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Crafting Passages from Marxism to Postcolonialism

by Alf Nilsen on December 6, 2015

Philosophy pb DEMYWhen Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (PTSC) – a rigorous critique of the work of Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and Dipesh Chakrabarty – made its appearance in 2013, it met with a highly polarised reception. For some Marxist critics, the book constituted a laudable lethal blow to postcolonial theory and its many ills – above all, its alleged failure to critically engage with historical capitalism. For others – chief among them, perhaps, the postcolonial theorists who were the targets of Chibber’s critique – the book offered little but a regurgitation of rusty Marxist orthodoxy, which could easily be shrugged off as inconsequential and uninteresting. In a new article published in Critical Sociology, I argue that the polarised debate that has followed in the wake of PTSC constitutes a missed opportunity to craft passages from Marxism to postcolonialism and back again.

The point of departure for the article – which is written as a contribution to a special issue on Marxism and postcolonialism edited by Rashmi Varma and Subir Sinha – is Chibber’s critique of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe and the case that Chibber makes for the validity of universal categories in the study of global capitalist development. Whereas I find myself in agreement with Chibber’s basic claims, I also believe that there is more mileage in postcolonialism than what Chibber allows for. Consequently, I suggest that Marxist inquiries in the field of historical sociology are likely to gain from a willingness to reflect on the foundational theoretical assumptions that guide the study of capitalist development in light of some of the critical insights that postcolonialism has yielded.

Chibber’s Project and the Critique of Provincializing Europe

In PTSC, Chibber sets out to criticise what he sees as one of the foundational metatheoretical claims made by the Subaltern Studies project and its key representatives, namely that the development of modernity in the colonial and postcolonial South (India and South Asia more specifically) has been marked by a quintessential otherness that renders the concepts of classical social theory analytically powerless. For Chibber, this claim represents both an explanatory failure in that it misrepresents the actually existing relationship between capitalism and modernity both in the West and in the East, and a critical failure – that is, a failure to furnish us with the theoretical resources we need to criticise capitalist exploitation.

When Chibber engages Provincializing Europe, his main target is the distinction that Chakrabarty makes between History 1 (structures, institutions, and practices that contribute to the reproduction of capital) and History 2 (structures, institutions, and practices that do not underpin the reproduction of capital) and the attendant claim that the latter always interrupts and destabilises the former, thus generating a foundational “historical difference” in the colonial and postcolonial South. Chibber’s argument flies in the face of this statement: the history of modernity, he maintains, is animated by, on the one hand, capitalism’s universal drive for profit and valorisation and, on the other hand, the struggle of the working classes to ward off capitalist exploitation. Historical antagonism, therefore, is to be located in the contradiction between capital and labour, not in “historical difference” – and to grasp this contradictory relationship, we need universal theoretical concepts.

Chibber’s critique of Chakrabarty is in many regards highly apposite, and it echoes a central concern that has been articulated by Marxist scholars who have been embedded in the field of postcolonial studies for a long time – namely that, as Neil Lazarus has put it, by displacing “the structuration of the modern world by capitalism”, postcolonialism has rendered “the structurality of the global system either arbitrary or unintelligible”.

BhambraHowever, in my article, I raise the question whether Chibber’s proposition that to provincialise Europe we should start from the assertion that both East and West are subject to the same social forces and part of the same universal history is in fact undergirded by an ontology that is adequate to the task of conceptualising the inherent globality of historical capitalism. I do so in large part on the basis of Gurminder Bhambra’s powerful critique of the tendency within historical sociology to conceive of modernity as a social formation that first emerges in the West, and then gradually diffuses outwards to encompass the rest of the world. This approach, as pointed out by Cemal Burak Tansel in a compelling article that has been featured on PPE, effectively eradicates the constitutive role that the non-Western world played in the rise of capitalism.

