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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
Field Notes Railing Opinion

A Response to Satnam Virdee’s The Longue Durée of Racialized Capitalism

I want to thank Satnam Virdee for his serious and comradely response that engaged the arguments in “Beyond ‘Racial Capitalism’: Toward a Unified Theory of Capitalism and Racial Oppression.” We both seek to transcend the sterile debate between class reductionist and neo-liberal identitarian analyses of race and capitalism, where both sides share the notion that the relationship between capitalism and racism is “historically contingent,” rather than “structurally necessary.” We both seek to forge a politics that is simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-racist. We differ, however, on the utility of the notion of “racial capitalism.” Some of these differences reflect substantive disagreements, others may be misunderstandings of our respective positions. Specifically, Virdee raises four objections to my critique of theories of racial capitalism. First, Virdee argues that these theories play a positive political and theoretical role in centering race in the analysis of the origins and development of capital. Second, he claims that I discount the origins of racism in pre-capitalist Europe, in particular the emergence of Absolutism. Third, he challenges my focus on the role of capitalist competition and accumulation in the reproduction of racism. Finally, Virdee implies that my analysis tends to downplay the role of the “racialized outsider” in the forging of an anti-racist working class movement.

Virdee emphasizes the importance of the “political and theoretical work” racial capitalism theories “perform in the present moment.” In particular, “racialized capitalism perspectives help make transparent the constitutive role racism played in the formation and reproduction of capitalist modernity.” While we agree on the goal of “centering” the role of racism in the reproduction of capitalist social relations, we differ about the adequacy of theories of racial capitalism to perform this theoretical work. The work of Cedric Robinson and others actually reproduces, implicitly or explicitly, the underlying assumption of both class reductionist and identitarian politics—that the relationship between capitalism and racism is “historically contingent.” Robinson’s notion that capitalism is marked by racism because of its origins in an already racialized feudalism leaves open the possibility that if capitalism had emerged outside of Europe (specifically England in the 15th and 16th centuries) this form of social labor could have been reproduced without racial oppression. For me, the struggle against racial oppression, which re-centers the role of the oppressed and exploited in the struggle against all forms of domination, requires the greatest historical and theoretical clarity. Unfortunately, the notion of racial capitalism fails to provide the necessary insight into the structural necessity of racism to the reproduction of capitalism.

Virdee and I have a more substantive disagreement about the “temporal and spatial origins of racism.” We agree that racist ideology and practices—the notion that humanity is divided into groups with unchangeable characteristics, that make certain groups inherently superior, others inherently inferior—first emerged in the process of establishing the Spanish and Portuguese Absolutist states in the 15th century. However, we disagree about whether or not racist ideology and practices were generalized across European Absolutism. While I look forward to his forthcoming book on the subject, the example he gives—the English Tudor state’s conquest and colonization of Ireland in the late 17th century—fails to establish that “racism accompanied both the formation and dissolution of absolutist states in Western Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries.”

There is no doubt that the Tudor state and the English aristocracy “looked on with envy as Spanish galleons returned from the Americas laden with looted gold and silver,” and that key organizers of the colonization of Ireland “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.” However, the English colonization of Ireland was the product of a fundamentally different state and society—a capitalist state and society—and produced a very different form of colonization than practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese Absolutist states.

The breakthrough to capitalist agriculture in England in the 15th and 16th centuries fueled the English colonization of Ireland in the late 16th century—and the renewed colonization under the Commonwealth in the mid-17th century—and the colonization of the Caribbean and the southern North American mainland in the 17th century. The English aristocracy, unlike its counterparts in the rest of Europe, did not rely upon extra-economic coercion to appropriate customary rents from a peasantry secure in its possession of landed property. Instead, they were the first capitalist landlord class who imposed competitive, commercial rents on their tenant farmers, who were compelled to specialize output, introduce labor-saving techniques, and accumulate land and tools to maintain possession of their farms.

Nor was the Tudor state Absolutist. Unlike the continental monarchies, the Tudors did not organize a system of venal offices (tax-farming, customs, etc.) or other forms of “politically constituted private property” financed through direct taxation of the peasantry in the 16th century. Instead, the Tudor monarchy was an autocratic capitalist state—an “impersonal” public power that maintained the legal-juridical framework for “private” capitalist surplus appropriation. The Stuart monarchs did attempt, in the first decades of the 17th century, to create an Absolutist state complete with venal office and other forms of politically constituted property (the “court”) financed by royal (rather than Parliamentary) taxation. However, the capitalist landlords and “new merchant” radicals short-circuited this process in two rounds of capitalist revolutions—the English Civil War of 1641–1660 and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.

The English colonization of Ireland in the late 15th century took a very different form than the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of the Americas. Like all the continental Absolutisms, the Iberian monarchies faced severe fiscal crises as the costs of political-military competition increased and technically stagnant peasant agriculture was increasingly unable to provide adequate tax revenues. The goal of Spanish and Portuguese colonization was to obtain “tax and tribute or the extraction of precious resources … [and—CP] ensuring commercial supremacy by controlling the networks of trade.” By contrast:

The policy was not just to impose English rule but to transform Irish society itself by means of “plantation,” the settlement of English and Scottish colonists who would undertake to make the land fruitful. The stated intention was to reproduce the social property relations of south-east England, introducing the form of landlord-tenant relation that had been establishing itself in the English countryside, with the object of reproducing English commercial agriculture … [Colonization would replace Irish, and some English lords—CP] who used their extra-economic power to exact tribute from those under their authority … replaced by landlords whose wealth was derived from rents generated by tenants engaged in productive commercial agriculture. These effects would be achieved above all by large-scale expropriation and displacement of the Irish, and land grants to Englishmen and Scots, although some Irish lords would retain their land by becoming “improving” landlords themselves and even taking English and Scottish tenants.1

