Listening to Black lives matter: racial capitalism and the critique of neoliberalism
By locating capitalism in relation to other structures of oppression, BLM unsettles the often rigid boundary between the theorization of capitalism and that of white supremacy, anti-Black racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and Indigenous dispossession.
The demand also establishes a connection between structural racism and the economy; the former ‘shapes’ or configures the latter. This relationship between structural racism and the economic system is not simply confined to the era of founding or antebellum slavery, but continues to exist and has been reproduced across generations. An analytical claim that can be distilled from this demand’s explanation is that racial domination is constitutive of, rather than epiphenomenal to, the United States’s economy.
As an unfolding social movement, one of BLM’s goals is to reveal the systemic nature of anti-Black racism in the United States and globally (Taylor, 2016). A facet of this larger project is to expose and politicize the fact that the capitalist economy is constituted by a racial logic. The need to politicize the link between capitalism and racial domination is itself a response to how this link has been depoliticized and concealed by liberal and influential left theorists of capitalism. The platform’s analysis is thus strikingly different from colorblind understandings of capitalism. By evading the ways racial domination structures neoliberalism, Harvey and Brown depoliticize and obscure the entanglement between racial domination and the capitalist economy.
In Black Marxism, Robinson (2000) contends that capitalism, from its emergence, is structured by ‘racialism’. For Robinson, ‘racialism’, understood as the legitimation of an existing social order by reference to ‘natural’ biological and/or cultural characteristics, emerges not in the colonial encounter between Europeans and non-Europeans, but in feudal, intra-European relations that preceded that encounter (pp. 66–68). At the same time, and against Marx and Engels’s understanding of capitalism as the radical negation of feudalism, Robinson argues that capitalism extended a feudal emphasis on racial differentiation between different groups into an emerging world-system (see Kelley, 2017). Consequently, Robinson makes the structural argument that the ‘tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate – to exaggerate regional, subcultural, dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones’ (2000, pp. 26–27; emphasis mine). This claim about capitalism’s tendency to differentiate, rather than homogenize as Marx and Engels theorized, forms the nucleus of Robinson’s understanding of racial capitalism (Bhattacharrya, 2018, p. 11).
Tracking the unfolding of the capitalist world-system in relation to the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of the Americas, Robinson argues that assigning slave labor to a pre-capitalist stage of history is a mistake. In opposition to Marx’s developmentalism and characterization of slave labor as part of ‘primitive accumulation’,8 Robinson explains that slave labor persisted for three hundred years following the emergence of modern capitalism, and complemented ‘wage labour, peonage, serfdom and other methods of labour coercion’ (2000, p. 4). This focus on slavery opposes traditional Marxist accounts (see Wood, 1999; Post, 2012) in two ways: first, the privileged site of Marxist analysis is the relation between capital and ‘free’ wage-labor. In this respect, slave labor is seen as an anomaly to capitalism (since it is un-waged and ‘unfree’). Second, placing slavery as prior or external to capitalism means that the ‘Marxist critique of capitalism is unable to grasp the complex combination of both waged and un-waged labor that makes up the relations of production in modern capitalism’ (Lowe, 2015, p. 149; also see Banaji, 2003). Rather than locating colonization and the Atlantic slave trade outside the orbit of capitalism’s development, Robinson thus establishes the centrality of slavery and so-called extra-economic forms of coercion within the world-system of racial capitalism.
A salient feature of this account is that it underscores the historical importance of Black labor (especially in the form of racial slavery) in capitalism’s actual global development. Here, Robinson extends and builds on insights from what he terms ‘the Black radical tradition’, comprised of thinkers such as W.E.B Du Bois and C.L.R James. Thus, structurally, capitalism is racial capitalism: ‘the organization, expansion, and ideology of capitalist society was [and is] expressed through race, racial subjection, and racial differences’ (Lowe, 2015, p. 149; also see, Melamed, 2015; Kelley, 2017). One of the reasons why the framework of racial capitalism might be especially appealing to BLM, then, is that it overcomes the blindspot around race in Marx’s and Engels’s theorization of capitalism and in certain contemporary appropriations of Marx (see Melamed, 2015).
In contrast to Harvey’s and Brown’s separations of racial domination from neoliberalism, the framework of racial capitalism allows the policy platform to theoretically ground the connections between the histories and ongoing legacies of racialized expropriation such as slavery and colonialism and the contemporary material-economic situation of Black populations. Given BLM’s overall goal to expose and politicize anti-Black racism, it makes sense that the movement’s knowledge-practices employ racial capitalism, and not simply colorblind critiques of capitalism. More boldly, the main import of Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism for BLM is its ability to explain the persistence of racial domination within capitalist society without treating race as merely superstructural or irrelevant to regimes of capital accumulation.
The notion of racial capitalism comprehends the imbrication between regimes of capital accumulation and the racial-colonial domination of land and human populations. Indeed, the framework of racial capitalism highlights how capitalism works through a logic of wage-labor exploitation, while simultaneously relying on racialized and gendered logics of expropriation, ranging from the seizure of Indigenous lands to the extraction of surplus value via regimes of ‘unfree’ labor (slavery, debt peonage, convict leasing, gendered reproductive labor, etc.). In contrast, left analyses of neoliberalism that lack this perspective of racial capitalism are unable to grasp the qualitatively different mechanisms through which the land and labor of particular racialized populations, in distinction to ‘ideal’ (historically, ‘white’) citizen-workers, have and continue to be pressed into circuits of capital accumulation. Consequently, such critiques of neoliberalism fail to provide adequate explanations for why non-white racialized populations are asymmetrically affected by the violence of neoliberalism, perpetuating the norm of colorblind left critiques (see the introduction of Roediger, 2017). These critiques normatively universalize the experience of the white subject under neoliberalism, while depoliticizing and disavowing the markedly different experiences of non-white racialized populations. Finally, in terms of political praxis, such analyses lend themselves to either explicitly or implicitly casting racialized, gendered, and sexualized populations as concerned with ‘identity issues’ and impeding from the ‘real’ fight against capital.
