Monday, October 19

Transnational STS Research on Pharmaceutical Industry and Capitalization of Health, and What It Speaks of: Interview With Kaushik Sunder Rajan

Interview by Aybike Alkan and Öznur Karakaş
Political Economy of Technoscience (I)

Aybike Alkan and Öznur Karakaş interviewed Kaushik Sunder Rajan whom we had hosted in Istanbul in April 2019 as part of a series of events we organized. Sunder Rajan is faculty at Chicago University Anthropology Department and continues to study science and technology critically with a special focus on the political economies of life sciences and pharmaceuticals. After his first book (Biocapital, 2006) on the capitalist practices and discourses of the turn of the century genomic sciences in the US and India, Sunder Rajan published Pharmocracy that focuses on the political economy of health inequalities generated by the Big Pharma across the board. We believe that revisiting Sunder Rajan’s from his own words provides insight for studying and understanding the current pandemic we live by and the global inequalities regarding drug and vaccine R&D distribution from an STS lens in particular. Throughout the interview, Sunder Rajan discusses the nation-state and Euro-America centric tendencies that have been prevalent in STS intellectual genealogies and contributes to these discussions by bringing his own research background into the picture. He also talks about some of the scholars who had a deep influence on his own work both located in the US and India academic institutions with specific examples. Enjoy the read.

In your bio, you make special emphasis on your situated position as a researcher that comes from the ‘South.’ We are also especially interested in making research from the ‘South.’ What do you think of trans-national science and technology studies? How well is the ‘Southern’ reality accentuated in our field in general? Could you give us a brief idea about the history and development of the field in India?

You are asking two questions here. The first concerns my own situatedness as a researcher, while the second concerns “transnational STS” as a field of study. Of course, there are relationships between the two questions in my own intellectual trajectory, but they are distinct questions. So let me answer them separately.

As far as your first question is concerned, the answer to that cannot be one simply of identity. It cannot simply be “I am Indian, therefore I am of the South”. After all, I teach in the United States, I teach in an elite private institution in the US, so I am hardly “from the South” in terms of the institutional location from which I produce knowledge, or in which I teach. This is particularly important because, especially in the context of today’s political climate in India, the American university provides a relatively safe space.  I can go to India, engage in conversations with colleagues and comrades and activists there, and then leave. But scholars and students in the Indian university are actually fighting struggles there, in a context in which the research university itself is under attack from the state. This is a kind of context, a kind of situation, that I know you are familiar with yourself.

The question of writing “from the South”, therefore, cannot simply be one of identity: “I am Indian and therefore I can authoritatively write about India”. No. It has to be one of accountability: how is one accountable to the discursive and political terrain within which one’s work might circulate elsewhere, which is different to the discursive and political terrain of metropolitan academic circulation? This question in part is one of political situatedness: within what contexts, and alongside and to which interlocutors, is one addressing one’s work in different locales? But it is also a question of the nature of the research university. When one is a researcher from the South, teaching and writing from the metropolitan university, one is always writing to different addressees, in different political contexts and situations, producing work that circulates differently in different areas, including areas in which the university is differently positioned towards activism, advocacy or policy than it is in the US.

For me, this matters specifically in a couple of ways. The first, very simply, is that I have an ethical commitment not to betray my interlocutors in India. This is not always easy. For example: my last book, Pharmocracy, was about the politics of access to essential medicines and of unethical clinical trials, as they materialized in India. Empirically, the book is about Indian matters. However, it is also about a global political economy, as it manifests in a situated politics that concerns health and illness, life and death. Theoretically, I attempt to conceptualize elements of this global political economy to a primarily academic audience. This involves engaging, for example, with Marxian notions of value, and elaborating on how the financialization of the pharmaceutical industry has violent global effects, not just for health but also potentially for democracy. Empirically, these claims are based on ethnographic research that traces a couple of key events in pharmaceutical politics in India – a court case, or a scandal around unethical clinical trials.

When this work circulates in American (or European) academe, it speaks of deeply political things, but it is abstracted from the immediate discursive and political environment within which those politics continue to unfold, even after my work is published. In other words, even if the argument of the book is seen as political by readers in the American university, the particular situation of politics that the work needs to stay accountable to is distanced here. When it circulates in Indian academe, it is circulating in a context in which the boundaries between the university and activism / policy are quite differently configured. Therefore, a critique of the financialization of the pharmaceutical industry is not a philosophical engagement with Marx; it becomes a part of an ongoing dialogue about political strategy and tactics, with comrades who are located both in the Indian university and in civil society. For this to be responsible scholarship from the South, my work has to be primarily accountable to those dialogues, to my comrades.

