The logic of capitalism

Print edition : July 12, 2013

February 1972: Workers at Bharat Heavy Plate and Vessels Limited's factory in Visakhapatnam. Capitalism’s interest is not in the worker as a person but in his/her labour power which generates and surrenders the surplus that is the basis of capitalist accumulation. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A critique of the writings of leading Indian subalternists.

A BOOK whose title clearly indicates that it is about theory may not interest many readers of Frontline. But the title of this book also states that its content is about capital, that is, capitalism, and because of the rapid spread capitalism is making globally it is very much a live issue. I shall, therefore, concentrate on the substantive theme of the book, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital, after a brief and simplified exposition of the theory for the sake of those who are new to the field as also for those who wish to have an introduction to the book.

The emergence of a large number of ex-colonies as independent countries after the Second World War provided the opportunity for thinkers and writers, both in the former imperialist countries and in the ex-colonial regions, to reflect on the experience of the colonial era. In the broadest sense, post-colonial literature refers to writings resulting from these reflections and includes diverse branches such as philosophy, politics, political economy, sociology, fiction and so on. The common theme of these writings is that the imperialist era had a mindset attuned to conditions of life in the “West” and since the colonies (the “East”) had different real-life experiences, new ways of thinking with different frames of reference are called for.

Within postcolonial theory, a prominent segment to which some leading Indian scholars have made significant contributions is subaltern studies. “Subaltern” refers to any person or group of inferior rank, whether because of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and so on—broadly, “the wretched of the earth” as Frantz Fanon’s popular work referred to them. Subaltern studies claim to be not only about them, but also from their perspective, “History from Below” as is generally claimed. Those adhering to this position have, thus, become a new “school”, the subalternists, with distinctive research projects, journals and publications. The leading subalternists from India have been (with titles of one work of each given in parenthesis) Ranajit Guha ( Dominance without Hegemony), Partha Chatterjee ( Nationalist Thought and Colonial World) and Dipesh Chakrabarty ( Rethinking Working Class History). A common theme that forms the background to these and other subaltern writings is that Western writings, including the works of Karl Marx, for instance, reflect Western social conditions and hence may be only of limited validity in the East or should have to be adapted to deal with Eastern reality.

It is this view that Vivek Chibber, of Indian origin and now Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University, deals with. The work is, thus, Chibber’s critique of the writings of leading Indian subalternists. It is a detailed, dense and polemical academic exercise, highly commended by well-known academics including Noam Chomsky.

The general theme of the debate is the validity of Western writings of the 18 and 19 centuries—“Enlightenment thought”—to the rest of the world. Or, as the subalternists would put it, is it not necessary to have new conceptual categories and analytical frames to deal with the realities of the East? To make it even more specific: the West had moved to a social ethos of free individuals from the time of the French Revolution of 1798 at least, whereas the East (India, for instance) continued and continues to be one of societal domination over the individual, the caste system being one of its best manifestations. Aren’t the West and the East distinctly different in terms of this basic condition and, if so, don’t they need analytical frames of their own? How relevant, then, is to rely solely on the Marxist category of “class”? Shouldn’t the emphasis be more on “culture” than on “class”? As Chibber sees it, (it may be noted that the blurb mentions that Chibber’s “devastating critique” is “mounted on behalf of the radical Enlightenment tradition”) such positions represent a “double movement”, the rejection of the core propositions of the conventional position and an exploration of the implications of that rejection for a broader understanding of the colonial world, past and present.

Having noted the basic positions of the two sides, it may be helpful to start with what they agree on. Chibber mentions that it is “the universalising tendency of capital” and quotes with approval a passage from Ranajit Guha, the pioneering Indian subalternist: “ This [universalising] tendency derives from the self-expansion of capital. Its function is to create a world market, subjugate all antecedent modes of production, and replace all jural and institutional concomitants of such modes and generally the entire edifice of pre-capitalist cultures by laws, institutions, values, and other elements of a culture appropriate to bourgeois rule.”

Both the distinguishing features of capitalism are noted—its economic base dealing with production and marketing (relations of production) and the superstructure of laws, institutions and values (social relations). And, if there is agreement on these two, what is the controversy about?

H1 and H2

According to Chibber, though the subalternists note both these aspects of capitalism, they concentrated so much on the latter where it is easier to subscribe to a relativist position which when taken seriously and passionately becomes “cultural” exercises—“stories and narratives”—rather than theory. To establish this point he dissects the writings of another leading subalternist, Dipesh Chakrabarty, who divides history into two, H1and H2, the former referring to an early period but, more importantly, to the kind of social ethos that prevailed in Europe when capitalism emerged there as the dominant economic system. H2 is a different kind of history resulting from and reflecting very different societal institutions and processes. If so, H1 and H2 represent differences in time, location and social environment—not a particularly helpful categorisation for analytical purposes.

A substantial part of the book consists of Chibber’s examination of the relationship between capitalism and the “two Histories”. I would like to warn the reader that any attempt to summarise the arguments that are theoretical, historical and ideological is difficult and dangerous as well. But without taking that risk it will not be possible to move forward.

