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Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 653-678

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Universalism and Belonging in the Logic of Capital

Dipesh Chakrabarty

The shadow of cultural diversity--the diverse ways in which we "world" this earth--now falls across all universalistic assumptions about history or human nature that often underlie propositions of modern political philosophies. Their inherent Eurocentrism is what makes these assumptions suspect in the eyes of practitioners of the human sciences today. But neither cultural nor historical relativism is seen as an answer--and rightly so, for an absolutist relativism can easily be shown to be self-contradictory. Understandably, therefore, many postcolonial debates on political philosophies such as Marxism or liberalism often try to work out a middle ground between the two options of universalism and relativism. Critical energies are focused on questions such as how and where one [End Page 653] locates this middle ground, how one delineates its contours, ways one can get out of the universalism/relativism binary, and so on and so forth. But, as discussions of human rights increasingly make clear, universalistic assumptions are not easily given up, and the tension between universalism and historical difference is not easily dismissed. The struggle to find a middle ground remains. "Strategic essentialism" (associated with Gayatri Spivak [1988]), "hybridity" (associated with Homi Bhabha [1994]), "cosmopolitanism," and the like are expressions that remind us of particular strategies formulated in the course of this struggle.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the tension between universalism and historical difference in the logic of Marx's category "capital." I do not need to demonstrate the relevance of this category. True, it belongs to the nineteenth century, but suffice it to say that, to the extent that we think of globalization as a process of globalization of capital, the category remains of interest. However, there is a need to rethink the category, and especially so in a world where Marx's key assumption that capital, by its own logic, would call forth its own dissolution through the agency of labor, has not been borne out. How do we think about an alternative to capital in such a context? Clearly, one cannot any longer think of the "beyond of capital" as something that is totally opposed to capital (such as "socialism" or "communism"). Does it even make sense to think of such a "beyond" when everything in the world seems to be coming more and more under the sway of capital itself? I read some selected texts by Marx to revisit this question. How does capital, a universal category by definition, negotiate historical difference in Marx's exposition? Does Marx's account of this negotiation carry any hints that can help us think the question of human belonging in a globe increasingly made one by the technologies of capital?

To answer these questions, I pursue two of Marx's ideas that are inseparable from his critique of capital: his views on abstract labor and on the relationship between capital and history. Marx's philosophical category capital is planetary (or global) in its historical aspiration and universal in its constitution. Its categorical structure, at least in Marx's own elaboration, is predicated on Enlightenment ideas of juridical equality and abstract political rights of citizenship. 1 Labor that is juridically and politically free--and yet socially unfree--is a concept embedded in Marx's category of "abstract labor." Abstract labor combines in itself Enlightenment themes of juridical freedom (rights, citizenship) and the concept of the universal and abstract human being who is the subject of this freedom. More important, it is also a concept central to Marx's explanation of why capital, [End Page 654] in fulfilling itself in history, necessarily creates the ground for its own dissolution. Examining the idea of abstract labor then enables us to see what may be politically and intellectually at stake today--for postcolonial scholars who do not ignore Marx's legacy--in the universalist humanism of the Enlightenment.

The idea of abstract labor also leads us to the question of how the logic of capital relates to the issue of historical difference...


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