Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital
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Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

Vivek Chibber

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Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

Vivek Chibber

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Postcolonial theory has become enormously influential as a framework for understanding the Global South. It is also a school of thought popular because of its rejection of the supposedly universalizing categories of the Enlightenment. In this devastating critique, mounted on behalf of the radical Enlightenment tradition, Vivek Chibber offers the most comprehensive response yet to postcolonial theory. Focusing on the hugely popular Subaltern Studies project, Chibber shows that its foundational arguments are based on a series of analytical and historical misapprehensions. He demonstrates that it is possible to affirm a universalizing theory without succumbing to Eurocentrism or reductionism. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital promises to be a historical milestone in contemporary social theory.

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Over the past two decades, postcolonial studies has acquired considerable visibility in academic circles. Its point of origin was in literary and cultural studies, where it started as a movement to transcend the marginalization of non-Western literatures in the canon. On this count, the campaign experienced enormous, and rapid, success. By the turn of the millennium, the conventional packaging of modern literary training had expanded—at least at many elite American universities—to include the works of authors as diverse as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Aimé Césaire, Salman Rushdie, and Gabriel García Márquez. This was a remarkable and salutary achievement in its own right, and had the influence of postcolonial studies been limited to this, it would have certainly merited real attention. But its significance would have been limited. Most likely it would have been understood as a current which, while no doubt important for widening the perspective of its field, nonetheless remained part of the internal story of an academic specialty—no more worthy of attention than any other scholarly trend. What set it apart—and continues to do so—were two additional facts about its trajectory.
The first was that postcolonial studies rapidly migrated beyond literary analysis, to find a happy home in other disciplines. It was most visible in history and anthropology, but its influence soon spread to other scholarly domains. This was part of a broader trend in academia at the fin de siècle, which has since continued apace and is often referred to as “the cultural turn.”1 The New Left’s brief flirtation with Marxist materialism had, by this time, largely dissipated; in its wake came an abiding interest in culture and ideology, not merely as an object of study but as an explanatory principle that rapidly usurped the same exalted place that “class” or “capitalism” had occupied just a decade prior. As the shift toward cultural analysis gathered steam, it was not altogether surprising that intellectuals looked to literary theory for guidance on how to approach their subject. The frameworks and theories dominant in departments of literature thus found an audience in related fields—and among the exports was postcolonial studies. For area specialists in particular, whose focus was what had been known as the Third World, the turn toward cultural analysis naturally translated into a fascination with postcolonial studies as a framework. By the turn of the century, then, the approach was no longer a purely disciplinary phenomenon.
The second noteworthy fact about postcolonial studies was that it claimed not just to study colonial history but also to enable political practice. The ambition was not simply to generate scholarly output but, as Robert J. C. Young advised, to “foreground its interventionist possibilities.”2 Leading figures in the postcolonial field have often referred to it as more than just a theory; it is also presented as a form of practice or even a movement. In its early years, this impulse was naturally directed toward the structures of colonial and neocolonial domination. More recently, however, postcolonial studies has expanded its domain to the social sphere more generally. In a recent introduction to the field, it is described as a theory relevant to anyone “joined by the common political and ethical commitment to challenging and questioning the practices and consequences of domination and subordination.”3 The focus on imperial cultures and colonial rule thus occupies only one part of the field’s universe. It now takes as its remit the gamut of social practices.
Postcolonial studies has thus positioned itself not only as positive theory but also as radical critique. In so doing, it has stepped quite consciously into the vacuum left by the decline of Marxism in both the industrialized West and its satellites. In part, this flows from the biographical trajectories of its leading lights, many of whom participated in the New Left’s dalliance with Marxism. Figures such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Ranajit Guha, Anibal Quijano, Partha Chatterjee, and Dipesh Chakrabarty emerged from the Marxist milieu of the 1970s, even if their immersion in it varied in intensity. It was only natural for them to take Marxism as their primary interlocutor as they made their way out of its orbit and forged the agenda for postcolonial studies. But while these biographical factors are certainly not irrelevant, the primary source of the engagement with, and rejection of, Marxism has been political: a sense that the world has moved on; that the dilemmas of late capitalism, particularly in the Global South, cannot be apprehended by the categories of historical materialism; even more, that the failure of liberation movements in the twentieth century was, in substantial measure, the result of Marxism’s abiding theoretical inadequacies.
