TM3 – Critiques and Renewals of Democracy

Module Outline:

Democracy and attendant invocations of ‘the people’ have now become virtually the only legitimate form of governance across the globe. Yet the idea that actually existing democracies require rehauling has also been repeatedly raised. They have failed to live up to the ideals of the people, they are democratic in name only, the greed for political power has overwhelmed a commitment to the people’s welfare: these and similar concerns have lain at the heart of an unprecedented number of social movements and political parties—in the Global South since the end of the 19th century through to the present day, and in the Global North since at least the end of the Cold War—and they share a demand for the reform and indeed the ‘renewal’ of democracy. This module’s aim is to examine the forms, politics, and concrete social effects of the movements and parties that rely on these critical premises, and that therefore, in their own self-representation, constitute an ‘outside’ to formal democratic systems. In this way, the module addresses a core problem in the thematic of political metamorphoses, ICAS-MP’s guiding research area: we will map how and by whom the very boundaries of ‘democracy proper’ are drawn and redrawn.
While a clear separation and opposition between electoral/formal/elite politics and extra-electoral/informal/subaltern politics is often assumed, we contend that it is difficult to validate such a divide empirically. These binaries are in fact mutually constituted in conflictual political arenas: they are the outcomes rather than the given grounds of politics. Through multidisciplinary research embedded in comparison across regions, our module will rethink the often exclusive focus on the political present in current thinking on the crisis of representative democracy by examining the histories of how ‘the people’ and their relation to ‘politics’ and ‘power’ have been elicited and elaborated across time.
We will do this by
(1) charting the sources of political cynicism, anger, and distrust, and analyzing their often violent effects on democratic politics;
(2) undertaking a sustained examination of the distinctive projects and imaginaries of ‘political reform’ that have emerged in democracies over time, with a specific focus on innovations in agency (i.e. the emergence of new authoritative institutions and actors of political intermediation such as the courts, media, civil society, ‘epistemic communities’ of transnational expertise), new concepts of scale (i.e. efforts to animate political sovereignty at the level of the urban, the local or the transnational), and new concepts of democratic ecologies (i.e. efforts that engage with the environmental and non-human relations that constitute and embed democratic politics);
(3) examining changing modes and aesthetics of the circulation of political thought and practice, e.g. the rise of mediatized politics and the renewed role of public violence in democratic life;
(4) contributing to the development of a non-binary political theory of democracy.
India, the country where one-third of the globe’s democratic citizens presently reside, and which has a rich tradition of intellectual inquiry and empirical experimentations with various ‘vernacular’ innovations of democratic form and practice, provides an ideal venue for our investigation.
During the main phase of ICAS-MP the module will engage four main research topics through annual workshops, individual fellowship projects, and collaborative research projects. Each of these will addressed by a collaborative research working group composed of module members:
(1) Violence and Inequality in the Global South, examines the range of relationships among political formations, racial capitalism and state violence.  By comparatively analyzing minoritization projects led by the state as well as by citizens, we aim to historicize state-sponsored racial regimes and racialized labour segmentation in a variety of national contexts.
(2) Democratic ecologies and agricultures
The narrative of achieving food sovereignty is crucial to the story of India’s emergence as an independent nation-state.  Yet, farmers continue to grapple with acute agrarian distress and hunger and malnutrition remain central to the lives of millions of citizens.  This WG explores food production and consumption as sites of biological and cultural reproduction and change.  It focuses on contestations around agriculture and agrarian environments, farmers as a political formation and forms of consumer citizenship.
(3) Extrapolitics: Law, Media, Movements explores how the boundaries of the normatively political are constructed and contested by various groups of citizens, branches of the state, law, and media.
(4) Cities and Sustainability explores the changing political and social contexts and infrastructures of urban politics.

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