Monday, April 29, 2013

Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber's Polemic against Postcolonial Theory

[Note: I've added a response to Paul Heideman's critique at the bottom.]

When Jacobin published Vivek Chibber’s “Marxist” polemic against postcolonial theory, I wanted to write a counter-polemic. In fact, I did. As both a Marxist and a postcolonialist, I felt like Chibber was forcing me to choose sides where sides did not need to be chosen. After all, Chibber has to make several logical leaps in order to land his criticism of postcolonial theory; in a very real way, he has to invent it. The most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is the representativeness he ascribes to the South Asian Subaltern Studies collective—for Chibber, they epitomize postcolonial theory in all its anti-Marxist glory. The second most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is his refusal to count as constitutive of postcolonial theory all anticolonial Marxist thinkers whose work was foundational for, or retroactively incorporated into, the postcolonial canon: George Padmore, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney…Chibber is not unaware of this tradition. Indeed, in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital he recounts Robert Young’s lengthy attempt to place this Marxist tradition at the center of postcolonial theory, but only to discount it as “spectacularly mistaken.” Young is mistaken because “Subaltern Studies and, by extension, postcolonial theory are either in tension with or simply reject” what Chibber calls “anticolonial socialism” (290). In other words, after having presented a robust Marxist genealogy of postcolonial theory, Chibber rejects it because Subaltern Studies is postcolonial theory, Subaltern Studies is anti-Marxist, and therefore postcolonial theory cannot be Marxist. So, Chibber approaches his object with set terms that in fact constitute his object, and constitute it in such a way that Marxism is always exterior to it. This gets us to the biggest, but perhaps least obvious, problem with Chibber’s Marxist assault on (what he calls) postcolonial theory: he does not approach this body of knowledge in a fulsomely Marxist fashion. Indeed, it’s unclear to me if Chibber, despite his vituperative polemic against anti-Marxist postcolonial studies, could in fact be described as a Marxist at all. At the level of method, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is one of the least dialectical, most flatfooted “Marxist” texts that I’ve read in some time.

Chibber’s “Marxist” criticism of postcolonial theory is that postcolonial theory is not Marxism. And, to be clear, it is a criticism, not a critique. Critique maintains an intimate relationship with the object it works over: it inhabits the object’s terms, takes them as far as they can go, and in so doing recovers the potentials immanent to a field of thought even as it highlights the boundedness of that field. Critique becomes so intimate to its object that the critic risks being identified with it. Just think of Marx: he so affirmatively embraces political economy in his Kritik der politischen Ökonomie that it is often assumed that Kapital is a political economy, that Marx is a political economist. No one, however, is going to mistake Chibber for a postcolonialist. This is not to say that Chibber does not cite postcolonial theoretical texts voluminously; he does. 85% of his citations are from three books. But he unpacks the arguments of three subalternists simply to show that a) they misread Marxism and b) they misunderstand capitalism and c) through their miscomprehension of Marx and capitalism they have come to articulate an anti-Marxist theory, one that mystifies capitalist dynamics and reinscribes Orientalist claims about the difference of what Chibber is still somehow comfortable calling, without irony, “the East.” So, Chibber departs from a crucial aspect of Marxist epistemological and rhetorical protocol—critique—in order to defend Marxism. His very procedure assumes that Marxism exists in a position of exteriority to postcolonial theory. Indeed, it assumes that Marxism exists as a stable and coherent set of epistemological and political positions, positions that can be transformed into propositions that establish the non-identify of Marxism and postcolonial studies. So, postcolonial theory isn’t Marxist, fine—but what is Marxism for Chibber?

It’s kind of hard to say. Chibber does not expend anything like the same amount of time unpacking—much less justifying—his own Marxist normative and epistemological presuppositions as he does in showing that Guha, Chatterjee, and Chakrabarty are anti-Marxist. In broad outlines, Chibber’s Marxism depends on “a defense of two universalisms, one pertaining to capital and the other to labor.” More specifically, Chibber’s Marxism is bound to the idea that ”the modern epoch is driven by the twin forces of, on the one side, capital’s unrelenting drive to expand, to conquer new markets, and to impose its domination on the laboring classes [the first universalism], and, on the other side, the unceasing struggle by these classes to defend themselves, their well-being, against this onslaught [the second universalism] (208).” So far, nothing objectionable: welcome to the Communist Manifesto. The problem emerges, however, when Chibber attempts moving from the universal to the particular, from the universality of capitalism’s antagonism to the particular social zoning of its enactment. If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these “two universalisms” to denude the particular, to remove the peculiarity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal. Methodologically, Chibber’s Marxism is pre-Hegelian. Indeed, his Marxism is the kind of “monochrome formalism” derided by Hegel, an epistemology for which the universal dominates the particular, one through which “the living essence of the matter [is] stripped away or boxed up dead.”

