Lecture given to the ICS Key Thinkers and Concepts Series. I have included both the recording of the lecture on Zoom (which is in two parts) and the text and slides below that.
The text and accompanying slides of the lecture follow:
Universities are built on sovereign Aboriginal lands. Western Sydney University operates on the lands of the Darug, Tharawal, Eora and Wiradjuri nations.
And I am joining you from the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I would like to pay my respects to their elders, past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here. I remind myself and all of us that – whatever country we are on – these always were and always will be Aboriginal lands. I try to incorporate a critical reflection on my own role as a migrant-settler on Gadigal lands, the benefits that accrue to me as a result, and how I can use spaces like today’s lecture to question why things are the way they are.
This lecture is a general overview of the theory of racial capitalism.
Over recent years, as Charisse Burden-Stelly remarks, racial capitalism has ‘ascended across the humanities and social sciences. It has arisen as a conceptual framework to understand the mutually constitutive nature of racialization and capitalist exploitation… on a global scale, in specific localities, in discrete historical moments, in the entrenchment of the carceral state, and in the era of neoliberalization and permanent war.’
Many people have identified the concept with the work of Cedric Robinson in his book Black Marxism which, although published in 1983, gained prominence after his death in 2017. It might be said that, in the context of the Trump presidency, a growing dissatisfaction with analyses of race based on identity rather than more material concerns, also contributed to the popularisation of racial capitalism as a framing concept. Racial capitalism is also a good framework for some of the central concerns of Indigenous peoples under settler colonialism in Australia, North and South America or Palestine, as the centrality of land fits well with the emphasis in racial capitalism on dispossession, exploitation and extraction.
As Jodi Melamed writes, ‘accumulation under capitalism is necessarily expropriation of labour, land, and resources’ (p. 78)
[Jodi Melamed. (2015). Racial Capitalism. Critical Ethnic Studies, 1(1), 76. https://doi.org/10.5749/jcritethnstud.1.1.0076]
Also, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore highlights, growing attention to the racialised injustices of the carceral system in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement is also served by the racial capitalism lens. Racial capitalism, according to Gilmore (cited in Melamed) is a technology of antirelationality. In other words, it works to reduce collective life to only the relations that allow neoliberal capitalism to function. According to Melamed, this means that different forms of humanity are separated or partitioned in order to better serve ‘who can relate and under what terms’.
We can see, therefore, that racial capitalism severs human interrelationship and the connection between humans, the land, waters, and other sentient beings. It potentiates us for service to capitalist accumulation rather than for the collective enrichment of ourselves in symbiosis with the earth. As such, it is an excellent framework for understanding some of the most pressing problems facing us today, first and foremost climate disaster. However, it does so by enabling us to understand the racialised dynamics of this crisis birthed as it is in western domination over and extraction from the majority of the earth’s surface, wrested from the hands of its Indigenous custodians.
These problems are beyond the scope of this lecture, but I am mentioning them to emphasise why racial capitalism is such a generative framework.
Today, I will present a more narrow account, focusing on the origins of racial capitalism and some of the debates it has generated.
First, I will make some introductory remarks about what racial capitalism is and what it is not, based on Gargi Bhattacharyya’s work in Rethinking Racial Capitalism.
[Bhattacharyya, G. (2018). Rethinking Racial Capitalism (Cultural Studies and Marxism). Rowman & Littlefield International.]
Second, I will ground the origins of racial capitalism in the work of South African anti-Apartheid Marxists.
Third, I introduce Cedric Robinson’s analysis of racial capitalism in Black Marxism.
Fourth, via a discussion of the lacunae in Marxist thought on the centrality of race to capitalism, I discuss Stuart Hall’s formulation of the relationship between race and class. This discussion is particularly useful because the notion that either class comes first or race does, is a debate that continues to animate activists today, leading to considerable and unproductive disagreements.
Fifth, building on Charisse Burden-Stelly’s writings, I look at the particularity of racial capitalism in the United States as theorised by Black radical scholars such as Oliver Cromwell Cox, W.E.B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones, George Jackson and Ruth Wilson Gilmore whose focus on the super-exploitation of Black woman was a precursor to intersectionality theory.
Sixth, I emphasise the centrality of settler colonialism as the context for the elaboration of racial capitalism using Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s work on ‘the white possessive’ alongside other theorists’ work on property and dispossession.
Last, I consider one of the pressing arenas in which a racial capitalist analysis is clarifying: the role played by so-called essential workers who ‘clean the world’, as Francoise Verges has remarked. What has Covid taught us about what Burden-Stelly calls the gap between value and worth when it comes to the lives of mainly poor and negatively racialised people?
As the historian Robin Kelley has remarked, there is no such thing as non-racial capitalism, all capitalism is racial.
For Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, Nikhil Pal Singh, racial capitalism calls itself simply ‘capitalism’ at the moment at which it becomes global, but until this point there is an implicit understanding of its racialised roots.
For the geographer and abolitionist activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, it is important to think of the spatialised nature of racial capitalism and its global dynamics.
Although all capitalism can be said to be racial, according to Gargi Bhattacharyya this is not inevitably the case. Rather, speaking about all capitalism as being racial capitalism speaks to the historical fact that capitalism and modern racism developed along what Bhattacharyya calls ‘one axis of coincidence.’
Capitalism is not inevitably racialised, but it did develop during the period of the ‘racialised demarcation of the world’ and contemporary capitalism is still racialised. Economic exploitation and racist othering often amplify each other.
Racial capitalism is not an analysis of how different racialised groups are treated differently. This is the kind of issue attended to by sociological studies of racial disparities in discrete settings, such as employment, housing, education, and health. In contrast, racial capitalism according to Bhattacharyya, conceptualises ‘how the world made through racism shapes patterns of capitalist development.’
What Racial Capitalism is not …
First, racial capitalism is not a call to diversify capitalism or corporate representation. In fact diversity is what Bhattacharyya calls a veneer of capitalism in our times.
‘We can see that capitalism, and by this I mean racial capitalism, is quite capable of presenting “diversity” as a business good.’
As the Black radical scholar Joy James has said in regard to the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President of the US, we must remember that “Empires thrive on violence and racial capitalism” whether or not there are “Black faces in high places.”
[Yancy, G. (2021, February 1). Reaching Beyond “Black Faces in High Places”: An Interview With Joy James. Truthout. https://truthout.org/articles/reaching-beyond-black-faces-in-high-places-an-interview-with-joy-james/]
Second, racial capitalism is not necessarily western and can exist in former colonies or for example in Sth Africa under African leadership. As William Shoki demonstrates, in South Africa, “10% of the country owns 90% its wealth, and carrying the legacy of Apartheid, these disparities are highly racialized.”
What Bhattacharyya refers to as the ascent of Brown or yellow capitalism does not mean that racial capitalism has been overcome. It just means some elites in what used to be thought of as developing countries have been elevated and enjoy disproportionate wealth.
In this section, I discuss the South African roots of the concept of racial capitalism.
The concept of racial capitalism originates with the book ‘Foreign Investment and the Reproduction of Racial Capitalism in South Africa,’ written by white South African Marxists Martin Legassick and David Hemson and published by the London-based Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1976. (Peter Hudson, The Boston Review)
‘Legassick and Hemson use the concept of racial capitalism to critique South African liberals who argued that apartheid was a “dysfunctional” aberration of capitalism that could be abolished through the improvement and better organization of South African capitalism—a position shared by many white South African capitalists, by Henry Kissinger and the U.S. State Department, and by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.’
The context for the theorisation of racial capitalism in Sth Africa was the growing international boycott movement targeting Sth African exports. According to Arun Kundnani, those opposed to the boycott argued that only though increased industrialisation and economic growth in Sth Africa would ‘racial prejudice’ melt away.
