The Enchantments of Democracy: Some Notes

June 8, 2010

By Saroj Giri

Abstract: The Maoist movement and state violence as also corporate plunder are often opposed from the standpoint of ‘peace and democracy’, ‘social justice’ and so on. Civil society rightly highlights structural violence but they quite naively oppose it from the standpoint of democracy. However, the armed state, ‘peace and democracy’, and structural violence feed into each other. Thus the Maoists could not have challenged structural violence, silently sanctioned by the armed state, without breaking the legitimizing norms of democracy, peace and order. Peace and democracy needs serious unpacking, if one needs to come to terms with the nature of structural violence – with some urgency now, as none other than ‘Maoist sympathizers’, and not the hawks of the Home Ministry, themselves have revealed the sinister power of democracy: democracy at the service of counter-insurgency. With democracy like this, we don’t need dictatorships, and with sympathizers like these the Maoists need no enemies!

Now that there is an intense right-wing attack on ‘Maoist sympathizers’, it perhaps helps to seek grounds to be as less apologetic about supporting Maoists as possible. Indeed, to seek grounds for an even more clear and well thought out support for the Maoists – precisely in spite of the killing of civilians in the latest Maoist attacks, as the grounds for thinking that Maoists are ‘gandhians with guns’ seem to be slipping away. For there is a tendency here that ‘Maoists sympathisers’ might soon be putting their heads together to work out a ‘democratic counter-insurgency plan’ to tackle the Maoists: Siddharth Varadarajan for one has already proposed “democratization as counter-insurgency”, in order to replace the “disastrous counter-insurgency strategy” of the government (The Hindu, May 20, 2010).

I always had problems with counter-insurgency, which expresses something like the concentrated, reified power of the ruling classes in its most direct military form. Now that we are promised that even counter-insurgency can be legitimized with the stamp of democracy, it makes more sense to reflect on the nature of Indian democracy and indeed its left-wing votaries, than on counter-insurgency per se.

Reproaching those supposedly crossing the line over to the Maoist side, it is sometimes stated that no democracy is perfect and hence Indian democracy’s imperfections cannot be a good reason to abandon it. But can democracy get more perfect than this, where even counter-insurgency, normally carried out by fascist, military juntas or by the CIA (and don’t forget, always carried out by the constitutional Indian government) can be democratized? It seems therefore that it is not the imperfection of Indian democracy but its masterly, superb perfection which is impressive: never for a moment have the majority of people seriously doubted its fundamental democratic nature and yet never for a moment has it stopped engaging in the most fascist, militaristic measures to inscribe its writ and power since 1947. With democracy smoothly, almost unapologetically delivering counter-insurgency, it is time to question democracy itself, to question how it has come today in the Indian context to legitimize ‘something like the concentrated, reified power of the ruling classes in its most direct military form’ – with left-wing writers on board.

On a slightly different register and very much bemoaning the ‘loss of democracy’, the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) editorial of April 24, 2010 argues that “what is at test in the conflict is not the politics and violence of the CPI (Maoist) but the very institution of Indian democracy.” The Maoists are critiqued for having “more of a militarized identity than a political one”. They are autocratic and undemocratic: thus they do not support progressive Acts “meant to give the adivasis greater control over their resources (but has not been implemented by state governments)”. For sure, the institution of Indian democracy here is not the formal democracy of classic liberalism but substantive democracy as expressed in social justice, or peace with justice, economic empowerment, community rights and so on: in a word, ordinary people’s voice against the tyranny of big capital and state.

But it still makes sense to ask: is this democracy here the same as the one aligned with counter-insurgency?

But let us not already go that far, to counter-insurgency. Let us here connect democracy with something far less dramatic and which ‘civil society’ always invokes: ‘structural inequality’ or ‘structural violence’. Anuradha Chenoy points out that “civil society understands and includes … structural violence when people are systematically malnourished; starvation deaths are a common occurrence …” (‘Keep the safety valve intact’, Hindustan Times, May 26, 2010).

