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Interview with Vivek Chibber: How Does the Subaltern Speak?

29 April 2013

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Jacobin, Issue 10: Assembly Required , April 2013

by Vivek Chibber

Postcolonial theory discounts the enduring value of Enlightenment universalism at its own peril.

In recent decades, postcolonial theory has largely displaced Marxism as the dominant perspective among intellectuals engaged in the project of critically examining the relationship between the Western and non-Western worlds. Originating in the humanities, postcolonial theory has subse­quently become increasingly influential in history, anthropology, and the social sciences. Its rejection of the universalisms and meta-narratives associated with Enlightenment thought dovetailed with the broader turn of the intellectual left during the 1980s and 1990s.

Vivek Chibber’s new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, represents a wide-ranging challenge to many of the core tenets of postcolonial theory. Focusing particularly on the strain of postcolonial theory known as subaltern studies, Chibber makes a strong case for why we can — and must — conceptualize the non-Western world through the same analytical lens that we use to understand developments in the West. He offers a sustained defense of theoretical approaches that emphasize universal categories like capitalism and class. His work constitutes an argument for the continued relevance of Marxism in the face of some of its most trenchant critics.

Chibber was interviewed for Jacobin by Jonah Birch, a graduate student in sociology at New York University.

Jonah Birch: At the core of postcolonial theory is the notion that Western categories can’t be applied to postcolonial societies like India. On what basis is this claim made?

Vivek Chibber: This is probably the single most important argument coming out of postcolonial studies, and this is also what makes it so important to engage them. There has been no really prominent body of thought associated with the Left in the last hundred and fifty years or so that has insisted on denying the scientific ethos and the applicability of categories coming out of the liberal enlightenment and the radical enlightenment — categories like capital, democracy, liberalism, rationality, and objectivity. There have been philosophers who have criticized these orientations, but they’ve rarely achieved any significant traction on the Left. Postcolonial theorists are the first to do so.

The argument really comes out of a background sociological assumption: for the categories of political economy and the Enlightenment to have any purchase, capitalism must spread across the world. This is called the “universalization of capital.”

The argument goes like this: the universalizing categories associated with Enlightenment thought are only as legitimate as the universalizing tendency of capital. And postcolonial theorists deny that capital has in fact universalized — or more importantly, that it ever could universalize around the globe. Since capitalism has not and cannot universalize, the categories that people like Marx developed for understanding capitalism also cannot be universalized.

What this means for postcolonial theory is that the parts of the globe where the universalization of capital has failed need to generate their own local categories. And more importantly, it means that theories like Marxism, which try to utilize the categories of political economy, are not only wrong, but they’re Eurocentric, and not only Eurocentric, but they’re part of the colonial and imperial drive of the West. And so they’re implicated in imperialism. Again, this is a pretty novel argument on the Left.
JB: What made you decide to focus on subaltern studies as a way of critiquing postcolonial theory more generally?

VC: Postcolonial theory is a very diffuse body of ideas. It really comes out of literary and cultural studies, and had its initial influence there. It then spread out through area studies, history, and anthropology. It spread into those fields because of the influence of culture and cultural theory from the 1980s onwards. So, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, disciplines such as history, anthropology, Middle Eastern studies, and South Asian studies were infused with a heavy turn toward what we now know as postcolonial theory.

To engage the theory, you run up against a basic problem: because it’s so diffuse, it’s hard to pin down what its core propositions are, so first of all, it’s hard to know exactly what to criticize. Also, its defenders are able to easily rebut any criticisms by pointing to other aspects that you might have missed in the theory, saying that you’ve honed in on the wrong aspects. Because of this, I had to find some core components of the theory — some stream of theorizing inside postcolonial studies — that is consistent, coherent, and highly influential.

