Presidential Address delivered at the one hundred fourteenth Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah, GA, on January 5, 2018.
Capitalism has always been deeply entangled with racial oppression. That proposition clearly holds for the slave-based plantation capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But it is equally true of the Jim Crow industrialized capitalism of the twentieth century. Nor can anyone reasonably doubt that racial oppression persists in the deindustrializing, sub-prime, mass-incarceration capitalism of the present era. Despite the clear differences between them, none of these forms of “really existing” capitalism was nonracial. In all of its forms to date, capitalist society has been entangled with racial oppression.
What is the nature of this entanglement? Is it contingent or structural? Did the capitalism/racism nexus arise by chance, and could matters have in principle been otherwise? Or was capitalism primed from the get-go to divide populations by “race”? And what about today? Is racism hardwired in the deep structure of contemporary capitalism? Or is a nonracial capitalism finally possible now, in the twenty-first century?
These questions are by no means new. They form the heart of a profound but under-appreciated stream of critical theorizing, known as Black Marxism. This tradition, which flourished from the 1930s through the 1980s, includes such towering figures as C. L. R. James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Stuart Hall, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Barbara Fields, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cedric Robinson, and Cornel West.1 Although their approaches diverged in specifics, each of these thinkers grappled deeply with the capitalism/ racism nexus. At least through the 1980s, their reflections were at the forefront of what we now call “critical race theory.”
Subsequently, however, the question of capitalism’s entanglement with race dropped off the critical-theoretical agenda. With the waning of New Left radicalism and the collapse of really existing Communism, capitalism ceased to be viewed as a topic of serious interrogation in many quarters, while Marxism was increasingly rejected as dépassé. As a result, questions of race and racism were effectively ceded to thinkers working in the liberal and poststructuralist paradigms. Although those thinkers made some impressive contributions to mainstream and critical race theory, they did not attempt to clarify the relation between capitalism and racial oppression.
Today, however, a new generation of critical racist theorists is reinvigorating that problematic. Comprising thinkers like Michael Dawson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cedric Johnson, Barbara Ransby, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, this generation is reconsidering the capitalism/ racism nexus anew, in light of twenty-first-century developments.2 The reasons are not hard to discern. The conjoint rise of a new generation of militant antiracist activists, on the one hand, and of an aggressively ethnonationalist and alt-right, white-supremacist populism, on the other hand, has dramatically raised the stakes of critical race theory. Many now appreciate, too, that the broader context for both those developments is a deepening crisis of contemporary capitalist society, a crisis that is simultaneously exacerbating, and rendering more visible, its characteristic forms of racial oppression. Finally, capitalism is no longer a taboo term, and Marxism is enjoying a revival. In this situation, the central questions of Black Marxism have again become pressing: Is capitalism necessarily racist? Can racial oppression be overcome within capitalist society?
Aiming to advance this problematic, I opted to use the occasion of my presidential address to revisit those venerable questions. The approach I propose scrambles the usual, sharp oppositions between structure and history, necessity and chance, which obscure the complexities of the capitalism/racism nexus. Contra the proponents of contingency, I shall maintain that there does exist a structural basis for capitalism’s persistent entanglement with racial oppression. That basis resides, as I shall explain, in the system’s reliance on two analytically distinct but inter-imbricated processes of capital accumulation, exploitation and expropriation. It is the separation of these two “exes,” and their assignment to two different populations, that underpins racial oppression in capitalist society. Contra proponents of necessity, however, I shall argue that capitalism’s exploitation/expropriation nexus is not set in stone. Rather, it mutates historically in the course of capitalist development, which can be viewed as a sequence of qualitatively different regimes of racialized accumulation. In each phase, a historically specific configuration of the two exes underpins a distinctive landscape of racialization. When we follow the sequence down to the present, we encounter something new: a form of capitalism that blurs the historic separation of exploitation from expropriation. No longer assigning them to two sharply demarcated populations, this form appears to be dissolving the structural basis for racial oppression that inhered in capitalist society for four hundred years. Yet racial oppression persists, I shall claim, in forms that are neither strictly necessary nor merely contingent. The result is new set of puzzles for Black Marxist theory and anti-racist activism in the twentyfirst century.
In what follows, I develop this argument in three steps. First, I defend the thesis that capitalism harbors a structural basis for racial oppression given that it relies on expropriation as a necessary condition for exploitation. Then, in a second step, I historicize that structure by sketching the shifting configurations of those two exes in the principal phases of capitalism’s history. In my third step, finally, I consider the prospects for overcoming racial oppression in a new form of capitalist society that still rests on exploitation and expropriation but does not assign them to two sharply demarcated populations.
1.1. THREE PERSPECTIVES ON CAPITALISM: EXCHANGE, EXPLOITATION, EXPROPRIATION
Is capitalism necessarily racist? Everything depends on what exactly is meant by capitalism—and on the perspective from which we conceive it. Three such perspectives are worth exploring. A first approach, taught in economics courses, assumed in business, and enshrined in common sense, views capitalism through the lens of market exchange. A second, familiar to socialists, trade unionists, and other protagonists of labor struggles, locates the crux of capitalism at a deeper level, in the exploitation of wage labor in commodity production. A third perspective, developed by critics of imperialism, puts the spotlight instead on capital’s expropriation of conquered peoples. Here, I suggest that by combining the second and third perspectives we gain access to what is missed by each of the three approaches considered alone: a structural basis in capitalist society for racial oppression.
