A critique of “Orientalism” through the spirit of Marx

Submitted by AWL on 17 June, 2014 - 6:05

“Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” Edward Said

Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world. It effectively inverts this dual camp but with a method devoid of class politics.

Said opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.

Said attributes three interdependent terrains to Orientalism: the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), “the Orient” and “the Occident”; and, commencing from the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authoriding views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it”.

Said reviews Orientalism as a western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.

Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance: “[p]sychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia”.

“Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma.” (Edward Said)

There is nothing, in and of itself, problematic about the above statement; its intended meaning is understandable even outside its related paragraph, chapter, and book, and yet Said’s Orientalism has given birth to a climate on the left for such statements to be all-too-swiftly labelled as “Islamophobic” and racist.

The depiction of the Near East, the Arab world, and Islam by the contemporary Orientalist lens is regarded by Said as especially bad, for four reasons:

1. The weight of history in respect to anti-Islamic and anti-Arab prejudice;

2. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or rather “the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism, and its effects upon American Jews as well as upon both the liberal culture and the population at large”;

3. A cultural vacuum that makes it impossible to discuss Islam or the Arabs in a way that identifies with either or is composed;

4. “Because the Middle East is now so identified with Great power politics, oil economics, and the simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs, the chances of anything like a clear view of what one talks about in talking about the Near East are depressingly small.”

The historical relationship of Orientalism to Islam is explained as follows:

“To the West, […] Islam was militant hostility to European Christianity. To overcome […] the Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers, and judges […]”

In the contemporary hegemonic Western (specifically, American) popular culture of film and television, Said states, “the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. […] Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.”

The possibility of an independent vantage point and independent class politics is simply ruled out, since, “when Orientals struggle against colonial occupation, you must say (in order not to risk a Disneyism) that Orientals have never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do. When some Orientals oppose racial discrimination while others practice it, you say “they’re all Orientals at bottom” and class interest, political circumstances, economic factors are totally irrelevant. […] History, politics, and economics do not matter. Islam is Islam, the Orient is the Orient, and please take all your ideas about a left and a right-wing, revolutions, and change back to Disneyland.”

But what does Said have to say of independent working class agency and self-government in the Marxist tradition? This leads us back to the quote at the start of Orientalism and to the substance of Said’s rebuke of Marx and Marxism.

Three sources of Marx are directly referenced in Orientalism as the basis for Said’s critique of Marxism: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The British Rule in India, and The Further Results of British Rule in India.

One sentence from The Eighteenth Brumaire is out plucked twice: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”. I will show just how much Said departs from, and subsequently exploits and distorts, the original meaning of this sentence.

Quoting briefly from Marx’s The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, Said problematise what he describes as the puzzlement of Marx’s paradoxical position on colonialism and the Orient. A puzzle, that is, until Said expounds that the Marxist discourse is inseparable from the Orientalist discourse:

“Karl Marx identified the notion of an Asiatic economic system in this 1853 analysis of British rule in India, and then put beside that immediately the human depredation introduced into this system by English colonial interference, rapacity, and outright cruelty. In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution. Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations.

“[…] Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged. Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out

“[…]The idea of regenerating a fundamentally lifeless Asia is a piece of pure Romantic Orientalism, of course, but coming from the same writer who could not easily forget the human suffering involved, the statement is puzzling.

“[…] It is as if the individual mind (Marx’s, in this case) could find a precollective, preofficial individuality in Asia — find and give in to its pressures upon his emotions, feelings, senses — only to give it up when he confronted a more formidable censor in the very vocabulary he found himself forced to employ.”

Rather than accept Said’s verdict that Marx incoherently and inconsistently abhors British imperial rule in India but ultimately welcomes it as a progressive force for necessary regeneration due to his heart being beaten by his head, which is inescapably arrested by the discourse of Orientalism, I will argue that Marx’s analysis and conclusion are not problematic.

Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a brilliant polemic written in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution when Louis Napoleon seized power in France in December 1851. It is an exploration of the relationship between class politics and the state.