A Different Picture

That is, ‘Maoist sympathizers’ would insist, against the Home Ministry’s hawkish approach to the Maoists, that it is not ‘terrorism’ or violence or blood thirsty ideologues which is really the problem. Instead the violence of the Maoists must be understood in the context of the existing structural inequalities and structural violence. But the way out, it is suggested, is not what the Maoists have in mind, some unattainable violent revolution, but ‘greater democracy’. The struggle within the liberal-left camp of ‘Maoist sympathizers’ is to uphold a notion of democracy and peace unsullied by structural inequalities, or uphold it by arguing that it is what will deliver us from these inequalities. Part of the effort to maintain this attachment to democracy is to be able to distance oneself from the undemocratic activities of the Maoists, even while pointing out the structural violence. So while the Maoist movement has done much in highlighting the structural inequalities and structural violence, it is ultimately greater democracy, more power to the gram sabhas, implementation of Forest Rights Act, PESA and so on which can provide the solution.

However, what if the specificity of the Maoist movement is not really to highlight structural inequalities, or structural violence per se, but to unsettle the peace and democracy which silently perpetuates these inequalities. Can the illegality and unconstitutional/undemocratic nature of the Maoist movement be seen as an intervention to grasp the truth of the structural inequalities in the very framework and paradigm of democratic rights and constitutional processes?

The liberal-left understanding therefore overlooks precisely this interconnection between structural violence and democracy. What they forget and want us to forget are two things.

First, that inequalities emanating from structures, particularly ossified and reified structures of class and commodity relations, do not go away through more democracy, or through ‘peace with justice’ or capacity building and such like. Second, and more crucially, they want us to forget how this peace and democracy itself is in place only as the mirror image of the generalized interests of capital and the state with its full military apparatus and the monopoly over violence. In this context, it is highly pretentious if not outright ideological to claim that this peace and democracy is hard-earned through the struggle of the common people and hence must be defended against both the state and the violent ‘revolutionaries’ – as the EPW editorial does, or as ‘democratic counter-insurgency’ pretends to do. This claim also leaves unexplained why the state so valorizes peace and order and democracy and in fact presents itself as defending these ‘values’ against the ‘violent’, ‘senseless’ revolutionary movement. Why is the ruling order interested in defending ‘our hard earned democracy’? And why can our hard earned democracy not stop presupposing the State which definitely is not ‘hard-earned’?

The moot question is: does democracy (even in its most robust form, including social justice, etc.) facilitate structural inequality or does it stand opposed to the latter? Or: is the democratic opposition to structural inequality often the manner in which inequalities get restructured and rearticulated in newer, far more sophisticated forms, so that structural inequality itself is democratized (read legitimized), in the manner of the ‘democratic’ legitimization of counter-insurgency’? (It is like saying: the old feudal, aristocratic rich were a problem but not the new entrepreneurial, ‘elected rich’).

Thus for the liberal-left perspective, structural violence, the state and Maoists form a vicious oppressive circle, mutually reinforcing each other, while democracy, and in the context of the ongoing ‘armed conflict’, ‘peace’ are the solution. We depict these interrelations in Diagram 1.


Diagram 1: The circle of structural violence and a repressive state supposedly feeding off each other and giving rise to a violent opposition like the Maoists. ‘Peace and Democracy’ gets held up by the liberal-left as the panacea. We are challenging this understanding, this portrayal here.

In the Diagram 2, ‘peace and democracy’ is shown for what it is – a mediating term for structural violence and the state. ‘Peace and democracy’ is inside the oppressive circle and facilitates structural violence and is aligned to the state – here we approach Lenin’s understanding of democracy as a form of the state. The revolutionary intervention of the Maoists is supposed to break this vicious oppressive circle: it can break out since, in being undemocratic and ‘senseless’, it is more than what we get by referring to ‘root causes’ of structural violence, but is instead a judgment. It is not just determined but is a determination, violating thereby the pre-given norms of democracy and constitutional process.


