The Person, Historical Time and the Universalisation of Capital
In 1938, Marcel Mauss gave a lecture entitled ‘Une catégorie de l’esprit humain: la notion de personne, celle de “moi”’ (‘A category of the human mind: the notion of person, the notion of “self”’). The lecture traces various historical configurations of the ‘person’, from the strictly delimited tribal ‘role’, through the Roman persona – a mask or character in a dramatic play, as well as a legal subject entitled to the inheritance of an estate – all the way to the modern sense of a ‘moral person’ who is ‘conscious, independent, autonomous, free and responsible’. But this teleology, which reaches its provisional apotheosis in the ‘precision’ and ‘clarity’ of the European present, is constantly undermined by a notable insecurity as to the ontological status of that very present. Mauss begins his narrative with contemporary native American tribes, implicitly framing them as prehistoric, while simultaneously insisting on their present actuality, a contradiction that arouses an affective malaise that might be described as a fear of kitsch, whereby seemingly authentic tribal practices and symbols become degraded to the status of inauthentic commodities. Beyond this ambiguity, however, Mauss effectively delineates two main trajectories of the person: what one might call the ‘impersonal’ person, unconnected to subjective interiority, which was functional within tribal communities and, in a different way, in Roman law (and which continues in political thought through Hobbes and, later, Gramsci and Althusser, as Peter D. Thomas notes in The Gramscian Moment), and the ‘moral person’ that emerged with the Stoics and became consolidated in Christianity (and was continued via Locke and Kant).
I begin with Mauss’s curiously anxious history of the person, not merely because it offers a useful reminder of the complex history of what is now a common-sense term, but also because it raises several issues central to the main object of this article: the critical inheritance of the Marxist tradition by the postcolonial intellectual formation of Subaltern Studies. In what follows, I investigate the remarkable centrality of the ‘person’ and its various modern instantiations (the subject, the citizen, the individual) to postcolonial critiques of Marxist categories, focusing particularly on the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty. I use the ‘person’ as a lens through which to view theoretical debates on historical temporality, as well as recent arguments – generated largely by Vivek Chibber’s blistering 2013 book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital – over the meaning of the ‘universalisation of capital’. I conclude with a reflection on the ways in which the Indian caste system challenges or exemplifies certain aspects of these debates.
The Person between Marxism and Subaltern Studies
Without wishing to rehearse the by-now well-known origins of Subaltern Studies, it’s important to recall that their principal aim was, as Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote in a retrospective 2000 article ‘Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Historiography’, ‘to produce historical analyses in which the subaltern groups were viewed as the subjects of history’ (emphasis added). This entailed an extension of traditional conceptions of the political. Where the Cambridge School and nationalist historians limited the political domain to the formal institutions of government, excising peasant agency from the making of history, Ranajit Guha argued that there existed in colonial India an ‘autonomous’ domain of what Chakrabarty terms the ‘politics of the people’, organised differently to the domain of the politics of the elite. It’s here that questions of historical temporality and the philosophy of history became integral to the debate. As Chakrabarty would put it, ‘Guha insisted that instead of being an anachronism in a modernising colonial world, the peasant was a real contemporary of colonialism and a fundamental part of the modernity that colonial rule gave rise to in India’. These two terms – anachronism and contemporaneity – are central not only to the Subaltern Studies approach to the notion of the person, but to its entire critique of Marxist historiography.
By categorising certain Indian social relations or cultural practices as ‘semi-feudal’ or ‘remnants’ of feudalism, both liberal-nationalist and Marxist historiography were, ironically, conforming to the strictly idealistvision of capital’s limitless self-positing which Marx criticises in the Grundrisse:
But from the fact that capital posits every such limit [for example, ‘national barriers and prejudices’, ‘nature worship’, ‘traditional, confined … satisfactions of present needs’, ‘old ways of life’] as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and, since every such barrier contradicts its character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited. Furthermore. The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognised as being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension.
Capital’s universalisation, then, is externally and internally limited – and such limits were only too clear in colonial India. By denying them, both nationalist and Marxist historiographies were guilty of ‘historicism’, a logic Chakrabarty defined as ‘first in Europe, then elsewhere’, which posits ‘historical time as a measure of the cultural distance … that was assumed to exist between the West and the non-West’.