The entirety of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is staged as an antagonism between the champions of particularism (the Subaltern Studies people) and the champions of universalism (Marxists). Minus the first three or so, each of Chibber’s chapters has the same form: the first section unpacks a subalternist’s methodological valorization of some form of particularity (Indian nationalism, peasant consciousness, Chakrabarty’s “History 2”) and the second section asserts a universalist counter-thesis, one that shows how the phenomena treated by the featured subalternist can actually become legible and explicable according to one of the two universalisms Chibber embraces. In other words, the chapters do not stage a dialectical tension between the particular and the universal. Rather, the chapters place particularist and universalist accounts side by side in a lifeless unity; indeed, the chapters keep the particular and the universal apart, positing an antinomic relation between them. The superior explanatory power of universalist accounts is not derived or deduced but asserted.

But Marxism is not a flatfootedly universalist epistemology. No theory indebted to a dialectical philosophy could be. In order to transform the relationship between the particular and the universal into an antinomic allergy, in order to assert the superior explanatory and political value of a universalist analytic, Chibber first needs to contort Marxism into something it never was. I’m now going to work through both of Chibber’s “universalisms,” reading them alongside moments in Marxist theory. It’s going to get kind of techy, so, if Marxian scholasticism isn’t your jam, feel free to skip down or click away.

The Universalism of Capital
Consider Chibber’s discussion of the “universalization of capital.” Chibber accuses the subalternists of arguing that “capital abandoned its ‘universalizing mission’” in the colonial world, a putative abandonment that has theoretical/historiographical effects. For Chibber, subalternists use the claim that colonial capitalism abandoned its universalizing mission as a means to assert that theories of capital that presuppose capital’s universality are not applicable to the colonial world. (It’s always, for Chibber, a question of application, of imposing abstract, superordinate terms onto the ordinary worlds of the particular.)  Chibber’s response is that, well, capitalism did continue its universalizing mission. But what does Chibber even mean by capital’s universalization? Simply put, its globalization, its “forc[ing] producers to submit to the competitive pressures of the market” (138). He continues, “This drive to continually intensify surplus extraction and continually lower production costs is what is ‘universalized’ in capitalism.” Capitalism thus produces “abstract labor,” which Chibber rightly notes is not “homogenous labor” but is rather a social fiction produced by the market: “the emergence of abstract labor is specific to capitalism because [it] creates a social mechanism that takes the dispersed, disparate laboring activities of producers, and forces them onto a common metric” (140). Chibber is making a crucial point: the universalization of capital involves the implantation of particular mechanisms of distribution (the market) and the formation of a quotidian social epistemology derived from the market (abstract labor). The one implies the other.

But is this so? According to Marx, the simple articulation of a society to a capitalist market does not immediately yield “abstract labor” as its social precipitate. In what is now the appendix to volume 1 of Capital, Marx distinguishes between the “formal” and the “real” subsumption of societies into capital. In conditions of formal subsumption, “capital subsumes the labor process as it finds it, that is to say, it takes over an existing labor process, developed by different and more archaic modes of production” (1021). In conditions of real subsumption, capital backforms the labor process, taking over it directly. Formally subsumed societies produce capital for capital, but capital has not reconstituted the entirety of the social. Rather, capital gloms onto given forms of production and simply extracts surplus: formally subsumed societies produce absolute surplus value, not relative surplus value. Chibber is aware of this distinction, sort of; he marks the fact that in the formally-subsumed “colonial world, “the reliance on producing absolute surplus” made capitalism “highly coercive and violent,” whereas “in the advanced world” [sic] the dominance of “relative surplus value caused a switch to less personalized” and less violent modes of value creation and extraction (113). Aware that capitalism maintains and (re)produces forms of production it finds to hand, Chibber critiques the subalternists for refusing to realize that capitalism does just that, suggesting that their anti-Marxism derives from their assumption that capitalism only takes the form it takes in societies where relative surplus production reigns. But he refuses to mark the gap between societies producing absolute and societies producing relative surplus value as indexical of a fissure between formal and real subsumption.

This is key, insofar as Marx’s theorization of this gap shows that capital a) doesn’t universalize whole hog, all at once and that b) the quotidian social epistemology called “abstract labor” that the market disseminates is a territorialized phenomenon. Indeed, Marx describes at length in volume 3 of Capital how certain modes of bookkeeping only become available within conditions of real subsumption. In my own research on plantation accountancy, I’ve uncovered a bunch of planters who desperately want to be capitalist, but can’t be: the market’s uneven territorialization and subsumption of the globe inhibits some tryhard capitalists from adopting the “common metric” of abstract labor. Even as capital globalizes, it auto-delimits its universality (cf. all of world systems theory). It is not mystification to suggest that “abstract labor” is an improper analytic for the relation between capital and laborers in a given zone of the world-system when the abstraction of those diverse labors into calculable values takes place beyond the boundary of an epistemic divide. For most plantations or farms producing colonial exports, abstraction was a retroaction, a fact that inhibited capital accounting, prevented the optimal disposal of variable capital, and led to crazy crises of overproduction. Abstraction happened in another time and place—in London or Glasgow, say, months after the produce had been harvested and shipped—and colonial capitalists could only reckon with their production through abstraction months after their produce had been monetized and realized on the market. The one thing most colonial capitalists knew is that they could not operate like the ideal-typical “firm” that undergirds Chibber’s analysis.  To suggest, as Chibber does, that the universalization of capital consists simply in a “drive” to “intensify surplus extraction” reduces the material differentiation between forms of surplus extraction to a contingent accident, and thus discounts the way in which the capacity of this “drive” to realize itself is preformed by structural-material conditions. Instead of a Marxian account, in other words, we get a Weberian one.

If capital universalizes, this universalization is an uneven tendency, not an accomplished fact. This point has extremely important practical and theoretical effects. On one hand, as suggested, it means that capitalist rationality materially transforms depending on a society’s mode of articulation to capital. The globalization of capital implies not its universalization but its striation—this is a Marxist, and indeed Marx’s, thesis. On the other hand, this striation of capital’s globality impacts the labor process, labor’s relation to capital, and the modes through which resistance can take place. Formally subsumed societies contain a great deal of socialities that are defective for capitalism. Their modes of resistance are not reducible to capital and, indeed, what the underclasses of such societies resist is not necessarily structurally or phenomenologically identical to it. As Marx recognized as early as the Grundrisse (in his brief discussion of post-emancipation Jamaica) and as late as his writings on Russian peasant communities, these forms-of-life can be seized by underclasses and potentiated as sites of resistance to capital. But this is already pointing us in the direction of a critique of Chibber’s second universalism, that of labor.

The Universalism of Labor
Chibber’s most useful, genuinely Marxist claim is that emergent bourgeoisies have no interest in extending or disseminating democratic freedoms to working classes. The extension of “bourgeois rights” is not the act of a revolutionary bourgeoisie; there is, in fact, no such thing as a revolutionary bourgeoisie. Rather, as Chibber discusses in his overview of the historiography of the English and French Revolutions, working classes pushed the revolution into directions it would not go, producing and seizing the bourgeois freedoms that Whiggish histories wish to see as a gift bestowed by antifeudal capitalists. (This was, of course, CLR James’ take on the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins, a text and an historical example that Chibber does not—and cannot—cite.) According to Chibber, the subalternists misrecognize the ordinary relation of capitalism to the political (i.e., capitalism’s desire to restrict the zone of state rights and freedoms to the few) and so consider the dynamics of Indian postcoloniality (where a condition of dominance without hegemony, or capitalism without an extension of rights, reigns) to be a refutation of the general dynamics posited by Marxist theory. More importantly, by pegging the extension of rights and freedoms to an emergent bourgeoisie, the subalternists’ analytic gaze fixates on that bourgeoisie, on its successes and failures, and ignores the self-activity of the subaltern classes. Most importantly, by pegging capitalism to a regime of rights and by asserting that Indian capitalists failed to extend these rights to subalterns, the subalternists were able to posit the existence of a separation between the idioms of bourgeois politics (with its investment in rights, freedoms, and interests) and that of subaltern politics. According to Chibber, subalternists mobilized this separation “not…simply to urge us to recognize and respect the political content of insurgencies” but also to call for “a displacement of the foundational concepts for political analyses” (157). The subalternists, in other words, stick too close to the particularist “content” of subaltern politics and, in so doing, attempt to complicate (or displace, for Chibber) the universalist “concepts” proposed by “Western theories” of politics (157).

Once again, then, Chibber’s criticism functions by demoting a particularist content to the status of a contingent accident and by reasserting the explanatory power of a formal, universalist concept. Chibber is indeed allergic to thinking from the particular, resistant to the kind of close hermeneutic engagement it necessitates. (This allergy to close reading bleeds into his own reading practice of the subalternists. In a block quote of Chatterjee on 158, he gives a snarky “[sic]” after encountering a “There” in the text, as if Chatterjee should have written “Their.” The anaphor of the term in question is “the consciousness of a rebellious peasantry,” a term in the singular that is marking out an analytic space and thus, in fact, to be referenced with “There.” A will to criticize makes one a bad reader indeed…) To the particularist, hermeneutically sensitive accounts of collective peasant consciousness offered by Chatterjee, or factory worker consciousness offered by Chakrabarty, Chibber opposes “the idea, central to the Enlightenment tradition” of interests, of “common interests” that are superordinate to the particularist contents through which they are worked out. He will also call them “universal interests.” Let’s ignore the fact that, at least since Spinoza, the common has been distinguished from the universal. Let’s look instead at the polemical work to which these universal/common interests are put.

Chibber first asserts the importance of these universal interests through his criticism of Chatterjee’s work on peasant consciousness. According to Chibber, Chatterjee valorizes the collective, communal consciousness of peasants, for whom “community” attains a “foundational status in peasant psychology” (157). “[I]n cases of peasant action,” Chibber glosses, “interests are replaced by duty and obligation”; the “sovereign individual” of “Western theories” are replaced by the “community” (160). For Chibber, this assertion simply reinscribes, in Orientalist fashion, the essentialist difference posited between (again) “East” and “West”: “The West is the site of the bounded individual, while the East is the repository of Community” (161). Chibber’s solution is to deny the possibility of any form of difference and simply assert the universal reign of the “bounded individual,” one who struggles to realize his best interests. Let the pope remain, as Marx might say, but make everybody pope. Chibber then reveals that all peasant political activity can be deduced through individual peasant interests.

