Book review: Chatterjee: The Politics of the Governed

This is not really a book review but rather a summary of some of the key points I have taken from Partha Chatterjee’s 2004 book “The politics of the governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world”.

I was particularly drawn to the book for two reasons:

1) it provides a definition of civil society as an elite construct and provides a formulation for political society as a more appropriate way of reflecting on the politics and engagement of “most of the world”. This links up well to my PhD research that considers as one of the case studies, the role of civil society in the reformed Committee on World Food Security.

2) My volunteer work (and hopefully future research) looks at the engagement and participation of pastoralist women in local, regional and global networks. Next month I will be in India to observe a state-wide pastoralist parliament and hope to develop an article or project from this experience. Chatterjee, in identifying tensions of the modern democratic state, including the role of property in securing capitalist relations, provides an interesting starting point to theorise the radical otherness of pastoralists and the potential for alternatives to capitalism.

So, key things I have taken away from this book (Chatterjee, P. 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. NY: Columbia University Pres):

Some Definitions:

Civil Society: “the closed association of modern elite groups, sequestered from the wider popular life of communities, walled up within enclaves of civic freedom and rational law” (Chatterjee 2004:4).

Governance: “The body of knowledge and set of techniques used by, or on behalf of, those who govern” (Chatterjee 2004:4).

Democracy is no longer government of, by and for the people, but “should be seen as the politics of the governed” (Chatterjee 2004:4).  Political theory today rejects Aristotle’s criteria for the ideal constitution, where only certain people were suitable to become part of the governing class because they had the necessary practical wisdom or ethical virtue but governmental practices are still based on the premise that not everyone can govern.  Yet people are devising new ways in which they can choose how they should be governed (e.g., pastoralist parliament).

Political society is a site of negotiation and contestation opened up by the activities of governmental agencies aimed at population groups (Chatterjee 2004:74). To effectively make its claim in political society, a population group produced by governmentality a population group must be invested with the moral content of community. Community here means the “conferred legitimacy within the domain of the modern state only in the form of the nation” (Chatterjee 2004:75).  This is central to what is meant by governmentality: there are numerous possibilities for transforming an empirically assembled population group into the morally constituted form of a community.

TENSION: Universal idea of civic nationalism, based on individual freedoms and equal rights, and the particular demands of cultural identity, which call for the differential treatment of particular grounds on grounds of vulnerability (Chatterjee 2004:4). This opposition, agues Chatterjee (2004:4), is symptomatic of the transition that occurred in modern politics, from “a conception of democratic politics grounded in the idea of popular sovereignty to one in which democratic politics is shaped by governmentality”.

Chatterjee (2004) outlines two sets of conceptual connections: the line connecting civil society to the nation state, founded on popular sovereignty and granting equal rights to citizens; and, the line connecting populations to governmental agencies pursuing multiple policies of security and welfare. Chatterjee argues that the later leads to a different domain of politics: political society. Chatterjee proposes the political society to understand the relatively recent forms of the entanglement of elite and subaltern politics (2004:39-40).

Agency and Governmentality

For Chatterjee (2004:25) “it is morally illegitimate to uphold the universalist ideal of nationalism without simultaneously demanding that politics spawned by governmentality be recognised as an equally legitimate part of the real time-space of the modern political life of the nation. Without it, governmental technologies will continue to proliferate and serve, much as they did in the colonial era, as manipulable instruments of class rule in a global capitalist order.  By seeking to find real ethical spaces for their operation in heterogeneous time, the incipient resistances to that order may succeed in inventing net terms of political justice.”

? How to address heterogeneity and real-time space within food security governance?


The political community that has found the largest measure of approval is the modern nation state that grants equality and freedom to all citizens, irrespective of biological or cultural differences. The resulting zone of legitimate political discourse is defined by the parameters of property and community (Chatterjee 2004:32).

The ideals of popular sovereignty and equal citizenship enshrined in the modern state are mediated by and realised through the dimensions of property and community.  Property, explains Chatterjee (2004:74), is the conceptual name of the regulation by law of relations between individuals in civil society.