Diagram 2: ‘Peace and democracy’ is shown for what it is – a mediating term for structural violence and the state.

The key question is: do we place the Maoists (or any revolutionary ‘undemocratic’ force for that matter), outside of the oppressive circle (as we do in Diagram 2), as inaugurating a revolutionary intervention or do we keep them inside, as a moment in the reproduction of this circle (as is done in Diagram 1). In the latter case, ‘peace and democracy’ and not any revolutionary intervention, is defined as the solution (Diagram 1). Diagram 2a is only a variation, a close-up, on Diagram 2, showing how democratic counter-insurgency is a democratic counter-part of Operation Green Hunt – the two-pronged approach to perpetuating structural inequalities.


Diagram 2a: A close-up of Diagram 2


Diagram 3: Democracy aligned to the armed state and structural violence

Few Propositions

Let us consider a few propositions which will clarify the diagrams further:

  • Under conditions of embedded structural inequality and violence, and the state’s monopoly over legitimate violence, peace and democracy are bandied as the general, normal condition, as what should be defended, as really what ordinary citizens want.
  • So the state fights the Maoists in the name of restoring or establishing order, rule of law and the normal democratic process: precisely the elements that reproduce and mediate structural inequality and structural violence.
  • Peace, order and democracy are therefore emphasized as normal, and hence comes to facilitate routine structural inequality, precisely since the right to break them, the right to use violence, the right to put limits on them, to define what they really amount to, rests with the armed state, is the monopoly of the state. (Diagram 3)
  • Democracy, peace and order, rule of law all turn out to be a form of the state (Lenin, The State and Revolution).
  • Generalised peace and democracy as the normal order, as what ordinary citizens want, is favoured since the conditions of its violation rest in the hands of the ruling classes who have particularized, privatized violence: this divide (generalized peace/privatized violence) parallels the society/state divide, the emphasis on benign peace and democracy making these divides acceptable.
  • This valorization of peace and democracy in the context where the generalized interests of capital and state are armed sees to it that society is disarmed. Crucially, this means that the revolutionary struggle can be kept within safe limits through the democratic imperative.
  • The generalization of peace and democracy as a norm to be defended combined with the privatization of violence in the interests of capital and the state (the standing army, the police, the paramilitary), means any use of violence in the revolutionary struggle is immediately delegitimised. Since the state’s dependence on violence, in promoting peace and democracy as normal, is concealed away, it is usually the revolutionary’s use of violence which is delegitimised as ‘violent’ and illegitimate and terroristic.
  • The armed might of the state is legitimized through the need to defend peace and democracy (social order), just as the armed struggle is delegitimised as destroying this peace and democracy.
  • Democracy is the code for rearranging structural inequalities in different ways. (Through creating majority-minority divisions, groups, sub-groups, interest groups, beneficiaries and so on.)
  • The point of the Maoist movement was not really to expose the formal character of democracy or to expose structural violence but to show their interconnection. It was to show how democracy played a substantive role in perpetuating structural violence. The point was not a fight for substantive economic rights, livelihood rights and other such welfarist machinations: rather the point was to lay bare these welfarist, democratic (social justice) codes that perpetuated, breathed fresh life into structural inequalities.
  • An undemocratic, senseless attack on this matrix of structural inequality and democracy precludes the possibility of reconfiguring structural inequality through the democratic code. Thus the violence lurking beneath peace and democracy had to come out in the open: Operation Green Hunt is, in this sense, not an imposition but what always lurked beneath the surface of democratic processes.
  • Existing democracy cannot be continuously radicalized since at some point, soon enough, it turns into something like Operation Green Hunt. Attempts to expose OGH from the standpoint of democracy, as an affront to our constitutional democracy etc, therefore tends to forget that it is the underside of this very democracy.
  • By cutting across the peace/violence divide, the Maoists open up a terrain of struggle which reveals the armed force of the state as an active element in the defense of the present order, as mediated through the idioms of peace and democracy.
  • “To erode the distinction between peace and war means placing oneself on the terrain of critique of the State, it means doubting the principles of legitimization of political power, which affirms a distinction between ‘State’ and ‘society’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘general’ and ‘private’” (Lucio Castellano, ‘Living with Guerilla Warfare’).
  • It was in this precise sense that the Maoist intervention and the Naxal intervention generically ended the democratic game and lured the armed might of the Indian state out into the open, to come and defend its democracy and structural inequality. Democracy here is revealed as nothing but the form of the state as Lenin pointed out.
  • To situate the struggle on a terrain marked by the interchangeability of peaceful and violent, however does not mean (re-)privatizing violence in some ‘rebel group’ or elitist vanguard. The horizon of struggle must be the arming of the masses, as Lenin pointed out in 1917: the replacement of the standing army by the armed masses of workers. The State and Revolution envisions “armed workers who proceed to form a militia involving the entire population”.


