Red Tape is written with matchless clarity and deliberation, and brims with ethnographic insight. More importantly, it is a profoundly moral book that joins outrage with cold-eyed analysis of abject poverty that kills. Gupta’s book never minces words. Red Tape opens with an admirable directness that the reader quickly recognizes as one of the book’s hallmarks. Gupta writes: “Any study of the state in India must try to address one central puzzle. Why has a state whose proclaimed motive is to foster development failed to help the large number of people who still live in dire poverty?” (page 3). An excellent question for the human sciences, but then comes the moral denouement:

I insist that the life-denying consequences of chronic poverty, far from receiving too much attention, have in fact largely disappeared from public discussion. More important, despite the rhetorical importance given to the eradication of poverty in government policy pronouncements, the 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 (page 4).

Much of the book is devoted to resolving the afore-stated puzzle through a compelling, ethnographically thick argument that connects bureaucratic actions to the persistence of poverty. The argument is anchored by a theory of the disaggregated state, which, as a heterogeneous complex of “levels and bureaus” (page 71) engages in care of the population in ways that are rule-governed yet haphazard, producing outcomes that qualify the lives of some while abandoning scores of others to a dismal fate. Again, Gupta exactly combines diagnosis with condemnation in asking, “how is violence like this taken for granted in the routinized practices of state institutions such that it disappears from view and cannot be thematized as violence at all?” (page 5) That invisible violence of poverty, which curtails the life chances of millions by stunting their capabilities to function, Gupta calls “structural violence” (pages 19-26).

This “structural violence”, Gupta says, has certain distinguishing characteristics: it is impersonal, impossible to trace back to a single actor; it is built into the structure of power; it is constant rather than episodic; it revolves around an “indifference to arbitrary outcomes” (page 6); far from generating uncertainty about the “ontological foundations of the social” (as other forms of violence do), structural violence spawns “its own epistemic certainties” (page 20); it is “a crime without a criminal” that “results in the premature and untimely deaths of people”; it is about the “nature and distribution of extreme suffering” caused by the “deliberate [but not necessarily “callous or indifferent”] actions of social agents”; yet its proximate causes – a swarm of procedures, the arts of corruption, bureaucratic inscriptions, and fetishized literacy – are such that they are “not only tolerated but taken as normal” (page 21).

In sum “the overt goal of helping the poor is subverted by the very procedures of the bureaucracy”, through a “constitutive modality of the state” that Gupta terms “uncaring” (page 21).  The rub is that the deaths that result from poverty are not inevitable: “despite being preventable they are not prevented” (page 6). These are urgent and powerful claims.

Theoretical Bearings and Critique

Given the academic industry that has emerged around Michel Foucault in the form of “governmentality studies” and to a lesser extent Giorgio Agamben around “states of exception” and the production of “bare life”, Gupta’s invocation of them may cause readers to groan. But Red Tape rewards readers who persist past the initial bolt of skepticism – because while Gupta’s refiguring of state theory is indebted to the writings of Agamben and Foucault it is also a searching (postcolonial?) critique of their formulations.  The contours of his critique are as follows (and I raise questions for Gupta on the specific difference of his critiques as I enumerate them):

1. The nature of “inclusive exclusion”:  For Agamben sovereignty functions according to the logic of the exception, the privileged object of which is life. The operation of sovereignty is predicated on the government of biological life (zoe) not through the direct application of law, but through its legally authorized suspension. Furthermore, “these legal exemptions are materialized in the spatial form of the camp, which constitutes the ‘nomos of the modern’” (Barkan, 2009: 243). In short, sovereignty fabricates itself by producing a biopolitical body, which is to say by including bare life through its (paradoxical) exclusion. As Katia Genel observes:

“Bare life itself…is a juridico-political construction, not something given or a ‘‘natural, extrapolitical fact’’ (Genel, 2006: 60).

Indeed, the originary enactment of a caesura, where some are made the “objects of protection” (and qualification) while others are “destined to die with utter impunity” is at the heart of Agamben’s ontology of sovereignty.  As an aside, it is worth noting that in his discussion of “racism” in “Society Must Be Defended” (2003 [1997]) Foucault also evokes the thanatopolitical dimension of biopower but, unlike Agamben, Foucault’s account is historical-archeological not ontological.[1]

Gupta wants to do nothing less than rethink the operation of sovereign power in the context of post-Independence India’s developmental state. Bare life in the form of life-denying poverty is produced, he says, but not by suspension of the law, rather, through the banal procedures of bureaucracy:  

“Contra Agamben…the paradox of the violence of poverty in India is that the poor are killed despite their inclusion in projects of national sovereignty and despite their centrality to democratic politics and state legitimacy” (page 6). The notion that inclusion can also kill is an especially important qualification to Agamben’s thesis. Gupta points to a potentially limiting assumption in Foucault and Agamben, namely that both “draw upon a theory of a strongly unified state apparatus to make their arguments about biopolitics and sovereignty, respectively” (page 41).

