Beyond Capital

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Historical Materialism is “Historicity without History” but it is not, therefore, Genealogy

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Historical materialism is historicity without history. And yet it is by no means genealogy. Of course, isnofar as it is historicity without history — which is the historicity of politics as permanent excess — historical materialism as a historiographical textuality is bound to have a genealogical form. But thought in terms of its practical actuality, the historicity of genealogy is merely a facticity or phenomenality of interiorised experience of difference. Precisely for this reason, genealogy is no more than the obverse of historicism. On the other hand, the historicity of historical materialism is now-time as the uninterrupted ongoingness of determinate excess of presence in its historical index — i.e. infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference in its historical index.

The two citations below — from Adorno and Benjamin respectively — enable one to think this radical distinction between post-Hegelian phenomenology of Heidegger, and historical materialism, and thus, by extension, between genealogy (a phenomenologically reductive hermeneutic of difference) and historical materialism:

“…[Benjamin] seems to converge with the general intellectual current which protested against idealism and epistemology, demanding ‘the things themselves’ instead of their conceptual form, and which found an academically respectable expression in phenomenology and the ontological schools stemming from it. But the decisive differences between philosophers have always consisted in nuances; what is most bitterly irreconcilable is that which is similar but which thrives on different centres; and Benjamin’s relation to today’s accepted ideologies of the ‘concrete’ is no different. He saw through them as the mere mask of conceptual thinking at its wits end, just as he also rejected the existential-ontological concept of history as the mere distillate left after the substance of the historical dialectic had been boiled away.”
–Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ (Prisms)

“What distinguishes images from the “essences” of phenomenology is their historical index. (Heidegger seeks in vain to rescue history for phenomenology abstractly through “historicity”.)….”
— Benjamin, Convolutes N, ‘On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress’ (The Arcades Project)

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Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is

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A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.

Panchatantra and the Master-Servant Relationship

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In the very initial portions of an ancient Indian text Panchatantra, which teaches pragmatism of human relationships in an obviously very unequal society through stories, is found a section on the master-servant relationship. Interestingly, unlike spiritual texts that would justify such relationship in terms of divinity, birth and fate, this text simply doesn’t allow such justifications. It is highly materialist (not necessarily, atheist) and sees dynamism in this relationship, by positing the problem of the reproduction of the master-servant dialectic. It has a shloka, which brilliantly and explicitly grasps this dialectic – the fact that the identities of master and servant exist only in their relationship.

न विना पार्थिवो भृत्यैर्न भृत्याः पार्थिवो विना। तेषां च व्यवहारोऽयं परस्परनिबन्धनम्॥

A king cannot be without servants, nor can the servants without the king – this their relationship is mutually dependent.

This is followed by more shlokas reasserting the same, with the help of analogies. One of them is striking,

अरैः सन्धार्यते नाभिर्नाभौ चाराः प्रतिष्ठिताः। स्वामिसेवकयोरेवं वृत्तिचक्रं प्रवर्तते॥

The nave is supported by the spokes and the spokes are planted into the nave. Thus proceeds also the wheel of the relation.

(MR Kale, Pancatantra of Visnusarman, Motilal Banarsidass, 1912 [reprinted 2015])

Written by Pratyush Chandra

August 10, 2015 at 1:11 am

“The Hasty Genius of Aurangzeb”

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Iqbal was incomparable as a political thinker, and I think a small paragraph on Aurangzeb in his Stray Reflections is a proof of his genius. It must be read by everyone who wants to understand Aurangzeb as a historical figure and his hasty genius. The demonisation of Aurangzeb has never allowed people to understand the crisis of the medieval times and the advent of colonial capitalism that shaped the specific characteristics of Indian modernity. In fact, it is in the interest of the right wing to anti-politicise the masses by devalorising the cosmopolitan contributions of ‘Muslim’ thinkers like Iqbal and political personalities like Aurangzeb, without whom the transition to capitalist modernity in India cannot be understood. The backward, conservative iconisation of (‘Hindu’ and ‘Sikh’) rulers can definitely serve the petty trading and even neoliberal interests in commodifying India’s exoticism…, but even the resistances and importance of those tribal leaders and rulers, despite their localist character, cannot be comprehensively grasped, unless we understand and give credibility to historical figures like Aurangzeb… You cannot understand your freedom struggle, the specific character of 1857 mutiny without this. Of course, you don’t expect this from RSS and RSS trained leaders who did not contribute in the freedom struggle – or those who do not look for parivartan, but sanatanta in the Indian society.

The political genius of Aurangzeb was extremely comprehensive. His one aim of life was, as it were, to subsume the various communities of this country under the notion of one universal empire. But in securing this imperial unity he erroneously listened to the dictates of his indomitable courage which had no sufficient background of political experience behind it. Ignoring the factor of time in the political evolution of his contemplated empire he started an endless struggle in the hope that he would be able to unify the discordant political units of India in his own lifetime. He failed to Islamise (not in the religious sense) India just as Alexander had failed to Hellenise Asia. The Englishman, however, came fully equipped with the political experiences of the nations of antiquity and his patience and tortoise-like perseverance succeeded where the hasty genius of Aurangzeb had failed. Conquest does not necessarily mean unity. Moreover, the history of the preceding Mohammedan dynasties had taught Aurangzeb that the strength of Islam in India did not depend, as his great ancestor Akbar had thought, so much on the goodwill of the people of this land as on the strength of the ruling race. With all his keen political perception, however, he could not undo the doings of his forefathers. Sevajee was not a product of Aurangzeb’s reign; the Maharatta owed his existence to social and political forces called into being by the policy of Akbar. Aurangzeb’s political perception, though true, was too late. Yet considering the significance of this perception he must be looked upon as the founder of Musalman nationality in India. I am sure posterity will one day recognise the truth of what I say. Among the English administrators of India, it was Lord Curzon who first perceived the truth about the power of England in India Hindu nationalism is wrongly attributed to his policy. Time will, I believe, show that it owes its existence to the policy of Lord Ripon. It is, therefore, clear that in their political purpose and perception both the Mughals and the English agree. I see no reason why the English historian should condemn Aurangzeb whose imperial ideal his countrymen have followed and whose political perception they have corroborated. Aurangzeb’s political method was certainly very rough; but the ethical worth of his method ought to be judged from the standpoint of the age in which he lived and worked.

