Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Reconceiving Race and Capital
Communists in Situ recently reposted Jehu’s series of notes on privilege politics as a single post (alongside the also interesting and clearly related essay by Paul Mattick Sr., “The Scum of Humanity”), which I had not read in some time, and I have to commend them on doing so. While I will put forward a different way of conceptualizing racialization because I consider the labor competition thesis to be wholly inadequate, I have to say that I really do recommend reading the essays for their clear comprehension of competition between individuals within classes; the very good reasons that between (Marxist) privilege theory (Racism, sexism and other forms of privilege cannot be ended simply by overthrowing capitalism) and “orthodox” Marxism (With the overthrow of capitalism, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression will be done away with), “orthodox” Marxism is simply idiotic and why a real consideration has to begin with the dilemmas posed by privilege theory within Marxism; how elements within Marx’s own work, such as in the Critique of the Gotha Program, allow us to grasp the necessary internal differentiation within the class that will not simply be overcome by “the revolution”; and finally the point that the demand for racial equality is a demand that capitalism can in no way accommodate without destroying itself. Finally, Jehu makes other two points that everyone really needs to comprehend: the working class was never a single, internally cohesive class merely divided by “bourgeois ideology” foisted on it a manipulative capitalist class and the working class today is mostly non-white women on a global scale, so that the overcoming of capital won’t happen if it isn’t also the overcoming of race and gender as well as class.
As a minor prefatory note, I don’t generally use the term racism because it is commonly used to indicate some bad ideas in people’s heads, whether subjectively bad like prejudice or objectively bad produced by “the system”, frequently only taking into account the oppression of one race by another, but taking for granted the very production of race as a social category or form. At best, it refers to unequal relations of power between groups, which may be naturalized (as if races existed in nature, which many people certainly believe, including many people who should know better) or treated as socially constructed. For my part, I prefer the term racialization because it implies an ongoing process, of the formation and potential crisis of what I believe is an objectively produced social relation, as much as gender or class.
There is no need to address whether or not race exists biologically in any detail. The idea is as absurd as any other naturalization of relations of domination and has no standing in biology, though the rightward drift since the 1970’s has given the idea some limited credence even among those who ought to know better. The fact remains that genetic variation is greater within groups than between them in the human species.
The approach here assumes that any meaningful discussion of race is a discussion of relations of domination. This also means that nationalist approaches to race that would elevate the so-called black race or which accept race as positive will not be addressed as worth serious consideration. However, insofar as identity politics plays a great role in the present, the question of identity will have to be dealt with in some detail, especially as it pertains to intersectionality on one side and the class identity politics of the labor Left on the other.
Part of the difficulty of this discussion comes from a difference in approach. My argument is first and foremost not explanatory and sociological. Such a treatment would put forward a directly historical analysis or structural analysis, most likely trying to establish correct definitions, but this is not what I am working on. Rather, what is required is an adequate concept of the production of racial relations in capitalist society. Explanatory distinctions, definitions, and sociological categories already presume, whether they wish to admit it or not, whether they are aware of those commitments or not, a concept of their object and its validity.
What is missing in most Marxist treatments of racialization is not historical material or a structural analysis, but a comprehension of how racialization develops immanently from within capital, that is, without presuming its external or prior existence and without looking for explanations outside of capital. Racialization, as I am arguing it be understood, is specific to capitalist society, just as modern slavery is part of capitalist production. It would be a mistake to treat racialization as merely a continuation of xenophobia or older notions of race. Just as Marx conceptualizes the capital-labor relation, but does not engage in sociological discussions of class in Capital, so I believe we need to conceptualize racialization as a moment of the capital-labor relation, albeit in a manner closer to Roswitha Scholz’s conceptualization of gender as value dissociation (itself building on the work of Frigga Haug), rather than reducing race to an effect of class and without losing the specificity of either class or race.
