The introduction to the Items series on “Race & Capitalism” asks scholars to consider how entanglements of racialization and capitalism affect politics in the United States and globally. Yet, we argue for a different perspective: one that emphasizes the ways in which the very terms and categories that drive and define modern politics—such as rights—constitute the means of racializing human beings in order to differentially (de)value them, as necessary for existent and emergent modes of capitalist accumulation. In particular, we highlight how today’s neoliberal racial capitalism repurposes the liberal idealization of “individual rights” to racially encase new antidemocratic jurisdictional spaces to negate radical and collective uses of rights born from colonized and racialized peoples’ movements in the twentieth century and to administer racialized subjects within these jurisdictional flows and spaces.“From a racial capitalist perspective, the constitutive history of rights as a technology of racialization remains key to the routine functioning of capitalist economies.”
The dominant post–World War II liberal narrative tells of how the extension of rights to negatively racialized individuals is their entrance into political and economic freedom. From this perspective, the seizure of rights, whether through courts, social movements, or institutions, is necessary for relief from racism and the abhorrent inequalities it fosters in capitalist society. Racism is primarily construed as rights-denial, and political and economic participation and cultural belonging are seen as stymied or entirely foreclosed by racist barriers to full rights. In contrast, from a racial capitalist perspective, the constitutive history of rights as a technology of racialization remains key to the routine functioning of capitalist economies. That is, the concept of rights is not automatically antagonistic to racism. Rather, it creates, circulates, and recreates race in the context of changing divisions of labor and emerging social and technological forces. Taking this perspective, we analyze how specific capitalist economies use racialized bundles of rights (and capacities to exercise them) to coordinate processes of accumulation. The goal is to analyze existing political economies of rights by investigating the roles that liberal rights play in operationalizing historically specific forms of racial capitalism.1To quote Hannah Appel, another Items contributor, liberal rights should be analyzed as part of the “how of capitalism,” as the means and ways through which “heterogeneity and contingency” get reframed into regularities which flexibly structure relations of accumulation. Hannah Appel, “Oil, Modularity, and the How of Capitalism in Equatorial Guinea,” American Ethnologist 39, no.4 (2012): 692–709.
Transformation of rights and capital accumulation
Following the insights Cedric Robinson, Patricia Williams, Saidiya Hartman, Lisa Lowe, Colin Dayan, and others, we note that today we are undergoing another seismic transformation of liberal rights to coordinate and arrange emergent hegemonies of accumulation. Often referred to as “neoliberalism,” today’s racial capitalism is creating what we term a differential rights order, transforming “rights” into an anchor for administrative actions, from the local to the supranational, that facilitates the required (de)valorization today’s financialized and extractive racial capitalism. Important scholarship has made us familiar with the ways in which differential rights schemas have been used to organize capitalism in racial modernity: the bestowing of liberal rights to white, property-holding European men and the assignment of degrees of gendered and racialized rightlessness to all others, an asymmetry that structured colonial, plantation, and early industrial modes of capital accumulation globally.
From others, we have learned that the revolutionary upheavals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in which enslaved, colonized, and Indigenous people fought for freedom—struggles conventionally narrated as “winning rights”—did not end the rights-based operationalization of racial capitalism. Rather, differential rights schemas continued to coordinate racial capitalist economies, enabling racial capitalist exploitation and settler colonial dispossession through the extension of rights.2See Saidiya Hartman on “burdened individuality” and Robert Nichols on “dispossessive” property rights recursively bestowed after land theft to legitimate indigenous dispossession. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Robert Nichols, “Theft is Property! The Recursive Logic of Dispossession,” Political Theory 46, no. 1 (2018): 3–28. Operating through ostensibly democratic processes, today’s rights-regimes expand differential rights by prioritizing expansive rule-making capacities and rule-enforcement, seeking to bend social formations to the changing interests of capital. Unlike previous eras of racial capitalism, the neoliberal era governs through administrative apparatuses that presume rights-bearing as an abstract universal, all the while using rights as a material force that generates both the systemic and haphazard violences necessary for contemporary practices of accumulation.
Since the passing of the Civil Rights Acts and the success of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the basic dynamic of racial capitalism has been the Republican mobilization of white constituencies to block democracy in favor of elite capitalist interests (combining antitax, probusiness rights with white supremacist identity politics) and the political economic management of negatively racialized urban populations through intertwined regimes of asset-stripping, public aid, and law and order. This dynamic has been tempered by neoliberal multiculturalism and the emergence of a multiracial professional managerial class.3On neoliberal multiculturalism, see Jodi Melamed, “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism,” Social Text 24, no. 4 (2006): 1–24. Yet, with the passage of Citizens United, the dynamic has transcended to a level marked by opportunistic racial capitalist assemblages of business, investment, and governance that can articulate rules as mundane as municipal zoning regulations and as lofty as global economic alliances.
