Monday, January 10, 2011

An untitled essay on Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty

      “All the world must suffer a big jolt. There will be such a game that the ungodly will be thrown off their seats, and the downtrodden will rise.”
      --Thomas Munzer

       Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe represent two different significant moments of the Subaltern Studies project. Guha’s book, in many ways, opens the project, and Chakrabarty’s book constitutes the latest shift in the project. Both books ultimately focus on the category of the peasant. This category has been a problem for the methodology of historical materialism for some time because of the contradictory analysis offered on this question, which has occurred because the peasant as a figure is outside of both the logic of industrial capitalism and is outside of the hyper-real Europe. To put it more bluntly, it points to a tension within the Marxist tradition, precisely because it is an immanent critique of capital. This allows it a unique perspective on its inner-logic, but it creates a limitation when one wants to grasp at its outside. In this sense, the subaltern studies project finds its origins in a set of question posited within the Marxist tradition, even if it doesn’t stay fully within that tradition.

      I want to focus on that engagement. In order to do this; it is crucial to begin with a brief discussion of how this question has been taken up within the Marxist tradition before the current moment. There has been more of an engagement that one would initially think, although one needs to look outside the academic tradition. It is also not without it’s contradictions. After that, the paper will shift to discuss the manner that this problem is taken on by Ranajit Guha. This work is clearly a response to the English tradition of history from below tradition as developed by figures such as E. J. Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson. We will see that it both is indebted to that tradition and deeply critical of it. We will then move into the critical engagement of Dipesh Chakrabarty into the project begun by Guha. Chakrabarty engages in a similar maneuver as Guha, although this moves the project out of a purely Marxist trajectory into the space of post-structuralism. In following this trajectory, we see a pair of attempts to resolve the tension in Marxist thought. Which on one side, must take the Eurocentric logic of capitalism seriously, and on the other side, must push against this structure towards a radical alterity designated under the name of communism. In order to do this, they break away from the problematic Marx posed, but not to the extent imagined by Marxism’s liberal opponents.

     The profound ambiguity of the Marxist position on the non-European can be found within Marx’s own journalistic work on English colonialism in India. On one hand, Marx emphasizes the brutality of English colonialism. He notes, “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”[1] This element of his analysis emphasizes the brutal rapacity of bourgeois society, revealing the inherently exploitative nature of the society. It is linked to a figuration of barbarism traditionally associated with the non-western. This element is very close to the view of Franz Fanon, when he says, “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.” At the same time, Marx sees this process as linked to a global teleology. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”[2]

      To push beyond Marx’s work, the question of capitalist subsumption has been taken up elsewhere, particularly in its triumph within Europe itself. The question of peasant insurgency has deep roots within the Marxist tradition, albeit not within its academic roots. Marx himself was not inclined to look into such matters himself. There is only a slim volume on the question, published posthumously. However, one can come across a number of important works on the matter from the beginning of the Second International. Karl Kautsky discusses it in The Precursors to the New Socialism. It is also covered in the popular histories written by E. Belfort Bax, The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists, and The Peasant War. Friedrich Engels wrote on the question as well in The Peasant Wars of Germany. All these works push the critique of the triumphal entry of capitalism farther the ambiguity presented in Marx’s journalism by presenting peasant insurgency as the precursor of the proletarian revolution, rather than an aberration. However, these analyses never entirely abandon the progressivist tradition associated with Marx.

      Ranajit Guha intervenes in this Marxist tradition, by framing his work with the research done by historian E.J. Hobsbawm, particularly Primitive Rebels and Captain Swing, his collaboration with George Rude. Guha immediately diagnoses the developmentalist logic of their work. “He finds the ‘traditional forms of peasant discontent’ to have been ‘virtually devoid of any explicit ideology, organization or programme’. In general, ‘pre-political people’ are defined as those ‘who have not yet found, or have only begun to find a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world’.” Hobsbawm effectively places these rebellions into the waiting room of history. They are the not yet, not yet disciplined, not yet ideological, and not yet properly socialist. Guha immediately expresses a discontent with this logic, noting that Hobsbawm and Rude contradict these assertions themselves by pointing to the political structures that come out of this social banditry and revolts.