This belief is grounded in a view of racism as based on economic exploitation alone, a view which those who foreground racial capitalism oppose. Indeed Legassek and Hemson argued that capitalist growth strengthened racism rather than weakening it.
Other Sth African Marxist scholars using racial capitalism were Harold Wolpe who had been imprisoned for his activism against Apartheid in 1963 but who managed to escape, spending 30 years in exile in the UK.
Wolpe argued that that black workers in South Africa could be paid at below social reproduction costs because the costs of social reproduction were being met in the parallel subsistence economy. Apartheid was kept in place to prevent the formation of a stable urban proletariat and ensure continued sub-reproduction labour costs, as those unable to work could be deported to the bantustans, and workers could not create stable families in the cities.
Another prominent proponent of racial capitalism was Neville Alexander, an activist and academic from the Eastern Cape involved in the Azanian People’s Organization, the Cape Action League, and the National Forum Committee.
For Alexander, ‘a non-racial capitalism is impossible in Sth Africa.’
[Neville Alexander, University of Cape Town, ‘Nation and Ethnicity in South Africa,’ paper presented at the Hammanskraal meeting, June 1983, p. 12.]
According to Peter Hudson, Alexander was ‘against those who argued for the development of “non-racialism” or “multiracialism” in South Africa without first criticizing the underlying notion of immutable races—and without, at the same time, understanding the political-economic relations that shaped them.’
In his review essay on racial capitalism, Arun Kundnani states that these Sth African theorists of racial capitalism blew apart the common Marxist idea that the advent of capitalism supersedes the phase of so-called ‘primitive accumulation’, the idea that the capitalist mode of production spread from its European origins to overtake the entire globe. Rather, in South Africa, an urban industrialist white economy coexisted with a black, rural non-capitalist economy.
So, the African subsistence economy was not outside of capitalism ‘and destined to be dissolved by it in a process of dispossession and expulsion’ (Kudnani). Rather the two economic structures were combined in a single structure.’
They also shattered the Marxist idea that capitalism would lead to ‘ancient and venerable prejudices’ being swept away, as Marx and Engels claimed in The Communist Manifesto, because as Legassik and Hemson claimed, in Sth Africa, racism actually increased the more advanced the capitalist economy became.
Further, the Apartheid system was not a hang-over from the 19th entry as many assumed, it was a new capitalist state created in the 1940s. Racism in Sth Africa was not about manipulating the working class, it was the basis for the economy.
In this section of the lecture, I introduce the theorisation of racial capitalism proposed by Cedric Robinson in his 1983 book Black Marxism. But before doing so, let me introduce Robinson himself.
Cedric Robinson was born on November 5, 1940 and grew up in a black working-class neighbourhood in West Oakland.
He was active in radical student politics during his time at U. Berkeley in the 1960s and earned his doctorate in 1974.
In 1978 Robinson joined the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and became director of the Center for Black Studies Research.
Robinson researched and wrote Black Marxism, while living in Cambridge. He worked with the Institute of Race Relations and activist intellectuals such as Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and C L R James, who were all central in developing anti-racist strategy and theory in Britain.
At a recent event organised by the Institute of Race Relations on the publication of Joshua Myers’ intellectual biography of Robinson, Colin Prescod noted that Robinson’s political development was enhanced by his many interactions with UK scholars and activists.
Black Marxism was published in the UK by Pluto Press in 1983.
It was not taught on US campuses despite the fact, as Robin Kelley notes in his preface to the new edition, that in it, Robinson ‘rewrites the history of the rise of the West from ancient times to the mid-20th C.’ (p. 7).
Key contributing factors to the lack of attention to the book are:
- The fact that it had a UK publisher
- The separation of race-based from class-based analyses by those on both sides of the debate. Robinson insisted that it was impossible to separate the two. This key theme is currently being addressed in part due to the revival of interest in racial capitalism after Robinson’s death.
- Black Marxism was also ignored by Eurocentric Marxist scholars and activists because of what Kelley calls the book’s ‘withering critique of Western Marxism’. However, many have wrongly assessed Robinson as rejecting Marxism altogether, but this is far from the case. We could argue that, as Frantz Fanon said, Robinson suggests a ‘stretched’ reading of Marxism.
- However, the central concern of Black Marxism is a centering of Black thought, what Robinson called the Black radical tradition which he locates in the struggle of African descendant people against racism, and in particular slavery. Black Marxism requires us to view the history of modernity from the standpoint of those who lost everything as result of colonial domination and imperialism. As such, it is also a critique of Eurocentrism. As Robinson stated in his 1980 book, The Terms of Order: ‘the history and development of Western institutions, Western social thought is not merely ethnocentric, but epistemocentric as well.’ In this, Robinson’s work is congruent with much critical Indigenous scholarship that advances an epistemology that questions the universality of western universalism.
As Arun Kundnani notes, Cedric Robinson’s thinking in Black Marxism can be thought of as building on the work of Black radical thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Oliver Cromwell Cox, CLR James and Claudia Jones who had been thinking about the relationship between racism and capitalism for many years.
Unlike the Sth African Marxists who saw the Sth African case of racial capitalism as an exception to the rule of Marxist assumptions that capitalism precedes racism, Robinson thought that the exception was the rule. Even in western Europe, racial divisions of labour existed throughout the history of capitalism.
The starting point is feudalism, the antagonisms of which form the basis for a developing European civilisation. From the early division between the Romans and the Barbarians, the formation of Europe was based on exclusion.
The question of labour comes in wherein those whom Robinson refers to as ‘the vast majority of the Barbarians… the Nth Africans, Italians, Poles’ came to Metropolitan France in the late Roman Empire as migrant labourers. They very quickly became assimilated as a slave labour force.
Robinson remarks that, ‘It is also important to realize that with respect to the emerging European civilization whose beginnings coincide with the arrivals of these same barbarians, slave labor as a critical basis of production would continue without any significant interruption into the twentieth century’ (p. 11).
Importantly, it was not the advent of capitalism that brought about the end of slavery in European agrarian production.
Satnam Virdee elaborates on the role of expanding Christianity in the development of intra-European racism which Robinson saw as going hand-in-hand with the development of capitalism.
For Virdee, ‘The emergence of racism as a material force should be located in the social and political conflicts of what is commonly referred to as the transition period between a feudal order in terminal crisis and a bourgeois order struggling to be born.’
The first absolutist state – Spain, established in 1479 – was critical. The conquistadores who were sent by the Spanish monarchy to pillage the Americas in the subsequent decades ‘emerged from a social milieu that already understood themselves as battle-hardened warriors with a strong attachment to a racialized religious superiority rooted in the purity of their Christian descent,’ according to Virdee.
The struggle of the Reconquista – to wrest power back from Muslim rulers, was key to this racialised division. The Iberian Christians found themselves ruling over a highly diverse population, including Muslims of many ethnicities, and Jews. Many among the Muslims were ‘an indispensable component of the rural workforce’ and so were ‘vital to ensuring the economic security of the newly-conquered Christian lands.’ But they were also feared as a fifth column who could rebel at any time (Virdee).
According to Virdee, part of the response to the perceived threat from these potential Muslim rebels was selling them into slavery, their lands shared among Christian settlers as was the case in 13th century Minorca and Ibiza.
Virdee also makes it clear that as early as the 13th century the Christian elite was closing down the possibility of acceptance of non-christians via assimilation and conversion, with sexual relations between Christians, and Muslims and Jews becoming punishable by stoning to death.
From the early 12th century on what later becomes known as the bourgeoisie emerges from the merchants (mercati) who dealt in foodstuffs.
As a result of population growth under feudalism, a greater number of people were detached from the land and they became committed to ‘a roving and hazardous existence’ (Pirenne 1966, cited in CR 14). They were therefore seen as foreigners.
They were often former slaves/unfree labourers.