States engage in a dual strategy: on the one hand paralegal arrangements rearrange or supplement the contingent terrain of political society the formal structures of property which must, on the other hand, continue to be affirmed and protected within the legally constituted domain of civil society (Chatterjee 2004:74).

Property is the “crucial dimension along which capital overlaps with the modern state” (Chatterjee 2004: 74-5). It is over property then, at the level of political society, that we see a dynamic within the modern state of the transformation of pre-capitalism structures and of pre-modern cultures.

Citizens vs Populations – Links to governmentality

“Citizens inhabit the domain of theory, populations the domain of policy. Unlike the concept of citizen, the concept of population is wholly descriptive and empirical; it does not carry a normative burden. Populations are identifiable, classifiable, and describable by empirical or behavioural criteria and are amenable to statistical techniques such as censuses and sample surveys. Unlike the concept of citizen, which carries the ethical connotation of participation in the sovereignty of the state, the concept of population makes available to government functionaries a set of rationally manipulable instruments for reaching large sections of the inhabitants of a country as the targets of their “policies” – economic policy, administrative policy, law, and even  political mobilization” (Chatterjee 2004:34).

As populations, within a territorial jurisdiction of the state, populations have to be looked after and controlled by various government agencies resulting in a political relationship between the state and the populations. Yet, this relationship does not always conform to what is envisaged in the constitutional depiction of relations between the state and civil society (Chatterjee 2004:38).

As Foucault explains, the contemporary regime of power is characterised by the governmentalization of the state (Foucault 1991). This regime maintains legitimacy by claiming to provide for the well-being of the population, and not through the participation of citizens in matters of the state. Consequently, its tools are not citizen assemblies but rather networks of surveillance through which information about the life of the population is collected. As Chatterjee (2004:35) notes, this process empties government of all serious engagement with politics.

Governmentality and Governance

Governmentality requires accountability in terms of numbers, which leads, in turn, to the idea of representation by numerical proportions.  Governance becomes less a matter or politics and more an issue of administrative policy, “a business for experts rather than for political representatives” (Chatterjee 2004:35).

Developmental State

The developmental state promised to end poverty by “adopting appropriate policies of economic growth and social reform” (Chatterjee 2004:37). Often, the post-colonial states used governmental technologies to promote the well-being of their populations, often prompted and aided by international and non-governmental organizations. Through the adoption of these technical strategies of modernization and development, older ethnographic concepts entered the field of knowledge about populations through descriptive categories to classify groups of people into suitable targets for various levels of policy (e.g. administrative, legal, economic, electoral). (Chatterjee 2004:37).

Civil Society

Definitions of civil society have been expanded to include virtually all existing social institutions that lie outside the strict domain of the state (Chatterjee 2004:39, see also Cohen and Arato 1994). The practice is prevalent in the rhetoric of international institutions, aid agencies, NGOS, as will be illustrated, through the CFS and CSM, “among whom the spread of a neoliberal ideology has authorized the consecration of every non-state organization as the precious flower of the associative endeavours of free members of civil society” (Chatterjee 2004:39). Chatterjee argues that we must not lose sight of the vital and continually active project that still informs many of the state institutions in developing countries to transform traditional social authorities and practices into the modular forms of bourgeois civil society. Chaterjee (2004:39) highlights the disconnect between civil society as an ideal which energises an interventionist political project and demographically limiting existing form of it.

Seeing how civil society at the global level, is partially removed from the relationship to the state, often at the CFS, people participate as constituents rather than on a regional basis, this relationship needs to be reimagined.

Democratic politics involves a constantly shifting compromise between the normative values of modernity and the moral assertion of popular demands.  Civil society, in so far as it is restricted to a small section of culturally equipped citizens, often represents the high ground of modernity, along with the constitutional model of the state. Yet, as Chatterjee (2004:41) points out, in actual practice, governmental agencies must come to the terrain of the political society in order to maintain and renew their legitimacy.


Political consensus is likely to be socially conservative and could be particularly insensitive to gender and minority issues (Chatterjee 2004:74).

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