Response to Vivek Chibber

In issue 18, Bruce Robbins reviewed Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Chibber responded recently on the website of Jacobin; below we post Robbins’s reply.

Vivek Chibber notes that my review of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital echoes “misgivings that even sympathetic readers have expressed.” That’s not surprising. I myself am, or was, one of those sympathetic readers. You don’t have to disagree with Chibber’s premise—the premise that all human beings are “subject to the same basic forces and are therefore part of the same basic history”—in order to have serious misgivings about the particular history he deduces from it.

I am entirely sympathetic to 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 kind of 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 simple-minded, irrelevant, and unappealing.

That’s a response to #2 (“the difference of East and West”) of the three points on which Chibber feels he has been misunderstood. Points #1 (his view of English history) and #3 (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 was 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 or Lenin or 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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