Marx’s first theme is a general one, that of the connection between the force of human agency and the force of human history:

“[Humans] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.”

Marx issues a warning that revolutionary upheaval may dangerously and manipulatively dredge up the past, which the energy of a genuinely social revolution must resist. In this respect, he distinguishes between bourgeois revolutions and the critical praxis of proletarian revolutions:

“Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men [sic] and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticise themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and paltrinesses of their first attempts […]”

Marx’s second theme is specific to the events proceeding the 1848 revolution, up to and including Louis Napoleon’s coup d-état of 1851, and the consequent banishment of the former gains of the revolution, such as “liberté, égalite, fraternité”:

“...All has vanished like a phantasmagoria before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not make out to be a magician. Universal suffrage seems to have survived only for a moment, in order that with its own hand it may make its last will and testament before the eyes of all the world and declare in the name of the people itself: All that exists deserves to perish.”

The third theme is where Said’s quote by Marx — “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” — is located, and it concerns the nature of Louis Napoleon’s state and the interrelated nature of its demographic base, the small-holding peasants:

“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is increased by Frances’s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants.

“[…] They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.”

Marx’s conclusion makes especially clear his assessment of the state from the perspective of independent class politics; and what’s more, it underlines the inappropriateness of Said’s plunder to support his allegation of Marxism-as-Orientalism:

“Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another. […] He would like to steal the whole of France in order to be able to make a present of her to France or, rather, in order to be able to buy France anew with French money, for as the chief of the Society of 10 December he must needs buy what ought to belong to him.”

So when Marx wrote the line, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”, it directly refers to an analysis of the isolated nature of the social base of Louis Napoleon’s anti-democratic, bureaucratic state (the small-holding peasants); a state that Marx critiqued as a violation and a ruination of the relative gains of the 1848 French Revolution.

But when Marx’s quote is used by Said in Orientalism, it reads as an unambivalent reference to an Orientalist dual camp position that: the poor and downtrodden working classes cannot represent themselves, thus “us” Marxists must do this job for “them”.

To understand more, it is necessary to point out the inherent characteristics of Marx’s general methodology and critique of capitalism.

Dialectical materialism is a means to understanding societal change, for history is not linear but thrusts forward in a tense and fitful manner — reminiscent, for example, of Marx’s discussion of revolutions in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. As Friedrich Engels reminds us about dialectical philosophy in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886):

“Nothing is final, absolute, sacred. […] nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away […]”

With this in mind, Marx and Engels, in the opening chapter of The Communist Manifesto (1848), describe the globalisation of capitalism as pregnant with contradictory possibilities and constraints, which give birth to:

• creative destruction — “[al]ll that is solid melts into air”;

• social evolution — “all that is holy is profaned”;

• social intercourse — “[i]n place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction”;

• working class agency — capitalism “produces, above all, […] its own grave-diggers”.

Here Marx and Engels are assessing capitalism’s dialectical nature: the closures in its innate, mindless exploitation and inequality, and the openings in its destruction of past reactionary forms of existence and the creative potential of universal internationalism and interconnectedness between human being. Marx and Engels conclude by recognising the working class — a product of capitalism — as central to overthrowing capitalism.

Turning now to The British Rule in India and The Further Results of British Rule in India, it is perfectly consistent that Marx should analyse the specific entry and operation of British capital in India as also general to global capital:

“There cannot […] remain any doubt but that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before. […] England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing.” (The British Rule in India)

“The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it. But now the tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication. They intend now drawing a net of railroads over India. And they will do it. The results must be inappreciable.

“[…] The devastating effects of English industry, when contemplated with regard to India

“[…] are palpable and confounding. But we must not forget that they are only the organic results of the whole system of production as it is now constituted. That production rests on the supreme rule of capital.” (The Further Results of British Rule in India)

It is the following two quotes that actually appear in Orientalism and from which Said concludes that Marx is clearly “Romantic and even messianic”:

“Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.

