Vivek Chibber reviewed in the Frankurter Allgemeiner Zeitung


Ever since it was published in March 2013, Vivek Chibber’s devastating challenge to postcolonial theory in the guise of Subaltern Studies, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, has been the subject of fierce controversies. In a very recent review published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Thomas Thiel synthesizes the book’s numerous achievements as well as the questions it opens up.


No special paths

Relations between Marxism and post-colonialism could be better but might be worse. When Marxist teaching posts fell vacant in the 1980s, a striving post-colonial theory that championed the underprivileged presented itself as one of the inheritors, shorn of the historical-philosophical mission of Marxism. Not to mention the political impulse. From the assumption that the colonies had been only politically liberated, but remained under Western tutelage by way of Eurocentric perspectives, post-colonial theorists derived the maxims of breaking hegemony and affording the wretched of the earth concepts of their own.

Yet the idea that capitalism functions similarly in both north and south is in the eyes of many post-colonialists simply a further case of Eurocentrism that alienates them from Marxism. This is their weakness, according to the Marxist Vivek Chibber. This American sociologist writes somewhat coquettishly in the preface to his recently published Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, a polemic against postcolonial theory,that he did not want to write this book, but the time for it had come. And the applause he has received from many directions has confirmed him in his diagnosis of the present time. In defending a rationality common to all world cultures against an unbridled culturalism, he evidently brings to a head a certain feeling on this point.

Chibber challenges postcolonial theory via one of its side strands, that of subaltern studies, founded in the early 1980s around the Indian theorists Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Homi Bhabha. Their aim was a history of the lower strata freed from the colonial gaze. On this premise, subaltern historiography turned to the Indian subcontinent and posed the question why capitalism here had taken a quite different direction from in the West. Why had it not swept away old traditions, rituals, forms of marriage, as Marxism described? Why were the peasants not freed by the bourgeoisie?

The subaltern school had two answers to this. Ranajit Guha made the Indian bourgeoisie responsible for the special path, a bourgeoisie that, unlike in the West, did not make itself the champion of liberal-democratic values. Capitalism came to India from without, not as in Europe from a hegemonic bourgeoisie whose rule was acknowledged by the lower strata because it presented itself as the herald of democracy.

Dipesh Chakrabarty added to this a culturalist argument. The capitalist dynamic, he wrote in his book Provincializing Europe, came up against insuperable cultural barriers in India. The Indian peasants, for example, are not profit maximisers, but rather a community type that bars the way to Western modes of economy. The thesis of the unitary drift of capital, he concludes, does not hold good for India. So is Marxist universalism a Eurocentrism?

This is the point from which Chibber’s criticism takes off. He accuses subaltern historiography of a cultural romanticism that ignores the dimensions of market and power. If a worker in a computer chip factory prays at work, or his boss consults an astrologer, this remains marginal as long as profits rise. Capitalism can come to terms with different social forms, even archaic ones. The weakness of subaltern theory Chibber sees in a series of correlations that it makes into causalities.

Against Ranajit Guha he argues that capitalist economic forms could also come to prevail without a bourgeoisie. Viewed historically, even in Europe it was not the liberal bourgeoisie that brought democracy, as Guha argued, but pressure from the lower classes. This is certainly much idealised. But it does not damage his argument that the capitalist economic form does not need democratic relations as a firm coalition partner. China, where capitalism is on the best of terms with state communism, is the most striking example.

And against Chakrabarty, Chibber does not see the Indian peasants as free from a materialist mindset. If subaltern theory stylises them into pre-capitalist community people, this is simply an Orientalising categorisation, the worst that can befall a post-colonialist. There is enough Orientalism already in post-colonial theory, Chibber concludes. 

While Chibber has received much recognition for his defence of universal values against a romanticism of cultural speciality, it is debatable whether his polemic bears on postcolonial theory as a whole, as his book’s title claims, and whether he does not do too much violence to other cultures with a kind of rational choice Marxism. Chibber himself seeks to go beyond a world history of contending classes. For him, however, cultural particularities are not too significant in this respect. In the current skirmish between universalism and culturalism, this onesidedness works to his advantage.

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