2017 Capital as Power Essay Prize
Social justice and the city

The systematic dialectic of decolonisation

by Adam David Morton on October 25, 2017

Materialism and dialectics have given us totality and difference, as well as the structural link which subjectively unites them . . . It remains insufficient as long as this structure, this totality is not internally split, as long as we do not succeed in grasping not the structural (capitalist) subjectivity but the subjectivities which dialectically constitute the structure . . . The category of production, in the essential terms which distinguish it, and with the totality which characterises it—a veritable social articulation of reality—can only be constituted as a category of difference, as a totality of subjects, of differences, of antagonism

Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx.

The concept of totality as a grasping of real relations is defined as a unity of differences within the systematic dialectic of capital. The dialectic of unity and difference that defines value is an articulation of multiplicity within which the category of production is broadened as a focalisation, as Antonio Negri relays for us in Marx Beyond Marx. As a consequence, difference becomes antagonism through the emergence of value and in this process identity is split into difference with the latter defined as antagonism. In Grundrisse, it is also clearly posited by Karl Marx that it is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural world that requires explanation, but rather the separation between human existence and broader conditions, which is posited in the relation of labour and capital where difference becomes antagonism.

In Decolonizing Dialectics it is the task of George Ciccariello-Maher, in his own words, to avoid the ‘seductions of unity’ (6) and to point instead toward the contested nature of identities through the relations of race, class, nation and gender. The ambition of Decolonizing Dialectics is therefore to rescue a theory of dynamic oppositions constitutive of political identities and to resist the absorption of multiplicity into a logic of unity. The radicalised dialectics that is asserted is therefore one that draws together combative identities from class to race to nation to people to consider their mutual interplay and thereby move beyond colonial difference. The book is a success in developing a perspective on the rupture of radicalised and decolonial dialectics within the conditions that define the unity-in-separation induced by capitalism. At the same time, though, if separation is itself part of the dialectical unity of the world under capitalism there are some exclusions that demand more sustained reflection.

Across four main theoretical chapters drawing from varied sources the reader is taken through a focus on radicalised dialectics of class (Chapter 1: George Sorel); the combative rupture and dialectics of race (Chapter 2: Frantz Fanon); a decolonial view on nation seeking to eschew the subsumption of race to class (Chapter 3: Frantz Fanon redux); and a focus on dialectics and the other (Chapter 4: Enrique Dussell), all prior to taking the approach of combative dialectics to Venezuela in a separate empirical chapter (Chapter 5). The book closes with an innovative coda entitled ‘Spirals’, that reasserts the case for a radically open-ended dialectics to address the fine line between the internal-external relation of dialectics and decolonisation, nonbeing and exteriority, across the categories of class, race, nation, and people. The book is therefore an essential read on dialectics and it articulates its case adeptly in asserting the need to address the internal relations of categories within a concrete totality without succumbing to the ‘seductions of unity’. The focus on radical combative ruptures—in theory as practice—is therefore essential in developing renewed debate on dialectics and cycles of struggle.

Yet there are exclusions and displacements. As Ciccariello-Maher confesses in a footnote to the introduction on ‘ruptures’, due to ‘the historical weight of the dialectical tradition, the particular trajectory of thinkers . . . and my own theoretical limitations’, there is no substantive focus on ‘gender identity’ as a dialectical category alongside class, race, nation and people, while pointing to some curbed references that do (173n.11). This exclusion is a shame given the long-standing work by social reproduction feminists such as inter alia Silvia Federici, Maria Mies, Mariarosa Dalla Costa or Ariel Salleh that all address in varied ways the sphere of reproduction as a source of value-creation and exploitation. Such work transcends the dichotomy between class and patriarchy as well as bridging human and natural strata to enable a privileging of the body attentive to race, sexuality and environmental habitat that is not class innocent. Embodied materialism, as Ariel Salleh affirms in Ecofeminism as Politics, a defining book that enters its twenty year anniversary, shows ‘how socialism, ecology, feminism and postcolonial struggle can be grounded, unified and empowered by an ecofeminist dialectic of internal relations’. The exclusion of an extended engagement with gender is therefore a costly omission in Decolonizing Dialectics that might have altered the radicalised approach to dialectics, which is asserted through a discourse defined by the ‘spirit of combat’, ‘openings outward’, the ‘slamming together’ of identities, the ‘tossing off’ of shackles, the ‘momentary hardening’ of identities, the deferment of ‘premature declarations’, and the ‘stripping’ of determinism as a core contribution of the book (6-7).

Equally, a concern can be raised as to whether there is a displacement of class at the centre of the book. Again, in the author’s own words Ciccariello-Maher states, ‘I hope it is clear, hear and elsewhere, that simply eschewing a strictly economic language or displacing the centrality of class does not in any way minimise the materiality of dialectics’ (176n.29). This belies the claim, then, to hold class, race, nation and people within a condition of radical dialectics in combative rupture as a there is a displacing of class going on. There is also a distancing from the class combative emphasis of Sorel, later in the book, in asserting the following: ‘To insist on the centrality of class as the universal political identity motivating human progress is to imprison the racialised and colonised of the world within a linear developmentalism that requires them to catch up with Europe’ (69). But this assertion seems disconnected from a thorough engagement with the work of Kevin Anderson or Harry Harootunian, among others. Delving into the detail of such contributions would reveal no coyness in asserting uneven development and the temporal and spatial ruptures it is capable of producing across the colonial/postcolonial/decolonial worlds of social class to address identity and difference.

Despite these quibbles about what antagonisms are excluded or displaced, Decolonizing Dialectics makes an essential contribution to our understanding of the dialectic of unity and difference and how difference becomes antagonism within and beyond the legacies of colonialism. It is essential reading in the renewal of debate about the philosophy of internal relations and the systematic dialectic.

Adam David Morton

Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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