Academic punch-ups don’t often cause much of a stir in the outside world, so when Vivek Chibber, a sociology professor at NYU, set out to defend radical Enlightenment ideas from theories that have assailed them for decades, he was surprised to find himself doing so in front of a crowd. He tells Tank what made him write Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital.
Lidija Haas Could you lay out your argument?
Vivek Chibber Postcolonial theory has become dominant in the past quarter century or so, and has arrogated itself the place Marxism used to have in the study of the non-West, both as a form of critique and as an explanatory theory. My argument is that it fails on both grounds. While it makes reference to capitalism all the time, it fundamentally obscures how capitalism works. It also fails as critique. Its main claim to fame is that it transcends the abiding Eurocentrism of Western theories, but in fact it promotes many Orientalist myths about non-Western people – that they are non-rational, basically religious, with no conception of individuality, of autonomy, of rights. So I think postcolonial theory is a gigantic step backwards in the study of the global south.
LH What do you think the implications are for activism or for real change?
VC That is my main concern; I wrote the book because of the political implications. When you build a gigantic wall between East and West, as postcolonial theory does, when you say the concept of human rights is Western, secularism is Western, rationality is Western – on what grounds are you going to say imperialism is wrong? Postcolonial theory removes any basis for fighting injustice across cultures.
LH There’s a critique of human rights discourse as hopelessly entangled with Western imperialism…
VC Western superpowers have used the language of human rights and cosmopolitanism to justify all sorts of atrocities. America’s misuse of human rights discourse shouldn’t lead to a condemnation of human rights, it should lead to a condemnation of America! The idea of universal human rights enshrined in the United Nations after World War II – that was not a Western imposition, it was demanded by anti-colonial movements.
LH If someone romanticises certain groups: “Well, the subaltern has this special feeling for the community…” You see that as a kind of Orientalism?
VC But people really do have an interest in community. The Orientalism comes when people say: “What motivates them is their community’s interests and their religion. Why are you talking to them about their interests? This is a Western notion.” Absolute nonsense! How is it Western? If you went into 15th-century England, wouldn’t you find that peasants had a strong sense of community, that they were immersed in religion? But they resisted their landlords, didn’t they? The fact that religion’s important in a culture doesn’t mean people have no idea of their interests. And how can it be that Indians or Egyptians are intrinsically any more religious or community-oriented than Westerners? Are they genetically programmed? I don’t even know how people can seriously make these arguments! One reason I was enraged enough to write this book is that I don’t believe anyone actually believes these things.
LH You focus on subaltern studies, I guess because it’s easier to grab hold of, a consistent thread within postcolonial theory?
VC Also, because subaltern studies is extremely influential in historical and empirical analysis, unlike the more literary dimensions of postcolonial theory. But the aspects I criticised are things other postcolonial theorists share. The real trailblazer in the essentialising discourse was none other than Gayatri Spivak herself, in the ’70s and ’80s, when she attacked Western feminists for analysing the East and inserted herself as the authority on it because of her background. When I first came across her essays in my early twenties, it was shocking to me, doubly shocking because no one else was shocked. I had never before encountered a self-professed radical from the global south wagging their finger at Western progressives, telling them they have no business writing on the East. It was pretty clear to me that this was academic territoriality – nothing to do with politics – but it has become the norm now.
LH Is there any parallel with things like l’écriture féminine? There have been other attempts to say: “There’s something different here: don’t come near it”.
VC Yeah, it’s all happened in the wake of this poststructuralist, postcolonial turn though. From the early 20th century, the dominant thinking among third world progressives was to encourage connections with the West. The people who insisted that even progressive Westerners could never understand the East were always the right wing of the nationalist movements, who justified their own oppressive practices by appealing to their culture. It’s a perversion of the postcolonial left that they turned cosmopolitanism, liberalism, human rights discourse into a crime.
LH It seems the cultural turn in many disciplines stemmed from the political defeat of the left.
