The Specter of Materialism

We need our social theory to be rigorous and accessible. At least one side of the debate over Vivek Chibber’s recent book does that.

WBK Photography / Flickr

Since its publication in 2013, Vivek Chibber’s book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (PTSC) has generated a lot of scholarly discussion. A new volume, The Debate on Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, captures this sometimes ornery debate.

PTSC primarily aims to uncover the conceptual and empirical flaws within subaltern studies, an important strand of postcolonial theory. In doing so, Chibber challenges the broader postcolonial claim that the West and East are so radically different that theories with European origins, such as Marxism, don’t have universal currency.

Chibber finds at least three arguments in the Subalternist literature that support this larger claim. The first concerns the ostensibly different strategies that the ruling classes, namely the bourgeoisie, used to gain and consolidate power. In Europe, they argue, the emergent bourgeoisie ruled by consent, while in India it depended on coercion.

The second argument follows directly from this: capitalism evolved differently depending on the bourgeoisie’s governing style. In Europe, capitalism transformed all social relations according to its logic, but in India it left some pre-capitalist structures intact.

The third argument deals with the social actors’ allegedly different psychological makeup. In Europe, peasants and workers internalized a “bourgeois consciousness” that made them sensitive to their material interests; in India, such consciousness never arose, and so Indians didn’t concern themselves with their objective interests when it came to economic or, especially, political issues.

Chibber convincingly argues against subaltern studies on all three counts.

First, he reminds us that the belief that French and English capitalism embody democratic values and rest on the consent of the masses is pure fantasy. For most of capitalism’s history — both in Europe and elsewhere — consent was conspicuously absent. Democratic institutions only came about through struggles from below, not thanks to an enlightened capitalist class.

Second, while the Subalternists and other theorists of difference correctly point out that capitalism doesn’t look the same across the globe, Chibber shows Marxism needn’t and indeed doesn’t deny this fact.

When Marxists claim their conceptual tools apply across the capitalist world, they’re highlighting a small set of basic properties that are operative in any capitalist society, including the profit motive, wage labor, and competition. How these properties express themselves or what sociocultural dynamics exist alongside and shape them remains open — a problem to which Marxism isn’t at all blind.

Finally, Chibber uses the Subalternists’ own historiographic evidence to disprove the assumption that people act according to their material interests only when properly socialized by Western norms. Indian peasants and workers had as clear an understanding of the risks and costs associated with collective action as their French and English counterparts. The Subalternists in fact concocted an unwitting Orientalism by depicting agency in the East as radically different in nature than in the West.

But Chibber’s critique of subaltern studies also intervenes usefully in a number of broader contemporary debates in sociology, historical sociology, cultural studies, and related fields. Its significance with regards to developing a contemporary, unorthodox Marxist social theory and combating pervasive culturalism — whether it appears as post-structuralism, post-Marxism, or, ironically, certain versions of New Materialism — can hardly be overstated.

By realigning Marxism with its materialist roots, Chibber places human action not only at the center of capitalism but also at the heart of resistance.

What Kind of Materialism?

Since the beginning, Marxism has prided itself on its thoroughgoing materialism, which developed in strong opposition to ahistorical and methodologically individualist varieties of materialism — what are usually called vulgar, naïve, abstract, contemplative, or mechanical materialisms. Despite Marx’s rejection of these schools, he presented his theory as self-consciously materialist, as historical materialism.

Among many other things, this meant that Marxism views people as having both minds and bodies and that people’s minds are fundamentally embodied. This foregrounds humanity’s biological endowments — the capacity for self-awareness, intentionality, reflexivity, and rationality as well as the need for material well-being, meaningful activity, and personal autonomy.

In short, the materialism in historical materialism meant that, alongside historical conditioning, alongside social structures that enable, constrain, and motivate human activity, nature also plays a causal role.