As a result, the challenge faced by postcolonial studies is strikingly similar to the one accepted by Marxism a century ago—to generate a theory adequate to the needs of a radical political agenda. There are differences, of course—the most obvious one being that Marxism’s initial development and spread was almost entirely based in working-class organizations and political parties, while its foothold in universities was infinitesimally small. Postcolonial studies is its mirror image, having developed entirely within the university and, though drawing some inspiration from movements, rarely in more than symbolic contact with them. Still, in the universe of academic production, the success has been nothing short of remarkable. As even one of its critics has been moved to observe, “the most flourishing sector of cultural studies today is so-called postcolonial studies.”4
But for any critic of postcolonial studies, the very success of the field raises formidable challenges to a proper assessment of it. Owing in large measure to their roots in poststructuralist theory and its anti-foundationalism, many postcolonial intellectuals have eschewed developing the kind of clearly constructed propositions that would normally accompany a research agenda. This would, perhaps, be considered too vulgar a display of truthmongering. Again and again, we find that the proponents of the field present it more as an intellectual orientation than as a theory. It is part of the move to what has been called post-theory.5 In the inaugural issue of one of the journals dedicated to the field, Robert Young announces that “postcolonialism offers a politics rather than a coherent methodology. Indeed … strictly speaking there is no such thing as postcolonial theory as such—rather there are shared political perceptions and agenda [sic] which employ an eclectic range of theories in their service.”6 I believe that Young’s characterization is quite accurate, and points to a central difference between postcolonial studies and the Marxist tradition it seeks to supplant. It is not that postcolonial studies is an assemblage of theories while Marxism was not—in fact, Marxism always comprised an eclectic range of theories, much as does the former. The difference is that Marxism always sought internal coherence and systematicity, while postcolonial studies resists any compulsion to bring together and assess its various strands. Thus, as its influence has spread, the variations in what falls under its rubric have tended to increase. From literature and cultural studies, to historiography, the philosophy of history, and anthropology, it is now possible to find postcolonial theory in all these areas and elsewhere besides, but with the common “theory” increasingly hard to discern.
The reluctance to strive for coherence has been overlaid with a phenomenon more typical of university culture. This is the eagerness among academics to appear au courant, at the cutting edge, to display familiarity with the very latest conceptual advances. The most common means of so doing is to troll for the latest neologisms in order to pepper one’s work with them, even if only for symbolic purposes. The result is a kind of conceptual inflation, in which the substantive influence of a framework appears to extend far beyond its actual reach. Postcolonial studies has enjoyed this inflated popularity more than most others—hence the spread of terms such as “subaltern,” “hybridity,” “the fragment,” and “diaspora” across the scholarly landscape. Its conceptual repertoire can be found in works of many kinds, even when they are not committed to the same research agenda or to a common set of theoretical parameters. As a result, works that appear to fall within the domain of postcolonial studies may be committed to quite distinct theoretical agendas. What they will have in common is the field’s style, not its substance.
If a field of research or intellectual practice becomes truly chaotic, it poses some special challenges for critics. Normally, in assessments of any research program, the first task is to locate its central theoretical propositions. These can then be judged with regard to consistency, empirical success, coherence, and so on. But in the case of a field as diffuse as postcolonial studies appears to be, critics run the risk of discovering counterexamples for every theoretical commitment they criticize. For every failure of the theory that critics might adduce, defenders can find exceptions and successes. The challenge is thus to examine whether, under the mountain of loosely connected scholarship, there lies a core set of commitments or propositions. If no such core can be discovered, the next task is to see whether there exists a strand of theorization within the field that has some coherence and makes explicit its commitments, even if these have not been adopted by the field as a whole.
Now, it seems reasonable to suppose that despite the “bandwagon effect” of its jargon, postcolonial studies does have some common political and theoretical commitments at its core. It is known for its critique of Eurocentrism, nationalism (“the nation form”), colonial ideology, and economic determinism. Its leading theorists claim to have excavated the sources of subaltern agency and reinserted culture as a central mechanism in social analysis; indeed, they are known for their insistence on the importance of the cultural specificity of “the East.” These themes are quite commonly associated with postcolonial studies and are part of its attraction to intellectuals. Further, they are more than a set of political commitments. Serious proponents of these views presumably also carry a set of arguments in support of their positions. Perhaps these arguments are not accepted across the spectrum of those who call themselves postcolonial theorists, but as long as the arguments cohere, they do permit assessment. And so long as the influence of the arguments being assessed is real—even if not universal—then the critique is not only possible but also meaningful.
