Capitalism has benefited considerably from the perceived identities of those it exploits, as well as the communities built around those identities. In the United States, for example, racial divisions have paralyzed working class movements from the outset; elsewhere in the world, notions of religion, clan, language, ethnicity, and so on have presented similar obstacles.1 Often, it is pressure on the level of local community life that perpetuates economic inequality and social injustice.
Indeed, the histories of “capitalism” and “community” are deeply intertwined. But the nature of this relationship is often muddied by the refusal to see capitalism for what it is — not a globalizing or homogenizing force that erases difference, but as a fundamentally localized and uneven system that actually depends on difference in order to propel its expansion. To clarify what I mean by this, I’ve chosen to engage with the major works of Dipesh Chakrabarty, an especially influential scholar whose work is characterized by this very refusal. I hope to show that while communities are certainly not beyond the reach of capital, they can nevertheless muster powerful forms of resistance against it.
Let’s begin with an example from Chakrabarty’s exceptional study of worker’s movements in early 20th century Bengal. Towards its conclusion, he quotes one Gopen Chakravarty, a Bolshevik leader who in 1928 provided us with a particularly telling account of the difficulties facing revolutionary activity:
We took the marchers to the bank of the Ganges. There they rested while we went to the market to purchase [food]… It was then that we received a shock. The marchers, who had remained firm in class battle and not flinched in the face of bullets, would not dine together–so deep was their prejudice of caste and religion. As they put it, “Jan dene sakta, lekin dharam nehi dene sakta” [We can give our lives but not sacrifice our religion].2
On the basis of this and other examples, Chakrabarty claims that workers’ sense of honor and loyalty to their communities, based on religion, caste, kinship, language, and habitat, was the basis of their identities.3 Rather than acting as “bourgeois citizens,” they prioritized their membership in various intersecting axes of local attachment and obligation. In particular, Chakrabarty writes, religion formed the “stuff” of workers’ politics.4 It was religion that inhibited class solidarity that day on the banks of the Ganges. It was also religion that helped to mobilize workers’ movements in the first place, as both Hindus and Muslims were powerfully motivated by their faith and the accompanying demands of honor and shame within their communities.
One takeaway from this is that working class and peasant movements in India, as elsewhere, were fragmented by internal divisions. But for Chakrabarty there is more at stake here. He argues that English workers believed in such things as “freedom,”“equality,” and “citizenship,” — but Indians did not. Instead, they had their imagined communities — of religion, caste, etc. — which were hierarchical and inegalitarian.5 Capitalism was fundamentally different in India, Chakrabarty surmises, because Indian “communities” never really bought into the European way of thinking and acting. In this way capitalist modernity6 never totally took hold in India and other regions outside of Europe.
Chakrabarty’s claim that Indian politics was different because of its basis in “community” obligations of honor and shame should ring a bell, since it more or less reiterates Orientalist stereotypes of Eastern traditionalism. The distinction he makes here — between secular West and traditional East — underestimates how crucial religion and community attachment have been pretty much everywhere, both before and during the rule of capital. When European and American workers were brought into the fold of capitalism, they too saw themselves in terms of faith, kinship, and heritage. Their world was also imbued with God, spirits, and immaterial energies. Indeed, as Josephson-Storm has shown, the West remains thoroughly taken by magic and mysticism, and its political presuppositions are no exception.7
There is little reason to believe that most Westerners act according to secular-rational principles — principles that Chakrabarty mistakenly considers essential to capitalist modernity. This oversight in itself is excusable; Chakrabarty is not a historian of the West, and admits to constructing a “hyperreal” Europe in his arguments.10 But he also uses the idea of the secular citizen to emphasize the essential difference of non-Western politics, which he presents as uniquely steeped in faith, community, and hierarchy. I would agree that faith and community are important to human life, and are a source of genuine cultural diversity. But whether (or how) that makes the East meaningfully “different” from the modern West is another issue entirely.
