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Review: Demography and Democracy

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[Himani Bannerji. Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2011.]

Himani Bannerji’s latest collection, Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology, builds a rich picture of the themes listed in the subtitle by passing through a broad range of other topics – early 20th century Indian novels, individual and social development, religion, and the discipline of sociology, just to name a few. (For reviews of earlier books by her, see here and here.) Bannerji, until recently a Professor of Sociology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, writes with a passionate commitment to marxism, anti-racism, and feminism, and applies a distinctive social ontology and epistemology derived from the work of feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith and from Bannerji’s own adaptation of Marx’s ideas. For me, it is this open, grounded, and expansive epistemology that means that even when particular passages edge towards the polemic or the schematic, the core ideas remain solid, relevant, and useful, often far beyond the presenting situations for which she develops them.

One central message of the book is that the meaning, shape, and impact of nationalism depends on the social relations which constitute the nation in question. Along with the important distinction between colonial and anti-colonial nationalisms, she also divides the latter among bourgeois liberal, bourgeois illiberal, and national liberation forms. She is clear that, contrary to Western stereotypes, the liberal/illiberal division does not map onto some kind of West/East divide but rather both kinds of regimes are found in both areas of the world. Nor does it correspond to a modern-and-colonial versus anti-modern-and-anti-colonial divide, as both sorts of postcolonial states are entirely modern and are integrated into the world system. She argues, moreover, that all colonial nationalisms (that is, imperialisms) and all anti-colonial nationalisms that refuse to break with capitalist relations of property depend on and indeed are organized in important ways around the domination of women – which is not to say that there are no important political differences among them, just that none can ever be sufficient to meet the needs of women.

The first essay of the collection explores the rise to power of the hindu right in India in light of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony and cultural struggle. This essay feels like a good instance of what seems to be a deliberate choice to centre non-Western contexts in producing ideas meant to be much more broadly applicable, in an inversion of the usual practice of North American and European intellectuals. In this instance, her analysis of the rise of right-wing religious and cultural politics in South Asia are very relevant to cultural struggle ongoing, in different ways, in both the United States and Canada. Similarly, her exploration of struggle in India and Israel/Palestine over demographics and reproduction as a central element of cultural nationalism, including the corresponding violence against women, offers powerful tools for thinking about aspects of racialized demographic struggle in Canadian history – Bonita Lawrence’s analysis in ‘Real’ Indians and Others of systematic demographic attacks on indigenous nations and people through the Indian Act and other measures springs to mind.

It is her challenges to other feminists and to the non-marxist postcolonial scholars of the Subaltern Studies school that are the most polemic parts of the book. In the former instance, her focus is feminist authors and activists engaged in international work who have settled for or always been committed to coalitional politics across difference (and borders) that are focused on mutually agreeable remedial projects but not fundamental social transformation. While she emphatically agrees that “women of both the first and third world have not achieved their full citizenships,” she goes on to conclude, “If they are to be fully entitled social and political beings their struggles against proprieties of patriarchy must rest on struggles against all relations of property, relations that extend from ownership of women – their reproductive and labouring bodies – to all the social relations that form class, capital, and imperialism” (126). With the Subaltern Studies group, it is the polarization between marxist and non-marxist (often Foucauldian) postcolonial scholars into which her work fits. She traces the intellectual evolution of that school and focuses particularly on the work of Partha Chatterjee to demonstrate that “by separating culture from economy and society and constructing and entrenching a unifying cultural essence, and postulating a national community upon that, it erases existing social relations and ideologies of difference, most importantly those of class-caste and patriarchy” (171). While I find Bannerji’s arguments convincing in both cases, my impression – perhaps misinformed – is that particularly for the latter there might be more room for exchange and mutual insight between Foucauldian and marxist postcolonial scholars than either side sometimes allows, in ways that would be in no danger of compromising feminist and revolutionary commitments such as Bannerji’s. It would be particularly interesting to see a marxist with the analysis of knowledge production that Bannerji holds engaging in some of that finer-grained sifting.

The most important, and very uncharacteristic, moment of lack of nuance in the book is around the ways in which Bannerji develops her typology of anti-colonial nationalisms. Her arguments regarding the liberal and illiberal bourgeois variants are keen and insightful, and they both inform and emerge from her analyses of South Asia, Israel/Palestine, and elsewhere. Yet she presents no instances of grounded analysis of her favoured option, the national liberation flavour of anti-colonial nationalism. While I am inclined to agree with her that neither women’s liberation nor liberation from capital can come about without the other, the lack of grounded analysis of examples makes her insistence that this path contains the answer less convincing than it could be for people not already inclined towards anti-capiatlism, particularly given the limitations in overcoming both capital and gender oppression in all examples of national liberation struggles that the world has yet seen. It also avoids the need to address very sticky questions about whether the state form, however revolutionary its seizure, can ever be meaningfully repurposed from its current integral role in organizing oppressive social relations. To be fair, it feels like the two essays towards the end of the book which make use of her analysis of the novels and political writing of Rabindranath Tagore (a Bengali novelist, poet, and intellectual active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) begin to edge towards such questions, with her exploration of his simultaneous opposition to both colonialism and nationalism. Though his analysis is clearly liberal, she just as clearly wants to find ways to add its best elements to the more grounded marxist approach that she sees as necessary for liberation.

Those who are studying questions of gender and nationalism, or who are engaged in working against right-wing cultural nationalisms wherever they occur, will benefit from the ideas that Bannerji presents in this book.

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews. Scott has two books of Canadian history entered through the words of activists coming out in Fall 2012 from Fernwood Press.]

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