Subaltern histories written with an eye to difference cannot constitute yet another attempt, in the long and universalistic tradition of “socialist” histories, to help erect the subaltern as the subject of modern democracies, that is, to expand the history of the modern in such a way as to make it more representative of society as a whole. This is a laudable objective on its own terms and has undoubted global relevance. But thought does not have to stop at political democracy or the concept of egalitarian distribution of wealth (though the aim of achieving these ends will legitimately fuel many immediate political struggles). Subaltern histories will engage philosophically with questions of difference that are elided in the dominant traditions of Marxism. At the same time, however, just as real labor cannot be thought of outside of the problematic of abstract labor, subaltern history cannot be thought of outside of the global narrative of capital—including the narrative of transition to capitalism—though it is not grounded in this narrative. Stories about how this or that group in Asia, Africa, or Latin America resisted the “penetration” of capitalism do not, in this sense, constitute “subaltern” history, for these narratives are predicated on imagining a space that is external to capital—the chronologically “before” of capital—but that is at the same time a part of the historicist, unitary time frame within which both the “before” and the “after” of capitalist production can unfold. The “outside” I am thinking of is different from what is simply imagined as “before or after capital” in historicist prose. This “outside” I think of, following Derrida, as something attached to the category “capital” itself, something that straddles a border zone of temporality, that conforms to the temporal code within which capital comes into being even as it violates that code, something we are able to see only because we can think/theorize capital, but that also always reminds us that other temporalities, other forms of worlding, coexist and are possible. In this sense, subaltern histories do not refer to a resistance prior and exterior to the narrative space created by capital ; they cannot therefore be defined without reference to the category “capital.” Subaltern studies, as I think of it, can only situate itself theoretically at the juncture where we give up neither Marx nor “difference,” for, as I have said, the resistance it speaks of is something that can happen only within the time horizon of capital, and yet it has to be thought of as something that disrupts the unity of that time. Unconcealing the tension between real and abstract labor ensures that capital/commodity has heterogeneities and incommensurabilities inscribed in its core.
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Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial thought and historical difference
Princeton University Press 2000