“It has been an astonishing decade. Everything and nothing has changed,” Michelle Alexander wrote on the tenth anniversary of her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She was speaking on the ongoing struggle for true racial equality in a historically polarized United States. One could make a similar observation apropos politics worldwide. During a decade of populist protests, ordinary people globally have demanded, with varying success, democracy against authoritarianism, reforms and revocation of laws that stigmatize and exclude, and equality as the end goal of political and economic decision-making.
What comes in and out of view in the remarkable and creative performances of popular constituent power and an attendant and unapologetic show of authoritarian might is the shifting figure of the political. What constitutes politics and what it means to be political are both in flux. An appreciation of political aesthetics takes us away from the doomed attempt at finding the motivations of the protesting crowds. In this forum of The Immanent Frame, the contributors tackle the dual questions of the political and the popular. They focus on what Jason Frank terms “popular visualizations” to recognize the cultural-political labor of imagination and representation. From their respective geographic and analytical locations, they inaugurate a conversation around the purchase and pitfalls of investing our collective political hopes and anxieties in the manifold figurations of the people as the crowd, the mob, the migrant, or the minority.
Consider, then, two recent examples from India, one of a locality and the other of a document. Both captured the popular imaginary in the spectacular showdown against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Since December 2019, working-class Muslim women have been on the streets in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh colony to agitate against the bills that have passed in the parliament with the support of a right-wing Hindu majority. The CAA and the NRC are fundamentally discriminatory and targeted against Muslims; together, they effectively clear the path of radical exclusion of India’s largest minority population. An enumerative project that rests on a deep paper fetish will be a nightmare to carry out given what one knows of South Asian bureaucracy, a behemoth infamous for its simultaneous faith in and suspicion of documents, and its blind proceduralism and sloth.
One of the chants in Shaheen Bagh—“hum kaagaz nahin dikhayenge” (“We will not show our papers”)—has been echoing across Indian cities and towns. Originally in Hindi, it resounded in multiple languages at rallies and sit-ins populated by students, academics, activists, and ordinary people. The other slogan that often accompanied it is “la ilaha illallah”—“There is no god but Allah.” This first line of the shahada contains in it the tenet of monotheism central to Islam. Drawing on a religious repertoire when demanding the resurrection of the foundational secularist ethos of the Indian state has invoked an ambivalent response. A hijab-wearing Muslim student’s stance against the state may have provided a powerful visual, but the chanting of the prayer managed to invoke a secular-liberal discomfort that is familiar to observers of political assemblies worldwide.
The women at Shaheen Bagh are not the crowds omnipresent in South Asian public life whose anonymity at once protects them and renders them disposable in the eyes of the state. Heads covered, cooking in communal kitchens, sometimes keeping a fast, these protesters are comfortable—and adamant—in being marked. The restless returns of religion or race in democratic movements everywhere, however, revive old ghosts. James Baldwin’s claim that democracy does not dare to say “race” or “religion” with ease or with pleasure rang true in the anxious murmurings around the Muslim Brotherhood after the Egyptian revolution as well. If the race-religion duo makes up democracy’s quintessentially antimodern nemeses, what are some other ways of theorizing their simultaneities, ask David Kyuman Kim and John L. Jackson. The authors published their essay in 2011, in the wake of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and a good few years before right-wing populist leaders began to steer notable global democracies, including India, Brazil, and the United States.
But democracy bears its own talismans. For Kim and Jackson, its sacrality is a function of the people’s capacity to write themselves into protected political existence. A secular text that has accrued an aura of the sacred, again during these tumultuous times, is the Indian Constitution. Thousands chanted the Preamble to the Constitution at landmark public assemblies at the height of the protests. They have held copies of the text along with the portraits of its main architect, B. R. Ambedkar. It is perhaps not accidental that Rohit De and Surabhi Ranganathan point out that a large number of Indians opposing the new citizenship laws are emerging “as people of one book.” The hint at the religious is unmistakable. The collective recitations ritually reproduce the sacred from the profaneness that is everyday life.
Amidst a collective anxiety around a noticeable rise in populist politics, where and how do we situate ordinary Indians who tout a legal document and those who recite the shahada, sometimes in one breath? How do the same crowds become a “people of one book,” or simply labeled “religious communities,” rather than rights-bearing citizens, whose chants and prayers ghettoize their democratic demands for haq (rights)? What does it mean for the recent protests in Hong Kong, for example, to turn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” into an informal anthem against the state, People’s Republic of China, and the competing Christianity of its Chief Executive, Carrie Lam?
Jason Frank offers some guidance as he writes in his contribution to this forum, “In order to invest the people with sovereign authority, we have to imagine the contours and composition of their existence—the dilemmas of boundary associated with who the people are—as well as their capacity for transformative collective agency—the related question of how the people act.” Stefan Jonsson notes, from his location in the heart of European populist emergences, how the categories of the migrant and the fascist shape contemporary aesthetic imaginaries of the people. Both are designations of “the popular” with contradictory relationships to political power.
The aesthetics of the protests against price, fees, and fare hikes, a citizenship amendment, and political corruption from Chile and Lebanon to Hong Kong and India share family resemblances. Students, many of whom are women, have gathered in disproportionately large numbers with a dazzling display of powerful slogans, gestures, and demands. Universities have become battlegrounds but also birthplaces of new articulations of collective political desires. Still, the outbursts of anger and resentment against what Jonsson here calls “politics-as-usual” are only meaningfully analyzed with a depth of linguistic and cultural knowledge that reads beyond the headlines. As Veena Das writes in a different context: “I strongly believe that if anthropology is to engage the tremendous challenges that the disorders of democracy pose to the theories of state and forms of governance today, it must open its doors to others and pay close attention to work done by journalists, school teachers, lawyers, not only in English but also, and most urgently, in vernacular languages.”
Robert Samet and Sonia Lam-Knott in this forum accomplish this in the most felicitous way. In Hong Kong, scholars and activists are attempting to make sense of “populist” (民粹/man seoi) elements in its contemporary political landscape, the definition of which is not reducible to the commonplace descriptors of populism in the Euro-American mass media. It is to be noted that a recent Chinese translation of Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism has inspired student protestors to perform what they call populism in order to distance themselves from the authoritarianism of the People’s Republic of China. In denuncias, Robert Samet has found a perfect speech act that most poignantly captures the culture of populism in Venezuela beyond the simple binaries of Chavismo and the political opposition to it. The reduction of populism to the utterances of charismatic leaders, Samet argues in this forum, overlook the material conditions that lead to populism. Social and political injustices are instead revealed through denuncias in press that express wrongdoings. Glossing over the semantic richness and linguistic ambiguities often simplifies and vilifies populism as a political vision and practice, as many scholars have already pointed out. Madhava Prasad adds to this growing body of work by guiding our attention to “cinematic populist regimes” in India, which express the competing nationalisms of India and the nationalities that comprise it. This once more highlights the significance of language, particularly, the vernacular, in offering shape and sustenance to people’s politics.
Observing popular political organizing in Thailand, anthropologist Bo Kyeong Seo has commented, “If a variety of heterogeneous struggles are assembled under populist-democratic demands, grasping this tangled chain of becomings may be the key to confronting the openness of the political.” For Seo, as well as the contributors to this current forum, it is the hyphenated, afflicted, and unstable subject-positions of political actors that have created the extraordinary moments and momentum we have been witnessing at a global scale. The unfinished nature of populist politics, however, makes it impossible to have the last word on what seemingly contagious quality of crowds might mean for the fate of democracies worldwide. Our ethnographic and analytical gaze is firmly set on these emergent, and often unforeseeable, figurations of popular politics.