Obscuring Capitalism: Vivek Chibber’s Critique of Subaltern Studies

By Axel AnderssonNovember 6, 2013

Obscuring Capitalism: Vivek Chibber’s Critique of Subaltern Studies

Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital by Vivek Chibber

THE AIM OF NEW YORK UNIVERSITY sociology professor Vivek Chibber’s latest book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013) is to challenge the theoretical fundaments of the influential Indian Subaltern School. This new departure in South Asian historiography was an attempt to write a “history from below,” unburdened by colonial biases. In particular it sought to re-interpret the subcontinent’s tortured road to industrialization and inclusion in the modern capitalist economy. Subaltern Studies rose to prominence in the 1980s and was part of a wave of postcolonial critique of an ongoing essentializing gaze used when discussing formerly colonized cultures. Chibber formulates his critique of the critique (by way of Karl Marx) through the affirmation of Enlightenment universals. He argues that we are all endowed with reason and that this is not merely a “Western” construct. It was a book that he did not want to write, as he admits in the preface, believing that there was no space in “intellectual culture” for a “serious engagement with postcolonial theory.” But he wrote it all the same. The result is not without its ironies: parts of Chibber’s language and arguments are not so far from the postcolonial theory he attacks. His text, both engrossing and at times infuriating, mounts an eminently useful barrage of arguments against Subaltern Studies and raises the stakes of the debate. It is not the first such attack, but it is maybe the most forceful in its curious combination of erudition and, on the other hand, a tendentiously narrow definition of the subject matter.


Let me begin with a story that does not feature in Chibber’s book, even if “Postcolonial Theory” makes up the first and most important half of its title.

The Joinville psychiatric hospital at Blida, Algeria, constituted a society on the margins of the surrounding one, without for that reason being very different. It was a city within the city. An unmistakably colonial air hung over the whitewashed buildings, from the patients’ pavilions to the staff villas and the grand main entrance, and permeated the institution’s organization. Two thousand patients were separated according to sex but also according to ethnicity. Algerian inmates were in the “native,” or, later “Muslim” wings. But French-Algerian and native alike were united in the misery of their situation and condition. The incarceration of the ill of Joinville was accompanied with a brutality that raised the question of how punishment could exist so freely without crime.

Frantz Fanon arrived in Joinville in 1953 with a rare display of sartorial elegance, monogrammed handkerchiefs ready to wipe his brow, and progressive notions of mental illness. He was black, from Martinique, and a recently graduated psychiatrist who had not yet turned 30. He had, however, the previous year published his groundbreaking Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), an analysis of the dehumanizing effects of colonial racial discourses in which the “native” others had to wear the “mask” of whiteness to succeed. Already during the introductory tour of Blida-Joinville Fanon criticized the wide array of repressive measures wielded at the hapless patients. The new colleagues observed him with curiosity. What mattered more than his history and style of radical engagement was that he was a newcomer, green, for all intents and purposes a Frankaoui (a term with locally flavored Arab ending used by the Franco-Algerians to describe their kin from the mainland) in foreign waters. His enthusiasm would soon succumb to the blistering sun and the reality on the ground.

Influenced by the work of François Tosquelles at the asylum of Saint-Albain in Lozère, Fanon began with a program of “sociotheraphy” in the European women’s wing under his charge, in order to break the confinement and apathy of the patients. A number of collective activities were organized. Religious holidays were celebrated, workshops started and cultural events offered. There were also meetings with doctors, nurses and patients in which all were allowed to raise their concerns. The turn from repression and isolation to social engagement, to the irritation of his upstaged colleagues, soon proved to have been a success. Already after one month a large and elaborate Christmas celebration took place with staff and patients.

The subsequent move to repeat the experiment with the native men under his charge proved more difficult, as Alice Cherki chronicled in her Fanon biography from 2000 (in English translation 2006). Fanon spoke neither Arabic nor Kabyle and had to resort to an interpreter when explaining his project to the interns who remained impassive as the activities got underway. The detractors among his colleagues saw it as a clear case of not understanding an inherent backwardness of the Muslim mind. Fanon soon realized the problem: he had insensitively implemented a Western program on a society whose difference he did not grasp. The political situation compounded the challenge as Fanon’s invitation was easily understood as a colonial imposition. The Muslim men had interpreted the experiment as a call to live up to a western model of behavior by the dominant power and preferred, Bartleby-style, not to participate. Fanon concluded that there was nothing atavistic in this reaction; it was a sign of resistance.

