Postcolonial Thought’s Blind Alley

After a long hiatus, we seem to be witnessing the re-emergence of a global resistance to capitalism, at least in its neoliberal guise. It has been more than four decades since anti-capitalist movements exploded with such force on a global scale. There were brief tremors every now and then that temporarily derailed the neoliberal project. But not like those we have witnessed in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas over the past two years.
But the re-emergence of such movements has revealed that the retreat of the past three decades has exacted a toll. The political resources available to working people are the weakest in decades. The organisations of the left—unions and political parties—have been hollowed out or, worse, have become complicit in the management of austerity. The weakness of the left is not only political or organisational; it extends to theory. The political defeats of the past decades have been accompanied by a dramatic churning on the intellectual front. There has not been a flight from radical theory or commitment to a radical intellectual agenda: Self-styled progressive or radical intellectuals are still impressive in number at many universities, at least in North America. It is that the very meaning of radicalism has changed. Under the influence of poststructuralist thinking, the basic concepts of the socialist tradition are considered suspect or rejected outright. The idea that capitalism has a real structure which imposes real compulsions, that class is rooted in real relations of exploitation, or that labour has a real interest in collective organisation—ideas that were the common sense of the left for almost two centuries—are considered hopelessly outdated.
These criticisms of materialism and political economy came out of the poststructuralist milieu, yet they have found a particular, sharp expression in the most recent product of that current: postcolonial theory. Over the past two decades, the Francophone philosophical tradition has not been the flag-bearer for the attack on materialism or political economy but instead—and interestingly—a group of theorists from South Asia and other parts of the global South, the most conspicuous and influential being Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies Group; also the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar, Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano and Argentine literary theorist Walter Mignolo.
Their most common target is Marxist theory, but their ire extends to the Enlightenment tradition itself. Of all the weaknesses of Enlightenment radicalism, what most agitates postcolonial theorists is its universalising tendencies—its claims for the validity of certain categories, regardless of culture and place. Marxism in their analysis is the theory that most pointedly expresses this aspect of the Enlightenment’s deadly intellectual inheritance.
Marxists insist that certain categories such as class, capitalism and exploitation have cross-cultural validity. These categories describe economic practices not just in Christian Europe, but also in Hindu India and Muslim Egypt. For postcolonial theorists, this universalising zeal is deeply problematic—as theory and, just as important, as a guide for political practice. It is rejected as wrong, and because it supposedly deprives actors of the intellectual resources vital for effective political practice. In being misleading, this theory is a questionable guide to action—any theory that is wrong will perform poorly in directing political practice. And the theory refuses to recognise the autonomy and creativity of actors in their particular location. Instead, the universalising theory fits the local and particular into rigid categories derived from European experience. Postcolonial theory presents itself as not just a criticism of the radical enlightenment tradition, but as its replacement.
“The assumption of universalism is a fundamental feature of the construction of colonial power because the ‘universal’ features of humanity are the characteristics of those who occupy positions of political dominance,” explains a widely used text on postcolonial studies. The mechanism through which universalism abets colonial domination is by the elevation of some very specific facts about European culture to the status of general descriptions of humanity, valid on a global scale. Cultures that do not match these specific descriptions are consigned to the status of being backward, needing tutoring in civilisation, incapable of governing themselves. As the text’s editors describe it, the “myth of universality is thus a primary strategy of imperial control ... on the basis of an assumption that ‘European’ equals ‘universal’.”
We see in this argument two of the most commonly held postcolonial theorists’ views. One is a formal, meta-theoretical idea: Claims to universality are suspect because they ignore social heterogeneity; they marginalise any practice or social convention that does not conform to what is being elevated to the universal. The act of marginalisation is an act of suppression, of the exertion of power.
The second view is substantive: Universalisation is complicit with European domination—because in the intellectual world, western theories are dominant. Insofar as they are the frameworks that guide intellectual inquiry, or the theories that inform political practice, they imbue these with an enduring Eurocentrism. The frameworks and theories inherited from the Enlightenment bear the mark of their geographical origin. But the mark is not easily discerned. It operates insidiously, as the hidden premise of these doctrines. The task of postcolonial criticism is to expunge it, by exposing its presence and highlighting its effects.
