Why do we need the 'racialized' in 'racialized capitalism'?
In his recent article for Field Notes, Charlie Post insists on the need to think racism and capitalism together but is keen to move the discussion 'beyond racial capitalism' perspectives because of disagreements about the spatial and temporal origins of racism, and about the explanation those perspectives offer for the reproduction of racism in capitalist societies. While there is much to welcome in Post's carefully-crafted account, there are four areas of disagreement to which I want to draw attention.
First, whatever substantive critiques one might wish to level at racialized capitalism perspectives, it is premature to speak of going 'beyond racial capitalism' or to claim that 'the notion of 'racial capitalism' is redundant [because] there is no 'non-racial' 'capitalism,' without a more thorough consideration of the political and theoretical work these perspectives perform in the present moment. Post certainly acknowledges that they emerged out of the reverberations of collective action against state racism, particularly the desire of a new generation of activists to make sense of racism's continuing power to inflict damage and death. However, there is much more that needs to be said on the matter. In particular, racialized capitalism perspectives help make transparent the constitutive role racism played in the formation and reproduction of capitalist modernity. This is no mean achievement, given that much of public discourse, along with liberal and critical thought, continues to minimize and underestimate its structuring power and significance.
I believe the returns of centering racism within a still unfolding historical account of global capitalism are significant. In his Theses on the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin offers us a striking passage in which he suggests that progress is 'a catastrophe without modulation nor truce, heaping up the ruins' until they 'mount heaven itself.' Racialized capitalism perspectives, by inviting us to reconsider the history of capitalist modernity from the vantage point of the indigenous populations of the Americas, Africans, Indians, Muslims and Jews, provide Benjamin's insight with its tragic and ultimate vindication; for much of humankind, the past half millennium or so of capitalism has represented not Enlightenment and progress but tragedy and catastrophe, a phase of historical time defined by almost uninterrupted suffering and sorrow on an inconceivable scale.
Until we have a full and proper reckoning with this catastrophe as well as its on-going reverberations, as evidenced by the continuing force of structural, institutional, and interpersonal racism in contemporary societies, racialized capitalism perspectives remain indispensable in helping to direct public, activist, and academic attention to this modern catastrophe. By prizing open a space within our political and intellectual culture, anti-racist activists have put down a vital placeholder in the public sphere, inviting a broader informed public to think more deeply, more critically about the world we have made and live in today. This is an intellectual and political achievement that should not be relinquished lightly by progressive forces.
Racism before racialized capitalism, or, intra-elite turf wars and state formation in the age of absolutism
Let me turn now to my second area of disagreement with Post's account, which concerns the temporal and spatial origins of racism. Post is insistent that it was 'only with the emergence of African slavery in late-seventeenth century Virginia that race is crystalized.' He rejects Cedric Robinson's claim in Black Marxism (1983) that racism has its origins in Europe, on the grounds that human difference in pre-capitalist societies was understood and informed by religious and community distinctions that were malleable and not immutable (e.g. that allowed for the possibility of assimilation through religious conversion), and that inequality was considered to be the natural condition of humanity. At the same time, in an important but all-too-brief passage, Post concedes that there may have existed what he terms a 'proto-racism' directed against Muslim and Jewish converts to Christianity on the Iberian Peninsula in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, he then casts this aside to move forward three centuries to the enslavement of Africans in the English colony of Virginia as the singular origin point for the formation of racism.
In contrast, I believe the historical conditions for the emergence of racism as a material force lie precisely within the undiscussed period bookended by the two episodes that Post references. In what follows, I want to consider the extent to which the political culture of western-European societies was already suffused with the logic of racialization and racism in the lead-in to the capitalist colonization of the Americas. My intention is not simply to offer a 'race-attentive' account of the internal history of Europe but rather to stimulate further discussion on the possible historical linkages between the internal racialization of Europe and the racialization of its exterior, linkages that have so far not been paid sufficient attention to. This could be framed more contentiously by inverting the usual logic that presumes racism blows back into Europe from the colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to ask, what if white supremacy in the colonies has important continuities with, and emerges out of the logics and lineages of, earlier modalities of racism born within Europe itself?