Here we reach the central ambiguity of the Subaltern Studies argument. It concerns the precise meaning of the ‘universalisation of capital’. In the passages immediately preceding that just quoted from the Grundrisse, Marx explains how the inner logic of capital entails a tendency towards universalisation, expansion and the sublation of previous modes of production and ‘ways of life’. Not unlike certain passages of the Communist Manifesto, these pages occasionally read like a hymn to capital’s economic, social and – crucially – civilisationalpowers. Having noted that ‘the tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself’, as well as remarking upon its constant production of new needs, Marx states that ‘capital creates the [sic] bourgeois society’ and ‘has a great civilising influence’. It’s only thereafter that he notes the limits to such universalisation. The crucial move that Subaltern Studies made, however, was to equate this expansive, civilisational universalisation of capital with the bourgeois hegemony achieved by what Guha terms the ‘comprehensive character’ of the bourgeois revolutions of England in 1648, and France in 1789. This sleight of hand is key to many of the strengths and weaknesses of early Subaltern Studies.
One of the corollaries of this argument is that a situation of bourgeois hegemony can only be said to exist there where the citizen, the juridical person (of contract and property law), and the individualcoincide. Such a situation assumes the mutual reinforcement of an independent nation-state, the ‘rule of law’ and a bourgeois mode of individualisation. In its more sophisticated (Hegelian) version, in Guha’s 1997 Dominance Without Hegemony, this ‘coincidence’ is a process, through which a state form that has arisen organically out of the internal dynamics of civil society separates itself from that very civil society in order to stand above it. In doing so, it produces the classic duality of the modern nation-state – private ‘man’ (the ‘individual’) enfolded within the abstract ‘citizen’ – criticised by Marx in ‘On the Jewish Question’. Crucially, for Chakrabarty, the ‘individual’ is presupposed to have internalised this sense of being a private self. In contrast to this hegemonic state form, argues Guha, ‘the colonial state was structured like a despotism, with no mediating depths, no space provided for transactions between the will of rulers and that of the ruled’. The Indian people were subjects, not citizens; the subject was the political figure of domination, the citizen its telos of political liberation.
Dipesh Chakrabarty and the Spectre of Communism
It was within this matrix of historical and theoretical presuppositions that Chakrabarty elaborated a powerful, but flawed, theory of the person. Recall that his overarching project has always been to seek out a collective mode of sociality that avoids the pitfalls of both the formal freedoms of bourgeois individualism, with its historicist telos of citizenship, and the inequalities of pre-capitalist communal bonds. Indeed, Chakrabarty opens his 1989 book Rethinking Working-Class History by posing nothing less than the problem of communist sociality within the purview of permanent revolution:
The question is this: Can we bypass all these dilemmas in third-world countries like India and build democratic, communitarian institutions on the basis of nonindividualistic, but hierarchical and illiberal, pre-capitalist bonds that have survived and sometimes resisted – or even flourished under – the onslaught of capital? I have written my book on the assumption that in countries such as ours, several contradictory struggles have to fuse into one. The struggle to be a ‘citizen’ must be part of the struggle to be a ‘comrade’.
Chakrabarty sought, but never found, the figure of a communist sociality that could replace the the citizen to become the telos of a post-capitalist modernity. In 1989 – that fateful year – he seemed to sense its possibility in the fleeting spectre of the proletariat, only to conclude that the concept of the ‘proletariat’ remained too contaminated by ‘Enlightenment thought’. This fragile radical streak in Chakrabarty’s work is still visible in Provincialising Europe, in his criticism of the discourse of history for its ‘collusion with the narratives of citizenship in assimilating to the projects of the modern state all other possibilities of human solidarity’.
But the communist desire for a deindividualised future is haunted by what Chakrabarty calls a ‘politics of despair’, whereby the ‘dreamed-up pasts and futures’ in which this desire is articulated can find ‘no (infra)structural sites where [they can] lodge themselves’. At the risk of ‘historicist’ interpretation, in the present of 1989, Chakrabarty seems unable to identify a political subject capable of actualising this utopian future. By 2000, a decade after the End of History, Chakrabarty had performed his own translation of Utopia, rejecting the communist horizon and taking shelter in a Heideggerian ‘now’ of plural possibilities that ‘do not lend themselves to being represented by a totalising principle’. The future had sunk into the present, and with it communist sociality.
