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Capitalism and Orientalism

A new book examines the work of Edward Said in the light of Marxism, showing why imperialism can’t be understood in terms of culture alone.

Palestinian Cultural Mural honoring Edward Said, at San Francisco State University, July 27, 2012. Briantrejo / Wikimedia

Edward Said was one of the most influential and terrain-shifting intellectuals of the twentieth century. With a prodigious output of seventeen books and a staunch commitment to the Palestinian cause, Said is recognized throughout the academy as the founding father of postcolonial theory. His work has left a deep mark not only upon literary criticism, where his career took wing, but also with historians, musicologists, and social scientists.

Orientalism (1978), arguably Said’s most popular work, is a pioneering interrogation of the way the West constructs myths about the Orient and then turns those myths into systems of knowledge and justifications for imperial control. In his sequel Culture and Imperialism (1993), he builds on these foundations by tracing the presence of imperial frontiers, ambitions, and sentiments in Victorian and early modernist canonical texts.

Additional coverage of topics ranging from contemporary affairs, including the US war on Iraq and the Israeli Occupation, to music theory attest to an intellect of breath-taking range and expression. In titles such as The Politics of Dispossession (1994) and the autobiographical Out of Place (1999), Said ventures rich insights into states of displacement and exile under US and Israeli policies of invasion and annexation. An accomplished pianist, Said additionally published books on music — Musical Elaborations (1991) and On Late Style (2006) — often drawing on musical techniques to sharpen his postcolonial critique.

Despite his dynamic confrontation of Western racism and well-known championing of Palestinian rights to self-determination, Said’s investment in culture tends on the whole not to engage with political economy and important analytical categories such as class. His emphasis on collisions of cultures and nations rolls back decades of radical thought and practice from Marxist intellectuals — among them Marx himself, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Rodney, and C.L.R. James, to name but a few — who argued that capital accumulation was the motive force of imperial activity.

Marxist critique of the primacy of culture and nation over capitalism and social class gains force with each passing decade since the inception of postcolonial theory. After Said: Postcolonial Literary Studies in the Twenty-First Century, expertly curated and edited by Bashir Abu-Manneh, might be recognized as the first volume of its kind to gather under a single banner the most recent iterations of cultural materialist critique in response to Said’s work. The ideas within this book will find traction with students, graduates, and senior researchers in postcolonial studies, Victorian and modernist studies, cosmopolitan and refugee studies, as well as with political theorists.

This absorbing collection of essays engages with Said’s core concepts and outlines his achievements. In addition, it presents opportunities to refine, in some cases altogether to reject, some of Said’s ideas in the light of twenty-first-century historical findings and realities “on the ground.” These openings are especially broad around Said’s historical interpretations of the root causes of imperialism and its impacts in both the late modern and contemporary eras.

To that end, some pieces offer a more recognizably Marxist approach; some communicate alternative forms of radical dissent; others emphasize how Said’s ideas might be adapted to the empirical demands of the social sciences. As Abu-Manneh captures the logic behind these interventions: “Critical thought after Said requires radical reorientations.”

Essays contesting Said’s handling of nineteenth-century imperial history include thoughts from Bashir Abu-Manneh, Lauren M. E. Goodlad, and Vivek Chibber. Abu-Manneh and Goodlad persuasively take issue with Said’s tendency in Culture and Imperialism to read colonizing societies in monolithic terms or to tar with the same brush of complicity very different levels of imperial involvement and even proximity. As both insightfully reflect, the role of class is largely ignored in Said. As Goodlad notes, Said routinely extrapolated from his reading of nineteenth-century texts, largely written by and for the amusement of social elites, that the proletariat and bourgeoisie within imperial heartlands assumed the same colonial posture.

Chibber points to further opportunities for “radical orientations” around Said’s conceptions of the links between Western ideas about the East and nineteenth-century European imperialism. Said’s insistence on the causal links between Orientalism and colonialism, according to Chibber, is to be questioned, for discourse on its own cannot be made to account for Europe’s imperial ravages. Instead, a more useful way of thinking about the role of Orientalism is that it was a “rationalizing ideology,” designed to protect the economic interests of colonial powers. Chibber stresses that Said neglected to spotlight the economic ambitions of nineteenth-century imperialism.

Articles by Dougal McNeill, Joe Cleary, and Robert Spencer wrestle, in turn, with Said’s take on incarnations of Western power from the mid-twentieth century. McNeill challenges Said’s view of exile necessarily as a form of border crossing, in which “new territories” become open to investigation. This equation, says McNeill, cannot account for the situation of refugees who are forced into “immobility, permanent stasis, and constriction.” Here he cites as examples the 1.5 million Palestinian refugees who are “trapped, damaged or immobile” in UNWRA camps in the Levant, as well as refugees kept in the Australian state’s “offshore detention facilities” in the Pacific.

Cleary, meanwhile, considers how the latest developments in areas of world literature analysis can qualify some of Said’s assertions about European cultural hegemony. Cleary observes that Said seldom dwelled on “Third World” contexts of literary production and reveals how twenty-first-century comparative literary scholarship grapples with responses to global “power politics” and “cultural interchange” to be found in cultures outside of Europe and the US. Major centers of culture in Soviet Russia and in late modern China, for example, sought to compete with the Eurocentrism of Western literary history, producing both reactionary and progressive visions of empire. The very existence of these literary centers suggests, in Cleary’s words, “a polycentric, intersecting, and contested literary universe” in ways that can nuance Said’s theories.

One might add to Cleary’s representative survey of world literature scholarship the trendsetting work of the UK-based Warwick Research Collective (WReC), whose world-systems analysis of literature revives Leon Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development.

After Said ends with a particularly polished and incisive piece by Spencer, who covers Said’s views on the Iraq War. While Said may have said very little about the imperial race for profit and material resources at the height of colonial expansion, his alertness to the centrality of economic interests in the context of the US war on Iraq marks a shift. Spencer extends what he perceives to be a welcome if underdeveloped recognition of capitalist incentives in Said.

At the same time, Spencer makes an important case for keeping the politics and machinery of the state firmly in sight. Capitalism may be the most important catalyst for territorial conquest, but for its most nefarious permutations requires the combined ingredients of political plotting and the fear of waning power. Drawing on Giovanni Arrighi’s forays into political economy, Spencer cogently shows why the Iraq War ultimately marks the decline of US power.

The admirable strides in After Said to aright or modify some of Said’s claims, to my mind, empower future scholars of empire to take Marxism more seriously. By that, I mean that researchers are invited not merely to re-center capitalism at the heart of imperial analysis. Marxism, as Raymond Williams memorably reminds us, is hardly a “settled” body of work but includes many “variants” and a great capacity to “interact with other forms of thinking.”

To embark on a Marxist critique of imperialism is to pay closer heed to what Williams called “the specificities of material cultural and literary production within historical materialism.” Put simply, economics, history, politics, and lived experiences must remain central to any Marxist analysis of colonialism and empire. It is with good reason that After Said, a book that wonderfully encompasses each of these material dimensions, is dedicated jointly to Raymond Williams and Edward Said.