To be fair, Chakrabarty is absolutely right to push back on Eurocentrism, which continues to dictate the ways we view modernity in all its various forms; this includes the tendency to measure progress according to the standards set by Europe and imagine non-Western pasts as mere variations on the history of the West’s emergence into modernity.11 Eurocentrism is what makes it possible to say that India or Africa is “living in the past” — as if to say that they are simply “younger” versions of Europe, and on their way to becoming just like it. Indeed the “master narratives” of modernity, which take their cues from European history alone, are deeply misleading. But this critique is no license to pretend that capitalist “modernity” has only partially arrived outside of the West.
Yet this is precisely what Chakrabarty sets out to prove in his landmark book, Provincializing Europe. The crux of his argument is that various forms of indigenous community, by their very nature, resist the “universalizing” tendencies of capital. What is so “universal” about capital? For Chakrabarty, it is that capital seeks to subjugate and destroy the multiple possibilities of human life, subordinating everything to itself. He contrasts this with the diverse histories of human belonging, through which people make homes for themselves in their everyday lives.12 Drawing inspiration from Heidegger, Chakrabarty insists that these ways of “being-in-the-world,” based fundamentally in local community, must always “interrupt” or “arrest” the “totalizing thrusts” of capitalist modernity.13 Communities are never fully subordinated to capital, as evidenced by the survival of nonmodern modes of “being” that depend on religion, identity, kinship, etc.
Thus the fact that the East never adopted secular, rational, bourgeois norms is grounds for the assertion of fundamental “historical difference.”14 Capitalist modernity is incomplete in India, Chakrabarty concludes, because India’s ways of “being” are fundamentally inimical to those of the modern secular subject. Capital is only “universal” if it totally homogenizes human society, forcing each and every way of life to submit to a singular “modern” mindset — which it has failed to do.
This is all just a very sophisticated sort of denial. The existence of various indigenous modes of “being-in-the-world” in no way disproves the unfortunate reality of our time. In what sense does the multitude of human belongings “interrupt” the brutality of exploitation for the millions of people struggling for mere subsistence?15 Is there any consolation at all to be found in capitalism’s allegedly “incomplete” universalization? There is indeed meaningful social and cultural difference in the world under capitalism, but this is not it. Capitalism is everywhere, and unless we have something to say about it, it’s here to stay. It does not care whether people believe in Gods or spirits, or whether they buy into the institutions of secular, liberal democracy. It shows up, manipulates the social order so that it can generate profits, causes heavy damage to human life, and then settles in for the long haul.
Capitalism’s gradual but relentless expansion has indeed been called its “universalizing” tendency, but Chakrabarty’s misunderstandings illustrate that this might not be the best word for it. Capitalism doesn’t proceed by some knowable set of “universal” laws that first played out in Westen Europe. Nor does it take the same shape everywhere it goes. The capitalist playbook is of infinite length; wherever it finds itself, capitalism does whatever is necessary to make it big. A less confusing word for this might be “worlding” — for no one can deny that capitalism has dipped its fingers into almost every corner of the earth. Along the way, it has changed form to adapt to local conditions, donning many masks and learning to speak in countless vernaculars. If it needs to, capitalism is happy to incorporate beliefs in the divine, the supernatural, or the immaterial. It has no built-in requirement to refashion every place it conquers into a copy of London or Amsterdam, or transform every wage laborer into a secular citizen.16
The kind of difference that Chakrabarty dignifies (different modes of “being-in-the-world”) does not in and of itself “interrupt” the history of capitalist expansion. In fact, in the eyes of the capitalist, this sort of difference is but another resource to employ in service of profit. It is therefore necessary to elaborate an understanding of diversity that does not directly oppose it to the system of capital, or assume that it has some inherent value regardless of how it figures into real social and political problems.17 We need a theory of diversity that is as deep as it is wide.