This is an important task because previous conceptualizations of race, like gender, treat it in generally one of two inadequate ways. Marxists tend to treat it as a mere side-effect of class. Ellen Meiksins Wood formulates “race as ruling class ideology” in a classic manner as cited in Endnotes 3 in the essay on race, but your reference to labor competition is another variety of this analysis. However, this reductionism is still at the core of the analyses like those of Race Traitor/Sojourner Truth with “white skin privilege” or Theodore Allen’s alternative “social control” theory. Alternatively, from within liberal social theory, the identitarian analyses tend to treat race as a wholly autonomous, and maybe even anterior relation, to class. Intersectionality is the latest incarnation of this perspective because it poses race, class, gender, etc. as semi-permeable identities of equal validity, but it’s critique of identity is only a more sophisticated approach to identity c.f. Crenshaw, Collins, et al. Older approaches reflect something akin to feminist dual-systems theory, in which there is a racial order alongside the class order. Ironically enough the “white skin privilege” analysis of RT has become the foundation stone of liberal white privilege theorizing. While neither of us, as far as I know, accepts the identitarian analysis, it continues to have some critical success because the “race as effect of class” positions cannot grapple with the seeming autonomy of race nor the revelation of class politics as itself a kind of identity politics.
If one takes the point Theorie Communiste makes regarding the working class and class struggle, that the working class struggles as a class of capital and that it’s struggles are part of the engine of the development of capital, then class politics cannot avoid being identity politics. The collapse of the conditions in which working class identity still implied progressive politics has exposed more clearly the identitarian, non-universal quality class politics always had in relation to race and gender (and nationality, sexuality, etc.), whether in colonial settler states, slave states or under colonial regimes, none of which are mutually exclusive. However, the association of working class with white, male, heterosexual has become so lopsided today that “blue collar” in the U.S. is little more than a code phrase for white nationalism. The only way to overcome the limitations of these approaches is to comprehend class, race, and gender as forms of appearance of the inner contradiction of generalized commodity society, specific mediations of the capital-labor relation at different points/times in the total cycle of capital, grasping them as concrete forms of capital’s heteronomy, thus grounding each in capital and their overcoming as predicated on the overcoming of capital, and yet granting each its own determinations non-reductively, therefore not collapsing the effects and experience of each into the other without granting each of them the status of autonomous identities external to each other. Such an approach must allow for a comprehension of empirical material and in fact only an adequate conceptualization can help us grasp what is and what is not valid empirical data and in what way it is valid. There is no unmediated, brute reality, but there are facts in the sense of what is experienced and organized by the reigning ideas (in their variety), which must in some manner be addressed as objectively valid. In an untrue society, all manner of untruths are nonetheless valid.
Capital provides the ground for an adequate conceptualization of racialization because generalized commodity production and the complete capital cycle constitute wage labor as “doubly free” as the ground of the class relation between labor and capital. The importance of this doubly free labor is not only the freedom of the laborer from any means of reproduction other than their own capacity to labor, and thus freedom from any means to sustain themselves except the exchanging of their labor, but the fact that this labor can be freely sold for a wage (that is, that labor itself is a commodity exchanged for money like any other commodity). This relation between labor and capital gives rise, immanently, to law and contractuality because the treatment of labor power as a commodity implies an agreement freely entered between the worker and the capitalist. Hence Marx’s quip about the realm of exchange is both earnest and sardonic because one cannot remain in this realm, which is
“a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each.”
Marx’s point about the freedom to sell one’s labor is related to the wage-laborer being free relative to any particular capitalist or capital. Capital is not a relation of direct, personal forms of domination. Workers are not actually dominated by capitalists or the capitalist class, but by capital as such, by the fact that the means of survival must be procured using money and in order to get money, most individuals must sell their labor. As the next paragraph of that section indicates, this freedom does not extend into the hidden abode of production, which is why value-form and domination in Marx are not merely relations of circulation and exchange, but of production itself.
