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Postcolonial Theory in the 21st Century: Is the Past the Future or Is the Future the Past? (February 2021): Capitalism

by Tarique Niazi


Postcolonialists’ basic critique of capitalism was historically two-fold. First, it was built on colonialism, which sought to transform colonies by modernizing their economic and social infrastructures, replacing traditional living and lifestyles, and hastening progress and development. Colonialists actively sought this creative destruction under capitalist modernity that, as advocated by Macaulay (1835), created a class of beneficiaries among the local national elites who became allies in colonialists’ efforts to perpetuate colonialism. Second, postcolonialists argued, capitalist modernity was the mirror-image of Eurocentric modernity, which sustained the colonial encounter in the first place. Postcolonialists thus rejected colonial capitalism and its ideas of modernity and progress. These claims are discussed further in both Guha’s and Chatterjee’s abovementioned texts.

Rejecting capitalism, postcolonialists argued that it failed in South Asian colonies, as compared to Europe, because of its failure to universalize and homogenize South Asia’s deeply embedded cultural differences. Both Guha, in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, and Chakrabarty, in Provincializing Europe, consider this notion, arguing that capitalism thrived in Europe because of cultural and political transformation—especially secularism, liberalism, and democracy—in a socially and culturally homogenized society, and a native bourgeois class that was invested in the capitalist liberal democratic order. Abandoning capitalism as the equivalent of Eurocentric modernity, postcolonialists discarded the homogenizing Marxian social category of class, which they found indifferent to cultural differences, to instead embrace multiple forms of oppression based on caste, creed, race, and gender.

With this shift in emphasis, postcolonialists and subalternists sought to develop new modes of investigating marginality and oppression that were attuned to their times. For instance, in “The Decline of the Subaltern" in Subaltern Studies,” Sarkar observes that postcolonialists’ cultural turn led them to shift their gaze from production to consumption, economics to culture, and interest to identity. This transformation was so complete that these theorists not only abandoned their critique of capitalism but even dropped their criticism of the market, rechristening it a free market of consumer sovereignty and identity politics. In this spirit, postcolonialists fought for an end to the structures of racial, gender, and sexual oppression, completely omitting economic oppression and forging a critical stance towards capitalism and—what Lazarus terms its bedfellow in The Postcolonial Unconscious—globalization.