In a forthcoming book, I document how racism accompanied both the formation and dissolution of absolutist states in Western Europe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The emergence of racism as a material force therefore should be located in the social and political conflicts of what is commonly referred to as the transition period between a feudal order in terminal crisis and a bourgeois order struggling to be born. Absolutism was the first international state system in the modern world, and the first absolutist state was Spain, established in 1479 when the Kingdoms of Castille and Aragon were conjoined in dynastic union with the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand. The conquistadores who left for the Americas over the next few decades emerged from a social milieu that already understood themselves as battle-hardened warriors with a strong attachment to a racialized religious superiority rooted in the purity of their Christian descent. Such a racialized worldview didn't emerge overnight but developed incrementally as the unintended outcome of multiple determinants that included the Reconquista - a struggle to reclaim the Iberian peninsula for Christianity after 800 years of Muslim rule; the multi-level crisis of the feudal mode of production; and, the intra-elite struggles for power, wealth, and influence that accompanied the formation and consolidation of the absolutist state.
Turning first to the significance of the Reconquista, as the Iberian Christian armies conquered the previously Muslim South, they found themselves in charge of an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multicultural population of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. On the one hand, the elites recognized that this ethnically diverse population, particularly Muslims, formed an indispensable component of the rural workforce and were thereby vital to ensuring the economic security of the newly-conquered Christian lands. On the other hand, much of the elite discourse justifying the Reconquista represented this population as fifth columnists who might at any time rise in rebellion. For example, James I of Aragon contended 'the Moors of the Kingdom of Valencia are all traitors and have often made us understand that whereas we treat them well, they are ever seeking to do us harm.'
Significantly, because the thirteenth century was still an era of parcelized sovereignties with no unitary political authority traversing the Iberian Peninsula, the elite response to this multicultural population proved to be 'contradictory and muddled.' On the whole, the life and property of Muslims was respected, and civil rights granted. The goal remained a kind of voluntary assimilation through religious conversion. However, where the conquering Christians encountered armed resistance, we can discern what might be understood as sparks in the night heralding a hardening of attitudes and the racisms to come. For example, in Minorca and Ibiza Muslims were sold into slavery and their lands shared among Christian settlers, while elsewhere Muslims found themselves forced to live within walled ghettos and prevented from holding public office. Perhaps most significantly when it comes to understanding the antecedents of modern racism, social interactions, particularly sexual relations, between Christians on the one hand and Muslims and Jews on the other came to be punishable by burning or stoning to death. As early as the thirteenth century, parts of the Christian elite were therefore beginning to mentally close down the possibility of the redemption of non-Christian others through conversion and assimilation.
The stalling of Christian expansion across the Iberian Peninsula as a result of the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century and the resulting crisis in the feudal mode of production further consolidated this direction of travel towards the emergence of racism. Shortages of labor were accompanied by rising prices and taxation, leading to a growth in agricultural unrest. Significantly, this unrest was accompanied by a marked hostility toward Jews, who were accused of instigating the Black Death by poisoning wells and of killing Christian children; increasingly they came to be represented as the Devil. By 1360, antisemitic violence became endemic in some parts of the Iberian peninsula: in Seville 4,000 Jews were massacred, along with hundreds elsewhere. While many converted to Christianity to avoid this horrific fate, we can discern in this moment what George Fredrickson calls 'the repudiation of the Christian offer of salvation to all humanity' and the pushing of Jews 'outside the circle of potential Christian fellowship.'