A Marxist will have three problems with Chibber’s claims. First, Chibber for some reason simply assumes and asserts that Marxism is an Enlightenment philosophy—a claim which sits oddly beside, say, “On the Jewish Question” or Notebook M of the Grundrisse. Marxism is a critique of the Enlightenment: it moves through it to open it up in new ways, ways that point beyond it. Second, Chibber for some reason thinks that Marxism offers a transhistorical, transgeographic analytic of the political premised on individual’s interests, entirely ignoring Marx’s fulminations against the “Robinsonade” of Enlightenment philosophy. There is, really truly, no theory of individual action derivable from Marx’s texts. He was a Ricardian, not a marginalist; a critic of the Enlightenment’s sovereign individual, not its culminating thinker. The interests that Marx discusses are always class interests. Third, Chibber wants to collapse the distinction between individual as unit of analysis and individual as one person, body, and interest. It’s only in this way that he can read Chatterjee as if the latter claims that all peasants are stupid and blind to their interests. But even if we think that “interest” is a meaningful analytic through which to come to grips with peasant rebellion, it is by no means clear that the individual who has actionable interests is identical to a single human being. Chayanovian approaches to peasant economies have long suggested that the household is the proper individual of the economic world of peasants, and thus the proper unit of economic analysis for peasant economies. This isn’t to deny that the individual human beings composing this household do not have dreams, ideas, desires, and something that might be legible as interests to us; it is to claim that such dreams, desires, and interests become thinkable and actionable through the material, econonomic, and political unit of the household.

Chibber wants to get rid of this complexity and reduce the individual unit of analysis to an embodied individual so as to reduce political interest to “need,” to “physical well-being” (202). Everyone you know has a body, after all. Ergo, it is the universal fundament of political interest; indeed, politics begins through an assault on the body, when capitalist “domination generates palpable harm to workers’ physical integrity” (203). Chibber then defines physical well-being as freedom from “dangerous working conditions, poverty-level wages, high mortality, ill health, environmental hazards, and so on…” (203).  One wonders what the “so on” covers. I’m willing to bet, though, that if we drew a portrait of this universal body of the worker, he might look a lot like me: a white male with the “normal” bodily capacities ascribed to human beings. But the universality of the body is fractured by material particularisms—by race, by gender, by disability—that cannot be subsumed into a formal, superordinate set of real needs. To take the racialization or gendering of bodies seriously is not simply to respect difference, in some multiculti way; rather, it is to grasp the fact that differential bodily materializations yield new and particular needs that produce new modes of thinking and accessing universality. What I hear in Chibber’s work is the old refrain used to silence feminists, queers, and race radicals: After the revolution, we’ll fix that right up. Undeterred, feminists, queers, and race radicals began their own revolutions, they thought freedom from the way in which their particularized bodies were articulated to social structure, and did far more radical work (in the States, at least) than 2938 Stalinist sects. The radical Marxists—the real materialists—took note. (There was, of course, significant overlap between these populations.)

Political rationalities and their idioms shift according to the modes by which a social formation is articulated to capital. These idioms are not accidental, contingent, or reducible to mere content; rather, they materially express an insurgent relation to capital, even when they do not jive with the grammar of rational interest that primes some anti-capitalist politics. To not pay attention to the specificity of these idioms—to reduce them to a universalism or to transcode them into Enlightenment talk—is to court disaster.

I’m not going to go into his criticisms of Chakrabarty; I’ve already been going on for too long. They follow the same line. Chibber wants to save Marxism from postcolonialism’s assault; he ends up transforming Marxism into an abstract, formalist, anti-materialist hot mess of Enlightenment jibber-jabber. 

Why? Why? Why?
If you’re like me, you’re wondering: Why was this even written? After all, Chibber’s story is a twice (or thrice) told tale. When have “Marxists” not assailed postcolonial studies for not being Marxist enough? Moreover, his dramatic intervention is a bit belated. He invests postcolonial theory with an institutional clout it has not possessed for some years. Within the U.S. intellectual scene, myriad conferences, special issues of journals, and books have declared the demise of postcolonial studies; in literature departments across the nation, hiring lines that once would have been “postcolonial” positions have increasingly become “Anglophone” or “Global English” jobs. (Perhaps things are different in Chibber’s field of sociology, but I doubt it.) I myself don’t identify as a postcolonialist—not just because, period-wise, I’m more properly described as a colonialist, but because I identify primarily as a Caribbeanist. (This might have something to do with the old, old tendency to put South Asian theory and history at the center of postcolonial theory, as Chibber does.) So, what’s at stake?

In part, I think that “Marxism versus postcolonial theory” is simply running interference for a set of disciplinary battles over methodological and theoretical orientation. The antinomy that Chibber continually establishes is one between a realist sociology (with an investment in abstract structures that prime and cause human action) and hermeneutically inclined fields of anthropology, history, and literary studies. (Don’t mention literary studies to Chibber. He doesn’t seem to like it very much.) In each of Chibber’s chapters, the explanatory triumph of universalist accounts over particularist accounts can be read as the triumph of a certain form of sociological reason over its others.