But there remains in Chakrabarty the rudiments of a powerful understanding of the structural personifications integral to capital accumulation. In Provincialising Europe he distinguishes between two types of history: History 1, ‘a past posited by capital itself as its precondition’; and History 2, a past antecedent to capital but not established by it, and which therefore does not enter into its self-reproduction. History 2s are said to exist in ‘intimate and plural relationships to capital, ranging from opposition to neutrality’. One of the logical presuppositions of capital, integral to History 1, is ‘abstract labour’. Chakrabarty, here as in Rethinking Working-Class History, holds that ‘abstract labour’, like the figure of the ‘worker’ and of ‘capital’ itself, presupposes ‘[l]abor that is juridically and politically free’. That is to say – here we return to the importance of the ‘bourgeois hegemony’ thesis – it presupposes that the worker is a legally codified juridical person with abstract equality before the law, with legally inscribed ownership over her own person, and who is free to sell her labour-power in exchange for a wage.
What Chakrabarty overlooks, however, is that, for Marx, the material condition of possibility of this juridical personification is a previous social process of personification that emerges with the separation (Trennung) of workers from the means of production. Thereafter, Marx writes in the Grundrisse, ‘[a]s living labour realises itself in the objective conditions [of labour, from which it has been separated], it simultaneously repulses this realisation from itself as an alien reality’ – as the ‘mode of existence of an alien person’. The juridical person is, then, from one perspective, the individualised and legally interpellated result of what one might call primitive personification; from another perspective – that of Chakrabarty – it is the latter’s continued cultural-legal precondition.
Chakrabarty understands abstract labour more generally as a ‘performative, practical category’. Abstraction occurs in and through practices like disciplinary processes, factory legislation (that enforces uniformity, regularity and order), not to mention the law itself. These ensure the homogenisation and equalisation of inherently heterogeneous types of concrete labour. The crucial fact, however, is that the labour-power bought by the capitalist is defined by Marx in Capital as ‘the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being’ (emphasis added). It is this living personality that will thus become the ultimate fault-line of class struggle.
Chakrabarty gives an example. When a worker arrives at the factory gate, she embodies both History 1 and History 2. She embodies the former because, simply by turning up to work, she represents and reproduces the historical separation between the capacity to labour and the objective conditions for its realisation. But as History 2, she embodies memories, bodily habits, and collective practices. These History 2s come under the institutional domination of the logic of capital, but they do not belong to capital’s ‘life process’. Pastiching Marx, Chakrabarty gives voice to capital itself, addressing his fictional worker: ‘I want you to be reduced to sheer living labor … I want to effect a separation between your personality (that is, the personal and collective histories you embody) and your will (which is a characteristic of sheer consciousness)’. Chakrabarty’s point, however, is that because labour-power is inseparable from the living personality and body of the worker, it can never be fully subordinated. Thus it remains a site of potential resistance.
Chakrabarty’s theory of the two histories of capital gives us a key insight into the unevenness of capital accumulation. From the perspective of the person, History 1 is the constantly posited past of what I have called primitive personification, the process whereby workers are separated from the objective conditions of labour, which they subsequently posit as the mode of existence of an alien person. To the extent that the legal interpellation of individuals as the juridical personae of contract and property law reinforces this process, it belongs to History 1. Taken together, these strands of History 1 ‘prepare [the worker]’, Chakrabarty says, ‘to be the figure posited by capital as its own condition and contradiction’ (emphasis added). Arguably, this violent figuration – or disfiguration – of the worker is partly concealed by bourgeois ideologies promoting the richness of individuality and subjective interiority, which entice workers to internalise and identify with it. But capital’s constant operation of personification-as-disfiguration also generates what Marx called ‘barriers in its own nature’: in other words, History 1 gives rise to periodic crises and class contradictions.