Hence the hostility to the “grand narratives” associated with Marxism and progressive liberalism. The action these days is in “the fragment,” the marginal, the practices and cultural conventions unique to a particular setting, which cannot be subsumed into a generalised analysis—the “heterogeneities and incommensurabilities” of the local. This is where we are directed to search for political agency.
The hostility to universalising theories has interesting implications. The radical tradition since Marx and Engels has relied on foundational premises for all of its political analysis. The first is that as capitalism expands across the globe, it imposes economic constraints on the actors that come under its sway. As it takes root in Asia, Latin America and Africa, economic production is forced to abide by a common set of rules. The development of regions and the tempo of growth will proceed unevenly, at different rates, with considerable institutional variation. They will not all look the same. But their differences will be worked out in response to a common set of compulsions from the underlying capitalist structure.
It is taken for granted that as capitalism imposes its logic on actors, and exercises its economic and political domination, it will elicit a response from labouring groups, who will resist its depredations to defend their wellbeing. This will be true regardless of their cultural or religious identity. The reason for their resistance is that, whatever the facts about local culture, capitalism assaults basic needs that all people have in common. So just as capitalism imposes a common logic of reproduction across regions, it also elicits a common resistance from labour. Again, the resistance will not take the same form, but the potential for its exercise will be universal because the wellspring that generates it—the workers’ drive to defend their wellbeing—is common across cultures.
These beliefs have been foundational for much of radical analysis and practice for more than a century. But if we accept postcolonial theory’s injunctions against universalism, they must be rejected as unabashedly universalistic. The implications are profound. What is left of radical analysis if we lose capitalism from its theoretical toolkit? How do we analyse the global depression since 2007, or make sense of the drive for austerity that has swept the Atlantic world, if not by tracing the logic of profit-driven economies and the struggle to maximise profits? What do we make of the global resistance to these impositions, when the same slogans can be found in Cairo, Buenos Aires, Madison and London, if not through some universal interests expressed in them? How do we generate any analysis of capitalism without some universalising categories?
The stakes being high, one would think that postcolonial theorists might grant amnesty to concepts like capitalism or class interests. Perhaps these are universalising categories that have some justification, and might escape the charge of Eurocentrism. But not only are these concepts included in the list of offenders, they are singled out as exemplars of all that is suspect in Marxist theory. Gyan Prakash expresses this well in a broadside against Enlightenment (Marxist) thought: “Making capitalism the foundational theme [of historical analyses] amounts to homogenising the histories that remain heterogeneous within it.” Marxists either fail to notice practices and conventions that are independent of capitalist dynamics, or assume that whatever independence they have will soon dissolve. The idea that social formations can be analysed through the lens of their economic dynamics—their mode of production—is not only mistaken, but also Eurocentric and complicit with imperial domination. “Like many other 19th-century European ideas,” Prakash notes, “the staging of the Eurocentric mode-of-production narrative as history should be seen as an analogue of 19th-century territorial imperialism.”
Dipesh Chakrabarty has given this argument structure in his influential book Provincializing Europe. He argues that the idea of a universalising capitalism turns regional histories into variations on a theme. Every country is categorised by the extent to which it conforms with, or departs from, an idealised concept of capitalism, so regional histories are never able to escape from being footnotes to the European experience. The second error Chakrabarty identifies is that the idea of capitalism evacuates all contingency from historical development. Marxists’ faith in the universalising dynamic of capitalism blinds them to the possibility of “discontinuities, ruptures and shifts in the historical process.” Freed from interruption by human agency, the future becomes a knowable entity, drawing toward a determinable end. Universalising assumptions of concepts like capitalism are not just mistaken, but politically dangerous: They disallow non-western societies the possibility of crafting their own futures.
There is no denying that, over the past century, capitalism has spread across the globe, imbricating itself especially in the postcolonial world. And where it has taken root, it must have affected the institutional make-up of those regions; their economies have been transformed by the pressures of capital accumulation, and many of their non-economic institutions have been changed to accommodate its logic. Chakrabarty affirms that capitalism has globalised over the past century, but while he acknowledges its globalisation, he denies that this is tantamount to its universalisation. This allows him to affirm that market dependence has spread to the far corners of the world, whilst denying that the category of capitalism can be used for its analysis.
