (Kaviraj, 2010: 29). Indeed, even Chatterjee’s (2004, 2008) most recent work reproduces the analytical debilitations of this Manichean view of state-society relations by insisting that whereas India’s elite operates on the terrain of ‘civil society’ where the liberal precepts of citizenship reign, the country’s subaltern groups mobilize in and through ‘political society’ – that is, the domain of the state which is concerned with the security and welfare of the population. The basic problem with this perspective is, as Subir Sinha (2012: 81) so succinctly puts it, that ‘the politics of subalterns have long been transgressive of such divides’. Indeed, the movements of subaltern groups in contemporary India are commonly engaged in struggles that draw on and appropriate existing idioms of citizenship, and in doing so also they arguably also propel the expansion of meanings and practices of citizenship (see e.g. Agarwala, 2008; Subramanian, 2009; Sundar, 2011; Gudavarthy, 2012).

A key virtue of the new wave of work on state-society relations is that it has proven capable of engaging analytically with the complex and composite dynamics that characterize actually existing subaltern politics in India today.[2] It is notable that many of the key contributions to this literature draw on a Foucauldian understanding of power relations and state power.[3] Above all, Foucault’s notion of governmentality is put to use to understand how state-sponsored programmes geared towards improving the welfare and enabling the empowerment of poorer groups provide interstitial spaces where ‘new kinds of resistances’ (Gupta, 2001: 66). Key to this argument is the assertion that the state should not be conceptualized as ‘a unitary centre of power’ but rather in terms of ‘multiple and contradictory articulations of power that emanate from no fixed axis’ (Williams, Vira and Chopra, 2011: 17). And precisely for this reason, the state is riddled with ‘fissures and ruptures’ that enable subaltern groups ‘to create possibilities for political action and activism’ (Gupta, 1995: 394).

By enabling a shift of conceptual orientation away from the assumed existence of ‘hermetically sealed sites of autonomy’ towards an understanding of ‘relational spaces of connection and articulation’ (Moore, 1998: 347) in the study of subaltern politics, this body of work has clearly been of singular importance.  However, as I have argued at length elsewhere, there is a serious lacuna in this body of work, which is ultimately rooted in its theoretical underpinnings (see Nilsen, 2011, 2012a/b). The Foucauldian emphasis on the decentred nature of power comes with the limitation of not being able to properly address the questions of how and why, at specific and contingent conjunctures, the exercise of state power achieves a certain unity across dispersed sites, and the limits that this may impose upon the prospects for advancing subaltern agency in relation to the state. In order to address this shortcoming, I believe it is necessary to develop a historical-sociological approach which is capable of conceptualizing how the micro-politics of state-society relations and the political economy of capitalist development and state formation as ‘master change processes’ (Tilly, 1982) are mutually constitutive, and how this relationship ultimately circumscribes the scope for pursuing subaltern resistance via the institutional and discursive apparatuses of the state. Constraints of space prevent a full discussion of what such a perspective would look like but I will outline some of its most basic tenets.[4]

Subalternity, Fields of Force, and Hegemony: The first and most basal point is to think of subalternity not as ‘an essential characteristic of being’ (Moore, 1998: 352) but as a determinate positionality within what E. P. Thompson (1978: 151) would call ‘a societal ‘field-of-force’’. A societal field of force is in turn best understood as the outcome of those processes through which ‘the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of subordinate groups’ (Gramsci, 1971: 182) is constituted. Constructing hegemony entails gaining the consent of subaltern groups to ‘the general direction’ (ibid.: 12) that dominant groups seek to impose on social life. Consequently, the result is ‘a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria … between the interests of the fundamental group and those of the subordinate groups’ (ibid.: 182).

The negotiated character of hegemony has ramifications for how we understand the positionality and agency of subaltern groups. In terms of positionality, the central point is that subaltern groups are embedded in socioeconomic relations, political institutions, and cultural forms that – despite concessions and compromises – buttress the reproduction of hegemony. The logical corollary of this is that subaltern agency will tend to proceed through contentious appropriations of what Adam Morton (2007: 92) has called ‘the social condensations of hegemony’ – that is, through hegemonic political institutions, discourses and processes, rather than at a distance from these (see Gramsci, 1971: 52-55; Green, 2002). The limitations and constrictions inherent to this experience may propel groups to develop forms of self-organization that are better suited to advance their interests. And crucially, autonomy, rather than being an intrinsic feature of subalternity, is an achievement – the outcome of struggle that ruptures hegemony and thus drives ‘the line of development towards integral autonomy’ (Gramsci, 1971: 52).

Subalterns and State Formation in Hegemonic Processes: Gramsci (1971: 260) noted that, in contrast to the ruling groups of previous eras, dominant groups under capitalism seek ‘to construct an organic passage from the other classes into their own’. The state plays a pivotal role in this process through institutions, discourses and technologies of rule that bring about ‘an increasingly more sophisticated internal articulation and condensation of social relations within a given state form’ (Thomas, 2009: 140). There are two points that should be noted in extension of this argument in terms of the dynamics of subaltern politics.

Firstly, it is precisely because of the construction of organic passages between dominant and subaltern groups that state formation as a master change process comes to articulate with the ‘local rationalities’ (Cox, 1999; Nilsen, 2009; Nilsen and Cox, 2013) that animate subaltern politics. As Corrigan and Sayer (1985: 4) point out, state formation is predicated on forms of ‘moral regulation’ that seek to regulate social life by propagating idioms that seek to give ‘unitary and unifying expression’ to inherently variegated experiences of social life. But as and when there is a dissonance between the ‘universalizing vocabularies’ (ibid.: 7) that are at the heart of bourgeois state formation and the lived experiences of subaltern groups, these vocabularies can easily become ‘sites of protracted struggle as to what they mean and for whom’ (ibid.: 6) as subaltern groups mobilize to contest their adverse incorporation in a given social formation. Secondly, because the state is congealed from social relations characterized by ‘compromise equilibrium’ (Gramsci, 1971: 161) between dominant and subaltern groups, there will also be ‘conjunctural opportunities’ (Jessop, 1982: 225) for such contestation to advance via the modalities of state power. However, the compromises that have been struck are always ones ‘in which the interests of dominant groups prevail’ (Gramsci, 1971: 182). This in turn means that conjunctural opportunities exist in dialectical tension with ‘structural constraints’ (Jessop, 1982: 225) – the state, in other words, ‘is an ensemble of power centres that offer unequal chances to different forces within and outside the system to act for different political purposes’ (Jessop, 2008: 37). The challenge before a historical-sociological approach to the study of subaltern politics is thus to trace the links between a specific set of state-society relations and the conflictual unfolding of capitalist development and state formation as master change processes in order to illuminate the achievements and limitations of particular trajectories of mobilization.


[1] Some representive examples of this body of work include Heller (1999), Jaffrelot (2003), Desai (2007), Fuller and Harriss (2001), Corbridge, Williams, Srivastava and Véron (2005), Sharma (2009), Gupta (1995, 1998, 2001, 2012), Michelutti (2008), Madhok (2003, 2008, 2012), Williams, Vira and Chopra (2011).

[2] See Nilsen 2012c for a comprehensive discussion of these perspectives.

[3] In particular, Harriss and Fuller (2001), Corbridge et al. (2005), Gupta, (1995, 1998, 2001, 2012), Sharma (2008, 2009), Gupta and Sharma (2006, 2008) and Williams, Vira and Chopra (2011).

[4] See Nilsen (2012c) for a full discussion of what a historical sociology of state-society relations in the study of subaltern politics would look like.

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