As I show in my article in Critical Sociology, Chibber’s understanding of the historical origins of capitalist modernity falls prey precisely to this kind of Eurocentric tunnel vision, and it is here that I part ways with his defense of universal theoretical categories. The challenge that confronts us, I suggest, is that of moving towards a way of thinking about the emergence and universalisation of capitalism as a process that unfolded through and on the basis of a latticework of relations that cut across global space. But how do we do this?

For a Relational Ontology in Marxist Historical Sociology

In my article, I propose that we start at the most foundational level – that is, with the ontology that we bring to bear on our attempts to make sense of the world. As Julian Go has argued, much historical sociology is marked by a substantialist ontology, in which the basic units of inquiry are conceived of as substances and self-contained systems. It is this that allows for the drawing of hard and fast distinctions between – for example – the West and the non-West. In order to move beyond such bifurcations it is necessary to develop a relational ontology that puts “the interactional constitution of social units, processes, and practices across space” squarely at the centre of analysis.

One of the most important resources for the construction of a relational ontology for the study of the historical development of capitalism is arguably to be found in Justin Rosenberg’s reconstruction of Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development. Rosenberg starts from the assertion that unevenness and combination have to be thought of as intrinsic properties of sociohistorical development in general, rather than just a distinctive characteristic of capitalist development. This provides us with a grounding for thinking about how development in one social entity enters into the conditions of development of others in a way that is always already inextricably intertwined. This in turn rules out the idea that a given trajectory of development simply represents the unfolding of characteristics that are immanent and endogenous to a specific society and pushes us in the direction of an ontology that recognises the generative role played by interlocking relations that stretch across global space.

Does this, however, necessarily move us beyond Eurocentrism? In an important article on Weberian and Marxist historical sociology, Gurminder Bhambra has suggested that it doesn’t. In relation to Marxist historical sociology, her point is that the capitalist mode of production is portrayed as being founded on a singular relation between capital and labour, which is also posited as its intrinsic form. This, she argues, renders it impossible to recognise the constitutive role played by unfree forms of labour – for example, transatlantic slavery – and colonial expansion in the genesis of capitalism.

There is, of course, two ways in which Bhambra’s criticism holds absolutely true – firstly, in that a privileging of the capital-labour relation would indeed constitute an obstacle to theorising the global nature of the emergence and development of capitalism, and secondly, that precisely such a privileging has been a mark of much Marxist historical sociology. However, in my article, I argue that it is quite possible to conceptualise the mode of production in a way that renders possible the analysis of developmental trajectories in far more complex ways than this.

BanajiMy basis for doing so is Jairus Banaji’s critique of “formal abstractionism” in Marxist historiography. According to Banaji, there is a lamentable tendency within Marxism to deduce the nature of a mode of production from the given forms of exploitation of labour – so serfdom equals feudalism and wage labour equals capitalism. This, he argues, is a flawed way of reasoning, in which simple categories that can be common and shared across different forms of production across historical time are elevated to the status of historically determinate categories. Ultimately, the problem of formal abstractonism is the fact that wage labour has existed in non-capitalist modes of production and, conversely, unfree labour has been and still often is entirely compatible with capitalist accumulation.

As an alternative, Banaji argues for an approach which recognises that the deployment of labour is correlated with modes of production in complex and composite ways, which compels us to conceptualise modes of production from a different vantage point. For Banaji, this vantage point is constituted by “the laws of motion” of specific modes of production – and in the case of capitalism, this would be expanded reproduction through the production and accumulation of surplus value. This law of motion can be realised through a variety of forms of labour exploitation, which in turn means that capitalism is never configured in one singular way, but rather exists as an infinite series of distinct and specific configurations.

In the final analysis, this approach enables us to take a much longer view of the historical emergence of capitalism and to avoid what Banaji refers to as “the conventional stereotype of capitalist history as the history of the first capitalist nation”. It is here, I think, that we can locate the resources we need to craft passages from Marxism to postcolonialism and to engage in far more daring dialogues than those that have been spawned by the publication of PTSC so far.

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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