Review of Vivek Chibber's Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

Vivek Chibber challenges the post-Marxist framework of the Subaltern Studies group.

Submitted by Comrade Motopu on June 21, 2014

Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, London and New York: Verso, 2013.

Review by David Matthew Carr

With Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Vivek Chibber challenges the post-Marxist theories of a major postcolonial historical research project known as Subaltern Studies. The project, whose first journal of the same name was published in 1982, is "the most illustrious representative of postcolonial studies in the scholarship on the Global South" according to Chibber (5). While the term "subaltern" initially indicated the group's debt to Gramscian theory, indeed most of the group emerged from a Marxist milieu, it became "a marker of a theoretical orientation, an adjective that characterized an approach to the analysis of colonialism, or imperial history, or even politics in general." Chibber notes that Subaltern Studies grew in importance and academic status, to the point that it was "by the end of the twentieth century, widely regarded as the face of postcolonial scholarship in area studies" (5). While the movement was initially greeted as a local incarnation of "history from below" of the type that E.P. Thompson and others of the New Left were developing, it eventually went beyond a focus on the local and culture into a critique of Enlightenment universalism and Marxism. Both were seen as Eurocentric and insufficient as analytical tools for grappling with the development of capitalist dominance in India and other post-colonial regions.

Chibber focuses on the writing of Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, and shows that both rely on a flawed comparison of European and Indian history, thereby locking Subaltern Studies into problematic analyses from the beginning. The group's assumptions about both the role of the bourgeoisie and of "subaltern" classes (subaltern referring to workers and peasants) in the European revolutions of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries are wrong. Chibber summarizes the Subalternist view: "Capital's universalizing drive was carried through by the modern bourgeoisie in England and France, who launched the revolutions of 1640 and 1789 and they established, for the first time, political orders founded on the consent of the governed. This is what the bourgeoisie in the East failed to do." This was in large part because "when capital entered the colonial world, it abandoned its universalizing mission" (124-125). Therefore, when "Subalternists" compare the intentions and actions of the Indian bourgeoisie to Europe's, they see a "failure" of the Indian bourgeoisie to carry out their historic mission in the transition from colonial rule to postcolonial government. While the emerging European bourgeoisie in its revolutionary eras allegedly gained "hegemony" over the entirety of society, meaning that they subdued feudal power, uprooted the old social relations of production, and won the loyalty of the subaltern classes to the national project, the Indian bourgeoisie failed in this charge. Had they succeeded, workers and peasants would have felt included in a modern state formation that entrenched and promoted democratic Enlightenment ideals like equality and rights for all citizens. Chibber reminds the reader that capitalism does not universalize social organization based on the consent of the governed. Rather, what is universalized is "the compulsion to produce in order to sell--production for exchange value, not for use." Capitalists, contrary to Guha's belief that the bourgeoisie will attempt to enact the will of the subaltern classes in a cross-class alliance, will fight for "a narrower, more exclusionary regime." (125).

Chibber's thesis is that the Subaltern Studies group mischaracterizes the European bourgeoisie's historical goals and actions. In fact the rising European bourgeoisie was focused on capitalist production but quite willing to allow earlier relations of power to remain so long as they could capitalize on newly developing methods of production. There was no urgency to enact democratic reforms, to promote equality, or to improve the quality of life of peasants and urban workers via legislation enshrining rights for them. These reforms, when they did appear, were the result not of bourgeois ideology or actions, but of agitation from below against the bourgeoisie; "...capitalism has always striven not just for economic domination but also for political domination, inasmuch as the latter helps secure the viability of the former" (152). From their distorted model of Europe's allegedly progressive, even radical, bourgeoisie, the Subalternists move to a flawed comparison between Indian and European history.

Chibber's outline of bourgeois revolutions and their outcomes draws from numerous sources but can be compared in shorthand to Ellen Meiksins Wood's work. In her 1995 Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, she compares Athenian democracy to that which later emerged in England. Despite the presence of outright slavery in Athens, Meiksins Wood sees Athenian democracy as more extensive, with a "demos" (those participating directly) cutting across class lines and inclusive of non-elite males. She contrasts that model to the ways in which landed gentry and the rising bourgeoisie in seventeenth century England wanted "the demos" limited to parliament, limited to landed gentry, a small group of wealthy property owners that were sovereign. This version of democracy reflected their concerns over property, not notions of social equality, as the basis of social relations. The class that owned the means of production ruled, so the expansion of democracy had more to do with limiting absolute monarchy than empowering "the people." The "demos" of the Magna Carta of 1215 and the 1640 Revolution was not the popular direct democracy of Athens, but something much more limited. Chibber outlines this same history, showing that the European bourgeoisie, in England and elsewhere, was attempting mainly what their self-interest as a class demanded.