Even before Citizens United, the Republican Party successfully aligned white identity politics with libertarian articulations of “individual rights,” meaning the right of capitalists and corporate “persons” to be free from government (regulation and taxation). Since Citizens United, the Republican Party has developed its procapitalist “individual rights” orientation from blocking government to minimize democratic pressures on economic actors to actively using the rule-making and rule-enforcing powers of governance in creative ways to facilitate opportunistic capitalist assemblages for its donor networks.
At the state level, Republican-dominated legislatures apply their rule-making innovations in late-night special sessions, creative omnibus budget bills, gerrymandering, court-packing, and the hamstringing and weaponizing of regulatory agencies. Despite leveraging white supremacist economic nationalism and upending some of the global trade agreements that insulated flows of trade and investment from democratic pressures, the Trump administration has expanded global corporate power’s ongoing privatization of the federal government through the use of executive powers for everything from setting new trade policy to revising federal agency rules. In fact, the Trump administration has made remarkable use of executive authority in order to advance opportunities for capitalists close to the administration.4The Trump administration’s wielding of executive powers has led to Jared Kushner’s family real-estate business receiving infusions of equity from Israel’s largest financial institutions; to the declaration of a national emergency to force approval of eight billion dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia; to the rollback of major offshore drilling safety regulations.
Individual rights and freedom from the needs of others, for the wealthy“These cultural norms are marked by the use of capitalist rights concepts to strengthen the sense ‘individual rights’ align with the right to be unencumbered by concern for the well-being of others.”
As the US racial capitalist state uses its rule-making powers to enhance the financial, logistic, and extractive aspects of global capitalism, individual rights concepts are recruited for the benefit of investor classes by amplifying new cultural norms on the part of government and business to dismiss the needs of others. These cultural norms are marked by the use of capitalist rights concepts to strengthen the sense “individual rights” align with the right to be unencumbered by concern for the well-being of others. They include the “free speech” rights of Citizens United, which enshrined the use of money to influence elections as a core exercise of First Amendment rights; the proliferating state-level “antidiscrimination” measures that prevent the passing of living-wage ordinances (e.g., Wisconsin’s AB 748) and LGBTQ protections; and what we can think of as the many “right not have to have rights” laws (e.g., “right to work” laws, antiboycott measures). At the same time, widely agreed upon austerity legislative rules like the “pay-as-you-go” provision recently passed by the 116th Congress naturalize a shift to “shareholder” government, where the more capital you command, the more “rights” you deserve.
In racial capitalism, repertoires that privilege capitalism’s beneficiaries as “worthy” and stigmatize others as “unworthy” represent the inequalities capitalism produces and requires to be the outcome of differing human capacities, historically sorted by race. (“Racism enshrines the inequality capitalism requires.”5Jodi Melamed “Racial Capitalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no.1 (2015): 77.) The inequalities that these repertoires justify and enact have created rights schemas in which groups subject to capitalist predation and dispossession have been placed outside the rights exercised by privileged classes, or as responsible for their own loss and abrogation of rights. New racialized repertoires of privilege and stigma are being created now through the universalization of “individual rights” across all classes, in which the assemblages that ensure advantages and those that make and manage dispossession equally employ individual rights to operationalize the violence they require. On the one hand, the asset-rich individual, as well as the posthuman “individual” that is the corporation (or other agency), become the new, privileged racialized subjects, even as the presumption of the universality of the rights-bearing individual helps to negatively racialize and stigmatize assetless individuals (including white assetless individuals) as responsible for their own impoverishment. As distinct from its deployment for the purposes of advantaging investors and corporations, individuated rights possession, manifest as assetless individuality at the lower ends of the economy, is used to subject whole groups and social worlds to rule-making and rules-based dispossession, deportation, and extraction.
Right to be handled
The cheapness of the individual rights-bearing subject becomes an anchor for administrative dispossession across different political geographies. It is through the universalization of the “individual” as the moral unit of political life, enshrined in world covenants like the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, humanitarian rights, and migrant rights, that administrative apparatuses from ICE to welfare service providers initiate processes of dehumanization. Rights-distributing logics, such as interstate sovereignty and international refugee law, enable the processing of asset-stripped individuals through repressive apparatuses of exclusion. This is the network of capitalized repressive apparatuses—from for-profit detention centers, to local jails contracted as “tender-age” cages, to prisons and solitary confinement, to Guantanamo and archipelagos of military bases around the globe—that create new hierarchies and gradients of value among competitive and unequal rights holders (where a Central American woman’s right to claim asylum on the basis of intimate, household violence is challenged by the state’s right to claim sovereignty over its borders).