To extend this a little, I would argue that in Capital labor is not identical with working class. Labor is the determinate social form pace Postone, Kurz, et al, whereas class actually is produced where labor appears in its exchange-form, as wage-labor. Class is exactly labor in its form as doubly-free, as freely exchanged. Race is the way in which the recognition/non-recognition of property in oneself and personhood before the law exists. Is this okay, or are we operating at the wrong level? The universality of gender and class relations qua value dissociation seems self-evident, since everywhere there is value, there is its dissociation, i.e. gender. However, is racialization at this level, at the diremption of labor between free and unfree, or at the level of personhood in the comprehension of the bearer or labor as a person or not as a person vis-a-vis the state and law i.e. the dual state? In reference to race, class and gender, labor is the determinate social form, albeit via dissociation at the dissociation value-productive/value-unproductive for gender, and at the nexus of the exchange relation as requiring freely contracting individuals as subjects of the law for race.
Nonetheless, this freedom of the world of exchange means that the social norm of the surface of capitalist social relations is individual freedom: persons entering into freely willed exchanges, the governance of which would be contractual law. The enforcement of contracts cannot be relegated to either party in the exchange or contract and thus arises a necessary third party invested with the power to enforce, hence the state form and the forms of legal relations appropriate to generalized commodity and exchange relations. Under such a situation, all individuals having property (at the very least Locke’s property in themselves) are also persons, that is, abstractly equal legal subjects pace Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
However, to be systematically denied the status of person, of abstract legal subject, indicates that this too is not a direct form of personal domination, hence not some pre-capitalist or non-capitalist form of domination. We should here not get caught up in sociological or historicist complaints that workers really do have less power than capitalists who employ them and slaves really are personally dominated by slave-owners because these objections miss the point that the compulsion to obey the dictates of capital doesn’t come from this or that person, but from the autonomization of an abstraction from our own control and the requirement to obey that abstraction (the injunction from capital isn’t “obey this boss” or “swear fealty to this man, obey the king”, but “get a job, make money” and “as a citizen, obey the law.”) In the case of racialization, the form of domination is still abstract and impersonal: the abstract determination of individuals as things as objects of the law, the determination of unfree labor as an indication of being an object of the law, a thing, rather than a subject of the law, a person, as a group. If class is a moment of the capital-labor relation grounded in the relation of the doubly free laborer to capital, race is a moment of the capital-labor grounded in the (absolute or relative) attenuation of the ownership of property, in oneself and in socially productive inorganic wealth. In other words, racialization is a process of the ascription of full freedom to sell one’s labor and to be treated as a person before the law for those racialized as elect versus those who cannot freely sell, do not freely control the exchange of, their labor and are not treated as a full person before the law for the those racialized as inferior.
This is not a collapsing of ‘base and superstructure’, but an argument about the conceptual comprehension of state and law as moments of the logic of the formation of the capital-labor relation. This is about the forms and their development logically, not yet their manifestation in historical time. The manifest forms of appearance are important in a complete working out of the relation. However, we must comprehend the logical forms that give continuity to capital’s self-reproduction, and only then do the manifest forms, as the changing expression of that logic over time, find their coherence. This is why I feel it is very important to attend to not merely the valorization process, but the labor process as the changing manifestation of the valorization process. In Marx’s work, the development of the forms and their appearance is a lengthy process which happens organically, that is, the categories and forms must develop out of their own process, they cannot be shot from a pistol. The historical presentation of originary accumulation is only addressed by Marx at the end of Vol. 1 once the categories through which that mass of material might make sense is already developed. The concrete as the outcome of many determinations can only be reached at the end and any attempt to start with the concrete poses a concrete which is immediate and hence false.
