23 December 2013

Subaltern-speak

This article appears in Issue 18: Good News. Subscribe to read it in print.

  • Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Verso, March 2013.

How do you tell the history of the world? Not long ago this question would have seemed naive. The only people enthusiastic about universal history were complacent idiots who thought that history had ended with the cold war and the twin triumphs of democracy and globalization, or that it was moving toward an ever fuller manifestation of the glory of the Western way of life. Raining on their parade felt like a civic duty. 

Those days are gone. Even the idiots are no longer complacent. Now they worry about the decline of American power and the rise of China; they scramble for a techno-fix for global warming and other looming resource-related catastrophes. Few Whig interpretations of history are left afloat. Sinking them no longer seems the most productive way to spend your time. Meanwhile, urgent reasons have made themselves felt (see above) for trying to make sense of history on a planetary scale. And it seems quite possible to do so without being Whiggish about it.

This planet is home to a large number of nations, societies, regions, cultures, communities, and other variably sized human collectivities. Each is, of course, unique. Each has a legitimate claim to a history of its own. Do these claims mean that no single overarching history is possible? The somewhat obscure impulse behind Vivek Chibber’s polemical and much-debated book is to establish that such a history is both possible and desirable. His motive, stated somewhere in the middle of his book, is “to tie together the political struggles of laboring classes in East and West as part of one—dare I say it—universal history.” Whatever doubts I have about the peculiar version of universal history he comes up with, and I have several, I’m glad he dared.


The target of Chibber’s polemic is not postcolonial theory as a whole, about which he says almost nothing. (Verso should have asked him to drop the portentously inaccurate title.) His target is Subaltern Studies, the field created by a group of left-wing historians of South Asia who began publishing in the early 1980s. The Subalterns—represented in Chibber’s book by Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Partha Chatterjee, and who also include David Arnold, Gyanendra Pandey, and Shahid Amin, among others (Gayatri Spivak is a sort of fellow traveler)—wrote from within Marxism but against what Chakrabarty called the “deep-seated, crude materialism of the ‘matter over mind’ variety” implicitly attributed to orthodox Marxism. Crude materialism, these historians argued, did not give enough credit to the culture, consciousness, or experience of India’s poorest. There was also an immediate political context that spurred the historiographic question. In the late 1960s and ’70s, India’s most oppressed had risen up in what came to be known as the Naxalite insurgency, and received less than full-throated support from the established Marxist parties. When Guha and Chatterjee researched peasant revolts against colonial officials and landlords or strikes in Calcutta’s jute mills, they were calling attention to a resistant agency for which even the anticolonial left seemed unable or unwilling to find a proper place. 

The problem, the Subalterns said, was that this agency was articulated in an “archaic” vocabulary—religious, superstitious, hierarchical, premodern—that did not translate into the modern, autonomous, egalitarian subjectivity that Marxism predicted would emerge under capitalism. Capitalism, though very much present in India, showed no sign of dispelling the older social formations that had stalled over India like permanent bad weather. The Subalterns argued the reason lay with the undeveloped colonial “comprador” bourgeoisie, who were completely unlike their structural counterparts in Europe and had failed, during the Indian independence movement, to assume a similarly revolutionary role, leaving the poorer and less powerful classes—the “subaltern” strata—unintegrated into the nation. India, in other words, hadn’t followed the path established by liberal or Marxist theories of development, which were outlined from European models and therefore ill-fitted to the postcolonial situation. In Europe, “history from below,” which flourished in the creatively revisionist hands of Marxist historians like E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, had been inspired in part by the actual disappearance of Europe’s peasantry. In India, the peasantry was not disappearing. On the contrary, an expanding capitalism was somehow reproducing it with all its feudal quirks intact. Archaism remained culturally dominant across the board. Chatterjee made a point of mentioning “industrial capitalists delaying the closing of a deal because they hadn’t yet had word from their respective astrologers.” 

The historians were split on the relationship between the expansion of capitalism and the stubborn persistence of the peasantry. On the one hand, it meant that capitalism was not as powerful as some people thought. At the same time, it meant that the Indian peasantry was more powerful; precisely those qualities (handcraft, superstition, and so on) that did not neatly fit the Western narrative of historical progress were unassimilable by capitalism and therefore a bulwark against it, a potential rallying site for resistance. Guha’s interpretation—summed up in Dominance without Hegemony (1998)—placed its emphasis elsewhere, on the frustrated role of the bourgeoisie, but his premise was the same: in order to flourish, capitalism needed to subsume nearly everything under its implacable logic, something that manifestly hadn’t happened in India. 