This turns out be key to his bold claim:

Useful as Agamben’s idea of bare life is for understanding the plight of the very poor in India, the integral connection between the state of exception and the production of bare life is much less persuasive. One reason could be that for Agamben the state of exception depends on a strong theory of sovereignty and a powerfully unified state apparatus…. If, by contrast, one considers a situation characterized by fragmented, dispersed, or overlapping sovereignties, and a state that is pluricentered, multileveled, and decentralized, it becomes much harder to mobilize the theoretical dualisms that characterize Agamben’s relationship between the state of exception and bare life (pages 17-18).

Question: Gupta’s discussion of Agamben brings up a question that has bothered me for some time; Red Tape erupts the itch into an open sore. Agamben describes his approach as a “paradigmatic ontology”. Thus, controversially, the “camp,” according to Agamben, is the paradigm (neither particular nor universal, but singular) that characterizes “the new planetary space in which the exception has become the rule” (Agamben, 2000: 139). It is no coincidence that Gupta’s first ethnographic example in Red Tape (Gupta, pages 8-14) is of a camp (to provide pensions to indigent, elderly people). While extremely effective in illustrating the “indifference to arbitrary outcomes” of block development personnel over the course of that event, is it really valid to characterize the applicants who are excluded as “bare life”?  I think there is a real danger here of traveling with Agamben’s concept without either: a) being attentive to Agamben’s ontological – not historical, not anthropological – rendering of sovereignty and its symmetrical other, bare life; or b) accounting for the mechanism(s) by which a paradigm (in Agamben’s usage) becomes planetary.

This is of special concern because Gupta, in much of the book, is admirably exact in spelling out his theoretical vocabulary (the exemplary discussion of “structural violence” being a case in point). Concepts have analytic traction when they can discriminate what exists “inside” them and what lies “outside”.  Consider “bare life”. In the final chapter of Homo Sacer, Agamben evokes the figure of the bandit who “has been excluded from the religious community and from all political life”:

“[H]is entire existence,” Agamben notes, “is reduced to a bare life stripped of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide; he can save himself only in perpetual flight or a foreign land. And yet he is in a continuous relationship with the power that banished him precisely insofar as he is at every instant exposed to an unconditioned threat of death” (Agamben, 1998: 183).

While it is true that there is morphological similarity here between India’s poor and the bandit – both confront the specter of “premature and untimely death” (page 4) – are they in fact of the same order ontologically? Are the poor in India “bare life” in the manner of, say, the Jews in Nazi concentration camps or Guantanamo detainees?  This brings me to Gupta’s second substantive critique in Red Tape.

2. Biopolitics and sovereignty are cultural constructions: Thus, Gupta declares forthrightly:

Although a few studies have tried to demonstrate how the cultural content of biopolitics and sovereignty matters, the more radical project of showing that these concepts are themselves cultural constructions that have arisen within a distinct social and historical context has yet to be undertaken. The point is that one needs to reflect critically on the assumption of universality implicit in theories of biopolitics and sovereignty. Doing so will enable one to think of alternative conceptualizations and alternative claims to universality (page 43).[2]

In his astute monograph on Agamben, Leland de la Durantaye writes (and I think this is pertinent to the point I intend to raise): “It is important to pay careful attention to the terms Agamben employs here: the analogy between detainees in Guantanamo and imprisoned Jews in Nazi concentration camps concerns their “juridical situation” – the rights and recourses they have – not the political intentions of the regime in question, or the physical treatment of those indefinitely imprisoned” (de la Durantaye, 2009: 337; my emphasis).

Question: Does Agamben’s “paradigmatic ontology” of sovereignty (which has its basis in western metaphysics and politics, as Agamben repeatedly states) lend itself to anthropological critique without fundamentally altering its nature: namely, what sovereignty (and by extension, bare life) is?  Note the implication. I am not saying that “sovereignty” has only one ontological rendering; in the Indian context, Nicholas Dirk’s The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom (1987), shows otherwise. But I would contend that ontologically we are now trucking in two different “objects” and I am not sure it is possible to preserve their terms of accompaniment in any commensurable manner. Bluntly: to mobilize Agamben’s theory of sovereignty in diverse time-space coordinates, it seems to me, requires a theory of global co-constitution rather than cultural construction.

I would further argue that this missing theory of global co-constitution lies in the planetary dynamic of capitalism and in the last two centuries, capitalism qua development (Sanyal, 2007; Gidwani, 2008; Wainwright, 2008; Barkan, 2009).[3] This brings up Gupta’s third critique.

