“A World Class City of Your Own!”: Civic Governmentality in Chennai, India

By Rowan Ellis


Specifically I focus on the practices of public consultation in Chennai, India and highlight the discursive function of the “world-class city” as it articulates and legitimates emerging paradigms in urban development.


The suggestion put forth by Birkinshaw and Harris (2009, 4) is that “the world-class city is an urban imaginary that further manufactures and normalizes the idea that the neoliberal urban development model is replicable and sustainable”. They go on to emphasize that the this world-class city is an exclusive city, increasingly hostile to the urban poor because urban plans that aim to make the city more attractive to investment simultaneously clear space for “new affluent citizens and their consumption driven lifestyles” (2009, 8). Numerous other scholars have explored how new forms of investment and the restructuring of urban labour markets has expanded the economic bases of India’s middle-upper classes. In this context, the Indian middle class1 emerges as a powerful force in urban politics (Anjaria 2009; Arabindoo 2005a; Baviskar 2007; Bhan 2009; Chatterjee 2004; Fernandes 2004; Gandy 2008; Harriss 2006, 2007; Mawsdley 2009; Nair 2006; Zerah 2007). Yet within many of these literatures there is a tendency toward privileging the hegemonic power of a globally expansive neoliberalism and its ability to make “one-size-fits-all” neoliberal solutions appear desirable (Anjaria 2009). This has come at the expense of a focus on the more everyday mechanisms through which urban elites formulate such desires. If the world-class city is indeed a “bourgeois city” as many would suggest, then we must consider how the beneficiaries of neoliberal urban development come to share and participate in this world-class vision. This paper asks, “in what context do elites become legitimate, privileged stakeholders in urban politics?” and “through what mechanisms do urban elites get enlisted in (and exert influence over) new paradigms in urban development?”


Central and South Chennai are the most active real estate markets

This use of governmentality extends the work of Michel Foucault who first theorized the ways in which populations are governed through institutional intervention, the production of discourses and norms, and by inculcating practices of self-discipline. These various “technologies of governance”, which take as their object the “conduct of conduct”, are what Foucault famously describes as governmentality (Dean 1999, 10). Governmentality enables the exercise of power in a myriad of spheres, often in spaces typically considered to be outside the traditional power centres of the sovereign state. This means that spaces such as the clinic, the workplace, or the family are important locations where power relations are (re)produced and normalized. More contemporary scholarship has set out to apply this theory of governmentality to an analysis of the political economy of the post-Keynesian, post-Fordist decades. While neoliberalism is often seen as a reduction in the role of the state, work within this critical governmentality tradition has shown how economic restructuring is accompanied by new technologies of governance that attempt to instil amarket rationale in subjects. Rather than less government, this neoliberal governmentality extends the domain of governance through technologies that enlist various non-state actors in a neoliberal regime (Rose 1996). Thus the task of much of the governmentality literatures has been to argue against a state/nonstate dichotomy and to instead describe new forms of governance as a “polycentric ensemble” of rule-making and regulation that occur in and through civil society, public institutions, privatized sectors, and the state (Swyngedouw 2005, 1992). For proponents of the neoliberal agenda, the expansion of the terrain of governance is promoted as the devolution of power that encourages greater democratic participation on the part of local level institutions and citizens (Abrahamsen 2000; Mercer 2003; World Bank 1992, 1994). But “participation” is also one way in which various institutions and individuals become enlisted in the governmentality of the neoliberalizing state. As scholars like Burchell (1993), Dean (1999) and others (see Burchell, Gordon and Miller1991; Cruikshank 1994; Rose 1996) have shown, participation is an important discourse that serves to shift the risk of failure and the onus for success of new institutional arrangements onto individuals. As such, new governing arrangements serve the dual purpose of privatizing and outsourcing many formerly state functions, and of producing disciplined, selfreliant, “responsibilized” citizen-subjects (Burchell 1996). Thus a focus on neoliberal governmentality has offered important insights into what is at stake when various subjects get enlisted in the polycentric terrain of urban governance.

When considering the emergence of neoliberal forms of governance, Indian cities pose particularly interesting conceptual challenges. Supra-national, non-state or para-state actors are becoming important players in urban governance through the cohabitating structures of development, transnational flows of private capital, and the recent expansion of the urban middle and upper classes. Contemporary forms of urban governance in India are characterized by an increasingly influential private sector and bourgeois forms of civic activism. But complicating any wholesale neoliberalization of urban governance is a dynamic and heterogeneous terrain of urban politics, and a local state that adopts policies of liberalization in a piecemeal and at times contradictory fashion. Moreover, in many instances, middle class “sensibilities” are not in tune with either state plans or with the influence of private capital (Anjaria 2009), so that we can assume no easy alliance between middle class civic activism, capital, and the liberalizing state. In this context, Ananya Roy posits that these seemingly opposing trends are being mediated by what she describes as a “civic governmentality” (2009). For Roy, technologies of inclusion that expand the terrain of urban governance are also productive of norms of citizenship or “civic-ness”, which inform an emerging “grassroots civic regime”. But, she argues, “grassroots regimes of government both resist and comply with what may be perceived to be top-down forms of rule, be it those emanating from the state or from international institutions” (2009, 160). By making this point, Roy is challenging recent work that makes a distinction between governmentality as topdown technologies of state control or “governmentality from below” [Appadurai 2002; Chatterjee 2004; for a similar critique see Ferguson and Gupta (2002) on transnational governmentality]. Instead she argues that a civic governmentality leads to both the “civilizing” of political society and the “governmentalization of the state” (Dean in Roy 2009, 159). While new urban political strategies that emanate from a grassroots civic realm allow various groups to use their knowledge of communities and their locations to resist state power, they also function to “recalibrate” the state’s governing strategies, and to weave these strategies into the policy-making apparatus, so that they become entwined with forms of governmentality “from above”.

What Roy’s account of civic governmentality finally concludes is that despite the pro-poor and rights-based language of certain civil society organizations, much of this new civic-ness is inherently “developmental” because it envisions a city comprised of ordered, sanitary living spaces, and also “civilizing” as it promotes a politics of cooperation and mediation over confrontation. Roy’s description of this complex landscape of civic governmentality helps to make sense of the apparent ease with which elites in Chennai have been able to co-opt urban politics through the organizational form of civil society. Participation through public consultation is an example of a governing technology (…)

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