The ‘person’ of History 2, meanwhile, comprises everything we moderns mean by ‘personality’ – including character, memories, and, crucially, our bodies. Where the personifications of History 1 are violent simplifications and homogenisations externally imposed by capital, the ‘personality’ of History 2 consists of a multiplicity of practices, ideas, affects and memories that are not part of capital’s self-realisation. In colonial social formations, ‘personality’ also includes apparently ‘pre-capitalist’ non-individualist cultural practices, which are also prone to contradictions (as we shall see, the caste system is a prime example). Any given historical situation, then, is the singular result of an ongoing encounter between an internally contradictory History 1 and an internally contradictory History 2, each of whose contradictions overdetermines the other.
Capital’s historically and geographically variable capacity to impose its structural ‘personifications’ will depend, in part, on this overdetermined class struggle.
The Universalisation of Capital: Chibber’s Critique of Subaltern Studies
Let us return to the phrase ‘universalisation of capital’. The first thing to note about Subaltern Studies’ equation of capitalist universalisation with bourgeois hegemony is that, despite the arguments of some critics such as Vivek Chibber, it is partly textually justified. As we have seen, in the Grundrisse and elsewhere, Marx himself argues that the universalisation of capital is not just a matter of the ‘silent compulsion of economic relations’, but a civilisational phenomenon the scale of which is that of the entire social order. Yet Marx’s understanding of capital’s ‘universalisation’ was subject to ambiguity and transformation. Kevin Anderson, in Marx at the Margins, has shown that Marx moves from a relatively unilinear, ‘historicist’ conception of historical development to a multilinear understanding that stresses a multiplicity of possible trajectories. In the 1861–63 economic manuscripts, for example, Marx overtly recognises that colonialism in India ‘combines capitalist exploitation without a capitalist mode of production’, leaving traditional Indian social relations superficially intact but effectively ‘in ruins’. Such phrases would seem to imply that a limited form of capitalist universalisation is indeed possible without the universalisation of a hegemonic bourgeois culture – a notion to which I will return.
It’s precisely ambiguities such as these in Marx’s writings that Vivek Chibber underestimates. Castigating Guha’s supposed lionisation of the English and French bourgeois revolutions, Chibber argues that the latter contributed only negligibly to the development of capitalism, and that the scale of the contribution of both to the birth of modern liberalism is a myth propagated by Whig intellectuals in post-Napoleonic Europe. In a refreshing twist, for Chibber, what Subaltern Studies sees as the achievement of the European bourgeoisie – the ascendancy of rights, the rule of law, formal freedoms – was, rather, the outcome of popular struggle against the bourgeoisie (though he says little about the genesis of the specific forms of these liberal freedoms). Having deflated the role of the bourgeois revolutions in the development of capitalism, Chibber is then free to separate the two aspects of universalisation – what he calls the ‘economic’ and the ‘politico-cultural’ – that had remained firmly and problematically intertwined in Marx’s original passage in the Grundrisse. Limiting capitalist ‘universalisation’ to the ‘economic’ aspect, he writes: ‘based on the new definition I have offered, we can accept that capital has universalised even if its political mission is not devoted to winning the consent of laboring classes. By our criteria, the universalising process is under way if agents’ reproductive strategies shift toward market dependence’.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of this critique of Subaltern Studies? Putting to one side the fact that ‘market dependence’ is not a sufficient condition for the capitalist mode of production, Chibber’s argument initially appears useful, enabling as it does a conception of the universalisation of capital that presupposes no attendant universalisation of bourgeois culture. His argument that ‘capital can reproduce social hierarchies just as readily as it can dissolve them’ is convincing, as is the correlative claim that ‘the mere existence of [interpersonal] social domination cannot be taken as evidence’ of capital’s failed universalisation. Chibber also offers much-needed re-emphasis of the role of popular struggle in wrenching democratic concessions from the bourgeoisie.
Yet his polemic also has certain weaknesses. Its revisionist account of the bourgeois revolutions is developed within the terms of the tradition of ‘political Marxism’. This is based primarily on the work of Robert Brenner, whose account of the origins of capitalism has been criticised as Euro-, if not Anglo-, centric – most recently by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu in 2015’s How the West Came to Rule. This residual Eurocentrism is coupled with a lack of attention to the international level: as Rahul Rao has put it, in Chibber’s book ‘[b]ourgeoisies and subalterns are locked in combat in hermetically sealed states, with the role of the international remaining somewhat obscure’. This leads Chibber – just like his Subaltern Studies nemeses – to overlook the situation of international dependence, which, in Rao’s words, ‘obviated the need for dependent bourgeoisies to seek domestic hegemony’ because they could rely on ‘external political and economic linkages’.
