“I’m with Marx”

Rage On

Dear Editors,

As laudable as I find the premise of “The Rage Machine,” your claim that we exist “in a constant state of rage” strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the media that transmits this rage to us. We turn to the sources of these indignant interventions with a regularity that approaches constancy, but rage is not the only thing we find there.

For every Facebook post that links to a rage-provoking article, two provide pictures of puppies, babies, kitties. For every tweet that angers us, a dozen provoke our admiration or envy, cause us to chuckle or groan, arouse us, disgust us, or, most likely, bore us. The machine we live in is not a rage machine, but an affect machine. We turn to our phones constantly not because we expect to be enraged by what we find, but because we expect to feel something about what we find. And if we don’t like what we feel, we are assured that the next emotional response is only seconds away, and that we’ll be validated in our own reactions by an ever increasing number of friends and likes, retweets and +1s.

This distinction seems to me to matter because, as Peter Sloterdijk points out in his Rage and Time, the idea of living in a state of perpetual rage permeates the Western intellectual tradition. Beginning with Achilles’s rage in the Iliad and continuing through the wrathful God of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the resentment that animated 20th-century leftism, the accumulation of great reservoirs of rage (Sloterdijk calls them “rage banks”) has been, until recently, a constant in Western culture. Now, however, our rage, rather than accumulating, is expended in fitful bursts, and all remnants of our anger are quickly displaced by some other instantaneous emotive experience; even if that same post that enraged us reappears in our various feeds multiple times, we’re sure to have experienced dozens of other emotional outbursts in between.

The injustices that provoke our rage do not rest and they are not interrupted. We have cause for constant rage. Let us build the machine that allows us to sustain it.

—Peter Kuras

Defending the Friedmans

Dear Editors,

Most of Richard Beck’s “The Friedmans” is incisive. Clearly, he believes Arnold and Jesse Friedman were innocent of the child-rape charges that destroyed their lives in the 1980s. He aptly describes the family-feud-like, sordid, and emotionally inappropriate tone of the Nassau County district attorney’s recent report on the case, which found Jesse Friedman guilty.

But Beck overreaches when he blames the Friedman prosecution on the mothers and fathers of Long Island and their supposed unwillingness to acknowledge real child sex abuse in families. In fact, the bizarre child sex abuse accusations of the 1980s largely targeted family members. In cases with crazy satanic and Friedmanesque abuse scenarios, far more mothers, fathers, and family friends were falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned than daycare workers and teachers. Most of these innocents were poor and working-class whites in the country’s hinterlands. Police and prosecutors focused on them with as much sadism as in out-of-family cases. Entire communities went along with this sadism, in the deluded belief that they were redressing real child sex abuse in terribly blameworthy families.

Beck is right that the sadism derived from hysteria regardless of whom it focused on. But he’s wrong to map hysteria so directly onto what he deems “real” problems. McCarthyism was a panicked response to the real threat of Communism, he writes—oversimplifying a complex phenomenon that had as much to do with domestic class, regional, and racial antagonisms as it did with Russia. Satanic child sex abuse panic, he says, responded to child abuse in families. The analysis clearly fails when extended to older politicized and institutionalized hysterias. Blood libels against Jews: were they a response to the “real” problem of Christian child death? Medieval witch-hunts that burned women at the stake: were there too many spells being cast?

In this day and age, one-on-one hysteria mapping might insulate Beck from some criticism that he doesn’t give a shit about sexually abused children. Such denunciation is legion against those who defend the Friedmans’ legal presumption of innocence—or, for that matter, lately, Woody Allen’s. These defenders will be denounced no matter how much they try to avoid it. Better to advance careful, if uncomfortable, theory than to retreat into comforting literalism.

