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he provocative question at the heart of this book is how to explain the seeming indifference to the untimely deaths of two million people per year in India due to malnutrition and morbidity. Building upon theorists such as Paul Farmer, Gupta gives a compelling argument for understanding these missing millions as a casualty of structural violence waged against the poor. Violence that "should be considered exceptional” is normalized, he asserts (page 5). What makes such violence invisible? Moreover, how is structural violence actually produced? Gupta offers a nuanced ethnography that focuses on the underlying violence of everyday encounters between bureaucratic officials and the poor in India.
My comments on this book are directed at both the theoretical positioning, as well as the empirical claims. Theoretically, Gupta takes on both Foucault and Agamben in his analysis of how "biopolitics operates through ‘normal’ bureaucratic procedures in ways that depoliticize killing the poor" (page 279). Much of Gupta's analysis (especially Part Four, explicitly titled "Governmentality") is shaped by Foucault's notion of biopower, understood as a disciplinary control over individual bodies linked to control over the population as a whole. Yet, he astutely moves beyond Foucault by noting that biopower understood through a managerial focus does not explain why some people get killed and others don't. Gupta observes that the latent violence implicit in biopower is under-theorized in Foucault's work.
Many theorists have turned to Agamben to think about the relationship between violence and sovereignty. Agamben constructs the figure of the homo sacer as being both inside and outside the law, a person (or a class of people) who can be killed but whose killing does not violate the law; in other words, they are expendable. Gupta offers a useful extension of Agamben, asking: can the poor who are allowed to die be thought of as homo sacri, since their killing is neither punished nor punishable? Violence in this case happens without the suspension of the Constitution or the imposition of a state of emergency. The deaths of the poor, Gupta asserts, are "outside the orbit of violation, punishment, and restitution, [hence] they represent life that can be killed without being considered a sacrifice—exactly what Agamben means by 'sacred life'" (page 17).
Gupta offers several essential critiques of Agamben, however. First, Agamben's state of exception is dependent on a unified state apparatus, while for Gupta the state is fragmented and pluricentered. Here, though, I want to focus on what Gupta's critiques of Agamben can tell us about the study of violence. Gupta highlights the need to explain the simultaneous acceptance of violence against the poor even while popular sovereignty is constituted through them, as was the case in India. That is, he rejects the dualisms inherent in Agamben's relationship between sacred or bare life and the state of exception as a sovereign act. Forms of belonging coexist with the production of bare life, Gupta argues. This is a necessary corrective; as Miriam Tiktin reminds us:
"to identify bare life as apolitical or outside of politics is to assume that one understands what politics looks like a priori...to close down the interval for action of those least likely to be seen as political subjects” (Tiktin, 2011, page 14).
Gupta's critiques of Foucault and Agamben highlight two key insights of this book. First, contra Agamben, Gupta argues that violence is produced not through exclusion, but via inclusion in state policies. Second, Gupta rejects both Foucault's and Agamben's framework of disciplinary power as inherently rational and organized. Instead, in his ethnographic examination of how development programs actually function, he emphasizes the role of contingency and the production of arbitrariness among state bureaucrats who deal with the poor. The ethnography ranges from a close-up observation of the discourses of corruption, to a study of writing as a form of everyday state action on the poor, to an analysis of two development programs for aid to the poor and the empowerment of women. Taken together, these ethnographic sites offer a processual account of structural violence, not just an exposé of its outcomes. Gupta focuses on the production of arbitrariness as a contingent and “controlled chaos" (page 14) that explains a form of killing made possible and normalized by state policies.
Overall, I find Gupta's arguments persuasive, especially the critique of Agamben's idea of bare life:
"The exercise of sovereignty was not built on exclusions, on the contrary, it was predicated on including the poor in the nation-state" (page 248).
Gupta's extension of the concept of bare life to those killed by structural violence is provocative, although ambiguous and at times contradictory. Despite the early critiques of the concept of bare life as reproducing an agentless subject, a scenario Gupta recognizes does not conform to the political history of subaltern groups in India, bare life reappears throughout the book. The introduction to Part Four, for example, asserts the author's goal of looking at "the everyday practices of specific programs aimed at the most vulnerable sections of the population...that may help one understand how bare life is constituted through programs that aim to include the economically and socially marginal into the sovereign body of the nation-state through development" (page 238). Is "bare life" a useful category of analysis in the end? Or does it occlude the vitally important political processes that operate at the margins between inclusion and exclusion? Does it reproduce the very bifurcation against which Gupta is arguing?
