A Note on Racial Capitalism

A Note on Racial Capitalism

Capitalism and racism overlap sometimes, as they do today in the United States. But the overlap is circumstantial, not necessary.

A Currier & Ives lithograph of a Mississippi cotton plantation (Library of Congress, 1884)

I have been puzzled for many months by the appearance of the phrase “racial capitalism” in the left press (see, for example, the article by K. Sabeel Rahman in the Summer 2020 issue of Dissent). What does it mean?

Perhaps the adjective “racial” is simply an ordinary qualifying adjective. Racial capitalism is one kind of capitalism, and then there must be other kinds, requiring other adjectives. Here in the United States we have a kind of capitalism where the majority of exploited workers or a majority of the most exploited workers are people of color. The underclass and the reserve army are defined both racially and economically. Of course, no leftist writer would be indifferent to the exploitation of white workers, who might still make up the majority of the American workforce—and who are certainly the majority of exploited workers in Europe. The point of the adjective, then, is simply to focus our attention, for good reasons, on non-white workers. But is the exploitation of these workers a necessary feature of American capitalism?

The phrase “racial capitalism” leaves us unclear about whether the hierarchical location of non-white workers is determined by race or by capitalism or by the two somehow working together. To begin to answer that question, we need to look at some examples of non-racial capitalism.

The form of capitalism sponsored by the Chinese communists is obviously non-racial. Though the exploited workers are, in Western terminology, people of color, Western terminology is out of place here. If the Chinese imported white workers to take on the most menial jobs, that might make Chinese capitalism “racial,” but no such importations have been reported. The predatory version of capitalism that prevails in Putin’s Russia is also non-racial. It may be that Muslims are among the most exploited workers in Russia, but they are mostly Caucasian (some of them the original Caucasians), so we would have to talk about religious capitalism—where Orthodox Christians, not white people, are the privileged group. But no one is doing that. I have no statistics, but from what I read about China and Russia, I doubt that the rate of exploitation is higher in the United States, in racial capitalism, than it is in those two countries, where capitalism is non-racial. Capitalism “works” with and without a racialized underclass and reserve army.

But is that right? The adjective “racial” sometimes makes a much stronger claim: it isn’t a qualifying but rather a definitional adjective. Capitalism is necessarily, inherently, racist. Forget about China and Russia, which are capitalist latecomers. Western capitalism is the prototypical version, and it has been racist from day one (if we can agree on day one)—always and forever racist. Does this mean that Manchester in 1844, as Engels described it, where all the exploited workers were white, wasn’t capitalist? No, for those workers were producing fabrics from cotton raised and harvested by Black slaves in the American South.

That’s true enough, but I am not sure it is sufficient for an argument about necessity. Consider a counterfactual possibility: had no Black slaves been available, the recruitment of Irish workers would have started much earlier than it did. The rise of capitalism would not have been halted had the slave trade never begun.

But the Manchester/Southern plantation example suggests what we all now know: capitalism is a global economic system, and it depends on the exploitation of people of color around the world. Here, however, it seems clear that the key issue is exploitation, not racism. Given global demography, the majority of workers in any global economy will be people of color. Even in a democratically or social democratically regulated global system, the majority of workers and the majority of managers—the underclass and the overclass—will be non-white. Indeed, it would be the refusal of any transnational corporation to hire people of color that would rightly be called racist. (In the Pennsylvania town where I grew up, the local steel company did not hire, and therefore did not exploit, Jews or Black people. I suppose that this is also an example of racial capitalism.)

All this suggests that capitalism and racism have to be analyzed separately. They overlap sometimes, as they do today in the United States. But the overlap is circumstantial, not necessary. The two phenomena are distinct. They don’t rise and fall together. Each one, for different reasons, requires severe criticism and sustained opposition. Many years ago, socialist writers argued that the triumph of the working class would liberate women, Jews, Black people, and everyone else. Separate political struggles against sexism, anti-Semitism, or racism were unnecessary—indeed they were a distraction from the all-important class war. Today some people on the left seem to believe that the end of racism will bring with it the downfall of capitalism. Both these theories are wrong.

Overthrowing racism will still leave us with capitalism; overthrowing capitalism will still leave us with racism. Putting the adjective and noun together gives us a false sense of the relationship between the two phenomena.

It might make sense, then, to ban the phrase from the pages of left newspapers and magazines. But since I am opposed to bans of that sort, I would only suggest that the phrase should always be queried by the editors. Do the writers who use it have some idea about what it means? Or are they just against racial capitalism, whatever it means?


Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.


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