In the United States, the cheapness of the rights-bearing subject and the use of rights possession to individuate has been employed to suppress the collective-making aspects of social movements. Administrative entities use the historical acceptance of the liberal belief in individualism to convert social formations—like Black or Latina motherhood—into individuated units of administered populations. The hard-fought right to be seen as performing waged work in their daily reproductive labor (especially with their own kin), which forms the basis of so-called “welfare payments” for poor and working poor women, are rendered as individual payments, which isolate the “recipient” from the social formations of which she is a part and establish asymmetrical relations between the “individual” (i.e., the entitlement recipient) and the administrative apparatus.6Recalling what Saidiya Hartman terms the “burdened individuality” of post-emancipation Black life to describe how the formerly enslaved were recaptured for exploitative work under the guise of individually paying off their supposed moral debts for social freedom in Scenes of Subjection, administrative apparatuses morph social change into rights and goods for the individual. Through systems of payment—such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and social security—these institutions, under the sanction of liberal individualism, deconstitute collective formations and relational worlds into individuated units—such as payment recipient or rights holder—in order to create a “burdened individuality.”
From a political economic point of view, the use of rights to asset-strip and contain minoritized communities goes hand-in-hand with the twenty-first-century re-organization of urban accumulation through neoliberal rounds of social deprivation, the revalorization of downtown real estate for investor classes, the profits of carceral governance, and the financial and entrepreneurial sectors that benefit directly from policies of immiseration. Contemporary asymmetries of accumulation require the flexible exploitation of differentially devalued human beings so they can easily be used as low-wage labor, as raw material to be warehoused, as worthy of credit-baiting (i.e., payday loans, for-profit college loans), or as indebted generators of fines and fees.
Flexible deployments of people for various movements of racial capital are managed through the racial state’s administrative apparatuses: city planning, public assistance, public housing, criminal justice, and homeland security. Through them, the liberal idealization of individual rights becomes “personal responsibility,” a racialized, gendered, and punitive framing used to shift blame from policies of impoverishment to the actions of individuals and to use bureaucratic means (e.g., “disqualifying offenses,” cultures of inefficiency) to disenroll and deter people from public benefits. Individuality, suspicion, indebtedness, and criminalization infuse one another, such that the administration of public assistance extends carceral governance (drug tests), while ordinary practices of survival (driving) expose people of color to “rule-breaking” and violence exercised as rule enforcement.“These rules allow for the discretionary enactment of punishments for the benefit of capital.”
Rights possession, when so individuated, suspicion-laden, and asset-stripped, becomes little more than the right to be handled. From the arrest of Jazmine Headley and her separation from her son for sitting on the floor of a Human Resources Administration Center in the Bronx, to the proposed rules that mean the loss of permanent residency for legal immigrants who use food assistance, to the kenneling of Floris White Bull and others for remaining on treaty lands at Standing Rock, administrative enforcement can remove, trap, and starve people with impunity because they are presumed to be rights-bearing, autonomous individuals, and therefore legitimately subject to rules that are made to appear universal. However, these rules allow for the discretionary enactment of punishments for the benefit of capital. Administrative warrants for individuals breaking municipal rules are so numerous that they can control whole neighborhoods, such as in Ferguson, Missouri, where over 83 percent of the population had administrative warrants, which, for example, allowed police to stop Mike Brown without violating any civil rights or needing discourses of Black criminality.
We cannot not want rights, as Gayatri Spivak says.7NY: Routledge, 1993More Info → Yet we can not want the differential uses of individual rights that structure the asymmetries of advanced neoliberal racial capitalism and give impunity to its violences. Efforts to separate what rights are from how capitalism, nationalism, liberalism, and colonialism define them have always been a robust part of Black, Indigenous, migrant, third world, peoples’ and antipoverty movements. For scholarship to untangle these collective and radical uses of rights from the capitalist uses of liberal rights abstractions, we have to grapple with the elitism of our politics of political knowledge. Often, the key words used by social movements don’t sound political-juridical, but more like love, kinship, jubilee, repair, respect, welcome, name, and be free. We must recognize that the most vital social movement groups working on race, indigeneity, migration, and poverty currently are led by the very activists—predominantly queer women of color (e.g., Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, Marisa Franco, Monica Simpson)—who have long worked against administrative controls in public assistance, immigration, corrections, reproductive health, and other arenas. Importantly, their resistance re-assembles the disavowed scripts of collective violence and collective existence that administrative apparatuses seek to negate in their “individualizing” capture—they speak not in the idioms of individual rights to life, capital, or community but to collective social existence through the plural form, from #blacklivesmatter to #communitiesnotcages.