Subaltern Mythologies

Postcolonial theorists have to stop insisting we choose between the universal and the particular.

Jacobin / Remeike Forbes

Since its release in March, the response to Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital has, in many ways, been as I expected. From many within postcolonial theory itself, there has been predictable vitriol. But I didn’t anticipate the stream of positive engagement, even from within cultural studies and some quarters of postcolonial theory.

Bruce Robbins’ review in the latest issue of N+1 falls somewhere in-between. His tone for most of it is respectful, sometimes generous. He quite ably sets the context for the book’s arguments and tries to lay out what is at stake. In this, he rises above the mud-slinging that has been the resort of some of his colleagues. But once Robbins sets out his own criticisms, the essay degenerates into a series of distortions and misconceptions. What makes them interesting, and worth responding to, is that they converge with misgivings that even sympathetic readers have expressed.

The crux of Robbins’ criticism comes at the end of his review, and centers around three issues: whether my views of the English Revolution of 1640 and/or 1688 are defensible; whether my framework can apprehend the difference between East and West; and whether my materialism is really a restatement of rational choice theory. On all three counts his criticisms are mistaken.

Let us start with the English Revolution. In the book, I examined whether Ranajit Guha’s view about the events of 1640 were correct. Guha, in essence, understands 1640 to be an instance of a “bourgeois-democratic revolution,” in which the emergent capitalist class undertakes and accomplishes two goals — the eradication of feudal landed relations, and the establishment of a liberal, consensual political order. I showed that this view is irredeemably flawed, and that it sets up an illusory contrast between the histories of the bourgeoisie in the East and the West.

First, the English Revolution was not a war between a rising bourgeoisie and the ancient regime, for the economy was already largely capitalist. Second, and most importantly, the victorious post-revolutionary regime had no interest in, and did not establish, the liberal, encompassing, consensual order that Guha attributes to it. In fact, it strove mightily to squelch what democratic rights there were. What the revolution bequeathed was a narrow bourgeois oligarchy.

Robbins dismisses this argument out of hand as being wrong. He seems to think that an economic transformation of this magnitude had to have occurred through something like a political revolution. How, he asks, could feudalism have disappeared without anyone noticing, without a “political commotion”? I seem to, in his view, make politics recede into irrelevance.

Two points are worth mentioning here. First, I do not say that feudalism was replaced without any political commotion or transformation of political relations more generally. In fact, as I argue in some detail in the book, there was an important political transformation that accompanied the change in agrarian relations in the Tudor era — the landed classes acquired greater and greater political power for themselves throughout the country by capturing local juridical institutions and in parliament by controlling regional elections. Over the course of a century, they bent the structure of the state toward their own interests, constraining the monarchy in its unilateral power. This was a transformation of epochal significance, in that they slowly turned the state into an organ of their own power — albeit with a monarchical form.

The strife in 1640 was the final act in a decades-long effort by Charles to wrest control away from the landed classes, centralizing it again in the person of the Monarch. The Revolution itself was a war over what kind of state an already bourgeois England would have. My argument doesn’t consign politics to irrelevance — it simply corrects an erroneous story about what the battle was over.

But even more importantly, Robbins fails to understand the real issue. Even if the traditional story about the revolution were true — that it was a political revolution led by the bourgeoisie against a feudal state — it wouldn’t be enough to save the Subalternists’ case. For them the central issue isn’t whether or not England was already capitalist by 1640. It is, rather, whether or not the capitalists who came to power were committed to a liberal, consensual, inclusive political order — their commitment to “speak for all the nation.” And on this score, there is no debate among historians. What the English bourgeoisie wanted, and what it erected after 1688, was a narrow bourgeois oligarchy, geared centrally toward the exclusion of popular classes from the political arena.

The heroic bourgeoisie against which Guha compares that of the East is a historic myth.

I point out the centrality of this issue at some length in chapter four of my book, but Robbins seems not to have noticed. His entire line of criticism is not based on any empirical grounds at all. He rejects my argument, not because he has any facts to marshal against it, or any historical literature he can cite — but from first principle. He announces from on high what events must look like in the advent of capitalism. If a particular narrative fails to conform to his model, so much the worse for the narrative. This approach to historical inquiry fits better in a church or synagogue than in the academy.

On the second issue, the chasm putatively separating East from West, Robbins fares no better. I tread lightly here, since his argument gets murky. But he seems to think that a focus on the universal properties of capitalism, which he takes me to be recommending, can only end up papering over the real differences between regions. So even though it might be that capitalism has swept the globe, surely we want to explain the difference between “capitalism in the style of IKEA and capitalism in the style of Rana Plaza.”

He argues I am not interested in such mundane matters, being slavishly bound to capitalism as a “Grand Narrative.” As proof, Robbins cites that it is not until page 290 that I even broach how Eastern capitalism actually diverges from its Western counterpart.

