In the new issue of Jacobin…

5 May

The latest issue of Jacobin came out the week before last. It’s already generating a lot of discussion and debate. Just a few highlights.

1.  Jonah Birch’s interview with NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber about Chibber’s new book on subaltern studies and postcolonialism theory has pissed a lot of people off.

Here’s Chibber:

A typical maneuver of postcolonial theorists is to say something like this: Marxism relies on abstract, universalizing categories. But for these categories to have traction, reality should look exactly like the abstract descriptions of capital, of workers, of the state, etc. But, say the postcolonial theorists, reality is so much more diverse. Workers wear such colorful clothes; they say prayers while working; capitalists consult astrologers — this doesn’t look like anything what Marx describes in Capital. So it must mean that the categories of capital aren’t really applicable here. The argument ends up being that any departure of concrete reality from the abstract descriptions of theory is a problem for the theory. But this is silly beyond words: it means that you can’t have theory. Why should it matter if capitalists consult astrologers as long as they are driven to make profits? Similarly, it doesn’t matter if workers pray on the shop floor as long as they work. This is all that the theory requires. It doesn’t say that cultural differences will disappear; it says that these differences don’t matter for the spread of capitalism, as long as agents obey the compulsions that capitalist structures place on them. I go to considerable lengths to explain this in the book.

Here’s one of Chibber’s critics, University of Chicago English professor Chris Taylor:

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…

And here’s one of Chibber’s critics’ critics, Paul Heideman, who’s a grad student in American studies at Rutgers Newark:

Chris Taylor’s post (“Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber’s Polemic against Postcolonial Theory”) presents what purports to be a quite sharp critique of Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. He takes the book to task for being un-dialectical, for orthodoxy-mongering, and a host of other theoretical sins. As the most extensive response to the book yet published, it has garnered a good deal of positive attention from those uncomfortable with Chibber’s promotion of a frankly universalistic theory and his attacks on the fetishization of particularism.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s article deserves none of the attention it has received. It exemplifies the kind of evasiveness and non-engagement which typifies the culture of the academic left. What are presented as incisive blows against the intellectual architecture of the book are in fact a series of passages that, at their best, do not even contradict the arguments made in the book and, at their worst, descend into mere name-calling.

And that’s the nice stuff. It’s a lot more heated on Facebook and Twitter.

2. Laura Tanenbaum, who’s one of my favorite writers, makes her Jacobin debut. Here she revisits some of the classic feminist texts of the 1970s (you need a userid and password, and I guess a subscription, for this one, which means…you should get one!):

In texts like [Adrienne Rich's] Of Woman Born and Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, women thinkers built on their understanding of the relationship between biology and the oppressive division of the sexes. They asked how we had organized ourselves in social and economic relations, what the consequences of these organizations were, and how it might be done differently. The result was not a laundry list of “issues” to be dealt with, but an analysis of a system that deforms everything from work and family to art and science. It’s an analysis that continues to resonate, even as public discourse declares on the one hand that feminism’s goals have been accomplished, and on the other that they were always impossible.

3.  Jeremy Kessler is another writer you should watch. He’s a grad student in history (and the Law School too?) at Yale, and he’s got a very sharp and shrewd mind about politics and the law. In this issue, he offers up a smart take on Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

The intended moral of Fear Itself, that the American state crafted by southern domination was necessary lest democracy fall to dictatorship, is the product of rhetorical excess and unexamined political assumptions. Ironically, it is Katznelson’s adoption of the language of fear and the logic of emergency, so often used to justify dictatorship, that leads to his portrayal of the southern New Deal as the only viable path the United States could have taken out of its mid-century crisis.

4. The magazine devoted an entire section to Palestine. A whole bunch of articles, headed off by this editorial:

Why now? Because almost without anyone noticing, the movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights — with all its solipsisms and ultra-leftist foibles, its quarrels and magnetic attraction for eccentrics, opportunists, and, yes, the occasional antisemite — has grown to become one of the most important, inspiring, and fast-growing social movements in the country.

Palestine is no longer a dirty word on college campuses. The last Students for Justice in Palestine national conference attracted well over 300 delegates from more than 140 colleges and universities across the country, converging on Ann Arbor to discuss capitalist state formation in Israel, solidarity among prisoners, colonialism, the persistence of the occupation, refugee rights, and remarkably, with a minimum of rancor and sectarianism, the Syrian conflict.

Much of the energy that in the past would have found its home in student antiwar movements has migrated to the cause of Palestine. That is not without its problems: after all, children are gunned down by helicopter gunships in Afghanistan as surely as they are gunned down by snipers in the Gaza Strip. But the bloom of student interest in this old and bloody colonial conflict is something the Left ought to take interest in, because the Left is not just an idea but also the masses in motion, and scarcely anywhere — except for the environmental movement — are young people in motion with such a mix of revolutionary élan and disciplined militancy as they are in the case of Palestine.

But radical action has outpaced radical understanding. In part, that is because young people have gotten involved just at the moment when the Palestine question is in unprecedented political and ideological flux.

5. And, last, the magazine’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara, well, I’ll let him speak for himself:

It’s an old adage of city life: commute home to masturbate, but don’t masturbate during the commute. Such are the reasonable burdens of living in a society.

Last week I was reminded that this sentiment isn’t universally shared. On a Euclid Avenue-bound C train…

There’s a lot more. Check it out.

5 Responses to “In the new issue of Jacobin…”

  1. louisproyect May 5, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    I found Taylor’s critique overly abstract, amorphous and verbose but there were some valid observations scattered within it. I have a couple of other points to make:

    1. Chibber’s book rests on something called “political Marxism”, which is an academic current inspired by Robert Brenner’s theory of the origins of capitalism. This theory is marked by challenges to classical Marxism, most particularly the belief that bourgeois revolutions are a myth. Even odder is the notion that “primitive accumulation”, the earliest stage of capitalism, only takes place in the British countryside even though Marx is rather emphatic that the East India Company was an agent of primitive accumulation. Between Karl Marx and this trendy academic current, I’ll stick with Marx.

    2. More closely engaged with the book’s central concern, there is an implicit critique of Edward Said who while not particularly associated with subaltern studies viewed Marxism as an expression of Orientalism–a misunderstanding based on Said’s obvious unfamiliarity with late Marx. But if I had choose between a seminal figure of 20th century 3rd anti-imperialism and a self-seeking careerist like Vivek Chibber, I’ll stick with Marx.

    • BillR May 6, 2013 at 12:19 am #

      What’s the ongoing flux with Palestine? If more young people are waking up to the “myth of Liberal Zionism” and are not impeded by rose-colored lenses that shaped outlook of older generations brought up on such myths–notwithstanding mountainous evidence of the “semi-fascist” nature of Israel, then surely that’s surely an improvement over the sordid saga of supremacist colonialism since 1948.

    • Jacob May 6, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      How do these points address the thrust of Chibber’s critique of postcolonialism, and what in the Taylor article did you consider valid?

      • BillR May 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

        oops, my comments were not related to Louis Proyect’s take which feels like an academic dispute on matters that might be of interest–in both intellectual and physical realms–to at most a few hundred people on this planet of 7 billion people.

      • Jacob May 6, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

        I don’t think it’s such an immaterial thing. The idea that the Marxist critique of capital doesn’t represent laborers internationally is a serious accusation.

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