Commentary on ‘Who Operates and Who Agitates?’
“I find that, to the extent that civil society in India is bourgeois, it is not always orderly and contained; and to the extent that it is orderly and contained, it is not exclusively bourgeoisie”– Jolie Wood
By Chambi Chachage
Jolie M. F. Wood’s text is both an empirical study on and theoretical analysis of civil society in the global south. She opens with a critical review of Partha Chattarjee’s argument that its application is of limited relevance to India since the majority of Indians are excluded from participating in it. In Chattarjee’s conceptualization, most of them – particularly the poor –participate in a political society that tends to be more contentious and politicized vis-à-vis the state in contrast to elites who participate in the civil society. However, evidence from Woods’ study on six occupational groups – traders, lawyers, boatmen, weavers, teachers and doctors – within the city of Varanasi in India indicates, however, that this is not necessarily the case.
In the first section entitled ‘civil versus uncivil societies’, Wood reviews the history of the concept of civil society. While acknowledging that the likes of Georg Hegel, and Jürgen Habermas following him, developed it as a western concept, she contends that it is applicable to non-western societies. It is these pioneering theorists among others, Wood asserts, who – in confining the concept to the bourgeoisie – have influenced Chattarjee and others “in their theoretically purist zeal [to] adopt a rather narrow, historically specific, and, by contemporary standards, elitist concept and then discard it as ill-suited to India because of the broad, mass-based nature of Indian public life” (p. 165). However, Wood’s dichotomization of civil and uncivil is shaky since a number of examples, such as protests, that she uses to assert that even the rich, like the poor, behave in uncivil ways fall within the realm of civil society activism.
Having departed from these seminal theorists, Wood embraces Alexis de Tocqueville’s conceptualization that allows her to adopt, in her estimation, “a more neutral application of the concept of civil society to a variety of political and social contexts [that] does no require an a priori exclusion of the uneducated, non-property owning working class” (p. 166). But it is clear from her text that Tocqueville’s concept as applied to the United States of America is all embracing as it focused on all forms of association life/activity. In other words, in this conception anyone who is in any form of association is part and parcel of the civil society.
By embracing a fit all Tocquevillean vision, Wood thus runs into the pitfall of impreciseness her attempt at empiricism notwithstanding. As a result everyone in her study virtually ends up participating in the civil society. “Despite the traditional equation civil society with bourgeoisie society and the acceptance by several major scholars of Indian politics of this concepts”, she firmly asserts, “an associational life that is not limited to the bourgeoisie or educated middle classes appears to be thriving” (ibid.) Instead of focusing on such an associational life to show that the poor are not excluded from civil society, Wood focuses on the slippery dichotomy between civil and uncivil actions. Her focus, in fact, shifts to attempts at proving that “it is not entirely true that the middle to upper classes engage in an orderly, contained civil society while the lower classes are relegated to agitating on a disorderly, politicized fringe” (ibid.) This convoluted conceptualization of associations is exacerbated by a conventional tendency of conflating the civil society and civil society organizations.
What Wood is studying are types of organizations and forms of organizing. These range from professional to civic organizations whose actions range from what she refers in this query that constitutes the title of her second section: ‘Who agitates and who operates?’ For instance, the traders’ associations in her text are closely associated with political parties that vie for state power. They are also business associations more or less similar to chambers of commerce. As such they are not necessarily participating in the civil society given that they operate within both the political and market realms. Tellingly, in one of these associations, the Kashi Traders Representative Association (KVPM), its secretary general even served as the city president of one of the political parties. Wood’s political analysis in this regard could be enriched by the application of the political science concept of clientelism given that these associations depend on the patronage of political parties. As she aptly observe, association “leaders appear to use these political connections to win individual favours or concessions, as well as special consideration for the business community” (p. 173). This also seems to be crony capitalism.
With such a wealth of information one wonders why Wood opts to fit her observation with a particular concept and spend considerable energy to thus scathingly debunk those who have questioned its universal applicability: “However, I would urge against a strictly historical, Euro-centric theory of civil society that effectively requires the creation of new categories and labels in order to consider the public engagement of the lower classes, or non-Western and/or post-colonial societies” (p. 165). In this relentless quest for universality she ends fitting her observations to a concept rather than let herself analyze the findings in their own (local) right.
Nevertheless Wood’s article is an important contribution to the debate on civil society in the developing world. It contains interesting insights on the relationship between citizen actions and urban spaces. For instance, she aptly observes that in contrast to cities with a modernist urban design, Varanasi’s physical environment that is largely unplanned seems to both encourage and enable the use of contentious action. It is possible that “therein agitation has become a favoured means of making demands upon the state”, she postulates, “because it affects residents and business more directly than it would in a city where streets have been planned with speedy, efficient transportation and ‘orderly’ public spaces in mind” (p. 172).
The text is also an important contribution to the theorization of citizenship in post-colonial societies. Even though class stratification continues to cluster people in different position in their respective societies, in general the space for civic engagement has relatively increased in the aftermath of national independence and the quest for development. As Wood aptly points out, “urbanization, increased participation in the institutions of democracy, and globalization are having profoundly transformative effects upon people’s experience and practice of ‘citizenship’” (p. 166). However, this by no means mean that everyone is participating in civil society simply because states and constitutions have rendered them citizen instead of subjects.
It would be interesting to put Wood’s text in conversation with James Scott’s text that also look at the way the poor respond to the state and the rich in Asia. Such a conversation may reveal that what Wood observed as “an unexpected pattern in contentious action” (p. 169) and that led her to attempt to turn upside down Chattarjee and other theorists mask what goes beneath and behind the scenes. In Scott’s conceptualization, the poor tend to use the weapons of the weak, such as dissimulation, that are not easily discerned if one does not look closely enough for hidden transcripts. For the rich and powerful, in contrast, there is hardly anything to hide, as Wood’s own analysis thus reveals, albeit missing Scott’s nuance look: “As the data in Table 7.1 suggest, the lawyers’ and traders’ groups resorted far more frequently to strikes, sit-ins, and other forms of contentious, and occasionally even illegal, public action, while boatmen’s and weavers’ groups tended to prefer formal, institutionalized, and/or contained means of making demands” (p. 169-170). Thus the question may not be about who is more civil than the other but, rather, who is located within privileged interstices of civil society?
 Jolie M. F. Wood, “Who Operates and Who Agitates? A class-wise Investigation of Contentious Action and Citizenship in Varanasi, India.” Pp. 161-189 in Renu Desai and Romola Sanyal (eds.), Urbanizing Citizenship: Contested Spaces in Indian Cities (Los Angeles, 2012).
 James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, 1985).