Nearly a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois identified the true American dilemma: “The true significance of slavery in the United Sates to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United States? If all labor, black as well as white, became free—were given schools and the right to vote—what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship and control; and how would property and privilege be protected?”11935; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007More Info → In this essay, I offer a developing framework for analyzing racial capitalism within a given era—the antebellum South, Jim Crow, and the present—based on ideas and theories in discussion within the Race and Capitalism project participants.2This essay draws on a series of articles being cowritten with Emily Katzenstein and a book on racial capitalism and black resistance being coauthored with Megan Ming Francis. Then I briefly highlight the subsequent essays that will be published in this series on “Race and Capitalism” in Items.3Items first interrogated the relationship between race and capitalism in the series “Reading Racial Conflict.”
As Du Bois argued, the answer to the question posed above was the co-opting of poor whites into active collaborators (and James Boggs would argue, a generation later, material beneficiaries) in a system of white supremacy. Democracy and mass prosperity would be exchanged for a racist dictatorship that first led to hundreds of thousands of poor whites shedding their blood during the Civil War for a small minority of large-scale slave owners. Many of them made the same choice when they abandoned the populist movement’s progressive agenda for white supremacy and the racist dictatorship of Jim Crow. The South remained underdeveloped but profit, property, and white supremacy remained fiercely defended throughout the country. Again, the same choice was made by many during the 2016 election.
The current crisis“We are in a dangerous new period of economic and racial crisis—a legitimacy crisis.”
We are in a dangerous new period of economic and racial crisis—a legitimacy crisis. The rapaciousness of financial capitalism, combined with the breakdown of the deal that transfers a small share of the economic spoils of superexploitation and colonial expropriation to the predominantly white middle class and a segment of the white working class for class peace in the United States—or minimally avoiding the fate of blacks during any given historical era, precipitated this crisis. Trump’s candidacy is a symptom, I argue, of this deal’s breakdown.
In a time of crisis, appeals are made to citizens of European descent that look back with nostalgia toward a time (in the United States) where blacks and other oppressed communities supposedly knew their place and white supremacy seemed unchallengeable. That such a time never existed does not take away from the power of these political appeals. This nostalgic, but false, fantasy not only erases a history of black struggle, but also of various working class and progressive struggles. It is a fantasy shared by too many of the black neoliberal elite who also view as anachronistic blacks who insist on naming and resisting the structural forces of dominance that produced disadvantaged black communities.4For more discussion of black neoliberalism and some specific examples, see Michael C. Dawson and Megan Ming Francis, “Black Politics and the Neoliberal Racial Order,” Public Culture 28, no. 1 (2016): 23–62.
Historically, this crisis of legitimacy has its roots in times when the standard of living of those benefitting from white supremacy and patriarchy plummeted at approximately the same time as white supremacy and European colonialism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America became increasingly challenged domestically and internationally. As Greta Krippner, among others, has argued, a fiscal crisis was provoked when the state could not simultaneously meet its obligations to those who had been excluded as they began to make politically effective demands, while also coming under pressure from various external economic shocks.5Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014More Info →
Behind the crises: The three systems of domination
My colleagues and I argue that the source of the crisis can be found in the interrelationship, which we call articulation, of three systems of domination: the capitalist social order, white supremacy, and patriarchy.6See Michael C. Dawson, “Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crisis and the Racial Order,” Critical Historical Studies 3, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 143–161. While closely articulated, they have their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance. Colonial rebellions, for example, led to disruption in the class bargain that undermined Western European (and to a substantial extent, albeit in attenuated form, the United States) social democracy. The potential for cross-system ruptures is a lesson that black political history continually impresses on one. Not only do blacks and their allies continually resist white supremacy, victories that not only reshape, but fundamentally undermine it, are won at an inevitably high cost of blood and sacrifice.“Conflicts over racial and gender privilege, which fostered the type of raw nationalism that led to Trump and the rightward surge in Europe, are a result of multiple legitimation crises.”
Given the interlocking of white supremacy and capitalism, victories against one system of domination have the potential, too often unrealized, to undermine the other. One potential consequence of the expansion of debt and the Gilded Age–levels of economic inequality in the global North is that the securitizing of the economy is already being felt politically.7See Krippner, Capitalizing on Crisis.
→Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
→Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2012). Conflicts over racial and gender privilege, which fostered the type of raw nationalism that led to Trump and the rightward surge in Europe, are a result of multiple legitimation crises. While there is obvious authoritarian potential, there is also rebellion against the further reduction of state benefits (such as healthcare) among the very populations that are susceptible to racist, sexist, and nationalist appeals—causing a crisis in democracy.
In this period of democratic crisis and rapidly rising violent racialized authoritarianism, critical race scholars must ask what are the institutional arrangements necessary to secure, not just a return to what, for some, was a semidemocratic regime, but full democracy and justice for all, including those never fully included in either the economic or political aspects of an already weak democracy. Ultimately, this leads to the question of whether full black liberation can be achieved within a framework of a capitalist social order.
Racial capitalism and regimes of articulation
In the black radical tradition there has been a long-standing debate about the extent to which a liberal capitalist order is ever capable of accommodating the demands of black emancipatory movements. A substantial body of scholarship has focused on the ways in which racial hierarchies can be functional for capitalist social orders. Some have even argued that capitalism is linked inextricably to such hierarchies. Jodi Melamed, for example, building on Cedric Robinson’s pioneering work,8Racial capitalism, in contemporary parlance, has served as a rallying cry and meeting point for academics and activists who seek to combine an analysis of white supremacy with an analysis of the capitalist social order. Cedric Robinson first defined racial capitalism as follows: “The development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism. I have used the term “racial capitalism” to refer to this development and to the subsequent structure as a historical agency.” Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). argues that “the term ‘racial capitalism’ requires its users to recognize that capitalism is racial capitalism. Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups […] procedures of racialization and capitalism are ultimately never separable from each other.”9Jodi Melamed, “Racial Capitalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 1 (2015): 77 (emphasis in the original).
My coauthors and I value this point of view, and take this definition of racial capitalism as a starting point. We here seek to elaborate an analytical framework that focuses on the various configurations of the nexus of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. We argue for an approach to racial capitalism—or, as we would prefer, race and capitalism—that embraces the idea of system of domination as mutually articulated. As Anne McClintock argues, “no social category exists in privileged isolation; each comes into being in social relation to other categories, if in uneven and contradictory ways.” Since race, gender, and class are categories that “come into existence in and through relation to each other… [they] can be called articulated categories.”10The key example that McClintock raises is the articulation of race and class. She shows that in nineteenth century British Empire, class and gender were both conceived of in proto-racial language. The differentiation of class and race occurred relatively late, as the byproduct of the recruitment of metropolitan working classes into an imperial identity. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 5 (emphasis in the original). Here, I talk about mutually articulated systems of domination rather than “social categories.” Each system of domination has its own effects in producing subordinate racialized communities independently and in articulation.“We argue that the patriarchal, capitalist, and white supremacist systems of domination develop semi-autonomous logics that sometimes work in opposition to one another.”
The articulation of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism does not, however, produce a totalizing system of domination. Instead, there are multiple configurations of their interaction and mutual articulation. An analysis thereof is a prerequisite for the elaboration of viable political strategies. We argue that the patriarchal, capitalist, and white supremacist systems of domination develop semi-autonomous logics that sometimes work in opposition to one another. We do so in order to analyze the contradictions that aid and hinder progressive political mobilization because of partially conflicting privileges and oppressions that, in turn, help explain historically contingent patterns of conflict and cooperation. Even though racial hierarchies can reinforce, and are often compatible with, capitalist social orders, there are also moments in which white supremacy and capital develop antagonistic tendencies.
We call the specific articulation between the three systems of domination for a given era a regime of articulation. Historically, these regimes became established with the twin crimes of the global dispossession and genocide of indigenous peoples, and the enslavement and commodification of African bodies through the slave trade. The articulation of white supremacy and patriarchy had different consequences for white and black women and white and black men. For example, slavery transformed the content of gender for black women.11See, for example, Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Reproduction for black women meant they were not only themselves commodities and capital, but the main producer of capital—as Walter Johnson notes, “Enslaved people were … capital. Their value in 1860 was equal to all of the capital invested in American railroads, manufacturing, and agricultural land combined.”12Walter Johnson, “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice,” Boston Review, February 20, 2018.
Violence—by the racial state; by slave owners; and by any white person who so chose—was the glue that ensured the terror and exploitation continued uninterrupted. All three systems of domination intersected to define the content of gender (and race) for black men and women during the slave era. All three were reinforced by a racial state that deemed any act of violence by a white person against a slave as justifiable.13Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 83.
