Elements of Politics

Elementary Aspects of the Political: Histories from the Global South, by Prathama Banerjee (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Whitney Russell, University of Massachusetts Amherst

In Elementary Aspects of the Political Prathama Banerjee offers a new and compelling way to ask how any definition of the political comes to be formulated in the first place. While the title might set the expectation that Banerjee herself will propose a new definition of politics, this is not her intention. Instead, Banerjee shows how non-European perspectives render visible the non-universality of the political, and especially the ways in which a notion of politics emerges through differentiation from whatever is non-political in a given historical moment. Rather than looking to reclaim a non-European notion of politics (which she notes has already been done by postcolonial political theorists), Banerjee is looking at the history of political theory in the context of colonialism to understand how the political, versus the social, becomes thinkable as a category of life. The text, therefore, is not focused on redefining politics, but on how a notion of the political comes into being.

Banerjee draws from postcolonial theory to explain how “the political” gets drawn out of “the social” only under certain historical conditions. For instance, colonial thinkers saw politics as something that only existed in advanced societies; so-called “primitive” societies were assumed to have no politics at all until the society had reached an advanced level of civilization. Banerjee suggests in response not that politics are universal, but that any time politics are carved out of the social this is an outcome of particular ways of thinking about (and making assumptions about) four “elementary aspects of the political.” These “elementary aspects” are cast in the mold of Emile Durkheim’s and Ranajit Guha’s engagements with the “elementary,” indicating foundational materials that are not composed of anything else. Elementary particles are substance without substructure, and this is the ground from which Banerjee is thinking about the political.

Banerjee suggests all conceptualizations of politics are composed of four elementary aspects: the self, action, idea, and people. She sees these elements as “codified entities that actively resist further decomposition—for, once decomposed or disassembled, they no longer appear as political” (13). She seems to take the scientific metaphor further to think about these four elementary aspects as composite subatomic particles, in that each is the outcome of tensions between two of their own aspects. Banerjee focuses the reader’s attention on this productive tension to demonstrate the processes and operations that make these tensions into politics. The self, for instance, is a formed between renunciation and the antisocial being on one hand, and philosophy, theater, and realpolitik on the other. Action is the outcome of tension between karma, freedom, and everyday life, on one hand,  and labor, hunger, and struggle, on the other. Equality and spirituality are positioned against equality and economic reason to form the idea. Finally, a people is formed in the tension between people as party and people as fiction. Banerjee sees politics as made up around these four elementary aspects of self, action, idea, and people, all of which are produced through paired tensions. As understandings of each component shift in time and space, the political takes on new and different definitions.

Banerjee also has a secondary ambition that is apparent in the subtitle; to challenge what it means to do theory from the global South. As noted above, Banerjee writes that postcolonial theorists have already provincialized Europe and outlined the limitations of thinking about politics through European political philosophy. Elementary Aspects of the Political  is not just about claiming or defining a non-European political theory, but aims to create new ways of thinking about politics. The text is about India, but is meant to open to other perspectives from other vantage points within the global South. Banerjee invites readers to ask, for instance: What is the self in Africa? Who are the people in Latin America? This, she proposes, is the way to think about the “global South” in political theory; while the “elementary aspects” may be universal, their characteristics and combinations are not, and a diversity of histories from the global South will deepen an analysis of how any given “political” comes to be. 

Banerjee is a historian and political theorist, and her text draws from many fields and disciplines, including religious studies, literature, and performance. With the exception of Veena Das, anthropologists mostly appear as colonial researchers of “primitive” societies. Yet Banerjee’s analysis speaks to several concerns in anthropology more generally, and political anthropology in particular. For instance, anthropologists are often seeking ways in which to get outside established concepts and categories, and Banerjee achieves this with ambition and detail. Political anthropologists may find some of her elementary aspects of the political more readily applicable to their thinking and projects than others. Chapters 3 and 4 on Action, for instance, offer a fascinating way of thinking about how the political cannot and should not be equated to action alone, despite the ease with which political action is described as “activism” and its doers as “activists.” In these chapters, Banerjee follows the Hindu notion of karma to explain how political action came to be differentiated from the actions of everyday life, but only by rethinking labor as a form of struggle. This way of conceptualizing what kinds of human activities are political, and how and why, should be useful to anyone grappling with changing notions of politics.

Elementary Aspects of the Political is, it must be said again, a book about India. Even scholars working in other parts of South Asia might occasionally feel lost amidst its arguments, which sometimes demand specific familiarity with a wide range of Indian religion, art, and culture. Yet Banerjee offers a framework that anyone interested in building political theory anew, regardless of regional expertise, may wish to consider. She suggests that “the question really is about what kinds of conceptual insights and conceptual personae of global salience emerge from a faithful study of southern realities” (22). If that is indeed the question, then it is one shared with many political anthropologists. Banerjee offers an outline of the elementary aspects of the political, and leaves it open as an invitation to better political theorizing.