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Vivek Chibber-Partha Chatterjee Debate at the Historical Materialism Conference, 2013

By Mary Ann Chacko

A debate between Vivek Chibber, Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University and Partha Chatterjee on Marxism and The Legacy of Subaltern Studies was organized as part of the  Historical Materialism conference held in New York City from 26 -28 April, 2013. The theme of this conference was “Confronting Capital” and it sought to bring together ‘figures representing the breadth of current leftist thought.’ The debate between Chibber and Chatterjee was framed around Chibber’s latest book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013) which the Norton books website describes as ‘a provocative intellectual assault on the Subalternists’ foundational work.’  Barbara Weinstein, Professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University was the third person on the panel. Not having read Chibber’s book nor engaged with the Subalternists in a sustained manner, what I do here is offer a summary, though certainly not an exhaustive one, of the debate. The recording of the debate:

Vivek Chibber

Chibber, in the debate, takes up the task of troubling two commonsensical claims that are foundational to the theorizing of capitalism and the global south within subaltern studies in particular and postcolonial theory in general.  These claims are the “concept of difference” – the radical difference between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ – and the “critique of Eurocentricism” – that idea that western theories project insights gleaned from European contexts onto the non-western world and are hence insufficient for a proper understanding of the colonial and postcolonial world.  These claims, particularly that of difference, Chibber argues, are neither new nor unique to Subaltern Studies . But what is unique about Subaltern Studies, Chibber opines, is its rejection of the foundational leftist claims about—the universal properties and tendencies of the capitalist system, the nature of resistance generated by this system, and the discovery of “common interests” by working classes across the world bringing them together in a common struggle against the capitalist system . It is Subaltern Studies’ critique of these foundational claims of the left ,especially as found in the works of Ranajit Guha (Domination without Hegemony, 1998)  and Dipesh Chakrabarty (Provincializing Europe, 2000), that Chibber takes up for scrutiny.

Guha , according to Chibber, argues that the rule of European bourgeoisie was “hegemonic” in that it enjoyed the consent of the working classes.   They garnered this consent in Europe through the “bourgeois democratic revolutions” of 1640 in England and 1789 in France which forged a “liberal encompassing political order.” In the postcolonial contexts, and in India in particular, however, bourgeois rule is marked by  “domination without hegemony” and has thereby failed to transform political cultures and subaltern cultures and retained old forms of political practices, idioms, and institutions giving rise in turn to a distinct elite and a subaltern sphere in these societies – a subaltern sphere, which continue to carry on with its own culture from pre-capitalist days and possessing a consciousness which, while certainly changed, was not fundamentally transformed.

In his examination of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book Chibber takes up Chakrabarty’s argument that one of the properties of the universalizing tendency of capital is that the capitalist system transforms “all social relations such that they become reflective of the logic of capital.” In the East however, according to Chakrabarty, this does not occur and capitalism has had to “accommodate enduring local practices, cultures, ad institutions.”  Thus Chibber argues that Charkrabarty’s analysis suggests that the capitalism of the East is different from the capitalism of the West. But Chibber suggests that neither Guha’s nor Chakrabarty’s arguments can “withstand scrutiny.”

In Chibber’s view Guha’s argument is based on a “fictional understanding of European history.”  He argues that the first 1st 150 years of capitalist history in the West was marked by bourgeois oligarchies. These oligarchies were subsequently democratized, not as the result of the capitalism’s universalizing tendency to transform political cultures, but as a result of mass struggle from below. Thus Chibber concludes that “the divergence between East and West” on the lines that Guha argues, is “difficult to sustain.” With regard to Chakrabarty’s  argument that  capitalism’s failure to transform all social relations in the East suggests its failure to universalize– Chibber argues that no one on the left would suggest that that is the “litmus test for capitalism’s universalization.” To take root, rather, all that capitalism fundamentally needs to install is a market dependent production and distribution which in turn will also bring socio-cultural and political changes.  Rather Chibber argues that capitalists, in fact, promote heterogeneous practices, such as “traditional rituals” to strengthen their legitimacy and that “to see heterogeneity as a failure is a theoretical error.” He rejects the postcolonial critique of Marxism—that  it assumes homogeneity when it says that, for instance, Mumbai and Detroit are capitalist—as “absolutely false.” Marxism, Chibber asserts, alludes to certain “properties” shared by these regions and does not impose homogeneity.