While these two factors are probably best understood as antecedents of racism, it was the intra-elite social and political struggles accompanying the emergence and consolidation of the absolutist state that would prove to be decisive in birthing racism and thereby sealing the tragic fate of Jews and Muslims on the Iberian peninsula, including converts to Christianity. The emergence of the absolutist state in 1479 was a historically contingent outcome of the desire to resolve the deep crisis of feudalism and to impose a uniform religious authority and so bind the loyalties of its subjects together. However, the resultant creation of a unitary and centralized political authority under royal command generated a highly contentious intra-elite turf war which, in the situation described above, became racialized.
Accompanying the consolidation of Christian rule across the Iberian Peninsula was the acceleration in the tendency of Jews to convert to Christianity, to avoid persecution, but also in some instances, to maintain influential positions in the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchy. However, this tendency towards conversion outraged those elites who called themselves Old Christians because they perceived the Conversos as adversaries in the competition for power, wealth, and influence waged by establishing ties to the monarchy and the emergent apparatuses of absolutist power. Consequently, elements of the Christian elite, particularly those drawn from religious orders, the clergy, and universities increasingly came to question the sincerity of the Conversos' Christian beliefs. Eventually, they succeeded in convincing Ferdinand and Isabella to set up the Inquisition in 1478, with the express intention to 'root out heretical beliefs and practices from among the Converso population.'
Suspected heretics were required to appear before the tribunal of inquisition at a ceremony called the auto de fe (act of faith) where Conversos and others were subject to expropriation, expulsion, and execution. 700 Conversos were burned to death in Seville between 1480 and 1488 while another 5,000 received other punishments. In Catalonia, most Conversos fled the region in fear of their lives. And it is in this moment of intense ethnic conflict that we see the emergence of the blood purity statutes (limpieza de sangre). Religious orders and universities were particularly prominent in introducing these statutes, which effectively debarred anyone of Jewish (or Muslim) descent from holding public office, requiring a certificate of pure Christian descent defined by blood. In this moment, 'doctrinal heresy and enmity towards Christians came to be seen as the likely, even inevitable consequence of having Jewish [or Muslim] blood.'
In January 1492, 800 years of Islamic rule on the Iberian Peninsula came to an end when Ferdinand and Isabella annexed the statelet of Granada. Alongside the expulsion of Jews and Conversos, more than 200,000 Muslims emigrated to North Africa in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Granada. The year is significant because just eight months later, the Genoese merchant and mariner Christopher Columbus would set off on his journey to the Americas, sponsored by that same dynastic union. The colonization of the Americas would eventually bring into the Spanish state's orbit a vast multi-ethnic empire comprising Native American, African, and settler colonial populations. Yet just months before, those same Spanish elites were beginning to ethnically cleanse the population within its internal state boundaries through a combination of both ethnocentric and racialized processes of expropriation, expulsion, and execution. Over the course of the next century, the entire Morisco (Muslim converts to Christianity) population of around 300,000 would be driven out of Spain.
This abbreviated account of the history of the interior of Spain, one that is more attentive to the processes of racialization and racism, helps us to explore further some neglected but important connections between the events that unfolded on the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish colonization of the Americas. Significantly, the Spanish who left for the Americas emerged from a political culture where they already understood themselves as battle-hardened Christian warriors committed to a racialized religious superiority rooted in blood and descent. It is surely no coincidence that only those thought to be of pure Christian ancestry were permitted to join the ranks of the conquistadores and missionaries. And most of the 150,000 Spaniards who crossed the Americas between 1493 and 1550 came from Andalucia and Castille, the regions where such racialized conceptions of religious superiority were most strongly held.
Confronted with the intensity of new desires, pressures, and conflicts in the New World, these Spanish conquistadores and missionaries adapted this racialized mental framework to make sense of the Native American and the Africans - except now, the tainted bloodlines could be discerned on the body itself, in the darker skin tone of the racialized other. The eventual sistema de castas - the color-coded hierarchical order of racist domination - confirmed that to sit at the apex of this pyramid - that is, to be Spanish in the colonies - required not only pure Christian descent but pure white Christian descent.