Consider, first, the perspective of exchange. From this perspective, capitalism appears as an economic system simpliciter. Organized to maximize growth and efficiency, it is centered on the institution of the market, where self-interested, arms-length transactors exchange equivalents. Seen this way, capitalism can only be indifferent to color. Absent interference and left to follow its own economizing logic, the system would dissolve any pre-existing racial hierarchies and avoid generating any new ones. From the standpoint of exchange, the link between racism and capitalism is wholly contingent.
Much could be said about this view, but what is important for my present purposes is this: it delinks capitalism from racism by definitional fiat. By defining capitalism narrowly, as an inherently colorblind, utility-maximizing logic, the exchange-centered view relegates any racializing impulses to forces external to the market, which distort the latter’s operation. The culprit is, therefore, not (what it understands as) capitalism, but the larger society that surrounds it. Racism comes from history, politics, and culture, all of which are viewed as external to capitalism and as only contingently connected to it. The effect is to formalize capitalism, reducing it to a means/end economizing logic and stripping away its historical and political contents. In this way, the market-centered view obscures a crucial point that will be central to my argument here: for structural reasons, capitalist economies require “non-economic” preconditions and inputs, including some that generate racial oppression. Failing to reckon with that dependence, this view obfuscates the system’s distinctive mechanisms of accumulation and domination.
Some of those mechanisms are disclosed, by contrast, by our second perspective. Broader, less formal, and far less rosy, this view was originated by Karl Marx, who reconceived capitalism as a system of exploitation. Famously, he penetrated beneath the standard perspective of market exchange to the more fundamental level of commodity production. There he claimed to discover the secret of accumulation in capital’s exploitation of wage laborers. For Marx, importantly, capitalism’s workers are neither serfs nor slaves, but unencumbered individuals, free to enter the labor market and sell their “labor power.” In reality, of course, they have little actual choice in the matter; deprived of any direct access to the means of production, they can only secure the means of subsistence by contracting to work for a capitalist in exchange for wages. Nor does the transaction redound principally to their benefit. What from the first perspective is an exchange of equivalents is, in Marx’s, view a sleight of hand. Recompensed only for the average socially necessary cost of their own reproduction, capitalism’s workers have no claim on the surplus value their labor generates, which accrues instead to the capitalist. And that is precisely the point. The crux of the system, for Marx, is exploitation, viewed as a relation between two classes: on the one hand, the capitalists who own the society’s means of production and appropriate its surplus; on the other, the free but propertyless producers who must sell their labor power piecemeal in order to live. Capitalism, on Marx’s view, is no mere economy, but a social system of class domination, centered on the exploitation of free labor by capital in commodity production.
Marx’s perspective has many virtues, at least one of which is incontestable. By viewing capitalism through the lens of exploitation, it makes visible what the exchange perspective obscured: the structural basis in capitalist society for working-class domination. Yet this focus fails to disclose any comparable structural basis for racial oppression. On this point, at least, the exploitation perspective sits uncomfortably close to that of exchange. While demonstrating that capital is accumulated off the back of free waged labor, it sheds little if any light on how race figures in the system and why it plays such an outsized role in capitalism’s history. Failing to address that issue, it can only convey the impression that the system’s entanglement with racial oppression is contingent.
That conclusion is too hasty, however. The trouble is that in focusing so tightly on the process by which capital exploits wage labor, Marx failed to give systematic consideration to some equally fundamental processes that are bound up with that one. I have in mind two such processes that could, when probed, reveal deep-seated links to racial oppression. The first is the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent, and unwaged labor—by which I mean labor that is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, subject to domination unmediated by a wage contract. The second concerns the role of political orders in conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on “workers,” while constituting others as lesser beings—for example, as chattel slaves, indentured servants, colonized subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations,” debt peons, and felons.3
Both these matters—dependent labor and political subjection—come into view, however, when we take up the standpoint of expropriation. Developed by theorists of imperialism, this way of thinking about capitalism broadens the frame beyond “the metropole” to encompass the conquest and looting of peoples in “the periphery.” Adopting a global perspective, its practitioners disclose a hidden barbaric underside of capitalist modernity: beneath surface niceties of consent and contract lie brute violence and overt theft. The effect is to cast a new light on exchange and exploitation, which now appear as the tip of a larger, more sinister iceberg.
The expropriation perspective is revelatory, to be sure. What is not so clear, however, is whether imperial expansion is structurally integral to capitalism, and if so, how the expropriation of dependent, subjugated peoples relates to the exploitation of “free workers.” Nor do we get a systematic account of what, if anything, this third ex has to do with “race.”
My claim is that expropriation is indeed integral to capitalist society— and to its entanglement with “race.” In a nutshell, as I shall explain, the subjection of those whom capital expropriates is a hidden condition of possibility for the freedom of those whom it exploits. Absent an account of the first, we cannot fully understand the second. Nor can we glimpse the structural basis of capitalism’s historic entanglement with racial oppression.
To develop this claim, I shall utilize an expanded conception of capitalism, which combines elements of the last two perspectives canvassed here. Penetrating beneath the familiar level of exchange, I shall combine Marx’s “hidden abode” of exploitation with the even more obfuscated moment of expropriation. By theorizing the relation between those two exes, I shall identify a structural basis of capitalism’s deep-seated entanglement with racial oppression.