More importantly, I think that Chibber is desperate for the resurgence of a particular kind of Marxism, one that was displaced not by postcolonial theorists but by anticolonial Marxists like Fanon, James, and so on. That’s why he can’t incorporate them into his account of postcolonial theory: they are Marxists who mount critiques of formalist universalisms by keeping close to the particular, by maintaining the tension that obtains between economic structure and lived phenomenology, between structuralist accounts of the world and hermeneutic investigations into worlds. I have no idea why one would wish to return to the days of CP sloganeering. (I can’t be the only one who heard echoes of “black and white, unite and fight!” in his book.) But the desire is there, and it shapes the way he constructs postcolonial theory. Chibber’s fantasy that an anti-Marxist postcolonial theory reigns hegemonic in the academy enables him to maintain the fantasy that the once and future king of Marxism might some day be restored to rule. But, in order to elaborate this fantasy, he needs to transform a tension internal to postcolonial theory (between Marxist accounts of structure and hermeneutic approaches to the particular—which can still be, of course, Marxist) into a struggle exterior to it. 

But if Marxism regains a position of prominence in the US academy—and I hope it does—it no doubt not be Chibber’s brand of Marxism. Chibber rightly locates the conditions of possibility for a Marxist resurgence in the academy in social movements beyond its walls. As he notes in his interview, “until we get the kind of movements that buoyed Marxism in the early years after World War I, or in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you won’t see a change.” He ignores the fact, however, that a vibrant U.S. social movement did just take place in the form of Occupy—a diffuse movement that drew on the idioms of anarchism, liberalism, and certain forms of Marxism. Yet, because this movement did not limit itself to “the kinds of things that Marxists used to talk about” in the good old days, Chibber doesn’t mention it: it is not functional for buoying a rigorously restrictive Marxism. In good vanguardist fashion, he notes the effectivity of such social movements only to dismiss them: the social movements adopt an idiom of anti-oppression that he claims is incompatible with a consideration of class exploitation.  It takes a Marxist of a special kind to discount the radical potentials immanent to “a movement from the bottom,” a special kind of Marxist who wants to pulverize the textured phenomenology of social life into the universality of class. Indeed, Chibber’s Marxism will never regain its position of hegemony because Marxism has already beyond the narrow horizon by which he bounds it. The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is that Marxism which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that Marxism which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities. It is a Marxism that has foregone the fantasy-laden drama of polemic in favor of the open rhythm of critique and auto-critique. As Gayatri Spivak once wrote, “Marx keeps moving for a Marxist as the world moves” (67). Through the work of writers such as Spivak, postcolonial theory has moved with Marx, and Marxism too has kept up.

It’s only the Marxists who have fallen behind.

[EDIT: My response to Paul Heideman's criticisms of me. I'm keeping it here so as to limit the amount of posts and to refrain from the drama of response / counter-response etc. Fight capitalism not each other and all that.]

Hi Paul, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post, especially because, as you say, it deserves none of the attention it has received. I was raised Catholic, so being informed that I’m not deserving of anyone’s regard is nothing too new—it only amplifies my gratitude to my readers and to you. I admire the passion behind your words, Paul, but I fear you’ve fundamentally misread me. I also fear that you fail to respond to my primary question: If Chibber offers a Marxist criticism of subaltern studies, what kind of Marxism provides Chibber the epistemological and political foundation of his attack? My aim, then, was not to defend the subalternists from Chibber. Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Charkrabarty, and all the rest are more than competent to do that themselves. My aim was to defend Marxism from being, once more, defined as a universalist theory that reduces particularity to an accident, a contingency, or something to strip away so that the pure body of universality might appear. My silence on aspects of Chibber’s arguments against the subalternists in no way amounts to a concession, any more than your silence on many substantive aspects of my reply amounts to one. So, point by point:

I turned to Marx’s analytic of formal and real subsumption in order to demonstrate that, for Marx, capital constitutively zones its universality. Particularity does not simply befall it as an accident or as something it picks up, makes due with, or reproduces as an effect of its universalizing drive. This, to you, might sound like Chibber’s argument that labor is not “homogenous”—a claim that I marked in the text as correct. I was interested, however, in pegging the heterogeneity of labor to the striated way in which capital itself globalizes. The blocking of capital’s globalization is a moment immanent to capital itself: capital blocks itself and blocks itself off, zones itself into regions of the world-system. It was not a question for me, then, of showing that “abstract labor” is always concreted and concretely differentiated, a specific and particular body riven by forms of difference, as Chibber argues and as I agree. Making that claim is already to look at labor from the vantage of real subsumption. My aim was to show that Marx creates space to think about particularity from the horizon of an abstraction that has not happened, or that only happens in an epistemic elsewhere. I was arguing that it is simply misleading to say that capital “universalizes” when the apparent unity of the unit is a territorialized perception and a territorially differentiated structure. For me, capitalism is globalization without universalization.

I’ll engage your third point next and quickly. You, quite simply, chastise me for laying out the architecture of a theoretical framework and than extrapolating consequences from that theoretical position. I was not imagining what Chibber might write, I wasn’t trying to get into his head. I wouldn’t presume, and I’m sure there are lovely thoughts in there. I was simply extending the consequences of a theoretical position, demonstrating what this position makes thinkable and unthinkable, seeing what is possible to think from the perspective of this position. That’s what critical thinking is: unpacking assumptions an argument makes and determining their theoretical effects.