Giving more rein to the ethnographic story could have clarified these questions a bit. In several places throughout the book, we are told that paradoxical and contradictory processes are at play, but we don't see enough of this. For example, on page 276 we read that Mahila Samahha draws on Paulo Freire, hinting that there may be some empowerment actually happening with this program. I would have liked to see more on the contested meanings of these development projects. Gramsci makes a slight appearance (page 108) as a way to explain the contradictions and "divergent pulls" of the multiple state agencies and bureaucracies, as well as the contested terrain of public representation; perhaps we should have seen more of Gramsci and less of Agamben in the conceptual framework. Moreover, we are told in the introduction that the poor in India are politicized, and in Part Three, Gupta argues that "political literacy" is more important for the poor than functional literacy, yet we don't get much of a sense of what this political literacy is. What else is going on in the villages that might help explain people's attitudes toward the state, above and beyond their arbitrary encounters with bureaucrats?
At times, the argument about arbitrariness seems contradictory. Gupta notes that for Agamben, it is not only individuals, but classes of people who become homo sacer. Those who will be killed must first be known and separated, and Parts Three and Four detail these processes of inscription, enumeration, regulation, and accountability. Obviously, Gupta is arguing that there is a systematic logic to the production of arbitrary outcomes in poor people's interactions with the bureaucratic state. Yet, to fully understand this arbitrariness in historical and ethnographic terms, we need a fuller sense of who these bureaucrats are and the factors that inform their actions.
For example, Gupta acknowledges that arbitrariness can be compassionate as well as punitive. In one instance, he describes how a supervisor declines to fire a subordinate for missing work due to illness (page 258). This example provides an interesting window to understanding contingency and the motivations behind the actions of bureaucrats, and it indicates the rich potential of letting just a bit more of the ethnographic story peek through. This anecdote also highlights a broader issue in the book, and that is the need for more theorization of contingency. Perhaps if we knew a bit more about who these bureaucrats are, we might understand in a deeper way the forces and processes that produce such seemingly "arbitrary" actions. The decision to curtail the ethnographic story in some keys ways impoverishes the theoretical framework.
Nevertheless, the empirical sections of the book are powerful, especially the sections on corruption and inscription. The final section of the book focuses on an analysis of the neoliberal state and the specificities of the neoliberal restructuring, making the point that one can't read national processes from global discourses of neoliberal governmentality. In important ways, this chapter traces the violence back to its source. When coupled with the epilogue, this section of the book takes us back to the central analytical dilemma in the study of structural violence, namely, how to discern questions of power, agency, and responsibility.
The epilogue entwines a discussion of economic restructuring with latent and overt violence, by showing how structural violence and armed violence merge in the form of a new enclosure movement linked to India's neoliberal development trajectory. The poor are allowed to die but are also killed by "an unofficial displacement that does not even allow them recognition as victims of development" (page 289). The land rush Gupta describes is mirrored in much of the world, a result of rising food and fuel prices, financial speculation, peak oil, and the aggressive expansion of extractive industries. In India, as in Latin America and elsewhere, an anachronistic state discourse equates resistance to the dispossession with terrorism, and this is used as a pretext to force thousands of indigenous people from their homes.
The temptation is to see these processes of violent displacement as producing a new form of bare life, "as homo sacer, those who can be killed without sacrifice, inside and outside the law” (page 290). In Latin America, however, these spectacular forms of violence often foster strong political coalitions that transcend but also reconfigure the nation-state. They also produce a kind of hypervisibility that occludes the more mundane, grinding patterns of structural violence (Patterson-Markowitz, Oglesby and Marston 2012). Finally, the violence of armed conflicts raises a set of issues around accountability, prosecution and justice (Oglesby and Ross 2009), which would be fascinating to take up in the context of analyzing structural violence.
Gupta's processual approach to understanding structural violence offers a compelling corrective to a literature that often presents an overly static, agentless picture. My caveats aside, this book will stand as a landmark study.