Waylaid Dialectic

May 9, 2013

In common

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 1:49 pm

At Jacobin Magazine there’s an interesting interview with Marxist academic Vivek Chibber(VC) who’s written a book critiquing sub-altern studies. One little extract I think has a lot of relevance to post-development types, and other cultural essentialists, who are pretty common in development studies in my neck of the woods (JB is Jonah Birch, the interviewer):

JB: A lot of the appeal of postcolonial theory reflects a widespread desire to avoid Eurocentrism and to understand the importance of locally specific cultural categories, forms, identities, and what have you: to understand people as they were, or are, not just as abstractions. But I wonder if there’s also a danger with the way they understand the cultural specificity of non-Western societies, and if that is a form of cultural essentialism.

VC: Absolutely, that is the danger. And it’s not only a danger; it’s something to which Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory consistently fall prey. You see it most often in their arguments about social agency and resistance. It’s perfectly fine to say that people draw on local cultures and practices when they resist capitalism, or when they resist various agents of capital. But it’s quite another to say that there are no universal aspirations, or no universal interests, that people might have.

In fact, one of the things I show in my book is that when the Subaltern Studies historians do empirical work on peasant resistance, they show pretty clearly that peasants [in India], when they engage in collective action, are more or less acting on the same aspirations and the same drives as Western peasants were. What separates them from the West are the cultural forms in which these aspirations are expressed, but the aspirations themselves tend to be pretty consistent.

And when you think about it, is it really outlandish to say that Indian peasants are anxious to defend their wellbeing; that they don’t like to be pushed around; that they’d like to be able to meet certain basic nutritional requirements; that when they give up rents to the landlords they try to keep as much as they can for themselves because they don’t like to give up their crops? Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this is actually what these peasant struggles have been about.

When Subalternist theorists put up this gigantic wall separating East from West, and when they insist that Western agents are not driven by the same kinds of concerns as Eastern agents, what they’re doing is endorsing the kind of essentialism that colonial authorities used to justify their depredations in the nineteenth century. It’s the same kind of essentialism that American military apologists used when they were bombing Vietnam or when they were going into the Middle East. Nobody on the Left can be at ease with these sorts of arguments.

JB: But couldn’t someone respond by saying that you’re endorsing some form of essentialism by ascribing a common rationality to actors in very different contexts?

VC: Well, it isn’t exactly essentialism, but I am endorsing the view that there are some common interests and needs that people have across cultures. There are some aspects of our human nature that are not culturally constructed: they are shaped by culture, but not created by it. My view is that even though there are enormous cultural differences between people in the East and the West, there’s also a core set of concerns that people have in common, whether they’re born in Egypt, or India, or Manchester, or New York. These aren’t many, but we can enumerate at least two or three of them: there’s a concern for your physical wellbeing; there’s probably a concern for a degree of autonomy and self-determination; there’s a concern for those practices that directly pertain to your welfare. This isn’t much, but you’d be amazed how far it gets you in explaining really important historical transformations.

For two hundred years, anybody who called herself progressive embraced this kind of universalism. It was simply understood that the reason workers or peasants could unite across national boundaries is because they shared certain material interests. This is now being called into question by subaltern studies, and it’s quite remarkable that so many people on the Left have accepted it. It’s even more remarkable that it’s still accepted when over the last fifteen or twenty years we’ve seen global movements across cultures and national boundaries against neoliberalism, against capitalism. Yet in the university, to dare to say that people share common concerns across cultures is somehow seen as being Eurocentric. This shows how far the political and intellectual culture has fallen in the last twenty years.

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