Partha Chatterjee


24 June 2020

The forms of liberal government that emerged after World War II are in the midst of a profound crisis. In I Am the People, Partha Chatterjee reconsiders the concept of popular sovereignty in order to explain today’s dramatic outburst of movements claiming to speak for “the people.”

To uncover the roots of populism, Chatterjee traces the twentieth-century trajectory of the welfare state and neoliberal reforms. Mobilizing ideals of popular sovereignty and the emotional appeal of nationalism, anticolonial movements ushered in a world of nation-states while liberal democracies in Europe guaranteed social rights to their citizens. But as neoliberal techniques shrank the scope of government, politics gave way to technical administration by experts. Once the state could no longer claim an emotional bond with the people, the ruling bloc lost the consent of the governed. To fill the void, a proliferation of populist leaders have mobilized disaffected groups into a battle that they define as the authentic people against entrenched oligarchy. Once politics enters a spiral of competitive populism, Chatterjee cautions, there is no easy return to pristine liberalism. Only a counter-hegemonic social force that challenges global capital and facilitates the equal participation of all peoples in democratic governance can achieve significant transformation. Drawing on thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau and with a particular focus on the history of populism in India, I Am the People is a sweeping, theoretically rich account of the origins of today’s tempests.

Partha Chatterjee is a professor of anthropology and of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies at Columbia University. He is a political theorist, political anthropologist and historian. He graduated from Presidency College, Calcutta, and received his PhD from the University of Rochester. Since 1997, he has divided his time between Columbia University and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, where he was the director from 1997 to 2007. He is the author of more than thirty books and edited volumes in English and Bengali. He was a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective.

His books include The Black Hole of Empire (2012), Lineages of Political Society (2011), Politics of the Governed (2004), A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal (2002), The Nation and Its Fragments(1993) and Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986). Chatterjee delivered the Ruth Benedict lectures in April 2018 which was published in an expanded version as I Am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (2019). His most recent book is an edition of a found manuscript entitled The Truths and Lies of Nationalism as Narrated by Charvak (2021). He is also a playwright whose play Chokher Bali (Sand in My Eye) was staged at Barnard College in 2016. A volume of seven of his Bengali plays is to be published in 2021.

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