The political orientation of “Southern” scholarship, however, is not just to people, institutions or struggles in the “South”. It also inflects how I teach within the metropolitan university. I try to teach my students in the US that ethical ethnography is not just about adhering to formal procedural protocols of informed consent, but is also about attending to the political and discursive contexts within which work might circulate, elsewhere.  More importantly, I hope that as a teacher, I can provide space for international students in the American university – many of whom have commitments to communities of practice elsewhere that are illegible to the trajectory of academic professionalization here – to maintain and thicken those commitments, without always having to render them legible to the metropolitan academic gaze.

In other words, the question of research from the South is, in part, a question of the place of the diasporic intellectual in the metropolitan university, as teacher, as student, as researcher, within disciplinary spaces that have historically developed extractive relations of knowledge production with parts of the world that we now call the “global South”. This is what Gayatri Spivak has been reflecting upon for decades when thinking about the place of disciplines like comparative literature and area studies within the metropolitan university, so I am here merely reiterating a set of problems and commitments – and critiques of metropolitan knowledge production – that she has relentlessly made.

My answer to your question about transnational STS, therefore, in part must take into account the differential nature of the research university, its differential relationships to expertise and to advocacy, in different parts of the world. However, in terms of the intellectual genealogies of STS as a field of study, you question obviously has a complicated answer, and I can only provide some situated strands of it. STS is a field that has many genealogies and depending on where you are located, the answer to that question is different.

From a personal perspective, there are a few conversations that I have been involved with, that have to do with the transnationalization of STS. All of them come out of a recognition that STS was a very parochial, Euro-American field of inquiry for the first 20 or 30 years of its existence. I think that was recognized by a  number of scholars, leading to a range of attempts to  build a more transnational, less parochial STS.

Before elaborating on some of these attempts, I want to emphasize that making STS transnational is not just about doing STS in other parts of the world. It is also about provincializing science in the West.  In my parsing of the field, some of the most powerful postcolonial science studies work is about American scientific institutions in relation to American politics and geopolitical histories, work such as my colleague Joe Masco’s on the American nuclear establishment and security state. His is an ethnography that is located in the US; but “America” becomes marked, specific, attended to as a place that inhabits settler colonial histories and scripts worldly geopolitical power relations. So transnational STS is not just about doing STS that is not in Europe and America, transnational STS is STS that provincializes Europe and America as well. So that is the first thing.

A second kind of transnational STS that has been very important to me is that which has been initiated by Sheila Jasanoff and her Science and Democracy Network over the past 20 years. Many of those conversations are also Euro-American, but again that provincializes European and American scientific production,  situates it within the institutional specificity of European and American national and global governance regimes. Jasanoff’s own work for instance shows how biotechnology is regulated differently in the US, the UK and Germany because of different political cultures. So, that is a second example of transnational STS.

A third attempt was something that I was part of in the program where I did my PhD, the STS program at MIT, where my PhD advisor Michael Fischer was trying to build what he called “global STS”. This is much closer to the way your question is located. Attending to ways in which technoscientific development happens in other parts of the world with rigorous ethnographic interest while also recognizing that those are global processes. This is the ethos that is most strongly reflected in my work, as I have already described. In other words, the kind of global STS that  Fischer has taught focuses attention on science and technology in places like India, and Singapore, Turkey, and Japan but these are not just case studies, they are places of world-making.  

For example, Fischer has been studying institutional development in the sciences, especially life sciences in Singapore for nearly two decades, and he  studies it as an emergent global center of biological research.  This is work that rescripts conventional ideas of “metropole” and “periphery” by attending to emergent centers of technoscience and of capital, in the context of both enduring and reconfiguring transnational relations and global power structures.  In the process, one theorizes globalization.