“[…] England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind [sic] fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution. Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe:

“Sollte these Qual uns quälen

Da sie unsre Lust vermehrt,

Hat nicht myriaden Seelen

Timur’s Herrschaft aufgezehrt?”

“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating — the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”

There are three aspects to these two extracts which Said bypasses:

1. the juxtaposition of an “Oriental despotism” to a dialectical, thus contradictory, social evolution through the globalisation of capital;

2. past, constraining, reactionarism giving way, through creative destruction, to present and future possibilities of social intercourse;

3. no credit to be given to the extremely unpleasant and unintelligent English bourgeoisie who are nonetheless bound up with this revolutionary change.

This final quote, concluding The Further Results of British Rule in India, makes plain Marx’s independent class politics:

“Modern industry, resulting from the railway-system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power. All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both.

“Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation? The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

None of this corresponds with Said’s thesis of a Romantic and messianic Orientalism ultimately determining Marx’s thought.

With reference to Antonio Gramsci, Said makes a distinction between political coercion and non-coercion, and sees the might, resilience, and permanence of Orientalism as non-coercive hegemony. Fatefully, I conclude, in Said’s interpretation of Gramsci’s hegemony an “anti-dialectical inescapability” takes hold:

“I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact — and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. […] he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.”

The absence of class politics is stark. Do we come up against the Orient solely on the basis of our nationality and colonial burden? Does that not intersect with our socio-economic position and class relation (and indeed with our gender, ethnicity, and sexuality), and with our own “independent” politics? Said’s Orientalism chimes much with the contemporary popularity of privilege theory. Whilst Marxism recognises human consciousness as dialectically shaped by conditions of existence through space and time, privilege theory (like Orientalism) is predicated on an unchanging status, i.e., privilege (in this case, as a member of the Occident).

It is worth further exploring Said’s application of hegemony, in particular its echoes of Louis Althusser.

Althusser is considered to progress the ideas of Marx on the basis that Marx conceives of a dream-like ideology called “false consciousness”, which hides and misleads workers from the exploitation of the economic base. Yet such a term and concept is to be found nowhere in Marx’s writings!

For Althusser, in his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, “ideology” (contrary to false consciousness) represents an already existing “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. Althusser claims that we are largely unaware of the ideological make-up of our reality, except when or if we come up against the state. Beyond the repressive state apparatus (the police and the army), the individual exists within realities structured by various ‘ideological state apparatuses’, i.e., non-coercive hegemony:

“What thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology.”

Notably, the material for Althusser differs in meaning from the material for Marx. For the former, it refers to the ideas and representations that are bound up with practice. For the latter, as Marx (1845-46) explains in The German Ideology, material reality is something that can be known (in other words, it is possible to see beyond ideology):

“We do not set out from what [humans] say, imagine, conceive, nor from [humans] as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at [humans] in the flesh. We set out from real, active [humans], and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.”

This Althusserian legacy goes some way to explaining the inescapability of Said’s hegemony-ideology-Orientalism (a departure from Gramsci) and Said’s methodology.

So, on the Orientalist text, Said makes plain that he is not concerned with “the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original”, but rather with “style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances”. And while he concedes the importance of finding present-day alternatives to studying the Orient — “from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective” — this is left, in his own words, “embarrassingly incomplete”. And yet this is hardly surprising since his inverted dual camp does not provide space for international-wide, independent working class agency.

I end then with Said’s description of the present-day Orientalism of the US, in which those of the so-called Arab and Third World are merely “passive dupes”:

“My point is that the relationship is a one-sided one, with the United States a selective customer of a very few products (oil and cheap manpower, mainly), the Arabs highly diversified consumers of a vast range of United States products, material and ideological. This has had many consequences. There is a vast standardisation of taste in the region, symbolised not only by transistors, blue jeans, and Coca-Cola but also by cultural images of the Orient supplied by American mass media and consumed unthinkingly by the mass television audience.”


Submitted by Barry Finger on Wed, 06/18/2014 - 14:16

For an informative supplement to Camila's insightful piece, readers might find this useful: