Key thinker: Dipesh Chakrabarty (1948–)
Dipesh Chakrabarty (1948–)
Dipesh Chakrabarty was born in Calcutta, India. He received his BA in Physics from Presidency College (University of Calcutta) before studying for a Diploma in Management from the Institute of Management in Calcutta. In 1984, Chakrabarty earned his PhD in History from the Australian National University in Canberra. Chakrabarty has held vising fellowships at universities around the world, including the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi (https://www.amacad.org/person/dipesh-chakrabarty). He is a founding editor of the journal Postcolonial Studies and has served on the editorial boards of Public Culture and American Historical Review (https://www.amacad.org/person/dipesh-chakrabarty). Chakrabarty is Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago (https://history.uchicago.edu/directory/dipesh-chakrabarty).
Chakrabarty is a multidisciplinary thinker with a background in South Asian and planetary history, Marxist political economy and 20th century theories of globalization (see 37.1. Introduction). He is a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Group (see 24.2.2. Subaltern Studies in Chapter 24 on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), a collective of South Asian scholars whose pioneering work on history from below has shaped the development of postcolonial studies. Apart from co-founder Ranajit Guha (see Key Thinker: Ranajit Guha), other scholars associated with the group include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Gyan Pandey, and David Hardiman. The Subaltern Studies Group were inspired by Gramscian Marxism (see 9.3.1. Key thinker: Gramsci in Chapter 9 on Rousseau), and set out to show how changes in material conditions are reflected in peasant consciousness. The Subaltern Studies project challenged Eurocentric historicism while revealing the possibilities for emancipatory politics in South Asia.
Chakrabarty is best known for Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000), which challenges Eurocentric conceptions of modernity based on a linear interpretation of universal history. He rejects ‘stagist’ theories of history which argue that modernity, capitalism, and civilization first appear in Europe and are only later ‘exported’ elsewhere. Chakrabarty takes issue with Karl Marx’s universal theory of history (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx) which, he argues, is symptomatic of a form of historicism. He shows that such historicism cannot explain the postcolonial condition, since it fails to account for how seemingly non-modern or non-secular practices influence and shape modern institutions in the global south, especially in India. Therefore, he argues, we must expand our concept of political modernity to include non-modern and non-secular ways of understanding history and the past. But this would require a break with the linear temporal frame that structures modern European historical thought.
Chakrabarty’s recent work has focused on the issue of anthropogenic climate change, and how it affects how we think about politics and history (see Key Concept: Anthropocene). The Anthropocene is an unofficial unit of geological time that refers to a new epoch in history in which humans have become a geophysical force that negatively affects the planet’s climate (see 37.1. Introduction). The exploitation of the earth’s natural resources from the 19th century onwards has led to unexpected shifts in weather patterns and more extreme weather events like floods or droughts. (Chakrabarty’s ecological thinking was triggered by his experience of the Millennium Drought in Australia.) Moreover, it has led to the rapid loss of biodiversity (see 37.2. What is the Anthropocene?). The Anthropocene severely affects human societies’ ability to inhabit the planet, which is increasingly unable to sustain the necessary conditions for biological life. The climate crisis, then, calls for a new form of political thinking which brings together climate and social sciences or human and natural history to examine the interplay between human and planetary forces and show that nature is not merely a backdrop to human activities (see Key Points: 37.2. What is the Anthropocene?).
There are, however, several challenges that stand in the way of developing a planetary history. First, the social and climate sciences use different, and sometimes conflicting, conceptual, and methodological tools to address specific questions. These must somehow be brought in line with each other. Second, social and political divisions make it difficult to organize coordinated action on climate change, which must be addressed collectively on a planetary level. Third, it requires us to make intelligible events like the Anthropocene, which unfold on a non-human scale. Chakrabarty argues that the social sciences must rethink human agency in terms of geological and historical time (see 37.2.1. Historical Time and Geological Time). While the former tells us something about the process of climate change, only the latter can convey the sense of agency that helps us address the climate crisis. While historical time is part of geological time, it is human-centric and focused on recording events that have meaning for human societies. Historical time is divided into recorded history (all history recorded by human societies in signs and writing) and deep history (all human history) (see Key Concept: Recorded and Deep History). Deep history offers a way to challenge teleological histories, which foreground Europe and have dominated recorded history.
Chakrabarty argues that human freedom has historically relied on the extraction of non-renewable resources (see 37.3. A story of globalisation and capitalism: freedom and fossil fuels). He argues that the rise of fossil fuel extraction in the 20th century drove economic growth which led to improvements in life expectancy across the world. Improvements in food production or transportation, for example, gave people material freedom that was key to their physical survival (see 37.3.1. Freedom). Because other material freedoms, like the expansion of consumer goods, are valued by people and societies, our conception of freedom has become inextricably linked to the freedom to produce, reproduce, and consume. These freedoms are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which links the free use of natural resources and wealth to the sovereignty and autonomy of individuals and states. Therefore, Chakrabarty argues, modern society sanctions the destruction of our natural environment by emphasising the value of our ‘freedom’ to exploit and extract natural resources.
For Chakrabarty, capitalism is not to blame for our reliance on fossil fuels and the climate crisis it has unleashed (see 37.3.2. Global capitalism). While he acknowledges that Western-led globalization has instituted the activities linked to climate change on a global level (through colonialism and imperialism, for example), he argues that capitalism was preceded by other extractive economic systems. Chakrabarty insists the Anthropocene must be thought at the level of planetary and not global history, which concerns itself with the social questions of human-centred socio-economic systems (see 37.3. The global and the planetary). The Anthropocene is a species-wide problem that affects all of humanity in the long run (see Key Concept: Humanity and Human Species). Therefore, mitigating its effects does not merely require us to abolish capitalism, but to rethink our relationship with the natural world and our theory of justice (see 37.5. Justice-sensitivity and justice-blindness). Because the Anthropocene is a planetary process that leads to existential risks for all species, a human-centred theory of justice (see Chapter 32 on John Rawls) cannot meet the political challenges we face.
Chakrabarty’s critics have pointed out that this argument shifts the responsibility for a climate crisis from extractivist corporations to an abstract humanity (see 37.3.4. Critical debates and defence). Such essentialism contrasts with his earlier work in Subaltern studies, which sought to deconstruct universalist views of human history. Moreover, he ignores that rich and poor people, or those in the global north and south, might be affected differently by the Anthropocene. Rich people, for example, can just move away from a coastal area that has been flooded due to rising sea levels, an option that is not available to poor people whose movements are restricted by race, class, gender, or nationality. Donna Haraway and other Marxist-inspired critics (see Chapter 38 on Donna Haraway) have instead proposed the concept of the Capitalocene or Chthulucene, which more accurately describes how climate change shapes and is shaped by prevailing capitalist social relations.
Chakrabarty, D. (2021) The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.
Chakrabarty, D. (2008) Provincializing Europe. 2nd edn. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Haraway Donna (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Moore Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. 1st ed. New York: Verso.