Have postcolonial theory and subaltern studies in their attempt to point towards difference, consciously or unconsciously, reproduced colonial ideology and an Orientalist description of the subaltern and her politics in India? Have they arrested the agency of the peasants and working class in assuming that modern democracy and the language of political rights was the gift of the bourgeoisie? Do they indulge in the culturalization of the economy and politics in assuming culture as a meta-category to explain events, historical and contemporary, in Indian politics and undermine the sagacity of Capital and its capacity to universalize itself, even where pre-capitalist modes of cultural expression remain? Do they commit a category mistake in selective rendering of history in assuming that modern forms are more regulatory than the ‘traditional‘ structures of caste, clan-based enumeration, and bio-politics of untouchability? Vivek Chibber‘s book is unequivocal in answering these questions in an affirmative voice and highlights these as serious theoretical and epistemic limits of postcolonial theory in general and Subaltern Studies in particular.
Many of the assumptions of postcolonial theory borrow the Orientalist orientation, and try to explain how they make a difference to the way the subaltern politics play out. They, in other words, have all through attempted to dignify ‘Orientalism‘, rather than invoke categories than genuinely stand outside Euro-Centrism. Could it then be possible that postcolonial theory has only offered categories that are mirror-images of western/Enlightenment Liberalism rather than alternatives that stand outside such an ‘epistemic community‘? The project of Subaltern Studies, at its core, believed that workers and peasants ‘lack any concept of individuality, are inured in hierarchy, and remain unmoved by calls for equality. They can erupt into orgies of violence at the slightest provocation. Their consciousness is “split” between the modern and the traditional. And so on. Chakrabarthy unloads these bromides without even a hint of self-conciousness, without any recognition of their affiliation with traditional colonial ideology…furthermore they have found an incredibly friendly audience in American academia’ (pp.185-86). It is also intriguing that postcolonial theorists from India have actually flown with the stream in terms of the shift in global theoretical frames. They began as Gramscians, moved on to Heidegger, to Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault and poststructuralism, and autonomist philosophers. Their history of the subaltern in India, notwithstanding all the emphasis on difference, strangely is in alignment with the global renderings of political moves beginning with structural explanations of peasant rebellions, to discursive contests over hegemonic articulations, to more contemporary versions of poststructural politics of contingency, contextual negotiations, molecular change, politics of the possible and politics of the everyday. Indian subaltern is, ironically, local and very global at the same time.
Could these parallels have something to do with the way the agency of the subaltern has been approached within the Subaltern studies framework? Does it have something to do with their narration of European history where the ‘bourgeoisie successfully integrated the popular into the domain of elite and organized politics‘, while ‘Colonial capital‘s refusal to take up its universalizing mission, its willingness to accommodate the ancient regime, has some important implications for political analysis’ (p. 15). Vivek Chibber says, ‘I will argue that the claims for a fundamental difference with regard to capital, power and agency are all irredeemably flawed…The point is not to insist that there are no differences at all between the two; rather, that the differences, such as they are, are not of the kind described by the Subalternists’ (p. 23).
The Subaltern scholars have rarely written on the working class struggles in Europe, as much as they have written about the nature of bourgeois capital, though one cannot be understood in the absence of the other. Did the bourgeois play a progressive role in Europe on its own accord or was it due to the organized struggle of the working class? This also necessitates a reasoning of the relation between capital and social identities and hierarchies. Here, capital has worked itself both ways; it could definitionally speaking work itself independent of social hierarchies, in fact that is what was unique about capitalism that it was based on a wage labour system for extraction of surplus and did not depend structurally on extra-economic force. However, functionally, capital draws from all existing social and cultural resources to augment production process and extract surplus through cheap labour and raw materials. This duality of capital is what renders history complex and in a sense, indeterminate and different. Yet, this indeterminacy occurs within the structural context of capital’s drive for profits and extraction of surplus, which has the capacity to iron out cultural differences and undermine the capacity of societies to stand outside its machinations. This fact of capital’s capacity—‘double movement’—allows for a global history of capitalism, with and without differences. This stands all the more true with the nature of neo-liberal capital that seems to have abandoned the enlightenment project of freedom, autonomy, and dignity. It could provide women with new opportunities in the market, yet reproduce caste differences within a factory; it could intensify commodification of religion, astrology and Ayurveda, whose mere existence does not necessarily therefore signify ‘Limits of Capital‘. This is akin to the Subaltern theorists’ understanding that mere use of religious forms make Subaltern radical—without being hegemonized—and different—belong to an ‘autonomous domain’—and not the nature of demands those forms are put to. Even here the attempt by the Subaltern scholars has been to dignify the practices of the Subaltern as they exist, rather than account for how agency is determined by the way power is structured and resources constrain choice of political action. While, in highly prejudiced social and communitarian contexts this might hold some value, for this very reason it also suffers from reifying the modern and ‘ethnicization of the subaltern’.
Subaltern Studies project has claimed a kind of autonomy for culture that is in some sense supra-historical. It has understood capital through culture and culture in its difference with enlightenment. In this mode of analysis it has opted for a selective rendering of history and politics. While one way to make sense is that in itself it was a political project of its times, and therefore historically constrained to forge a narrative that is entrenched in its singular focus on drawing a binary opposition with western enlightenment. However, the political fallout of such a selective rendering has been severely limited in imagining alternative modes of political articulation. This could be pursued, for instance, not merely in highlighting the difference but also the alignment and layered nature of social and cultural practices. Colonial rule was to a large extent based on the already existing social hierarchies, which were neither created nor institutionalized by the colonial state. Governmentality is no more regulating than the already existing systems of enumeration based on clan that was integral to the way caste was reproduced. Similarly, practices of untouchability were deeply bio-political and techniques of disciplining that did not originate with modern forms of power. It could well be the case that modern forms of power draw on the already existing modes of culture, including that of the subaltern. However, much of postcolonial theory has very selectively only foregrounded the ‘creative power of community’ without ever laying out the practices internal to the formation of such collectives. The fantasy of community, as Zygmunt Bauman would put it, has haunted the postcolonial project as an ‘empty category’ that is necessarily only made sense of as the other of modernity. Postcolonial theorists have held on to this ‘fantasy‘ even as they have increasingly grown critical of utopias of the Left/Marxist variant.
It is however, interesting to observe that Vivek‘s book has been published just when Partha Chatterjee has written an obituary of the Subaltern project. His more recent understanding has been driven by what he argues is the governmentalization of Subaltern subjectivity, and their contemporary politics is all about negotiating for subsistence benefits within what he refers to as the ‘political society‘. It would have been even more valuable had Vivek had the opportunity to take these new developments into account. Notwithstanding that, this remains an important contribution in the emerging literature that critically engages with postcolonial theory, and might contribute significantly to move beyond entrenched postcolonial theory towards more open-ended transnational possibilities.
Ajay Gudavarthy, Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, has recently published Politics of Post-Civil Society: Contemporary History of Political Movements in India (Sage, Delhi, 2013).