Author’s Roundtable: Vivek Chibber, "Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital" Response by Utathya Chattopadhyaya

[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory held an Author’s Roundtable hosting Vivek Chibber (NYU) to discuss his new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013), with responses by Hina Nazar  (English), Anustup Basu (English/Media & Cinema Studies) and Utathya Chattopadhyaya (History). The responses from Nazar  and Basu were published earlier; the response from Utathya Chattopadhyaya is below.]

“Time to move on? A response to Vivek Chibber”
Written by Utathya Chattopadhyaya (History)

It is time to let the dust settle and move on, that remained the lingering thought after Vivek Chibber spoke at the recent author’s roundtable on his book, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. It was abundantly clear that there is no possible critique that such a work is open to, because, as Chibber insisted vehemently to a room full of students of critical theory, “theory is either right, or wrong.” Spending more time and breath on why this recent attempt to “take down” (the spectre of?) Subaltern Studies is futile and flawed, may just end up being a wild goose chase.

Several people have, by now, pointed out the flaws in the book. Chatterjee has noted Chibber’s inability to understand why Guha’s critique of liberal historiography was indifferent to the question of how empirically accurate his version of European history was or in fact, that Chakrabarty had left the Marxist assumption that capital universalizes through the homogenization and commodification of abstract labour, untouched in the analysis of the limits to capitalist universalization. Spivak has pointed out, in turn, how Chibber remains guilty of several category errors: for example, switching between Capital and Capitalism, Bourgeoisie and capitalist.

In my response to Chibber’s book at the event, I came to it not as someone invested in the continuation of an ideal-type Subaltern Studies that Chibber has made the project out to be. By now, everyone is well aware that Subaltern Studies scholars have themselves moved on to different terrains which may or may not bear resemblance to their work of two decades ago. I came to it, rather, as a student of interdisciplinary history, most specifically of South Asia. While that may itself be a specialist’s corner, I think that emphasis is necessary to evaluate the intervention Chibber is making in the landscape of social theory, riding on the back of what was, to begin with, an initiative in critical South Asian history writing. I say social theory, not just because the book’s jacket says so, but because I doubt this work can unsettle much else within and between other humanities disciplines. Social theory remains its nebulous home for now.

The reasons for my scepticism are simple enough. Historians and anthropologists of South Asia, working inside as well as outside South Asia, have, for the last three decades, critiqued, transformed, and enhanced arguably every inch of ground that Subaltern Studies had ventured into since 1982. Most importantly, they have done so by not using Subaltern Studies writing as some kind of general theory with its unshakeable cornerstones, as Chibber does. Instead, they have approached questions of agrarian history, peasant politics, judicial violence, gender history, nationalism and other historical questions in order to produce historically specific and layered kinds of theory about subalternity. (For a recent study of the convict-coolie as subaltern, for example, see Clare Anderson, Subaltern Lives.) Indeed, many have rejected subalternity as well, finding its emphasis on autonomous domains restrictive in the histories of multidimensional peasant and worker politics. For lack of a better term, we could call this approach “history-as-theory,” as opposed to the brush-like application of “theory” to “history.” To take just one example, when Ranajit Guha came to write Chandra’s Death, one doubts whether he decided to apply theories of everyday resistance to his archive, or lack thereof. In that essay, the idea of dignity is arrived at, not presupposed, as a theoretical and interpretive explanation for the events at hand.

Chibber’s book seems to overlook a wealth of already existing critique of postcolonial theory, which is arguably far more contextual than Chibber’s. Again, let me give just one among numerous examples. Chitra Joshi wrote a meticulous book, titled Lost Worlds, on working-class history in Lucknow. Her argument, that reproduction and reaffirmation of power exists co-constitutively with resistance to power, was a measured critique of Dipesh Chakrabarty‘s Rethinking Working Class History, as well as Rajnarayan Chandravarkar’s work on practices of worker politics and sites of resistance. Joshi’s book-length study showed how workers actively negotiated culture, reproduced and reconstituted it both in moments of internal class conflict as well as class solidarity. In other words, cultural forms of differentiation were not imposed by capitalists to merely divide workers, something Chibber argues often in his book. Joshi’s persuasive critique was that Chakrabarty had ended up reifying “culture” both descriptively and analytically, whether or not he had intended to do so.