Generalized, this defense of the cultural specificities of the downtrodden became a polemic against universalizing materialist history as such. To “provincialize Europe,” in Chakrabarty’s phrase, for the Subalterns did not mean giving up a European vocabulary—far from it—but it did seem to entail rejecting all meta- or master narratives. This not only meant that Eurocentric theories were inadequate to the postcolony, but that the experience of the latter should drastically revise our opinion of the former, and throw in doubt any attempt to universalize based on a single model. Heavily implicated was the particular metanarrative supposedly established by Marxism, which saw a universalizing, homogenizing capitalism expanding at the expense of cultural difference. “In Defense of the Fragment,” an essay by Gyanendra Pandey, strikes the characteristic note. Those who “reduce the lives of men and women to the play of material interests, or at other times to large impersonal movements in economy and society over which human beings have no control,” Pandey says, are leaving out human agency. In effect, they leave out India itself. Fragments are the prescribed therapy. 

Why was this scholarship such a huge international hit? How did a small group of mainly South Asian historians suddenly get to be world famous? How did they become the symbol of an intellectual paradigm so powerful that Chibber (and others) would come to feel they must be publicly humbled and even humiliated? For one thing, their timing was good. Along with the term “subaltern,” they borrowed from the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci an analysis of how the Italian movement of national independence had failed to integrate significant portions of the population. The Subalterns diagnosed a parallel failure. As in Italy, so in postcolonial India: anticolonial leaders had cared more about shoring up their own niche in post-Independence society than about representing the whole of the nation, and the new nation-state had left much of the nation unrepresented. The Subalterns’ analysis also arrived at a moment when the nationalisms of the decolonizing nations were coming to be perceived—by their own people and international observers alike—as exhausted. Kenya, Uganda, and Indonesia, stars of the Bandung Conference in 1955, in subsequent years had succumbed to dictatorships; India nearly did the same during the Emergency, and the years that followed were ones of persistent economic malaise. To the question Why did third world nationalism fail? many answers could be given. But the Subalterns’ answer—that it was wrong from the start, because it had not integrated the poorest of the poor into its project—proved, at least in the academy, to be persuasive.

In the US, Subaltern Studies caught the postcolonial wave (Edward Said’s field-creating Orientalism had been published in 1978). It also got a great deal of momentum from American-style multiculturalism. If Subaltern Studies was to unseat other, political-economy-based accounts of the unhappy trajectory of the third world, including Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory and Latin American dependency theory (anticipated, Vinay Bahl has noted, by India’s own drain theory), it would need some powerful endorsements. American academia’s hypersensitivity to the culture of the Other gave it the needed political oomph. It did not hurt that, like postcolonialism, the Subaltern project of retrieving backward or traditional worldviews had recourse to the most sophisticated, cutting-edge theories of poststructuralist interpretation. Necessarily so, one might say, given that these worldviews had not recorded themselves directly in written transcripts; continental theory offered ways of seeing and productively interpreting silences and gaps in a text. It was certainly a transnational and interdisciplinary selling point for the Subalterns: their content was local and piously traditional while their methodology was global and glossily modern. 

Later scholarship in Subaltern Studies followed currents elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences. Influenced by Foucault, the Subalterns questioned the power relations that created the archival sources they were unearthing (Who produced them? And for what?). Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986) refined the categories of Orientalism for examining power and culture under nationalism. Gayatri Spivak’s 1988 essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” questioned whether it was possible to recover the voices of the truly disadvantaged, and introduced deconstruction into the discourse of Subaltern Studies. In an otherwise sympathetic introduction to a selection of their work in 1992, Spivak criticized their lack of attention to questions of gender. It was a criticism the Subalterns took seriously: subsequent writing by Susie Tharu, as well as Guha and Chatterjee, has tried to remedy the gap. Chakrabarty’s own Provincializing Europe (2000) assimilated these strands while also attempting to advance them, trying to tease out a notion of modernity that did not rely on Europe as its model and everything else as mimicry.

Early critiques of the Subalterns were sometimes factional (Do I detect vestigial Maoism?) and sometimes regional (Why should South Asia provide the paradigm rather than, say, China? Does all this apply to Africa?). Much has been made of their skepticism about Western rationality and their corresponding taste for postmodern critics of that rationality, like Foucault and Derrida. Others have questioned their habit of using “elitist” as a killing put-down, which the influence of Foucault and Derrida has ironically served to moderate. Anti-elitism is a dangerous position if (as is often the case) the person making the charge is himself a member of an elite. The fact that Guha comes from the class of absentee landlords he analyzed in A Rule of Property for Bengal was first mentioned, it should be said, by Guha himself.