—Debbie Nathan


Dear Editors,

I’m a longtime reader (since Issue Two) and even longer regular attendee at Sunday worship services at a mainline Protestant church in New York. I was surprised to read, in Jordan Kisner’s “Jesus Raves,” that Congregationalism as a subdenomination shares a generational birth date with the Jesus People. Congregationalism as a denomination dates back to Puritanism and the founding of New England.

More broadly, I was dismayed that the “adult in the room” voice your essays usually employ was omitted here. The dialectic between mainline and evangelical churches in America is so important that I felt the essay was diminished by not defining it. For instance, “seeker” churches typically have the following traits, which Kisner hinted at but did not unpack: very young members, short-term membership, vague theology, rudimentary Gospel lessons. The great path of American Christianity that lies beyond square one—the deepening of faith, the call for engagement with the world, understanding the historical lineage with Judaism and its implications, and most importantly life-course diversity—lies in mainline churches, or so I and many people I know believe. A simple sentence that mainline churches exist in conflict with evangelicals would have sufficed.

—John Leighton

I’m With Marx

Dear Editors,

Bruce Robbins’s criticism of my book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital centers around three issues: whether my views of the English Revolution of 1640 and/or 1688 are defensible, whether my framework can apprehend the difference between East and West, and whether my materialism is really a restatement of rational choice theory. On all three counts, his criticism is mistaken.

Let’s start with the English Revolution. Ranajit Guha in essence understands 1640 to be an instance of a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” in which the emergent capitalist class accomplishes two goals—the eradication of feudal landed relations and the establishment of a liberal, consensual political order. I argue that this view is irredeemably flawed and sets up an illusory contrast between the histories of the bourgeoisie in the East and the West.

First, the English Revolution was not a war between a rising bourgeoisie and the ancient regime, for the economy was already largely capitalist. Second, and most important, the victorious postrevolutionary regime had no interest in and did not establish the liberal, encompassing, consensual order that Guha attributes to it. In fact, it strove mightily to squelch what democratic rights there were. What the revolution bequeathed was a narrow bourgeois oligarchy.

Robbins dismisses this argument out of hand as being wrong. How, he asks, could feudalism have disappeared without anyone noticing, without a “political commotion”?

But I do not say that feudalism was replaced without any political commotion or transformation of political relations. As I argue in some detail in the book, there was an important political transformation that accompanied the change in agrarian relations in the Tudor era—the landed classes acquired greater and greater political power by capturing local juridical institutions and controlling regional elections. Over the course of a century, they bent the structure of the state toward their own interests, constraining the monarchy in its unilateral power. This was a transformation of epochal significance: they slowly turned the state into an organ of their own power, with a monarchical form.

The strife in 1640 was the final act in a decades-long effort by Charles to wrest control away from the landed classes, centralizing it again in the person of the monarch. The revolution itself was a war over what kind of state an already bourgeois England would have. My argument doesn’t consign politics to irrelevance—it simply corrects an erroneous story about what the battle was over.

Even if the traditional story about the revolution were true—that it was a political revolution led by the bourgeoisie against a feudal state—it wouldn’t be enough to save the Subalternists’ case. For them, the central issue isn’t whether England was already capitalist by 1640. It is whether the capitalists who came to power were committed to a liberal, consensual, inclusive political order—committed to “speak for all the nation.” And on this score, there is no debate among historians. What the English bourgeoisie wanted, and erected after 1688, was a narrow bourgeois oligarchy, geared centrally toward the exclusion of popular classes from the political arena.

I point out the centrality of this issue at some length in chapter four of my book, but Robbins seems not to have noticed. His entire line of criticism is not based on any empirical grounds at all. He rejects my argument, not because he has any facts to marshal against it or any historical literature he can cite, but from first principle. This approach to historical inquiry fits better in a church or synagogue than in the academy.

