Common sense in the form of theory

Picture by Max Bohme.

In the ideological disciplines – humanities and social sciences – it is rare to come across a theoretical work that does not seem to fetishize verbiage and jargonization for their own sake. Relatively lucid analytical Marxism of an Erik Olin Wright[1] to the turgid cultural theory of a Stuart Hall, pretentious prolixity is, apparently, considered an end in itself. In such an academic context, one of the greatest services an intellectual can render is simply to return to the basics of theoretical common sense, stated in a clear and concise manner. Society is very complex, but, as Noam Chomsky likes to say, insofar as we understand it, our understanding can in principle be expressed quite simply and directly. Not only is such expression more democratic and accessible, allowing for a wider dissemination of critical understanding of the world; it also has the merit of showing that once you get rid of the trappings of most academic writing, nothing particularly profound is said. The Class Matrix by Vivek Chibber is an exemplary demonstration of this fact, and of these virtues.

Chibber has been waging a war on postmodern theory for some time now, ably defending Marxist common sense against generations of outspoken “culturalist” criticism. His Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013) brilliantly showed that the Marxian ‘meta-narrative’ that has been under sustained attack by poststructuralists and postmodernists retains its value as an explanation of the modern world, and that many (often very obscure) alternative conceptualizations of postcolonial theorists are deeply flawed. More recently, in a 2020 article in the journal Catalyst (“Orientalism and Its Afterlives”), Chibber cogently criticized Edward Said’s classical Orientalism for its idealistic interpretation of modern imperialism as largely emanating from of a secular European Orientalist discourse. , rather than a capitalist political economy which, as materialists claim, has only used such talk to rationalize its global expansion. In more popular venues as well, including Jacobin, Chibber argued for the centrality of materialism in projects to interpret and change the world.

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Sharon D. Cole