Besides—and to address your second point—it’s somewhat contradictory for you to excoriate me for seeing something in a text that isn’t explicitly there while simultaneously congratulating Chibber for his indifference to Marx’s own theoretical text in favor of some amorphous but “certain version of the Marxist tradition,” a tradition that forms the epistemic foundation for his argument. We’ll talk about that in a second. But, Paul, you criticize me for saying Chibber criticizes the subalternists for not being Marxist enough, only to suggest that he in fact criticizes them for “reject[ing] this legacy” of Marxist thought. In short, I said he criticizes them for not being Marxist enough; you say he criticizes them for not being Marxist at all. Fair enough. All of which returns me to my main point: What Marxism primes Chibber’s criticism? It’s not, by your own admission and Chibber’s, one derived from Marx. It’s some vague but “certain” “tradition.” Like I said, I was raised Catholic, and I think that escaping the magisterium of the church has turned me into a kind of sola scriptura guy—I can’t take the authoritative claims to the authority of a tradition as meaning anything. So, please, just name the tradition.

As I argued, I don’t think you can. Chibber’s “Marxist” tradition is standing in for two other traditions: the Enlightenment (but which one?) and a certain kind of Weberian sociology. All of that is fine, I guess. Just stop trying to seize the sign of Marxism to pass off theoretical positions that are decidedly not Marxist. Stop using the sign of Marxism to castigate a field of knowledge that, while decidedly possessing its own problems, can in fact enrich and thicken Marxism and Marxist, anti-capitalist politics.

Thanks again!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Counting with Abraham: Love, Justice, and Boston

I am constitutionally incapable of comprehending mass and massed hatred for one person. Still less am I capable of affectively binding to the state because it conducts these ugly affects and gives them a form of realization. This holds true no matter how terrible the object of hatred is. I’m not claiming this as a good quality; perhaps some things deserve hatred without reserve. I think this incapacity derives, in some bizarre way, from my Catholic upbringing. I don’t think of having been raised Catholic as being formative at all, really. But I do retain a distinct impression, from when I was eight or so, of listening to Genesis being read once during a service. Chapter 18. God wants to destroy a queer city or two; Abraham talks God down. Suppose there are fifty righteous men in the city, Abraham asks, will you still destroy it? No, God says, I won’t. Abraham keeps going, talking God all the way down to ten. The story cuts off: it’s unclear if ten is the threshold beyond which God will destroy the city, if ten is acceptable collateral damage, or if we—as readers and as ethical subjects—are supposed to keep up the line of thought and continue winnowing down the number.  But down to what? I think one is the number one is supposed to want to think. You know, like the “let a thousand guilty men go free rather than one innocent be punished” concept of liberal jurisprudence. But my childish ears or brain didn’t work too well: I always wanted the number to be zero, as if God would spare the city not for the sake of the one innocent man but for all of the guilty. I wanted the point of the story to be that all punishment is awful, terrible, even when inflicted upon the guilty, whoever they are, and that it is impossible to love those who think punishment could be righteous. What if we’re not supposed to read this story as an attempt to hammer out a mathesis of justice, I wonder, but rather as an incitement to detach oneself from transcendent structures of justice, structures that equate doing justice with doling retribution? I want to rewrite the old dictum: it’s better for a thousand guilty people to go free than to maintain a positive relation to the act of punishment.

I’m thinking of this now as I look at my Twitter feed, as I look at the stuff going up under the #Boston hashtag. It’s pretty conventional stuff, really: some Islamophobes here, some nationalists chanting “U.S.A.!” over there (there’s overlap in that population), and plenty of law-and-order liberals just hoping that justice is dealt and done. Desires for violent retribution are insistently expressed. If you’re a radical leftist, it’s pretty depressing to read. If you’re a kind of hybrid of autonomist Marxism and anarchism—that is, if you believe that every person is equipped with what it takes to live in a self-governing, democratic, and just fashion—it’s enough to cause despair. How can you love people who love punishment, who seem to relish in the possibility of a body coming apart? How can you love people who attach to the violent arm of law, who cheer on cops as Abraham might have—but I refuse to believe he would have—cheered on God when he eventually set about destroying those evil, guilty cities? Which is to say: how can I love these people? And I want to. Not just because I’m a fringe leftist, but because, like so many others since the bombs went off, I’ve tried getting in touch with the fear and the pain, with the loss, with the catastrophe. Like so many others, I texted friends in Boston, hoping they were okay—not just physically, but mentally. I’ve spent hours over the past few days doing nothing but reading Twitter, listening to the Boston PD scanner, and hoping that no one else would get hurt. But now I’m wondering how sympathetic acts of outreach convert so readily into fantasies of violent justice.

I have one hope to hang my hat on: I’m not certain that these announcements of attachment to the nation, to the police, to the strong arm of the law in fact express a positive binding to transcendent structures of authority.