Chibber’s polemic represents an emerging and much more profound debate. Taking Subaltern Studies as symbolic of a wider intellectual failure, he asserts in its place the validity and explanatory power of a renewed and unapologetic Marxism, and with it the Enlightenment universals that it relied on. In the view of thinkers like Chibber, the charge that Marxist theory suffers from “Eurocentrism”—represented by decades of thinking, entire libraries of books, and hundreds of academic departments—is sterile and empty. Drawing a line in the sand naturally makes both sides upset, and the debate over Chibber’s book has been heated. The field was sowed when his less guarded, even more polemical thoughts about the bankruptcy of Subaltern Studies came out in an interview with Jacobin: “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 19th century,” he said. “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.” The interview seems at times almost unhinged. A widely read critique by Chris Taylor, an English professor at the University of Chicago, published under the title, “Not Even Marxist,” argued that Chibber mistakenly forced readers to “choose sides” between Subaltern Studies and Marxism; moreover, Chibber’s brand of Marxism, Taylor suggested, was a bad one. This received a riposte at Verso’s blog (“Not Even Marxist?”), which got fought over in turn. The closing session of the Historical Materialism conference at NYU in April 2013 was a debate between Partha Chatterjee and Chibber, and was advertised like it was the return of Ali vs. Frazier. 

The heatedness of the debates that flared up around Chibber’s book has to do with the place of honor it gives to the showdown between universalism and culture. Chibber’s impatience with culturalist interpretation—that is, interpretation that doesn’t merely deal with culture but wants to demonstrate how unnecessary and misleading it is to talk about the economic at all—is now widely shared. In an era when purely cultural explanations are no longer as persuasive, “economic determinism” loses its force as a smear. It would be surprising if Chibber’s book had not benefited from this development. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital comes bearing endorsements from a political philosopher (Joshua Cohen), an economic historian (Robert Brenner), Noam Chomsky, and, well, Žižek. 


According to Chibber, the fact that the world contains many cultures does not get in the way of the project of a universal history. The reason is simple: cultural particularity does not get in the way of capitalism. Guha, according to Chibber, “never considers the possibility that the expansion of capital’s economic logic simply did not require the kind of deep cultural transformations that he thinks it does. He does not consider that capital might be able to meet its basic needs by relying on the very cultural forms he thinks are inimical to it—those typical of traditional political economies, suffused with outdated forms of social hierarchy and subordination.” It should be no surprise, then, that kinship and religious affiliations have not been swept away by the capitalist tide. It was rational that they be retained both from the viewpoint of labor—they helped rural workers get jobs and survive in the city—and from the viewpoint of capital: employers could use these feudal remnants to weaken their workforces by fomenting splits along caste and other lines. To maintain your cultural identity may make you feel good, but it does nothing to withstand capitalism, which (Chibber repeats) “does not have to obliterate social differences in order to universalize itself.” 

This point has enormous implications. In a critique of Chakrabarty that also departs from common opinion in the cultural disciplines (by which Chibber as a sociologist is clearly irritated), he insists that the famous line from the Communist Manifesto (“all that is solid melts into air”) does not after all describe what capitalism characteristically does to the world. It can collaborate with local cultures perfectly well. If it is frustrated, it’s no doubt for reasons that have nothing to do with culture—for example, because of pushback by labor unions. In Chibber’s eyes, the bar for significant resistance must be set higher than mere persistence in one’s identity.

Chibber’s position has an immediate payoff. It reminds us that there are things to which capitalism is basically indifferent—things that neither help nor hinder it, and that it in turn does not do much to help or hinder. So the particular cultural forces that would seem to be resistant to capitalism turn out not to be. This has a common-sense verifiability to it. The conspicuous success of capitalism (with all its variations) in places as distinct as China and the UAE suggests, on the face of it anyway, that culture is not always a barrier to capitalism. 

