[Marxism] Uday Chandra on Vivek Chibber
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 9 00:57:15 MDT 2013
(I don't know who Chandra is, but he is a FB friend of John Game, a
scholar of Indian history and politics.)
Uday Chandra: My view is that left critics of poco theory do not need
their own AV. Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner,
Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial
studies. It is even more unfortunate that "enlightenment values" and
"human rights" are being bandied about in this way. And even more so
that Chibber has acted in a way that has pissed many off even as Partha
and others make clever and evasive arguments that avoid the very real
problems with SS.
But coming to the substance of the book, I would like to draw everyone's
attention to pp. 24-25. Here, Chibber highlights the "explanatory
failure" and then the "critical failure" of SS [Subaltern Studies].
Chibber argues that SS "systematically misrepresents the relationship
between capitalism and modernity" by 1) "obscuring the former" and 2)
"denying it altogether." But, to the best of my knowledge, the grand
task of explaining the relationship between capitalism and modernity is
not SS's aim at all. That is Chibber's problem, not theirs or even mine.
SS's aim, as the recollections of Guha and Chakrabarty rightly point
out, was to bring the Thompsonian sensibilities of "history from below"
into conversation with a radical critique of postcolonial Indian state
formation under the Congress-led bourgeoisie. There was a
historiographic context and a political context, not the imaginary aims
that Chibber imputes to it.
Several scholars more capable than Chibber have pointed out that Guha,
Chatterjee, etc, misread Gramsci in multiple ways in order to make their
arguments about subalternity. It is also true that the "moral economy"
framework in peasant studies appealed to these scholars as a nice
critique of the then-dominant modernization theory. And, unlike their
Cambridge and Indian counterparts, SS historians largely ignored the
turn away from moral economy in peasant studies. A parallel reading of
the evolution of SS and peasant studies over the 1980s and 1990s will be
instructive in this regard. But Chibber isn't interested in anything so
empirical. He is after Theory, grand, universal, totalizing and macho
(so yes, the gendering is important too). And on p. 10, Chibber
explicitly makes the case for his more masculinist Marxism: "[Their]
Marxism, therefore, is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be
recognized as such by many contemporary Marxists." And so, the battle of
the swinging dicks began: whose dick, er Marxism, is bigger and better?
By making it into a high-stakes ideological encounter, Chibber set the
ball rolling for his eventual humiliation at the hands of the cunning
On the question of Capital's progress in the colonial versus the
European world, I think Chibber and all of us would be better served
reading some of Dave Washbrook's seminal papers from the 1980s. He
engaged extensively with Wallerstein's world systems theory, peasant
studies scholarship, early modern historiography, and SS to come up with
certain excellent points about colonial political economy in South Asia
and beyond. The thesis that the colonial state, represented by a bunch
of white men and their Indian collaborators, "traditionalized" and
sedentarized Indian society in the domains of kinship, land, labor, and
capital remains as important as ever. Parallel to the work of Mahmood
Mamdani, Fred Cooper, Sally Falk Moore, the Comaroffs and others, we now
understand that capitalism in the colonial world was married to cultural
forms and social relations of production (customary laws over land and
religion, for example) that are structurally different from their
analogues in North America or Western Europe. These are not "cultural"
differences, but differences in the way modes of production and social
relations of production interact with each other. The colonial world can
still be profitably compared to Eastern Europe and Russia, of course,
but the contrast with the North Atlantic world remains intact.
When capital is tied to the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) by colonial law
or when certain social relations known as "tribal" are deemed to prevail
in land matters, the colonial state was knowingly ruling through
exceptions to the universal liberal narrative it knew from Whig
history-writing in England/Europe. SS merely repeats this, as do
Washbrook & Co. Now, as you say Nate, HUF property laws may well
facilitate the workings of capital in some respects by channeling it
along pre-existing kinship networks. But the stagnation of the Indian
economy in the later nineteenth century is a very real phenomenon, and
the decline of indigenous capital that thrived until mid-century is
analyzed far better in Cambridge histories than in SS. The failure of
the Whig project of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal is another real
failure for the early colonial project of creating an improving landlord
class. Indeed, this is the historiographic consensus on law, state, and
agrarian society in colonial India. Capital IS interrupted in more ways
than one imagines, and if you see what's happening today with chiefs in
Ghana or South Africa, you'll see how forms of political authority
shored up by the colonial state and reinvented traditions are placing
clear limits to the social logic of the market economy. This is not to
say that social relations established under the colonial regime cannot
facilitate capitalism under certain contexts. For example, the biggest
beneficiaries of the Bengal famine of 1943 were, ironically, Marwari
merchants, including the likes of GD Birla who financed the Gandhian
Congress then during the Quit India movement. As Partha noted at the
end, it is not only (as in his earlier work) a matter of showing that
subalterns resisted capital in the margins of the capitalist world
economy, but also that contemporary Indian and Chinese capitalisms, for
example, continue to be shaped by cultural-economic forms that are
different from European trajectories. I see the Comaroffs making much
the same claims with respect to zombies and millennial capitalism in
southern Africa. Chibber doesn't read people like the Comaroffs or
Washbrook, but if he did, he'd realize how bad his strawmanning tactics are.
In sun, these are complex matters that cannot be approached in the crude
sledgehammer style that Chibber uses throughout the book. I am with Jean
Comaroff, who, in a recent interview, speaks of the dialectic between
the cultural and the material as the most salient theme in her own work.
The Comaroffs have never shied away from bold claims, and they've never
bought into the post-Writing Culture turn in US anthro. Capitalism is
central to their narratives and theorizing, but never at the expense of
a deep understanding of what colonialism, Christianity, neoliberalism,
etc meant to ordinary Africans in existential terms. Alas, neither SS
nor Chibber are capable of doing the same in the South Asian context.
This is why we need different post-subalternist narratives, Marxist or
not, that will avoid the mindless warfare we are witnessing now between
two left factions in the Western academy. I am not saying we shouldn't
fight the SS orthodoxy that reigns today - frankly, Partha himself is
all too keen to move beyond SS, especially its (and his) earlier claims.
But we must do it in ways that understand clearly what SS tried to do
and failed. Whether that resuscitates Marxism or not globally is a
different question that I'll let the fighting vanguards decide.
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