1.2. EXPROPRIATION AS A MODE OF ACCUMULATION: AN ECONOMIC ARGUMENT
Let me begin by defining expropriation. Distinct from Marxian exploitation, expropriation is accumulation by other means. Dispensing with the contractual relation through which capital purchases “labor power” in exchange for wages, expropriation works by confiscating capacities and resources and conscripting them into the circuits of capital expansion. The confiscation may be blatant and violent, as in New World slavery— or it may be veiled by a cloak of commerce, as in the predatory loans and debt foreclosures of the present era. The expropriated subjects may be rural or indigenous communities in the capitalist periphery— or members of subject or subordinated groups in the capitalist core. Once expropriated, they may end up as exploited proletarians, if they’re lucky—or, if not, as paupers, slum-dwellers, sharecroppers, “natives,” or slaves, subjects of ongoing expropriation outside the wage nexus. The confiscated assets may be labor, land, animals, tools, mineral or energy deposits—but also human beings, their sexual and reproductive capacities, their children and bodily organs. What is essential, however, is that the commandeered capacities get incorporated into the valueexpanding process that defines capital. Simple theft is not enough. Unlike the sort of pillaging that long predated the rise of capitalism, expropriation in the sense I intend here is confiscation-cum-conscriptioninto-accumulation.
Expropriation in this sense covers a multitude of sins, most of which correlate strongly with racial oppression. The association is clear in practices widely associated with capitalism’s early history but still ongoing, such as territorial conquest, land annexation, enslavement, coerced labor, child abduction, and systematic rape. But expropriation also assumes more “modern” forms—such as prison labor, transnational sex trafficking, corporate land grabs, and foreclosures on predatory debt, which are also linked with racial oppression—and, as we shall see, with contemporary imperialism.
But the connection is not just historical and contingent. On the contrary, there are structural reasons for capital’s ongoing recourse to racialized expropriation. By definition, a system devoted to the limitless expansion and private appropriation of surplus value gives the owners of capital a deep-seated interest in confiscating labor and means of production from subject populations. Expropriation raises their profits by lowering costs of production in two ways: on the one hand, by supplying cheap inputs, such as energy and raw materials; on the other, by providing low-cost means of subsistence, such as food and textiles, which permit them to pay lower wages. Thus, by confiscating resources and capacities from unfree or dependent subjects, capitalists can more profitably exploit “free workers.” And so, the two “exes” are intertwined. Behind Manchester stands Mississippi.4
Advantageous even in “normal” times, expropriation becomes especially appealing in periods of economic crisis, when it serves as a critical, if temporary, fix for restoring declining profitability. The same is true for political crises, which can sometimes be defused or averted by transferring value confiscated from populations that appear not to threaten capital to those that do—another distinction that often correlates with “race.”5
In general, then, expropriation is a structural feature of capitalism—and a disavowed enabling condition for exploitation. Far from representing separate and parallel processes, those two exes are systemically imbricated—deeply intertwined aspects of a single capitalist world system. And the division between them correlates roughly but unmistakably with what Du Bois called “the color line.” All told, the expropriation of racialized “others” constitutes a necessary background condition for the exploitation of “workers.”
Let me clarify this idea by contrasting it with Marx’s account of “primitive” or “original accumulation,”6 from which it differs in two respects. First, primitive accumulation denotes the blood-soaked process by which capital was initially stockpiled at the system’s beginnings.7 Expropriation, in contrast, designates an ongoing confiscatory process essential for sustaining accumulation in a crisis-prone system. Second, Marx introduces primitive accumulation to explain the historical genesis of the class division between propertyless workers and capitalist owners of the means of production. Expropriation explains that as well, but it also brings into view another social division, equally deep-seated and consequential, but not systematically theorized by Marx. I mean the social division between “free workers” whom capital exploits in wage labor and the unfree or dependent subjects whom it cannibalizes by other means.
This second division is central to the present inquiry. My thesis is that the racializing dynamics of capitalist society are crystalized in the structurally grounded “mark” that distinguishes free subjects of exploitation from dependent subjects of expropriation. But to make this case requires a shift in focus—from “the economic” to “the political.” It is only by thematizing the political orders of capitalist society that we can grasp the constitution of that distinction—and with it, the fabrication of “race.”
1.3. EXPROPRIATION AS A MODE OF SUBJECTION: A POLITICAL ARGUMENT
The distinction between expropriation and exploitation is simultaneously economic and political. Viewed economically, these terms name mechanisms of capital accumulation, analytically distinct yet intertwined ways of expanding value. Viewed politically, they have to do with modes of domination—especially with status hierarchies that distinguish rightsbearing individuals and citizens from subject peoples, unfree chattel, and dependent members of families and subordinated groups. In capitalist society, as Marx insisted, exploited workers have the legal status of free individuals, authorized to sell their labor power in return for wages. Once separated from the means of production and proletarianized, they are protected, at least in theory, from (further) expropriation. In this respect, their status differs sharply from those whose labor, property, and/or persons are still subject to confiscation on the part of capital. Far from enjoying protection, the latter populations are defenseless, fair game for expropriation–again and again. Constituted as inherently violable, their condition is one of exposure. Deprived of political protection, they lack the means to set limits to what others can do to them.
In general, then, the distinction between the two exes is a function not only of accumulation but also of domination. It is political agencies— above all, states—that afford or deny protection in capitalist society. And it is largely states, too, that codify and enforce the status hierarchies that distinguish citizens from subjects, nationals from aliens, entitled workers from dependent scroungers. Constructing exploitable and expropriable subjects, while distinguishing the one from the other, state practices of political subjectivation supply an indispensable precondition for capital’s “self”-expansion.8
Nevertheless, states do not act alone in this regard. Geopolitical arrangements are implicated as well. What enables political subjectivation at the national level is an international system that “recognizes” states and authorizes the border controls that distinguish lawful residents from “illegal aliens.” We need only think of current conflicts surrounding migrants and refugees to see how easily these geopolitically enabled hierarchies of political status become racially coded.