     But Guha focuses his largest intervention within the colonial scene in India. He notes that “whatever its validity for other countries the notion of pre-political peasant insurgency helps little in understanding the experience of colonial India. For there was nothing in the militant movements of its rural masses that was not political.”[3] The resistance within the colonial scene necessarily took on a political dimension, producing both structures of organization and goals for a new society. This resistance had a double function. It both resisted against the elite of Indian society, the landlords and the moneylenders as well as against the colonial apparatus that legitimated them. Guha points out that the reforms of the Raj contributed to the intensification of the exploitation of the peasantry. This intensified exploitation was linked to the process of rationalization introduced by colonial officials. They did so by replacing the old aristocracy with “a solvent and relatively vigorous set of landlords.”[4] These landlords were dependent on the Raj and at the same time, the Raj rewarded the landlords by supporting their collection of “abwab and mathot.”[5]

     The primary site of investigation may be colonial India, but it is clear that Guha is questioning the transition to capitalism on a global scale from this site. The experiences of the peasants are continually linked to early European struggles, whether the struggles of the Jacquerie in France, the German Peasant Wars or the struggles of the English peasants in the English Civil War. These aren’t introduced to create a progressive schema of history. Instead, they are introduced to show a pattern of peasant resistance in the face of a growing capitalist power. This asserts itself through a number of factors, from the enclosing of the commons to the erosion of informal rights and the increased enforcement of the law.

     Guha accomplishes this by a broad synthetic reading of peasant insurgencies. In order to do this he uses many of the techniques produced within both the history from below school of history in England, as well as cultural studies as well as the schematic logic of the Annales school, producing a narrative that doesn’t quite look like either one of them. From the Annales School, he takes from a sociological tradition starting with Emile Durkheim, emphasizing the structural elements of peasant insurgency. This places emphasis on the categories, such as Negation, Modality, and Territoriality, which cut across time and geography. At the same time, a number of elements are drawn from the British tradition. Most significantly is the emphasis on understanding the phenomenon from the ground up, rather from the traditional focuses for political history, that of politicians, bureaucrats, and the elite. In order to get at that, Guha must engage with a historical archive in which those figures are the primary agents. This requires that Guha read against the grain of these reports in order to get at his subject. This becomes an important element of the early Subaltern Studies projects. The other element drawn from the British cultural studies tradition is an increased dependency on semiotics to understand historical phenomena.

     This semiotic element is crucial to this understanding. It gives Guha an important tool to understand peasant conscious within its social context. Guha argues that this consciousness is defined negatively within this particular system of sovereignty. “It is not by insurgency alone that the peasant comes to know himself. In colonial India a sense of identity was imposed on him by those who had power over him by virtue of their class, caste and official standing. It was they who made him aware of his place in society as a measure of his distance from themselves—a distance measured in differentials of wealth, status and culture. In other word, he learnt to recognize himself not by the properties and attributes of his own social being but by a diminution, if not negation by those of his superiors.”[6]

     This becomes defined by a whole series of signifiers. Guha looks at a whole series of celebrations and festivals within both the Indian context and the non-Indian context. These ceremonies are inevitably structured in a manner that reverses the places of the most subaltern population with the dominant population. Guha argues that this is done in order to enforce the structure of the social order by enforcing the nature of the system by showing its reverse. This can be seen in everyday life. The rigidity in the social hierarchy is enforced by the rigid semiotic structure. “It is not only that icons and images figured prominently in religious expression, but politics, too, was highly semioticized. Liveries, colors, badges and party cries were conspicuously displayed in the course of public disputes, and notions of power and subalternity worked out in elaborate sets of symbols: for, ‘feudal or hierarchic thought expresses the idea of grandeur by visual signs, lending to it a symbolic shape, of homage paid kneeling, of ceremonial reverence’.”[7] Hierarchy becomes laid out by a text, easily read by the members of the society. This semiotic order was designed to enforce the inequality of the status quo. As Benedict Anderson points out about the non-literate of the feudal world, “This is not to say that the illiterate did not read. What they read, however, was not words but the visible world.”[8]

     The structures of revolt must be understood within this context. Details as minor as details in dress or the use of personal pronouns were proscribed by the order of the society, and breaking those rules could have serious consequences. For instance, insulting a Brahman could have a penalty ranging from fines to serious corporal punishment, depending on the social distance between the Brahman and the speaker.[9] This creates a strong, but ultimately brittle social order. As Guha points out, “in a land where the peasant could wreck his superordinate enemy’s prestige simply by walking past his house with an umbrella on his head or by substituting tu for vous in an argument with him, why should insurgency need killing to make its point in battle?”[10]