Chakrabarty is but one of many thinkers, pundits, and politicians who have constructed a restrictive dichotomy between “community” and “capital.”18 Sometimes, the former is valorized in the form of a lament for the destruction of human connections at the local level. But the latter is endorsed just as often, by those who would see backwards, unmodern, community life as inherently oppressive and undemocratic. Out of this group, many would seek to replace community with the individualistic freedoms of capitalist modernity. But it should be noted that this dichotomy is quite malleable politically; the right and the left both tend to ground their claims in narratives of “community” and “capital,” switching between the two depending on the context.
Unfortunately, this distinction typically makes it impossible to see what is really at stake. How can local or indigenous cultures — by way of their practices, beliefs, perspectives, etc. — generate forms of resistance against capitalism and social injustice? Must reformist or anticapitalist forces rely solely on secular critiques, which derive primarily from Marxist or liberal traditions, or can they also look to other traditions, most of which were born somewhere outside of the West?19 These are questions that invite the possibility that diversity can inform projects of social change.
As it stands today, much of socialist thought is based on the idea that a universal problem like capitalism requires a similarly universal solution. It envisions a future for human society that isn’t abusive to anyone, instead of cruel to everyone in varying degrees. In order for such a vision to succeed, it must locate a common ground that all people can relate to, regardless of cultural difference. Thus the most prominent themes of socialist thought — the profound alienation of wage labor, the miseries of debt and exploitation, irrevocable damage to the environment — all aspire toward a truly universal appeal. Now, I would not suggest that the call for solidarity and shared humanity is misplaced. But it can, at times, implicitly devalue the local, the parochial, or the “traditional” in favor of a more all-encompassing approach to activism and thought.
One must remember that capitalism’s defining characteristic is its adaptability — it assimilates itself into just about any society, perverting existing cultural and economic norms to serve the needs of profit and capital accumulation. Capitalism is therefore local just as much as it is universal — and there is no inherent tension between the two. However, the same has also been true of movements for social justice, which in their best moments can build on what is most kind and just in human society, at the largest and the smallest of scales. This is a legacy worth carrying forward.
There are mountains of evidence to suggest that modern community life and indigenous forms of identity play out in the context of an encounter with capitalism. They have frequently presented sophisticated critiques of capitalism, but at other times they have been co-opted by capitalist production. One does not need to look too closely at Indian history, for instance, to realize that local religious and caste values have been used to buttress capitalism, even if one sets aside the issue of communal violence. Chakrabarty illustrates this quite skillfully in his descriptions of how jute-mills in Bengal manipulated community ties in order to acquire a steady supply of cheap, disposable labor. He writes,
Much of the basis of the sardar’s [labor supplier; lit. chief] social control of the work force lay in the relationships of community, kinship, religion and so on, and in the ideas and norms associated with them. For example, it was usual for important upcountry sardars to build temples or mosques for the workers under them…. Sardari [labor supply] thus seems to have been an instance of a precolonial, precapitalist institution being adapted to the needs of industrialization in the colony.20
But it is equally trivial to locate examples of community attachments that have impelled people to reject the vicious rhythms of life, perversion of social relationships, and rampant exploitation that are endemic to capitalist production. For the sake of example, I’ll use E. P. Thomspon’s classic studies of the English working class, if only to unsettle the assumption that Western resistances to capitalism were any less communitarian than those of the East:
…grievances operated within a popular consensus as to what were legitimate and what were illegitimate practices in marketing, milling, baking, etc. This in its turn was grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action.21
Numerous histories of working class and peasant movements provide analogous examples; many such movements were also embedded in anticolonial struggles (in Latin America, Africa, South Asia, China, and so on). These struggles, just like their counterparts in Europe, drew considerably from supposedly “nonmodern” norms of religion, kinship, and mutual obligation. They also incorporated elements of Western social thought, inspired by Enlightenment value systems, successful revolutions in the Americas, and the insights of Marx and his followers.
Capitalism has been received as deeply objectionable within a huge number of ostensibly different cultural schemas. Bearing this in mind, I hope it is not controversial to say that any “community,” no matter its cultural or civilization background, that finds itself at peace with the demands of capitalism is in need of serious reform. Fortunately, I would hazard to guess that the vast majority of cultures that exist on earth are capable of acknowledging the need for change. The more pressing question is whether the resources available to various “communities” actually do end up inspiring people to act, or whether those communities become ever more inhumane and apathetic over time.