The same is true of another set of status hierarchies, which is rooted in capitalism’s imperialist geography. That geography divides the world into “core” and “periphery.” Historically, the core has appeared to be the emblematic heartland of exploitation, while the periphery was cast as the iconic site of expropriation. That division was explicitly racialized from the get-go, as were the status hierarchies associated with it: metropolitan citizens versus colonial subjects, free individuals versus slaves, “Europeans” versus “natives,” “whites” versus “blacks.” These hierarchies, too, serve to distinguish populations and regions suitable for exploitation from those destined instead for expropriation.
To see how, let us look more closely at political subjectivation—especially at the processes that mark off free exploitable citizen-workers from dependent expropriable subjects. Both these statuses were politically constituted, but in different ways. In the capitalist core, dispossessed artisans, farmers, and tenants became exploitable citizen-workers through historic processes of class compromise, which channeled their struggles for emancipation onto paths convergent with the interests of capital, within the liberal legal frameworks of national states. By contrast, those who became ever-expropriable subjects, whether in periphery or core, found no such accommodation, as their uprisings were more often crushed by force of arms. If the domination of the first was shrouded in consent and legality, that of the second rested unabashedly on naked repression.
Often, moreover, the two statuses were mutually constituted, effectively co-defining one another. In the United States, the status of the citizen worker acquired much of the aura of freedom that legitimates exploitation by contrast to the dependent, degraded condition of chattel slaves and indigenous peoples, whose persons and lands could be repeatedly confiscated with impunity.9 In codifying the subject status of the second, the US state simultaneously constructed the normative status of the first.
As noted, however, the political fabrication of dependent subjects within capitalism has always exceeded state borders. For systemic reasons, rooted in the intertwined logics of geopolitical rivalry and economic expansionism, powerful states moved to constitute expropriable subjects further afield, in peripheral zones of the capitalist world system. Plundering the furthest reaches of the globe, European colonial powers, followed by a US imperial state, turned billions of people into such subjects—shorn of political protection, ripe and ready for confiscation. The number of expropriable subjects those states created far exceeds the number of citizen-workers they “emancipated” for exploitation. Nor did the process cease with the liberation of subject peoples from colonial rule. On the contrary, masses of new expropriable subjects are created daily, even now, by the joint operations of postcolonial states, their ex-colonial masters, and the trans-state powers that grease the machinery of accumulation, including the global financial institutions that promote dispossession by debt.
The common thread here, once again, is political exposure: the incapacity to set limits and invoke protections. Exposure is the deepest meaning of expropriability, the thing that sets it apart from exploitability. And it is expropriability, the condition of being defenseless and liable to violation, that constitutes the core of racial oppression. What distinguishes free subjects of exploitation from dependent subjects of expropriation is the mark of “race” as a sign of violability.
This concludes the first step of my argument. My claim, to this point, is that capitalism harbors a structural basis for racial oppression. That basis is obscured when we view the system too narrowly, whether from the standpoint of market exchange or from that of the exploitation of free waged labor. The culprit appears, however, when the frame is broadened to include the third ex of expropriation, understood as a necessary condition for exploitation, distinct from, but entwined with, the latter. Adopting that enlarged perspective on capitalism, which encompasses “politics” as well as “economics,” we gain access to the system’s noncontingent reliance on a stratum of unfree or subjugated people, racially marked as inherently violable. There, in capitalism’s constitutive separation of exploitation from expropriation, lies the structural basis for its persistent entanglement with racial oppression.
2.1 HISTORICIZING THE EX/EX STRUCTURE: REGIMES OF RACIALIZED ACCUMULATION
Nevertheless, the structure I have described is susceptible to variation. Far from being given once and for all at capitalism’s beginnings, it has undergone several major shifts in the course of capitalist development. In some phases, exploitation and expropriation were clearly separated from one another, with exploitation centered in the European core and reserved for the (white male) “labor aristocracy,” while expropriation was sited chiefly in the periphery and imposed on people of color. In other phases, by contrast, those separations blurred. Such shifts have periodically reshaped the dynamics of racial oppression in capitalist society, which cannot be understood in abstraction from them. In this sense, the capitalism/racism nexus is not only structural but also historical.
To clarify this double condition, I turn now to the second step of my argument. Here, I sketch an account of capitalism’s history as a sequence of regimes of racialized accumulation. This account foregrounds the historically specific relations between expropriation and exploitation within each principal phase of capitalist development. For each regime, I specify the geography and demography of the two exes: the extent to which they are separated from one another, sited in different regions, and assigned to distinct population. For each regime, too, I note the relative weight of the two exes and the distinctive ways in which they are inter-imbricated. Finally, I identify the forms of political subjectivation that characterize every phase.
I begin with the commercial or mercantile capitalism of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. This was the era that Marx had in mind when he coined the phrase “primitive accumulation.” With that phrase, he was signaling that the principal driver of accumulation in this phase of capitalism was not exploitation, but expropriation. Confiscation was the name of the game, manifested both in the land enclosures of the core and in the conquest, plunder, and “hunting of black skins” throughout the periphery,10 both of which long preceded the rise of modern industry. Prior to large-scale exploitation of factory workers came massive expropriation of bodies, labor, land, and mineral wealth, in Europe and—especially—in the “New World.” Expropriation literally dwarfed exploitation in commercial capitalism—and that had major implications for status hierarchy.