Marxism’s balance between a wholly naturalist and an entirely historicist paradigm was, for the most part, lost in the second half of the twentieth century. As Sebastiano Timpanaro noted in 1966:

Perhaps the sole characteristic common to all contemporary varieties of Western Marxism is, with very few exceptions, their concern to defend themselves against the accusation of materialism. Gramscian or Togliattian Marxists, Hegelian-Existentialist Marxists, Neo-Positivizing Marxists, Freudian or Structuralist Marxists, despite the profound dissensions which otherwise divide them, are at one in rejecting all suspicion of collusion with ‘vulgar’ or ‘mechanical’ materialism; and they do so with such zeal as to cast out, together with mechanism or vulgarity, materialism tout court.

We can locate at least two phenomena responsible for this shift. First, almost all varieties of Marxism were trying extremely hard to distance themselves from vulgar Stalinist materialism. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, many tried to adapt to the linguistic and cultural turns in academia.

In the postwar era, one prominent critique held that Marxism reduces culture to superstructural fluff that functions only to secure the reproduction of the economy — the actually important social sphere. As a result, most varieties of Marxism corrected for any potential mistreatment of extra-economic social phenomena, either completely rejecting or fundamentally adjusting the base-superstructure metaphor.

Although they had always been important to historical materialism, culture, discourse, politics, ideology, hegemony, identity, gender, and race became Marxism’s watchwords. Marxism leaned so much in the cultural direction that it started completely dissociating itself and its studies of culture from materialism altogether. Timpanaro — again, already in 1966! — captures this tendency:

The position of the contemporary Marxist seems at times like that of a person living on the first floor of a house, who turns to the tenant of the second floor and says: “You think you’re independent, that you support yourself by yourself? You’re wrong! Your apartment stands only because it is supported on mine, and if mine collapses, yours will too”; and on the other hand to the ground floor tenant: “What are you pretending? That you support and condition me? What a wretched illusion! The ground floor exists only in so far as it is the ground floor to the first floor. Or rather, strictly speaking, the real ground floor is the first floor, and your apartment is only a sort of cellar, to which no real existence can be assigned.” To tell the truth, the relations between the Marxist and the second-floor tenant have been perceptibly improved for some time, not because the second-floor tenant has recognized his own “dependence”, but because the Marxist has reduced his pretensions considerably, and has come to admit that the second floor is very largely autonomous from the first, or else that the two apartments “support each other”. But the contempt for the inhabitant of the ground floor has become increasingly pronounced.

We still find this “contempt for the inhabitant of the ground floor,” as some Marxist tendencies and radical social theory more generally dismiss biology and materialism from their analyses.

Diana Coole and Samantha Frost introduce the collected essays in New Materialisms by describing “the eclipse of materialism in recent theory” and a corresponding “cultural turn that privileges language, discourse, culture, and values.” More specifically, Kieran Durkin observes in his 2014 book on Erich Fromm that “[t]alk of ‘human nature,’ or of the human ‘essence,’ is generally viewed as embarrassing today,” as it is associated with sociobiology’s dismal project.

Extraordinarily influential scholars from Richard Rorty and Clifford Geertz to Stuart Hall, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and many others all share this conviction. Hall writes, echoing Foucault, that the human body must instead be recognized as “infinitely malleable and contingent.” Thus, as students “of Foucault, Deleuze and Irigaray,” we are led to the “rejection of all forms of universalism, including the socialist variation.”

But this unfortunate mistake, as Lena Gunnarsson perceptively points out, only reinforces the underlying logic behind sociobiology:

Although denying biology any significance for social matters seems to be aimed at putting a final nail in the coffin of biological determinism, the move actually depends on a deterministic notion of the biological. Seeking to avoid biological determinism by avoiding biology does not challenge the basic sociobiologist conviction that, if biology is admitted to be a basis of human functioning, then it must determine human behaviour. . . . The radical constructivist stance may be opposite to biological determinism on a superficial level, but it operates within the confines of the latter’s categorical structures, only in inverted form. What characterizes both camps is reductionism, insofar as that which is really both biological and socially constructed is reduced to a matter of either biological or social determinations.

Chibber very ably exposes the unwarranted contempt for materialism and the associated excessive constructionism in chapters seven and eight of PTSC. Nevertheless, this tendency appears in many of the critiques he’s received since the book’s publication.