On the second issue, the chasm putatively separating East from West, Robbins fares no better. I tread lightly here, since his argument gets murky. But he seems to think that a focus on the universal properties of capitalism, which he takes me to be recommending, can only end up papering over the real differences between regions. So even though it might be that capitalism has swept the globe, surely we want to explain the difference between “capitalism in the style of Ikea and capitalism in the style of Rana Plaza.” He argues I am not interested in such mundane matters, being slavishly bound to capitalism as a “Grand Narrative.”

But this critique is disingenuous. My entire book is wedded to showing that taking cognizance of certain universal forces is no impediment to explaining diversity as well. The clearest instance of this is my discussion of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s rather tortured analysis of abstraction. I explain that the very universalizing forces of capitalism also generate diverse forms of capitalism, because even though the pressure to accumulate is common across economies, local response to it can be quite varied. This is in part due to the unevenness of the accumulation process itself, but also because of the contingencies of class conflict and local institutional influences. I discuss this in a section titled “Capitalism and Diversity Revisited,” in which I summarize the argument in the subsection “Three Sources of Diversity in Capitalism.” I literally spell out what I am arguing—and Robbins somehow still manages to miss it.

It is true that I do not produce an actual theory, a historical account, of why this or that country’s capitalism turned out differently than another’s. But that is because I have to set the argument at the same level of generality as the theories that I criticize, those of the Subalternists. The argument coming from their camp is not that some particular theory is falling short; it is that any theory built on certain premises is incapable of recognizing difference. I try to show that the theories they impugn are in fact quite capable of appreciating historical diversity, and I show what it is about these theories’ logic that enables them to explain both universal processes and divergent social formations.

Finally, the question of rationality. Robbins seems of two minds here. He accuses me of offering a model of action derived from rational choice theory, on top of which he heaps further opprobrium—not the least of which is the dreaded sin of being “pre-dialectical.”

I have to admit being puzzled by this assertion, since I go to some lengths in the book—not just in a footnote, as Robbins wrongly asserts—to show how and why my argument is not a version of rational choice theory. Robbins is again a little dishonest here. He uses a quote from me about the “asocial individual, hovering above his culture, ranking his preferences,” implying that is the view that I wish to endorse—when he knows perfectly well that I am lampooning that view.

What I actually say is three things. First, that people are largely shaped by their cultures, but that culture does not go “all the way down.” There are some needs that exist and endure independent of culture, and chief among these is the need to attend to one’s physical well-being. Second, that people are typically cognizant of this need, and it therefore generates interests that influence political and social interaction. And third, that it is the universality of this need that explains the universality of resistance to exploitation, since the latter typically undermines the former. Note that I don’t simply assert this argument—I show that the historiography of the Subalterns themselves validates this proposition, even though they deny it (with the exception of Guha, who never denies it).

None of this entails a commitment to rational choice theory. All I am offering is one route to what was once called materialism, and those are two very different animals. I do not imply—in fact, I explicitly deny—that people are welfare-maximizers. Nor do I suggest that people are selfish or competitive individualists, the two implications most commonly associated with rational choice, which are rightly rejected by others. What I do say is that people have a healthy appreciation of situations in which they are being oppressed or exploited, that this appreciation holds steady across cultures, and that it generates reasons for action. This is why we typically see what James Scott called “everyday forms of resistance.”

Furthermore, my argument does not in any way imply that a concern for one’s well-being is all there is to human nature. In the book, I offer that people are probably hardwired for a desire for autonomy or self-determination. But I also say, and I will repeat, that human nature is in fact much richer than either of these: there is innate creativity; desire for love, for social ties, for meaning. All those needs and capacities that Marx describes in the 1844 manuscripts are ones that I accept. The reason I focused on one particular property is that it is the one at the core of Subalternist arguments and the aspect of human nature they deny, especially to people with darker skin.

Marx, the Enlightenment thinker with the richest conception of human nature, never doubted the existence of basic human needs, nor the importance of material interests as the fount of politics and political struggles. What made capitalism unjust was that it turned—and in so many parts of the world, continues to turn—workers’ lives into a struggle for bare material well-being, suppressing the development of their other manifold capacities. We should object to any theory that reduces people’s motivations to this one goal, but we should be equally suspicious of a theory that denies or impugns its salience outright. The most deplorable consequence of the “cultural turn” is that it does just this, and Robbins’s response is just another example of it.

