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Race and Capitalism

Welcoming Michael Dawson to the New School

In recent decades, the study of race and capitalism — which reaches back to the masterful works of Du Bois, Eric Williams, Stuart Hall, James Boggs, Angela Davis, Cedric Robinson, Cornell West, Kimberlee Crenshaw, Adolph Reed, just to name a few — has been marginalized in favor of post-structuralist or liberal approaches to race. Both the ‘post-racial’ claims of the Obama era and the rise of Trumpism and the alt-right bear witness to the urgent need for critics of capitalism to engage critical race theorists, and vice versa.

Fortunately, Professor Michael Dawson of the University of Chicago will be in residence at the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies during the upcoming Fall semester. At Chicago, Professor Dawson directs the Center for the Study of Politics and Culture (CSRPC), an interdisciplinary program that promotes engaged academic discussion on race and ethnicity. Recently, the Center launched a new project on Race and Capitalism, which aims to explore their mutually constitutive relationship and its relevance for our current moment (click here to listen to the New Dawn podcast). Professor Dawson’s visit offers NSSR faculty and graduate students the opportunity to participate in the Race and Capitalism project. His graduate seminar at NSSR will be open to any graduate student enrolled in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium.

In October, the Heilbroner Center will host Professor Dawson and Professor Nancy Fraser in an event which will extend their ongoing conversation about the fundamental concepts required to understand — and challenge — capitalist society. Fraser perceives capitalism as an institutionalized social order, whose scope extends far beyond the arrangement of commodity production and exchange in markets. For Fraser, capitalism forges — and draws upon — the social and the political, as well as the economic. Dawson expands this framework to develop the concept of a neoliberal racial order. In doing so, he underscores that capitalism not only began with the brutal expropriation of black labor through slavery, but that its contemporary form — neoliberalism — is sustained by practices that both reproduce and are produced by structural racism.

For both authors, the constitutive relation between race and capitalism exposes the way in which the racial lines that configure pervasive inequalities and oppression in society today are not a mere contingency. Moreover, any serious attempt to tackle capitalism critically must think beyond the class-based analysis of exploitation. Once capitalism is understood not only as an economic system, a more complex picture of the dynamics of capital accumulation emerges. Behind surplus appropriation and labor exploitation stands a structure that hierarchize human beings according to their race. This racist structure does not merely coincide with or support capitalism. Rather, race and racism are fundamental to the existence and perpetuation of capital accumulation and, indeed, of capitalist society.

Nancy Fraser’s theorization of capitalism suggests that it depends on at least three spheres of exploitation in addition to what Marx identifies as the zone of exploitation, that of workers at the point of production. Fraser identifies these other spheres as 1) the unwaged reproductive and affective labor performed mostly by women and feminized subjects; 2) nature, which provides materials and energy for commodity production, while also sustaining the basis for human and nonhuman life; and 3) public powers, without which capitalism’s constitutive norms — such as private property, respect to contracts, maintenance of order and violent repression of dissent — cannot be established or maintained. These three aspects — reproduction, ecology, and politics — constitute the non-economic background conditions of possibility for a capitalist society. For Fraser, capitalism relies on the institutionalization of artificial separations and oppositions between economic production versus social reproduction, human society versus nonhuman nature, and economic relations versus political ones.

The contemporary system of financialized, neoliberal capitalism expands and refines its reliance on these background conditions of possibility, Fraser suggests. In the reproductive sphere, capitalism maintains the exploitation of gendered labor. Even so, neoliberal feminism encourages a sense of inclusion and equality for elite women climbing the corporate ladder. In the ecological sphere, environmental deregulation unleashes predatory practices against nature, while climate change denial shapes environmental policy. In the political sphere, private or corporate entities capture or eclipse public powers, as with the supremacy of central banks and global financial institutions, the unregulated use of loans and mortgages to strip the assets of middle-class and low income families, the determining influence of money in electoral politics and policy-making, and the dismantling of financial regulation at Wall Street’s behest. All these phenomena are valorized by discourses that elevate individual entrepreneurship above ideas of community, that reduce justice to market-based models of winners and losers, and that lose sight of effective conflict resolution.