VC It’s 100% true. That said, the problem isn’t the insistence on culture, the problem is pretending there’s nothing underneath it. Cultural studies was an invention of the left. Taking culture seriously is something that starts with Marx himself and runs through Lukács, Mannheim, the Frankfurt School, all the way to Raymond Williams. But culture was used in the post-’70s era to move away from the analysis of class and exploitation. What happened was that capitalism was evacuated from cultural theory. Instead of class, you get the study of identities; instead of the state, you get the nation…
LH Presumably that’s why there’s such suspicion of identity politics in certain parts of the left. But now, looking around, there seems to be a much greater interest in intersectionality…
VC I don’t think the problem is identity politics. Identity politics is important – it’s the name given to various forms of oppression. If you think Western aggression is a bad thing, what you’re asserting is the right to national self-determination – that’s a kind of identity politics. And race and gender issues are also central to any left movement. Intersectionality is one way students and radicals are trying to bring concerns of class back together with other kinds of oppression. My view is that it’s not a promising framework: the truism that all these things interact with each other – that should be the starting point of the analysis, not the end. The question becomes, do all forms of social domination have a logic of their own, are they driven by an internal engine the way capital accumulation is? My view is, there’s nothing that necessitates oppression when it comes to relations between the sexes, or with race. But there’s no way you can be a capitalist without exploiting labour. Capitalism is self-sustaining in a way other oppressions are not.
LH Does that imply those other oppressions could be less intractable in the long run?
VC Hard to say, but the point is how we understand their relation to class. If you look at the 20th century, it’s impossible to explain the evolution of race or gender relations in the US independently of what was going on in the economy. The rise of the plantation south, industrialisation, changes in the workforce... Of course, it doesn’t follow that those oppressions are less important or easier to manage than class relations. There’s also the issue of whether capitalism needs these other forms of oppression. It probably doesn’t, and I see that as a great thing. In my lifetime and yours, capitalism is not going anywhere. But we can realistically think about making serious dents against sexism or racial oppression. There’s no particular blueprint of social and political forms that must accompany capitalism.
LH Right, it doesn’t have to go with liberal democracy; they don’t have to thrive together.
VC The opposite. You can trace capitalism back to the 16th century, so it’s been around for, what, 500 years? And democracy’s been around for a century.
LH How has the book been received so far?
VC There’s been a hysterical response in some quarters, in the blogosphere. I sort of expected that. What I’ve been surprised by is how much positive attention the book’s managed to get. I thought it was so against the times, it would be completely ignored. But there’s some dissatisfaction among more critical left-leaning people about the damage postcolonial theory has wrought. At the same time, the last 25 years have taken their toll even among those who consider themselves really radical, so the insistence on some kind of universalism and cosmopolitanism makes people really nervous.
LH What do you think the damage amounts to?
VC The legacy of postcolonial studies is a net reduction in human knowledge – I think we’re dumber today than we were 25 years ago thanks to postcolonial theory. It took 300 years of struggle, of blood, sweat and tears, to enshrine in the dominant culture these conceptions of universal human rights, democracy, secularism. They were products of movements from below, every single one. You couldn’t give a bigger gift to the establishment than to say: “Yeah, you’re right, we don’t want universal rights.”
LH Are there any currents within the theory worth salvaging?
VC There is this boilerplate anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism – postcolonial theory has held that banner high for the last quarter century and that’s an important thing. But we didn’t need all that other baggage the theory brought with it.
LH One last silly question: did you see that n+1 piece, “Too Much Sociology”?
VC I saw that headline – it wasn’t about my book, was it??
LH No, no! But what was funny was, it implied sociologists have this rock-star status now. It mentioned a list of the most cited intellectuals in the humanities: something like 7 out of 10 were sociologists.
VC Is that true? I think anthropology and history and economics have much more influence. Very few sociologists are read outside sociology. In terms of impact, I often feel it’s the lowest of all the social sciences. §