Worse than just getting it wrong, Guha and the Subalternists end up reproducing the assumptions of liberal "Whig History" which saw a heroic bourgeoisie liberating the masses in its role as vanguard of the forward march of history. Far from the radical self-description of the Subaltern Studies project, Chibber notes that Guha "based his analysis on a Whig historical tradition that was born, in the early nineteenth century, as an apologia for capital. It is the bourgeoisie's own vision of its past--cleaned up, beautified, and perfumed" (80).

With this Whig historical view, and its resultant perception of the Indian bourgeoisie's failure, the Subalternists developed an analysis of the differences between Indian and European bourgeois class hegemony. From here it is a short intellectual step to suggesting that the development of Indian capitalism was distinct from European capitalism, unique, different. Chibber acknowledges historical differences, but also that this focus is what motivates Subalternists to discount "Eurocentric," Enlightenment, and Marxist analysis as unqualified to describe class formation in India. If the Subalternists give a description of the Indian bourgeoisie as inherently different from their European counterparts, the same holds true for the Indian workers and peasants as compared to European. The anti-universalist move in Subaltern Studies must "deny that agents share a common set of needs or interests across cultural boundaries..." (153).

According to the Subaltern Studies group, there is an entirely different psychology in Western subalterns than in Eastern. In the West "we are told, political psychology revolves around secular conceptions of the individual and his rights; whereas in the East, agency is motivated by the concept of duty, or obligation, making the actor's basic orientation religious not secular" (153). Chibber shows that the proponents of the "argument from cultural specificity," in this case, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee, have taken a long way round only to fall into a kind of Orientalism. He charges Chatterjee with holding notions of Eastern culture in which actors lack individuality and are instead "other-oriented" (160). In this view "[t]he West is the site of the bounded individual, while the East is the repository of Community." Such Orientalism is all too common as a "politics of difference" among many modern sovereignty, cultural nationalist, and anti-imperialist movements where a class analysis has been sidelined. Chibber finds it very dreary, because it "harks back directly to nineteenth-century colonial ideology, not to mention contemporary reifications of the unchanging East" (161).

Subalternists deny the centrality of reason and self-interest (as a class) driving Indian peasant and worker decision-making in the face of capitalist development, instead asserting that culture, religion, and tradition precede and overshadow them. This retention of tradition in India's move into capitalist modernity is allegedly different from what happened in Europe, and explains the Subalternist notion that capitalism's effect cannot be "universal" in the Enlightenment sense. Marxist categories of class struggle are out the window.

A cornerstone in the argument that capitalism failed to carry out universalization has to do with the Marx's category of abstract labor. This too, it turns out, is based on a misreading of Marx's theory. Here, Chibber turns first to the writings of Lisa Lowe, who has extensively researched immigrant labor in the United States. Lowe has been critical of Marxist methodology for the ways it cannot deal with the treatment of Asian Americans as they have been brought into American capitalism. The centrality of "abstract labor" creates a blind spot for Marxists when they try to understand racialized labor and work relations. Marx, Lowe claims, argued that capitalism makes labor more homogenous over time, which she understands as the meaning of abstract labor. She believes the historical record has overturned this theory given that "in the United States, capital has maintained its profits not through rendering labor 'abstract' but precisely through the social production of 'difference,' of restrictive particularity and illegitimacy marked by race, nation, geographical origins, and gender." Chibber notes that "the equation of abstract labor with homogenous labor runs through the gamut of postcolonial theory" (133). Even Marxist David Roediger concurs with Lowe's explanation about Marx's theory of abstract labor being disproven by the history of diversity and differentiation of groups in American capitalist development. Roediger describes Marx's logic as holding that "capital homogenizes society because it sees a world made up of units of labor, rather than of races, nationalities, or genders," and therefore that Marx believed "the idea that labor is abstract and that mature capitalism is, or should be, colorblind."

