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Interventions: International Journal of
Postcolonial Studies
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http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/riij20

Essay
Sandro Mezzadra

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University of Bologna, Italy
Published online: 17 Sep 2014.

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To cite this article: Sandro Mezzadra (2014) Essay, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 16:6, 916-925, DOI: 10.1080/1369801X.2014.959371
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2014.959371

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ESSAY

Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. By Vivek Chibber. London: Verso, 2013. Pp. 306. ISBN 9781844679768. £19.99 (pbk).

A Death Knell?
Readers of Interventions will be by now familiar with the lively and highly polemical discussions raised by the publication of Vivek Chibber’s book. These included a panel organized with great fanfare at the Delhi conference of Historical Materialism last April and a conversation between the author and Partha Chatterjee at the HM conference held in New York City a couple of weeks later, widely circulated on the Internet and commented upon in social media. Although this latter debate did not precisely turn out to be a triumph for Chibber, his book continues to be celebrated by many as a ‘death knell to Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory’, as a liberation from the obscurity of its ‘jargon’, imbued with poststructuralism and postmodernism, and most notably as a long awaited reinstatement of the crystal-clear substantiveness of the Enlightenment and Marxism (Nigam 2013). The endorsements of no less than Robert Brenner, Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek provide an authoritative seal in this regard. In this review essay I am not particularly interested in discussing the accuracy of Chibber’s critical reconstruction of the subaltern studies project (for different views, see Chatterjee 2013; Herrnaphta 2013; Levien 2013). Nor will I directly take issue with Chibber’s conflation of subaltern studies and postcolonial theory, a question that definitely deserves critical scrutiny. What interests me more is the general topic announced by the title of the book, which means the ways in which capital has been (or has not been)

interventions, 2014
Vol. 16, No. 6, 916–925, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2014.959371 © 2014 Taylor & Francis

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S an d r o M e zz a dr a

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addressed within the heterogeneous and in a way elusive field of postcolonial theory over the last few decades. On a more personal note, I take Chibber’s book as an occasion to take stock of the ways in which my own engagement with postcolonial criticism has contributed to challenge (in a positive and productive sense, as I tend to think) and further elaborate a view of capital and capitalism forged within a specific tradition of Marxist theory, i.e. ‘workerism’ or ‘autonomist Marxism’.

I will try to take seriously many of the theoretical points made by Chibber, leaving aside a certain irritation (I have to confess) for the style of his argument, which often oscillates between arrogance and (needless to say, enlightened) patronizing tones; for instance, when he repeatedly dismisses as part of a nebulous jargon and ‘conceptual inflation’ (3) such a word as ‘narrative’ but endorses (I guess as scientific) Hebert Simon’s definition of ‘actors as satisficers’ (199). Having stressed the need to ‘bring capital back’ into postcolonial debates and to challenge a widespread tendency to take capitalism for granted, to assume it as a ‘neutral background’ of a basically culture-oriented research and theorization (Mezzadra 2011a), I share some of the concerns at stake in Chibber’s book. I also agree that there is a need to tackle again such an important question as the one regarding ‘how the entry of capitalism into the colonial world affected the evolution of its cultural and political institutions’ (25), which, according to Chibber, was indeed raised but not answered by subalternist theorists.

The topics connected with this question and discussed by Chibber throughout his book, basically revolving around the assessment of ‘capital’s universalizing tendency’, are indeed crucial insofar as they invest the very concept of capital and therefore interpellate any critical theory of capitalism. What remains to be critically investigated is whether the ‘universalizing categories of Enlightenment thought’ and their ‘Marxist’ elaborations really ‘emerge unscathed from the criticisms of postcolonial theorists’ (Chomsky’s words in his endorsement) and continue to provide a solid foundation for the cri...

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