Akhil Gupta, “Poverty as Biopolitics,” in Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012): 3–39.
Any study of the state in India must try to address one central puzzle: “After more than sixty years of development efforts by the postcolonial state, why do so many of India’s citizens continue to be subjected to the cruelties of endemic hunger and malnutrition and to be deprived of such basic necessities as clothing, shelter, clean water, and sanitation?”
One could argue that the high poverty rates and poor social development indices are merely a residual feature of muddled Nehruvian economic policies and that with liberalisation, the situation has improved dramatically. However, it is precisely this satisfaction with the achievements of liberalisation in recent years that has effaced discussion on the problem of poverty. “[T]he scandal of the state lies in its failure to acknowledge that condemning an estimated 250–450 million people to a premature and untimely death constitutes a crisis of grave proportions.”
My concern here is with what should be considered “exceptional, a tragedy and a disgrace, but is not: the invisible forms of violence that result in the deaths of millions of the poor, especially women, girls, lower caste people, and indigenous people.” What makes a tragedy of such proportions invisible?
And my argument is that “extreme poverty should be theorized as a direct and culpable form of killing made possible by state policies and practices rather than as an inevitable situation in which the poor are merely “allowed to die” or “exposed to death.” To see this — to see death because of extreme poverty as a form of thanatopolitics — allows us to make important interventions.
Firstly, deaths are not inevitable: far from it, despite being preventable they are not prevented. But why is this so? Why does the death of a few thousand due to a natural disaster provoke the kind of response that the death of millions due to poverty doesn’t? Perhaps this is because the poor are excluded from national projects of development, democratic politics, and cultural citizenship.
But, and this is the second point, the poor are killed despite their inclusion in projects of national sovereignty and despite their centrality to democratic politics and state legitimacy. This is not to say that the problem is bureaucratic apathy. Apathetic bureaucrats do exist no doubt but the question raised is this: even if all state officials were sincerely devoted to the task of eradicating poverty, would the procedures of the bureaucracy end up subverting even their best intentions? The argument is that it would.
Biopolitics, Bare Life,
and Legitimate Violence
There are two features that any understanding of the relation between the state in India and the poor should take into account. For one, that the task of caring for the population is taken seriously by the state and carried out well beyond a utilitarian calculus. For another, despite this approach, the poor are exposed to death on an ongoing basis without causing anyone to be alarmed. Of course this state of affairs is a contradiction. What gives?
A possible answer emerges from Michel Foucault who charts the development of biopower in terms of a focus on the population as a whole where what is normal is discovered and established through statistical analysis. And it is the normal — a certain level of mortality, for instance — that is the object of control.
What does this new technology of power, this biopolitics, this biopower that is beginning to establish itself, involve? I told you very briefly a moment ago; a set of processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on. It is these processes — the birth rate, the mortality rate, longevity, and so on — together with a whole series of related economic and political problems ... which, in the second half of the eighteenth century, become biopolitics’ first objects of knowledge and the targets it seeks to control.
Society Must Be Defended
, trans. David Macey, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (New York: Picador, 2003) p. 244.
“In the Indian case, high rates of poverty, once established as a statistical fact and as the normal state of affairs, served to justify and legitimate slow action against poverty on the part of state elites, particularly since there was not much change in rates of poverty in the first five decades after Independence.”
When policymakers establish goals through the norm of high poverty and employ a discourse about the difficulty of reducing poverty in a big, complex country like India, they uncannily echo the justifications used previously for explaining why India could not accelerate economic growth.
But there are at least two problems with this concept of biopower. It does not explain why some poor people do in fact receive help. It also does not address adequately the questions of violence.
An improvement is Giorgio Agamben’s distinction between “being killed” as opposed to passively “being allowed to die.” Perhaps, the poor in India are like the protagonist in Homo Sacer and it would be more appropriate to see the violence against them as killing rather than simply as allowing to die or exposing to death. Afterall, “Their death is not recognized as a violation in any respect: not a violation of a norm, a rule, a law, a constitutional principle, not even perhaps of the idea of justice.”
The protagonist of this book is bare life, that is, the life of
(sacred man) , who
may be killed and yet not sacrificed
, and whose essential function in modern politics we intend to assert. An obscure figure of archaic Roman law, in which human life is included in the juridical order [
] solely in the form of its exclusion (that is, of its capacity to be killed), has thus offered the key by which not only the sacred texts of sovereignty but also the very codes of political power will unveil their mysteries.
The Foucauldian thesis will then have to be corrected or, at least, completed, in the sense that what characterizes modern politics is not so much the inclusion of
— which is, in itself, absolutely ancient — nor simply the fact that life as such becomes a principal object of the projections and calculations of State power. Instead the decisive fact is that, together with the process by which the exception everywhere becomes the rule, the realm of bare life — which is originally situated at the margins of the political order — gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside,
, right and fact, enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction.
Sovereign Power and Bare Life
, trans. Daniel Heller Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p. 8–9.