A fourth iteration of transnational STS concerns the institutionalization of the field, especially as the Society for Social Studies of Science  (4S)  has taken an active interest in building global STS. I served on 4S council a few years ago when Gary Downey was the president, and I know that this was very central to  his investments. I think that continued into the subsequent presidencies of Lucy Suchman and of course especially Kim Fortun. For the last 10-15 years, 4S as an institution has been very invested in building global STS and I think that some of the examples of that include things like trying to take 4S outside of Euro-America every four years, a real desire to have the first 4S in Africa in the near future. These things are very important, and they are happening alongside the development of STS communities in other parts of the world. Japan was very vibrant early on, Turkey obviously. One thing that is absolutely important in this history is the East Asian STS journal (EASTS), which is not just an area studies journal. It really is making fundamental interventions into theoretical debates in STS, the sort of energy of STS communities especially in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore bring in to conversations at EASTS. I think  that EASTS has been of vital importance to building and institutionalizing a transnational STS, one that rescripts the centers of the field.

 I haven’t said much about STS in India, which was a part of your question. When I entered STS, what we talked about as “STS from India” was a certain kind of critique that came out of the 1980s and early 90s, which was an Indian critique of Western science. Maybe you are familiar with this kind of work, produced by people like J.P.S Uberoi, Shiv Visvanathan and Ashis Nandy. All of these, in different ways, critiqued the colonial legacies of Western science and the other kinds of knowledge that were silenced by it. I think what one has now is a very different kind of STS conversation which really is about the institutionalization of Western science out of Indian political contexts, and I see my work as being part of that. But if you see something like Kim Fortun’s Asthma Files project that has a research component in India with many Indian researchers, you see a different kind of contour that constitutes STS.

In your work, you mention of your distance from the concept of ‘‘biocolonialism’’. What is your communication with postcolonial and decolonial approaches in general and why don’t you want to define what comes out of your research as biocolonialism?

There are two sides to your question, one of which is implicit, and I don’t know how to answer it because it is something that I have been starting to think about recently, and I still don’t have the words to fully articulate what I am about to say. So, take what I am about to say with a pinch of salt.

I think that there are some significant political differences between an earlier postcolonial approach and what is now being called decolonization. We have not yet had a conversation about the extent of those differences, and undoubtedly, there are solidarities to be built across these approaches. But when push comes to shove, there is potential antagonism in political strategy across these approaches, all of which have complex genealogies and nuanced aspirations, with different specific manifestations in different places.

Crudely speaking, in the postcolonial approach  to which I am committed, the inheritance of  “Europe” – of European social theory, of institutions of liberal representative democracy and political modernity, and most of all of an ethos of the Enlightenment – is inescapable. You can like it or you can dislike it, but you can’t wish away  the fact of this inheritance, in the way we think, in the way we teach and learn, in the way we imagine the political.  This indeed is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument in Provincializing Europe. The anti-colonial political task then is not the denial or repudiation of that inheritance, but its reworking to the demands of contemporary political aspirations towards a more just social order.

What that means for myself and my scholarly politics is that I do not and cannot subscribe  to an idea or ideal of decolonizing disciplines that erases their Euro-American (and, more specifically, white male) intellectual genealogies. We may not like what they have to say, and we can critique them, but they are part of our inheritance, they have shaped how we have learned to think. What that means in terms of my broader ethnographic investments, such as they are “postcolonial”, is that I am deeply invested in understanding institutions of liberal representative democracy and not just repudiating them as colonial. They are maybe “European” but that does not mean that they are less important for today’s postcolonial condition. I think that some strands of decolonial thought have a very different and far more antagonistic relationship to political modernity than I do, often with good reason. Those relationships to the apparatuses of liberalism are not the same in different strands of post- or decolonial thought and action, which, we must remember, also operate out of very different kinds of colonial and settler colonial histories. In other words, the question of “post-“ or “de-”colonial thought, as articulated in different contexts, itself reflects deeply situated political histories and investments. I think there is cause for solidarity across different approaches to critiquing colonialism, but I think there is also legitimate cause for developing very different kinds of critical engagements with the institutions and epistemologies of political modernity.

You are known for your concept of ‘‘pharmocracy’’ which is also part of the title of your recent book. How would you define it?

I don’t define concepts [laughs]. All of these things are placeholders.  The book Pharmocracy, like all my work, is a political economic analysis of drug development and global pharmaceuticals. One of the things that became evident to me as I worked on the book is that what I am really writing about are the stakes of the corporatization, monopolization and financialization of biomedicine for democracy. What does it mean when health gets capitalized and corporatized? But  also: What does it mean for democracy when health gets capitalized and corporatized and financialized? The financialization part of this is very important. “Pharmocracy” really is therefore a sort of relentless worrying about the question of democracy. As a postcolonial intellectual, I care about the questions of what democracy means and what it looks like.