Partly, the enduring enchantment with democracy, indeed its spell on the left, derives from the tendency to locate the depredations of capital and the state mostly in its most coercive, dramatic forms and not in everyday business as usual. This is a general tendency even among the international left popularized by terms like ‘accumulation through dispossession’ (David Harvey) or ‘the rise of disaster capitalism’ (Naomi Klein) – taking the focus away from the mystifications and fetishisms of routine accumulation or of ‘normal’ capitalist commodity production. This leans and silently swerves towards the ideological fiction of a democratic capitalism, without dispossession and without disasters.

Thus, it is this legal, democratic functioning of capitalism that itself must be problematised (but then it is only in and through the illegal and undemocratic act that this problematisation can be realized. This is what Brecht does. The robbing of a bank might be undemocratic and illegal and the founding of a bank, legal and democratic, yet ‘what is the robbing of a bank, compared to its founding?’, Brecht wonders.

That everyday capitalism, like the setting up of a bank in your neighborhood, without any dramatic dispossession or displacement or plunder or corporates eyeing entire bauxite mountains (as in Orissa), is itself mystifying and exploitative means of course that the peace/violence, democratic/undemocratic divisions do not really hold. Thus a ‘simple’ advertising campaign is also a military campaign, as the latest Situationist intervention points out. Reebok’s “ ‘I AM WHAT I AM’, then, is not simply a lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war cry directed against everything that exists between things, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that invisibly links them, everything that prevents complete desolation, against everything that makes us exist” (The Coming Insurrection, The Invisible Committee, 2009). Democracy is not simply a call for empowerment of adivasis in Dantewada but is also simultaneously mobilized for counter-insurgency today.


7 Responses to “The Enchantments of Democracy: Some Notes”

  1. Shankar Says:
    June 27th, 2010 at 02:21

    The difficulty with this analysis is that it rests on certain neat equations: democracy = form of the state = structural violence = mirror image of brutality etc. Though clothed in a more sophisticated analysis, this rests on the fundamental misconception that the state / ruling institutions of society are merely an instrument of ruling class rule, nothing less and nothing more. This position is ahistorical and invalid. It is undoubtedly true that bourgeois democracy is a tool of hegemony and repression, a form of hegemony; it is also true that it only exists as a form because of the class struggle. Like all other institutions of bourgeois society, it is a product of the constantly shifting and unstable terrain of hegemony, tilted and shaped in favour of preserving ruling class rule, but not some readymade creation of the scheming minds of the ruling class. This inability to understand the simultaneously capitalist and exploitative nature of the state together with the impact of it on of class struggle is a failure to see the state as a dialectical entity.