However, in Agamben, the idea of homo sacer is integrally connected to the existence of a strong sovereign whose injunction produces the former by excluding him. This does not seem persuasive when the state under consideration, i.e. the state in India, does not have the unity of a sovereign but is pluricentered, multileveled, and decentralized. In addition, the poor are not excluded. They are enthusiastic practitioners of participatory democracy at different levels of politics.
This reminds us of the puzzle already hinted at: If the poor are integral to popular sovereignty, what explains the widespread acceptance of the incredible violence inflicted on them?
Poverty as Structural Violence
What justifies the use of the term violence to describe poverty? Why or how is it structural? Even if it is structural violence, why link it to the state?
Max Weber used violence in his definition of the state to refer to a direct act of force that causes physical harm to another person.
Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence. Hence, ‘politics’ for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.
Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From
Max Weber: Essays in Sociology
(London: Routledge, 2009), p. 78.
Instead of that familiar use, I am borrowing the term structural violence from Johan Galtung whose definition includes “any situation in which some people are unable to achieve their capacities or capabilities to their full potential, and almost certainly if they are unable to do so to the same extent as others”.
As a point of departure, let us say that
violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations
. This statement may lead to more problems than it solves. However, it will soon be clear why we are rejecting the narrow concept of violence - according to which violence is
incapacitation, or deprivation of health, alone (with killing as the extreme form), at the hands of an
this to be the consequence. If this were all violence is about, and peace is seen as its negation, then too little is rejected when peace is held up as an ideal. Highly unacceptable social orders would still be compatible with peace. Hence, an
extended concept of violence is indispensable
but that concept should be a logical extension, not merely a list of undesirables.
Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,”
Journal of Peace Research
6, no. 3 (1969):168.
“The reason such violence is considered to be structural is that it is impossible to identify a single actor who commits the violence. Instead, the violence is impersonal, built into the structure of power. Far from being intended, violence in this sense does not even have to be caused by a particular agent.”
What one finds here is a classically structuralist social theory wedded to consequentialism. Galtung’s interest is in outcomes, not in processes. Whenever outcomes are unequal, violence is present. In fact, in this way of thinking, any system with less than full equality displays evidence of violence.
Structural violence is constant, not episodic. And instead of disrupting actors’ understandings of their social worlds, structural violence provides them with a particular kind of situated knowledge with its own epistemic certainties. However, the episodic and disruptive event continues to be important.
“In the case of structural violence, although there is a victim — someone who is injured by the inequities of social arrangements — it is hard to identify a perpetrator. It is not a victimless crime but its opposite: a crime without a criminal.”
The use of the term “violence” is perilous but there is one overwhelming reason why it is advisable to retain it: “it keeps one’s attention on its impact on mortality”. And what distinguishes structural violence from the violence of natural disasters is that the former results from the deliberate actions of social agents.
Structural Violence and the State
Now the connection between structural violence and the state. It seems difficult to link the state with poverty because the latter’s continued use (as something to be removed or overcome) in projects of charity and aid to the unfortunate has desensitised us to “the deformed ethics of statecraft that tolerates and condones such cruelty”. For such cruelty is “exercised without intention through practices ranging from corruption and modes of literacy and writing to governmental practices [:]… a matter of routine administration, a problem largely uncommented upon in the press or in parliament, and nameable only through banalities on the occasions when it is mentioned”.
The low position of India in terms of human development could be explained in a number of ways. Perhaps the state in India has never had the resources necessary to eradicate poverty. Perhaps, and this is along more classically Marxist lines, the state is a tool for the perpetuation of inequalities, an executive committee of the bourgeoisie and the emerging classes that are tied to the bourgeois order. Or perhaps we have never been postcolonial: poverty has not been eradicated because the state has continued to function much as the colonial one did, and neoliberalism has succeeded only in bringing to India new forms of empire and neocolonialism.
But none of these are satisfactory. It is easy, of course, to blame the bureaucrats, and politicians. But it remains a fact that many hardworking bureaucrats are frustrated in their efforts by the ineffectiveness of the bureaucratic structure. And this is why the argument is being made that the nobility of the programmes and the sincerity of the officials do not translate into result because of the procedures of bureaucracy.
“There is a very specific modality of uncaring operating here that I will further specify. Uncaring indicates not a psychological state of government employees but a constitutive modality of the state. One could hardly accuse the state of inaction toward the poor: it would be difficult to imagine a more extensive set of development interventions in the fields of nutrition, health, education, housing, employment, sanitation, and so forth than those found in India. The Indian state probably outdoes any other poor nation-state in the number and range of its benevolent interventions.”
This position is different from two other commonly employed explanations for development outcomes that adversely affect the poor. I am not arguing that the well intentioned development and assistance programmes flounder in their implementation. I am also not arguing, and this is related to the first, that the improvement of efficiency in delivery of services would eliminate structural violence. Certainly, there is room for improvement here but the achievement of total efficiency would not mean the eradication of violence. Finally, I am arguing against “an anthropology of abjectness” which conceives of targets or beneficiaries of government schemes as passive or docile victims. They are not and they do not represent themselves as such.