In the new issue of Jacobin

by Corey Robin on May 6, 2013

The latest issue of Jacobin came out the week before last. It’s already generating a lot of discussion and debate. Just a few highlights.

1.  Jonah Birch’s interview with NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber about Chibber’s new book on subaltern studies and postcolonialism theory has pissed a lot of people off.

Here’s Chibber:

A typical maneuver of postcolonial theorists is to say something like this: Marxism relies on abstract, universalizing categories. But for these categories to have traction, reality should look exactly like the abstract descriptions of capital, of workers, of the state, etc. But, say the postcolonial theorists, reality is so much more diverse. Workers wear such colorful clothes; they say prayers while working; capitalists consult astrologers — this doesn’t look like anything what Marx describes in Capital. So it must mean that the categories of capital aren’t really applicable here. The argument ends up being that any departure of concrete reality from the abstract descriptions of theory is a problem for the theory. But this is silly beyond words: it means that you can’t have theory. Why should it matter if capitalists consult astrologers as long as they are driven to make profits? Similarly, it doesn’t matter if workers pray on the shop floor as long as they work. This is all that the theory requires. It doesn’t say that cultural differences will disappear; it says that these differences don’t matter for the spread of capitalism, as long as agents obey the compulsions that capitalist structures place on them. I go to considerable lengths to explain this in the book.

Here’s one of Chibber’s critics, University of Chicago English professor Chris Taylor:

When Jacobin published Vivek Chibber’s “Marxist” polemic against postcolonial theory, I wanted to write a counter-polemic. In fact, I did. As both a Marxist and a postcolonialist, I felt like Chibber was forcing me to choose sides where sides did not need to be chosen. After all, Chibber has to make several logical leaps in order to land his criticism of postcolonial theory; in a very real way, he has to invent it. The most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is the representativeness he ascribes to the South Asian Subaltern Studies collective—for Chibber, they epitomize postcolonial theory in all its anti-Marxist glory. The second most obvious problem with Chibber’s argument is his refusal to count as constitutive of postcolonial theory all anticolonial Marxist thinkers whose work was foundational for, or retroactively incorporated into, the postcolonial canon: George Padmore, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney…

And here’s one of Chibber’s critics’ critics, Paul Heideman, who’s a grad student in American studies at Rutgers Newark:

Chris Taylor’s post (“Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber’s Polemic against Postcolonial Theory”) presents what purports to be a quite sharp critique of Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. He takes the book to task for being un-dialectical, for orthodoxy-mongering, and a host of other theoretical sins. As the most extensive response to the book yet published, it has garnered a good deal of positive attention from those uncomfortable with Chibber’s promotion of a frankly universalistic theory and his attacks on the fetishization of particularism.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s article deserves none of the attention it has received. It exemplifies the kind of evasiveness and non-engagement which typifies the culture of the academic left. What are presented as incisive blows against the intellectual architecture of the book are in fact a series of passages that, at their best, do not even contradict the arguments made in the book and, at their worst, descend into mere name-calling.

And that’s the nice stuff. It’s a lot more heated on Facebook and Twitter.

2. Laura Tanenbaum, who’s one of my favorite writers, makes her Jacobin debut. Here she revisits some of the classic feminist texts of the 1970s (you need a userid and password, and I guess a subscription, for this one, which means…you should get one!):

In texts like [Adrienne Rich’s] Of Woman Born and Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, women thinkers built on their understanding of the relationship between biology and the oppressive division of the sexes. They asked how we had organized ourselves in social and economic relations, what the consequences of these organizations were, and how it might be done differently. The result was not a laundry list of “issues” to be dealt with, but an analysis of a system that deforms everything from work and family to art and science. It’s an analysis that continues to resonate, even as public discourse declares on the one hand that feminism’s goals have been accomplished, and on the other that they were always impossible.

3.  Jeremy Kessler is another writer you should watch. He’s a grad student in history (and the Law School too?) at Yale, and he’s got a very sharp and shrewd mind about politics and the law. In this issue, he offers up a smart take on Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.