Finally, and most problematically, Chibber’s limited conception of capitalist universalisation is arguably not a theory of universalisation at all. As scholars such as Subir Sinha and Alexander Manzoni have observed, Chibber conflates the internal dynamics of capital with the process of universalisation itself; he confuses capital’s universal principles with the world-historical process of its becoming-universal – thereby downplaying precisely those ‘pre-capitalist’ impediments to capitalist expansion that it was the virtue of Subaltern Studies to have identified. In so doing, Chibber’s definition of capitalist universalisation is inscribed largely within capital’s idealist self-projection – it is a History 1 that has systematically elided History 2, even whilst overtly recognising the validity of the History 1/History 2 distinction.
This disagreement over the precise meaning of the ‘universalisation of capital’ has profound consequences for the theory of the person. To put it as simply as possible, the Subaltern Studies ‘bourgeois hegemony’ thesis presupposes that capital has universalised where there exists a dialectical coincidence, mediated by the state, of capital’s structural personifications, the living personality, and the citizen. It also – crucially – implies the presence of a dominant, bourgeois individualist ideology through which workers fully internalise and identify with these interconnected personifications. Where this dialectical coincidence or ideological suture is missing – where, for example, ‘traditional’ non-individualist ties of kin, language and religion continue to exist – Subaltern Studies argues that capital has failed to universalise – as in India.
Chibber’s economistic approach, on the other hand, presupposes no such ideological precondition for capital’s universalisation. His account has the merit of emphasising the way in which the imposition of the structural economic compulsions of capital accumulation produces, instead, ‘spontaneous’ ideologies. But in downplaying both the ‘politico-cultural’ aspects of universalisation, and the process of primitive accumulation, he overstates the internal consistency of Marx’s own position, while underestimating the material effectivity of ‘History 2’ in determining singular trajectories of capitalist development.
On the Colonial Mode of Production
One way to overcome the theoretical shortcomings of both Subaltern Studies and Chibber’s critique thereof is by engaging with the concept of the ‘colonial mode of production’ as developed by Jairus Banaji and Hamza Alavi during what was called the ‘Indian mode of production’ debate of the 1970s. By combining key insights from this debate with recent work on uneven and combined development and the cultural theory of Subaltern Studies itself, we might sketch out certain elements of a ‘postcolonial materialist’ theory of the person.
The Indian mode of production debate took place primarily in response to Utsa Patnaik’s field studies, which showed the impeded development of capitalist agriculture under colonial conditions. Jairus Banaji and Hamza Alavi stood out within this debate, which occurred contemporaneously with similar discussions within French Marxist anthropology, in their refusal to conceptualise the Indian mode of production in terms of the ‘coexistence of modes of production’ (feudalism and capitalism) or what Patnaik had called ‘a unique transitional structure’. This ‘coexistence’ approach, which conforms precisely to what Chakrabarty would later call ‘historicism’ – a teleological presupposition that India would inevitably ‘complete’ its transition to a capitalist mode of production – condemned India in the present to what Banaji, in 1972, calls a ‘mysterious condition of limbo, of stagnation in the empty spaces between two modes of production’.
In Banaji’s intervention, there is, then, a specific consciousness of historical time at work: implicit is the idea that, by importing the ‘coexistence’ model, Indian Marxists were preventing themselves from becoming their own contemporaries. They were condemned to seeing India, not for what it is, but for what it is not – or not yet. Banaji himself does not dwell on this oblique aspect of his position, but the great power of the concept of the ‘colonial mode of production’ was that it raised thought to contemporaneity. In principle, this enables an elevation of theory to the political exigencies of the present, in stark contrast to Chakrabarty’s post-1989 defeatist withdrawal into a Heideggerian now – a clear reminder of the historicity of theory itself.