For Chakrabarty, a properly universalising capitalism is one that subordinates all social practices to its own logic: “No historic form of capital, however global in its reach, can ever be a universal ... [for] any historically available form of capital is a provisional compromise” between its totalising drive and the obduracy of local customs and conventions. In his argument, a universalising capitalism must internalise all social relations to its own logic. It must be a totalising system, which refuses to allow any autonomy to other social relations. Chakrabarty makes it seem as though capitalist managers walk around with political Geiger counters, measuring the compatibility of every social practice with their own priorities.
The more reasonable picture is that capitalists seek to expand their operations, make the best possible returns on their investments, and as long as their operations are running smoothly, do not care about the conventions and mores of the environment. The signal that something needs to be changed comes when aspects of the environment disrupt their operations, by stimulating labour conflict or restricting markets. When that happens, they swing into action, and target the culprit practices. Capitalists would be indifferent to other practices that might well embody other “ways of being in the world.”
We could reject Chakrabarty’s claim that globalisation does not imply universalisation. If the practices that have spread globally can be identified as capitalist, then they have also been universalised. That we can recognise them as distinctively capitalist allows us to pronounce capital’s globalisation. If we can affirm that they are capitalist, and therefore have the properties associated with capitalism, how can we deny their universalisation?
Capitalism spreads to all corners of the world, driven by its insatiable thirst for profits, and in so doing it creates a truly universal history, a history of capital. Postcolonial theorists will often pay lip service to this aspect of global capitalism, even if they deny its substance. What makes them more uncomfortable is the second component of a materialist analysis, which has to do with the sources of resistance. There is no dispute with the idea that as capitalism spreads it meets resistance from workers, peasants fighting for their land and indigenous populations. The celebration of these struggles is a calling card for postcolonial theorists, and in this, they would seem to be of a piece with the more conventional Marxist understanding of capitalist politics. But the similarity is only on the surface. Whereas Marxists have understood resistance from below as an expression of the real interests of labouring groups, postcolonial theory typically shies away from any talk of objective, universal interests. The sources of struggle are taken to be local, specific to the culture of the labouring groups, a product of their location and history, and not the expression of interests linked to universal basic needs.
To see struggles as emanating from material interests is “to invest [workers] with a bourgeois rationality, since it is only in such a system of rationality that the ‘economic utility’ of an action (or an object, relationship, institution) defines its reasonableness.” As Arturo Escobar writes, “with poststructuralism’s theory of the subject we are ... compelled to give up the liberal idea of the subject as a self-bounded, autonomous, rational individual. The subject is produced by [or] in historical discourses and practices in a multiplicity of domains.” Insofar as there is resistance to capitalism, it must be understood as an expression of local and particular conceptions of needs—constructed by geographically restricted histories, and working through a cosmology that resists translation, something that postcolonialist intellectuals posit outside of the universalising narratives of Enlightenment thought.
The question is whether it is unwarranted to assign some universal needs and interests to agents across cultures and time. There is no doubt that, for the most part, the things that agents value and pursue are culturally constructed. In this, postcolonial theorists and more traditional progressives agree. Yet there is no culture in the world, nor has there ever been, in which agents did not pay attention to their physical wellbeing. Agents across localities and time are concerned for food, shelter and safety, since the fulfilment of these needs is a precondition for a culture’s reproduction. We can affirm that there are some aspects of human agency that are not entirely the construction of local culture, if by that we mean that they are specific to that culture. These aspects are rooted in aspects of human psychology across time and space: They are components of our human nature.
To say that social agents are oriented to regard their physical wellbeing is not to insist that culture has no influence in this domain. What they consume, the kinds of dwellings they prefer, their sartorial inclinations, can be shaped by local custom and the contingencies of history. It is common to find cultural theorists pointing to the variability in forms of consumption as evidence that needs are cultural constructions. But that the form of consumption is shaped by history—which it might be to some extent—is no evidence against the idea that there is a need for basic sustenance. They are presented as forms of something.