Therefore, what I am drawing on in volume 1 of Capital is only an implicit, not yet fully-developed conception of law and contractuality, but which is already inherent to the very basic forms of capital in its earliest moments. But just as capital produces wage labor in this doubly-free form, it also involves labor in not so free forms. Scholz has of course her notion of value dissociation vis-a-vis the relation of value and gender, which I think is the right track even though her presentation is quite poor because, like so many others, she fails to venture into the actual transformations of gender relations, instead talking as if the actual forms of appearance of value dissociation in 1848 would be the same as in 2016, and so she sounds like she is describing the 1950’s in her essay in the issue of the journal Mediations dedicated to the journals Krisis and Exit!. And yet the very crisis of the value form Kurz and Scholz point out elsewhere goes hand-in-hand with a crisis of gender, especially as capitalist development undermines the division of labor in reproduction as it turns more and more of its functions into commodities and the labor of the household is less and less done by only women. This actually leads to an intensification of gender enforcement in the areas which are not so obviously socializable: sexual reproduction. Hence the weakening of gender dimporhism alongside increasingly bitter struggles over reproductive rights and the hypersexualization of women and the blurring of the line between pornography, prostitution, and “normal” sexual relations.
When it comes to racialization, race arises where one group is constituted as having no property in themselves and thus is not a group of persons, that is, abstractly equal subjects of the law whether as people to be enslaved or even waged under conditions of contingency before the law or, as with so many indigenous peoples, as nature-like impediment to capital’s development and expansion for which capital has no use. The logic of race is the logic of a group (or more than one group, in fact) whose personhood is absolutely or relatively attenuated, their treatment as objects of the law rather than subjects of the law, and of a group, those in the racial group free to sell its property, including its property in itself, which represents person-hood as such. [add here point that even where there is formal legal recognition of personhood in the law, as in the United States after the 13-15 amendments, a wide variety of laws are put in place locally, regionally and federally that in practice undercut this recognition in both law and practice. Even after the legal forms of such undermining are largely removed, as has been the case in the United States since roughly 1968, as long as the institutions on which that racialization was founded remain intact, and the social hierarchies generated by those arrangements are not practically undone, then racialization will be reproduced through the typical mechanisms of interpersonal competition universal to capitalist social relations that Jehu points out in his series notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism.
However, we should understand this process in the same way as Werner Bonefeld suggests we understand Marx’s notion of so-called primitive accumulation. The central dynamic of primitive accumulation is the actual separation of the producers from the means of production, the historical breaking up of the peasant’s relations to the land and the craftsman’s control over their own tools and products and production, but process of separation as historical precondition becomes the inner logic of capital. For capital to persist, it must of necessity constantly reproduce the separation of the producers from the means of production, their products, and each other. There would be no reproduction of labor as determinate social form, no indirect coercion of money and market, without the reproduction of individuals as propertyless or rather with no property but their capacity to work for another. So it is with racialization, which is produced first through slavery and the distinction in early accumulation between free and unfree labor, between the labor of persons and the labor of non-persons. However, the distinction between persons and non-persons becomes a central moment of the state-form and the constitution of law in capitalist society, both between states (citizen and non-citizen) and within states (racialization as the attenuated and contingent status of citizenship for some groups who are internal to the state, as against another group is constituted through their entitlement to the fullness of citizenship as a group.) Historical precondition becomes logical dynamic.
Thus the historical, as opposed to the logical, exposition of racialization requires an exposition of the actual process of the accumulation of capital in which certain groups were enslaved (their labor exploited for the production of commodities, but denied the status of free wage-laborers), while others were wiped out (indigenous peoples as psuedo-natural, as impediments to the expansion of capital to be removed by elimination aka genocide.) However, that would entail an exposition on the concept, not the concept as such. And it would only be an exposition of specific historical moments under specific conditions. To tease out the arc of the phenomenal forms of racialization requires a working through of the transformations of of the phenomenal forms of capital vis-a-vis the labor process, law, forms of thought, etc.
For example, racialiazation under mono-crop agricultural slavery is expressed differently from Jim Crow de jure segregation which rested largely on personal servitude and rural agricultural penury, which is different from Northern de facto segregation in a waged work force where labor racialized as black was contingent to the wage as such (last hired, first fired, always expendable) and largely restricted to the worst, lowest skilled, lowest paying jobs. To be clear, to be contingent to wage labor not as an individual (all workers are contingent as individuals to successfully selling their capacity to labor, but not as to whether or not they have the right to sell their labor), but as a group, as opposed to the group racialized as entitled to waged work (an entitlement clearly felt in the self-consciousness of white workers in their own racialization of social welfare and rights to jobs), is also a form of unfreedom, albeit relativized and predicated upon an exacerbated and absolutized contingency, but which nonetheless finds its reflection in an actual lack of equal treatment as persons before the law (this lack of equal treatment is extremely well-documented and its systematic nature thoroughly analysed.)