In pressing his claim against the significance of the cultural particularity of the Indian peasant, Chibber can be a little nasty. At one point, anticipating his public remarks about the book and Vietnam, he makes the claim that the Subalterns are guilty of Orientalism. This is too much, and yet, in fairness, the premise that the Indian peasantry can be defined in such a way that no one who is not an Indian peasant can understand it, as the Subalterns sometimes seem to assume, is almost irritating enough to justify Chibber’s rhetorical overkill. No doubt there are aspects of a peasant’s experience (as of anyone’s) that won’t compute as simple self-interest. But for purposes like labor organization and political mobilization, it cannot be taken for granted that those perhaps impenetrable mysteries will determine anyone’s behavior. In a discussion of Partha Chatterjee’s research on peasant uprisings in 1920s and 1930s Bengal, Chibber credits the valuable empirical description but disputes Chatterjee’s explanatory emphasis on a distinctive (and religious) peasant consciousness. To my untrained eye, Chibber makes satis-factory sense of the political behavior of the Bengali peasants in terms of their material interests and without reference to a supposedly unique peasant psychology or sense of community. 

Chibber’s book makes it clear (once again) that the real problem with respect for the particular is infinite regress. Is it the peasant as such who is the Other of the bourgeois? Or just the Indian peasant? Why are generalizations about the Indian peasant not guilty of ignoring the specificity of the Bihari peasant, or of peasants from the Bihari town of Bhagalpur, or of the Bhagalpuris last Tuesday? Once the anti-generalization machine gets going, there is no stopping it. Better to bite the bullet: understanding entails generalizing. If you don’t like it, you can take a time-out in the corner. But don’t complain that you feel misunderstood.


Any history from below naturally provokes the charge of essentializing and/or idealizing the worldview of the lowly, and the related objection that it rejects any perspective on the lowly from above, whether that of the West or that of native bourgeois leaders and intellectuals, including Marxist ones. These charges were leveled against Subaltern Studies from the outset, and they will always have a certain amount of truth to them. 

Chibber himself does not seem to object to history from below. He accuses the Subalterns of being anti-Western, but not of being antibourgeois. On the contrary, for him they are not antibourgeois enough. Maneuvering to outflank Guha on the left, he argues that to accuse the Indian middle classes of failing in their historic mission to bring rights and democracy to the subaltern strata, as Guha does, is to be all too admiring of the bourgeoisie. Chibber’s own thinking is more good guy/bad guy. Piously but implausibly, Chibber gives all the historical credit for so-called bourgeois democracy to the efforts of the working class. He does not ask why, if the laboring classes have an elective affinity with democratic rights and liberties, things turned out as they did in post-1917 Russia or Maoist China. He chooses not to recognize political complications, past or present, that have given pause to fellow Marxists and that might compromise the unspotted virtue of his collective protagonist. If the Subalterns idealize the culture of the peasant laborers, Chibber idealizes them just as much, but he idealizes their political rationality.

Whatever else has changed in their thinking, the Subalterns have always kept a watchful eye out for lazy Eurocentrism. Chibber rather artfully turns the tables by trying to catch Guha in the act of slavishly applying to India a European paradigm that doesn’t even work in Europe, let alone India. Guha’s extremely influential reading of Indian independence drew on an extended contrast with the English Revolution of the 1640s and the French Revolution of 1789. According to Guha, both the English and the French revolutions managed to achieve what Gramsci called “hegemony”—a mode of rule involving to an appreciable degree the consent of the governed. The Indian bourgeoisie on the other hand failed to integrate the lower orders, and the outcome was “domination” (rule involving less consent and more physical coercion). This set the stage for the catastrophic exclusion of the lower orders from national life after independence, the pervasiveness of feudal habits of mind, and the lack of a modernizing “bourgeois revolution” across Indian society, as mentioned above.

Trying to undermine Guha’s standard of comparison, Chibber disputes the sociology behind this account of both European revolutions. He argues (here I abbreviate radically) that the English Civil War was not antifeudal (because feudalism in England was already dead) but only a contest within the landed classes over absolute monarchy. And he argues that the French Revolution was not procapitalist (because no actual capitalists were present on the scene). He concedes that some seemingly progressive things happened, but they happened only thanks to uprisings from below. Chibber sees these political accomplishments as grudgingly supported by the supposed revolutionaries and in any case quickly and violently rolled back by the forces of counterrevolution. Coercion has always been a large part of the capitalist order. Consent has not been. Dominance without hegemony is the norm in both India and in Europe.