As Fanon continued his explorations at Blida-Joinville the surrounding society was thrown into turmoil by the nascent war of Algerian independence. The fallout soon reached the institution. More and more of the patients became those having suffered torture at the hand of the French authorities, neatly mirrored by an influx of torturers who had suffered as a consequence of their trade. Fanon began working with the clandestine opposition to colonial rule and eventually quit his post at Joinville in 1956, two years into the bloody war. Though he had only a few years left to live before succumbing to leukemia in 1961 he wrote the important works L’An V de la révolution algérienne (A Dying Colonialism) and Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth).

Fanon’s analysis of the racially divided universe of colonialism and the forms of resistance against its formidable physical and noetic power would form one of the building blocks in “postcolonial” thought. His world was drastically changing and these, often violent, upheavals would have far-reaching political and intellectual consequences. Political maps were entirely redrawn. The 19th-century scramble for colonizing the Global South had reached such frantic levels that by 1900 more than 90 percent of Africa, 56 percent of Asia and 99 percent of the Pacific was under colonial rule. The movement began to reverse after World War I and the reversal intensified after the World War II. By the late 1970s formal territorial colonialism was practically over, mostly thanks to wars of liberation like the one in Algeria. The human cost of both colonialism and its dissolution begs belief. In one of the most infamous cases, the Belgian Congo, between 10 and 13 millions Africans died. Today the poverty of the Global South remains as the deep scars in the landscape through which the disaster traveled.

The work of understanding colonialism and the process of decolonization that Fanon had been so instrumental in developing would take an unexpected turn when Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978. The volume on the construction of the image of the “Orient” by Western scholars at first seemed so marginal that Said had difficulties interesting a serious publisher. It appeared as a highly specialized discussion apt to only interest the experts in the field. In a matter of a few years, however, the colonial “other” and the process of “othering” became commonplace in academic parlance. At the same time literatures from previously colonized areas were read more extensively and analyzed in the West as a counter-canon, a means to question the continuing “hegemony” (after the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci) of the “occidental” logic that had underpinned the colonial enterprise. The colonial reality of the majority of the world would in earnest become part of the discussions of Western academia, thanks to pioneers such as Said who had studied and challenged the previously reigning stereotypes of the colonized mind. A returning question became: who was it that had been denied a voice and had only been spoken for? Marxist “history from below” was, importantly, given a new lease on life as it turned to the vast, poor and oppressed underbelly of the Global South. The vague and empathic posture that had characterized the Third-Worldism of the 1960s and 1970s was replaced by seemingly more refined theoretical tools that also helped uncover continuing colonialism in a way of thinking: the Western essentialising of natives, which could be as present in the metropole as among the Western educated postcolonial elites themselves. Formal independence had not been enough to free either the west or the former colonies from a legacy that showed a remarkable resilience and still shaped the relationship between north and south.

According to Vivek Chibber, it was around this time, the early 1980s, that everything started going wrong.


Chibber does not pretend to supply an intellectual history of the larger field of “postcolonial theory,” but there is a mini-history of origins that places its occurrence at the “cultural turn” in academia in which anthropologists and historians started to interest themselves in a brand of cultural analysis focused on the discursive formation of reality, taking the cue form literary theory. Postcolonial theory had first reached academia through departments of literature and cultural studies. Chibber would have preferred it not to spread from there. He reduces its role to having brought literature from previously colonized and marginalized voices into the canon. This he calls a “salutary achievement.” But the leakage of models and techniques from literature departments into its more socially scientific minded neighbors spelled trouble. The postcolonial theories did not only claim to analyze but also to guide political action. This familiar combination made it possible for its proponents to take over an academic Marxism that had found itself in a rut in the 1980s. Although profoundly Marxian in background, many postcolonial scholars took issue with the universalist assumptions of historical materialism. To believe that capitalism would function in the same way in the south and the north was, according to many, another result of the arrogant Western assumption that its models and history were the blueprints for the rest.

The agenda of bringing excluded voices into the discussion or, at least, questioning the existence of such exclusion gives much of the field of postcolonial theory its most important justification. Its proponents argue, however, that the colonial wound does not constitute a historical wrong that can be cured just by the admittedly political act of adjusting the canon and the reading lists and bringing into visibility the previously oppressed. Chibber surely does not believe so either, but still puts his money on a standard Marxist approach to a world that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called “post-colonial” and at the same time “neo-colonized”. He fears that the Enlightenment universal of reason will become collateral damage in the postcolonial critique of “Western” epistemic dominance, that such theories will undermine their own instruments of radical critique when they move from a study of culture to political activism. However, his premise that postcolonial theory can be kept in neat isolation in literature departments is erroneous. Fanon, to begin with, would tell us that psychiatry was politics, especially so in the colonial context. Said would add that academic practices were equally permeated by colonial politics. But this evidently does not automatically mean that postcolonial research, whatever discipline it might find itself in, should be excused any inconsistencies just because of its politics. The “salutary achievement” of Chibber’s book lies exactly in highlighting some of the failures of postcolonial theory, although this does not mean that this theory should retreat to the implied “fussy world” of the humanities. Chibber will unwittingly drive the second point home himself.

