Author’s Roundtable: Vivek Chibber, “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” Response by Hina Nazar

Thursday, April 3, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism

[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held an Author’s Roundtable hosting Vivek Chibber (NYU) to discuss his new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013), with responses by Hina Nazar  (English), Anustup Basu (English/Media & Cinema Studies) and Utathya Chattopadhyaya (History). The responses from Basu and Chattopadhyaya were published in this blog; the response from Hina Nazar is below.]

“Vivek Chibber’s Two Universalisms”

Written by Hina Nazar (English)

I should begin by saying that I am not a scholar of South Asian history. Nor am I a specialist in postcolonial theory. So my comments on Vivek Chibber’s book will be somewhat oblique. I will focus less on the specifics of Chibber’s reading of South Asian history than on the larger theoretical concerns animating his project—above all, the question of whether progressive or leftist forms of critique are compatible with what Chibber describes as the culturalist turn in the humanities and social theory (a turn exemplified by the Subaltern Studies Group). Chibber, of course, is not the first scholar to question the broadly anti-Enlightenment direction of recent theory, and as such, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital belongs to a larger critical conversation about the legacies of Enlightenment modernity—a conversation that includes, for example, the debates in the 1980s and 1990s between liberals and communitarians, and between poststructuralists and critical social theorists of the Habermasian school. I will refer in passing to these debates, both by way of gaining a purchase on the distinctiveness of Chibber’s project and in order to raise some questions about it.


First, though, what is the culturalist turn instantiated by the Subalternists? According to Chibber, it is a turn away from materialist explanation to cultural difference as the starting point of social and historical understanding. The Subaltern Studies Group, Chibber argues, suggests that the continued existence in South Asia of a seemingly premodern subaltern class speaks to a fundamental cultural divide between East and West, which cannot be explained by reference to the differential development of capitalism in colonizing and colonized nations. Instead, for the Subalternists, the difference between East and West, or South and North, sets a fundamental limit to the provenance and legitimacy of universalizing Western theories like Marxism. To produce a history from below, the Subalternists contend, requires nothing less, therefore, than a complete overhaul of the theoretical categories of Marxism and liberalism: these simply cannot accommodate the recalcitrant particularity of the subaltern case. Difference, particularity, cultural context, alterity: these are the key terms in the theoretical arsenal that the Subalternists deploy to overturn the putatively neo-imperialistic ambitions of putatively Eurocentric Western theory.

Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital mounts a compelling twofold counter-challenge to these Subalternist claims. To begin with, Chibber contends that the Subalternists have their history wrong. There is nothing in the South Asian example, he argues, to support their assertion that capitalism becomes unrecognizable when it travels East. The Subalternists, Chibber goes on to argue, also have their theory wrong. Their theory simply does not speak to observable social and economic practices, including subaltern practices. Further, it offers few resources for a progressive social critique. The Subalternist assertion of difference, for example, reproduces the binary logic of Orientalist and colonialist ideologies, casting the East as the irrational Other of the rational West. Their critique of universalizing abstraction produces a naïve demand for perfect correspondence between generals and particulars. Finally, the picture of community-defined subaltern subjectivity developed by theorists such as Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty is deeply condescending insofar as it aligns agency with unreflective absorption in communal norms, denying peasants and workers the capacity for any kind of reflection on norms. 

