midst rising interest in various “new state spaces” (Brenner, 2004), Gupta’s Red Tape exemplifies the central significance of studying “old state spaces”: the revenue collector's office, the rural development camp, and the panchayat (village council). Through careful ethnographic treatment of how bureaucratic rules are received, negotiated, and performed on the ground, Gupta brilliantly demonstrates that understanding seemingly mundane political processes provides surprising insights into contemporary forms of violence and power. My comments for this review are organized in three parts – on the state, on the poor, and on inscription – highlighting what I think geographers in particular can learn from this book, while also raising a set of questions for discussion.

Consequential states, or states that matter

Much of the current geographical literature on state space – whether it sees the state as a black box following Latour, an assemblage following Deleuze, or as a polymorphic geography following Brenner – while in no way lacking in sophistication, has ended up producing rather spare, diagrammatic accounts of the state. The state in such accounts is discussed in terms of networks and flows, policies and mobilities, statistics and rationalities. As useful as all this is, Red Tape offers an important reminder that the everyday state, the state of face-to-face interactions, continues to matter profoundly in the lives of the poor. The book thus builds on and advances a rich South Asian literature on the everyday state, revealing how seemingly mundane practices – such as headcounts of children’s school attendance or a development officer’s surprise inspection of a village meeting – are in fact constitutive of the state. As Gupta writes, “The government is [being] constructed in the imagination and everyday practices of ordinary people” (page 100).

A key argument of the book is that only through an ethnographic view of bureaucratic practice are we able to see how structural violence is produced. The increasingly sophisticated theories of scale, assemblage, and networks now so prominent in political and urban geography get you nowhere in explaining, for example, why a peasant seeking a measly 300 rupee payment sometimes is able to convince petty officials to pay up, and sometimes is thwarted as those same petty officials pocket the money themselves. In this sense, the book develops not just an ethnographic view of the state, but what I’d suggest is a consequential theory of the state, or a focus on states that matter.

The attention to the everyday state offers another useful corrective to the increasingly de-peopled formulations of state space. Despite the post-structural commitments of much of this new geographical work, the state is nonetheless rendered from a neutral, un-situated viewing perspective. In Donna Haraway’s (1988) words, it reproduces the old “God trick”: the view from nowhere. Red Tape, in contrast, builds a situated approach to the everyday state that insists that we only ever see and encounter a particular version of the state, not “the state” as an achieved entity. As Gupta writes, “At the local level, the state cannot be experienced as an ontically coherent entity: what one confronts instead is discrete and fragmentary: land records officials, headmen, the police, and so forth. It is precisely through the practices of such local officials and institutions that a translocal institution like the state comes to be imagined” (page 90).

While Gupta carefully interrogates the complex relations between the rural poor, the bureaucracy, and elected officials—the politics of state politics, if you will—it would be interesting to think through how these face-to-face dynamics are transforming in light of the rising influence in recent years of a new technocracy, a body of governors shielded from electoral pressure by their spreadsheets, widgets, and MBAs. These experts, in the form of para-statal agencies and private consultants, produce reports and guidelines that shape how the poor are seen and administered. This burgeoning technocracy, backed by the new economy’s fetishization of expertise, often takes over key decision-making powers and de-tooth local democratic politics. So, while the book talks about processes of democratic de-centralization such as village-led development programs, there has been a parallel process of “gentrifying the state” (Ghertner, 2011), or insulating key decision-making spaces from the demands of popular society. While beyond the scope of this book, I do think that the question of empowerment depends not just on re-narrating the state, as Gupta wonderfully argues, but also on how this dialectics of decentralization and re-centralization plays out.

The poor as object of government and subject of politics

I now want to raise a set of questions about the production of “the poor” as a biopolitical object and as economic subjects. One of the book’s key arguments is that it isn't poor people who shape state practice so much as "the poor" as a population category: as the client of development, as the object of state care, or as the community whose denied entitlements provide the ethical basis for bureaucratic complaint. As Gupta writes, in a line that I consider one of the key theses of the book: "The smooth operation of bureaucracies thereby depends not only on Weberian bureaucrats performing their roles, but also on those people who are the objects of their intervention performing their structurally given roles" (page 190). The structural violence Gupta considers is hence produced not by malicious intent or the sovereign command to kill. Rather, it is one where despite an ethics of care, the poor nonetheless die in large numbers – a death enforced by poor people “performing their structurally given roles” as “the poor,” a group defined by and expected to retain reduced cultural and political capital.