Eventually they established ports in order to facilitate exchange between ‘the Mediterranean, the East and northern Europe’
According to Henri Pirenne, whose work Robinson cites, ‘Europe colonised herself thanks to the increase of her inhabitants.’
People are pushed from the land into urban centres. For example the Flemish cloth industry is transformed by the bourgeoisie into an urban manufacture ‘on the basis of capitalistic wage labour.’
The poor then flock to the urban centres.
Serfs could become free by moving to the city – which conferred upon them the right of freedom. So the bourgeoisie initially freed the serfs in order to later re-enslave them!
It is at this point that international trade begins (with different goods coming from different areas) and products from different areas of Europe (e.g. wine in Italy, Spain and France; wheat from England etc.) becoming the major basis for international trade along with wool and cloth.
But the most profitable trade was in slaves.
Between the 13th and the 15th Centuries, most slaves were European and were mostly involved in domestic labour.
But African slaves were starting to be used in Spain and in the Italian colonies of Crete and Palestine, by Genoese and Venetian masters in sugar plantations and for work in mines.
So, slavery as a system evolves in Europe and largely retains the same structure; the difference is that ‘the white victims of slavery were replaced by a much greater number of African negroes captured in raids or brought by traders’ (Verlinden, cited in CR 16).
As Verlinden makes clear, ‘medieval colonial slavery served as a model for Atlantic colonial slavery’ (p. 16)
For Robinson, then, it means that race takes shape in Europe in that the enslavement of those excluded, first as barbarians and then as non-christians, was intrinsic to the establishment of modern capitalism and indeed sets the context for its development along racialised lines.
This view contrasts with the more widespread belief, such as that put forward by Marxist sociologist Charlie Post, that it was “only with the emergence of African slavery in late-seventeenth century Virginia that race is crystallized.”
In fact, according to Robinson, in the so-called ‘new world’, although it is presumed that slavery of whites died out because of African slavery, indentured servitude (from Ireland, Germany etc.) actually coexisted with African enslavement up until the American revolution (1765).
In revolutionary America the ‘unfree’ were divided into 5 categories: ‘Negroes, white servants, women, minors, and propertyless white males’ (p. 78).
Indeed, Robinson traces what he calls racialism back to the Middle Ages in Europe, when the nobility came to believe that they had ‘better blood’ than peasants, who were seen as descendants of Ham (this set the precedent for Count Gobineau’s 19th century theorisation of the racial superiority of the aristocracy).
At this time, foreign mercenaries were used to fight wars but also to suppress subject peoples. Armies were never made up of nationals, so that those who fell victim associated their tormentors with foreigners rather than with their own rulers.
But migrant labour was important in other spheres too: Robinson remarks that, ‘there has never been a moment in modern European history (if before) that migratory and/or immigrant labor was not a significant aspect of European economies’ (p. 23).
Each class had its different ‘racial’ provenance.
Slavs became the ‘natural slaves’ in the early Middle Ages while the Tartar fulfilled this role in the late Middle Ages in the Italian cities. This demonstrates the polyvalent nature of racial ascription; even while theorised as fixed, race is attached and re-attached to different groups before negative racialisation settles in the modern era on Black and Indigenous people first and foremost.
From the 12th Century on, the bourgeoisie starts to initiate the ‘myths of egalitarianism while seeking every opportunity to divide people for the purpose of their domination’ (p. 26).
So we have a paradox wherein Europe is based on racial divisions but obscures this through mythical appeals to unity, which grow with the development of myths of European civilisation…
One such myth, the German idea of Herrenvolk (or master race), becomes central in the 17th and 18th C., race becoming ‘largely the rationalization for the domination, exploitation, and/or extermination of non-“Europeans” (including Slavs and Jews)’ (p. 27).
In the 19th C. this is attached to science and the initiation of biological racial theories, which is the predominant way in which we understand race today. As Stuart Hall, of course, shows, this is but the third phase in the development of what he calls the ‘sliding signifier’ of race; from the geographical, to the religious and only lastly, to the purportedly genetic realm.
So, race within Europe relates to a hierarchy among whites, as well as between whites and Black people or non-Europeans. This is where the myth of Nordic superiority comes from. Indeed, the early antiracists of the inter-war years in twentieth century France, as I show in my book, were committed to opposing intra-racial European hierarchy, and especially antisemitism, but were entirely comfortable with colonial racism. Some of the physical anthropologists amongst them even continued to carry out physiognomic experimentation in colonised settings.
For Robinson, intra-European racialism establishes the conditions for the emergence of 19th C nationalism.
Nationalism effectively mobilises for capitalism because, no matter how powerful the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, the growth of international capitalism now requires a nation-state to recruit the proletariat ‘in order to destroy their competitors’ and secure new markets.
Fascism, far from destroying the bourgeoisie in fact allows for the reintroduction of slavery on European soil.
In the ‘new world’, the myth of white solidarity emerges to cover over the fact that the exploitation of First Nations, Africans and colonised people in fact builds on a precedent of internal European racial domination and stratification.
For Robinson it was the desperation for the survival of the bourgeoisie (the merchant class) that is fundamental to the rise of modern world capitalism. The relationship between the bourgeoisie and the state becomes ever-closer, as the state bureaucratises. The bourgeoisie became the ‘political, economic and juridical agents for the state’ (p. 20). The bourgeoisie’s power rose because of its ability to bankroll the state – which became more and more important with colonial expansion.
The role played by the Genoese bourgeoisie in the early days of Portuguese colonisation of African and Spanish colonisation of the Americas was fundamental to the growth of the transatlantic slave trade.
Without Italian merchant influence over the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms, there would have been no money to fund the ‘expeditions’ which resulted in the invasion and colonisation of native lands in Africa and the Americas.
African labour is crucial for the development of European capital. As Robinson explains, Africans were first made into property by mercantile capitalism. Then the slave labour of Africans was made intrinsic to 19th century manufacturing and industrial capitalism. This led to the emergence of a world market beyond Europe, the profits from which enabled further industrial development.
Robinson cites the Trinidadian scholar and leader Eric Williams who reminds us that, similarly to the example seen here from Amsterdam, in eighteenth-century Liverpool, “the red brick Customs House was blazoned with Negro heads.”
And in 1788, in Bristol, which had preceded Liverpool in the slave trade, “The West Indian trade was worth . . . twice as much as all her other overseas commerce combined.”
Robinson remarks that African labour became necessary when native labour in colonised territories was exhausted. White slavery and immigrants were used as there was a shortage of native (Indigenous) labour in the West Indies in the early 1500s (p. 240).
In Hispaniola, for example, the natives were divided up among the settlers and made to work for them. This led to a decimating of the native population.
The Spanish crown had become completely financially dependent on the income from the colonies (p. 243). It therefore became necessary to replace the slave population.
Between 1519 and 1650, New Spain (West Indies, Latin America) received 120,000 slaves from Africa to work in the colonial industries of sugar, cloth production, silver mines (p. 244).
The expansion of the sugar industry in particular led to an explosion in the number of enslaved Africans. The numbers of enslaved people in the Caribbean and Brazil (1,988,000 slaves) greatly outnumbered those brought to Nth America.
In sum, slavery led to African people being made into commodities, to be used and/or eradicated at will.
The main aim of enslavement was profit as it had always been. Slave labour allowed for the money earned to be reinvested in the economies of the ‘mother countries’.
So African slavery – people made into property – means capital. It begins as incidental, according to Robinson, and is transformed into ‘the very foundations of new world capitalism’. In short, without slave labour there would have been no world capitalism system and Europe’s wealth would have been non-existent.
Cedric Robinson shows us is that it was the conditions of expanding capitalism and the incursion into colonised territories for the enrichment of the European bourgeoisie, the aristocracy and the growing nation-state that brings race to Africans and native people.