The intended moral of Fear Itself, that the American state crafted by southern domination was necessary lest democracy fall to dictatorship, is the product of rhetorical excess and unexamined political assumptions. Ironically, it is Katznelson’s adoption of the language of fear and the logic of emergency, so often used to justify dictatorship, that leads to his portrayal of the southern New Deal as the only viable path the United States could have taken out of its mid-century crisis.

4. The magazine devoted an entire section to Palestine. A whole bunch of articles, headed off by this editorial:

Why now? Because almost without anyone noticing, the movement in solidarity with Palestinian rights — with all its solipsisms and ultra-leftist foibles, its quarrels and magnetic attraction for eccentrics, opportunists, and, yes, the occasional antisemite — has grown to become one of the most important, inspiring, and fast-growing social movements in the country.

Palestine is no longer a dirty word on college campuses. The last Students for Justice in Palestine national conference attracted well over 300 delegates from more than 140 colleges and universities across the country, converging on Ann Arbor to discuss capitalist state formation in Israel, solidarity among prisoners, colonialism, the persistence of the occupation, refugee rights, and remarkably, with a minimum of rancor and sectarianism, the Syrian conflict.

Much of the energy that in the past would have found its home in student antiwar movements has migrated to the cause of Palestine. That is not without its problems: after all, children are gunned down by helicopter gunships in Afghanistan as surely as they are gunned down by snipers in the Gaza Strip. But the bloom of student interest in this old and bloody colonial conflict is something the Left ought to take interest in, because the Left is not just an idea but also the masses in motion, and scarcely anywhere — except for the environmental movement — are young people in motion with such a mix of revolutionary élan and disciplined militancy as they are in the case of Palestine.

But radical action has outpaced radical understanding. In part, that is because young people have gotten involved just at the moment when the Palestine question is in unprecedented political and ideological flux.

5. And, last, the magazine’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara, well, I’ll let him speak for himself:

It’s an old adage of city life: commute home to masturbate, but don’t masturbate during the commute. Such are the reasonable burdens of living in a society.

Last week I was reminded that this sentiment isn’t universally shared. On a Euclid Avenue-bound C train…

There’s a lot more. Check it out.



Tarmel 05.06.13 at 1:48 am

All well-worth reading. Thanks!


P O'Neill 05.06.13 at 1:56 am

I was going to rise to the bait on the Palestine editorial but knowing how those threads end up on CT, it’s better just to also recommend Eileen Jones’ review of the Oscars ceremony — it’s the kind of extended slam + interpretation that you just don’t see done as well in most places anymore.


Rich Puchalsky 05.06.13 at 2:20 am

Bhaskar Sunkara: “For one, a larger, more centralized organization would offer a powerful pole of attraction for both the newly politicized and those who have spent years on the Left’s margins. By allowing open factions”

I was about to write something about how thrilled I would be to enjoy the privilege of being allowed open factions, but then I realized that the article wasn’t addressed anywhere near my direction in any case. Following his link to his interview about the original motivations for forming _Jacobin_, I read that their understanding of capitalism goes beyond the anarchist one, which amounts to “spastic moralism”. Well, at least there’s a good continuity of imagery there with the subway masturbator thing.

I went on to read, with increasing amusement, that “there has been an association, a well-warranted one given the experience of the 20th century, of socialism with statism and authoritarianism. Socialism is about precisely the opposite!” Thus the open factions, I guess. I’m trying to imagine going to an Occupy meeting and announcing that, this time, open factions are going to be allowed — and won’t that bring in the young people?

More power to them. But they’re really going to have work on their appeals to the dissolute youth of today. “Open factions — you can’t get that anywhere else!” and “We’re not authoritarian, but if you don’t have our sense of what’s appropriate, you’re a subway masturbator” doesn’t sound like an especially enticing pitch.


Walt 05.06.13 at 8:34 am

Jacobin already seems pretty successful for something of its type. It could be that it’s appeal is limited to people over 50, like NCIS in left-wing magazine form, but somehow I manage to hear about it pretty often.


Rich Puchalsky 05.06.13 at 2:23 pm

Jacobin actually has a lot of very young writers, as far as I’ve seen from brief looks like this one. It’s only when socialists get back into organizing that all of a sudden it’s early 20th century as the glory years all over again.