Chibber's answer is that Marx did write about how old prejudices, world views, social relations, and so on, were to a large degree undermined, altered, or dissolved by capitalism, but that this does not inherently imply homogenization, social, cultural or otherwise. Chibber then devotes a large part of chapter six explaining Marx's concept of abstract labor. He shows that Marx could talk about abstract labor without forgetting the realities of concrete labor, labor as it actually exists in given individual examples. Each individual job, task, bit of concrete labor had empirically observable aspects ranging from the skills and speed of the worker, to the type of work, kinds of machines employed, etc., that made each situation unique upon close examination. Abstract labor had to do with the average labor needed, in a situation of average production, in a given industry, in a competitive capitalist system, with the goal of creating "exchange value" realized as profit provided a commodity sold on the market. "The central point for our purposes is that even while it is the abstract quality of labor--its property of being labor power pure and simple, without regard to its particular qualities--that endows the commodity with its exchange-value, this does not liberate labor from its concrete form" (135). Concrete varied labor then creates "use values" through different processes. The issue of labor needing to be "homogenized," as in made to be all of one type, is a misreading of what Marx is getting at when he describes the universalizing aspect of capital. Chibber points out that even in the cases of Taylorism and deskilled factory labor, work can still be distinguished from other work. He also points out that while capitalism deskills certain types of work, other new types of work emerge that require new different skill sets.

Basically, abstract labor is misunderstood by Postcolonialists and Subalternists as a type of labor, rather than an aspect of concrete labor. In Marx's labor theory of value, it is of course labor that creates that common, measurable, "something" that allows everything from blankets and spices, to farm equipment, or books, to be assessed as having a certain "exchange value." That value is based on the amount of labor power embodied in a commodity.

Chibber next describes some ways in which abstract labor correlates perfectly to capitalists intentionally differentiating between groups of workers, for the capitalists' own advantage. Certain communities might have skills others do not, and the capitalist can use these without needing to train workers in those related tasks. Capitalists could then organize their workforce along communal lines, for example, in a factory. In this way, capitalist production could help to preserve communal identity even as it created a division of labor appropriate to creating a given commodity. Social divisions remain even as the logic of production has been universalized to the capitalist creation of exchange value to be realized on the market (140-141). Communities can also be pit one against the other as one bids to work faster and for lower wages than the other in a race to the bottom based on the logic of labor markets and competition for jobs. This also potentially strengthens community identity, especially in the eyes of employers. The flip side of the coin is that pitting communities against one another in labor markets weakens the prospect that they will band together along class lines to fight back against the increasing demands of employers (142). Differentiation among groups serves capitalists and does not inherently disrupt the key factors of universalizing necessary for capitalist production.

Dipesh Chakrabarty critiques Marxist teleology (history moving to a predetermined or predictable end) as he sees it, calling it "historicism." He outlines the ways in which capitalism has different impacts in India than it did in the European countries, as against what he sees as blueprints or predictions of Marxist historians for European outcomes in non-Western countries. He divides Indian history into "History 1" and "History 2," History 1 contains the aspects of Indian social relations that have been altered by capitalism while History 2 covers those that have not (209). Again, Chibber, even as he agrees that it is legitimate to see two histories, argues that this does not provide the Subalternists with evidence proving their main theory, that capitalism failed to "universalize" in Indian and non-Western society. It is a mistake to believe that, in order to show capitalism's universalizing effect, one would have to show that every aspect of Indian culture had been subjected to the logic of capital. Chibber explains that this was not the case in the European examples. All that need be shown is that, whether or not traditional ways remain strong, capitalism has become an imperative to the point that it is the dominant driver of the social relations of production in a given region.

While the Subaltern Studies group has defined its mission as a history from below that will not only analyze but allow for action to change history, Chibber points out the many ways in which their post-Marxism has taken them right back to a reactionary position. The progression from a focus on "difference" and what is distinct in the Indian experience of capitalist ascension led in this case to a rebuke of Marx's basic analysis of the development of classes and of class struggle under capitalism. With a kind of Indian "Sonderweg" theory (a special path for Germany based on the alleged failure of liberalism there in the nineteenth century), the Subalternists allege that it is impossible to put class at the center when analyzing Indian capitalism. Chibber's book acknowledges the contributions of the Subalternist Studies group in identifying many nuances of capitalist development in India. But, he dispatches their flawed metanarrative of the Indian bourgeoisie's failure to secure hegemony as opposed to the success of the European. This leads him to conclude that the Subalternist rejection of a universal history of global capitalism can only lead to further flawed analysis as to tactics and strategy for the working class to fight for a post-capitalist world, not merely a post-Marxist one.