‘By the middle of the 19th C. western civilisation had sealed the African past’
The African men and women who went into slavery with their culture and knowledge, were reconstructed as items in a ledger; made fungible.
Robinson argues against the idea that the racial subjugation that resulted from enslavement is based on the colour of Africans’ skin per se.
He argues that too much importance is paid to Blackness as skin colour alone and not enough to the fact that there was a wilful intention to wipe out African civilisation, knowledge, and culture. For Robinson, this is the real root of European domination. It led to an entire people being turned into culture-less, will-less objects.
For the Jamaican scholar Sylvia Wynter, this is fundamental to the fact that European colonial modernity resulted in the creation of a vision of the Human based on a false universalism wherein white men stood in for all of humanity and those construed as the opposite of this vision – Black people – being the antithesis of what it is to be Human.
For Robinson, far from this being traced back only to the mass enslavement of African peoples from the 16th century on, ‘the obliteration of the African past from European consciousness was the culmination of a process a thousand years long and one at the root of European historical identity.’
This longer term history of the development of racial thought challenges more conventional accounts of when and under what conditions race emerged. Whatever date is attached to this history, and there are disagreements among scholars, Robinson’s pinpointing of the centrality of antiblackness to the constitution of European identity within the context of the slow growth of world capitalism is extremely important, especially for those who would relativise racism as a mere ideological tool.
It is to this discussion that we now turn.
In this section of the lecture, I turn to the work of Stuart Hall who, responding to the work of the South African instigators of the racial capitalism thesis, offered us an extremely useful way to think about the relationship between race and class.
The notion that an analysis of capitalism and/or power relations more broadly is better served by looking at class rather than race, predominates in simplistic readings of the history and sociology of race. Within analyses of racial capitalism, we find that neither class nor race predominates, but rather that we need to look at how the two relate to each other.
Before elaborating on Hall’s contribution, it is useful to stay with Cedric Robinson for a moment, and the limitations he pointed out in terms of mainstream Marxism’s treatment of race.
Black Marxism above all is Cedric Robinson’s reading of the Black radical tradition. He elaborates this in the book’s third section which focuses on W.E.B. Du Bois, CLR James and Richard Wright as three exemplars of this tradition.
All three were dissatisfied Marxists and, as Robinson writes, ‘events and experience drew them toward Black radicalism and the discovery of a collective Black resistance’ (p. 59).
In setting out the motivations for the work, Robinson notes four main limitations within white Marxism.
- While Marx, Engels and Lenin develop their thought in a particular European context, it has been generalised to the whole of the globe. This is an epistemological problem because the philosophical and analytical presumptions, as well as its ‘historical perspectives and points of view’ are uniquely European (p. 54). Is it fit for purpose as a global theory/framework?
- Marxism has no way to explain what Robinson calls ‘racialism’ even though it is a key ordering idea of western civilisation. Rather, according to Robinson, Marxists are unable to explain why racialised division emerges. Rather they are made to appear natural rather than historicised.
- Against the reading of the English working class as the cradle of revolutionary potential in Marx, Robinson argues that the effects of racialism ‘as both ideology and actuality’ on the English working class has been neglected. However, as other scholars such as Satnam Virdee and Robbie Shilliam have argued, race as a technology of rule had an enormous impact on the possibilities for class unity and international solidarity, especially after the birth of the nation-state and the growing cooptation of the white working class into the nationalist project. Many Marxists have tended to wave racism away as a bad faith ideology rooted in the bourgeoisie’s drive to split the working class, increase competition between black and white workers, and increase profit as a result. This approach ignores what the Marxist historian David Roediger, following W.E.B Du Bois has called the psychological wages of whiteness that accrues to white workers on the basis of their whiteness, a process that the critical legal scholar Cheryl Harris has analysed in terms of the nature of race as a heritable property in and of itself, which contradicts the facile notion of race as mere false consciousness.
- Because racial slavery – which originated in Europe but which became fundamental to the exponential expansion of global capitalism – dominated ‘300 years beyond the beginnings of modern capitalism’ (p. 57), it is impossible to argue that the root of revolutionary consciousness was the European working class. African people’s resistance to slavery from the outset is testimony to their revolutionary capacity, a fact that Robinson believes has been elided in European Marxist thought.
For some critics of Robinson, such as the critical Black studies scholar, Charisse Burden-Stelly his critiques of Marxism are too sweeping. She remarks that ‘Robinson overlooks the ways that numerous racialized radicals, from Frantz Fanon to Sylvia Wynter, “have fashioned Marxism into a critical method concerned with historicizing capital and theorizing dialectics.” In other words, he associates Marxism too closely with Europe and western thinkers and insufficiently with the revolutionaries who took it up, stretched and applied it to the struggles against colonisation.
On the other hand, as Avery Gordon points out, what Robinson offers us, also in his later book – An Anthropology of Marxism – is a relativisation of the primacy placed on the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Marxism to the detriment of a focus on the pre-capitalist socialism of “non-industrial labour, whether slaves, peasants, indentured labour or women and their relegation to the ‘dustbin of history’.”
[Gordon, A. F. (2005). Cedric Robinson’s anthropology of Marxism. Race & Class, 47(2), 23–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306396805058079]
Stuart Hall never referred to his theorisation of the articulation between race and capitalism and class as ‘racial capitalism’. However, his 1980 essay, ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance’ he responded to the concerns of the South African dissident Marxists mentioned earlier.
He takes his critique of race-evasive Marxism up again in his 1988 book, The Hard Road to Renewal, in which he takes British Marxists to task for dismissing race as false consciousness, a mere ideology used to manipulate the white working classes into opposing their ‘brothers’ among the Black working class.
Hall’s work builds on that of the French philosopher Louis Althusser for whom ideology ‘is not a simple form of false consciousness’ or a ‘set of myths’. Ideologies are necessary for providing all societies with a set of concepts for making sense of the world. They provide the framework for people’s worldview (we live through our ideological frames).
For both Althusser and Gramsci, ideologies are material relations which ‘shape social actions’ (R&SSD, p. 334).
Hall explains that racism needs to be looked at as historically and contextually specific – the racism of chattel slavery will differ to that of the plantation, to colonial governance to the ‘post imperial’ metropole, etc. As Arun Kundnani shows (2020), it also has specific manifestations under neoliberalism which are predicated on placing the worker outside the class, as completely expendable and exploitable, etc. We can see this in the case of zero hours contract workers in areas of the new economy such as delivery, Uber, etc. who are often migrant workers.
Hall says that we need to look at every form of racism in its context and avoid presenting a general theory which will lead us to seeing racism as a matter of individual psychology (he refers to this as ‘the racial itch., p, 338). This echoes Frantz Fanon who, in Racism and Culture, speaks about the nefarious habit of ‘considering racism as a mental quirk, as a psychological flaw’ which says ‘must be abandoned.’ For Hall, ‘appeals to “human nature” are not explanations; they are an alibi.’
On the other side of those who advance the argument that racism is ‘human nature’ are those on the left who see racism as purely economic. For Hall it is ridiculous to disregard the economic. However, it is not sufficient to look only at economics. Rather it should be seen as articulated with other features on all political, cultural and ideological levels (p. 338).
Racism, for Hall, is articulated with specific forms of capitalism at different stages which do not always take the same form (in this he contradicts Robinson’s idea that all capitalism is racial capitalism). Hall is interested in the role race plays in articulating different modes of production through, for example, the position of differently racialised peoples in the economy.
Racism is not only a problem for those it targets but for everyone, because ‘capital reproduces class relations, including their internal contradictions, as a whole structured by race.’
Hall explains that race works better to ‘secure a whole social formation under a dominant class’ than other ideological structures do, because it provides an explanation that appears to be based on ‘nature’. This naturalising and universalising ideological construct has the function of ‘dehistoricising’, so that we lose from sight the constructed and imposed nature of race, and instead ‘economic groups’ are solidified ‘into peoples’, ‘classes into “blacks” and “whites”’ etc. (p.342).
