Blog post

Not Even Marxist? Paul M. Heideman examines Chris Taylor's critique of Vivek Chibber

Huw Lemmey 2 May 2013

In his recent blogpost Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber's Polemic against Postcolonial Theory, Chris Taylor takes exception to the arguments raised in Chibber's new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of CapitalIn this special blog, academic Paul M. Heideman responds to Taylor's attack directly, addressing the continuing debate around Chibber's influential new reading of Postcolonial Theory. 

Chris Taylor's post ("Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber's Polemic against Postcolonial Theory") presents what purports to be a quite sharp critique of Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. He takes the book to task for being un-dialectical, for orthodoxy-mongering, and a host of other theoretical sins. As the most extensive response to the book yet published, it has garnered a good deal of positive attention from those uncomfortable with Chibber's promotion of a frankly universalistic theory and his attacks on the fetishization of particularism.

Unfortunately, Taylor's article deserves none of the attention it has received. It exemplifies the kind of evasiveness and non-engagement which typifies the culture of the academic left. What are presented as incisive blows against the intellectual architecture of the book are in fact a series of passages that, at their best, do not even contradict the arguments made in the book and, at their worst, descend into mere name-calling. Three examples:

His argument about real and formal subsumption doesn't actually contradict anything Chibber argues in his book. What is presented as a criticism of Chibber actually works as an extension (or at most, a small modification) of his argument. Chibber argues, contra Lowe, Roediger, and Esch, that abstract labor does not mean homogenized labor. He also argues that Guha is wrong to say that capital didn't universalize in India, because the things Guha says it failed to do there are also things it failed to do in Europe, where no one would argue it failed to universalize. Taylor responds that Chibber doesn't see the importance of the difference between formal and real subsumption of labor, and that abstract labor is produced only when the latter has been accomplished. He also says in the colonies that formal subsumption tended to predominate, which means that the universalization of capital took place unevenly.

But as should be plain from this summary, what Taylor is saying doesn't actually contradict Chibber's argument. First of all, it's an entirely different account from Guha's, which is centered on the colonial/national bourgeoisie's failure to confront the landed classes in the way the Western European bourgeoisie supposedly did. So Taylor effectively concedes Vivek's critique of Guha.

More importantly, however, it doesn't contradict the key theoretical point Chibber is making: capitalist universalization doesn't imply homogenization, but is perfectly capable of generating difference based on the concrete history of its universalization. To say that as capitalism spreads it relies on the formal or real subsumption of labor in different places, and that this looks quite different, is a very different argument from one that says the only way you can explain the difference between how things look in the metropole and in the colonies is by positing that capital's universalization has been blocked in the latter. Taylor's account actually implies precisely the key theoretical point Chibber is insisting upon. Though Taylor attempts to load a critique into this point, tendentiously suggesting that Chibber "refuses" to see the way the material histories of different spaces condition the development of capitalism within them, there is still nothing here that contradicts the argument that capital's universalization, properly understood as the universalization of market dependence, happens differently in different places, and produces different histories.

Second, it is actually a very bad misreading of the book to argue that Chibber is criticizing the subalternists for not being Marxist enough. Nowhere does he make that claim. Rather, he argues that Marxism has a rich legacy of thinking about what the development of capitalism outside of Europe looks like, and that the subalternists have tended to reject this legacy on the basis of critiques which are not very persuasive theoretically or empirically. Chibber's response to Partha Chatterjee at the final plenary of Historical Materialism New York after Chatterjee accused him of having a different theory of abstract labor than Marx is indicative of this point: "I don't care." Chibber isn't trying to out-Marx the subalternists here, he is simply arguing that a certain version of the Marxist tradition is capable of explaining the historical phenomenon that their own theories fail to. This is a very different claim, and one that it is much harder to dismiss as orthodoxy-mongering.

Finally, and, I think, most egregiously, there is this: "Chibber then defines physical well-being as freedom from "dangerous working conditions, poverty-level wages, high mortality, ill health, environmental hazards, and so on..." (203). One wonders what the "so on" covers. I'm willing to bet, though, that if we drew a portrait of this universal body of the worker, he might look a lot like me: a white male with the "normal" bodily capacities ascribed to human beings."

Here, we have Taylor, quite literally, attacking Vivek not for what he wrote, but for what Taylor imagines he might write. What is there to reply to this? "No, Chibber wouldn't have written that?" We have descended into the realm of the absurd here, though I think that it is telling that Taylor chooses to have a go at the book not for what is written in it, but what he imagines might be in Chibber's head. Any reasonable standard of intellectual exchange should rule out this sort of ridiculous analytic maneuver.

At the end of the day, Taylor's post exemplifies an intellectual laziness that I think is far too common on the academic left. Chibber's book can be criticized in all sorts of ways. So it saddens me that a post that fails to make even one substantive criticism of an argument made in the book, and instead relies primarily on name-calling (neener-neener you're not dialectical!!) and conjecture is being taken as a real critique.

Paul M. Heideman is a Ph D candidate in American Studies at Rutgers-Newark.  His dissertation examines the place of the Russian Revolution in New Negro thought.

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