Rationality Under Capitalism

In PTSC, Chibber underlines the potential pitfalls of materialist analysis. Assigning rationality or reflexivity to social actors and emphasizing the power material interests have in motivating some of their actions can go wrong in a number of ways: if it portrays actors as relentless utility optimizers or, even worse, pure egoists; if it denies the role of habitual, routine action; if it ignores that almost all — if not all — human actions are culturally mediated, endowed with social meaning, and variously expressed in different settings; if it denies that many aspects of human lives are not only mediated but in fact constructed by culture; if it discounts irrational behavior, even systematic irrationality, in certain spheres of life; and so on.

After charting this minefield, he uses the historiographic evidence provided by the Subalternists to illustrate his case for materialism. Contrary to the explicit assertions of two leading Subalternists, Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty, this evidence shows that when people’s well-being and autonomy are at risk, they perceive that situation, regardless of their culture’s relationship to European-ness or bourgeois consciousness.

Chibber’s defense of materialism boils down almost to a truism: when people experience a lot of stress, they recognize it and don’t enjoy it.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that the exploited will spontaneously burst into actual struggle. Disliking exploitation and actually fighting against it are two different matters. The first must come before the second, but collective action depends on many factors besides the experience and recognition of deprivation.

Effective struggles need enough material and non-material resources to carry out a mobilization; they face extreme risks and must weigh those against their chances of success; they must generate solidarity or common cultural identities among the exploited and oppressed. It should go without saying that these factors remain fundamentally tied to people’s interests and rationality.

Some of Chibber’s critics, even a few sympathetic ones, don’t agree on this point. William Sewell Jr calls it “rationalism” and “very close to rational choice,” a concern Bruce Robbins and Stein Sundstøl Eriksen share. For Sewell, Chibber’s Marxism lacks “cultural sensitivities.”

Julian Murphet skeptically views Chibber’s “attachment to a roster of individual interests dictating decisions about being.” George Steinmetz goes further and claims, “Chibber is implicitly defending an entirely unrealistic vision of a man as a rational machine.” During Chibber’s appearance on a Slovenian radio station, the interviewer critically (although a bit obscurely) made a similar point:

Reducing a human solely to his [sic] naturally given characteristics creates pure life, which cannot generate social change because it has been, as such, expelled from society. Pure life, defined as neither human nor beast, cannot be the common denominator which brings people together as the political subjects of a workers’ movement.

We might agree with Sewell, who argues that Chibber should have gone further and provided an alternative historical and political sociology of the postcolonial world to counter the Subalternists. But these critiques about the place of rationality in PTSC fundamentally misunderstand its argument.

To claim that Chibber mounts a defense of people as rational machines or that he reduces humanity to naturally given characteristics — or pure life, whatever that means — not only misrepresents the book but also reveals the contempt for materialism that Timpanaro describes.

This position has two major flaws. First, it’s conceptually and empirically wrong. Subordinated people everywhere have always recognized the seriousness of their position and have felt aggrieved by it. As the Verso Book of Dissent attests, humanity has been organizing, resisting, and generating change for most of its history.

How can we explain this without grounding human behavior in people’s material interests and their capacity to critically distance themselves from the norms that attempt to justify oppression and exploitation? If people were nothing but “infinitely malleable” sociocultural constructs, they’d simply internalize the prevailing ideology — not question, challenge, and subvert it. It is precisely because people aren’t “infinitely malleable” that oppressive sociocultural practices affect, frustrate, and hurt them.

Furthermore, rejecting the belief that people have material interests and that these interests, mediated by culture, motivate actors in certain situations makes it almost impossible to make sense of capitalism’s most basic and salient features. Why do property-less workers everywhere offer themselves up for employment? Why do they compete against their fellow workers? Why do capitalists constantly work to minimize cost and maximize profit?

Are these nothing but consequences of ideology, habitus, or cultural norms? Do rationality and material interests — bound up with the human needs and blocked by unequal resource distribution — have no bearing on workers’ and capitalists’ behavior? If that’s true, why do we find the same practices in vastly different cultural settings? Where do the norms that enforce these structures come from? Why would people have created the very same norms in all capitalist countries?