Chibber points out that subaltern theorists are suspicious of the Marxist claim of a “common humanity” and on their part suggest that such a claim either “assumes a bourgeois consciousness on the part of workers” or denies people their cultural specificity. Chibber, however, argues that cultural differences do not pre-empt the possibility of having shared interests and needs or the ability to recognize domination and to resist oppression. Every culture, Chibber, argues, tries to normalize and justify domination and oppression, but the fact that people resist domination rather than internalizing it reveals that they are drawing upon some “psychological resources” to do so. Marxists argue that these “resources” are the basic interests and needs which persist across cultures albeit in different forms and which in turn enable “resistance  to extend across” cultures and spaces.

Chibber insists that the “unbridgeable chasm” between the East and West that postcolonial theory in general and subaltern studies in particular insists upon does two things—one, it aborts any attempts to speak of a universal human rights, secondly it makes it hard to say that what is driving countries like India today is capitalism, even if “variants of it”, and finally it paves the way for “an unrelenting exoticism about the East, to a revived Orinetalism, to a revival of the very ideology that anti-colonial and nationalist movements and left-wing movements for a 150 years have fought against”. The postcolonial suspicion of universals are based on the argument that numerous atrocities across the world have been committed “in the name of” universals such as democracy, freedom etc. But Chibber locates the problem not in the nniversals themselves but in the person who commits the atrocity. Each of these universalisms, Chibber reminds us,  “were the products of struggle from below” and by rejecting them we are also preempting future gains at a time when the Left “flat out on its back is desperately seeking some means of becoming relevant again.”

Partha Chatterjee

Chatterjee begins by stating that Subaltern Studies has had to face criticism since its inception almost 30 years ago and hence debates of this nature where he has had to respond to criticisms and challenges are also not new for someone like him who has been closely associated with the collective. Chatterjee acknowledges that ”Vivek Chibber’s book is the latest and one of the most seriously argued book length criticisms of Sublatern Studies published in the last 30 years.” Chatterjee responds not just to the points raised by Chibber in the present talk but also takes into consideration the arguments put forward by Chibber in his book.

Partha’s beef with Chibber’s critique of Guha’s book Domination without Hegemony is the former’s failure to note that Guha based his analysis of the political culture of Europe, not on factual history of the revolutions of England and France, but on  European liberal historiographic claims– claims which included the universalizing tendency of capital  and the bourgeois hegemony established by the revolutions in England and France, the claim that British rule in India enjoyed similar consent from Indian subjects—as well as legitimizing claims by Indian liberals that India’s postcolonial order was also hegemonic  in a similar manner. Thus Chibber’s interpretation of Guha is “based on a gross misunderstanding of Guha’s claim.” Moreover Chatterjee, also suggests a methodological error in Chibber’s examination of Guha’s work for it assumes that 20th century  India shares the same historical time space as England’s 17th and  France’s 18th – “a patently invalid claim.” For, when the Indian bourgeoisie assumed power in India it legitimized itself not by the standards of 17th and 18th century Europe “but by the higher standards of 20th century liberalism” – “a test which Guha concludes the Indian bourgeoisie had failed.”

Coming to Chibber’s critique of Chakrabarty – Chatterjee states that while Chakrabarty, after Marx, considers the “consciousness of caste, religion and other cultural differences among the industrial working class as a limit that colonial capital has been unable to surpass” – an obstacle to the universalizing tendency of capital, Chibber “regards those features as entirely compatible with capitalism in general.” Moreover, the “alternative account of capitalist production” offered by Chibber  has “no recognizable relation to the Marxist tradition.” Chatterjee argues that market-dependent production and distribution alone is not a sufficient criterion for the universalization of capital and employs what he asserts are some drastic differences in the ways in which Marx and Chibber talks about the concept of “abstract labor” to buttress his point. Chatterjee also describes Chibber’s argument about the “universal need for physical well-being” as a conception of “needs” which is wholly different from that of Marx which in turn is derived from Hegel.

