We in the West have a lot to learn from others. I mean, everyone has a lot to learn from everyone else – that’s just the nature of singularity. All of our experiences and life narratives are different, and we can all learn from each other.
But speaking more specifically (and without empty hippie platitudes), I think Western progressive activists have a lot to learn from community organizing in India. At least, from my first tentative investigation into the curious new kinds of political associations that modern Indian society produces, we have a lot to learn.
|We Westerners (as far as I can speak for a whole society spread over|
four continents) tend to think of slums as sad, pathetic places. And
their people lead difficult lives. But revolutionary political creativity
can emerge from these places.
Yesterday, I wrote about how Western political thinking is stuck in a bind. In our political tradition, states first developed as civil organizations. Their purpose was to unify disparate people across wide territories behind a common mission and a common identity.
The Western state was the material articulation of the spirit of the nation – such was the philosophy. And the institutions of the state were designed to build that communal spirit of nationhood in the first place. It was supposed to take real associations and societies of plurality and unify them, homogenize them.
We’ve run into quite a problem with this, which is that national identity never matches borders exactly. People who identify with one nation live outside it, and we feel a strange legitimacy when a national state tries to protect nationals (even non-citizen nationals) outside its borders. Even when it results in aggressive expansion or subversive invasion.
The nation-state has been obviously obsolete since, as far as I’m concerned, 1945. So what kind of political institutions can be alternatives?
Chatterjee identifies – without using the phrase itself – the welfare state as a vibrant, functional alternative to nationalism and the nation-state. When the state and the government is a service provider, it focusses on identifying differences, not smoothing them into unity.
There are populations with different needs, different situations, and different histories. The state has obligations to help all these populations in its territory develop better lives for themselves. That results in a much more empowered citizenry.
Here’s an example from Kolkata: Rail Colony Gate Number One. This is a shantytown of about 1500 people in a Kolkata suburb on the side of railroad tracks. Everyone knows their settlement is completely illegal. They’re squatters on private land – political and ecological refugees, as well as economic migrants, from Bangladesh and East Bengal.
Everyone – squatters included – acknowledges that they’re squatters, and so their community is legally precarious. It’s subject to forced removal at any time. But these very poor people literally have nowhere else to go.
And that’s why the railway and municipal authorities let them stay – because they have nowhere else to go. Also, they’ve formed their own relationships with the surrounding neighbourhoods as care workers and day labourers. They’ve become economically integrated over the decades the Colony has existed.
The welfare state owes these people resources to live and improve their lives. Now, they way we think about the government coming to help in the West, we’d expect disasters to unfold. It’s become obvious in our culture that the government is a disconnected, distant, barely competent service provider. But that’s not what happened in Kolkata.
Community leaders in Rail Colony Gate #1 formed Jana Kalyan Samiti – The People’s Welfare Association. It’s an organization of community organizers in the shantytown itself, which coordinates with the government and other stakeholders in the neighbourhood for service provision and diplomacy.
As far as principles go, it’s an anarchist organization. Again, this has a very different meaning than mainstream Western ideas. We tend to think of anarchism as Black Bloc crust-punks who live in squats, beg or wash dishes for a living, and reject education or social advancement.
That’s a false picture of how anarchism as a philosophy works. In the Western academic world, anarchism tends mostly to be a negative argument about the oppressive powers of national governments and authoritarian institutions.
But anarchism, in a positive sense, is network politics. Organizations arising from communities themselves, as people build networks that grow to become huge associations with core and periphery members.
The leaders of the Rail Colony’s People’s Welfare Association are relationship brokers between the people of the shantytown, neighbourhood organizations, the rail company, and all levels of the Indian government. This Indian organization – to take it as one example – has shown us how to do anarchism right.
Politics as relationship brokerage for the betterment of everyone in the community.