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Fr. 504

April 7, 2014

For this reason, we will briefly consider postcolonial studies’ rejection of the universalisms and meta-narratives associated with Enlightenment thought, rejection of which dovetailed with the broader turn of the intellectual left during the 1980s and 1990s. At its most superficial level, postcolonial theory advances the claim that Western categories issuing from the Enlightenment and Radical Enlightenment, such as rationality, objectivity, liberalism and democracy, cannot be applied to postcolonial societies. In an interview at Jacobin magazine, Vivek Chibber explains at some length his analysis of postcolonial theory in his recent book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. There, Chibber begins by explaining the socioeconomic bases of the claim above. In particular, he notes that:

“The argument really comes out of a background sociological assumption: for the categories of political economy and the Enlightenment to have any purchase, capitalism must spread across the world. This is called the “universalization of capital.” The argument goes like this: the universalizing categories associated with Enlightenment thought are only as legitimate as the universalizing tendency of capital. And postcolonial theorists deny that capital has in fact universalized — or more importantly, that it ever could universalize around the globe. Since capitalism has not and cannot universalize, the categories that people like Marx developed for understanding capitalism also cannot be universalized. What this means for postcolonial theory is that the parts of the globe where the universalization of capital has failed need to generate their own local categories. And more importantly, it means that theories like Marxism, which try to utilize the categories of political economy, are not only wrong, but they’re Eurocentric, and not only Eurocentric, but they’re part of the colonial and imperial drive of the West. And so they’re implicated in imperialism.”

In short, the applicability of such notions as liberalism and rationality (in the form of preference aggregation) is predicated on the existence of certain socioeconomic systems or bases that enable their development and use in the first place. In the absence of such bases, these notions lose their groundedness, and their application takes on an illegitimate cast. Put somewhat differently, without the proper socioeconomic realities, the thinker making use of such categories is tilting at windmills.

Beyond the socioeconomic universalism promoted by liberalism and brought to the fore by Chibber, there is also the question of universalistic moral philosophies, such as utilitarianism, for which there is a similar appeal to universal conditions, such as the desire to reduce suffering, promote the pleasures of ordinary life, and bring forth the natural human tendency towards benevolence. Insofar as these conditions are present in all human societies, the categories at work in these moral philosophies are thought to hold and be binding for all societies concerned. For this reason, like liberalism, utilitarianism and other moral philosophies of its kind have, in the end, a leveling effect and leave little room for difference as concerns specific goods. After all, the value attributed to a good is, from a utilitarian perspective, derivative of the pleasure or pain following therefrom.

If these conditions are not, however, present in all societies, ethical universalism falls prey to the same critique as the socioeconomic: the conditions and circumstances that it is meant to describe are not present in the target society. Universalistic categories in ethics would then not apply to the society in question, revealing the shortcomings of the universalistic approach. For the postcolonial theorist, the preceding examples show just how much such standards as reason and objectivity (and, more specifically, rational adequacy and excellence) are bound to the conditions on the ground in terms of which such attributions are to be made and considered binding. If there are societies to which our socioeconomic and moral terms of judgment do not apply, it is a priori plausible that similar terms concerning proper and improper uses of reasons will likewise fall short. In the end, in order to avoid the skewed perspective of Eurocentrism, it is necessary to set aside the universal standards by which we would judge of such affairs of reason.

Yet the setting aside for which postcolonial theory claims hides a dangerous tendency that does as much to obscure the realities surrounding universal standards as it does to clarify these. This danger consists in making too much of the differences between standards for judging instances of reason, liberalism, ethics, etc. and takes the form of “cultural essentialism”.


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