Related to that, to serve the interests of capital, health is abstracted, and it is no longer embodied. So how is this abstraction made? It is a huge question but how does the logic of capital intervene in the way we understand our bodies or our embodied experiences itself?

There are two ways to think about this question. The first way to understand this is to read Marx. How is capital an abstraction device? In other words, not just how  does capital make abstractions, but how does capital need to abstract value from embodied subjective being? How does it need to abstract value from labor, how does it need to abstract value from health in order to do what it does to be capital, which is self-valorize, make more of itself? This is the dynamic of capital, it is inherent to capital’s logic. Often when I say logics of capital, I am misheard, and Marx is misheard as well, as saying  “oh, you are being determinist, you are saying that this how things happen.” That’s not what I am saying, that’s not what Marx is saying, we are saying that capital has dynamics. For capital to be capital, it needs to self-valorize, to make more of itself. It needs to appropriate the bodily potential of those that it alienates. This very much reflects Moishe Postone’s reading of Kapital. Postone says that Marx is showing us that there are dynamics of capital, and you cannot defeat capitalism by pretending that those dynamics don’t exist. Those dynamics are powerful, and you have to contend with their reality.

But the second way in which one can ask this question is how this abstraction happens in the world. That’s a historical, ethnographic and empirical question.  It includes questions such as: how is it that these inherent dynamics of capital become so powerful in the world we live in; how do they structure the rules that we live by, our common sense? That is a slightly different question to one of capital’s inherent dynamics.  This latter question is an empirical and a political question. And the answers to that question are also necessarily political. They have to do with the question of what the organizing institutions of capital are.

Let me give you an example not of a communist alternative but of a social democratic alternative. Bernie Sanders says that there should be Medicare for all in the US. His is a salutary proposal. It has considerable political support and it is not a communist solution. It is a sort of European welfare statist social democratic solution. So, we are not talking about anti-capitalism here. We are just talking about some degree of welfare statism. It is essential and it has become part of the political discourse in America, even though Sanders did not win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. What one has seen over the past few months, then, is a major policy debate around the question of whether the universalization of health care will involve replacing private insurance with government health care or whether it will involve supplementing private insurance with government health care (which is the position of the presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden). In other words, are you going to socialize health care or are you going to create a free market of options of which a public option is one competitive option? I call myself a Marxist, yet I think that under current institutional configurations in the US, the free market answer might well be better policy, because the amount of disruption that will happen in getting rid of a system wholesale and bringing in a new system would be much greater than building upon a system that already exists. In other words, there are all sorts of  circumstances in which it  might be deemed reasonable to have a more capitalized rather than a less capitalized system of health care in a particular  place and time.

 The political and conceptual question then shifts: why do we live in a world  in which a free market system, while likely less efficient, more exploitative and more exclusionary than a single-payer, government-run system in principle, nonetheless might be more sensible in practice? What are the histories that have instituted capitalist modes and relations of production in such strong ways that breaking free of that system comes with so much cost?

What you say here is quite interesting. Why we have this healthcare system, and the ways in which it was so tightly institutionalized. It goes back to all the questions about primitive accumulation, mode of production and questions about the mode of production, transition, if we might call it transition, from one to the other. Maybe we think of the context in India, too. How this transition, if we can ever call it a transition, occurs and so on. India has its own particular approaches to life and health that goes back for centuries. It has its own health system like Ayurveda that comes from the Vedas. And you have precolonial ways of considering health. What are some connection points between such knowledge which we might call embodied I guess, and the new financialized approaches? What are some of the contradictions and conflicts here? Is it completely appropriated or are there things left outside?

I can’t answer this question in the way that you have posed it because it is outside of my expertise. You should read Jean-Paul Gaudillière’s work if you are interested in these issues. He has been doing a project over the last few years on Ayurveda. Gaudilliere and I have collaborated on a special journal issue on Biosocieties that is currently under review, and hopefully some of the essays in that collection will help answer your question.

My own argument in Pharmocracy goes part of the way towards answering your question. A major critique of the pharmaceutical mode of production as it is currently, globally instituted is made by the Indian generics industry.  This is a capitalist industry with market interests. Throughout its history, the generics industry has priced drugs higher than it needs to and higher than a public sector industry might have done. So, the generic industry does not make therapeutics perfectly accessible; it comes with all the restrictions that any market system comes with. You have to have the capacity to buy into a market in order to benefit from a market system and many people in India don’t. I mean %30 of the Indian population falls out of the market altogether. So I am not making any apologies for the generics industry, or suggesting that it is somehow the savior against the extractive policies of the Euro-American, multinational pharmaceutical industry, especially when it comes to drug pricing.

