In a co-authored article for Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, Lipin Ram, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, investigates the link between public space and the public sphere, using the example of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its spatial politics in the state of Kerala. As he explains in this interview, the article demonstrates how parties’ locations at the intersections of the state and civil society can connect the public sphere to its task of holding state power to account.
Where does the existing literature fail to understand the interaction between public space and public sphere?
Well, our critique of the existing literature in this paper is that, more often than not, theorisations of the public sphere fail to address public space in its concreteness, be it streets, malls, cafes or other spaces shared by citizens in their everyday life. There is a tendency to assume that all the nodes of the public sphere – as you know, there is a huge diversity of them, ranging from media to informal and subaltern discourses – can be captured through a monochromatic theoretical lens. If we are serious about understanding public space as an important node of the public sphere, it calls for studying the former in its ethnographic and historical specificities, and not in a way that is largely metaphorical.
Scholars that do take a non-metaphorical approach to understanding public space and its relationship to democracy often tend to focus on the various values and structures associated with urban space. We are quite sympathetic to their arguments, and agree that the values of openness, freedom, anonymity, encountering difference and so on are vital to democratic life. However, our critique of this strand of literature is that while these are all valuable markers of democratic life, they do not refer to a fundamental characteristic that public space ought to have in a democratic society: the connection to political power, or in other words, state power. Our argument, following critical theorists like Habermas, is that public space, by virtue of it being a vital node in the public sphere, ought to be performing a certain critical function with respect to the state.
You coin the term “partisan interventions”. What exactly do you mean by this concept?
“Partisan interventions” refer to sociopolitical, cultural and spatial interventions by agents who have no qualms about publicly taking a side. Their interventions are often contentious and agonistic, but also aimed at “conversion” of and “recruitment” from the audience to whom such interventions are staged. There is not a lot of room for neutrality.
For example, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala practices a certain form of discursive intervention on the streets of Kerala that draws heavily from a history of struggles, violent and otherwise, located in the past. We give empirical instances of such interventions in the paper. It is an unabashedly “one-sided” representation of the past, if you like, but the party must give its account, present its claim to legitimacy, to a wider democratic public who are there to be persuaded, not coerced. Partisans come in many shapes, but we argue that political parties like the CPIM are uniquely positioned to play the role of critical partisanship, especially in terms of their ability to bridge the gap between society and state.
Why is the CPIM a good fit to demonstrate your theorisation?
The CPIM, although much diminished in its influence in India’s national politics at the current juncture, has a long history of partisan interventions that date back to the colonial era. The 1957 communist government in Kerala was the first democratically elected communist government in the world. But more importantly, the Kerala CPIM is a good example of a political party that does not limit itself to electoral politics, that has evolved an understanding of political work encompassing the full spectrum of socio-political life, and that demands from its partisans consistent and perennial engagement with society, regardless of when the next election cycle happens to be. This is a key aspect of the conception of partisanship we advance, and this is what enables the CPIM to make the kind of spatial interventions that we delineate in the paper. Of course, the CPIM is not the only political formation that adopts this model, but the Kerala communists’ straddling of both the state and the street as realms of equal significance makes them somewhat different from the mainstream. Rather than emphasizing their uniqueness in the political spectrum, what we are interested in is specifying and elaborating the specific modality of political activism – which we call partisanship – which they seem to represent in Kerala.
Lastly, could you briefly share with us the research trajectory of your article?
This article has been a very long time coming, and it took loads of patience from us before it could see the light of the day. It was also the gradual outcome of long-term intellectual collaboration and personal friendship with my co-author, David Jenkins, who is a political theorist, although my own disciplinary background is that of a social anthropologist. The empirical research underpinning this article overlaps with my doctoral research spanning several years, although the spatial dimensions of partisanship that we develop here draws from focused visits to certain critical locations, such as Kayyur, that we sketch in detail in the article. An important question for us in the process of research and writing of this article has been the negotiation and productive re-conciliation of distinct disciplinary orientations that we both brought to the table. This is an ongoing process in our collaboration, something that we will continue to grapple with in the coming years, as our broader research agenda centred on partisanship and political activism takes shape in the future.
Full citation of the article:
Jenkins, David, and Lipin Ram. “‘Party in the Street’: The Partisan Politics of Space.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space (July 2021). https://doi.org/10.1177/23996544211033875.
Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.