Postpolitical in the Postconflict: DIY Capitalism, Anarcho-Neoliberalism, and Nepal’s Ungovernable Mountains
From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia
From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia
A recent blog post by a young Nepali expresses an attitude toward the condition of the country that can be heard among many in the capital: “We are not failing. We have already failed. Deal with it.” This failure, in part a reference to the notion of failed states, is also a call by the blogger to move beyond letting “failure” define Nepali lives. One form his frustration takes is as a critique of those involved in government, as seen in a post addressed to the members of the (now defunct) Constituent Assembly: “I hereby declare that you do not represent me anymore. I will do what I can to make sure I don’t need your help anymore . . . Enough is enough! You are fired! Goodbye!”1 Although some of those voicing criticism are seeking to create new political pathways, for many the option of a postpolitical future holds more appeal. For upper-class youth in Kathmandu, this is more than a rejection of politics as usual; it is a rejection of any politics at all—a call for something else, combining elements of anarchy and libertarianism. These statements articulate a form of “leap-over” neoliberalism or anarcho-neoliberalism, one that notes the Nepali state’s long history of indifference and inefficiency and calls for a skipping of the government “stage” altogether.2
For many young people in contemporary Nepal, political stability is something they have only read about in the news or seen abroad. With more than twenty years of democracy yet very little in the way of perceived progress, some youth from privileged family backgrounds have come to dismiss formal government structures as a means of achieving their goals. Despite prestigious educational credentials obtained abroad, many have yet to begin careers. Instead, they have established social movements and groups to promote entrepreneurship, as well as other alternatives to the office jobs that had been their expected future. What these groups share is a call to move forward despite political stagnation and to stop blaming their situation on the nation’s condition of what I call long-term provisionality, instead advocating a “less talk, more action” approach.
That these young people in Nepal are rejecting “politics” even as they engage in what appears to be political action suggests something not only about the recent history of the country, but also the applicability of categories such as failed state or postconflict in Nepal. Postconflict is more a global governance status than a description of facts on the ground—a performance of public affect sought by the Nepali state and international organizations. Brigittine French (2013) has documented how, in retrospect, the postconflict label in Ireland did not mark an end to violence but a hope that politics would bring it about. For young people eager to begin a life, the declaration of yet another new era can seem an empty promise, one that echoes the unfulfilled promises of Nepal’s many revolutions without change.
Instead of a postconflict future, various youth organizations suggest a different metamorphosis, turning away from state-oriented chronology and calling for a more radical disjuncture with past politics. If war is politics by other means, these groups seem to grasp onto the postconflict as a potential moment to end any form of politics. In the ideas and expressions they have introduced into popular culture there is a confluence between anarchic and libertarian rejections of the state. For example, the Campaign for a Livable Nepal—often represented by its motto Gari Khana Deu—advocates a focus on everyday life improvements rather than politics, while the Organization for Responsible Nepalis (BibekSheel Nepali), which declares independence from all political forces, calls for citizens to take responsibility for their own prosperity.3 Similarly, recent popular songs in Nepal mock the Constituent Assembly (e.g., “Neta-ji” by Joint Family International) and at times call for an outright end to politics (e.g., “Araajakta hos” by Rai Ko Ris).4 Traditional politics in Nepal seem to offer little to these youth, as one song asks: “How much longer will you [the politicians] distract the people in the name of search for a New Nepal?”5
Expressed in diverse forms, these proclamations all articulate exhaustion with politicians, promises of new beginnings, and even the democratic process itself. Inspired by these phrases, I question if what these young people are calling for is an end to conflict or an end to politics. While not exactly the same as James Ferguson’s (1990) take on the phrase, postpolitics resembles antipolitics insofar as it includes a rejection not only of state-based welfare but also of international NGOs and reliance on foreign aid.
In May 2012, when the Constituent Assembly failed after four years of deliberation, some in Nepal were relieved, as any resolution would have resulted in street protests and closures that would have further disrupted business and education in the country. While the government has done little, its absence can be seen as a blessing. Thus, even as many in Nepal lament the condition of long-term provisionality, a new trend is arising to avoid politics entirely, such as in the manifesto of one organization:
We are not a formal organization.
We are not a political organization.
We are not an NGO.
We are not projecting ourselves as LEADERS nor have any political ambitions.
What results is a kind of DIY capitalism and a grassroots rejection of the state, albeit one only available to an elite who formerly ensured their security through government sinecure or migration. For these people, the problem is not conflict, but the effect of conflict on one’s ability to live and make money. With politics itself dismissed as a form of timepass or guff-suff (idle chatter), these youth organizations want their lives, careers, and families to begin, whether or not there is a constitution. While this itself is not an apolitical position, it is difficult to classify in either Western left/right terms or in the field of Nepali political parties. It seems to be a novel approach pursued by those who seek to prosper in a place that is questionably postconflict through postpolitical means.
1. The Constituent Assembly is the body of 601 officials elected in April 2008 to draft a new constitution for Nepal, which was dissolved in May 2012 after failing to come to agreement. Elections for a new Constituent Assembly were held in November 2013.
2. These terms borrow from Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell’s (2002) work on “roll-back” and "roll-out” neoliberalism, as well as Saskia Sassen’s (2006) work on strategies to leap over the state, suggesting that Nepal’s unique history requires a respatialization and retemporalization of neoliberalism’s trajectory.
3. BibekSheel Nepali did eventually enter several candidates in the 2013 elections, under the symbol of a dog.
4. The title of the latter song is translated by the band as “let there be no rulers/anarchy!” It appears on their album Ungovernable Mountains, a title that resonates with recent work by James C. Scott (2009) on mountain-dwelling peoples who turn away from the state.
5. These lyrics are from “Tito Satya,” by Laure, translated by Bijay Poudel. A television program that focuses on the frustrations of everyday life in an era of dysfunctional governance is entitled “Bitter Truth.”
Ferguson, James. 1990. The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. New York: Cambridge University Press.
French, Brigittine M. 2013. “Ethnography and ‘Postconflict’ Violence in the Irish State.” American Anthropologist 115, no. 2: 160–73.
Peck, Jamie, and Adam Tickell. 2002. “Neoliberalizing Space.” Antipode 34, no. 3: 380–404.
Sassen, Saskia. 2006. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.