If I’m so bad, why don’t they take me away?

by Sam Kriss

Vivek Chibber is the most controversial figure on the Left today – or, at least according to Vivek Chibber he is. The latest kerfuffle is, once again, over his attacks on postcolonialism. Chibber’s stated goal is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as an empirically incorrect perspectivism embedded in postcolonial theory – essentially, the idea that ‘our capitalism is different.’ Part of this programme involves, with the tedious weight of inevitability, a defence of Enlightenment rationality. This is a boring dispute, and I’m not really going to go into it. The more interesting aspects of his critique are those that slip and tremble in those strange spaces between the great tectonic monoliths of politics and ontology. Chibber wants to reclaim the universal: the idea that behind all the squirming differences of the world there is a level of understanding in which all things are essentially the same, and can all be described according to a single principle. But the way he goes about this is very odd.

Disputes between universalism and particularism go back to Spinoza and Leibniz, and beyond. The question runs like a zigzagging fissure throughout recent thought, opening up sudden chasms within formerly continuous areas of the intellectual landscape. On the side of the Universal there’s Hegel, Deleuze (in his plane-of-immanence univocity-of-Being mode), and Badiou (at least in terms of the political, with his reference to the figure of the ‘generic’); the partisans of the particular include Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak. There are convincing concepts on both sides here, and even if the politics envisaged are seemingly irreconcilable, this ought to indicate something for those of us who know our dialectic: what’s being presented is ultimately a false choice.

There are some aspects of Chibber’s argument that are worthwhile. The idea that we can have solidarity and even some level of understanding of lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our own really ought to be a truism: however arbitrary language may be, it’s still grounded in the commonality of the Symbolic. When Chibber characterises subaltern studies as a kind of contemporary Orientalism, one in which the colonial other is always an irrational, occulted mystery, his critique does seize on something important, even if it’s slightly unfair. I certainly agree that Marx is not just ‘another white male philosopher’. (Although I’m not sure if anyone of any significance is really disputing this. It’s an argument that’s been made, but from what I can tell it’s mostly made on Twitter rather than in the academy, and usually alongside other claims that are so bafflingly untrue – the idea that Marx was suspiciously silent on the question of slavery, for instance – that they indicate the operation of some unspoken fixation or agenda.) It’s a shame, then, that the central portion of Chibber’s argument is not just wrong and non-Marxist, but fully horrifying.

A dominant – and strangely unacknowledged – influence on Chibber’s line of thought is of course Jürgen Habermas. Habermas has charted an interesting course, from the would-be saviour of Frankfurt School critical theory to his current post as the official rubber duck lookalike of the European Union. Taking cues from a theorist so unabashedly enthusiastic about the European project – one that future historians (if any are allowed to exist) could only ever regard as one of history’s greatest evils – doesn’t generally make for a good critique. Elsewhere in the world the oceans are only poisoned by oil slicks; on Europe’s fortified seasides, the waves roll bloated corpses against the holiday resorts. In some cases, Chibber even doubles down on some of Habermas’s more profoundly stupid innovations. Habermas argues for socialism as the actual realisation of the liberal ethos – the problem with liberalism isn’t its principles, but the contradictions that prevent it from being able to actually put those principles into practice. Chibber puts a new gloss on this, going beyond slightly dodgy immanent critique into what amounts to an outright surrender to existing conditions: what we think of as liberalism isn’t a unified project but the result of extended class struggle. This is not particularly controversial in and of itself, but for Chibber those ‘positive’ elements within liberalism are not heterogeneous to liberalism itself. In other words, the good society isn’t a promise yet to be realised; it’s here, now, and we’re living in it. Exactly how this position can be reconciled with the scum-soaked pit of shit and misery that constitutes life in the twenty-first century is yet to be seen.

The really scary stuff only appears late in Chibber’s lecture, but it’s what really constitutes the core of his project. For Chibber, there are certain ‘basic human needs’ that are not conditioned by class or culture, that have to do with the biological core of our being, and that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It’s on this level that we can all understand each other, and it’s from this base that we can build a solidarity that cuts across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As with Badiou’s invocation of the ‘generic’, this is a political project that insists on the stripping-away of all that is not essential; those elements that are lost in returning to this common core of our species are ultimately ephemeral epiphenomena. Even provisionally accepting that this kind of operation is even possible, it’s founded on a fairly dubious assumption – that what is the same between people is ontologically essential to them, and what differs between them is not. Race and gender might be constructed, but it’s this kind of formulation that can – without ever meaning to, but by slipping down the rungs from ontology to normativity – allow for the idea that being black or a woman is somehow a deviation from the norm.

What are these basic human needs? In his works Chibber gives a few examples: the need for shelter, for security, for dignity, liberty, and personal well-being. These are the things that define what it is to be human, across time, space, and culture. But if this is a universal essence, it’s a strange kind. The need for shelter is here a fundamental part of the species; but of course shelter itself is not. Nobody is born with a roof bolted to their heads. If well-being, rather than the need for well-being, were basic to existence, there would be no need for well-being. All these needs in fact describe a lack – what’s essential to all humanity isn’t in us at all; our basic properties consist of those things we don’t have. In a way, Chibber’s stripping-away of epiphenomena is really incomplete: he’s retained an extraneous need, when what he could have said is that the basic nature of humanity is to be exposed, vulnerable, wretched, persecuted, and sick.

This is a decent (if uncreative) reading of Beckett, but it’s not Marxism.

For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country.’ But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologising this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked in to every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself. International proletarian solidarity is a unique creature of the capitalist mode of production; it emerges because capitalism (as Chibber correctly points out) is universal, not out of some pre-existing universal substance that gloops beneath the phenomenal appearances of things. This universality need not be homogeneous. The forces of capitalism act in different ways on different people – wage-labourers and artisans, queer and disabled people – because these people are different. This is not to say that there can be no solidarity and no processes of overdetermination, but these are fleeting unities formed out of the false and imposed unity of capitalism.

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his ‘humanist’ works to something called ‘species-being’, but it’s not a ‘being’ in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. Species-being stands for the unfettered and continual realisation of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realisation. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence.) This is where Chibber’s divergence from Marx is most striking: for Marx, communism means freedom from alienation and an opening up of the infinite possibilities that constitute our being. Chibber, meanwhile, presumably wants to see a world in which dignity and well-being are available to all, but because in his cosmology human beings are eternally defined by the fact that we lack these things, for him communism can only be a total estrangement from what we really are.