Nonetheless, the Indian generics industry has been a major, and politically important, source of critique of Big Pharma’s drug pricing practices.  This is a critique of a business model  that is based on monopoly, which allows  drugs to be priced so much more than their cost of production and denies access to medication for the large percentage of people who need it. In many ways, it is not even an efficient market mechanism. Yusuf Hamied, who ran the Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla for many years, said this when India moved to a process patent system in 1970: multinational pharmaceutical companies that dominated the market at that time could have stayed in India. There was nothing that was stopping them from staying in India and competing in a free market and reducing the price of their drugs. Instead, almost all of them left, they abandoned the market all together, they left the market for Indian players. Why is that?  Even from a free market perspective or from the perspective of global market expansion, what they do does not make a lot of sense.  The critique from the generic industry thus points out that this is neither equitable nor a particularly efficient mode of production that Big Pharma employs.  Theirs is a critique of the “capital” of biocapital.

However, what Gaudilliere shows with his work on Ayurveda is a critique of the “bio” of biocapital. His argument is that Big Pharma’s biomedical mode of production is not the best way of treating disease, based on an understanding of biological use value. In a capitalist mode of production, use value gets subsumed by exchange value which itself gets subsumed by a third kind of value, surplus value. It does not matter what the utility of commodities are; what only matters is their exchangeability. In other words, qualitative properties get replaced by quantitative measurements. In his analysis, Gaudilliere shows that Ayurveda (which itself has become substantially marketized) forces the debate back to one of use values. The Ayurvedic industry now is a big industry. They make pills, they put them in bottles, they do clinical trials, and they sell them in pharmacies so that the mode of production follows the sort of capitalizing mode of production, but the emerging critique here is not about the “capital” of biocapital but the “bio” of biocapital. I think that is very interesting.

Your analysis of value also has an ethical and normative dimension. Can you talk about value as an ethical and normative framework? In which respects, can this value be reframed against the logic of capital?

The question of ethics is an ethnographic question and again it attaches to the question of  how abstraction happens in the world, in relation to institutional actors.  It plays out on a deeply ethical and moral terrain. Thus, the structures of capitalized modes and relations of production operate in morally charged space. When people die because of a lack of access to essential medicines, in spite of those medicines existing, that forms very powerful  moral grounds for critique and for politics, potentially even towards restructuring some aspects of global political economies of pharmaceutical production and distribution. There have been all sorts of interventions, based on a moral calculus around health and illness, life and death, ranging from putting pressure on companies to engage in corporate philanthropy to getting states to issue compulsory licenses for drugs and therefore disrupt intellectual property regime.  Thus, ethics and morality can provide political grounds for opposition to deeply corporatized monopoly regimes of pharmaceutical capital.

Having said this, ethics is also often used by capital. So the question of the functioning of capital is always a question of appropriability. The ways in which capital appropriates ethics, including setting up ethically harmonized clinical trial regulations, in order to expand global capital, is a central concern of mine in Pharmocracy. You have that Constant Gardener idea that ethics constrains capital and therefore you conduct unethical trials in other parts of the world. In fact, what one saw was these companies didn’t want to conduct unethical trials in other parts of the world because of its potentially scandalous consequences. It is much better to build ethics, but to ensure that the definition and scope of ethics is limited: to informed consent,  based on a calculative rationality of risk and benefit, regulated by contractual modalities of enforcement  that in fact might operate to absolve corporate entities of responsibility if things were to go wrong. So, in the process, ethics gets appropriated as you actually expand the domains of ethical infrastructure but also expand those domains with particular definitions of ethics and not others.

In your analysis of value, you mention value’s relation to knowledge. How would you frame this relationship? You say that knowledge matters not only through its valorization but also when it is silenced or erased through particular manifestations of value and politics. Then what kind of knowledge is being made accessible or inaccessible through this type of therapeutic value creation?

Such questions of knowledge are always interesting for me because I am an STS scholar. Value is never produced on its own, it is produced with other things, including with knowledge. I have just written a paper for thinking about this question of value as articulated with knowledge, which is forthcoming in the journal Political Concepts.  