Racialization as contagion: English absolutism, the conquest of Ireland and the Norman Yoke
But I can't leave the historical account there because, as Perry Anderson puts it, this first episode of absolutist state reconstruction in Spain exercised a determining influence on the rest of western Europe. In England, the elites of the absolutist Tudor state had looked on with envy as Spanish galleons returned from the Americas laden with looted gold and silver. Many of the English nobility, men like Henry Sidney, Humphrey Gilbert, Richard Grenville, Robert Deveraux, and John Davies, who would go onto play a formative role in the colonization of Ireland in the late sixteenth century were very familiar with the racist cleansing of the Iberian peninsula as well as the Spanish treatment of the Indian and the African in the Americas. Davies, for example, justified the transplantation of English and Scottish settlers in Ulster using the precedent of 'the Spaniards [who] lately removed all the Moors out of Granada into Barbary without providing them with any new seats there.' Similarly, Robert Devereux, justifying the conquest of Ireland, said he expected 'that within two years, you shall make restraint for the English to come hither [to Ireland] without license as at this date it is in Spaine for going to the Indyes.'
At the same time, the English colonization of Ireland had its own historically-specific dynamics which over-determined what they learnt from the Spanish. For example, unlike the Spanish who were fervent Catholics, the English were Protestants and hypercritical of Catholicism. And compounding this was the fact that when they arrived in Ireland they were confronted with a form of religious observance among the Gaelic communities that didn't even resemble the Catholicism they despised so vehemently. This quickly led the English colonists to brand the Irish as pagans. And this categorization was the first step to representing the Irish as barbarians, an unreasonable people that could no longer be bargained with. All sorts of inhumane acts would follow in the slipstream of this symbolic and material devaluation. Gilbert, Sidney, and others came to understand that in dealing with the native Irish population they were absolved from all normal ethical constraints, one of the quintessential hallmarks of racialization. In 1574, when Robert Devereaux led a raid which resulted in the execution of the entire population of Rathlin Island, his lieutenant Edward Barkley offered the following justification: 'How godly a dede it is to overthrowe so wicked a race the world may judge; for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacryfice to God.'
Here we can discern the emergence of a discourse of race denoting ancestry deployed to make sense of the ways of the Gaelic Irish; such an understanding acquires an ever-increasing degree of material force across this period of profound economic and political turbulence. Richard Verstegan, in his then influential book Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, published in 1605, argued that 'Englishmen are descended of the German race and were heretofore generally called Saxons.' Others followed suit. By the onset of the English Civil War, itself triggered by the Gaelic Irish rebellion against colonial subjugation in 1641, we see the deployment of the theory of the Norman Yoke as part of the intra-elite conflict between a Stuart monarchy, keen to weaken the power of Parliament and rule by divine right, and the defenders of Parliament, who turned to the historical record to legitimate their argument.
According to Christopher Hill, key elements of this latter group contended that before 1066, the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of England lived as free and equal citizens governing themselves through representative institutions. However, the Norman conquest had deprived them of this liberty and established a tyranny of an alien King and landlords, which weighed heavily on the Anglo-Saxons. In such accounts, the ruling class were constructed as descended from a foreign and oppressing people who therefore had no right to be in the country and no claim to the obedience of Englishmen, themselves forged from the original stock of Anglo-Saxons. And it was only by reversing this conquest and its legacies that the English could ever return to a life of liberty and equality.
In England, as in Spain, the intensity and persistence of the social and political conflicts in the age of absolutism helped generate a hardening of regimes of representation with regard to its internal and external others. Unlike in Spain however this did not produce racism, at least not as I have defined it (see endnote 1). Nevertheless, the conflicts in Ireland and the civil war in England did give additional weight to an understanding of race as ancestry, where it was group culture that was essentialized, hierarchically ordered and immutable. The significance of this form of racialization is that it formed an important component of the mental frameworks that Anglican and Puritan settlers brought to the Americas. And no doubt this would have been reinforced by the active presence of men like Gilbert and Grenville, who played such a formative role in the conquest of Ireland. Such a racialized self-understanding would have been further consolidated with the second and third generation of English settlers escaping the fall-out from the English Civil War, a conflict, as I have shown above, undergirded ideologically by the theory of the foreign Norman Yoke on the neck of the indigenous Anglo-Saxon.