Dawson adds a deep examination of black politics — what he characterizes as the neoliberal racial order. For Dawson, neoliberalism is the combination of policies and ideological commitments that embrace market models to address all policy problems and political issues. The privatization of public assets, attacks on state services, financial deregulation, the emphasis on neutral, technical and efficient solutions to social problems, and the celebration of entrepreneurship and self-reliance that together characterize a neoliberal order impact black politics in unique (and relatively unexplored) ways.

The contemporary landscape, Dawson contends, is neither a post-racial society nor a “new Jim Crow.” He proposes a shift in the framework used to analyze the racial order: from one focused on political and legal institutions to one focused on political economy. For Dawson, the key to understanding the persistence of racism and racial domination emerges from examining the relationship between white supremacy and capitalist economic structures. In the neoliberal racial order, the reproduction of white supremacy moves from the state (as in slavery and Jim Crow) to the economy and civil society, to practices like the racialization of debt, Obama’s orientation of policies toward individual choice, and the celebration of consumerism and meritocracy by black elites.

Dawson’s work raises the question of whether race belongs among Fraser’s conditions of possibility in a capitalist society. In response, Fraser has added another fundamental and constitutive dimension to her concept of capitalism: the systemic racialized practice of expropriation. The first move in this theoretical adjustment is the distinction between expropriation and exploitation. Distinct from the former, the latter is widely recognized as the backbone of capitalism and is based on the subjugation of free individuals and citizens to labor contracts in the so-called free market. Expropriation, on the other hand, subjugates those considered lesser beings, whose labor is violently seized through coercive practices.

Two interconnected processes, then, fundamentally support capitalist society. Some people are politically construed as citizens who can, as “workers,” freely sell their individual labor in the market. Others constitute an order of lesser beings, subject to sheer domination unmediated by a contractual legal sphere. Capital accumulation depends both on the “free,” waged, and exploited labor, and on the unfree, unwaged, and expropriated labor. Racialization under capitalism is evident to Fraser precisely in this distinction between free subjects of exploitation versus dependent subjects of expropriation. Race, then, constitutes a form of political subjectification based on an artificial fabrication of statuses that forge a hierarchy suited to capitalism’s distinct modes of accumulation. In our present moment of financialized capitalism, we witness the generalization of a new political subjectivation, the expropriable-and-exploitable citizen-worker.

Though their theorizations differ, both Dawson and Fraser reveal the structural bases of racism through its entwinement with capitalism. Their work makes plainly evident the pressing need to organize struggles against both white supremacy and economic injustice.

We can, and should, turn to their ongoing conversation when thinking about the most pressing political challenges of our present. For instance, in this structure of race and capitalism, what is the role of the criminal justice system, especially here in the United States? Is it constitutive to this entanglement of racism and capitalist society or is it a byproduct of structural racism? How should we make sense of the last Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in which public figures ranging from the radical Left to the conservative Right praised King’s legacy? Was this a shallow, hypocritical rebranding or appropriation of anti-racism in response to an ongoing systemic crisis? And speaking of crisis, how can we understand Trumpism in the U.S.? Is it a symptom of a crisis of authority or a crisis of legitimation? Is this a mere a semantic difference or a more structural one? Can these theorizations of the intertwinement of race and capitalism help us resist the strong push-back against Black Lives Matter, even within the Left?

The most crucial question, remains, as ever: what is to be done? How do those of us aiming to address what Dawson calls the articulated systems of domination navigate the tension between acting in structurally-transformative or system-conforming ways? How do we do so while effectively generating a radical agenda that encompasses the complexities of contemporary capitalist society? Undoubtedly, a better comprehension of the constitutive relations of racism and capitalism is indispensable for crafting possible answers. For the urgency of these discussions, for the radical promise that this approach brings, and for the expectation of vibrant debates within our community, we welcome Professor Michael Dawson to The New School.

Mayra Cotta is a Brazilian feminist lawyer and a PhD student in the Politics Department at the New School for Social Research.

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