Hall’s approach shatters the race/class divide by showing how one is imbricated in the other. Racism is not ‘a conspiracy from above’. Rather it is ‘one of the dominant means through which the white fractions of the class come to “live” their relations to other fractions, and through them to capital itself.’ (p. 340).
Race, therefore, as Hall famously wrote, is the “modality through which class is lived.”
It shapes how Black workers are treated in the labour market, the forms of political representation and struggles they can engage in, and the tenor of debates over culture, representation, and it is important to add, gender and sexual relations.
Race is not chosen as the modality through which these conflicts take shape but, by being imposed, it cannot be ignored or dismissed as ‘false consiousness’. What Hall calls the ‘racist interpellation’ which causes those who are targeted to ‘experience themselves as “the inferiors” cannot therefore be ignored as an important dimension of the class struggle. Simply put, because people are treated as racialised subjects, it is understandable that race becomes the site of ‘ideological struggle’.
‘The ideologies of racism,’ he writes, thus ‘can function both as the vehicles for the imposition of dominant ideologies, and as the elementary forms for the cultures of resistance.’
As Paul Gilroy writes then in his introduction to Hall’s collected writings on race, published in 2021, seeing race as having a ‘constitutive power’, and not just as ‘another layer of misery to be logged and added’ means to understand how society works.
Hall, like Robinson, demonstrates how we ignore or sideline race at our peril if we want to enable a fuller understanding of power more broadly and capitalism as the central mode in the service of which power is organised under modernity.
According to the Black radical scholar, Charisse Burden-Stelly, it is necessary to look at racial capitalism in situ. Comparing her approach which is rooted in the ‘work of Black freedom fighters who, as Marxist-Leninists, were able to offer patent and enduring analyses and critiques of the conjunctural entanglements of racialism, white supremacy and anti-Blackness’ to that of more globally oriented thinkers such as Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, she offers a particularist lens on ‘modern US racial capitalism.’
Burden-Stelly proposes that the work of Black Communist women in the 20th Century, Claudia Jones in particular, allows us to see how ‘a focus on the racial foundations of capitalism can open up… more complex analyses.’
In this section, then, I briefly outline the ideas of some of the main thinkers of modern US racial capitalism departing from Burden-Stelly’s excellent overview in The Monthly Review. I then turn to briefly introduce the contributions of Claudia Jones, focusing particularly on how her theorisation of the interrelationship of race, class and gender was a precursor to intersectionality theory, one which potentially avoid the possibilities of more liberal interpretations.
I close the section by making some remarks about how racial capitalism is being used to make sense of the prison industrial complex.
For Burden-Stelly, “modern U.S. racial capitalism [is] a racially hierarchical political economy constituting war and militarism, imperialist accumulation, expropriation by domination, and labor superexploitation.”
She specifies that the racial refers to Blackness which she defines as “African descendants’ relationship to the capitalist mode of production” and their condition and status as a result.
Burden-Stelly defines Blackness as the contradiction of value minus worth. It is essential to a range of political-economic functions such as “accumulation, disaccumulation, planned obsolescence, and absorption of the burdens of economic crises.” But while it is necessary to the functioning of capitalism, Blackness is also disposable and expendable.
A major reference for Burden-Stelly in drawing this conclusion is Oliver Cromwell Cox who notes that the US was able to accumulate during the First World War during which time it expanded its external markets, by harnessing its “vast natural wealth [the land], large domestic market, imbalance of Northern and Southern economies” and because there was no concern for the masses of its population and particularly the descendants of enslaved peoples.
So, one of the major reasons why US racial capitalism is developed and sustained is because it was able to super-exploit Black “toilers and labourers”.
For Cox, Black labour is the ‘chief human factor’ in wealth production which means that the capitalist class has always been responsible for the spread of racial antagonism. This is to be expected, he said, because it is labour-capital relations which is at the heart of this antagonism. Blackness in the US is the linchpin of racial capitalism in that Black workers are structurally positioned at the bottom of the labour hierarchy as can be seen by “depressed wages, working conditions, job opportunities and the widespread exclusion from labour unions.”
For Cox, as Cedric Robinson remarks, ‘capitalism and racism were historical concomitants… capitalists required racism in order to police and rationalise the exploitation of workers.’
It is important to recognise that Cox also aimed his critique at the predominant scholar of race at the time, Robert E. Park who also played a role in sidelining W.E.B. Du Bois. Park was responsible for the development of the idea of ‘race relations’. He saw US racism as based on conflict between two castes – Black and White – that were ‘determined by visible differences and articulated by custom, mores and etiquette’.
For Cox, in contrast, racism is a ‘a historically unique phenomenon likened to a “materialistic social fact”.’ This fact is capitalism.
[Robinson, C. J. (2019). Cedric J. Robinson: On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance (Black Critique). Pluto Press.]
What this analysis brings is an important corrective to the – still dominant – idea that racism is a matter of cultural conflict; the ‘racial itch’ that Stuart Hall warns we must be wary of as an explanation for racial domination.
Over his long career which spanned from the 1890s to his death in Accra, Ghana in 1963, W.E.B. Du Bois, often referred to as one of the founders – albeit sidelined for much of his career – of US sociology had differing understandings of race.
While he is most famously known for theorising the notion of double consciousness, which allows Black people to see themselves ‘through the eyes of others’ (in 1903), he was also a critic of imperialism who had a keen understanding of the global nature of racialising power.
He analysed the imperial basis for the First World War, noting that Germany aimed to control Africa and displace the British.
It was in Africa, he wrote in 1940 reflecting on his evolving thinking on ‘the race concept’, that he realised the extent to which race is linked to wealth. Race prejudice, as he put it, has an ‘interest-bearing value’ and it was this that caused the idea of Black and colonised inferiority, not the other way around. It was the need to keep the racialised exploited that led to the idea that they were inferior. Expediency gives rise to the naturalisation and immutability of race.
Burden-Stelly notes that Du Bois complemented Lenin’s understanding that the war “was a product of half a century of development of world capitalism” by noting the “racial foundations of capitalist expansion.”
The spoils of Africa held out hope at a time when “Big Fortune” was waning domestically. He says that the promise of exploiting the African continent was shared by “white labour and the ruling class.” The white working class, exploited at home, could share in the bounty facilitating what he called “a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labour.”
Racial capitalism thus served to bind the traditionally opposed classes together in their common “dehumanisation of the racialised toilers and peasants in the plundered colonies.”
As we see also in the context of settler colonialism in Australia, the exploitation of Indigenous lands and people allowed white workers to get a share of wealth and power, however pitiful.
It was in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America that Du Bois further described the psychological and public wage that accrues to white workers as a result of being white. No matter how poor a white labourer was, he was at least not Black.
[Bois, D. W., Foner, E., & Gates, H. L. (2021). W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Reconstruction (LOA #350): An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to ReconstructDemocracy in America, 1860–1880 (Library of America, 350). Library of America.]
What this means in the context of the US racial regime and racial capitalism more broadly is that the inheritance of whiteness – which the critical legal scholar Cheryl Harris theorised as a property in and of itself – meant that a white worker could not be enslaved.
[Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1707. https://doi.org/10.2307/1341787]
This was what the encoding of race in US law enshrined. The colour line that Du Bois remarked upon in 1903 was the line between freedom and unfreedom which pertained, not only in the US as a result of slavery, but globally in the context of imperialism and global racial capitalism.
It was this psychological wage of whiteness, Du Bois observed, that meant that “the view that common oppression would create interracial solidarity failed to work in the South.”
Contra the Marxist expectation that capitalism would lead to the end of racial prejudice, Du Bois observed that whiteness was so prized by white workers that they ‘perpetuated a white supremacist vision’ that ended up supporting capitalism.
