A Response to Taylor's "Modes of Civil Society"

  • Chatterjee P
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Chatterjee is definitely the exile in this context of discussing civil society from the European standpoint, and it makes his argument so strong. He starts out by summarizing Taylor's argument about the significant difference between the self-determining individual will and the community as a single determinate form. I think Chatterjje puts this latter community argument a little too antagonistically for Taylor is just saying, with Montesqieu, that the civil society should be permeated by politics - this does not exclude the possibility for amphibious associations. However, the point in this essay is that contrary to Taylor's history of civil society as containing the uneasy cohabitance of a belief in primordial rights on one hand and the stressing of the politization of all rights and aspects of life on the other is forgetting the surpressed voice of community. He reads Hegel, who Taylor is so inspired by, to show that some places in his 'Philosophy of Right' tributes to community surface but are immediately repressed in the discussion of individual rights, even if he tries to include a residual category providing for contingencies still lurking, eg. that everything is subjective. The same applies to Marx. But the contingent, contractual domain of civil society must, after all, be unified at the higher, universal level of the absolute idea of Right, and embodied in the state as THE political community. Chatterjee suggests that it is the 'suppression in modern European social theory of an independent narrative of community which makes possible both the posing of the distinction between state and civil society and the erasure of that distinction.' Furthermore, it is the specific narrative of capital that has formed these subnarratives of civil society. 'it is the narrrative of capital,' Chatterjee writes in a beautiful passages,'that can turn the violence of mercantilist trade, war, genocide, conquest, and colonialism into a story of universal progress, development, modernization, and freedom.' Within the narrative of capital, community becomes relegated to capital's prehistory, and as the capital narrative is universal so is then the community, 'gemeinschaft'. The only legitimate form of community in the modern world is the nation state and it too sits uneasily with the narrative of capital. Unlike the West, however, the colonized subjects did not embrase the public sphere, and the civil society - because their narrative was one of a different community, a spiritual or religious one - which came to be framed as culture. Gandhi is a good example. Two last quotes: "The modern state, embedded as it is within the universal narrative of capital, cannot recognize within its jurisdiction any form of community except the single, determinate, demographically enumerable form of the nation. It must therefore subjugate, by the use of state violence if necessary, all such aspirations of community identity." And: "The provincialism of the European experience will be taken as the universal history of progress; by comparison, the history of the rest of the world will appear as the history of lack, of inadequacy - an inferior history." His critique of the west is highly relevant and forgetting the place capital had in the development of stateformation is narrowminded, too. He would probably interprete the Communitarianists as just one such repressed voice of a return to community. But even if the focus has been on rights rather than associations and responsibility, today communities span across the entire public sphere playing on unlike identites like those of gay or fathers, black, Indians - you name it. This is definitely the community-aspiration raising its voice. No discourse is ever the only power and times change.

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  • P. Chatterjee

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