I’ve never been a fan of the saying “Everything happens for a reason.” It has always struck me (and continues to strike me) as callous and unthinking. No one would utter those words in the hopes of cheering a parent who has just lost a child in a freak accident. But it is no more helpful, as I see it, in the case of less extreme misfortunes. The simple fact is that everything does not happen for a reason so far as anyone knows. If it does, then it remains unclear what that reason is; the endless debates over this matter are proof enough of that fact.
Being rejected from many of the universities which have now responded to my application is not easy. But I am far from letting the understandable letdown become an occasion for the pseudo-insight that it is just part of some grander plan, that one day I will be where I really need to be. (Oh, thank you, great Cosmic Reason, for knowing my academic and intellectual needs far better than I!) As it stands, two fine schools, Bard and Union, remain on my list of possibilities for where I will be spending the next three years of my life, though Union seems to be having trouble locating my financial aid documents and I suspect Bard lost my high school transcript (or was, quite mysteriously, the only college not to receive it at all).
I suppose whatever happens in the end will be all right. I am finally at home in an important sense at my current university. I have a wonderful, diverse group of friends and a boyfriend who takes my breath away. “Leaving,” in however limited a sense, either would be difficult. If I stay, I will have ample opportunity to study abroad. That certainly makes the prospect of enduring the smothering political lockstepism and sea of whiteness a bit more bearable. The benefits of either Bard or Union, though quite different in some respects, are alike in others: greater diversity, academic courses catered to my interests, and relative proximity to New York City.
I suppose, then, the real lesson of this long, expensive, and still unfolding process is that I must work hard to make myself as appealing on paper as I know myself to be in fact. Or, perhaps considering the amount of APs and IBs that many of my peer-competitors who beat me out undoubtedly had, the lesson is simply to have been born into a richer school district. Rejection, like faith, has its reasons which reason knows not.
Of C.L.R. James: Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber's Polemic against Postcolonial Theory ↘
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 theorycannot 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 twouniversalisms, 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 didcontinue 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.
Assata Shakur in Her Own Words: Rare Recording of Activist Named to FBI Most Wanted Terrorists List ↘
The FBI has added the former Black Panther Assata Shakur to its Most Wanted Terrorists list 40 years after the killing for which she was convicted. Born Joanne Chesimard, Shakur was found guilty of shooting dead a New Jersey state trooper during a gunfight in 1973. Shakur has long proclaimed her innocence and accused federal authorities of political persecution. She escaped from prison in 1979 and received political asylum in Cuba. On Thursday, she became the first woman added to the FBI’s terrorist list, and the reward for her capture was doubled to $2 million. We begin our coverage by airing Shakur’s reading of an open letter she wrote to Pope John Paul II during his trip to Cuba in 1998 after the FBI asked him to urge her extradition. “As a result of being targeted by [the FBI program] COINTELPRO, I was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death,” Shakur said at the time. “I am not the first, nor the last, person to be victimized by the New Jersey system of ‘justice.’