—Vivek Chibber

Bruce Robbins replies:

I am entirely sympathetic to Vivek Chibber’s central point about cultural diversity: that “taking cognizance of certain universal forces is no impediment to also explaining diversity.” In other words, capitalism does not have to homogenize; it can accept, sustain, and even exacerbate cultural differences. Standing up for cultural diversity will therefore not mean standing up against capital. Identity politics may count as a politics, but we would need some hard evidence before counting it as anticapitalist politics. I agree, and it’s well worth saying. But when Chibber notes in mock astonishment that I have somehow managed to miss the fact that his whole book is about the divergence between Eastern and Western capitalism, he’s the one who’s missing the point—his own point. When he says difference, he always means cultural difference. But the difference or diversity or divergence that matters to most Marxists is not cultural but economic.

Taking a good look at the shape of world power, Marxists have naturally wanted to know why capitalism took such divergent paths in different regions—how inequality at a world scale was established and how it has been perpetuated since. No one in this debate thinks the answer is culture. But cultural differences are what Chibber wants to talk about, and apparently all he wants to talk about. So he mentions dependency theory and world-systems theory (on page 292 of a 296-page book) but doesn’t engage with them; the names Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Giovanni Arrighi don’t even appear in his index. Let me say it again: the diversity I wanted him to address but didn’t find in his book is economic diversity, which is to say the inequality between people in poor countries and in rich countries. It’s all very well to say that we all belong to the same basic history, but (to repeat myself) if you can’t also explain why Ikea capitalism looks so different from Rana Plaza capitalism, then as a sociologist you’re not doing your job, and as a Marxist you’re making Marxism look simpleminded, irrelevant, and unappealing.

That’s a response to the second (“the difference of East and West”) of the three points on which Chibber feels he has been misunderstood. Points one (his view of English history) and three (his devotion to rational choices) are really the same point, so I’ll take them together.

In his eagerness to discredit the “heroic myth” on which the Subalterns depend for their East/West contrast, Chibber denies categorically that the European bourgeoisie was ever in any way and to any extent a force for democracy. Marx of course said that it was. The quickest way to get at our historical disagreement is to say that I’m with Marx.

When Marx set out to write Capital, he needed facts about the harsh working conditions in British factories. Where did he get those facts? Look at his sources: he got them largely from Parliamentary Blue Books, the records of official investigations. These were Parliamentary commissions. The working class did not have the right to vote. If the English bourgeoisie had no interest but the crushing and silencing of its employees, those investigations would never have happened and those Blue Books would never have been written or published. It would seem to follow that there existed middle-class constituents who were horrified by what they heard from the industrial north and powerful enough to get Parliament to look into the matter. Given Chibber’s way of looking at the world, this is inconceivable. Chibber shows us a single-minded bourgeoisie that knows exactly what it wants and gets it, its actions producing no unintended consequences, its revolutionary ideology never becoming a source of ambivalence, never catching the imagination of those below it (and some of its own members, like Marx and Lenin and Mao) and therefore getting extended in more subversive directions, never leading to Parliamentary Blue Books. This is some game-theory fantasy of how an actor ought logically to behave, but it is not a chronicle of how actual actors, collective or individual, ever have behaved. For Chibber, motives are never mixed. Goals and intentions are unambiguous. Efforts to realize them either succeed or fail. It’s like a game: you either win or you lose. But history is not like a game. Consider those Blue Books, and you see that Chibber’s model is fatally impoverished. A severely reductive notion of what a human being is will probably produce a severely reductive notion of how history happens. Those of us who would like to see how we fit into “the same basic history” would do better to think, like Marx, dialectically.

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