This approach allows one to understand the specific mechanisms within capitalism during a specific era that interact with patriarchy and white supremacy to produce injustice within disadvantaged black communities. For example, the Jim Crow era was marked by the superexploitation of black and brown labor and periods of increased, sometimes violent, attacks on black workers and their communities by white workers—as well as all-too-brief periods of interracial solidarity.
This historical reading is relevant to imagining more just arrangements in the present. If superexploitation were a fundamental aspect of black oppression during Jim Crow, critical race scholars next need to theorize what type of rearranging of labor markets and other economic and political institutions would lead to justice for black workers in the “official” labor force. Yet, through interrogating how gender articulates with both class and race during Jim Crow, we should also ask what type of economic and familial arrangements would lead to justice for the large numbers of black women employed in domestic work during that era, as well as the unwaged work, including childcare, that primarily women did (and do) inside of the home.“There should be a greater emphasis on solutions that foster the economic and political autonomy of black communities.”
Having laid out some historical examples of the articulation of these systems, what are some implications of applying the “regimes of articulation approach” to the analysis of racial capitalism? First, it means analyzing the current articulation of the three systems of domination in order to identify weak points that make gains for emancipatory movements possible. Second, the “regimes of articulation approach”—insofar as it recognizes that the mutual articulation of white supremacy and capitalism has been relatively stable, historically—means that we are somewhat pessimistic about the viability of relying solely on state-based solutions to the problems of black communities. There should be a greater emphasis on solutions that foster the economic and political autonomy of black communities. We argue that the concept of self-determination is the political principle that best captures our concern about preserving the autonomy and agency of black communities. They should have the opportunity to choose which institutional arrangements and political strategies best fit these communities’ needs and serve to democratize the economy, not just civil society.14Tommie Shelby, Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent and Reform (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 244.
Self-determination should extend into the economic as well as the political realms. The predations generated by the articulation of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism require black communities to seek innovative economic forms that allow more local control. This requires an open and experimental discussion about the political economy of black liberation. In particular, critical race theorists should consider whether current economic institutions can be made just, both in the distributive (can they eradicate racial economic inequality as well as economic inequality in general?) and the emancipatory sense (can they bring about both meaningful and autonomous work?). Struggles against disadvantage and oppression in these communities, after all, are not simply distributive struggles. They also challenge the powerlessness and dependence of community residents themselves—i.e., the fact that they are not equal partners in the demos, and therefore cannot participate in regulating and steering the economy on an equal basis. This reality provides grounds for demands for economic self-determination including the potential for demanding economic autonomy. Consequently, we argue the debate should seriously consider alternative economic forms and institutions, and seek to assess their viability, and the extent to which they can grant more autonomy for marginalized black communities.
The demand for self-determination also has had contained within it potentially radical democratic possibilities. The demand interpellates blacks within the United States to come together to debate their future—to debate what are the sources of their oppression; how should they organize; whom are their allies; and, how should the economy, the state, and civil society be organized to achieve a consensual understanding of the good life—to debate what type of world we need and want to make. Thus, the call for self-determination necessitates a debate on how to overthrow the social order of white supremacy; on whether capitalism can be reformed sufficiently to ensure justice for blacks and other subordinated populations; and on whether patriarchy is necessary for healthy black communities as some black liberal and nationalist groups claim (rather than another vicious and unjust system of domination as black feminists and some black liberals, nationalists, and leftists claim). From this perspective, the call for self-determination is ethical, demanding that an oppressed people take their future into their own hands through democratic debate.
With respect to future research and practice, scholars need to understand how the underlying racialized political economy is (mis)shaping contemporary politics not only within the United States but globally. The essays in this series will highlight several frontiers of the study of race and capitalism. Ashleigh Campi outlines the contours of the authoritarian neoliberal project through the lens of the school-to-prison pipeline. John Robinson uses Du Bois to think through the racial politics of value and affordability in the provision of low-cost rental housing. Mark Golub explores how, within societies shaped by racial capitalism, racial violence aimed at racially subordinate populations is facilitated through the rule of law. Hannah Chadeayne Appel’s and Ryan Jobson’s respective essays explore the mechanisms of racial capitalism within the context of energy extraction in the post-independence settings of Africa and the Caribbean, respectively. The series will later feature essays by Brandon Terry and Jodi Melamed. These essays collectively will help illuminate how racial capitalism shapes the world and is resisted at the local, national, and global level.
Banner photo credit: peoplesworld/Flickr
→Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
→Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2012).