It is the agents’ concern for wellbeing that anchors capitalism in any culture where it implants itself. As Marx observed, once capitalist relations are in place, the “dull compulsion of economic relations” is all it takes to induce workers to offer themselves for exploitation. This is true regardless of culture and ideology: If they are in the position of being a worker, they will make themselves available for work. The reason they make their labour-power available to employers is that this is their only option to maintain their wellbeing. They are free to refuse if their culture tells them that such practices are unacceptable, but this only means that they are free to starve.
While this aspect of human nature is the foundation on which exploitation rests, it is also a central fount for resistance. The same concern for wellbeing that drives workers into the arms of capitalists also motivates them to resist the terms of their exploitation. Employers’ drive for profits has, as its most direct expression, a constant search to minimise the costs of production. The most obvious cost is wages. But the reduction of wages, while a condition for increased profit margins, means a squeeze on workers’ standards of living. For some workers in high-end or unionised sectors, the squeeze can be contained within tolerable limits, so that it amounts to a struggle for their standard of living, but not for their basic needs. For much of the global South and a widening range of sectors in the developed world, the stakes are much higher. Add to this the employers’ drive to manage other costs associated with production—trying to squeeze extra time from outdated machinery, increasing the risk of injury to workers; the drive to speed up the pace and intensity of work; the lengthening of the working day; the raids on pensions and retirement benefits—and it comes up against workers’ interest in their own wellbeing. Workers’ movements will often be geared to securing the basic conditions for reproduction, not higher standards of living.
The first dimension of this process—submission to the labour contract—explains why capitalism can take root and secure itself anywhere. The second dimension—fighting the terms of exploitation—explains why class reproduction begets class struggle everywhere capitalism establishes itself. In parallel with the universalisation of capital is the universal struggle of workers to defend their wellbeing.
We have derived both universalisms from one component of human nature. This does not suggest that is all there is to it. Most progressive thinkers have believed that there are other components to human nature, other needs that span regional cultures (the need for autonomy or freedom from coercion, for creative expression, for respect). My point is not that human nature can be reduced to a basic, biological need. It is that this need does exist, even if it is less exalted than others; and, more importantly, that it can account for a range of practices and institutions that radicals are concerned with. It is a sign of how far left thinking has fallen that it is even necessary to defend its reality.
Postcolonial theory has made real gains in certain domains, especially in mainstreaming literature from the global South. In the 1980s and 90s it played an important role in keeping alive the idea of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism; and it has made the problem of Eurocentrism a watchword among progressive intellectuals. But these achievements have come with a steep price tag. It seems bizarre, at a time like this, to find ourselves stuck with a theory that made its name by dismantling some of the conceptual pillars that can help us understand the political conjuncture, and to devise effective strategy.
Postcolonial theorists have wasted much effort tilting against windmills of their own creation, and so have licensed a massive resurgence of nativism and Orientalism. It is not just that they emphasise the local over the universal. Their valorisation of the local, obsession with cultural particularities, and insistence on culture as the wellspring of agency, has licensed the exoticism that the left once abhorred in colonial depictions of the non-West.
Throughout the 20th century, the anchor for anti-colonial movements was, at least for the left, a belief that oppression was wrong wherever it was practised, because it was an affront to basic human needs for dignity, liberty, wellbeing. But now, in the name of anti-Eurocentrism, postcolonial theory has resurrected the cultural essentialism that progressives rightly viewed as the ideological justification for imperial domination. What better excuse to deny peoples their rights than to impugn the idea of rights, and universal interests, as culturally biased? No revival of an international and democratic left is possible unless we clear away these ideas, affirming the universalism of our common humanity, and of the threat to it from a universalising capitalism. Vivek Chibber is associate professor of sociology at New York University; his most recent book is Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, Verso, 2013. A longer version of this article appeared in Socialist Register 2014: Registering Class,vol 50, Merlin Press, Wales, 2014. This volume marks the 50th anniversary of the Socialist Register, the journal of the New Left founded a half century ago by the political philosopher Ralph Miliband. Copyright © 2014 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global