But this critique is disingenuous. My entire book is wedded to showing that taking cognizance of certain universal forces is no impediment to also explaining diversity. The issue of social and historical difference is paramount to my argument. The clearest discussion of this is in chapter nine, on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s rather tortured analysis of abstraction. I explain there that the very universalizing forces of capitalism also generate diverse forms of capitalism, because even though the pressure to accumulate is common across economies, local response to it can be quite varied.

This is in part due to the unevenness of the accumulation process itself, but also because of the contingencies of class conflict and local institutional influences. Capitalism thus universalizes its dynamics, but exists in variable forms. My discussion of this issue is in a section titled “Capitalism and Diversity Revisited,” in which I summarize the argument in its subsection “Three Sources of Diversity in Capitalism.”

I literally spell out what I am arguing — and Robbins somehow still manages to miss it.

It is true that I do not produce an actual theory, a historical account, of why this or that country’s capitalism (say, Sweden compared to Argentina) turned out differently than another one. But that is because I have to set the argument at the same level of generality as the theories that I criticize, those of the Subalternists. The argument coming from their camp is not that some particular theory is falling short; it is that any theory built on certain premises is incapable of ever recognizing difference. I try to show that the kinds theories they impugn are in fact quite capable of appreciating historical diversity, and I show what it is about these theories’ logic that enables them to explain both universal processes, as well as divergent social formations.

I then point, on page 290, to the veritable mountain of literature that does just that — explain how Sweden and Argentina are both capitalists but still diverse. I do not offer such an explanation myself because I do not have to, because it has been at the core of several theories’ research programs for more than one hundred years.

Finally, the question of rationality. Robbins seems of two minds here. He accuses me of offering a model of action derived from rational choice theory, on top of which he heaps on further opprobrium — not the least of which is the dreaded sin of being “pre-dialectical.” But he also quickly draws back and admits that he might be exaggerating.

Since it isn’t clear which of his accusations he actually believes, let me address the question squarely. Do I rely on a rational choice model of action? I have to admit being puzzled by this question, since I go to some lengths in the book — not just in a footnote, as Robbins wrongly asserts — to show how and why my argument is not a version of rational choice theory. Robbins is again a little dishonest here. He uses a quote from me about the “asocial individual, hovering above his culture, ranking his preferences,” implying that that is the view that I wish to endorse — when he knows perfectly well that, in that passage, I am lampooning that view as one that I reject.

So what is the view that I endorse? Do I reduce agents to asocial automatons? What I actually say in the book is three things. First, that people are largely shaped by their cultures, but that culture does not go “all the way down.” There are some needs that exist and endure independently of culture, and chief among these is the need to attend to one’s physical well-being. Second, that people are typically cognizant of this need and it therefore generates interests that influence political and social interaction. And third, that it is the universality of this need that explains the universality of resistance to exploitation — since the latter typically undermines the former. Note that I don’t simply assert this argument — I show that the actual historiography of the Subalterns themselves validates this proposition, even though they deny it (with the exception of Guha, who never denies it).

None of this entails a commitment to rational choice theory. All I am offering is one route to what was once called materialism, and those are two very different animals. I do not imply, indeed I explicitly deny, that people are welfare-maximizers. Nor do I suggest that people are selfish or competitive individualists — the two implications most commonly associated with rational choice and which are rightly rejected by others. What I do say is that people have a healthy appreciation of situations in which they are being oppressed or exploited, that this appreciation holds steady across cultures, and that it generates reasons for action. This is why what we typically see is what James Scott called “everyday forms of resistance.”

Furthermore, my argument does not in any way imply that a concern for ones well-being is all there is to human nature. In the book, I offer that people are probably also hard-wired for a desire for autonomy or self-determination. But I also say, and I will repeat, that human nature is in fact much richer than either of these — there is the innate creativity, the desire for love, for social ties, for meaning. All those needs and capacities that Marx describes in the 1844 Manuscripts are ones that I accept. The reason I focused on one particular property is that this is the one that is at the core of Subalternist arguments and it is the aspect of human nature they deny, especially to people with darker skin.

It is worth repeating that Marx, the Enlightenment thinker with the richest conception of human nature, never doubted the existence of basic human needs, nor the importance of material interests as the fount of politics and political struggles. What made capitalism unjust was that it turned — and in so many parts of the world, continues to turn — workers lives into a struggle around their bare material well-being, suppressing the development of their other manifold capacities. We should of course object to any theory that reduces peoples’ motivations to those focused on this one goal, but we should be equally suspicious of a theory that denies or impugns its salience outright. The most deplorable consequence of the “cultural turn” is that it does just this, and Robbins’ response is just another example of it.

The sad fact is that every accusation Robbins throws at me was anticipated in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. He is free to disagree with the defenses I offer in that book, but in pretending that I don’t address the issues he raises, and in simply ignoring what I explain quite clearly and at great length, Robbins only confirms what I predicted near its end — that the most likely response from the defenders of postcolonial theory will be to dismiss and calumniate outside criticism, rather than addressing it squarely.