Certainly, this regime generated precursors of the racializing subjectivations that became so consequential in later phases: “Europeans” versus “natives,” free individuals versus chattel, “whites” versus “blacks.” But these distinctions were far less sharp in an era when virtually all nonpropertied people had the status of subjects, not that of rights-bearing citizens. In this period, virtually all lacked political protection from expropriation, and the majority condition was not freedom but dependency. As a result, that status did not carry the special stigma it acquired in subsequent phases of capitalism, when majority ethnicity male workers in the core won liberal rights through political struggle. It was only later, with the democratization of metropolitan states and the rise of large-scale factory-based exploitation of free wage labor, that the contrast between “free and subject races” sharpened, giving rise to the full-blown white-supremacist status order we associate with modern capitalism.11
That is precisely what happened when mercantile capitalism gave way in the nineteenth century to what is misleadingly called “liberal” or “laissez-faire capitalism.” In this new regime, the two exes became more balanced and interconnected. Certainly, the confiscation of land and labor continued apace, as European states consolidated colonial rule, while the US perpetuated its “internal colony,” first, through the extension of racialized slavery and then, after abolition, by transforming freedmen into debt peons through the sharecropping system. Now, however, ongoing expropriation in the periphery entwined with highly profitable exploitation in the core. What was new was the rise of large-scale factorybased manufacturing, which forged the proletariat imagined by Marx, upending traditional life forms and sparking class conflict. Eventually, struggles to democratize metropolitan states delivered a systemconforming version of citizenship to exploited workers. At the same time, however, brutal repression of anticolonial struggles ensured continuing subjection in the periphery. Thus, the contrast between dependency and freedom was sharpened and increasingly racialized, mapped onto two categorically different “races” of human beings. In this way, the free “white” exploitable citizen-worker emerged as the antithetical flip side of its own abjected enabling condition: the dependent racialized expropriable subject. And modern racism found a durable anchor in the deep structure of capitalist society.
Racialization was further strengthened by the apparent separation of expropriation and exploitation in “liberal” capitalism. In this regime, the two exes appeared to be sited in different regions and assigned to different populations—one enslaved or colonized, the other “free.” In fact, however, the division was never so cut and dried, as some extractive industries employed colonial subjects in wage labor, and only a minority of exploited workers in the capitalist core succeeded in escaping ongoing expropriation altogether. Despite their appearance as separate, moreover, the two exes were systemically imbricated: it was the expropriation of populations in the periphery (including in the periphery within the core) that supplied the cheap food, textiles, mineral ore and energy without which the exploitation of metropolitan industrial workers would not have been profitable. In the “liberal” era, therefore, the two exes were distinct but mutually calibrated engines of accumulation within a single world capitalist system.
The nexus of expropriation and exploitation mutated again in the following era. Begun in the interwar period, and consolidated following the Second World War, the new regime of “state-managed capitalism” softened the separation of the two exes without abolishing it. In this era, expropriation no longer precluded exploitation but combined directly with it—as in the segmented labor markets of capitalist core. In those contexts, capital exacted a confiscatory premium from racialized workers, paying them less than “whites”—and less than the socially necessary costs of their reproduction. Here, accordingly, expropriation articulated directly with exploitation, entering into the internal constitution of wage labor.
African Americans are a case in point. Displaced by agricultural mechanization and flocking to northern cities, many joined the industrial proletariat, but chiefly as second-class workers, consigned to the dirtiest, most menial jobs. In this era, their exploitation was overlaid by expropriation, as capital failed to pay the full costs of their reproduction. What undergirded that arrangement was their continuing political subjection under Jim Crow. Throughout the era of state-managed capitalism, Black Americans were deprived of political protection, as segregation, disfranchisement, and countless other institutionalized humiliations continued to deny them full citizenship. Even when employed in northern factories, they were still constituted as more or less expropriable, not as fully free bearers of rights. They were expropriated and exploited simultaneously.12
Even as it muddied the line between those two exes, the state-capitalist regime heightened the status differential associated with them. Newly created welfare states in the capitalist core loaned additional symbolic and material value to the status of the citizen-worker, as they expanded protections and benefits for those who could claim it. Instituting labor rights, corporatist bargaining, and social insurance, they not only stabilized accumulation to capital’s benefit but also politically incorporated those “workers” who were “merely” exploited. The effect, however, was to intensify the invidious comparison with those excluded from that designation, further stigmatizing racialized “others.” Conspicuously anomalous and lived as unjust, the latter’s continuing vulnerability to violation became the target of sustained militant protest in the 1960s, as civil rights and Black Power activists took to the streets.
In the periphery, meanwhile, struggles for decolonization exploded, giving rise in due course to a different amalgamation of the two exes. Independence promised to raise the status of ex-colonials from dependent subjects to rights-bearing citizens. In the event, some working-class strata did manage to achieve that elevation, but precariously and on inferior terms. In a global economy premised on “unequal exchange,” their exploitation, too, was suffused with expropriation, as trade regimes tilted against them siphoned value away to the core, notwithstanding the overthrow of colonial rule. Moreover, the limited advances enjoyed by some were denied to the vast majority, who remained outside the wage nexus and subject to overt confiscation. Now, however, the expropriators were not only foreign governments and transnational firms but also postcolonial states. Centered largely on import substitution industrialization, the latter’s “development” strategies often entailed expropriation of “their own” indigenous populations. And even those developmental states that made serious efforts to improve the condition of peasants and workers could not fully succeed. The combination of straitened state resources, neo-imperial regimes of investment and trade, and ongoing land dispossession ensured that the line between the two exes would remain fuzzy in the postcolony.