If there is one true adversary in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital it is a use of postcolonial thought in India. The author shares many of its concerns, having worked on the topic of the country’s industrialization, explaining more directly this need to write a book that he did not want to write. The theories under attack came into being in relation to the annual series Subaltern Studies that was first published in 1982. The main thinkers associated with the school were, to name a few, Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabba and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. They had all come of age in post-independence India, completing their first degree there before moving on to western academia (Guha, born 1928, being the exception). Both Subaltern Studies and the individual volumes on Indian historiography produced by the members would have a profound impact on postcolonial theory. Chibber directs his critique mainly against Guha’s Dominance Without Hegemony from 1997 and Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe from 2000. He stealthily avoids direct confrontation with Spivak and her engagement with poststructuralist French theory, though he indirectly delivers a familiar incrimination of concept creation and neologisms in general. Orwell’s advice in “Politics and the English Language” from 1946 hovers menacingly in the background as yet another specter.

Subaltern Studies tried to understand the divergent developmental paths of India and the West and argue that the model of capital’s universalizing drive fails in India, leaving a different image of the power relations created by capitalism. The implication is that the Western model of studying the nation’s development has to be questioned as it is permeated by Eurocentric assumptions. The main among these assumptions is that part of capital’s universalizing tendency is to bring with it political and cultural changes all around the world. Guha and other subaltern theorists agree that this happened in Europe where a capitalist bourgeoisie rose to hegemony, the position of being able to represent all the other classes like the proletariat, overturned the feudal order and moved towards liberal democracy. If this supposedly happened in Europe, it did not happen in India. The native bourgeoisie failed to press for revolution, worked alongside the landed classes, and did not take it upon themselves to speak for those without a voice, the subalterns (following Gramsci’s terminology). Capitalism was implemented not through bourgeois hegemony but by colonial dominance, physical force in other words. Dominance without hegemony came to identify the colonial condition, and by extension, also the postcolonial.

The evident ironies in Guha’s position are not lost on Chibber. Guha puts forward a critique of the liberal idea of universalizing categories, that produce the exclusion of the subaltern, through a decidedly Whiggish argument that it is the bourgeoisie that necessarily creates liberal politics. But the premise, in Subaltern Studies, that the European revolutions were the result of a capitalist bourgeoisie that started to reform society in a more democratic direction is not correct. The long-lasting effect of the British Civil War and the French revolution was, as Chibber points out, to strengthen the state rather than capitalism or democracy. The advances towards democracy were the result of the subaltern working classes rising and pressuring the bourgeoisie rather than following their lead. The subaltern studies vision of the universalizing drive of capital is flawed and there is thus no reason to say that it does not apply to India. Chibber convincingly argues that capital’s universalizing drive exists, but that it is merely a matter of capital extending to more and more markets. Capitalism is not supposed to bring democracy, capitalists are happiest the more control they have over their workforce. The preeminent example of the nature of capital’s universalizing drive to make all local markets dependent on it, we might add, is obviously China. Capitalism fits perfectly with state communism as has been made evident for all to see.

The difference between the ex-colonies and the West was thus not that capitalism failed to universalize. Rather, the colonial problem was that it was allowed to universalize all too well. If capitalists only rule by consensus when forced to, otherwise being quite at ease in relying on coercion, the key question is, as Chibber points out, that of subaltern agency, given that it is only this class that can force politics to take a radical direction. But this thesis becomes problematic in the framework of Subaltern Studies, where the psychology of the Indian peasant is heralded as impossible to comprehend through western, and falsely universal, categories. The discipline has described the Indian subaltern as motivated by a sense of community rather than utilitarian calculations. It is these kinds of statements that Chibber dismissively refers to as “canards” with such frequency as to risk his narrative sounding like a culinary digression. Familiar with the topic, he convincingly argues that the Indian peasantry was motivated by the same range of material concerns that can be found all around the world. The arguments of Subaltern Studies on the contrary, and this is Chibber’s coup de grâce, contributes to an orientalising image of the “East.”

