Debating culture

Vivek Chibber's book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital has been out for a while now, and receiving all sorts of attention, not all of it positive. Chief among the criticisms is that Chibber's analysis is too heavily loaded in favor of rational choice theory. Bruce Robbins over at N+1 is only the latest to level this charge. Check out Chibber's response published online at Jacobin Magazine.

On the question of culture, I find this passage particularly illuminating: 

So what is the view that I endorse? Do I reduce agents to asocial automatons? What I actually say in the book is three things. First, that people are largely shaped by their cultures, but that culture does not go “all the way down.” There are some needs that exist and endure independently of culture, and chief among these is the need to attend to one’s physical well-being. Second, that people are typically cognizant of this need and it therefore generates interests that influence political and social interaction. And third, that it is the universality of this need that explains the universality of resistance to exploitation — since the latter typically undermines the former. Note that I don’t simply assert this argument — I show that the actual historiography of the Subalterns themselves validates this proposition, even though they deny it (with the exception of Guha, who never denies it).

None of this entails a commitment to rational choice theory. All I am offering is one route to what was once called materialism, and those are two very different animals. I do not imply, indeed I explicitly deny, that people are welfare-maximizers. Nor do I suggest that people are selfish or competitive individualists — the two implications most commonly associated with rational choice and which are rightly rejected by others. What I do say is that people have a healthy appreciation of situations in which they are being oppressed or exploited, that this appreciation holds steady across cultures, and that it generates reasons for action. This is why what we typically see is what James Scott called “everyday forms of resistance.”

This is not controversial in the least, and yet it's amazing to see how many critics get tripped up on this point.