In state-managed capitalism, therefore, exploitation no longer appeared so separate from expropriation. Rather, the two exes became internally articulated in racialized industrial labor, on the one hand, and in compromised postcolonial citizenship, on the other. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two exes did not disappear, as “pure” variants of each persisted in core and periphery. Substantial populations were still expropriated pure and simple; and they were almost invariably people of color. Others were “merely” exploited; and they were more likely to be European and “white.” What was new, however, was the emergence of hybrid cases in which some people were subject simultaneously to both expropriation and exploitation. Such people remained a minority under state-managed capitalism, but they were the heralds of a world to come.
When we turn to the present regime, we see a vast expansion of the expropriation/exploitation hybrid. This phase, which I call “financialized capitalism,” rests on a novel and distinctive nexus. On the one hand, there has been a dramatic shift in the geography and demography of the two exes. Much large-scale industrial exploitation now occurs outside the historic core, in the BRICS countries of the semi-periphery. At the same time, expropriation is on the rise–so much so, in fact, that it threatens to outpace exploitation once again as a source of value. These developments are closely connected. As industry migrates and finance metastasizes, expropriation is becoming universalized, afflicting not only its traditional subjects but also those who were previously shielded by their status as citizen-workers and free individuals.
Debt is a major culprit here, as global financial institutions pressure states to collude with investors in extracting value from defenseless populations. It is largely by means of debt that peasants are dispossessed and corporate land grabs are intensified in the capitalist periphery. But they are not the only victims. Virtually all nonpropertied postcolonials are expropriated via sovereign debt, as postcolonial states in hock to international lenders and caught in the vise of “structural adjustment” are forced to abandon developmentalism in favor of liberalizing policies, which transfer wealth to corporate capital and global finance. Far from reducing debt, moreover, the restructuring only compounds it, sending the ratio of debt service to GNP soaring skyward and condemning countless generations to expropriation, some long before they are born, and regardless of whether or not they are also subject to exploitation.
It is increasingly by expropriation, too, that accumulation proceeds in the historic core. As low-waged precarious service work replaces unionized industrial labor, wages fall below the socially necessary costs of reproduction. Workers who used to be “merely” exploited are now expropriated too. That doubled condition, previously reserved for minorities but becoming generalized, is compounded by the assault on the welfare state. The social wage declines, as tax revenues previously dedicated to public infrastructure and social entitlements are diverted to debt service and “deficit reduction” in hopes of placating “the markets.” Even as real wages plummet, services that used to be provided publicly are offloaded onto families and communities—which is to say, chiefly onto women, who are meanwhile employed in precarious wage work—hence exploited and expropriated coming and going. In the core, moreover, as in the periphery, a race to the bottom drives down corporate taxes, further depleting state coffers and apparently justifying more “austerity”—in effect, completing the vicious circle. Additional corporate giveaways eviscerate hard-won labor rights, setting up onceprotected workers for violation. Yet they, like others, are expected to buy cheap stuff made elsewhere. In these conditions, continued consumer spending requires expanded consumer debt, which fattens investors while expropriating citizen-workers of every color, but especially racialized borrowers, who are steered to hyper-expropriative sub-prime and payday loans. At every level and in every region, therefore, debt is the engine driving major new waves of expropriation in financialized capitalism.
In the present regime, then, we encounter a new entwinement of exploitation and expropriation—and a new logic of political subjectivation. In place of the earlier, sharp divide between dependent expropriable subjects and free exploitable workers, there appears a continuum. At one end lies the growing mass of defenseless expropriable subjects; at the other, the dwindling ranks of protected citizen-workers, subject “only” to exploitation. At the center sits a new figure, formally free, but acutely vulnerable: the expropriated-and-exploited citizen-worker. No longer restricted to peripheral populations and racial minorities, this new figure is becoming the norm.
Nevertheless, the expropriation/exploitation continuum remains racialized. People of color are still disproportionately represented at the expropriative end of the spectrum, as we see in the United States. Black and brown Americans who had long been denied credit, confined to inferior segregated housing, and paid too little to accumulate savings, were systematically targeted by purveyors of sub-prime loans and consequently experienced the highest rates of home foreclosures in the country. Likewise, minority towns and neighborhoods that had long been starved of public resources are hit especially hard by plant closings, which cost them not only jobs but also tax revenues—hence, funds for schools, hospitals, and basic infrastructure maintenance, leading eventually to debacles like Flint and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Finally, black men long subject to differential sentencing and harsh imprisonment, coerced labor and socially tolerated violence, including at the hands of police, are massively conscripted into a “prison-industrial complex,” kept full to capacity by a “war on drugs,” which targets possession of small amounts of crack cocaine, and by disproportionately high rates of unemployment. Despite the shift in the ex/ex nexus, racism is alive and well in financialized capitalism.
2.2 THE CAPITALISM/RACISM NEXUS REVISITED IN LIGHT OF ITS HISTORY
The preceding narrative constitutes the second step of my argument. But it casts the previous step in a different light. No mere chronological exercise, the recounting of capitalist development as a sequence of racial regimes has a conceptual payoff. It alters our view of the structure that underpins racial oppression in capitalist society.
My thesis can now be restated as follows: For structural reasons, capital accumulation always requires both exploitation and expropriation. But precisely how the system constructs its human subjects and assigns them to those two processes varies historically. The history narrated here records a range of different possibilities. The colonial capitalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries installed a clear-cut division. Free, rights-bearing citizen-workers, subject “only” to exploitation, were sharply marked off from politically defenseless racialized subject peoples, made available for expropriation. By contrast, the financialized capitalism of the twenty-first century dispenses with that sharp division. Far from neatly separating the expropriated from the exploited, it subjects propertyless people of every hue to both exes simultaneously.
