Vivek Chibber’s critique of Postcolonial Theory

I’ve recently proffered the idea that although postcolonial theory is useful for cross-cultural management scholars in their understanding of ‘the other’, this theory (or rather collection of theories) is out of date, being born out of a particular time and place. Now that ‘ancient civilisations’ such as China and India are coming to the fore in geopolitical and geo-economic terms, we have to start to develop theories that take on board these different global dynamics. Yet Vivek Chibber offers a useful yet different analysis, suggesting that postcolonial theory will be around for the foreseeable future.

Chibber sees postcolonial theory as largely arising to prominence as a consequence of ‘the general disorganization of labor and the Left, which created the conditions for postcolonial theory to flourish’, adding that ‘after the decline of the labor movement and the crushing of the Left in the 1970s, there wasn’t going to be any kind of prominent theory in academia that focused on capitalism, the working class, or class struggle.’ So, postcolonial theory took its place as a radical theory focusing on oppression, but leaving out class struggle, and being developed in academia rather than from any bottom-up popular movement.

Its value to cross-cultural management scholarship is that it denies the universal application of western enlightenment thought to the non-west. This, for Chibber, includes categories such as ‘capital, democracy, liberalism, rationality, and objectivity’. Yet, he contends, this is based on a premise that capitalism itself has not universalized itself in the Third World. One set of theories within postcolonial theory is Subaltern Studies, and the strand of theory being critiqued by Chibber. He proposes that this theory assumes that the success of capital in the now developed world was the result of the bourgeoisie being able to form an alliance with the peasants and working classes against the feudal order, making the working class’s interest aligned with their own. In the colonial countries this did not happen. This alliance wasn’t forged, and indicates a failure to universalize capital.

Chibber asserts that this is fallacious. Firstly, the working class were not given democracy: ‘The fact is that in the West, when a consensual, democratic, encompassing order did finally slowly emerge in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not a gift bestowed by capitalists. It was in fact a product of very long, concerted struggles on the part of workers, farmers, and peasants. In other words, it was brought forth by struggles from below.’ Secondly, just because the introduction of capitalism into the colonies was different, and did not include this alliance with the peasant and working class, does not mean that capital has not universalize. It may just mean that political cultures may be different.

Hence, ‘the Subalternists miss this entirely, because they insist that the rise of the liberal order was an achievement of capitalists. Because they misdescribe it in the West, they misdiagnose its failure in the East. In the East, they wrongly ascribe its failure to the shortcomings of the bourgeoisie.’

It is well worth reading the full text of the interview with Vivek Chibber [see under] about his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Yet my point remains, and I hope reinforced by Chibber’s points, that postcolonial theory, like any theory, is situated in time and place. Yet my argument is that theory does not just drop out of the air. It is developed as a result of a particular power dynamic. Surely Chibber is right when he asserts that the intellectual space was created for a radical (yet perhaps politically harmless) theory about the oppression (cultural or otherwise) of ‘the other’ as a result of the demise of the Left and the labour movement. What happens when, perhaps as a resistance to that oppression, the oppressed start not just to speak back (as postcolonial theorists such as Spivak would have it) but actually start becoming economically active on the world stage, and after supporting anticolonial struggles in regions such as Africa? Then we need to recognize that new theories need to emerge, albeit if situated again in time and space.

How Does the Subaltern Speak? | Jacobin.

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