http://www.iqbal.com.pk/allama-iqbal-prose-works/stray-reflections-the-private-notebook-of-muhammad-iqbal/982-prose-works/stray-reflections-the-private-notebook-of-muhammad-iqbal/2512-31-aurangzeb

Written by Pratyush Chandra

July 30, 2015 at 2:18 am

Revolution as Return (I)

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What is return anyway? Don’t we hit return on our keyboard to start a new paragraph?

Benjamin did not conceive revolution as an act to secure future, as redeemer of future generations, but as retribution – it avenges in the name of the downtrodden generations. The revolutionary class is “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”

In fact as Calvino points out future is actually a return – “forgetting the future” is “to forget the return” – forgetting “his home, his return voyage, the whole point of his journey.”

Calvino notes that folk tales are of two types. One is of the riches-rags-riches type and the other is the rags-to-riches type. In the first type “the idea of poverty” is connected to “the idea of rights that have been trampled on, of an injustice that must be avenged”. On the other hand, the second one reflects “a consolatory miracle or dream.” It is this that constitutes the “social conscience of the modern age” – the common sense that preserves the status quo. For Benjamin the social democratic historicist myth-making is of the second type – it makes “the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice.”

It is the first type that characterises revolutionary consciousness in capitalism, which is simply never to forget the primitivity of accumulation, the original fall. It is this that makes the struggle against capitalist accumulation revolutionary, or else it will be mere adherence to the historicist reformist conception of progress – the rags-to-riches type. It is not insignificant that every time capitalist accumulation takes a new turn and expands itself, the conception of primitivity of accumulation is enriched – the (hi)story of transition and primitive accumulation is retold. That is why there are many odysseys in the Odyssey.

Returning is reconquering. “In the collective unconscious the prince in pauper’s clothing is the proof that every pauper is in reality a prince whose throne has been usurped and who has to reconquer his kingdom.” Calvino further asserts,

“The return must be sought out and thought of and remembered: the danger is that it can be forgotten before it even happens.”

Written by Pratyush Chandra

August 14, 2014 at 1:49 am

Historical stereotypes and disjunctures

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[L]ate antiquity throws up a social formation combining aristocratic dominance with free labour on a model that conforms to none of the historical stereotypes distinguishing the classical from the medieval and modern worlds (aristocrats + slaves, aristocrats + serfs, capitalists + wage-labourers). These of course have always been extremely general formulations that seek to sum up the economic structure of different historical periods in terms of an essential or uniquely pervasive set of relations. But hired labourers were used on an extensive scale by the English estates of the thirteenth century; slaves were used by agrarian capitalists down to the late nineteenth century; and serfs, like slaves, could also be deployed in industrial production. These disjunctures complicate the issue of a scholarly understanding of the possible sophistication of ancient economic behaviour, because they rule out the simplistic idea that the dynamic which drives an economic system is given primarily in terms of the organization of labour, i.e. that the ‘forms of exploitation’ of labour determine the ‘relations of production’, and to form some assessment of the nature of aristocratic activity the issue of the nature of the labour force is thus largely irrelevant.”

Jairus Banaji, AGRARIAN CHANGE IN LATE ANTIQUITY, OUP, 2001, pp 217-218

Written by Pratyush Chandra

April 20, 2010 at 2:26 am

Sumit Sarkar on Ramachandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi”

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Sumit Sarkar wrote a review of Guha’s India after Gandhi for New Left Review (56, March-April 2009), which he ends with an interesting comment:

“Welcome as India after Gandhi is for its initiation of a new field of contemporary historiography, one is left half-yearning for the book Guha did not write”.

I think Sarkar has sufficiently shown, despite his non-polemic sympathetic tone for a fellow historian, that Guha can never write “the book”. Sarkar does appreciate this “clear and comprehensive account of the course of events”. But

“Guha offers no overall theses as to how the India of 1947 became that of today. Instead he embarks on a narration of political events, deftly interwoven with socio-cultural and economic developments. Along the way he provides a set of individual political profiles, often interesting and amusingly drawn. One occasionally feels that he overuses this strategy, especially since, barring a few individuals—Nehru, Patel, Sheikh Abdullah, Indira Gandhi or Jayprakash Narayan—many were not as significant as the character-driven plot structure, weighted towards party leaders, makes them out to be. Other social forces and structures are inevitably downplayed”.

The narrative is “uncritical” based on “journalistic sources”.

“More broadly, what is missing in terms of Guha’s framing questions is any analysis of the tensions between national unity and democracy, and the ways in which the concerns of the former—military security, internal sovereignty—have not infrequently hollowed out the content of the latter”.

Sarkar finds many “large questions, which Guha does not address”. But why?

“This is not an incidental drawback, but flows from the liberal-Nehruvian nationalism that is the book’s chief ideological marker”.

HENCE, Ramachandra Guha’s book is more an exercise in story-telling – “a thoughtful survey of the period in fluent, lucid prose”.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

March 31, 2009 at 12:21 am

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