     The terms of revolt come out of this structure, out of its semiotics, its epistemology, out of its theology. This immanent quality is no different than the revolt presented by the industrial proletariat of industrial proletariat, who transforms the factory floor and its impoverishment into its tools of resistance. The fact that these subjects cannot imagine the modes of resistance and organization created through the subjection of the factory floor doesn’t mean that they didn’t have organizational structures or an idea of what they would want for a new society. Guha points out that the basis of this new society is contained within the reversal of order created in the carnival and in the festival. “For if the function of prescriptive reversal is to ensure the continuity of the political and moral order of society and sacralize it, that of peasant insurgency is to disrupt and desecrate it…. What is intended by such usage in many languages is to communicate the sense of an unforeseen break, a sharp discontinuity.”[11] This begins to strip the uniqueness of the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It becomes yet another resistance against a structure of domination; one that was foreseen by the revolts of the peasants.

     It is precisely this concept of the resistant peasant that Dipesh Chakrabarty draws from the work of Ranajit Guha. He begins his book, Provincializing Europe with a reading of Guha’s work. This reading pushes the polemic with Hobsbawm even further than what is explicitly contained in Guha’s work. For Chakrabarty, the crucial element of his engagement with the Western Marxist tradition contained within Hobsbawm’s work was its challenge of the progressive historicist logic of “incompleteness” of capitalist transformation in Europe and other places while retaining the idea of a general historical movement from a premodern stage to that of modernity.”[12] This logic is dependent on the homogenous empty time of bourgeois society, and places alternative concepts of time and space into the category of the ‘survival’ or ‘remnant’. Chakrabarty argues that it is this critique, the critique of the category of the prepolitical, that most influences his own project. He notes that Guha “insisted that instead of being an anachronism in a modernizing colonial world, the peasant was a real contemporary of colonialism a fundamental part of the modernity that colonial rule brought to India.”[13]

     This critique breaks up any “universal narratives of capital” and “fundamentally pluralizes the history of power in global modernity.”[14] Chakrabarty does this through his interpretation of the figure of the peasant, which takes on more than sociological significance. “The “peasant” acts here as a shorthand for all the seemingly nonmodern, rural, nonsecular relationships and life practices that constantly leave their imprint on the lives of even the elites in India and on their institutions of government. The peasant stands in for all that is not bourgeois (in a European sense) in Indian capitalism and modernity.”[15] Chakrabarty argues that these elements of society have been presented within the category of “inadequacy”. He notes that this both true for the radical historical project of Sumit Sarkar as well as the initial statement of the Subaltern Studies collective. He wants to reverse this interpretation, and begin to look at the categories of European thought as inadequate and “read “plenitude” and “creativity” where this narrative has made us read “lack” and “inadequacy”.”[16]

     Chakrabarty by no means wants to reject the concepts of European thought altogether. He notes that “modern social critiques of caste, oppressions of women, the lack of rights for laboring and subaltern classes in India, and so on—and, in fact, the very critique of colonialism itself—are unthinkable except as a legacy, partially, of how Enlightenment Europe was appropriated in the subcontinent.”[17] Instead, the purpose is to recognize that while this legacy contributes essential tools to the understanding of the world, they are not adequate to understand everything in the world. Chakrabarty states, “I want to discuss how it may be possible to hold together both secularist-historicist and nonsecularist takes on the world by engaging seriously the question of the diverse ways of “being in the world”.”[18] He does this by taking Heidegger’s categories of the fragmentariness of experience and the category of the not-yet seriously. This troubles the categories of the everyday of the social sciences. Whether this will lead to their death (and new categories) or not is up for grabs.[19]

     This challenge primarily occurs within the field of supernatural agency, the realm of gods and spirits. Traditionally, history has limited its investigation to the realm of human agency. This goes back to the work of Giambattista Vico, who argues to place the question of the divine to the side when producing histories. This secularizing pattern has been followed since then in most of the social sciences. There has also been a strong influence from the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, who argued that the divine is primarily the alienated essence of man. In effect, this leads the translation of references to supernatural agency in one of two directions. Either, it is translated into the alienated political desires of human collectivities or its is translated as a pathology or a holdover from the past.