As Chibber sees it, the subalternists’ position is that H1 is part of capitalism’s “life process” and so was universally associated with it. H2, on the other hand, is different. It deals with temporally more recent and spatially “local” conditions. The categories of Marxist theory that deal with universals may not be adequate to comprehend and analyse the particularities of the local. Hence it is necessary to search for alternative suitable analytical categories. For instance, if workers in H2 are tied to land either under the feudal order or as peasant owners, where does capital find the “free” labour that it requires? Or, if the social mores of workers are dominated by the community-oriented caste system, are they suitable for capitalism that requires independent workers? In other words, subalterns in colonial India were socially, culturally and psychologically different from workers on whom capitalism relied in England and Europe in general. How adequate then is traditional Marxist theory to deal with colonial and post-colonial India?

Chibber’s response is two-fold. First, he provides what may be considered the essence of capitalism as an economic system. It is related to the “self-expansion of capital”, (which, as noted above, both sides recognise and accept), “the tendency of capitalism as a system to expand its zone of operation—to find new markets, to create new ones if needed by displacing existing forms, to reach into every part of the world and incorporate it into the world market”. It is, thus, in the very nature of capitalism to spread to all corners of the earth: capitalism, therefore, is inherently universal.

Chibber concedes that social systems are not universal in this sense: they are spatially and temporally specific and so the distinction drawn between H1 and H2 is legitimate, but not all the claims that subalternists make about them. The social condition that is a sine qua non for capitalism is a category of workers offering their labour power for wages. Such workers become available when they have nothing other than their labour power to sell. The emergence of such workers in some parts of the world (England first and soon most parts of Europe) may have happened along with the emergence of capitalism as an economic order. But wherever capitalism reaches out in search of new markets, it will also generate such class of workers. It is important to note that capitalism’s interest is not in the worker as a person (the “real labourer”) but only in his/her labour power which generates and surrenders the surplus that is the basis of capitalist accumulation. Beyond that, it is not particularly relevant for capital whether the worker is a member of the Evangelical Church in America that emphasises individual salvation or an Indian caste with emphasis on community or whatever else. In sum, cultural diversity, whether based on time, space, or anything else, does not pose a problem for capitalism, and “as capitalism spreads across the globe it does not inevitably turn every culture into a replica of what has been observed in the West”. However, “capital has always striven not just for economic domination but also for political domination, inasmuch as the latter helps secure the viability of the former”. But, again, it does not mean that wherever capitalism goes it produces identical political orders. It has been amply demonstrated that capitalism works through democracies as well as monarchies and dictatorships.

It seems to me that in this first round of (mono) debate, it is advantage Chibber. One hopes that the subalternists will come up with an equally robust response clarifying and defending their position.

Universality of the capitalist system

In conclusion, let me indicate a couple of matters where greater clarity is called for in dealing with the “universality” of the capitalist system. It is unfortunate and confusing if a clear distinction is not drawn and maintained between “universal” in the logical sense on the one hand and in a spatial sense on the other. It is possible to set up an abstract, purely logical version of the capitalist system primarily to demonstrate its internal structure, that is, the nature of interconnection of its components and of its transformation over time. The connection between what has been described as the “self-expansion” of capital and of “labour power” which, in a logical sense, may be designated as “universal” because they invariably go together (irrespective of time and space) and constitute the essence of capitalism as a theoretical system. The internal dynamics of the system can also be shown to be “universal” in the sense that if the conditions specified are present the consequences also will follow.

“Universal” can be used in a spatial sense as well when the reference is to the movement of capital from one part of the world to the other as has been happening always and clearly seen during the present phase of “globalisation”. However, “universal” in this sense is distinctly different from “universal” used in the previous paragraph because this movement is much more than spatial. It is spatial, temporal and “cultural” in the broadest sense of that term. It implies a shift from the realm of logic to the realm of what Chibber refers to as “the contingencies of real history”. Unfortunately, this crucial distinction is not maintained (possibly not even recognised) in the narrative of this volume. For clarity of thought and discourse it will be helpful to reserve the expression “universal” to the realm of logic and to use “global” for the spatial dimension, avoiding the expression universalisation altogether. Thus, the logic of capitalism is universal which includes its globalisation.

The spatial movement of capitalism (not of capital) arising from its logic of self-expansion situates that economic system within a larger social system with which it interacts. The problematic of this volume is how this interaction is to be traced and interpreted. There are two ways of doing it. The first is to treat it as part of the expansion and evolution of capitalism. I would refer to it as the Marxist tradition. A second approach is surely possible: to start with that social system and see what impact the entry of capitalism has had on it.

During the colonial period many Indian writers had taken this approach concentrating on the adverse effects of the capitalist system under British rule on Indian society, particularly the Indian economy. The objective of the subalternists has been to broaden this approach which calls for detailed empirical studies of social classes and castes, especially of workers in the “unorganised sector”, outliers like the tribal people and the fisherfolk, indeed, the vast area largely neglected by Marxist writers and most mainstream economists and sociologists. What theory is used for such studies is not and should not be the main issue relating to such studies. Of course, they cannot be mere data-gathering and reporting. They must conform to the discipline of analytical description revealing the interconnections and must add to the fund of existing knowledge. If this is accepted, the subalternists’ task is not over; they have promises to keep and miles to go!