Once we rid ourselves of the unhelpful dichotomy between “community” and “capital,” the true task of “provincializing Europe” comes into view. It is not a matter of separating the “universal” from the “local,” or counterposing the unfeeling forces of “capital” to the affective ties of “community.” After all, capitalism has succeeded by localizing just as much as it has by universalizing. It is worth considering how positive social change could be similarly empowered by incorporating the local and the traditional. This project would require us to engage fruitfully with one another, to listen to the various perspectives that inform people’s actions, and to see this diversity not as an impediment in the way of change, but the very condition of possibility for a better future.
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1 The most well-known study of racial divisions in the American working class is David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 1999).
2 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal, 1890-1940 (Princeton University Press, 2000), 214.
3 He writes, “The worker’s identity was merged in that of the “community.” Ibid., 213.
4 Ibid., 217.
5 Ibid., 219.
6 Chakrabarty more or less conflates capitalism and modernity; almost anything that happens because of “capital” is essentially “modern,” and anything beyond “capital” is not “modern.” The two are obviously related, but the lack of a usable distinction impedes the work of Chakrabarty and others.
7 Jason A. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017).
8 Baylor University, The Baylor Religion Survey, Wave 1 (Waco, TX: Baylor Institute for Studies of
Religion, 2005), cited in Josephson-Storm, 27.
9 “Paranormal America 2018 – Chapman University Survey of American Fears,” The Voice of Wilkinson (blog), accessed July 9, 2020, https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2018/10/16/paranormal-america-2018/.
10 “First, in describing a certain Europe as “hyperreal,” I did not mean a “concept” of Europe. By using the adjective “hyperreal”… I wanted to refer to something less determined than a concept, something like an imaginary entity that has some relation to the real…” Dipesh Chakrabarty, “2. in Defense of Provincializing Europe: A Response to Carola Dietze,” History and Theory 47, no. 1 (2008): 86–87.
11 Chakrabarty fully develops this line of critique in the Introduction and first chapter of his next major work, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000).
12 Chakrabarty refers to these two histories as “History 1” and “History 2,” but I had little reason to adopt this terminology here.
13 Ibid., 254.
14 Ibid., 71.
15 This oversight becomes clear when he writes that modernity is “easy to live in but hard to define,” and that the struggle of capitalism is not mere survival, but that of “[making] it one’s own.” Chakrabarty, “In Defense of Provincializing Europe,” 91-92.
16 The Marxist tradition has long since incorporated questions of difference and diversity, primarily by building upon Marx’s theory of formal and real subsumption, as well as Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development. The omission of any sustained engagement with the latter in Provincializing Europe significantly undercuts Chakrabarty’s argument.
17 Two monographs dedicated to rebutting the theories of Chakrabarty and related scholars already exist, and almost all of what I have said here draws on their contributions: Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso Books, 2014),and Vasant Kaiwar, The Postcolonial Orient: The Politics of Difference and the Project of Provincialising Europe, (Leiden: Brill, 2014). Chibber’s work is hindered by a rather narrow minded materialism, and both reject “postcolonialism” far too readily. Nonetheless, as negative appraisals of Subaltern Studies and defenses of Marxism they are well worth reading.
18 Chakrabarty may quibble with my choice to use “community’ as a stand in for his usage of “belonging” or “being-in-the-world,” but his usage of these ideas, as well as the examples provided for them, make it fairly clear that “community” is precisely what he had in mind.
19 Plenty of theorists and activists have approached this question, often with positive results; see the works of José Carlos Mariátegui for examples of this.
20 Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History, 112.
21 E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (Penguin Books, 1993), 188.
22 Stereo copyrighted 1901 by Whiting View Company, English: Company of Boxers, Tien-Tsin, China. Group of Men Walking down Street, 1901, Library of Congress, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boxer-tianjing-left.jpeg.