- IS CAPITALISM STILL NECESSARILY RACIST?
What follows for the theory and practice of anti-racism? Does the present softening of the ex/ex division mean that the structure that underpinned five hundred years of capitalist racial oppression is finally dissolving? Is capitalism no longer necessarily racist? And if so, is the power of racism to divide populations dissolving as well?
The analysis presented here suggests the crumbling, if not the full demise, of racism’s structural basis in capitalist society. From its origins to the present, capitalism has always required both expropriation and exploitation. In the past, however, it also required their mutual separation and assignment to two distinct populations, divided by the color line. Today, by contrast, that second requirement no longer holds. On the contrary, the present regime conscripts nearly all nonpropertied adults into wage labor, but pays the overwhelming majority less than the socially necessary costs of their reproduction. Reducing the “social wage” by dismantling public provision, it entangles the bulk of the nonpropertied population in the tentacles of debt. Universalizing precarity, financialized capitalism exploits and expropriates nearly everyone coming and going.
Nevertheless, racial oppression lives on in this phase of capitalism. People of color remain racialized and far more likely than others to be poor, unemployed, homeless, hungry, and sick; to be victimized by crime and predatory loans; to be incarcerated and sentenced to death; to be harassed and murdered by police; to be used as cannon fodder or sex slaves and turned into refugees or “collateral damage” in endless wars; to be dispossessed and forced to flee violence, poverty, and climatechange-induced disasters, only to be confined in cages at borders or left to drown at sea.
Taken together, these developments present a puzzle. On the one hand, financialized capitalism is dissolving the political-economic structure that underpinned racial oppression in previous regimes. On the other hand, it still harbors racial disparities and foments racial antagonisms. The question is, why? Why does racism outlive the disappearance of the sharp separation of the two exes? Why do those who now share the objective condition of exploitation-cum-expropriation not see themselves as fellow travelers in the same (leaky, unseaworthy) boat? Why do they not join together to oppose financialized capitalism’s fuzzier nexus of expropriation and exploitation, which harms them all?
That such alliances did not appear earlier in capitalism’s history is not surprising. Previously, the racialized separation of the two exes encouraged the “free workers” of the capitalist core to dissociate their interests and aims from those of dependent subjects in the periphery— including the periphery within the core. As a result, what was understood as class struggle was all too easily disconnected from struggles against slavery, imperialism, and racism—when not posed directly against them. And the converse was sometimes true. Movements aimed at overcoming racial oppression at times despaired of alliances with (waged) “labor” and on occasion even disdained them. The effect throughout capitalism’s history was to weaken the forces of emancipation.
But that was then. What are the prospects for such alliances today, when racial oppression in capitalist society is no longer strictly “necessary”? The perspective outlined here suggests a mixed prognosis. Objectively, financialized capitalism has softened the mutual separation of the two exes, which underpinned racism in the past. Subjectively, however, the new configuration may actually aggravate racial antagonism—at least in the short run. When centuries of stigma and violation meet capital’s voracious need for subjects to exploit and expropriate, the result is intense insecurity and paranoia—hence, a desperate scramble for safety—and exacerbated racism.
Certainly, those who were previously shielded from (much) predation are less than eager to share its burdens now—and not simply because they are racists, although some of them are. It is also that they, too, have legitimate grievances, which come out in one way or another—as well they should. In the absence of a cross-racial movement to abolish a social system that imposes near-universal expropriation, their grievances find expression in the growing ranks of right-wing authoritarian populism. Those movements flourish today in virtually every country of capitalism’s historic core—as well as in quite a few in the former periphery. They represent the entirely predictable response to the “progressive neoliberalism” of our times. The elites who embody that perspective cynically appeal to “fairness” while extending expropriation—asking those who were once protected from the worst by their standing as “whites” or “Europeans” to give up that favored status, embrace their growing precarity, and surrender to violation, all while funneling their assets to investors and offering them nothing in return but moral approval.13
In this context, the political prospects for a post-racial society are not so rosy, notwithstanding the possibility of a structural opening. Cross-racial alliances do not emerge spontaneously from the new, more blurred configuration of the two exes. On the contrary, in the viciously predatory world of financialized capitalism, racial antagonisms are on the rise. Today, when a nonracial capitalism might be possible in principle, it appears to be barred in practice, thanks to a toxic combination of sedimented dispositions, exacerbated anxieties, and cynical manipulations.
Before we bemoan that fact, however, we should ask what exactly non-racial capitalism could mean under current conditions. On one interpretation, it would be a regime in which people of color were proportionately represented at the commanding heights of global finance and political might, on the one hand, and among the latter’s expropriated-cum-exploited victims, on the other. Contemplation of this possibility—call it “nonracial financialized capitalism”—should not provide much comfort to antiracists, as it would mean continued worsening of the life conditions of the vast majority of people of color, among others. Oriented to parity within ballooning inequality, nonracial financialized capitalism would lead at best to equal-opportunity domination amidst rising racial animosity.
The analysis developed here suggests the pressing need for more radical transformation. Contra progressive neoliberalism, racism cannot be defeated by equal-opportunity domination—nor, contra ordinary liberalism, by legal reform. By the same token, and pace black nationalism, the antidote does not reside in enterprise zones, community control, or self-determination. Nor, contra socialism, as traditionally understood, can an exclusive focus on exploitation emancipate racialized people— nor, indeed, working people of any color; it is also necessary to target expropriation to which exploitation is, in any case, tied. What is needed, in fact, is to overcome capitalism’s stubborn nexus of expropriation and exploitation, to transform the overall matrix, to eradicate both of capitalism’s exes by abolishing the larger system that generates their symbiosis.