So, is Chibber aware of this substantial volume of work? Yes, he is. Except that Joshi’s weighty criticism is reduced to a footnote on pg. 140, apparently to elucidate “in the Indian setting… how capitalists often find laborers clustered into distinct occupational specialization, associated with particular communities.” The staggering misrepresentation of what is a deeply nuanced critique, arrived at through years of primary engagement with historical material, remains bewildering.

It is necessary to point this out fundamentally because Subaltern Studies, warts and all, began, first and foremost, as a critical historical practice, influenced by several other kinds of critical practices such as everyday history, micro-history, and social and cultural anthropology. Therefore, any book-length criticism of the topic should seriously account for what the discipline of history has itself produced in response to that which provoked it— in this case, Subaltern Studies.

Chibber’s book has already been criticized elsewhere on the internet: for example, here, here, here, and here.

I can only highlight and foreground a more selective response. The audience for the Unit for Criticism’s author’s roundtable, was asked to read Chapters 8 and 10 of the book, which deal with the categories of interests and universalisms, and the nationalist question of modernization respectively. Both chapters are emblematic of the book’s larger argument, which is, in short, the claim that European modernity and Indian modernity effectively have the same trajectory. The nature of capitalism may be uneven, but the operative principles and engines are the same. Consent was equally lacking in the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” in Europe, and therefore, the rise of the Indian bourgeoisie is no real deviation from a classical norm. Moreover, the working class in both parts of the world, have similar experiences with capitalism and its mechanisms of oppression. Their resistance to it has a shared repertoire, the most basic among which is, physical well-being and a shared interest in the sustenance of such well-being, whatever the place-specific cultural articulations may be. Thus, the two universalisms that are always at work in the world are the universalizing tendencies of capital and the universal resistance to it for the sake of physical well-being.

In Chapter 8, “Interests and the other universalisms,” Chibber undertakes his critique of Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working Class History—a book that, as others have argued, reifies “culture” even though culture itself was the subject of his analysis and the moment of his departure. What Chibber doesn’t point out is that Chakrabarty’s critique came at a time when working class and labour history in India had become saturated with questions of class formation and a high reliance on the event-character of strikes and work actions. The shifting focus towards communal violence and moments of calcification of various identities, primarily caste and religion, in the historiography of the 1980s coincided with the rise of the popularity of Hindu fascism among the urban underclasses and working poor. The range of questions around violence and the limits and fissures of class solidarity became central to historical introspection, and the literature grew to cover diverse moments ranging between the last decades of the nineteenth century that appear in Chakrabarty’s work, to the Great Calcutta Killings. Within such a context, Chakrabarty’s work produced a polarity which later historians had to contend with and successfully breach.

Chibber reduces the argument about pre-capitalist identities affirming and limiting capitalism in Bengal’s jute industry to a contorted question of the psychology of the “Eastern” worker. Chibber asks, “What psychological resources did workers or slaves draw upon when they fought their masters?” This concern would make sense if Chakrabarty was indeed making an argument about psychology or psychic history, such as the kind undertaken by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in the 1960s. Except that Chakrabarty wasn’t. Partha Chatterjee has already pointed out that it was the social and cultural anthropology coming out of Indian universities that Subaltern Studies was wrestling with as it worked through the category of “consciousness.” But the reason Chibber makes it all about some kind of static psychology is because it furthers his own statement on the conditions of universal worker solidarity, wherein he states “the psychological need was in fact the universal interest in advancing their basic needs.” Ironically, while Chibber spends so much time accusing Subaltern Studies of re-crafting an Orientalism, he uncritically reproduces a static and thoroughly un-dialectical essentialism that is resolutely unmarked by geography, history, language, philosophy, and faith. That these categories are not merely cultural, and produce materialities of different kinds that historians have to reckon with every day, is lost on Chibber and his “correct” version of class analysis.

Historians of Southern Africa have often had to wrestle with a foundational event in Xhosa history. In the mid-19th century, responding to a prophecy made about the increasing European control on land and capital, following several Anglo-Xhosa skirmishes in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa decided to kill their cattle and burn their land with the belief that it would regenerate and recalibrate the Xhosa community and its ability to ward off European incursions. Bullets would turn to water and the white colonial presence would be washed to the sea, a belief outmatched by the famine and suicides that followed. (For a recent argument on the uses of afterlives and failure, see Jennifer Wenzel, Bulletproof, Chicago, 2009.) Millenarianism of this kind was common across the nineteenth-century colonial world where Christianity, print culture, and other common imperial phenomenon collided with local historical contingencies to produce extremely dynamic outcomes for peasants and workers. Ranajit Guha himself had to work through similar questions in the case of the Santhal rebellions in India.