3. Biopower cannot account for the selective qualification of some lives (as bios) and abandonment of others (as zoe). Gupta is again direct in his assertion:

“As a concept, biopower does not help explain why some people in dire poverty receive help while others do not. Why are some people allowed to die while others are enabled to live?”(page 16).

Shortly after, on the same page, Gupta writes:

“The bigger criticism of the idea of biopower is that in emphasizing managerial approaches to the population, it fails to address adequately questions of violence.  If managing the population perpetrates violence on the poor, how is the form of violence in biopower different from other types of violence?”(page 16)

Question: Given that poverty and its life-denying attributes everywhere show certain endemic patterns (in India, tribals, dalits, Muslims, widowed women, etc. are likely to be poorer than average) can we in fact say that the violence of poverty reveals bureaucracy’s “indifference to arbitrary outcomes”?  Would not a theory of “racism” – as variously posed by contemporary Dalit rights activists around the nature of Hindu caste society; by Foucault in Society Must Be Defended; or Etienne Balibar in his discussion of racism and nationalism in Race, Nation, Class – reveal that biopower has a thanatopolitical dimension that is non-arbitrary, that biopower persistently operates as biopolitics (always effecting a caesura in the body politic)?

Indeed, this brings up an empirical-methodological point that Gupta has no doubt anticipated: given that Uttar Pradesh, the site of Gupta’s fieldwork, has witnessed an impressive upsurge in lower-caste political mobilization (notably, the rise of SP and BSP) since Gupta conducted the bulk of his research in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has the incidence of poverty along axes such as caste and class changed?  If so, does this alter his conclusions on the workings of bureaucracy and biopower? (These are matters Gupta does not address in either Chapter 7 or the Epilogue, the two segments of the book that deal most directly with the contemporary context.)

Correspondingly, how does Gupta contrast his claims about the disaggregated state, structural violence and poverty with Partha Chatterjee’s thesis in Politics of the Governed (and elsewhere)? To wit, Chatterjee in his well-known argument contends the Indian state, hamstrung by limited resources, operates in a peculiar mode. It confronts a population of which the majority is de facto denied the full privileges of citizenship. Chatterjee employs the analytic “political society” to characterize this population. But since the state cannot afford to address this population on uniform terms, it necessarily addresses itself serially to informal representations by excluded groups on terms that are particularistic. Community, Chatterjee suggests, is the mode through which the state negotiates with groups who find themselves outside the ambit of formal citizenship rights. There are no fixed or rational protocols of negotiation. Rather the terrain of negotiation is given by a fluid set of norms. This rather odd sort of liberalism is one that continuously produces sets of vulnerable citizen-subjects who are assured of neither status. Nevertheless, by making themselves visible to the state as moral communities groups are able to stake claim to development resources: thereby transforming nominal inclusion but effective exclusion into more effective inclusion.

Gupta appears to waver between disquiet (page 78) and endorsement (page 107) of Chatterjee’s concept of political society, and does not directly confront Chatterjee’s thesis on the community-based modality of claims making by political society. This led me to wonder: Is Gupta demonstrating the limits of such claims making (“the politics of the poor” as Chatterjee puts it)? Is he exposing a drawback in Chatterjee’s formulation of state and governmental power? Gupta hints at his dissatisfaction with the “analytical mopping up” that a term like “political society” performs, suggesting that it does not have enough granularity to capture the dynamics of violence against the poor. He calls for “ more, rich ethnographic evidence that documents what lower-level officials actually do in the name of the state” (page 78), but does not return to Chatterjee’s trifecta of state-civil society-political society. This brings up a fourth major critique in Red Tape.

4. Is there a biopolitics at all? Chapter 6 in Red Tape on literacy and writing is one of book’s most compelling. There, discussing counterfeit writing, Gupta muses:

“The biopolitical project of managing the population depends on good, that is, reliable, trustworthy, accurate statistical data on the population that is to be managed. In the absence of such data, it is doubtful if it make sense to even talk about biopolitics” (page 228).

While this is, perhaps, the most forceful of Gupta’s assertions, a general agnosticism about the effectiveness of biopolitics pervades the book.

Hence, the reader is witness to statements like this:

“An analysis of data collection methods…might very well lead one to conclude that statistics are not very effective as an instrument of biopolitics.  Ethnographic observation of how statistical data is collected about subjects, therefore, can serve as an important mechanism for understanding the effectiveness of biopolitics” (page 42).

“Collecting statistics for the sake of compiling them may have more to do with representing the state as singular than with biopolitics because the effectiveness of biopolitics depends on a correspondence between the numbers and the phenomenon being mapped” (page 49).