This sounds attractively universal, but it is also wrong, and what is wrong with it gets to the heart of what is wrong with Chibber’s book, and with the state of thinking about universal history. If feudalism in England had already been overthrown by 1640, when and how did that happen? Could something as large as feudalism simply disappear without causing any political commotion, without anyone noticing? Is that how the most momentous social changes tend to occur, without any revolutionary tumult, without any changes from deep within society? If so, then politics would seem to be trivial—and economics, now decoupled from it, would also find its duties as an explanatory agent much reduced. In sacrificing the causal connection between politics and economics, Chibber is selling off Marxism’s most valued asset: the power to make sense of what happens. If capitalism’s rise was not a significant cause of political events in the past, like the French Revolution, then so much the worse for Marxism as a guide to history, whether in the past or in the future. 

Chibber’s understanding of European history seems to take place in a vacuum; his account of the contemporary world suffers from a similar blind spot. He does not even try to account for the Great Divergence between capitalism in the style of IKEA and capitalism in the style of Rana Plaza. The question of what is specific about capitalism in the East is not posed until page 290 of a 296-page book. As for the West, Chibber’s sole point (not an uninteresting one) is that it is less different from the East than it thinks. The West has its political liberties, he says, but even there “capitalists mobilize all available means to increase their power in the organization of work.” This is true, but those means are not universally available, and their local unavailability is a fact of some importance. The United Automobile Workers are no longer the force in society they once were, and yet they remain strong enough to ensure that flogging does not happen on the shop floor. If, like Chibber, you insinuate that flogging on the shop floor is the universal norm, readers will suspect that you are not inspecting the premises very seriously. 

Chibber is reluctant to march under the banner of “rational choice,” to which he allots one brief footnote, but “rational choice Marxism” is probably the best category for him. He is a materialist, but not a dialectical one. His is the predialectical, individualist materialism of self-interest and basic needs. Chibber says he wants a universal history, but his rational choice premises make such a history impossible, or at least dangerously impoverished. His idea of the universal is, well, particular: for him there are only two universals, capital’s drive to universalize itself and the attempts of the poor to defend their well-being. Gender and race don’t count as universals. What is universal is the self-interested individual. If that were the case, what could history be but an eternal repetition of the same? The rich and powerful will try again and again to maintain and increase their power and riches. Those most injured by their efforts will do what they can to defend themselves. Presumably the dominant class always has, and presumably the oppressed always will. This model unifies East and West under a single principle, but it’s an unenlightening principle. The terms of the merger that generates this universal history ensure that it will remain empty and unproductive—not really a history at all.

Here I am somewhat overstating the case. Chibber knows that change has happened, just as he knows that East and West, while sharing a single modern capitalism, have had significantly different experiences of it. He is right to resist explanations of this difference that appeal exclusively or even primarily to culture, which is permanent, rather than to situation, which changes. But he cannot have the universal history that he wants, and makes us want, unless he is willing to give up on the timeless monster he describes as the “asocial individual, hovering above his culture, ranking his preferences and remorselessly disposing of social relations as they lose value on his utility meter.”

Where, then, is universal history to be found? In a talk in Shanghai in 2010 about “the West” and what it has meant to modern India, Chakrabarty ended on a surprising note. He conceded that while holding India in “the vise grip of power,” Europe had also “created a room for dialogical maneuvers” by exhibiting “enough contradictions within herself to provide the colonized with terms with which to criticize her doings.” Then he wondered aloud whether “the prospect of China and India taking their place among the dominant nations of the world,” which he welcomed, would “help create new visions of humanity and help humans achieve justice and fairness in a world racked by problems of planetary proportions.” His Chinese hosts would have been correct, I think, in perceiving in this a diplomatic hint: that their coming hegemony, while good news in a sense, would not be good news in every sense and thus would require tools of self-critique, as European hegemony had. 

Here Chakrabarty hits the true dialectical tonality. Trying to see the big picture at the scale of the Anthropocene, as he demands of his listeners, is a far cry from treasuring every fragment, the tinier and more chipped the better. It’s got to feel uncomfortable for all concerned. Your moral and political categories are suddenly less certain, more relative. Chakrabarty looks further into the political future but also further into the past, where the atrocities committed by European colonialism blur together with the conquest and slaughter, plunder and rapine, perpetrated by centuries of non-Europeans. Until recently this larger scale has been the preserve of undialectical materialists like Steven Pinker, who saw history as one continuous process of moral evolution, centered in the European Enlightenment, thereby letting Europe off the hook. A new universal history will not want to do that, but it will want to reclaim this scary scale for itself, this time in a dialectical mode: one that is never quite sure where the struggle for equality is located, only that it’s there.

This article appears in Issue 18: Good News. Subscribe to read it in print.

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