What sense of physical well-being were the Xhosa working with? I mention this to suggest precisely how un-universal the notion of physical well-being is. While Chatterjee has already remarked upon how physical well-being remains unmarked by class, and can actually work both ways for the capitalist and the worker, the category is also fundamentally impenetrable. What is physical well-being to an organ donor willing to give away a kidney, or a surrogate mother in India selling the reproductive power of her womb, or an addict who is well aware of the debilitations of his/her addiction? The term “well-being” is hollowed out of historical specificity and remains a far cry from the dialectical materialism that the Marxist tradition has prided itself upon. It is equally a prioristic as a category of analysis, especially in the ways that it flattens out precisely the kinds of unevenness that Chibber has acknowledged elsewhere. In fact, Chibber appears well aware that such an argument is basically contractarian and liberal sophistry, which is why he situates such an analysis within what he calls “liberal freedoms,” which apparently every worker in the world aspires to. If the commodity was fundamentally mysterious to Marx, it is rendered instrumental in Chibber’s work, meant only for the fulfilment of “basic human needs”.

Both the working class and the feminist movement have previously attempted to work with transcendental notions and ideal-type subjects, only to run up against the limitations of an imperialist world and the subjectivities produced out of the experience of colonial modernity. Today, the international working class and the global sisterhood are being re-drawn following repeated moments of torsion and undoing, using critical interrogative practices of universal politics that are extracted from the lessons of experience. We need to acknowledge difference and the prejudices which lie implicit in the languages used to explain and recast difference, while working to create co-constitutive notions of the universal and the particular. The burden of this task, which has been forced upon us by movements from below, and not the academia, is exceptionally difficult but it forces us to think harder. Chibber’s answers, on the other hand, appear all too simple and woefully inadequate.

In Chapter 10, “The Nation Unmoored,” Chibber argues that Chatterjee does not account for the vertical pressures that global capitalism puts on decolonising nation-states. The power of such global capitalism is evidenced by the geopolitical and military pressure on new states in the twentieth century to modernize their armed forces to compete for national security. Similarly, there are pressures from below, such as those produced by mass movements led by various marginalised constituencies which the state’s power elite have to accommodate. There is nothing problematic per se, Chibber would have us believe, with modernization since it was a rational choice that “made sense” to the post-colonial political leadership, primarily Jawaharlal Nehru. It was never, Chibber argues, about any implication with colonial modernity in the way that it emerged in colonial society.

Ironically, here, Chibber basically ends up affirming the sole argument that he picks out from Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. Chatterjee had pointed out that it was “not just military might or industrial strength, but thought itself which can dominate and subjugate.” What Chatterjee was attempting to do in 1986 was diagnose the formation of political ideologies implicated within colonial modernity, nationalism being the prime example. That scientific rationality, industrial enterprise, military solutions for maintaining politico-juridical borders, and, most importantly, developmental modernisation per se have become the lingua franca of modernity following Europe’s long history of contact and colonisation, and that they are so immediately obvious to most people that they occlude any alternative modes of even imagining, let alone experimenting with, social organisation and political transformation, is the thrust of Chatterjee’s critique. Chatterjee was trying to lay out what the complexity of this experience looked like in India—where there existed, often simultaneously with Gandhi and Nehru, contradictory engagements with the colonial thematic and problematic. That Nehru’s vision emerges as a dominant state-led modernisation project, and hence must be situated in relation to the history of how colonial modernity and the legitimation of European scientific and industrial standards in the post-colony are co-constitutive, is precisely Chatterjee’s point.

For Chibber however, embracing modernization equals “escaping from, or loosening neo-colonial domination” (pg. 276). When Chibber basically recounts that how beneficial the welfarist project in India, China, and Russia have been, because their decision to modernise seemed rational and “made sense” as opposed to some kind of indoctrination in bourgeois western thought, he effectively proves Chatterjee right. In an exceptionally revealing moment, Chibber states that “the non-modernising models of governance for the postcolony (which have been around) are certainly unviable.” Chibber asks the reader to accept his authority on the literature on all the world’s possible “non-modernising models of postcolonial governance,” since he alone knows of their “viability.”