I also wanted to focus on those dimensions of the theory centered on history, historical development, and social structures, and not the literary criticism. Subaltern studies fits all of these molds: it’s been extremely influential in area studies; it’s fairly internally consistent, and it focuses on history and social structure. As a strand of theorizing, it’s been highly influential partly because of this internal consistency, but also partly because its main proponents come out of a Marxist background and they were all based in India or parts of the Third World. This gave them a great deal of legitimacy and credibility, both as critics of Marxism and as exponents of a new way of understanding the Global South. It’s through the work of the Subalternists that these notions about capital’s failed universalization and the need for indigenous categories have become respectable.
JB: Why is it, according to the subaltern studies theorists, that capitalism’s universalizing tendencies broke down in the postcolonial world? What is it about these societies that impeded capitalism’s progress?

VC: Subaltern studies offers two distinct arguments for how and why the universalizing drive of capital was blocked. One argument comes from Ranajit Guha. Guha located the universalizing drive of capital in the ability of a particular agent — namely, the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class — to overthrow the feudal order and construct a coalition of classes that includes not only capitalists and merchants, but also workers and peasants. And through the alliance that is cobbled together, capital is supposed to erect a new political order, which is not only pro-capitalist in terms of defending the property rights of capitalists, but also a liberal, encompassing, and consensual order.

So for the universalizing drive of capital to be real, Guha says, it must be experienced as the emergence of a capitalist class that constructs a consensual, liberal order. This order replaces the ancien régime, and is universalizing in that it expresses the interests of capitalists as universal interests. Capital, as Guha says, achieves the ability to speak for all of society: it is not only dominant as a class, but also hegemonic in that it doesn’t need to use coercion to maintain its power.

So Guha locates the universalizing drive in the construction of an encompassing political culture. The key point for Guha is that the bourgeoisie in the West was able to achieve such an order while the bourgeoisie in the East failed to do so. Instead of overthrowing feudalism, it made some sort of compact with the feudal classes; instead of becoming a hegemonic force with a broad, cross-class coalition, it tried its best to suppress the involvement of peasants and the working class. Instead of erecting a consensual and encompassing political order, it put into place highly unstable and fairly authoritarian political orders. It maintained the rift between the class culture of the subaltern and that of the elite.

So for Guha, whereas in the West the bourgeoisie was able to speak for all the various classes, in the East it failed in this goal, making it dominant but not hegemonic. This in turn makes modernity in the two parts of the world fundamentally different by generating very different political dynamics in the East and West, and this is the significance of capital’s universalizing drive having failed.
JB: So their argument rests on a claim about the role of the bourgeoisie in the West, and the failure of its counterpart in postcolonial societies?

VC: For Guha, absolutely, and the subaltern studies group accepts these arguments, largely without qualification. They describe the situation — the condition of the East — as a condition in which the bourgeoisie dominates but lacks hegemony, whereas the West has both dominance and hegemony.

Now the problem with this is, as you said, that the core of the argument is a certain description of the achievements of the Western bourgeoisie. The argument, unfortunately, has very little historical purchase. There was a time, in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, even into the 1950s, when many historians accepted this picture of the rise of the bourgeoisie in the West. Over the last thirty or forty years, though, it has been largely rejected, even among Marxists.

What’s strange is that Guha’s book and his articles were written as though the criticisms of this approach were never made. And what’s even stranger is that the historical profession — within which subaltern studies has been so influential — has never questioned this foundation of the subaltern studies project, even though they all announce that it’s the foundation. The bourgeoisie in the West never strove for the goals that Guha ascribes to it: it never tried to bring about a consensual political culture or represent working-class interests. In fact, it fought tooth and nail against them for centuries after the so-called bourgeois revolutions. When those freedoms were finally achieved, it was through very intense struggle by the dispossessed, waged against the heroes of Guha’s narrative, the bourgeoisie. So the irony is that Guha really works with an incredibly naïve, even ideological notion of the Western experience. He doesn’t see that capitalists have everywhere and always been hostile to the extension of political rights to working people.
JB: Okay, so that’s one argument about the radical specificity of the colonial and postcolonial worlds. But you said before that there’s another one?