QS 05.06.13 at 5:28 pm

I’m pleased to see Jacobin progress and think that it’s an interesting platform. The mixture of readings, from a polemic against Oscar night to the interview of Chibber is pretty cool. Perhaps it gets people mingling across lines.

On the other hand, it’s just another example of virtual socialism without real social organization. I also agree that the worry over “factions” seems anachronistic given that for factions within a movement to exist you have to have a movement. Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin are just empty signifiers in the US.


peggy 05.06.13 at 6:33 pm

I’m afraid Jacobin has nothing to offer me or any other non-academic. Somewhere in the quote at the bottom might be a hint of thought relevant to the fire in the Bangladesh clothing factory with its 600 odd dead, but I can’t discover it. I’m not dumb, I was literate enough to obtain a PhD in biology. I majored in the social sciences as an undergraduate where I was enough of an activist in my youth to be suspended from university. I was reading and popularizing CLR James in 1970 and agreeing with his wife’s idea of wages for housework, so I have a bit of post-colonial bona fides. Yet, despite all of this background, I find the current day language of people I might be in agreement with impenetrable.

Brad DeLong at least commences his abstruse economics theorizing with a paragraph of fluent prose. His jargon terms are highlighted with algebraic equivalences and I freely choose not to pursue them. But the jargon is this sociological dreck begins half way through the first sentence, is never highlighted and never defined. “universalization of capital” is nothing that can be looked up in Wikipedia. I can make my way through medical literature because the unfamiliar terms are just strewn like pebbles in the plain English prose. Perhaps that is because the philosophical underpinnings are simply cause and effect with the addition of Occam’s razor, while sociology pursues intensely theoretical, yet insubstantial models of capitalist culture.

I will predict that blog readers will react negatively to my criticism. I would suggest they pause briefly and consider whether they intend to exclude extraordinarily well educated, sympathetic outsiders from their discourse. If I cannot understand them, how is someone with just a HS education or a non-native command of English supposed to?

From Jacobin, “Dipesh Chakrabarty’s …doubts about the universalization of capital are quite distinct from Guha’s. Guha locates capital’s universalizing tendency in a particular agent: the bourgeoisie. Chakrabarty locates it in capitalism’s ability to transform all social relations wherever it goes. And he concludes that it fails this test because he finds that there are various cultural, social, and political practices in the East that don’t conform to his model of what a capitalist culture and political system should look like.”


Substance McGravitas 05.06.13 at 6:42 pm

I’m afraid Jacobin has nothing to offer me

You can’t make a go of the very first link?


Substance McGravitas 05.06.13 at 6:43 pm

Oh dear, didn’t read the end of your comment. Never mind.


Walt 05.06.13 at 6:57 pm

I honestly thought the first link was pretty clear, while the second link was pretty jargon-y. I never heard of “capitali’s universal tendency” before either, but it seemed clear from context.


Dr. Hilarius 05.06.13 at 7:31 pm

The oppressed masses of the third-world anxiously await the outcome of this debate. May the best obscurantist jargon win!


QS 05.06.13 at 10:47 pm

Peggy, the problem is that for many of us who’ve read Marxian debates for years, the language in your quoted paragraph is clear. There’s no Will To Obscurantism in operation there. Really, the problem is the word “universalization,” which is shorthand for “present everywhere in the same form.” As in, is capitalism present everywhere in the same form, or is it subverted in certain places by certain people with certain ideas and practices?

On one hand, I sympathize with your attempts (or not) to break into this discourse. On the other, the easy refusal of it leads to unfortunate comments like that of Dr. Hilarius.


Jeff 05.07.13 at 4:34 am

Peggy, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re suggesting that your PhD in biology ought to allow you to understand the advanced work of other disciplines despite having never engaged such material before. If this is the case, I wonder if you also think that a PhD in French prepares one to understand the inner workings of quantum physics or microbiology, or vice versa?

Surely every discipline has developed its own specialized vocabulary for the purpose of communicating with other specialists. Why is it that you think a debate between specialists ought to be readily understood by laymen lacking any familiarity with the field? Frankly, though, some of the terms you find so baffling, even calling them “jargon” and “dreck,” are really just intro-level concepts. I’d be shocked if there was a philosophy 101 course anywhere that didn’t cover the ancient feud between universals and particulars – a topic that receives enormous attention in the humanities and social sciences.