Each of these moments would have to be grasped within the larger transformations of capital, not to mention the various contingencies that shape any and all social relations from place to place (slavery in Brazil did not produce race in the same way as it did in the U.S. or as it did in Haiti or Cuba, though in all of those places the racialization of society is indeed endemic and real.) And this also means that the crisis of capital is the crisis of the race-form, a crisis of the reproduction of the racial relation. We see today that the collapse of the necessity of living labor globally has eroded the distinction between black labor as collectively, racially contingent and white labor as entitlement to a wage and as racially guaranteed to the point that the contemporary intensification of racial hostility expresses the collapse downward, as it were, of those racialized as black to the status of expendable indigenous peoples and a regression to forms of unfree labor vis-a-vis prison labor and of those racialized as white to a loss of collective protection from the contingency of their labor, that is, to a condition that previously been the preserve of African-Americans.
The changing phenomenal forms of racialization only make sense, however, if we can also understand the continuity and the difference. The logic of racialization, its inner dynamic, does not change any more than the transformations of capitalism from 1850 to 2016 have somehow made the value-form invalid unless capital were to be overcome. Rather, to say that the value-form itself is in crisis, that capital has undermined value and valorisation through its own development, is to exactly say that is a crisis of the value-form. So we see today a situation in which living labor as such forms a smaller and smaller part of the production of wealth in capitalist society, even as it remains determinate of the social form of wealth. The crisis of class is thus not merely a crisis of the end of the working class as an estate, but also the increasing contingency of living labor to the production of wealth. If any particular labor has always had a contingent relation to employment by capital (capital always only needs an amount of labor, but not any particular laborer), one of the essential benefits of racialization was that white labor was differently contingent because certain kinds of labor, the best paying and most highly skilled, and the legal status of peronshood were essentially reserved for labor racialized as white. That is no longer the case. Capital has less and less need for anyone’s labor and racialization of the labor market is increasingly merely experienced by capital as illiquidity in labor markets (Adolph Reed Jr. makes this point in his essay on post-Civil Rights racialization.) Racialization thus increasingly only guarantees that African-Americans and Native Americans are disproportionately subject to mass incarceration and impoverishment, that they continue to be targeted for explicit political disenfranchisement, but people racialized as white primarily experiences this crisis as the failure of whiteness to grant security, experiencing a degree of contingency in relation to self-sustaining waged labor hitherto reserved for those racialized as non-persons. The increased anger and rage, especially of working class whites, is an anger and rage driven by the unconscious fear that the racialized bottom has fallen out, which of course to some extent it has. The psychology of this is expressed quite clearly in The Authoritarian Personality.
Further, I would say if the struggle over the working day and the wage are the rational forms of struggle of labor internal to capital, then the struggle for full legal recognition as persons before the law is thus the rational form of struggle against racialization within capital. Thus, from my perspective, the idea that reducing intra-class competition would go at the root of racialization in capitalist society is a non-sequitir.
I suppose this brings us to the matter of racism as about competition between workers. There are a number of problems with this idea that have been developed by other writers. Gregory Meyerson, in his summary of the differences between David Roediger, Alexander Saxton, and Theodore Allen (“Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Labor Competition”, Cultural Logic Vol. 1 Issue 1) presents a cogent set of reasons to reject the labor competition thesis as inadequate.
Firstly, racialization is not limited to the working classes. Any understanding of racialization has to take into account that it actually functions across the population as a whole.