As the labour historian David Roediger remarks in his book ‘The Wages of Whiteness’, this was as tragic for white workers as it was for Black workers because, through their alignment with racialising power, white workers too lost out against the forces of capitalism.
[Roediger, D. R. (2007). The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New Edition). Verso.]
In Carole Boyce-Davies’ intellectual biography of Claudia Jones she describes her as a ‘black feminist critic of Afro-Caribbean origin’. Her anti-imperialism in addition to her Communism place her ‘left of Karl Marx.’
[Davies, C. B. (2008). Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Illustrated ed.). Duke University Press Books.]
In her essay, published in 1949, ‘An End to the Problems of the Negro Woman’, Jones sets out the terms of the superexploitation of Black women in the US, setting it in the historical context of slavery. Black women, she said, were the best placed to lead labour organisations because, where they struggled – as sharecroppers in the strikes of the 1930s, as packing house or tobacco workers, or against racist landlords and white supremacists – they were the most militant. However, their issues were neglected by trades unions.
In particular, she notes the failure of the unions both to fight against the relegation of Black women to domestic labour or to organise them as such. Indeed she notes that during WW2 Black women “became trail blazers in many fields” when they had the “opportunity to use their skills and talents” due to the absence of men who had been called up to fight. However, they were shortly relegated back to domestic work, “systematically pushed out of industry.” This was caused by the threat of unemployment which “hits the Negro woman hardest” as it is she who has always been the main breadwinner in the Black family.
It is the failure of the Communist Party and the unions to recognise the historical role played by Black women in the labour force that spurred Jones’ dissatisfaction with the white left.
Jones traces the problems facing Black women back to the days of slavery and its aftermath. Under slavery, mothers were dominant within the family and had responsibility for “defending and nurturing” it.
However, after emancipation, family life was overturned. Jones explains that, after the civil war, families were cut off from the “slave rows” within which they lived previously, in an extended community arrangement, and each family became independent. This and the “change in the mode of production” now placed Black men on top within their families. Men were now in a position of relative power both internally over their wives and children, and externally as their defenders.
“Through these and other methods,” Jones writes “the subordination of Negro women developed.”
This is the historical backdrop to the situation Jones observed in 1949 when Black women had become “the most oppressed stratum of the whole population” of the US. They are the main breadwinners in their families, a situation caused by the unemployment or low-scale earning of Black men as a result of structural racism.
Despite their importance in the economy, Black women occupied the lowest paying jobs, the result of the “treatment and position of Negro women over the centuries.”
Not only did Black women receive less than equal pay for equal work with men but they also got half the pay of white women. As the Black woman, to repeat, was the main earner, this meant the confinement of Black families in ghettoes, “an iron curtain hemming in the lives of Negro children and undermining their health and spirit.”
Jones’ analysis of Black women’s subjugation by race, gender and class led to her being credited with developing the idea of “triple oppression”. She wrote that, “the Negro woman, combines in her status the worker, the Negro and the woman.”
This was taken up by Angela Davis in Women, Race and Class (published in 1983).
It was her positionality as a Black woman, the position from which she wrote, that according to Boyce-Davies, Jones brought to her activism within the Communist party.
She was an instigator of what later became the mainstay of the Black feminism of, for example, the socialist Black lesbian feminists of the Combahee River Collective. However, Boyce Davies points out that Jones’ anti-imperialism and internationalist Communism was diluted in later iterations of US-based Black feminism activism much of which centred around academia and remained parochially centred on the US.
Contra this parochialism, Boyce Davies connects Jones’ analysis of the condition of Black women in the US to the global movement for peace. She advocated for connecting the stance taken by Black women’s organisations against war and militarism in the US to “the magnificent struggles of women in North Africa who, lacking in the most elementary material needs, have organised a strong movement for peace.”
The value of racial capitalism as a mode of analysis is its grounding in a global viewpoint, and from the perspective of militancy, in an internationalism that understand the necessity of a relational strategy to counter its effects.
The acceleration of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, has pushed the case for prison abolition into the public eye, not only in the US but globally.
Here in Australia, prison abolitionist activists such as Debbie Kilroy of Sisters Inside or Gunditjmara woman, Tabitha Lean, are organising around these themes, bringing to light the fact that the only way to end the cycle of Indigenous incarceration is – to use abolitionist geographer, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s phrase – to ‘change everything.
The relationship between prison abolition and racial capitalism is evident in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism: “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
[Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (First ed.). University of California Press.]
In other words, Gilmore explains, we need to see that it is what she calls ‘organised abandonment’, which is not just that by the state but also by capitalism, that creates this group-differentiated vulnerability. This should, according to Gilmore, lead us to “consider both how capital — large and small — and state — municipal or greater — work together to raise barriers to some kinds of people and lower them for others.”
This is the situation which, then, creates the condition for mass incarceration, as more and more people are pushed out of the ability to care for themselves, their families, and communities. And the response of the state to this abandonment is the warehousing of more and more poor and negatively racialised people under the guise of keeping the rest of society safe.
However, as Tabitha Lean notes, real safety for a greater number of people in society, will actually reduce the harm that can lead to the perceived need for police and prisons. She says: “Safety (individual or community safety) cannot come without freedom and justice… If we dismantle systems that cage and punish, we can explicitly fight genocide and dispossession and create a world focused on radical reciprocity and accountability.”
The link between global capitalism and its internal drive to extract, consume and spit out those deemed extraneous is at the heart of prison abolitionism. As Gilmore explains, to “denaturalise the notion that crime was the problem for which prisons and punishment were the right solution” the campaign against the prison system in California had to make “common cause with labour unions, healthcare workers, faith communities, environmental justice activists…”
As George Jackson, an imprisoned Black man who became a revolutionary while in prison, wrote in a letter to a comrade, it was people being made into property which in turn makes them slaves to property, that spurred him to revolution. The fight to dismantle the repressive institutions of the state is not an isolated one. For Jackson, ‘revolution within a modern industrial capitalist society can only mean the overthrow of all existing property relations and the destruction of all institutions that directly or indirectly support existing property relations.’
[Jackson, G. L. (1996). Blood in My Eye (Reprint ed.). Black Classic Press.]
The remarks made by the scholars looked at so far have all pointed to the fact that a methodologically nationalist approach to the subject of racial capitalism will be inherently impoverished. The coloniality of capitalism and its rapacious possessive capacity has been at the heart of the concern of critical Indigenous scholars and others focused on the nature of settler colonialism and property.
In this section, I look at the way possession and dispossession have been dealt with in the works of scholars including Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Cheryl Harris, Brenna Bhandar, Byrd et al. and Robert Nichols.
Critical Indigenous scholar, Aileen Moreton-Robinson has theorised the possessive logic that undergirds the colonial nation-state in Australia. While her work is located specifically in the reality that has unfolded on these unceded lands since 1788, it is also relevant across the Anglo settler-scape and has been taken up by scholars particularly in North America.
Moreton-Robinson has been inspired by Cheryl Harris’s work on whiteness as property about whom she remarks that she is one of a small group of non-Indigenous scholars who show how white supremacy requires “the possession of Indigenous lands as its proprietary anchor within capitalist economies such as the United States.”
The possessive nature of white rule originates in the doctrine of terra nullius, the “original theft” which defines the “non-Indigenous sense of belonging.”
Terra nullius, the notion of a land without people, birthed the settler sense of belonging which, Moreton-Robinson explains, is derived from “ownership as understood within the logic of capital.”
Aboriginal people’s apparent lack of ownership over the land due to their failure, as seen by the British, to place emphasis on possession, allowed them to be characterised as without will. This logic allowed for possession to be taken, not only of the land – deemed free for the taking – but over Indigenous peoples themselves who were racialised as lacking in autonomy.