    This basic mistake leads the writer into more pitfalls. He fails entirely to engage with the fact that, when one talks of democratic struggle, one is not talking of DEFENDING the existing democracy but of other forms of struggle that seek to develop a mass politics through means other than arms. This is the implicit and at times explicit meaning of the term “democratic”, in this context; this stream, or at least some of it, shares with the armed groups the aim of a revolution, but it does not share the belief that people’s war or armed struggle is the current or appropriate manner of development of the struggle. It instead believes that the development of mass struggle through spreading mass action is the appropriate route at this social conjuncture. To equate this with defending bourgeois democracy is as simplistic as the liberal argument that the CPI(Maoist) is the same as the state because both carry arms.

    The author loses sight of this entire point in his eagerness to dismiss every form of struggle except the CPI(Maoist) and to reduce everyone else to handmaidens and compradors of the ruling class. Perhaps the CPI(Maoist) intended to “expose” the hollowness of bourgeois democracy by bringing out Operation Green Hunt; if so it did not need to do so, for that hollowness was already exposed by the brutal repression visited on mass organisations and other groups who are not involved in armed struggles. If the CPI(Maoist) path of people’s war is to be defended, let it be defended as a mode of defeating the bourgeios state, not by throwing canards at all other forms of struggle.

  2. Anon Says:
    July 9th, 2010 at 14:09

    The American view

  3. Nirmalangshu Mukherji Says:
    May 4th, 2012 at 10:34

    This piece shows a certain mastery of propaganda and demagoguy. As a political theory, it makes at least 3 false assumptions, among many:

    1. The Indian State, contrasted to the American State, Egyptian State, Chinese State, Nepalese State under monarchy etc., is an imposition of its ruling classes, and is not a space for political contest. That is, the Indian State is a reflection of class-rule rather than an ongoing product of class-war.

    2. Maoists are an insurgent force such that all critiques of Maoists is to be viewed as counter-insurgency.

    3. The left critique of Maoists, the democratic critique, is to be viewed as an expression of the ruling classes.

    The first assumption was rightly challenged by the first responder Shankar. That leaves (2) and (3). The words “insurgency” and “counter-insurgency” have little meaning in the (Indian) Maoist case though the Maoists and the ruling classes would want them to be meaningful. Maoists are another expression of the neo-liberal, anti-people, neo-fascist totalitarian forces that rule the world with varying degrees of success, the “success” falling as the distance from the center increases. This explains why the neo-liberal forces could form such strong alliances with China so quickly becausr China is now a sub-center.

    It is no wonder that this author finds the semi-fascist “underground” document published by the MIT Press as his most favoured text.

    Points (1) to (3) have been discussed in detail in my book

  4. kk Says:
    May 4th, 2012 at 14:19

    “It is no wonder that this author finds the semi-fascist “underground” document published by the MIT Press as his most favoured text.”

    Which document?

  5. Nirmalangshu Mukherji Says:
    May 6th, 2012 at 21:54

    The Coming Insurrection by Invisible Committee. It is interesting to examine just which “radical” books are published by MIT Press.

  6. kk Says:
    May 10th, 2012 at 23:53

    It’s very interesting to know your comment about “The coming insurrection”, and the series, Semiotext(e) under which it was published. To call it semi-fascist is somewhat incomprehensible even for Marxists . It is almost like saying that Marx’s The Jewish Question was anti-semitic, anarchism is fascism etc. Anyway it would be enlightening to know your detailed views about the book. Wasn’t your book on linguistics published by the MIT press, or for that matter Capital was published by Penguin etc? Let’s not go into that.

  7. Nirmalangshu Mukherji Says:
    May 11th, 2012 at 23:14

    It is important to go into into THAT. No space unfortunately. Coming Insurrection is semi-fascist in the sense in which much post-modernist ‘radicalism’ is compatible with imperialism. Don’t see why you link my (one-line) critique with Marx and anarchism. Yes, my (very technical) book in philosophy of language is published by MIT; that’s their forte. The recent foray into ‘radical’ texts needs explanation. In general, there seems to be a form of ‘radical’ discourse, witnessed in India as well, that is comfortable for the anti-State, anti-people corporate structure.

    Reprinting of popular classics such as Capital is a wholly different issue.

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