The charge of postcolonial orientalism becomes even more pronounced in Chibber’s discussion of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty sought to contrast two ways of understanding history. The first was dominated by universal categories framed in “Western” discourses of rationality. According to this model the postcolonial world will reach the same level of modernity and industrialization as the West, eventually. It just got on a later train. All local dissonances and particularities that do not fit in with this universal trajectory will be shed at some point or another as the world homogenizes. But this idea is based on a specific notion of how capitalism should spread. Having rejected capital’s universalizing tendency, the subaltern scholars turned to a study of the particularities of the lower classes of India, the second mode of understanding history, contributing to a descent to what Chibber calls a “seemingly fascination endless with religion, ritual, spirits, indigeneity, and so on.” If they had placed more emphasis on the relationship between capitalism and dominance, rather than hegemony, in both the Global North and the Global South, the analysis might have looked very different. Subaltern Studies would not have had the same need to insist on the Eurocentric, and colonial, nature of rationality and all-universal theories. The critique of the post-independence nationalist leaders might also have been different. Nehru did not press for “industrialization, scientific research, modern administration techniques, and similar practices” because he was in the thrall of a colonial Enlightenment rationality, as Chibber objects, there was simply no way to feasibly make an alternative path outside of capitalism.

It is hard not to sympathize with Chibber’s two charges against Subaltern Studies of “obscuring capitalism” and “resurrecting orientalism.” His case is well argued and the notion of a shared rationality makes possible any kind of meaningful dialog about arguments in the first place. But Chibber also neatly trips himself up in his attempt to indict the entirety of postcolonial theory through the specific example of Subaltern Studies. His insistence on the pitfalls related to idealizing the European bourgeoisie as harbingers of democracy and orientalising the Indian peasantry as community and tradition oriented subalterns outside of the Western logic is an eminently postcolonial analysis made possible through postcolonial practices. Arguments about the impenetrable divide between the West and the East belong to the murky Manichean universe of colonialism. Exploring “othering” only makes sense with the presupposition of a shared humanity. Chibber thus proves that postcolonial theory is well able to formulate its own debates, even by employing those voices that, like his, profess to stand outside the field of the same postcolonial theory.

Chibber does a good and important job criticizing some of the fundaments of Subaltern Studies. Postcolonial Theory is a book that should be read by all engaging with postcolonial theory, though keeping in mind that the biggest canard in Chibber’s text is that postcolonial theory would necessarily have to stand in antagonism with Enlightenment rationality. It is on the contrary the case that postcolonial critiques often deal with colonial failures to extend notions of the universal to the colonial world, instead treating this world as an economic, political and ethical exception. It also points to the fact that all colonial, and postcolonial, interactions have to undergo complicated processes of translations and mediations because of the history of violent colonial domination. These processes of translation often have the aim, as in the example of Fanon at Joinville with which I began, of repairing the application of universal systems of values that colonial systems have interrupted.

Fanon, faced by the refusal of the Muslim patients of Blida-Joinville to participate in his sociotheraphy, did not content himself with the colleagues’ explanation that it was the consequence of an “oriental” Muslim mind. After first concluding that it was rather a healthy resistance against a colonial imposition Fanon began to reflect over his own program together with the local nurses and his co-worker Jacques Azoulay. The holidays around which he had proposed that the patients celebrate held no meaning for them. They had not wanted to participate in the choir because singers were seen as itinerants and outcasts. Basket weaving was a female activity and therefore problematic for them. Fanon revised the program and built up a traditional teahouse for the patients, replicating the meeting place of the men in society. He also started to celebrate Muslim holidays and brought in troubadours from the outside. His idea of therapeutics was both rational and universal but it had to take into account cultural difference as well as the wound of colonial domination.

Postcolonial theory naturally reflects the society around it, much like Blida-Joinville. It exists in a world, a shared universe, preoccupied with the vexed notions of difference and translation just as Fanon’s clinical work was. Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital is an important engagement with Subaltern Studies. Rather than negating the premise for the analytical framework of postcolonial theory, however, it reinforces its raison d’être. The categories developed in postcolonial scholarship, instigated by forerunners such as Fanon and Said, have given invaluable tools to probe failed drives to universalize and identify those that show more promise to be able to take colonial history into account. In a twisted final irony it is the postcolonial term ‘orientalism’ that will colonize Chibber’s language and argumentation, inscribing him in a tradition whose breadth and importance he underestimates.


Axel Andersson is a writer and critic from Sweden.

LARB Contributor

Axel Andersson is a writer and critic from Sweden. He holds a PhD in history from the European University Institute in Florence and his work often deals with the intersection of media, postcolonial history, and critical theory. He also writes on contemporary art and cinema. He is currently working on a project investigating the techniques of the body, media technology, and concepts of race and is the author of A Hero for the Atomic Age: Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition (2010).


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