One way in which the category of the “the poor” is rendered as a biopolitical category is through the poverty line. Gupta argues that a historically high incidence of poverty in India leads to a certain banality of numbers: millions of premature deaths each year and 300 million people living in poverty are rendered as statistical background noise, a naturalized condition of postcolonial society. His task in the book is to ask us to see this biopolitics of “letting poor populations die” as a form of violence. Yet, I wonder if the focus on the banality of numbers doesn’t lead us to miss out on more insidious uses of numbers. I’m thinking here of Utsa Patnaik’s (2007) critique of Indian poverty statistics and her argument that the Planning Commission essentially cooks the books by failing to adjust the poverty line to adequately reflect living costs. According to Patnaik’s calculations, or even the World Bank’s minimum $1.25 a day standard, the Indian government grossly underestimates its poverty problem. This is more than a problem of neglect. It also undergirds the neoliberal growth story, which claims that the very cause of the drop in poverty from 36% to 27% over the first decade and a half of economic liberalization (1991-2005) was economic growth.

Thus, while the book is concerned with silent, structural violence, I wonder if this neoliberal narrative (that equates growth with poverty reduction) is spared,[1] and how numbers might operate as more than the accumulated outcome of bureaucratic routine, but also as a form of often violent rhetoric (and this relates to my question above on the technocracy and the role of expertise in producing an air of neutrality for often insidious political projects). This takes an extreme form when, a la Hernando de Soto, those living below the poverty line are read not as the poor, but as future rich people: entrepreneurial subjects who need markets, not development. Such rhetoric emerges through specific numerical technologies, such as the National Council of Applied Economic Research’s glorious projection of a poverty-free future, as well as through the bottom-of-the-pyramid capitalism trumped out by India’s growing breed of business gurus, who proclaim the present-day poor as a market frontier.

This brings me to my next question, which concerns the poor not as biopolitical objects, but rather as political and economic subjects. Empowerment is a key theme throughout the book, but especially in the chapter on literacy. In this chapter (chapter 6), Gupta shows that despite their restricted literacy, poor people nonetheless are able to access a state system dominated by writing. Empowerment, he thus argues, is not contingent on literacy, and literacy in no way ensures empowerment. This is a compelling and important argument, for it bravely dispenses with global NGO-speak and liberal humanist givens. Yet, in moving the analytical treatment of “the poor” as a population group defined by their restricted cultural and political capital into the realm of literacy, I wonder if the lived experience of reading and writing, as a practice of the self, is discounted. To phrase this differently, the book examines literacy in terms of its functional role in petitioning the state. But, what about the role of literacy as symbolic capital integrally linked to self-affirmation and dignity? Taking up this question means asking what role literacy plays in poor people’s accounts of their exclusion – a question that goes behind the goals of the book, which focuses predominantly on local state actors. But, I think it also has a bearing on the book’s larger argument, for this question forces us to see violence not just as material deprivation (the Agambenian bare life discussed so carefully in the book), but also as humiliation (degraded life). Thus, while basic literacy may do little to address material deprivation, it certainly does have an important role to play in addressing the historic humiliation and degradation of lower castes and outcastes – the very meaning of “dalit.” It is in response to this type of violence that the dalit movement has promoted printing presses and insisted on writing the dalit subject into the public sphere. I would therefore have been interested in seeing slightly more discussion not just of the capacity to participate – what Gupta calls political literacy – but also of the capacity to self-represent.

Government beyond numbers?

Finally, to the question of inscription and numbers: for Foucault the rise of a modern governmentality was premised on statistics – the science of the state, with its rigorous calculative devices for bringing the population and its complex relations with things into view. Gupta, in line with a rich literature on census taking in colonial and post-colonial South Asia (e.g., Appadurai, 1993; Cohn, 1987), argues that this calculative techne continues to underlie governmentality in rural India. He does so by arguing that writing and inscription aren’t just representations of state practice, but are themselves constitutive of the state. The requirements of surveillance, enumeration, and classification thus become the inscriptive foundation of the bureaucracy, but also produce the bureaucratic indifference that leads to the increased social suffering the bureaucracy is itself intended to reduce. This is a novel argument that fundamentally recasts how we think of the violence of abstraction and inscription, for it asks us to attend to the production of bureaucratic indifference not just in the work that numbers do (their representational afterlives), but also in the aggregation and production of statistics in the first place. The book begins, for example, with a scene wherein “uncaring” is produced in the attempt to classify indigent, elderly people’s eligibility for a pension scheme, a supposed site of care.