It’s much more plausible to argue that capitalists minimize costs and maximize profits because they compete with other capitalists. Refusing to abide by capitalist protocols would force them into bankruptcy, and they would lose the comfortable class position that grants them material well-being, autonomy, and so on. Similarly, workers seek jobs and compete with one another because otherwise their most basic human needs would go completely unsatisfied.

Steinmetz claims that the “argument about rationality is not a necessary part of Chibber’s arguments about the nature of capitalism.” Eriksen says more or less the same: “it is not clear what we gain by insisting on the actors’ rationality.” I beg to differ. Chibber’s argument about rationality represents not only a necessary but perhaps a central part of his analysis of the workings of capitalism.

Secondly, dismissing materialism disarms socialist politics that emphasize the importance of struggle from below. If people are to emancipate themselves — rather than be emancipated from above — they have to be at least somewhat rational, and they have to locate some universal concerns to bind them together. Without rationality, they can’t figure out the problematic situation they’re in, nor can they coordinate appropriate collective actions that move us closer to a socialist future.

In fact, if material interests don’t exist or are irrelevant, why don’t capitalists and workers simply join hands and peacefully coexist in the here and now? If there are no interests, there can be no conflict of interests: why, then, struggle and protest?

A Better Kind of Critique

Many of Chibber’s critics characterize his work as either not Marxist enough or far too Marxist. This has never been a useful argument: critics should draw out a work’s flaws, not simply label it and assume their job is done. To be fair, most of Chibber’s critics rise above mere name-calling. Nevertheless, the fact that the assessments of PTSC’s intellectual provenance often take opposing positions tells us something about the quality of these arguments.

Chris Taylor, for example, insists that the book is “one of the least dialectical, most flatfooted ‘Marxist’ texts” to be published in recent years. He implies that it doesn’t really count as Marxist or that it’s Marxist in the most trivial of senses.

Murphet also bemoans the “Weberian analytic Marxism championed by Chibber” and congratulates Chatterjee on his “tactical decision to out-Marx the Marxist.” Murphet is referring to Chatterjee’s complaint, made at the 2013 Historical Materialism conference in New York, that “Chibber . . . offers an alternative account of capitalist production that does not have any recognizable relation to the Marxist tradition. . . . Chibber rejects Marx’s definition of abstract labor.”

Uday Chandra congratulates Chatterjee, writing that his “deft reading of Marx’s oeuvre outdid Chibber’s efforts and showed the latter to be little more than a Rawlsian liberal devoted to some variant of social contract theory.” For him, Chibber’s theoretical framework isn’t Marxist enough, relying too much on non-dialectical and bourgeois maneuvers like analysis, disagreement with Marx, and recognizing contributions from Weberian sociology and Rawlsian liberalism.

Others find Chibber too Marxist — or, rather, find that his Marxism is too narrow and too orthodox. Spivak dismisses PTSC as “Little Britain Marxism,” claiming that the book’s scope “demolishes any attempt at expanding the scope of a general Marxist discourse.” In the end, Spivak asserts, Chibber offers nothing more than “the usual mechanical Marxist utopian pronouncement.”

The Slovenian interviewer I mentioned above complains that Chibber “creates an impenetrable barrier between what he conceptualizes as materialism and that which is not materialism. . . . With that he generates a universal incompatibility between Marxism and non-Marxism . . . and forces us to choose one side as correct and the other as false.” That is, Chibber’s dogmatic and orthodox Marxism refuses to accept any ideas that lie outside his narrow theoretical framework.

Now, which one is it? Does Chibber have too much or too little Marxism in his work? Does he refuse to accept anything outside Marxism or does he include too many non-Marxists, like Weber and Rawls? Don’t answer that: the question itself is too silly.

Allegiance to a paradigm doesn’t matter — what does is whether Chibber’s arguments are conceptually and empirically sustainable or not. It’s surprising how little effort Chibber’s most aggressive critics have expended for this purpose so far.