      Chakrabarty wants to challenge this reading of this agency. It becomes the space in which begins a critique of the work of Ranajit Guha. He pushes against the Guha’s project when he gets to the question of supernatural agency. Guha, in many ways, takes a traditional Marxist approach to this question. While he recognizes the importance of the god Thakur, he doesn’t or (from Chakrabarty’s perspective) can’t take Thakur’s agency into account. He insists that this element of peasant revolts cannot be ignored, but he sees it as a problematic element of the revolts. He links this element to a semi-feudal subservience, linked to an authoritarian world system. “Consequently, he tended to look upon man’s domination of man not as a process governed by the laws of the world but by those of the other world.”[20] Hence, the appeals to Thakur both relate to a subservience at the psychic level and a substantial alienation from the goals and desires of the subject.

      This is a serious contradiction in the project of Subaltern Studies from Chakrabarty’s perspective. The original intention of the project was to resurrect the voices of the subaltern from the representations contained in nationalist historiography. This effort can be found in Guha’s work; however, it runs into a serious roadblock when dealing with supernatural agency. As Chakrabarty notes, “What does it mean, then when we take the subaltern’s views seriously—the subaltern ascribes the agency for their rebellion to some god—and want to confer on the subaltern agency or subjecthood in their own history, a status the subaltern’s statement denies?”[21] In order to return the subjectivity of the subaltern to historiography, Guha, in effect, has to ignore the subaltern’s own representation of political agency. This agency doesn’t work within the logic of liberal subjectivity. Instead, it sees that agency as coming from the outside, both in the figure of the God, Thakur, and in the form of writing.

     As Chakrabarty notes, “the Santal leaders’ own understanding of the rebellion does not directly serve the historical cause of democracy or citizenship or socialism. It needs to be reinterpreted. Historians will grant the supernatural a place in somebody’s belief system or ritual practices, but to ascribe to it any real agency in historical events will be to go against the rules of evidence that gives historical discourse procedures for settling disputes about the past.”[22] The rules in which historians produce and judge narratives are drenched in the terms and logic of the contemporary society. It forces the historians to translate the logic of the past into the framework of the present. Chakrabarty wants to break out of this. In order to produce a narrative that would accomplish this, the historian would have to produce a radically different narrative, one that would not be recognizable to the current rules of evidence.

     Chakrabarty successfully points to the problem, but it is questionable whether his solution is pointing in the right direction. The positive element of his work is dependent on a number of conceptions of Martin Heidegger’s, drawn from his work in Being and Time. There is an extremely positive element to this work in its emphasis on multiplicity and the fragment. But Chakrabarty never deals with the problematic aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy, particularly the essentialism that frequently haunts his work. There is more than likely another way of approaching this problem in a way that would avoid those problems.

     In a sense, this returns us to the beginning of the conversation. Both Guha and Chakrabarty’s work explodes a certain ambiguity contained within the Marxist project. This is the value of both the enlightenment and the progressive role of capitalism. Guha’s project takes on the teleology contained within much of the Marxist work on peasant revolt. These acts can no longer be seen as a prehistory to either the proletarian revolution or the success of capitalism. Instead, this points to the extensive revolt against the development of capitalism even before its maturation. Chakrabarty pushes this to the question of the Enlightenment itself, questioning the universality of its rules. However, this work is far more modest than Guha’s in many ways. It seeks to provincialize Europe, rather than do away with it altogether. However, both are seriously dependent on Marxian methodology in a manner that would be uncomfortable to a figure such as Lyotard. Perhaps, this points towards a historical materialism that breaks out of its Eurocentric roots.

[1] Karl Marx, “The Future Results of British Rule in India”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 6.
[4] Ibid.
[5] fees and charges placed on peasants by landlords and government officials
[6] Ibid., 18.
[7] Ibid., 37.
[8] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 15.
[9] Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 46.
[10] Ibid., 166.
[11] Ibid., 36.
[12] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 12.
[13] Ibid., 13.
[14] Ibid., 14.
[15] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 11.
[16] Ibid., 35.
[17] Ibid., 4.
[18] Ibid., 21.
[19] When one reads the original draft of the first chapter “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History”, Chakrabarty seem to be arguing for the eventual death of these categories under the mark of the politics of despair, but he seems to be stepping away from this.
[20] [20] Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 265.
[21] Ibid., 103.
[22] Ibid., 104.

1 comment:

  1. For unknown reasons, blogspot has decided that Munzer's comments must be in all caps. I don't know why, but I thought that I would note that I'm not deliberately being all shouty.