One might argue that Chatterjee in his critique of Chibber’s work, is blatantly suggesting that while the Sublaternists have based their critique on an authentic and faithful reading of Marx, what Chibber offers is an idiosyncratic reading of Marx. Chatterjee also, one could say, ‘accuses’ Chibber of a careless reading of the Subalternists themselves, including that of Chatterjee’s own work.  Among other things Chatterjee refers to Chibber’s universal history of class struggle as “materialist  universalism run amock “ and declares  Chibber’s “proposed definition of capitalism so capacious that it would bring a blush even to the pale cheek’s of Adam Smith.”

Barbara  Weinstein

Weinstein suggests that Chibber’s use of basic human needs, while like all foundational categories might be problematic, can be appealing to those involved in social struggles. She insists that Chibber’s book, while it has postcolonial theory on its title is basically a book about and a critique of subaltern studies. She finds some of these critiques “harsher than necessary” while finding some others “persuasive,” especially Chibber’s argument about the Orientalist approach –“ the people without history approach” that he detects  in Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe. But at the same time she cautions us to resist the temptation to assume that “any emphasis on difference or alterity  is equivalent to Orientalism” or to dismiss any  “critique of enlightenment reason “ as a defense of Orientalism. Also, she insists that we do not disregard the historical context of colonial rule on the basis of which Said builds his critique of Orientalism.

Weinstein disagrees with Chibber’s claim that Subalternists are dismissive of universals. In the light of her reading of Chakrabarty, she suggests that rather than dismissing all universals, Subalternists seem to be wary of acquiescence to universals upheld by the global north – a weariness which has been particularly productive in “rethinking feminism.” She suggests that Chibber’s book which is “gender free” would have gained considerably from an engagement “with the category of gender [rather than regarding it] as a category that is irrelevant to discussion of class.”  Moreover, she suggests that in Chibber’s excessive care to avoid appearing Orientalist, Chibber’s book  has led to the “flattering , a sort of over homogenization of human experience.” Another important pointed out by Weinstein  is that with the exception of Provincializing Europe,  “most of the works he critiques are not of recent vintage.” However, “scholars and activists who have consumed aspects of subaltern studies have by and large moved away from the emphasis on alterity or tortuous notions of alternative modernity ” to notions such as “hybridity” which makes “an Orientalist tendency very difficult to sustain.”

Vivek Chibber’s Response

One cannot help but detect the dejection in Chibber when he comes to the podium  to respond to Chatterjee and Weinstein.  He states that “much of Partha’s response is to the effect that I’ve misrepresented or misread the work.” Chibber says that “he is disappointed but not entirely surprised” by this response and that “the readers [of his book] will have to make up their own mind [about the legitimacy of those claims].…The fact is this – there are three generations of scholars committed to this. It is not just Partha, I expect a whole army of people to show up insisting that I’ve misread, misrepresented, misunderstood…” Moreover to Chatterjee’s claims that his reading of the universalizing tendency of capital and other aspects of capitalism such as his understanding of basic human needs and their role in mass struggle diverge from that of Marx, Chibber vehemently states – “I don’t care. I really don’t care…I never made any arguments in the book that is simply based on a textual fidelity to Marx”. Chibber, however, responds in some detail to Chatterjee’s critique of his understanding of abstract labor, Chatterjee and Weinstein’s  “imputation” that his claims are homogenizing, and to Chatterjee’s claims he “holds a view of needs independent of culture” (an accusation he wholeheartedly accepts!)

[Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral student in the Dept. of Curriculum & Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation project explores school-police partnerships in Kerala, India. She blogs at: Chintavishta.]

[Cafe Dissensus Blog is the blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine.]

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