That Chibber replicates the language of viability, of a universal measuring standard and the principles of liberal welfarism which have been the most useful safety valve for capitalism since the early twentieth century, betrays his limited awareness of the dichotomies and transformations, the continuities and ruptures that the colonial intervention produced in the colonies. More importantly, Chibber represents precisely what Chatterjee meant. Chibber is so busy measuring viability out of thin air that it is impossible for Chibber to even think, let alone discuss or study the diverse forms of off-modern or non-developmental modes of cultural and political economy that exist around the world, in order to even begin to ask the crucial historical question—how did the “viable” alternative come to appear so viable in the first place?

In 1986, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World was a response to the works of Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner, who wrote their volumes on nationalism in 1983. Chatterjee was, at that point, trying to recuperate nationalism for the decolonising world from the historical inaccuracies of Anderson and Gellner, while also finding newer ways of criticising it. Chatterjee was also trying to probe the onset of developmental modernisation as the fundamental paradigm for post-colonial nation-states, which is where Nehru became a crucial subject. Both those projects fell into problems of structuralist binarism, as well as a residual nationalism, which has been repeatedly pointed out by historians since the publication of the book. (A selective list of historians who have engaged with Chatterjee on such questions includes Sumit Sarkar, David Ludden, Frederick Cooper, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Tanika Sarkar, and Benjamin Zachariah who have pointed out these issues, while both appraising and undoing the contributions of Subaltern Studies.) However, those critiques of nationalism and modernisation also shaped much of Chatterjee’s later insights on political society as a fundamental coordinate of postcolonial politics, where the increasing claims upon the ambit of the state frame the objectives of mass politics.

Chibber accuses Chatterjee of asserting that his examination of anticolonial nationalism in India is applicable across Africa and Asia. Undeniably, Chatterjee was building his own metanarrative, albeit a non-European one, but if we agree that every narrative is in fact, a metanarrative, then it is not difficult to see what Chatterjee was doing. Marxist historiography until then had done enough to analyse capital and the development of capitalism in India, but few historians had critically interrogated the limits of secular rationality which treated factors like religion and caste as vestiges of pre-capitalism or sociological tools of domination used asymmetrically by capital upon labour.

Besides the difference between capital and capitalism, or primary and secondary texts, Chibber also collapses the distinction between developmental modernisation of the statist variety and modernisation per se. (See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s review for the range of category errors.) In spite of Chibber’s repeated exhortation about how developmental modernisation, which Chibber repeatedly calls “modernisation,” seemed rational to Nehru, Chibber offers no examination of Nehru’s personal papers, let alone any of the 20th-century nationalists he cites. In fact, he comes across as substantially uncritical of the developmentalist nationalisms that pervaded the Third World and led to large displacements of human beings, flora, and fauna, among other hazardous outcomes. The history of displacement and contingent outcomes emerging from Nehru’s massive dam-building projects or Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa villagisation scheme, are two examples that remain beyond the pale of Chibber’s analysis.

Let me conclude by noting how Chibber’s responses to his critics have been remarkable in the ways in which he infantilizes the readers of Subaltern Studies. Apparently, Chibber’s critics say what they say because they occupy entrenched positions in a western academy whence postcolonial theory came and where it has been commodified. One could argue whether or not postcolonial theory has become quite self-referential today, but it is definitely not the reason why Chibber is criticised. What invites criticism is Chibber’s insistence on a resolutely anti-Marxist individualism and economic positivism, which forecloses a number of historical questions. His argument would have (hopefully) looked markedly different had it engaged with the work of Marxists elsewhere in the Third World, who have made, since 1930, several nuanced criticisms of orientalism, capitalism, and imperialism. Chibber frequently and arbitrarily invokes them, before disposing them off as he continues to read secondary texts to make tertiary arguments.

Subaltern Studies, despite its prolonged caste-blindness and gender-neutrality, was the academic response to the popular and insubordinate power of colonised subjects and revolutionary imaginations. Marxist engagements with Subaltern Studies need to work with the same spirit, as opposed to restating Enlightenment universals under the name-sign of a resolutely anti-Enlightenment thinker. Chibber’s insistence on situating Marx and Rawls in the same genealogy where liberalism and Marxism appear wholly compatible under an Enlightenment umbrella is indicative of how liberal rights-based leftism has pervaded the space of rigorous Marxist critique. This recourse to finding in liberalism and the Enlightenment, the complement to Marxism, is a worrying fallacy. By refusing to critically engage with the predicaments produced by the politics of colonial difference and colonial capitalism, and finding immediate resolutions in liberal thought, it forecloses possibilities of more radical departures from the inheritance of colonial difference towards politically insurgent communities of belief.

Thankfully, we are all not liberals yet.

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