Overcoming racism today requires cross-racial alliances aimed at achieving that transformation. Although such alliances do not emerge automatically as a result of structural change, they may be constructed through sustained political effort. The sine qua non is a perspective that stresses the symbiosis of exploitation and expropriation in financialized capitalism. By disclosing their mutual imbrication, such a perspective suggests that neither ex can be overcome on its own. Their fate is tied together, as is that of the populations who were once so sharply divided and are now so uncomfortably close. Today, when the exploited are also the expropriated and vice versa, it might be possible, finally, to envision an alliance among them. Perhaps in blurring the line between the two exes, financialized capitalism is creating the material basis for their joint abolition. But it’s nevertheless up to us to seize the day and turn a historical possibility into real historical force for emancipation.
I am grateful to Robin Blackburn, Sharad Chari, Rahel Jaeggi, and Eli Zaretsky for helpful comments; to Daniel Boscov-Ellen for research assistance; and, especially, to Michael Dawson for inspiration and stimulation.
- L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (London: Penguin Books, 1938); W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1938); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1944); Oliver Cromwell Cox, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study of Social Dynamics (Monthly Review Press, 1948); Stuart Hall, “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism (UNESCO, 1980): 305–45; Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1981); Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (London: The Women’s Press, 1982); Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (Brooklyn: South End Press, 1983); Barbara Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review I/181 (May-June 1990): 95–118; Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990) and Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996); Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); and Cornel West, “The Indispensability Yet Insufficiency of Marxist Theory” and “Race and Social Theory,” both in The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 213–30 and 251–67.
- Michael C. Dawson, Blacks In and Out of the Left (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2017); Cedric Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); Barbara Ransby, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2018); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2016).
- It would be false to say that Marx did not consider these processes at all. On the contrary, he wrote in Capital, for example, about slavery, colonialism, the expulsion of the Irish, and the “reserve army of labor.” But with the exception of the last, these discussions were not systematically elaborated. Nor did they generate categories that play an integral, structural role in his conception of capitalism. See Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976): 781–802; 854–70; 914–26; and 931–40. By contrast, a long line of subsequent thinkers has sought to incorporate the analysis of racial oppression into Marxism. See notes 1 and 2 above. My own effort builds upon theirs, even as it also develops a distinctive conceptual argument.
- This formulation echoes a thought of Jason Moore, who notes capital’s ongoing reliance on the expropriation of unpaid work (from nature as well as from people) as a condition for the possibility of profitable production. He writes: “Productivity-maximizing technologies revive system-wide accumulation when they set in motion a vast appropriation of uncapitalized nature. For every Amsterdam there is a Vistula Basin. For every Manchester, a Mississippi Delta.” Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 1080/03066150.2016.1272587 (2017).
- As I shall explain in the following section, such divide-and-rule tactics mobilize racially coded status hierarchies that distinguish citizens from subjects, nationals from aliens, free individuals from slaves, “Europeans” from “natives,” “whites” from “blacks,” entitled “workers” from dependent “scroungers.”
- Marx, Capital I, 873–76.
- For another account that extends the concept of primitive accumulation beyond initial stockpiling, see the chapter on “Extended Primitive Accumulation” in Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (Verso, 2010).
- The dependence of accumulation on subjectivation is a special case of a larger phenomenon. In other respects, too, capitalism’s “economic subsystem” depends for its very existence on conditions external to it, including some that can only be assured by political powers. Evidently, accumulation requires a legal framework to guarantee property rights, enforce contracts, and adjudicate disputes. Equally necessary are repressive forces, which suppress rebellions, maintain order, and manage dissent. Then, too, political initiatives aimed at managing crisis have proved indispensable at various points in capitalism’s history, as has public provision of infrastructure, social welfare, and, of course, money. I discuss those indispensable political functions in “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55–72, and in “Legitimation Crisis? On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism,” Critical Historical Studies 2, no. 2 (2015): 1–33. I focus here, by contrast, on the equally necessary function of political subjectivation.
- Judith Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1998).
- Marx, Capital I, 915.
- Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, “A Genealogy of ‘Dependency’: Tracing a Keyword of the US Welfare State,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 19, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 309–36. Reprinted in Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (Verso Books, 2013).
- I am suggesting that the situation of racialized labor in state-managed capitalism combined elements of expropriation with elements of exploitation. On the one hand, workers of color in the US core were paid a wage, but one that was less than the average socially necessary costs of their reproduction. On the other hand, they had the formal status of free persons and US citizens, but they could not call on public powers to vindicate their rights; on the contrary, those who were supposed to protect them from violence were often perpetrators of it. Thus, their status amalgamated both political and economic aspects of the two exes. It is better understood in this way, as an amalgam or hybrid of exploitation and expropriation, than via the more familiar concept of “super-exploitation.” Although that term is undeniably evocative, it focuses exclusively on the economics of the racial wage gap, while ignoring the status differential. My approach, in contrast, aims to disclose the entwinement of economic predation with political subjection. For super-exploitation, see, e.g., Ruy Mauro Marini, Dialéctica de la Dependencia (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1973).
- For progressive neoliberalism, see Nancy Fraser, “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism,” Dissent (Spring 2017) and online at https://www. org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionarypopulism-nancy-fraser. Also, “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump–and Beyond,” American Affairs I, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 46–64, and online at https:// americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/11/progressive-neoliberalism-trump-beyond/.