Intellectual history

Decolonial Intellectual History: An Anti-capitalist Feminist Agenda

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

The close camaraderie between imperialist and capitalist politics for the last five centuries has undeniably been an expensive one for all life forms. Historically, the exploitation of colonial liberal capital has been furthered under the garb of modernity and progress; in the more recent past, neoliberal violence has been sugar-coated as development, aid, and charity. From the sixteenth century onwards, colonialism has been centrally molded by the exploitative profit-making logic of capital, and it has been dependent on the disposability of colonized lives and environments. The transition from empire to nation state has only strengthened the exploitative nexus between state and capital. Our existence has now been reduced to a crisis of breathing, exemplified by George Floyd in America, as well as by the people of India suffering from an “oxygen crisis.” The violence of neoliberal capital has created an urgency, a sense of immediacy, which calls for us to prioritize the nourishment, protection, and wellbeing of lives that are now “bare:” life-forms that are not just oppressed and exploited, but whose very existence is now under threat.

Figure 1: Accompanying illustration by Ray with the poem Khuror Kal (Uncle’s Machine), published in 1923.

The nature of this capitalist exploitation has been described beautifully by Sukumar Ray in his 1923 rhyme “Khuror Kal (Uncle’s Machine). Ray talks of a man’s uncle who has discovered a wonderous device, which helps individuals reduce their commute time, and makes them more efficient. How does it work? Imagine a rod with a hook on its end with mouth-watering treats attached to it. Now this is tied to the neck of the commuter in a yoke, so the treats remain in sight but unreachable, until he finishes the journey. Dreaming of this delayed gratification makes the commuter walk faster than before when he lacked incentive. This yoke reduces time spent in conversation with other commuters as well, and with fewer distractions (such as human company), ultimately reducing the unproductive time spent in commute! Ray leaves the rhyme incomplete, and we don’t find out if the commuter ever gets to enjoy the treats or not. Therein lies the power of this metaphor imagined by Ray at the height of the anti-colonial movement in India. It echoes with the question it does not articulate but leaves us with: is the yoke (of capital) worth it?

We have walked for almost a century since then—a very eventful century in human history, characterized by world wars, the formation of nation states, universal suffrage, and more recently by right-wing populism, an unprecedented assault on the environment, and a global pandemic. As our world now reels in its feeble attempts to barely survive, whilst realizing the falseness of the promise of this delayed gratification, let us begin to answer Ray’s question with a vehement no. Whether it be in India, Colombia, or globally, we are witnessing a rise in anti-capitalist popular opinion. Our times are characterized by the eruption of collective rage against the capitalist devaluing of all life forms in varying degrees, and this illustrates the impossibility of decolonizing without being anti-capital. In a world where the water we drink is priced and polluted, and the air we breathe is toxic (if we can breathe at all, that is), a new politics against this capitalist disposability will have to be imagined in terms of care, for each other, and for the world. This would be new only in the sense that it would constitute an unprecedented rupture in the telos of capital. It is time to ask for not just bread, but for the roses. It is time to pull the breaks on capital, at once, and this time, for all. As Verónica Gago has asserted, it is time to change everything!

Françoise Vergès’ resounding question “Who Cleans the World?” brings out the intersections of anti-patriarchal and anti-imperialist politics through the category of “disposability.” Capitalism functions by oppressing women of color more than white women, and although their labor is crucial, capitalists keep these forms of labor invisibilized, maintaining their alliance with hierarchies of race, ethnicity, and nation. As a result, the labor of women of color becomes as disposable as the waste they clean. Other feminist theorists of social reproduction, as well as activists, have also identified these intersections with capitalism. Their works have inspired me to think further down that road and ask: what would this decolonized anti-capitalist politics of gender look like? Broadly speaking, it is an attempt to develop a politics of care, which will aim to address the weight of patriarchal structures by casting an eye towards imperial pasts and neoliberal presents, and imagine anti-capitalist egalitarian futures.

The term “care” has a long and diverse intellectual genealogy, appropriated by Marxists-Feminists to categorize not just reproductive labor, but all other forms of unquantifiable labor under capitalism, which are central to the functioning of the system in spite of remaining undervalued and invisibilized. It has also been used by scholars like Donna Haraway and Thom Van Dooren to argue for multispecies justice against capitalist extractivism of the non-human, taking the term beyond its anthropocentric trajectories. Simply put, commodity production has relied on the extraction of natural resources and (re)production of people for labor supply, the burden of which has fallen on our environments and on women: and on women of color more than on their “white” sisters. In recent times, feminists have gone on strike against the care-lessness of capitalism, carried on through state austerity, defunding of care work (such as cleaning, teaching, nursing, childcare, elderly homes), and extractivist policies. These moments of resistance against undervaluing and invisibilizing “care,” have brought to light the need to formulate a new politics based on an ethics of care, where we can ensure maximum individual freedom through collective multispecies well-being and interdependence. We need to revisualize inter-dependence itself, beyond nations and empires, and set the practice of care free from neoliberal care chains, where it has come to embody oppression of peoples and exploitation of worlds. 

It is only fair to acknowledge the challenges of visualizing such a politics, and rewriting the language of the political. The decolonized anti-capitalist gender politics of care cannot only be a politics of inclusion or diversity. It has to be an affirmative politics of collective solidarity against power. As global politics prioritizes capital accumulation over human life, the burden has fallen on us to collectively demand better, and make those demands in solidarity with one another. We can no longer differentiate between class politics and identity politics, which has been the point of contention for long. In our present times where 80% of climate refugees are women of color, we can no longer talk of gender politics without aligning it with pro-environmental anti-capitalist movements, feminist strikes, and radical transgender organizing.