This is pursuant to a series of workshops that  I organized with a number of colleagues  between 2011 and 2014,  on the theme of knowledge/value. In this series of conversations, we thought about the co-productions of knowledge and value (see You can see from these conversations that there are many different approaches to the question of knowledge/value in science studies and allied fields.

What I will say here briefly speaks to my own approach in thinking about the knowledge/value relationship, in two registers. The first is to think about knowledge as an externality that gets appropriated by value in instances such as the corporatization of the research university or the capitalization of life science research The appropriation of Mertonian science by capitalized science, even. Capital appropriates these externalities, and how that happens is an empirical question, a historical question, an ethnographic question. If you look at the papers in the knowledge/value series, you see many different approaches to this question of how knowledge gets appropriated.

The second is a more Marxist reading. I see Marx as himself an epistemologist, as someone whose analysis of political economy was an epistemic critique. This is why Capital’s subtitle is A Critique of Political Economy.  It is not a critique of capitalism, and it is not a critique of capital. It is an account of the dynamics of capital. It is also a critique of the knowledge form that allows us to understand the dynamics of capital as a system of equivalent exchange in which labor is inadequately remunerated for work. So, it is an epistemic critique and what Marx is saying is that the epistemology of political economy naturalizes and hides the exploitation of labor. That is at the heart of value generation. So, when Marx shows us these value dynamics that we talked about earlier, he is also showing us the naturalization of political economy as a field of knowledge.

Now this is the inevitable question! Regarding the discussion on health and on the relationship between value and knowledge where does Foucault stand in your works, in your analyses? Don’t you need Foucault anymore when you have the analysis of surplus health? Are we getting away from Foucault in analysis more and more?

I would never say one does not need a theorist or another theorist. People think with other people for particular purposes. I don’t like the modality of scholarship where in order to establish the value of one sort of analytics one has to prove that other analytics are wrong.  For me, the question is not whether Marx or Foucault is right or wrong, the question is which questions do a particular theorist’s method of analysis help me answer. Thinking with Joe Dumit’s notion of surplus health, I find that one cannot answer  certain questions concerning the dynamics of pharmaceutical capital through Foucault. Indeed, Dumit’s analysis of surplus health goes against the rationale of biopolitics. Caring for the population is a very bad idea if you are a pharmaceutical company, right? That does not mean that Foucault is not useful for other questions but when the question is value maximization that results in prescription maximization, Foucault does not get us there.

In my older work in Biocapital, I thought a lot with Foucault. He was foundational to the structure of that book.  But when I was writing Pharmocracy, it was Marx who helped me answer the questions that I was asking much more than Foucault.  This does not mean that Foucault is irrelevant. One of the questions that I am asking in Pharmocracy empirically concerns the relationship between biopolitics and biocapital, what happens to biopolitics  under regimes of biocapital.

In your book, you built your analysis of pharmocracy on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. We know that in Gramsci, the relative power of civil society vis-a-vis the state comes to the fore within the context of counter-hegemony. How would you consider the position of civil society and activist organizations as opposed to big Pharma? Would you give examples of certain counter-hegemonic models?

Let me say three things here. The first and obvious thing I want to emphasize is that one should not fall into the trap of thinking that capital is global and civil society is national or local. Global civil society is a very important component of global pharmaceutical politics. The second thing is that if one is thinking about governance and political advocacy  that counters capitalized modes and relations of production, there is no way to do so without thinking about the place of the law, both comparatively as in different national legal systems but also thinking about the possibility of building transnational frameworks of law and governance. I think this should be a very important site of political thought and action, and indeed it is in many ways.  Including in ways that articulate with civil society. The third thing to say, and this goes back in some way to the postcolonial/decolonial debate as well, is that I see a lot of leftist critique today developing a certain allergy to the idea or ideal of civil society itself. The influence of Partha Chatterjee’s use of “political society” rather than civil society, and thinking of civil society as sort of constraint  that excludes mass democratic expression, I think, an important part of this. So, what is at stake here is a very important conceptual and political question and an empirical one: what is the place of civil society in relation to the masses? Let’s remember the masses as arguably one of the most vexed conceptual questions in the history of modern political theory from the 19th century onwards. So the question of the relationship between classes and masses, which indeed is one of the oldest problems of Marxian politics (including for Gramsci) is a complex one and it is at the heart of this matter.

Editing by Mehmet Ekinci, Ph.D. Candidate, Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University