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Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

A provocative intellectual assault on the Subalternists' foundational work.

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.

Reviews

  • “Chibber makes a strong case for why we can—and must—conceptualize the non-Western world through the same analytical lens that we use to understand developments in the West.”
  • “With its focus on cultural identities and mixtures, postcolonial theory ignored the larger context of capitalist relations and thus limited its scope to Western academia where it excelled in the game of growing and profiting from the liberal guilt feeling. Chibber’s book simply sets the record straight, bringing postcolonialism down from cultural heights to where it belongs, into the very heart of global capitalist processes. The book we were all waiting for, a burst of fresh air dispelling the stale aroma of pseudo-radical academic establishment.”
  • “In this scrupulous and perceptive analysis, Vivek Chibber successfully shows that the ‘universalizing categories of Enlightenment thought’ emerge unscathed from the criticisms of postcolonial theorists. He shows further that—perhaps ironically—Subaltern Studies greatly underestimates the role of subaltern agency in bringing about the transformations that they attribute to the European bourgeoisie. Chibber’s analysis also provides a very valuable account of the actual historical sociology of modern European development, of Indian peasant mobilization and activism, and much else. It is a very significant contribution.”
  • “In this outstanding work—a model of clarity in its architecture and argumentation—key theorists of the ‘Subaltern’ and of postcoloniality have met their most formidable interlocutor and critic yet. Chibber’s critique of postcolonial theory and the historical sociological studies associated with it is, at the same time, a vigorous and welcome defense of the enduring value of certain Enlightenment universals as an analytical framework to both understand and radically change the world we live in.”
  • “Vivek Chibber has written a stunning critique of postcolonial theory as represented by the Subaltern Studies school. While eschewing all polemics, he shows that their project is undermined by their paradoxical acceptance of an essentially liberal-Whig interpretation of the bourgeois revolutions and capitalist development in the West, which provides the foundation for their fundamental assertion of the difference of the East. Through a series of painstaking empirical and conceptual studies Chibber proceeds to overturn the central pillars of the Subalternists’ framework, while sustaining the credibility of Enlightenment theories. It is a bravura performance that cannot help but shake up our intellectual and political landscape.”
  • Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is a must-read book for students of comparative politics and social theory. Vivek Chibber presents a forceful challenge to the Subaltern Studies school and to postcolonial theory more broadly. Arguing with great clarity, Chibber raises fundamental objections to their ideas about capitalism, power, and agency, and presents an alternative account of these ideas. Most fundamentally, he rejects the fundamental division between ‘East and West’ associated with postcolonial theory and defends the ‘universalizing categories of Enlightenment thought.’ This is a major contribution that is bound to reshape debate on these important issues.”
  • “In this book, Vivek Chibber has carried out a thoroughgoing dissection of Subaltern Studies. Like a highly skilled anatomist, he lays bare the skeleton, the nervous system, the arteries and veins of this school ... In the process the reader is also exposed to the nitty-gritty of a materialist historiography.”
  • “Against the thesis that Western subalterns are made of different stuff, Chibber argues that human beings are, at their core, not that different across contexts. The winds of history and culture may change many things, but not human constitutions. His defense of this argument sets the stage for what, in my opinion, is the most deliberate, careful explication of the key tenets of historical materialism that I have read”

Blog

  • An interview with François Maspero: ‘A few misunderstandings’

    In commemoration of the death of author and publisher François Maspero, who passed away on Saturday, April 11 at the age of 83. Verso presents this translated interview with the founder of Éditions Maspero, the publishing house which has served as an inspiration for radical left publishing since the fifties.

    François Maspero (19 January 1932 – 11 April 2015)

    We see the publisher François Maspero as having played a leading role in ‘smuggling across’ the communist and anti-colonial thought of the postwar period and preserving its heritage. Indeed, Éditions Maspero is an unavoidable reference point for any discussion of critical publishing in France. Maspero’s output was the theatre of important debates on the far Left in the 1960s and 1970s, and played a pioneering role in many fields. It was Maspero who published Fanon, the political writings of Baldwin, Malcolm X and Che, anthologies of classic labour-movement works, Althusser’s ‘Théorie’ collection, the journal Partisans… We wanted to ask him about his project and the editorial ambitions that he had at the time. Here we reproduce what he calls an ‘attempt at a response’ to our questions.

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  • Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital: the Debates Continue..

    In his review of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital as part of the review symposium of the Journal of World-Systems Research last summer, Ho-fung Hung declared that [w]ithout any doubt, Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is a bomb.” Looking at the responses to the book since its publication, it is not hard to see why.



    Last year, we gave a summary of the debate so far, but it has continued to rage on, and on, since then. To say that Chibber’s book, which won last year's PEWS Book Award, has divided opinion would be a drastic understatement. As Paul at Marxist Marginalia noted, “[It] is unlikely at this point that anyone will call the book boring.”

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  • New Left Review Issue 89 out now!


    The September/October issue of New Left Review is now on sale, featuring the following essays:

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