At the theoretical level, the colonial mode of production must be understood as a combination of multiple ‘forms of exploitation’ within a single formation whose unity is hierarchically imposed by imperialism. Crucially, both Banaji and Alavi distinguish ‘forms of exploitation’ from ‘relations of production’. The former Banaji defines as the ‘particular form in which surplus is appropriated from the direct producers’ (for example, serfdom, slavery, wage labour), whereas the latter are ‘the specific historically determined form which particular relations [or forms] of exploitation assume due to a certain level of development of the productive forces [etc.]’. Thus, capitalism cannot be defined in terms of the existence or non-existence of wage-labour, because, as Banaji writes, ‘the latter is only transformed into a capitalist relation of production under certain historical conditions’. Likewise, capitalism can incorporate many other – non-‘free’ – forms of exploitation.
Connecting this observation to Samir Amin’s notion of ‘internal disarticulation’, Alavi argues that ‘[t]he specific structural features of the colonial agrarian economy are formed precisely by virtue of the fact that Imperial capital disarticulates the internal economy of the colony … and integrates the internally disarticulated segments of the colonial economy externally into the metropolitan economy’. As a consequence, capital accumulation in the ‘colonial mode of production’ is distorted: a substantial part of the surplus generated in the colony is appropriated by the imperialist bourgeoisie and enters into expanded reproduction, but not in the colony itself – it is drained to the metropolitan centre. The concept of the ‘colonial mode of production’, then, produces a powerful insight, one that will prove central to any materialist theory of the person: ‘Although the form [of relationships between the producer and his master] … often remains unchanged [after the colonial impact]’, Alavi writes,
its essential nature and significance undergoes a revolutionary transformation. That is why it is wrong to describe colonial economies as those in which pre-capitalist relations ‘co-exist’ with ‘capitalist’ relations. Such relationships, transformed by the colonial impact are no longer ‘pre-capitalist’.
This insight has major consequences for cultural and social theory, fundamentally breaking as it does with the problematic of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, or Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Those forms of exploitation or cultural practices which appear to be residual, ‘pre-capitalist’, anachronistic elements of the social formation are in fact absolutely contemporary, but they are also deeply ambiguous. Their ‘organic’ articulation with the indigenous social formation has been violently disarticulated; their form is ‘traditional’ but their function is ‘modern’. The concept of the ‘colonial mode of production’, then, works as a safeguard against any postcolonial Orientalist romanticism of supposedly ‘traditional’ ways of life, since tradition is now itself an overdetermined field of struggle constituted in the present. On the one hand, it is a practical and existential defence formation against the colonial occupier, and on the other it’s a purely ideological construction on the part of the ruling class to justify the new dispensation. Unlike in stereotypically static ‘base-superstructure’ models, one could argue that the ‘base’ of the Indian ‘colonial mode of production’ is just as overdetermined as its superstructure. That is to say that the ‘colonial mode of production’ is characterised by an uneven combination of forms of exploitation which become more than the sum of their parts. It is held in unity by a global imperial system, and articulated with a hybrid culture combining colonial and indigenous discourses and practices.
What are the consequences of these insights for a theory of the person? My hypothesis is that the single most salient feature of a colonial mode of production is that it produces a situation of combined and uneven personhood, which is everywhere overdetermined by the Manichean opposition between coloniser and colonised.
If, following clues in Marx’s analyses of pre-capitalist modes of production in the Grundrisse, we accept that each mode of production produces specific structural personifications, then the colonial mode of production is characterised by a combination of capitalist and pre-capitalist regimes. The initial modality of this combination is the ‘formal subsumption’ through which capital, as Marx writes in Capital volume one, ‘takes over an existing labour process, developed by different and more archaic modes of production’. The capitalist appears here as a ‘director’ or ‘manager’, leaving the labour process as he found it but producing absolute surplus value. Under formal subsumption, the capitalist is both personification of capital and stage director of a period drama whose dramatis personae – wage labourers – are forced to perform in ‘traditional’ dress with ‘traditional’ tools as props. But, precisely because production under formal subsumption retains what Marx calls a small-scale ‘individualcharacter’, the imposition of capital’s structural personifications is only partial, and is constantly articulated with – and resisted by – pre-capitalist regimes of personhood.
