There is … a great deal more to be said for post-colonial studies … Whatever its romantic illusions and secret self regard, this most rapidly growing [1999] sector of literary criticism signals the entry onto the Western cultural stage, for the first time in its history, of those the West has most injured and abused. …But there are discreditable as well as creditable reasons for the speedy surfacing of post-colonialism, and [Gayatri Chakravorty] Spivak remains for the most part silent about them [in her book, reviewed here by Terry Eagleton, A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present]. Its birth, for example, followed in the wake of the defeat, at least for the present, of both class struggle in Western societies and revolutionary nationalism in the previously colonised world. American students who, through no fault of their own, would not recognise class struggle if it perched on the tip of their skateboards, or who might not be so keen on the Third World if some of its inhabitants were killing their fathers and brothers in large numbers, can vicariously fulfil their generously radical impulses by displacing oppression elsewhere. This move leaves them plunged into fashionably postmodern gloom about the ‘monolithic’ benightedness of their own social orders. It is as if the depleted, disorientated subject of the consumerist West comes by an extraordinary historical irony to find an image of itself in the wretched of the earth. If ‘margins’ are now much in vogue, it is partly because those who inhabit them clamour for political justice, and partly because a generation bereft of political memory has cynically abandoned all hope for the ‘centre’. Like most US feminism, post-colonialism is a way of being politically radical without necessarily being anti-capitalist, and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a ‘post-political’ world.

For all his dyspepsia about the shock-headed Marxists, not to speak of his apparent willingness to shop Communists to the state, [George] Orwell’s politics are much more far-reaching than his conventionally-minded prose would suggest. With much post-colonial writing, the situation is just the reverse. Its flamboyant theoretical [theatrical] avant-gardism conceals a rather modest political agenda. Where it ventures political proposals at all, which is rare enough, they hardly have the revolutionary élan of its scandalous speculations on desire or the death of Man or the end of History. This is a feature shared by Derrida, Foucault and others like them [sic], who veer between a cult of theoretical ‘madness’ or ‘monstrosity’ and a more restrained, reformist sort of politics, retreating from the one front to the other depending on the direction of the critical figure.

Gayatri Spivak’s own politics are as elusive as her thought-processes … At times, she will speak positively about the need for new laws, health and education systems, relations of production; at other times, in familiar post-colonial style, her emphasis is less on transformation than on resistance. Resistance suggests militant action, but also implies that the political buck is always elsewhere. It is a convenient doctrine for those who dislike what the system does while doubting that they will ever be strong enough to bring it down. … The current system of power can be ceaselessly ‘interrupted’, deferred or ‘pushed away’, but to try to get beyond it altogether is the most credulous form of utopianism.

Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essay on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others, Verso, London, 2003, pp. 163-165