theory #11: Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital

Updated: Jan 11


"The peculiarities of the Subcontinent – and much of the postcolonial world – are not generated by capital’s havingfailedin its drive, but of its havingactedon that drive. The continued salience of archaic power relations, the resort to traditional symbols, the resilience of caste and kin-based political coalitions, and so forth – all this can be shown to be consistent with the universalizing tendency." – Vivek Chibber

In the chapter “Capital’s Universalizing Tendency” of Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”, he accuses the Subaltern Studies for both misunderstanding European history as well as the economic and political dynamics of capital. Guha and Chakrabarty see the power relations in India, which are a manifestation of “direct and explicit subordination of the less powerful by the more powerful”, as different from bourgeois power relations in European history. Chibber, opposes this view and claims that those power relations are entirely compatible with a dominant bourgeois political culture. According to him, Guha and Chakrabarty misunderstand how capital and capitalism work when they see the power relations of colonial and postcolonial India as fundamentally different from capitalist power relations in Europe.

Whereas Chibber agrees that the manifestations of power might differ, he does not doubt the capital’s universalizing tendency. Chakrabarty and Guha see this universalizing tendency as a universalization of power structures similar to the European bourgeoisie, which have failed in India. On the other side, Chibber claims that not power, but the innate pursuit of accumulation is what capital universalizes. Accumulation as the highest principle of capitalism does not exclude the possibility of local power relations that are different from the European experience, but it exploits these local power relations for the sake of profit. The assumptions of Guha and Chakrabarty would be fundamentally flawed when they claim that the history of the East differs profoundly from the West, because this universalization of capital also takes place elsewhere.

Another point of Chibber's critique is that the Subaltern Studies are not anti-colonial or anti-imperial, but that they rather resurrect Orientalism. Subaltern Studies do so by emphasizing an East-West divergence and essentializing the East as a place of tradition, unreason and religiosity, which results in a “celebration of the local, the particular.” Chibber does not oppose the idea of “Provincializing Europe”, but he suggests doing so by connecting anti-colonialism and Marxist analysis and refers to writings of Cabral, Nkrumah and Fanon who are connected to Lenin and Marx. Chibber claims that the Marxist analysis of the history of the East grasps the specificity of the East, while the Subaltern Studies rather promote Eurocentrism. Only because both histories are subject to the same basic forces, they do not lose their distinctive characteristics.


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