Depending on the specific stage of colonial penetration or internal disarticulation, this combination will assume a more or less contradictory character. Where capitalist universalisation is more advanced, as with the Bengali jute mills discussed by Chakrabarty, the modality of combination will be the attempted subordination and exploitation of pre-capitalist regimes of personhood (for example, nonindividualist communities of religion, kin, or language) by the impersonal logic of capital. This amounts to an attempted structural depersonalisation of pre-capitalist personhood. But this process is always complicated by several factors. As Chakrabarty shows, the continued reliance of migrant jute mill workers on rural kinship ties was crucial for their social reproduction. For capital, this ongoing connection to the land was a blessing and a curse: it provided a cheap labour-force, but the communal modes of sociality these kinship ties reproduced were antagonistic towards capitalist bourgeois individualism. Thus, what enabled the universalisation of capital simultaneously impeded it.
One way capital found to break down such pre-capitalist human solidarities, and an emergent working-class consciousness, was by exploiting divisions internal to History 2, such as differences of religion, caste, or language. But in Chakrabarty’s words, ‘even a religious or racial riot that seemingly divided the workers contained an element of rebellion as well’. Just as every strike could descend into a religious riot, every religious riot could explode into a class-conscious rebellion. So while the double helix of History 1 and History 2 is coextensive with the history of capitalism irrespective of geo-historical location – is, in other words, no less a feature of western European social formations than colonial and postcolonial formations – the violent imposition of capitalist social relations under colonialism produces extreme contradictions. The colonial mode of production is characterised by a situation of combined and uneven development, in which the immanent contradictions of capital or History 1 are violently overdetermined by the immanent contradictions of History 2 – and vice versa.
The Caste System
Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of caste. As Nicholas B. Dirks has argued in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, in precolonial India, the units of social identity had been multiple, their respective relations and trajectories part of a complex, constantly changing, political world. It was only under the British that ‘caste’ became ‘a single term capable of expressing, organising, and above all “systematising” India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organisation’. For Dirks, caste, as the British enforced it, entailed a violent simplification of pre-colonial networks of temple communities, territorial groups, lineage settlements, family units, royal retinues, agricultural and trading associations, and sectarian communities, all of which constituted ways of organising and representing identity, of which caste was a variant. The British invention – and imposition – of a unified, religious caste system was thus a way of knowing, simplifying and subjugating the Indian social formation in a single operation. From the perspective of the person, caste became an overdetermined battleground of competing – or complementary – personifications. Colonial state classifications, effected via social technologies like the census, took religion and caste as modal forms of social categorisation and gave them political pertinence, as Anupama Rao shows in The Caste Question. They became sites of collective mobilisation amongst lower castes and ‘untouchables’ at the same time as their effects both enhanced and impeded the structural personifications of History 1. History 2, meanwhile, consisted of everyday caste practices of personhood – from sartorial codes to rituals to cultural logics of distinction – that inhered within or resisted the advent of capital.
The personal battleground of caste was further overdetermined by the simultaneous advent of colonial liberalism, propounding a secular vision of individual emancipation and citizenship resolutely opposed to the supposed ‘backwardness’ of the very caste system it had helped compel into being. In 1936’s Annihilation of Caste, B. R. Ambedkar launched a powerful Dewey-inspired attack on caste and the ways in which it limits individual freedom and personal development. Ultimately, there arose a relation of what Rao called ‘supplementary opposition (and mutual constitution)’ between religion and politics, generating emancipatory strategies (for example, among anti-caste radicals) that operationalised and expanded liberal categories, while conforming neither to classical liberal principles nor to some putative pre-modern ‘tradition’. Thus the colonial situation gave rise to historically novel emancipatory grammars and – in the case of Dalit activism – new political subjects.
In practice, caste is a complex articulation of religious, economic and social forms, recomposed and reconfigured by capital, the (post)colonial state and popular mobilisation. Hegemonic castes came to constitute what Vinay Gidwani, in Capital, Interrupted, has called ‘a “ruptural unity”: an achieved hegemonic alliance always multiple and always troubled by internal fissures’. For example, he shows how the powerful Lewa Patel caste coalesced through an intersection of ‘nature, colonial land settlement policies, and political and economic transformations among Kanbi and Patidar class fractions’, as well as ‘hypergamous marriage practices’. In particular, Gidwani draws attention to the way in which the cultural logic of distinction within the caste system gives rise to practices that contravene capitalist rationality. He shows that after the 1860s and 1870s, the Lewa Patels increasingly withdrew from wage labour at the exact historical moment that capitalist production processes were becoming widespread in Gujarat and real wages were rising; they did so because withdrawal from labour was a sign of distinction. This potentially costly disengagement from the labour circuit, combined with a tendency for financially costly hypergamy which often brought families to ruin, is suggestive of ways in which a caste-based logic of social distinction resists capitalist logic.