Question: While the work of Bernard Cohn, James C. Scott, and others shows the tight coupling of (bio)power/knowledge, I wonder how much “accurate statistical data” impacts the vital rationalism of biopower?  Thus, the actual efficacy of development schemes (such as vaccination or contraception campaigns) will clearly hinge on the quality of demographic data. But doesn’t the greater impact of development lie in inciting the desire for development, in short, the development dispositif’s success in interpellating subjects who want the promise of a better life through development? (I am thinking, for example, of the “cunning of reason” that operates in Tanya Murray Li’s The Will To Improve, where development’s “prickly subjects” nonetheless perpetuate its workings.) [4]

While I have raised numerous questions for Gupta in this commentary they are, all said and done, churlish salvos at a book as accomplished and pleasurable to read as Red Tape. Akhil Gupta has produced a tour-de-force: an argument that is ambitious, erudite, bold, and, best of all, generative to think with. I hope he will understand my questions as a thinking-with, an exercise in self-clarification as much as (in the best sense of the term) a critique. 


[1] See pages 80-83 and 254-263 in “Society Must Be Defended” (the latter are particularly instructive). Thus, Foucault asks at one point, “What in fact is racism?” His answer: “It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die. The appearance within the biological continuum of the human race of races, the distinction among races, the fact that certain races are described as good and that others, in contrast, are described as inferior: all that is a way of fragmenting the field of the biological that power controls.” Whereas Foucault traces this shift to the first half of the nineteenth century (page 80), in short to a historical conjuncture, Agamben by contrast makes the “break into the domain of life” a constitutive condition of sovereignty in Western metaphysics.

[2] And here is Gupta again in the same vein:

““Focusing on the discursive construction of states and social groups allows one to see that the legacy of Western scholarship on the state has been to universalize a particular construction of state-society relations in which specific notions of statehood and civil society are conjoined. Instead of building on these notions, I ask if one can demonstrate their provincialism in the face of incommensurable cultural and historical contexts” (page 79).

[3] To venture a provisional thesis from Gidwani (2012: 278):

“Michael Cowen and Robert Shenton in Doctrines of Development (1996) have argued in a fascinating account that the modern idea of “development” as a theory of ordered progress and doctrine of trusteeship emerged in England in the social turmoil of the early 19th century, at the height of Parliamentary enclosures and mass migration of displaced peasants to cities for factory work.  It was, they contend, the answer supplied by the social sciences to the unrest of the times: a doctrine for delivering improvement minus the accompanying destruction and disruption of change.  Oddly, they are entirely silent on the massive upheavals wreaked by enclosures in the early 19th century, precisely when the doctrine of development, they say, took root.  Might the ruling-class obsession with improving waste and the stigma of backwardness they attached to commoners who depended upon them provided the soil in which the thought of development sprouted?  Might the doctrine of development have found its earliest glimmers of life in India, where colonial anxiety to bring wastelands under the plough became the gravitational impulse for various projects of improvement?”

[4] Gupta himself opens the breach: “But an approach that focuses exclusively on institutional forms, capabilities, and organizational structures misses something critical, namely, what states mean to the people who inhabit them (for example, state officials) or are interpellated by them (as subjects and citizens)” (pages 69-70) Readers may feel compelled to ask: Who is the “them” that interpellates if no unitary state exists, and if those who are cast out into poverty are homini sacri, can they be called “subjects and citizens”? 


Agamben G (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. D Heller-Roazen (trans). Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Agamben G (2000) Means Without End: Notes on Politics. V Binetti and C Casarino (trans). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Balibar E (1991) Racism and Nationalism. In: E Balibar and I Wallerstein (eds) Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. New York: Verso, pp 36-67.
Barkan J (2009) Use Beyond Value: Giorgio Agamben and a Critique of Capitalism. Rethinking Marxism 21(2): 243-259.
Chatterjee P (2004) Politics of the Governed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cohn B (1996) Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dirks N (1987) The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Durantaye L (2009) Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Foucault M (1997/2003) Society Must Be Defended. Lectures at the College De France 1975-1976. D Macey (trans). New York: Picador.
Genel K (2006) The Question of Biopower: Foucault and Agamben. Rethinking Marxism 18(1): 43-62.
Gidwani V (2008) Capital, Interrupted: Agrarian Development and the Politics of Work in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gidwani V (2012) Waste/Value. In: T Barnes et al. (eds) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Economic Geography. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp 275-288.
Li TM (2007) The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sanyal K (2007) Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality, and Post-Colonial Capitalism. London: Routledge.
Scott JC (1998) Seeing Like A State: How Certain Scheme to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Wainwright J (2008) Decolonizing Development: Colonial Power and the Maya. Oxford: Blackwell.