To avoid the pitfalls of critical accounts of neoliberalism identified in the first two sections and briefly reiterated above, it is imperative to develop a critical theory of racial capitalism. Such a theory has two goals: firstly, to theorize how race is central rather than epiphenomenal to the logic of capital, and, secondly, to account for racialized continuities in capitalism’s violence, underscoring how neoliberalism builds on these historical continuities.
As a rich and diverse body of scholarship has revealed, focusing on the extraction of surplus value from ‘free’ labor offers an incomplete understanding of the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. Marxist feminists, for one, have noted how social reproduction, unpaid and deeply gendered, provides the necessary ‘background’ conditions for the exploitation of wage workers (Federici, 2004; Mies, 2014). Relatedly, M4BL’s policy platform argues that racial capitalism and various discriminatory institutions, practices, and laws in the United States have ‘for centuries’ denied Black populations ‘equal access to the wealth created by their labor’ (Movement for Black Lives, 2016). In other words, racialized economic disparities have often been driven by the absence of the wage-labor relation (Chen, 2013). Michael Dawson (2016), for instance, explains that race historically and contemporarily separates those ‘who possess the right to sell their labor and compete within markets’ (exploitation) and those that are ‘disposable, discriminated against, and ultimately either eliminated or superexploited’ (expropriation) (p. 151). Alongside capitalist exploitation, then, it is essential to account for the violent, ‘extra-economic’ forms of domination that have continually fueled capitalism. To better comprehend the interplay between capital accumulation, regimes of ‘free’/‘unfree’ labor, and the socio-political terrain, I thus conceptualize capitalism not as a narrow economic system, but as an ‘institutionalized social order’
The first step in formulating a critical theory of racial capitalism entails broadening our understanding of capitalism beyond traditional Marxist accounts that largely center on the exploitation of wage-labor in the production process. This is necessary to grasp the structural ways capital relies on and is organized by racial domination and patriarchy.
Instead of separating analyses of capitalism, particularly capital’s logic, from analyses of racial domination, it is necessary to grasp the ways the capitalist world-system, since its inception, has been powered by a racialized dialectic of exploitation and expropriation. From this perspective, racial domination structures capital’s violence, and is visibly expressed in the exploitation and expropriation dialectic, the social division of labor, and the creation of what Chen (2013) labels ‘global surplus humanity’.
In this respect, future work on racial capitalism might illuminate the interrelations between settler colonialism, racial slavery and its afterlives, social reproduction, and capitalism.
Indeed, this framework offers a political rejoinder to sectors of the left that inadequately attend to the ways race and capitalism are connected. Firstly, in presenting racial domination as extraneous to the material and subjective relations of capitalism, particularly neoliberal capitalism, such analyses effectively unmoor racial domination from political economy. This cedes ground to psychologistic, attitudinal, and individualized conceptions of racial domination, producing forms of anti-racism largely concerned with individual prejudice. Against this disaggregation of race from capitalism, the critical theory of racial capitalism sketched here identifies the precise ways race and other ‘identity-categories’ are rooted in and condition the material functioning of capitalism.10
Second, instead of blaming struggles around race, gender, and sexuality as breaking up an imagined ‘unity’ and distracting from an authentic, ‘real’ struggle, the lens of racial capitalism calls into question the existence of an organically unified proletariat or working class. Working through a logic of differentiation, rather than homogenization, the framework of racial capitalism reveals how ‘free’ wage-labor exploitation is predicated on racialized and gendered regimes of expropriation. Interrupting the persistent reproduction of racial capitalism – a regime held together by the cross-class glue of white supremacy – must thus involve intense effort to bridge the exploitation and expropriation continuum. Of course, building solidarity to bridge this continuum requires political organizing that is committed to both anti-racism and anti-capitalism.
Finally, an analysis of racial capitalism is especially valuable because it offers a more unified framework to understand the relations between race and the logics of capital accumulation. Such a framework provides a theoretical foundation for why anti-racism needs to be central, rather than an afterthought, to anti-capitalist politics. While the sentiment held by many on the left in 2016 (this holds, in some ways, for 2020 too) was the need for the movement supporting Bernie Sanders and BLM to ‘cross-fertilize’ (Fraser, 2016, p. 178), my theorization of racial capitalism offers a more nuanced approach to the problem. Instead of hoping for these two movements to align, keeping in mind that these movements are not mutually exclusive but have significant overlaps, a critical theory of racial capitalism invites the mainstream left to re-orient their analysis of race and capitalism by engaging with the knowledge-practices of BLM and the Black radical tradition more broadly. This article has taken a step in that direction, outlining how the framework of racial capitalism shifts and expands more traditional understandings of capitalism. A critical theory of racial capitalism thus offers the possibility to move past both colorblind analyses of capitalism and the entrenched class-versus-identity debate that has for decades roiled the American left.