- Marxism and Postcolonial Studies Now
“Postcolonial” has never been a very satisfying rubric. Marxist thinkers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o have long been suspicious of the epochal difference implied between social relations under colonialism and those that succeeded them, preferring the term “neo-colonial.” As a merely empirical term it is not particularly descriptive: not only foundational anti-colonial theory (that of Franz Fanon, for example) but also some of the most important “postcolonial” literature (such as that of the early Achebe) was written in the dizzying urgency of the moment immediately preceding decolonization. Nor is it particularly descriptive geographically: are the independent settler colonies postcolonial? How about oppressed, relatively autochthonous communities within them? What about the huge swathes of the literally postcolonial world, formerly allied with the Soviet bloc—Angola, Vietnam, Cuba, for example—that barely register at all in the discourse of the postcolonial?
These may be nitpicking questions, although a case could be made that they register the surface effects of much deeper contradictions at the heart of a postcolonial discourse that is, more than anything else, the academic version of a U.S. posture of benevolent stewardship over the “developing” world. Be this as it may, the post-Soviet moment finds postcolonial studies in something like a crisis. No doubt this has something to do with the disarticulation of the old Soviet Bloc itself, as a very different—though not necessarily happier—history of decolon-ization emerges from nations heretofore relatively inaccessible. More importantly, the post-Soviet universalization of free-market ideology that goes by the name of “globalization”—though this is in fact only one moment in an ongoing dialectic of globalization and counter-globalization—while it has undoubtedly moved the political atmosphere [End Page 214] of the dominant nations to the right, has paradoxically removed (in some circles, anyway) the old quarantine around Marxist thought.
Neil Lazarus, in his Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World, reminds us of what is too often forgotten, namely that the identification of capitalism with “the West” is a mystification that serves to moralize what is an essentially systemic phenomenon. As capitalism expanded from southeastern England it subjugated, incorporated, or obliterated non-capitalist modes of production and ways of life, and this process continues not only on the terrain of the former colonies but over enclaves of as-yet-unrationalized labor—e.g. cattle ranching, higher education—in the dominant countries. To begin, then, with an analysis of capital as tendentially universal—that is, to make use of the notion of totality—is not (unlike discourses from either Left or Right that fetishize “the West,” for ill or for good, as the fundamental source of “modernity” or “development”) Eurocentric. Of course, once one has made this move it is essential to track both the constitutive role of resistance and the structurally unequal insertion of various economic orders (and class, gender, and ethnic divisions within those orders) into globalized capital; but this is quite different from fetishizing cultural difference as a value in itself, which ultimately only refers back to the hegemony of the “West.”
Lazarus provides a welcome note of skepticism—prescient, it turns out, in the light of the Nasdaq slump and the “new economy” stock options crisis—about the justifiability of the proliferation of the “post-” prefix at all. Lazarus is fully aware of the mutations in technology, finance, and international trade in the past quarter-century or so, but insists on the “typicality of the restructuring of capitalist class relations” (35), and reminds us of the extent to which the world economy is emphatically not post-Fordist. Even Left discussions of some new global order, for Lazarus, defer too much to the celebration of a mythical “new economy” that, insofar as it exists, exists only for a very privileged few. Though one might remain agnostic about a genuinely post-Fordist future, one...