VC: Yeah, the second argument comes primarily in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work. His doubts about the universalization of capital are quite distinct from Guha’s. Guha locates capital’s universalizing tendency in a particular agent: the bourgeoisie. Chakrabarty locates it in capitalism’s ability to transform all social relations wherever it goes. And he concludes that it fails this test because he finds that there are various cultural, social, and political practices in the East that don’t conform to his model of what a capitalist culture and political system should look like.

So, in his view, the test for a successful universalization of capital is that all social practices must be immersed in the logic of capital. He never clearly specifies what the logic of capital is, but there are some broad parameters that he has in mind.
JB: That strikes me as a pretty high bar.

VC: Yeah, that’s the point; the bar is an impossible one. So if you find in India that marriage practices still use ancient rituals; if you find in Africa that people still tend to pray while they’re at work — those kinds of practices make for a failure of capital’s universalization.

What I say in the book is that this is kind of bizarre: all capital’s universalization requires is that the economic logic of capitalism be implanted in various parts of the world and that it be successfully reproduced over time. This will, of course, generate a certain degree of cultural and political change as well. However, it doesn’t require that all, or even most, of the cultural practices of a region be transformed along some kind of identifiable capitalist lines.
JB: This is the theoretical argument you make in the book about why capitalism’s universalization doesn’t require erasing all social diversity.

VC: Right. A typical maneuver of postcolonial theorists is to say something like this: Marxism relies on abstract, universalizing categories. But for these categories to have traction, reality should look exactly like the abstract descriptions of capital, of workers, of the state, etc. But, say the postcolonial theorists, reality is so much more diverse. Workers wear such colorful clothes; they say prayers while working; capitalists consult astrologers — this doesn’t look like anything what Marx describes in Capital. So it must mean that the categories of capital aren’t really applicable here. The argument ends up being that any departure of concrete reality from the abstract descriptions of theory is a problem for the theory. But this is silly beyond words: it means that you can’t have theory. Why should it matter if capitalists consult astrologers as long as they are driven to make profits? Similarly, it doesn’t matter if workers pray on the shop floor as long as they work. This is all that the theory requires. It doesn’t say that cultural differences will disappear; it says that these differences don’t matter for the spread of capitalism, as long as agents obey the compulsions that capitalist structures place on them. I go to considerable lengths to explain this in the book.
JB: A lot of the appeal of postcolonial theory reflects a widespread desire to avoid Eurocentrism and to understand the importance of locally specific cultural categories, forms, identities, and what have you: to understand people as they were, or are, not just as abstractions. But I wonder if there’s also a danger with the way they understand the cultural specificity of non-Western societies, and if that is a form of cultural essentialism.

VC: Absolutely, that is the danger. And it’s not only a danger; it’s something to which Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory consistently fall prey. You see it most often in their arguments about social agency and resistance. It’s perfectly fine to say that people draw on local cultures and practices when they resist capitalism, or when they resist various agents of capital. But it’s quite another to say that there are no universal aspirations, or no universal interests, that people might have.

In fact, one of the things I show in my book is that when the Subaltern Studies historians do empirical work on peasant resistance, they show pretty clearly that peasants [in India], when they engage in collective action, are more or less acting on the same aspirations and the same drives as Western peasants were. What separates them from the West are the cultural forms in which these aspirations are expressed, but the aspirations themselves tend to be pretty consistent.

And when you think about it, is it really outlandish to say that Indian peasants are anxious to defend their wellbeing; that they don’t like to be pushed around; that they’d like to be able to meet certain basic nutritional requirements; that when they give up rents to the landlords they try to keep as much as they can for themselves because they don’t like to give up their crops? Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this is actually what these peasant struggles have been about.

When Subalternist theorists put up this gigantic wall separating East from West, and when they insist that Western agents are not driven by the same kinds of concerns as Eastern agents, what they’re doing is endorsing the kind of essentialism that colonial authorities used to justify their depredations in the nineteenth century. It’s the same kind of essentialism that American military apologists used when they were bombing Vietnam or when they were going into the Middle East. Nobody on the Left can be at ease with these sorts of arguments.
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The above excerpt from Jacobin is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use