Is your contention really that specialists ought to rehash foundational concepts and basic vocabulary prior to discussing advanced topics? Surely there’s a need to communicate academic findings with laymen, but that seems like quite a separate issue from how specialists communicate among themselves. Perhaps consider that if you’re really interested in understanding certain topics it’s going to require substantially more effort than a two-second Google search and a Wikipedia article.


Sam 05.07.13 at 11:54 am

Jeff, Peggy’s comment was “I’m afraid Jacobin has nothing to offer me or any other non-academic.” She holds a PhD, which is evidence that she can follow complex arguments etc., but cannot make sense of the Jacobin stuff. The implication is that the periodical doesn’t serve the intelligent non-specialist. Whether or not that is a problem is another question.


Walt 05.07.13 at 12:03 pm

Clearly Jacobin is not intended as a technical journal for specialists.


Ronan(rf) 05.07.13 at 3:31 pm

Sheesh, Bhaskar Sunkara calls for the radical left to get over their sectarian divisions and unite under his authority while comparing them to masturbators on a bus.
Hilarious, while also kinda fitting


Ronan(rf) 05.07.13 at 3:40 pm

..fitting as an example of why his call is gonna go unheeded, rather than as a description of the radical left fwiw


Alex 05.07.13 at 3:50 pm

But, say the postcolonial theorists, reality is so much more diverse. Workers wear such colorful clothes; they say prayers while working; capitalists consult astrologers

I’m convinced that this is an accurate characterisation of this whole huge field of intellectual endeavour and not in any way a strawman worthy of the pages of Straw: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Rhetorical Misrepresentation.


Harold 05.07.13 at 4:03 pm

If you are a journal for non-specialists, and “universalization” is shorthand, you shouldn’t use shorthand. Or, if you are going to, at least you should explain it the first time you use it in the essay. Perhaps Jacobin needs editors or a style sheet.


Bhaskar 05.07.13 at 4:58 pm

We’ll be sure to transcribe interviews differently — using words that the interviewee didn’t say in the future.


QS 05.07.13 at 5:06 pm

It probably needs a better sense of purpose. Who does it intend to speak to?


William Timberman 05.07.13 at 6:01 pm

Assuming that one non-academic’s anecdotal evidence is as good as another’s — which may be pushing the bounds of credibility, I admit — maybe it’s worth saying that I’m a non-academic, but unlike peggy, I’ve had no trouble following Jacobin’s arguments. Whether or not any given non-academic finds them comprehensible is surely as much a matter of interest as it is formal training, no?

Likely as a result of our historical origins, it’s been more fashionable in the USA than in most other places to dismiss as fatuous intellectualism anything conceptually complicated, and to pretend that we, on the other hand, as true sons and daughters of the soil, need nothing more than simple, declarative sentences, and words of two syllables to communicate all anyone needs to know about how the world works. The fact that this is nonsense never deters anyone who sees it as a path to social or political dominance. It doesn’t help much, though, when a subject really is difficult to understand.

Clear, unadorned language put to complex purposes is a difficult art, and one of the paradoxes of language, as any philosopher will tell you, is that a misplaced enthusiasm for clarity can do as much damage to human understanding as an honest obscurity. I’m not arguing against style, or against good editing, or even against the idea that being seduced by one’s own prose is a sin. I do think, though, that there are all sorts of sins in the world, and misusing a humble tool isn’t the worst of them, especially when — as Ms. Browning put it feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace. Foolish humans, I suppose, to try such slippery enterprises, but as long as we’re bound to do it anyway, we might cut each other a little more slack….


Polonius 05.09.13 at 5:44 pm

As someone who’s ranted about the “Will to Obscurantism” (nice phrase) in post-modern literary criticism for decades, all I can say to Peggy is, “You ain’t seen nothin’.” The passage she quotes may not be chock-a-bloc with content or meaning, but obscure? Not so much even to someone who hasn’t exactly immersed himself in arguments about Marxism (Ph.D. in clinical psychology, A.B. in English).

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