I’ll reason this out in terms of Twitter's patterning of the catastrophe. Twitter is a strange form of encountering an event. It presents the event as an ongoing scenario; indeed, Twitter gives access to the event in the form of its unraveling. The temporality of the situation dilates: you’re with it for every beat, through every false detail, through every new revelation. One comes to inhabit the event as a kind of environment, one constituted by anxiety, by uncertainty, by possibility. This kind of being-in-contact with the ongoingness of an event is rare; we tend to encounter ongoing temporalities in and through the duration of the ordinary, the boring business of everyday life. And so I think that we have an extraordinarily limited repertoire of modes by which we can maintain and express a positive relation (care, fidelity, attachment) to being in the midst of its unfolding. I encountered this first with LiveStreams and Twitter feeds reporting on direct actions during the Occupy era: the only way to mark your geographically distant but existentially proximate being-with the political act was to offer a simple, “Solidarity #OWS!” Small tokens. They seem meaningless, but they aren’t—or, rather, the substantive relations such locutions mean to produce just haven’t yet found, and perhaps will never be able to find, a better or more adequate genre. I saw the same thing as the event marked “#BostonMarathon” catastrophically erupted: “I’m praying for you #Boston” and such like.  No doubt some prayers and well-wishers imagine that praying and wishing will have some kind of material efficacy. But I don’t think that the point of these speech-acts is to alter the ongoing event so much as to access it, to get in touch with it, to inhabit the space of its unfolding. And the desire to dwell within this uncertain space, to receive what-comes in order to stay-with, is an act of love.

We stayed with it, the event unfolded, the cops closed in. Then the discourse shifted. It became Islamophobic, it became nationalistic, it became saturated with retributive and punitive desires. A large part of the Twitterverse was divided on a simple question: should the cops shoot the kid dead in the boat or keep him alive so as to torturously delay the time of his inevitable death. Care seemed to transform into callousness, all in the name of doing justice. And I just wanted Abraham—my childhood Abraham—to appear, to try getting everyone to detach from violence, from fantasies of force routed through the idiom of legal process.

So here’s my hope, my own prayer to and for Boston. Events constitute thick affective environments—saturated with care, with concern, with love—that we don’t want to let go of but don’t know how to stick close to. The devolution to these aggressive languages is an effect of a desire to stay with and in proximity to the event in the absence of a robust grammar for maintaining fidelity to it—especially as the event comes to a close, as the care we shared and experienced is poised to be swallowed, once more, into the humdrum durative time of ordinary life. People tweeted out “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” not necessarily because they’re silly nationalists without a thought in their brains but because the nation provides a to-hand idiom for containing and preserving the truth of the event. It’s a sad admission, really: the nation will endure and live on in a way that the care and concern staged throughout the event will not. So too the fantasmatic staging of violent justice: the temporality of the legal process ensures not that the case will be brought to closure but, rather, that the event will remain ongoing and open, even if diminished in intensity. Love and care need to encrypt themselves in the to-hand idioms of the nation and violent justice because, well, we suck at loving and caring, because our everyday worlds bound the spacing of our attachments. Catastrophic events show us how to love (there’s nothing else to do with and within an event). We don’t know how to articulate this love but we know we don’t want to leave its scene. And so love survives the closure of the event by clothing itself in the form of its opposite; we go from donating blood to drawing it, at least imaginatively.

The idioms of violence are standing in for the intensities of our love. To access this love, to set it loose in the aftermath of this event, we need to unbind our thoughts and feelings from legal processes of punishment. The necessity of doing so is pressing. In the wake of the bombings, U.S. Muslims have already been harassed (once again) as proto-terrorists—that is, as subjects proleptically available for just retribution. The public obsession with punishing the guilty means that some innocents will be harmed, as Ibrahim made clear. But he meant more than that, I think, when he quietly but surely set more rigorous limits to just punishment. The accumulative force of his questions conveys a meaning irreducible to the questions of math, of numbers, of collateral damage, questions that might be summarized as, “At what point, God, would you be comfortable doing this?” If you follow my eight-year-old self in embracing the great unasked question of Genesis—“If there are zero righteous men in the city, God, will you spare it?”—Abraham is really asking God if he wishes to punish at all, if he wants to maintain an attachment to violence, even if in the name of justice. (The God of Genesis, of course, needed insistent reminders to stop killing everyone.) Abraham is, I hope, encouraging us to think justice beyond punishment, to free justice from the violent idioms that always seem to capture it. Is loving justice worth it when our investment in its violence perverts our capacities to love? When the violence of justice comes to stand in for the positivity of love itself?

I’m not saying that Dzhokar Tsarnaev should not be brought to justice, whatever that means; that is inevitable. My point, rather, is that loving justice cannot possibly be worth it when our investment in its violent realization transforms love for others into hate for one, when the violence of justice becomes love’s idiom. I don’t know what will happen to Tsarnaev, but I do know that we—you and me—will have to live through a world in which this event happened, in which we strive to assemble its meanings, and in which we constitute ourselves through the meanings we assign it. Do we wish the truth of this event to consist in the fact of violent justice having been done, or in the modes of care that obtained in and through this catastrophe? Do we wish to imagine ourselves as donors of blood or drawers? (And here, I think, it is an either/or.)