The grammars of this politics would be based on existing ideas of radical resistance and solidarities that our collective histories have forgotten, and herein lies the importance of decolonizing intellectual history. History as a discipline became institutionalized in an attempt to legitimize sovereign power, and since then it has always been implemented to serve the exploitative agenda of the powerful few. Historians of empire at present shoulder the burden of making the seemingly obvious argument that the colonized populations of the world, too, had a history! Similarly, for historians of gender, the central challenge has been to establish the fact that more than half of humanity, that is women and non-heterosexual peoples, were agents of historical change.

If the colonized peoples and other marginalized groups did not even have a “history” until recently, how could they have possibly produced ideas that are worth historicizing and narrativizing? This rhetorical question is to say that historians of ideas have inherited this racism and sexism which is woven into the methodological fabric of the historical discipline. The elite bias of intellectual history is a product of these structures of power which have shaped the discipline. By decolonizing intellectual history, we can assert that the thinker/philosopher/intellectual is no longer exclusively white and male. It means to uncover the tremendous revolutionary potential of ideas, no longer bound by gendered pronouns, heteronormative sexualities, race, caste, ethnicities, and nationalities. Therefore, to decolonize means to address this violent amnesia, and reincorporate peoples, cooperatives, collaborations, and commons, at the center stage. It calls for a rearrangement of the political: from the rational, empowered, consumerist, individual of liberal and neoliberal politics (who is also often a white man), to collectives and communities formed on the basis of anti-capitalist and anti-imperial solidarities. When we begin to take a closer look at those stories which imperialism, capitalism, feudalism, racism, casteism, and patriarchy had previously overwritten, we shall find within them the tools for imagining a decolonized politics of care.

Kalyani Thakur Charal has repeatedly addressed questions of capitalist alienation in her poems, and has pointed out the environmental and affective costs of capitalist development and imperialist politics, globally. Referring to herself as a Dalit-feminist poet, she has centred the intersectional nature of her politics time and again in her works. In the course of my research, I have uncovered these affective vocabularies of solidarity, in the vernacular intellectual archives of colonial India. Hemantabala Debi writing in early twentieth century Bengal in an essay titled “Untouchability” argued that the abolition of untouchability practices in India will only be possible when individuals realize that the greatest good for humanity lies not in individual independence (byaktigata svadhinata), but in ensuring the highest freedom for all through interdependence. Shruti Balaji’s ongoing doctoral research on Indian women’s political thought looks at non-western perspectives on anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal struggles in the twentieth century and uncovers similar genealogies of constructive solidarities. Milinda Banerjee’s monograph The Mortal God explores subaltern political thought by analyzing the discourses on sovereignty and kingship formulated by the Rajavamshi community in colonial India. His non-Anglocentric conceptual exploration of sovereignty provides, on one hand, a framework for decolonizing intellectual history. On the other hand, it provides a timely reminder of the subversive potential of subaltern political thought in non-divisive, humanistic, and emancipatory registers. To reiterate: we have affective vocabularies for imagining humanity beyond “differences” of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and class. The obfuscation of these models of egalitarian politics has been an intrinsic part of neoliberal epistemic violence in canonization of ideas, concepts, and their histories.

This conviction is based not just on my own research, but is inspired by the works of scholars like Sylvia Tamale, Françoise Vergès,Verónica Gago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Angela Davis, and others who through their scholarly activism and writings have made the same argument. More generally, my conviction is based on ongoing struggles against capital, waged by feminists, environmentalists, Dalit activists, Black Lives Matter activists—all of whom have illustrated how to forge anti-capitalist solidarities.

Neoliberal capitalism has extracted so much profit based on exploiting ostensible differences, that we find ourselves on the ground, struggling for what was once considered fundamental to life. Let us learn from this! Let us not be so alienated by these constructed differences, that we seek refuge within the atomistic individual. Instead, let us take a pledge of empathetic translation across differences, in order to realize this decolonized anti-capitalist politics of care. I use translation here in multiple ways: first, to denote a model of effective communication and exchange between registers that have evolved as fundamentally different in diverse historical contexts; second, to delineate an ontological practice where meaning-making is mediated through inter-dependence, rather than on one’s own; and thirdly, as a vehicle where collective sufferings of different kinds will unify in a shared intelligible register and create a unified front of radical revolutionary resistance against capital.

I have taken a while to reflect on how to conclude this piece only to realize that it cannot be concluded while our hearts, minds, and bodies continue to starve. It can only be evolved through diverse practices of demanding the bread and the roses, some of which I have only briefly touched upon here. This is why it needs to remain incomplete, without a conclusion. The only conclusion is to put this call out there, so that it can be updated, modified, and reformulated through practice. At this point in time, when I write this, it would be an act of authorial violence to conclude it. It will also be an inadequate and untimely conclusion: this is a time for initiations, not for conclusions. The only conclusion I can author is the point I started with, which is the need for building an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, anti-imperial politics of care which will inform our scholarship as intellectual historians. Apart from that, any other conclusion to this text is not mine alone to write, but for all of us to imagine and write together.

Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. For her Master’s degree, she wrote a dissertation titled “Beyond local and global narratives: Concept Histories of the Baidya Community in Colonial Bengal, c.1870-1930.” She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, and is funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947.” By using the lens of Social Reproduction Theory (and Marxist-feminist scholarship in general), it attempts to establish the importance of uncovering histories of marriage not just as legal or gender histories, but as the origin point of private property ownership and capitalist exploitation. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less) March, Argentina, 2018. Poster reads: The Alliance of Patriarchy and Capital is Criminal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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