Secondly, in the case of the United States for certain, during the first 200+ years from 1650-1860, Africans were rarely competing with Europeans/white Americans for jobs since most were slaves. Also, American Indians have almost never been in economic competition, so much as being a physical impediment to taking the land.
Thirdly, competition in no way can account for the especially murderous and cruel and systematic violence visited upon black people and American Indian peoples by whites as compared to conflicts between Anglo-American whites and European immigrants (Irish immigrants did not typically lynch, castrate and burn German or Italian immigrants and “native born” whites did not generally do this to European immigrants, though bloodshed and violence was not uncommon), whom they were actually much more in competition with for jobs since the majority of the Northern working class was Anglo-American and European immigrants and only a small minority of black people lived in the North before the migrations of WWI and WWII.
However, the idea that race is a product of the need of the capitalist class to split the exploited (as expressed in the work of Noel Ignatiev, Theodore Allen, and the like) is essentially a functionalist analysis, since race is assumed to have a function, and also to be the voluntary product of what still amounts to a class conspiracy. This is supposedly unlike class, which is a social form organically produced by the relation between capital and labor, and not merely the outcome of an ideology of divide and conquer. Racialization then is simply one kind of divide and conquer policy, that is, is still treated as an ideology as it is by the “orthodox” Marxists.
This is more or less sociological conspiracy theory, as if race were somehow the outcome of a collective class decision. Never mind that this approach assumes a semi-omniscient class perspective and intentionality to produce race that assumes race as something already able to be deployed, rather than as a product. At best, one might then argue for a process of trial and error in which the ruling class plays upon certain already existing differences, but then that begs the question “Where did these existing differences come from?” Competition between workers like competition between capitals only explains the mechanism by which antagonisms are reproduced and resolved, but it provides no ground for comprehending class, race, capital or value as such. It is essentially confusing the metabolic mechanism of an organism for the organism itself.
It may be that the ruling elites wanted to split the populations they exploited, but it is not clear that racialization was the only way to do this. I think Jehu does an excellent job of making this point clearly and repeatedly in his series. Solidarity is not the only outcome of the struggle between capital and labor. Competition, as noted above, is baked into exchange relations, and is more or less the normal state of affairs and class (and one might argue, racial and gender) solidarity only trump that intra-group competition when the struggle against the dominant social relations become rather pitched.
David Roediger, who has been a leading proponent of a different version of the racialization thesis, takes up its psychological dimension as rooted in the formation of capitalist labor discipline, deriving this in part from W.E.B. DuBois’ notion of a psychological wage. Roediger is much more serious about the psychological dimension of racialization, but it is unclear that he can address why racialization happens or its logical relation to capitalism. It seems more an outcome of something contingent, once again.
However, there is no need to think of race as 1) a contingent relation within capital and thus something that can be eliminated within capitalism, or 2) as a grand class plan to divide and conquer (even if it does this), or 3) as a mere ideology, rather than a relation of domination (though it is most certainly operative in the realm of ideas, relies on pre-existing ideas for some of its self-justification, and has deep psychological dimension, or 4) as a part of intra-class competition (which is most certainly is in many ways), nor finally as 5) a secondary relation of domination to class, which is the “real” relation of domination in capitalist society.
Noel Ignatiev’s analysis, which like Alexander Saxton, David Roediger, and Theodore Allen, was a discussion from within Marxism and about the possible conditions for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, is in many ways the weakest, but I want to point out a specific difference between his view and mine that I consider crucial. Race Traitor took up the argument that European immigrants who moved here had a choice about racialization, a choice of being white or a choice to be Americans. It is hard to express how profoundly this formulation misunderstands the connection between America as a particular capitalist state and its particular brand of racialization. I would argue that that notion is an inversion of the actual state of affairs, in which the only way to become American is to become white. This is not to neglect the contributions of African Americans, American Indian peoples, and Chicanos to the best of what this country is, but to recognize that what is best about America will eventually be what destroys it as a capitalist state. This particular formulation is what opens up what is in many respects a serious and engaging analysis of racialization by Ignatiev & Co. to appropriation by liberal privilege theory.