It’s better for a thousand guilty people to go free than for us to relish in one act of punishment.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thatcher is Dead, Long Live Thatcher: Misogyny and the Neoliberal Order

A fully neoliberalized world would radiate disaster triumphant, but a fully neoliberalized world is impossible. Your staunchest neoliberal—say, Margaret Thatcher—does not want the entirety of the social to fall under a biopolitical calculus, to become priced or monetized. Rather, the neoliberal order requires the proliferation and production of common socialities capable of maintaining life in a world instituted to be indifferent to life’s maintenance. After having pulverized society in that famous quote, for example, Thatcher tells us that the family remains as the site upon which “individual men and women” should “cast…their problems.” Without positive externalities like the family, the neoliberalized world would simply collapse (as Polanyi argued of classical liberalism years ago) and many lives with it. The neoliberal state relies upon common socialities—everyday ways of organizing our worlds—to surrogate for the services (which we think) the state used to provide.  We who resist neoliberal capitalism want to think of these common socialities as maintaining a certain relation of exteriority to the neoliberal order, and, indeed, as offering a grounds of resistance to it. The commons is, after all, the new rallying cry of a left that doesn’t want to say communist. And, sure, some of these modalities of being-in-common do bear traces of utopian possibilities. But many don’t. The neoliberal order grounds itself in such to-hand modes of social organization and sets them to work to absorb the shock of the state’s abdication of responsibility for performing basic social upkeep.

All of this is to say that we, in our everyday lives, engender the conditions of possibility for the continuance of the neoliberal normal. We saw this, ironically and horribly, in a too-common response to Thatcher’s death. “Cunt,” “bitch,” “ding dong the witch is dead”—it was a veritable festival of misogynistic name-slinging. Believe me, I have no sympathy for the devil, and I think Thatcher lived about 40 years too long. But exorcising Thatcher with a misogynistic curse is the best way of ensuring that she will continue to haunt us.

This is because neoliberalism thrives on structural misogyny. Gender is one powerful mechanism by which the neoliberal order converts our potentially resistant common worlds into positive externalities, into social formations functional for the maintenance of life in an unlivable world. After all, the state’s abdication of its responsibility for social care does not mean that care disappears. (Well, for some it does.) The burden of care, rather, is displaced (in part) to the family, as Thatcher made clear, which means that this burden is displaced disproportionately (if not entirely) onto women caught up within patriarchal family structures. For poor women of color in particular, neoliberal structural adjustments create conditions in which the routinized hyper-exploitation of unsalaried care labor intensifies. To take an example geographically proximate to me, consider Rahm Emmanuel’s impending shutdown of over 50 Chicago public schools. Kids slated to travel to out-of-neighborhood schools will have to get up earlier. Maybe they’ll have to be dropped off or picked up. Maybe they’ll have to travel through inhospitable neighborhoods or feel sad and isolated in their new worlds. Maybe they won’t learn as well and so require extra hours of tutoring. Maybe available social services (one or two meals a day, say, or after-school care) will be cut. Negotiating these transformations will require new investments of time, affective energy, attention, and (if it is available, and even if it is not) money. Someone is going to surrogate for the dismantled structure of care. It’s not hard to guess at the demographic profile of this someone.

There is, of course, no transcendental historical principle mandating that women’s care labor should surrogate for the state’s instituted carelessness. The neoliberal order simply uses—and, true, reproduces through legislative and fiscal programs—the structural misogyny of the North Atlantic patriarchal family. It found this patriarchal structure to-hand, and it continues to find it to-hand. It found this structure reproduced every time an anti-austerity radical called Thatcher a “cunt.” Meanwhile, Fox News was going gaga over Thatcher as an exemplar of a good kind of feminism. We might have taken the moment to demonstrate how Thatcherite policies disproportionately and negatively impact women. Instead, manarchists called her a “witch.” (Which doesn’t even make sense, people. The figuration of the witch still cited by our social imaginary emerges from the symbolics developed by capitalist dudes enclosing commons who had to deal with various forms of feminine subjectivity that haunted the outskirts of the proper. Thatcher began life as a commoner, sure, but I don’t think she was that kind of commoner. Only structural misogyny, sedimented in our very language, can account for the bizarre inversion whereby the Dissolver of the Commons can don the symbolic garb accorded to the victims of such dissolution.)

Getting beyond neoliberal capitalism requires the production of social forms of care that are defective for capitalism—not reinscribing a hierarchical social fabric that, by diminishing the value of women as women, allows them to be positioned as the proper subjects to take up non-valued, non-monetized, unremunerated, but utterly necessary care labor. Contesting neoliberalism is great and totally important, but it’s not some Great Abstract Thing that exists in a relation of pure exteriority to us. Neoliberalism works because it gloms onto existent socialities and transforms them into positive externalities. We make it work. Acting as if the world will be aces once Keynes makes a triumphant return is to ignore the sad fact that we inhabit and reproduce common worlds utterly functional for neoliberal accumulation tactics. The violence that inheres in these common worlds is irreducible to the neoliberal order; structural misogyny preceded this order and, at the rate we’re going, will survive it, too. 

Every meaningful resistance to neoliberalism must be a feminism.