I have three questions on how literacy, bureaucratic inscription, and governmentality relate in the arguments of the book:

First, in the chapter on literacy, the book suggests that a “new orality”—a new communicative field based on mass media, speech, and image—has come to characterize populist politics in north India, one where subjects are hailed on the basis of ethical and affective ties, not print cultures or statistical classifications. This argument is used to question the significance of literacy in mediating the state-society interface. Yet, I had a lingering sense that there was in fact a claim at work here about non-enumerative and non-statistical modes of governmentality, even though the empirical focus remains on bureaucratic writing. Gupta shows how despite a massive increase in statistical work to track and monitor the poor, the statistics so painstakingly collected are never consolidated into a comprehensive map of the population. This observation allows him to ask whether biopolitics in the calculative sense described by Foucault operates in the Indian context in the first place (page 268).

Scholars have long pointed out that (post-)colonial governmentality has a different ethos than the liberal governmentality described by Foucault: an illiberal governmentality premised on racial difference (Scott, 1995; Stoler, 1995). But if we push the question of the “new orality” into conversation with biopolitics, is Red Tape making the claim that post-colonial governmentality might have a different techne as well: a techne premised not on numbers and maps, but on visuality, aesthetics, religious iconography, and the like? I’m reminded here of Bernard Cohn’s insistence that besides censuses and surveys, which he called an “enumerative modality,” a certain “observational modality” also backed British imperial rule. This observational modality operates by training particular ways of seeing based on codes of appearance, dress, and speech. People and places hence become locatable within well-defined grids of intelligibility based not on a calculative techne of survey registries, caste lists, or ID cards (which of course continue to matter), but rather on these more embodied categories of distinction. These were precisely the categories that influenced how state actors confronted and read the rural clients described in Red Tape: a peasant clad in dirty clothes garnered far snider responses from state workers than did a client donning a crisp kurta-pyjama.

Second, I have a question about the relationship between inscription and transparency. The chapter on narratives of corruption concludes with a call for a new politics of transparency: a mechanism that Gupta suggests might allow the poor to more clearly see into, and thus make claims upon, the state.[2] Yet, wouldn’t such a politics of transparency leave out the illiterate populations whose modes of seeing the state are not based on reading and writing? If transparency is itself an operation of inscriptional translation, as I understand it to be, wouldn’t this then call into question the claim made in the literacy chapter that illiteracy does not in itself restrict the capacity for political action?

Finally, when the instruments for classifying and inscribing populations into the bureaucracy are themselves productive of bare life, as the book suggests, I wondered if a politics of transparency, dependent as it is on inscription, might not in fact deepen poor people’s “structurally given role” as “the poor.” Indeed, in many contexts in contemporary India, opacity is a greater asset than transparency. For example, a squatter camp’s ability to occupy public land or a poor household’s ability to access electricity through an illegal electricity connection is often premised on illegibility. Making visible such populations and the forms of state connection they enjoy can make them prone to the violence transparency campaigns often promise to reduce.

As I hope is clear, Red Tape will force any reader to rethink how they understand violence, bureaucracy, and technologies of government. While providing important answers on the role of narratives of corruption, bureaucratic writing, and state space, it also opens up a whole array of new questions for future research. In this way, it represents a valuable resource to anyone interested in the politics of development or ethnographic research more generally. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on this impressive text, and I expect it to have an enduring influence in development studies and human geography. 


[1] For example, Finance Minister Chidambaram’s quote that “the faster we grow and the more inclusive that growth is, the decline in poverty will be rapid. I’m confident we can wipe out poverty by 2040” (pages 15-16) is criticized not for the lie that poverty is naturally disappearing due to growth, but because 2040 is too late a date to eradicate poverty.

[2] “It is critical that pressure be brought from below to make state institutions more responsive and transparent… Internationally mobile narratives of efficiency and transparency will simply not accomplish that goal [revaluing the state-citizen relations] without tapping into meanings that have salience in the everyday lives of common people” (page 138). 


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