In contrast to the possessive drive of invaders to battle with and conquer the land and subdue Indigenous people either through massacre or later, assimilation, the Aboriginal relationship to the land is described by Moreton-Robinson as derived from “the Dreaming”. She explains that the “ontological relationship [of humans with the earth] occurs through the intersubstantiation of ancestral beings, humans, and the land,” a relationship colonisation did not destroy.
The attempted defeat of this relational ontology is primarily achieved via the use of the law. In her book, The Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar argues that, “if the possession of land was (and remains) the ultimate objective of colonial power, then property law is the primary means of realizing this desire.” Who could own property and who could not was determined by where one was categorized racially; but not only that, race also determines whether one was property or could transfer property.
[Bhandar, B. (2018). Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Global and Insurgent Legalities). Duke University Press Books.]
Similarly to Australia, where the right to own land was tethered to European notions about ideal land use, British settlers in the US discounted Indigenous people’s right to the land, thus justifying conquest. As Bhandar explains, in ‘common law jurisdictions, use that would justify an ownership right was defined by cultivation, and cultivation was understood within then relatively narrow parameters of English agrarian capitalism.’
As Cheryl Harris puts it, the original denial of Indigenous property rights embeds ‘the fact of white privilege into the very definition of property… possession – the act necessary to lay the basis for rights in property – was defined to include only the cultural practices of whites’ (Harris 1993: 1721). It is this idea, she claims, which lays the basis for ‘the idea that whiteness – that which whites alone possess – is valuable and property’ (ibid.). Indigenous claims to the land were delegitimised on the basis of their perceived failure to use the land in ways understandable to Europeans, thus paving the way for ‘only particular forms of possession – those that were characteristic of white settlement’ to be ‘recognized and legitimated’ (ibid. 1722).
But, as Harris insists, it is not that Europeans just misunderstood Indigenous claims to land based on ‘(mis)informed… racist and ethnocentric themes’ (ibid. 1724). Rather, ‘the law has established and protected an actual property interest in whiteness itself’ (ibid.). She explains that the fact that whiteness is not in itself a ‘thing’ does not preclude it from being property, because the law extends beyond the tangible. But whiteness is not just what she terms, ‘a legally recognised property interest’ (ibid. 1725), it is also a form of self-identity whereby people understand themselves as possessing something of value in being white, in terms for example of personal reputation.
The ramifications of this in terms of Indigenous land ownership is, as Moreton-Robinson says, that the burden is now on Indigenous people to “demonstrate proof in accordance with the white legal structure in courts controlled predominantly by white men,” that their lands belong to them.
Thus we can see that, according to Byrd, Goldstein and Melamed, racial capitalism serve[s] as [the] condition of possibility… for the ways in which financial institutions and land and market speculators have produced and profited from those most economically disenfranchised.” In settler colonial contexts the greatest wealth is generated from the land itself and those on it have to be continually deemed as having an illegitimate claim to it. Racial capitalism, therefore, is what they call a “counterformation to Indigenous peoples.”
It is impossible to talk about possession with talking about dispossession. For Jodi Byrd and colleagues, in settler colonial contexts, race is used to “obscure the lasting ethical and material indebtedness settlers and arrivants have to Indigenous dispossession.”
[Byrd, J. A., Goldstein, A., Melamed, J., & Reddy, C. (2018). Predatory Value. Social Text, 36(2), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-4362325]
Put more simply, the fiction that Indigenous people are racially inferior and thus must live under the tutelage of European invaders is used to hide the fact that it is because Indigenous people were dispossessed of their land, culture, law and personhood that settler society can flourish. As Moreton-Robinson notes, while migrants to Australia cannot possess, they can nevertheless belong to the white nation. Dispossession robs Indigenous people of belonging.
Byrd et al. remind us, therefore, that dispossession is not a finished project. Rather its incompleteness requires a continuous striving towards “confirming these terms of value and belonging” which are the “foundational relations of colonial accumulation and profit.” The continual drive to accumulate and extract which are the “conditions of possibility” in the United States as in other colonial states means that dispossession continues to occur by a myriad of means.
Byrd et al. write about ‘economies of dispossession’ which they define as the “multiple and intertwined genealogies of racialised property, subjection, and expropriation through which capitalism and colonialism take shape historically and change over time.”
In so doing they want to draw attention to the fact that dispossession is not in the past. They point to the ways capitalism accommodates change and difference – for example through diversity and inclusion as discussed previously – while “Indigenous dispossession continues apace.”
By marking the racial as intrinsic to capitalism they show that there is no way of considering that the debt has been paid to Indigenous people through, for example, reconciliation action plans or by bringing the business of mining to Indigenous communities in need of income, or by strategies around ‘closing the gap’. All of this belongs to the project of dispossession which, as they remark, is not “just a loss of property, territoriality, power, nation, or sovereignty; it is the loss of those philosophies that derive from the relationship the land activates, fosters, and nourishes.”
When land is turned into territory and then into property, as was the case on these lands here, a relational entity upon which Indigenous ontology is based – land – is turned into something inanimate merely there to generate profit.
Political theorist, Robert Nichols’ work on dispossession in his book Theft is Property helps us further understand the dilemma at the heart of dispossession and what it means in terms of racial capitalism.
He writes that settler colonial capitalism ushered in a paradox in the form of the idea of Indigenous property. Indigenous people both do not conceptualise their relationship to land as one of property and they are the original owners of the land. While critics seek to catch Indigenous people out on this point, Nichols turns it on its head and suggests that in fact, the paradox at the heart of dispossession clarifies both what Anglo settler colonialism did to Indigenous peoples and lands, and why sovereign claims are liberatory.
The paradox is created at the moment when Indigenous people were recognised through a variety of legal and political mechanisms, as well as through violence, as having ownership. However, this ownership was bestowed rather than being an Indigenous demand. The nonproprietary relations Indigenous people had with the land were transformed into proprietary ones for the sole reason of enabling Indigenous people to divest themselves of this land, ‘systematically transferring control and title of this (newly formed) property.’ In other words, Indigenous people could sell their land to settlers.
To explain this further he inverts the anarchist phrase Property is theft to become ‘theft is property’. This is because it is the act of stealing the land from Indigenous people that generates property for colonisers.
Nicholson explains that one of the key functions of dispossession is to create human categories, in this case ‘Indigenous people’. However, although the concept of Indigeneity is brought into being through the act of colonisation, this does not mean that it makes no sense. Indigeneity, for Nichols, is best thought of as an “oppositional practice” rather than an identity category. He writes, “if dispossession is already a negation, then Indigenous critique is a negation of a negation.”
In theorising this, Nichols brings together Indigenous and Black thought. Here we can consider the emphasis Cedric Robinson placed on the resistance of enslaved African peoples to the theft of their autonomy as foundational to the development of a Black radical tradition. By writing richly about the communities of maroons and fugitives, who fought the invaders from the Caribbean to Brazil to Surinam and North America, Robinson emphasised how it is through these histories of resistance that we can theorise that which is racial in capitalism.
Just as Indigenous critique demonstrates that dispossession needs to be constantly remade in the face of the ongoing assertion of sovereignty, Black radicalism lays bare the extent to which capitalism requires race in its ongoing “theft, displacement, foreclosure and violence”, as Byrd et al. put it. Race enables the condition of possibility for the ravages of capitalist-colonialism.
But, as Byrd et al. also note, this should not immobilise political agency because it points the way to alternatives by exposing the need that capitalism has to constantly create new conditions of possibility.
In this final section, I draw on the work of Gargi Bhattacharyya, Selma James and Francoise Verges to make some remarks about the link between racial capitalism and social reproduction. As Bhattacharyya puts it, we need to be attentive to “who washes the dishes and makes the beds, who cooks the meals and raises the children – all so that the demon Capital may have bodies to serve his endlessly hungry needs?”