It happens that we can identify several strands of theorization within postcolonial studies. Some of them, particularly its cultural theory and some of its metatheoretical arguments, have already generated considerable discussion.7 Although I intend to take up these issues to some extent in the following chapters, my central concern in this book is to examine the framework that postcolonial studies has generated for historical analysis and, in particular, the analysis of what once was called the Third World. There is little doubt that, had it not been for its spread into historical and anthropological scholarship, postcolonial studies would have enjoyed far less notoriety on the general intellectual landscape. Once exported into area studies and historical scholarship, however, the theory gained more general visibility. Moreover, scholars in these more empirically oriented domains have made efforts to enunciate their theoretical commitments. We are therefore able to analyze these historical arguments as well as the theory that they collectively comprise.
The most illustrious representative of postcolonial studies in the scholarship on the Global South is undoubtedly the Subaltern Studies project. Initially the term was merely a name, a proper noun that referred to an annual series published in India starting in 1982. But what began as an annual volume of essays on modern Indian history, inspired by Gramscian theory and critical trends within historical scholarship, had, by the turn of the century, morphed into something more generic. “Subaltern” now 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. Leading proponents of the project having announced its affiliation with postcolonial studies, it was, by the end of the twentieth century, widely regarded as the face of postcolonial scholarship in area studies. To be sure, there were and are theorists within the postcolonial fold who are not directly affiliated with Subaltern Studies or its theoretical agenda, but there is no more conspicuous exemplar of postcolonial theory in the relevant disciplines than the “Subalternists” themselves.
The contours of this story are well known.8 When the annual series was launched in 1982, it was received in the scholarly world as the local avatar of “history from below” as developed by the New Left. It was conceived by Ranajit Guha, a historian of modern India then based at the University of Sussex, together with a small group of younger scholars.9 At the time they began meeting, in the late 1970s, most members of this group would have regarded themselves as Marxists. As with so many of their peers in the West, they were impressed by the achievements of the movement for a “history from below” and the turn toward popular consciousness as a research agenda. All of the sketches that group members have drawn up in later years recount the influence of E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and pioneers of popular history.10 A natural accompaniment to this agenda was an abiding interest in the work of Antonio Gramsci, whose influence among social historians was growing rapidly during this period. Gramsci’s scattered but powerful reflections on Marxist theory and Italian culture embodied, for this later generation, their dual concerns with popular history and matters of consciousness. The group that coalesced around Guha was no exception to this trend.
While the group internalized the turn toward popular movements and culture that was then pervading historical scholarship, it also took on board another set of concerns, of a more local character. These had to do with the trajectory of colonial and postcolonial India as set against the wider experience of global modernity. In initiating its project, the Subaltern Studies group proposed not just to ask new questions—about the history of subordinate groups, popular movements, peasant consciousness, and so forth – but also to provide new answers to old questions, especially questions about the Subcontinent’s political evolution since Independence. All these concerns are in evidence in the first volume’s prefatory document, which serves as a kind of manifesto. In it, the editors declared their intention not only to uncover the hidden history of the Subcontinent’s laboring classes but also to provide some explanation for the historic failure of Indian nationalism, whether as an elite project or a popular aspiration for a national liberation struggle.11 The editors thus committed themselves to developing an account of the broader political economy of the entire modern era in Indian history, a theme that had been at the center of debates in the Subcontinent in the preceding decades. The truly innovative dimension of Subaltern Studies, then, was to marry popular history to the analysis of colonial and postcolonial capitalism.
While the intellectual agenda mapped out was no doubt exciting, it did not by any means constitute a radical break from the milieu that produced it. As had been promised, the early volumes of Subaltern Studies pursued the twin themes of history from below and colonial political economy. While the resulting output was exciting and in many ways innovative, it fit rather easily into the cultural Marxism in vogue at the time, and although it raised the hackles of some Marxists in India, the criticisms were not easily distinguishable from the reactions that typically accompany any departure from familiar nostrums.12 Subaltern Studies was largely seen as an innovation within Marxist theory, not as a radical departure from it. This is not to downplay either the significance of the early work or the reactions—often hostile—that it elicited from more orthodox Marxists. But the flavor of these critiques, and of the Subalternists’ responses to them, was that of a dispute within an epistemic community rath...

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