Charlie Post, by uncoupling the emergence of racism in the English colony of Virginia from this prior history and the racialized political cultures from which the settler colonialists emerged, effectively ends up occluding and even erasing the continuities and discontinuities between the respective forms of racialization that would help us to more fully understand the emergence of anti-African racism in Virginia. Specifically, we no longer have to understand racism, as has been argued, as some sort of conspiratorial elite invention designed to divide Black people from white people in the aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, because its structural foundations were already being put in place from almost the moment the settler colonists landed in Virginia.
Court records show that within two decades after the arrival of a small number of Africans in Virginia in 1619, members of the legislative assembly were beginning to sift the multi-ethnic workforce using the relational categorization of 'English' and 'Negro', the latter denoting black in the Hispanic languages. The encoding of the category 'Negro' in law was a formative moment in this racialization process because in this newly-instituted division of labor, any possibility of Africans changing their status was ruled out because difference had become essentialized through the racialization of ancestry signified by the darker skin tone of the African. This form of categorization was the necessary precursor to the institutionalization of systematic forms of racist discrimination against African laborers, which would ultimately reduce their legal status to that of a slave. The apparatuses of the state, both in the colonies and within England itself, played a formative role in facilitating this growing entanglement of racism with capitalism.
The reproduction of racism in capitalist formations
My third set of comments concerns the question of understanding the mechanisms by which racism is reproduced under capitalism. Post notes that '[t]he reproduction of capitalism produces not homogeneity but heterogeneity among capitalist and workers.' That is, 'accumulation and competition produce and reproduce differentiation among workers,' including 'inequalities' between capital and labor, within the working class, and between different societies in the capitalist world economy.' Racism, in Post's account, is reproduced because it serves a function in helping to explain such inequalities under capitalism 'in a way that is compatible with the notion that human beings should be free and equal.'
Grounding an analysis of the reproduction of racism in the labor process is important but not sufficient for understanding its continuing depth and force in capitalism. Given the long history of racism that I have highlighted earlier, we must also consider mechanisms that help reinforce racism in the fields of culture and politics, including the role played by the apparatuses of the state. That is, there are additional layers of explanation required if we are to fully account for the reproduction of racism under capitalism. One way of doing this is to deploy the concept of articulation, treating a social formation as a complex structured totality of parts, each with a degree of relative autonomy from the other yet linked to form a contradictory unity. We can then empirically distinguish the multiple determinants of racism at different levels and plot the connections between the different parts of the social formation.
Let me illustrate this idea with a concrete example. An important but perhaps surprising mechanism through which racism has come to be reproduced in Britain is the long-standing entanglement of socialism with questions of national belonging. By the time socialism emerged as a political force in the late nineteenth century, racism was an organic component of British national culture: there was a reservoir of racialized representations, including scientific theories, myths, stereotypes, and narratives about other so-called races, that could be picked up by anyone engaged in politics. Such racism was a common cultural inheritance and no class was immunised against it.
When Jews escaping the racist pogroms in the Russian Empire began to settle in the East End of London in the late nineteenth century, socialist activists were instrumental in their racialization and exclusion. Ben Tillett - the dockers leader - drew on nationalist conceptions of 'us' and 'them' to mark Jews as foreign:
The influx of continental pauperism aggravates and multiplies the number of ills which press so heavily on us. Foreigners come to London in large numbers, herd together in habitations unfit for beasts, the sweating system allowing the more grasping and shrewd a life of comparative ease in superintending their work.