[Bhattacharyya, G. (2018). Rethinking Racial Capitalism (Cultural Studies and Marxism). Rowman & Littlefield International.]
Social reproduction theories emphasise the unseen work done by women without which capitalist production would not function.
As Tithi Bhattacharya explains, social reproduction asks the question, ‘if workers produce commodities, who produces the worker?’
The answer is that “unpaid women’s work” has supported the continuation of production. The necessity of this domestic labour for all other labour to take place is what triggered the organisation of much second wave feminist campaigns around wages for housework – in order to show the extent to which capitalism is imbricated in and dependent upon unseen work.’’
However, traditionally, Marxist feminists’ attention to social reproduction has treated all women as facing the same problems, ignoring the differential treatment of Black, Indigenous and migrant women, as Claudia Jones points out. It collapsed women into a universal category in much the same way as western Marxism saw the worker as a universal subject rather than a racially stratified one, as Stuart Hall shows.
For Selma James, one of the instigators of the Wages for Housework campaign (which Silvia Federici said should be better based the Wages Against Housework campaign), much of what the feminist movement learned about women and children’s class position – as unwaged and unvalued subjects – it learned from the Black movement. Black militants showed the extent to which “Black and Labour were synonymous… the demands of Blacks and the forms of struggles created by Blacks,” she wrote in ‘Sex, Race and Class’ “were the most comprehensive working class struggle.”
For James, then, far from identity leading to a closing off of political potential, starting from a Black identity or from an identity as women, it helps reveal how our social roles are connected to our capitalist functions, a link that is purposefully kept from view (for an interesting take on this read Sophie Lewis’ critique of three contemporary stories about maids in The Boston Review).
Far from separate concerns, James shows how looking at racism and sexism helps reveal how categories of race and gender are imposed in order to legitimate the different functions assigned to different groups under capitalism: “Racism and sexism train us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others,” she writes.
However, for Gargi Bhattacharyya, we need to think beyond social reproduction as the difference between waged and unwaged labour, and think about how what is being reproduced is also the connective networks that keep life together. She emphasises not just domestic labour as the realm in which this is true, “the hidden, dirty and endlessly essential work of replenishing bodies and lives takes place,” but also “other unregistered values of nature (and society?)”
Human beings encounter capital as a collective; a group experience. Therefore, we need to think beyond the home and beyond the battle between the sexes. Social reproduction helps us to think beyond to the complex structures that have reproduced capitalism globally. We cannot understand this historically without considering the ‘connections between colonialism and the subjugation of women.’
Colonialism here is not a metaphor for women’s subjugation, Bhattacharyya makes clear. It is the parallel process to the invisibilisation of women and their work. In particular, thinking about what is considered work and what is categorised as non-work helps us to see racial capitalism in action. It is not only unwaged housework which is considered non-work, but also the group-differentiated exploitation on which racial capitalism is based.
Recalling Cedric Robinson’s critique of Marxism’s relation of slavery to the pre-capitalist era of primitive accumulation because it was unwaged, we can see the depth of the problem: not accounting for slavery as work because it is unwaged is akin to not seeing domestic reproductive labour as work even though it is this unwaged and unrecognised labour that keeps the whole machinery going. Similarly, not seeing slavery or other forms of racially differentiated labour as work means not recognising how capitalism is reproduced; in other words as racial capitalism.
Bhattacharyya asks us to be attentive to edge populations who are produced by the latest iterations of racial capitalism, these such as the migrants and undocumented workers living outside the realms of structural labour and society. We saw them left entirely stranded as the pandemic hit, either walking home to their villages as in India, or stranded by their employers in the gulf, or denied welfare as in Australia and relying on food handouts, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
The status and conditions of the work of these at the edge mean that the processes of social reproduction – for households and communities – are jeopardised. This includes parents working different shifts, migrant mothers living overseas leaving their children with extended families, with no time, money or space to organise family and community gatherings.
In other circumstances, edge populations are understood by capital to exist outside of the waged economy (the long term unemployed that capitalism requires). However, because of the stigma attached by society to non-waged labour, including prison labour (as Tabitha Lean reminded us at panel organised by the Anti Poverty Centre yesterday), they are ostracised from society, and their legitimacy to partake in social reproductive activities is questioned.
We see this for example in questions posed to homeless people or asylum seekers about why they possess phones, or why unemployed or low waged people spend money on what are deemed frivolous things, or being ‘matter out of place’ in public – as experienced by Indigenous people – or by Black youth policed for being outdoors in groups, for simply having fun!
Part of Gargi Bhattacharyya’s project is to think about what stories of humanness get left out in the way waged and unwaged labour – ‘edge’/dangerous/subaltern populations – are spoken about as use-less and undeserving. Racial capitalism notes the hierarchies of humans that are created by race as a project to sediment people into differently valued groups.
While the western feminist approach has been to consider the home as a place of threat and confinement for women, we should also be mindful of what bell hooks calls ‘homeplace’: The ‘“home”, despite its many threats and tensions, also represents a necessary space of emotional recuperation in the face of dehumanization, depletion and racist terror.
When home is under threat there is nowhere to retreat as can be seen in the case of dispossessed Indigenous peoples as much as precarious labourers in the edge economy.
Francoise Verges opens her essay, ‘Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender’ by noting that:
“Every day, in every urban center of the world, thousands of black and brown women, invisible, are “opening” the city. They clean the spaces necessary for neo-patriarchy, and neoliberal and finance capitalism to function.”
She examines the “dialectical relation between the white male performing body and the racialized female exhausted body; between the visibility of the final product of the cleaning/caring and the invisibility, along with the feminization and racialization (both going hand in hand), of the workers who do this cleaning/caring; between the growing industry of cleaning/caring and conceptions of clean/dirty, the gentrification of cities, and racialized environmental politics.”
While the scope of her essay is beyond our current concerns, it is important for our discussion because Verges offers us a way to look at this dialectic beyond the framework of labour and domestic work.
She recounts the long history of women of colour’s role in the cleaning of and caring for the world, much of it familiar to us by now. However, she links this work which, although vital is seen as performed by people who are extraneous and replaceable – reduced to bodies – to the capitalocene’s constant emission of waste:
“The dominant discourse about cleaning the world has chosen to ignore the fact that neoliberalism overproduces waste and that disposing of this waste is racialized.” Although it is the racialised poor who clean the world it is they who are wrongly characterised as producing waste, understood as dirt, rather than being the by-product of over-production and over consumption.
In reality, “The clean/dirty division is connected to the militarization and gentrification of cities, with poor people of color blamed for their innate dirtiness and driven out of their neighborhoods in order to make the city “clean.””
A major fault line of today’s racial capitalism, therefore, is between those who can shield themselves from the coming disaster produced by this wastefulness and those – who are considered waste/extraneous (the racialised poor within and without the rich world) – who will suffer the extremities of climate change accelerated by rapacious capitalism.
The growing threat from self-styled ecofascists targeting racialised populations at home and abroad is ignored at our peril as white populations perceive themselves as at risk of ‘replacement’ even when better able to shield themselves, certainly in comparison to the sinking islands of the Pacific or similar.
Nevertheless, Verges leaves us on a hopeful note because cleaners of the world are rising up, as could also be seen during the pandemic when it was those cast as essential workers – most often working class and racialised – who were venerated in words yet continually exploited and at constant risk of death.
It is in struggles like these that we can see the importance of thinking relationally about racial capitalism and how to resist it. To counter its effects we need a joined up approach that is locally attentive but internationally oriented, that recognises the limitations of approaches grounded in identity or that ignores ongoing imperialisms.
This lecture has merely crashed the surface of the topic. Many issues have been left out including precisely a greater focus on imperialism, neocolonialism and the global wealth divide. I have also not done justice to the myriad issues around climate justice. However, I hope this will entice you to further study and research.`