More recently, Gidwani argues, this desire for caste-mediated refinement has been a material factor in the rise of piece-rate contracts across Gujarat. Since piecework regimes require minimal supervision, they meet younger Patels’ desire for ‘civility’ by increasing their distance from the workplace and enabling them to ‘supervise’ via intermediaries from the comfort of the village, while simultaneously indulging in ‘leisure’ activities. Crucially, Gidwani observes that piecework is also preferred by the (semi-)proletarian Baraiya/Koli labourers themselves, since it provides them with a minimal autonomy: they can work at their own tempo without having to suffer the constant, shaming gaze of Patel supervisors.
Class struggle and the desire for self-determination are, then, here inseparable from inter-caste antagonism. What Gidwani’s work suggests is that castes are ‘ruptured unities’, consisting of multiple practices and values, some superficially ‘modern’, others ‘traditional’, only some of which become subsumed by History 1, with others tending to resist the logic of capital – and in so doing materially altering the trajectory of capitalism itself. If in Marx’s Capital individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are ‘personifications of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests’, the history of caste suggests that such personifications are never guaranteed or fully achieved: they are conjunctural relations of force that must constantly be renewed.
This remains the case today. In December 2017, the ruling BJP party won a key state election in Gujurat. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself a three-time chief minister of the state, had helped his party campaign on a platform of ‘development’ and sectarian dog whistles, though BJP national spokesperson Nalin Kohli informed Al Jazeera that their victory constituted a rejection of ‘the politics of divisiveness of caste that was tried in the campaign by the Congress party’. What he was referring to were alliances with caste leaders that Congress had ‘stitched up’, in the words of Prashant Jha, associate editor at the Hindustan Times. The leaders were three men representing different castes: the Dalits; a segment of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs); and the Patels, now agitating for inclusion in the list of OBCs – and, by extension, access to affirmative action ‘reservations’ – which they had previously vehemently opposed. The category of OBCs is part of a wider set of constitutional provisions designed, in Anupama Rao’s words, ‘to challenge upper-caste hegemony and to transform deprived subjects into equal citizens’. It’s a unique kind of civil-rights law that has arisen from the singularity of Indian colonial history and has now become, as these elections in Gujurat demonstrate, a battleground in electoral and class struggles.
Such legislation, no matter how cynically exploited by various political factions, has become a material factor in the frustration of Indian capitalism, since, as Subir Sinha has argued, ‘[p]rimitive accumulation cannot be taken to its “logical” conclusion when its immediate victims have rights, institutionalised means of claims making, social movements and solidarity networks’. In other words, affirmative action legislation and collective political movements ensure that non-capitalist forms of personhood and livelihood – History 2 – remain constitutive, fully contemporary elements of the current conjuncture, preventing capital from fully achieving primitive personification. Consequently, in Sinha’s words, ‘[c]aste, gender, tribe and region remain inextricable from the category of labour, and from class identities … and are points for the emergence of political subjectivity in addition to – sometimes as alternative to – that of the “working class”’.
It is the great virtue of Subaltern Studies and of those forms of Marxist historiography that are attuned to the combined and uneven development of capitalism to have made such novel political subjects theoretically visible. Marxist thought must maintain such openness to historical novelty if it is to remain its own contemporary, and increase its power to inform the struggle for the hegemony of the present.
This article began as a paper given at the University of Paris 8 as part of the seminar series ‘Déprovincialiser l’histoire, réorienter la philosophie’, and a version was subsequently published in French in Revue Période. I am grateful to Jairus Banaji, Satnam Virdee, Matthieu Renault, Paul Guillibert and Sophie Coudray for their comments on a previous, longer draft and to Revue Période for permission to reproduce the article. All remaining errors are my own.