Jewish workers were understood not as a reserve army of labor and a super-exploited fraction of the working class, but as an alien body, antithetical to British working-class interests and responsible for undermining its conditions of living. Further, this positioning of the Jew as an anti-working-class figure was reinforced when it was combined with another set of racist representations, the idea of Jews as the embodiment of capitalism. In the pages of Keir Hardie's Labour Leader in 1891 one could find the astonishing claim that imperialist wars were being planned to suit the interests of so-called Jewish finance: 'Wherever there is trouble in Europe, wherever rumors of war circulate and men's minds are distraught with fear and change and calamity, you may be sure that a hook-nosed Rothschild is at his games somewhere near the region of the disturbances.'
Taken together, these socialist representations trapped Jews in a double-bind, as capitalist parasite and sweated labor, both opposed to working-class interests and the socialist project of democratic change. This in many ways has been the tragedy of working-class politics and the secret of its continuing weakness - institutions established to advance the cause of social justice have more often than not served to produce racialized difference, helping to reinforce the division of the working class through the consolidation of new hierarchies of labor.
The racialized outsider and freedom for all
Turning to my final set of differences with Post, it was W.E.B. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction (1936), who first drew attention to the ways in which the category of working class can become entangled with processes of racialization, in such a way that to see oneself as working-class in the US, for example, was also to understand oneself as white, in relational opposition to African Americans, and sometimes other 'non-white' social groups. Thanks to the writings of David Roediger (as well as others like Alexander Saxton, Theodore W. Allen, and Noel Ignatiev), we have come to understand racism as more than a thinly constructed mask of false ideas or beliefs, but as a set of representations of reality with depth and force, 'through which individuals come to live in an imaginary way, their relation to the real, material conditions of their existence.'
And we have seen, over the course of the history of global capitalism, the tendency for the racialization of class politics to be consolidated over and over again. The outcome has been nothing less than a tragedy for progressive politics because race, more often than not, becomes 'the modality through which class is lived, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and fought through.' We need to name these long-standing developments as a form of racist identity politics enveloped in the universalist category of class.
And it is precisely this prior racialization of the language, culture, and politics of class that partly explains why what some refer to as anti-racist identity politics have remained such a durable feature of Black and brown life throughout the West. According to David Roediger, the value of this form of self-organized politics isn't just limited to the more effective tackling of racism: 'The expanding horizons created by the movements against racial oppression made all workers think more sharply about new tactics, new possibilities, and new freedoms' so that it would be better to understand racial justice struggles as 'sites of learning for white workers, of self-activity by workers of color, and of placing limits on capital's ability to divide workers.'
In Britain, racialized outsiders - Irish, Catholic, Jewish, Asian, African, and Caribbean - were pivotal in helping to universalize the often particularistic struggles of the working class, precisely because they were better able to see through the fog of blood, soil, and belonging to move their claims onto a more inclusive, internationalist terrain. This capacity for second sight made these racialized outsiders the linchpin, the catalytic agent, that helped align struggles against racism with those against class exploitation, leading to a process of multi-ethnic class formation and the greater democratization of British society.
The political and theoretical lessons of this discussion about anti-racism are more profound than that allowed for in Post's concluding suggestion that 'forging working-class unity among a racially heterogenous class must include anti-racist organizing and demands.' It requires an understanding that '[e]ffective democratic mobilizations begin where people are (not where they should be).' To forge a counter-hegemonic alliance will involve movement activists crafting narratives and developing mobilizing structures that can help bring action against racism into greater alignment with struggles against class exploitation. But it also requires a reconstruction of our critical conceptual frameworks. The history of racialized capitalism is such that we must make space in our theoretical apparatuses for the racialized outsider if we are to accommodate more fully the specificities of racism and anti-racism without reducing them to class. A sustainable solidarity within an ethnically diverse working-class population is an essential precondition for making life more livable.
Cross-posted from Brooklyn Rail, blog post by Satnam Virdee, University of Glasgow, UK
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The capital, state and the production of differentiated social value in Nigeria
Revisiting histories of anti-racist thought and activism
Racial capitalism, hauntology and the politics of death in Ireland
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