This last claim constitutes one of the most ambitious aspects of Chibber’s project since in developing it, he does more than simply criticize Subalternist claims about agency; he also offers his own positive account of political and social agency. Subsuming this under the rubric of a second or “other universalism,” which must be considered alongside the universalizing drive of capital, Chibber enables a potentially fascinating dialogue between Marxism and liberalism, since it is liberalism that provides the terms of the second universalism. For Chibber then, subaltern agency is not, as Chatterjee and Chakrabarty variously argue, a rebuke to Enlightenment conceptions of critical, self-reflective agency. As the Indian example clarifies, worker and peasant agency is not conditioned by communal and religious affiliations to the point that it becomes impossible to speak of critical distance from such affiliations. To be culturally conditioned, Chibber underscores, does not mean that one cannot reflect on one’s conditioning, especially when one is pulled in different directions by competing identifications. Nor does such reflection mobilize a transcendental conception of Reason or an asocial understanding of subjectivity since it makes very minimal claims about everyday practices of rationality and self-reflexivity. We might say that what Chibber wants to defend is a pragmatics rather than heroics of reason. As he puts it, “while we can acknowledge the importance of norm and habit, it is important to resist the notion that human agents are nothing other than bearers of social relations…[They] do reproduce their social relations, but they also have the capacity to resist the roles assigned to them and even, on some occasions, to change them. Cultures, after all, are not only reproduced, but are also transformed” (195).

In making these claims, Chibber mobilizes themes that are reminiscent, as I mentioned earlier, of long-standing debates between liberals and communitarians, and between poststructuralists and critical social theorists. The debate that Chibber stages between himself and the Subalternists, like these earlier debates, revolves, in significant ways, around the question of what happens to our understanding of agency and rationality if we take seriously the claims of culture, language, community, and embodiment—in other words, if we take seriously the thesis of the subject’s social constitution. Does our social constitution render liberal conceptions of autonomy or critical distance illusory, as communitarians like Michael Sandel and Alisdair MacIntyre argue? Does it reveal the critical posture to be little more than a ruse of power, as poststructuralists like Michel Foucault assert? The liberals and critical social theorists in company with whom I would place Chibber are skeptical of any totalized critique of reason because, as Thomas McCarthy nicely puts it (in his introduction to Habermas's classic lectures on modernity), “The totalized critique of reason undercuts the capacity of reason to be critical” (xvii). To this basic thesis, the Habermasians add that poststructuralist totalization devolves into crytonormativism and performative contradiction—the first because poststructuralism is unable to provide a normative justification for social critique; the second, because its epistemological anti-universalism sits poorly alongside its broadly liberal politics. Relatedly, liberals influenced by the work of John Rawls argue that communitarian arguments about the primacy of social ties engender a genetic fallacy by confusing descriptions and prescriptions, the “is” and the “ought,” As the philosopher Alisa L. Carse puts it, “we must distinguish the genetic question of how one comes to be the distinctive individual one is with the preferences, values and capacities one has, from the normative question of how as an individual one ought to invoke those preferences or exercise those capacities in moral judgment” (191).

Both Rawlsian liberalism and Habermasian critical social theory look to the eighteenth century, and especially to Immanuel Kant’s formalist constructivism, to push social and political theory in a postmetaphysical direction. Through his provocative claims about a second universalism, Chibber enters the debates they initiate but in ways that I believe bear further development. Hence Chibber refers at various points in his book to “the Enlightenment view” or “the Enlightenment tradition” but the Enlightenment remains a somewhat amorphous, nameless entity on his rendering. Marx, after all, is a post-Enlightenment thinker, and Chibber’s equation of the Enlightenment view with Marxism seems too hasty. I imagine that such an alignment would be objectionable to many Marxists, especially Marxists of the Althusserian variety. So, by way of conclusion, I would raise the following questions for Chibber: What are the critical perspectives, other than Marxism, that he takes to be important in constituting the Enlightenment view? Given Chibber’s commitment to abstract theorizing, how does he view Marx’s well-known hostility to the claims of philosophical abstraction, which Daniel Brudney, for example, has characterized as a deeply problematic, even self-defeating, “attempt to leave philosophy”? Further, insofar as Marxism and the Enlightenment view are not identical, how should we interpret their relationship? Put differently, how do we relate the two very different universalisms that Chibber identifies as central to social and historical explanation: a universalism that privileges capitalism and one that foregrounds subject-centered perspectives? I look forward to Chibber’s response since Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is one of the most lucid and engaging intellectual performances I have recently encountered, one that will undoubtedly shape important interdisciplinary debates for some time to come.


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