Sir John Davies, one of the English aristocrats Virdee identifies as an organizer of the Tudor colonization of Ireland, was quite explicit. In a 1610 letter to the Earl of Salisbury, Davies argues that Ireland must be colonized not because land is “unoccupied” or “uncultivated,” but because the existing class of landlords and peasants were “not fruitful and profitable by the standards of English commercial agriculture.” Davies and other English aristocrats referred to the “barbarous” and “savage” characteristics of the Irish to justify their expropriation and replacement by Scottish and English landlords. While this ideological discourse, at points, argues for the inherent incapacity of the Irish to engage in “improved agriculture”—to their racializationwe do not yet see claims that these are unchangeable characteristics. Through the English colonization of Ireland, both under the Tudors and the Cromwellian Commonwealth, Irish landlords and peasants could become “civilized” through conversion to Protestantism and adapting English capitalist social property relations.

Virdee calls for considering “mechanisms that help reinforce racism in the fields of culture and politics, including the role played by the apparatuses of the state.” In this context, he examines the racism of some British socialist currents, whose British nationalism lead them to hostility to the sectors of the working class viewed as “non-British.” He examines “socialist” anti-Semitism targeting Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, claiming that Jews were not viewed “as a reserve army of labor and 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 … reinforced … combined with … Jews as the embodiment of capitalism.”

Virdee and I agree that racist ideology and practices are constantly reproduced through culture and politics, in particular through capitalist state policies—the most basic differentiating between “citizens” and “non-citizens” of the nation-state. My analysis of how capitalist competition and accumulation produce heterogeneity among capitalists and workers allows us to understand how the structure of capitalist social property relations enables these cultural and political practices to be effective. Without an understanding of how social structures both compel and enable practices by social agents, social scientists easily fall into voluntarist theories of social action. Without rooting racist ideology and practices in the concrete social relations of capitalism, we run the risk of seeing racism having “a life of its own,” where racism “once historically acquired … becomes hereditary.” As Barbara Fields put it, “the shopworn metaphor thus offers camouflage for a latter-day version of Lamarckism.”

How do we explain the anti-Semitism of these British socialists? First, the socialist currents that Virdee identifies and analyzes brilliantly in his Racism, Class, and the Racialized Outsider are reformist currents. Central to the world-view of reformism is the notion that capitalism can be regulated—the demands of capitalist and workers balanced—through the neutral intervention of the existing nation state. Not surprisingly, reformist political strategy focuses on how workers can “capture” the existing state. As the late Neil Davidson put it, “workers remain nationalist to the extent that they remain reformist.” The Social Democrats’ fetish of the existing state is the basis of their nationalism—whether in the form of racist hostility to “outsiders” or the embrace of their own imperialists.

Second, the quote from the dock worker leader Ben Tillett that Virdee deploys is an excellent example of how the competition between the active and reserve armies of labor is understood as “racial differences. At the center of this process of constructing a racial “roadmap of lived experience” are notions that different “races” have inherently different costs of social reproduction and capacities to produce different quanta of surplus value (inherently different levels of skill, intelligence, motivation, and productivity). The “alien” character of the Jews, for Tillett, is their inherently lower costs of social reproduction—their willingness to work for below average wages and incapacity for skilled work.

Virdee identifies one of the distinguishing features of anti-Semitic racism under capitalism that requires further analysis. Not only are Jews seen as “alien” workers undercutting the standard of living of “native” workers (and thus in the eyes of capital the sources of Bolshevism), but they are simultaneously the personifications of “finance capital.” This refiguring of feudal, pre-racial anti-Semitism’s equation of Jews with merchants and usurers is not rooted in labor market competition, but in the hostility of the traditional middle classes of the self-employed to the larger capitalists who push them to the wall in the war of capitalist competition. The absorption of these notions by reformist socialists into what August Bebel called the “socialism of fools”—like racist and nationalist tropes more generally—flows from belief that the market can be reformed if freed from the influence of “parasitic” elements like the financiers.

Virdee concludes by implying that my analysis of race and capitalism does not allow us to grasp the constant “racialization of class politics” under capitalism, and tends to reduce working-class racism to a “thinly constructed mask of false ideas or beliefs.” This is inaccurate. Working-class racism is not some form of false consciousness, but an accurate “mental road map of lived experience” for workers who experience other workers as competitors. Without effective class-against-class organization and action, the default setting of working-class experience will be competition with other workers, making reactionary ideas like racism, sexism and the like the “unquestioning imaginary that represents the real world” of many workers. While I could not elaborate fully in my essay, Virdee and I agree that anti-racist politics—the centrality of explicitly anti-racist struggle and demands, and the self-organization of the oppressed within the organizations of the working class—is essential to the building of an effective revolutionary socialist workers movement. Nor is there any disagreement on the role of the racialized outsider in spear-heading militant working-class struggles, that are, of necessity, anti-racist to their core. My contribution sought to root these political conclusions in a realistic understanding of the reproduction of capitalist social relations that necessarily produce and reproduce racist ideology and practices.

  1. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2003).

Read Satnam Virdee’s article >>


Charlie Post

Charles Post teaches sociology at the City University of New York, is an editor of Spectre: A Marxist Journal, and is a member of the Tempest collective, and the NYC DSA Labor Branch.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues