I am grateful to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and Liam Kofi Bright for the history and theory lesson, but where is the political argument? I worried that the theory of “racial capitalism” pushed contemporary leftists toward the same mistake socialists made long ago: to think that we only need to fight on one front, when in fact we need to fight on many fronts. So I expected a response that would not only define “racial capitalism” but also describe how that idea can usefully, creatively, guide our political practice. Instead I got a little academic essay, with no political content. But Táíwò and Bright do believe in oneness: if the theorists they admire are right, they say, “racial capitalism is the only sort we’ve ever had.” I can think of other sorts.
Our argument isn’t about racism, which is pervasive in American society and which needs to be fought in our politics, our culture, our religions, and, of course, in our economy. The question is: does the theory of racial capitalism hold water and does it help in the fight? So consider this give-away sentence in Táíwò and Bright’s response: “The forms of conquest, dispossession, and labor exploitation that would be visited on Native Americans and Africans . . . had already been run on a smaller scale on Slavs and the Irish.” To make the theory plausible, it is necessary to racialize the Slavs and the Irish. To be accurate and fair, you would also have to include the Poles and the Italians among the oppressed races of Europe (and America). Cedric Robinson generously adds the Gypsies and the Jews.
Amazingly, it turns out that every exploited worker is the member of an oppressed race. And then, indeed, racial capitalism is the only sort there has ever been; it includes everything—but it explains nothing in particular. Sadly, saving the theory undercuts what I think was the original purpose of its creators: to call attention to the historic role of Black slavery and oppression in capitalist development. Now the message is different: just as money, according to Shakespeare’s Timon, is the universal pander, so capitalism is the universal exploiter. Any available worker will do.
An illustration: in 1924 immigration to the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe was drastically restricted. Gompers and the AFL supported the restrictions; they were afraid of cheap labor. Many of the leaders of American capitalism opposed the restrictions; they wanted the cheap labor. But immigration closure intensified the migration of Southern Blacks to cities like Detroit and Chicago, which had begun during the First World War. Capitalist owners and managers would have preferred White workers—they were racists. But they discovered that the exploitation of Black workers was just as efficient. Any available worker will do.
(I can’t resist a comment on Táíwò and Bright’s statistical trick about Black slaves and Irishmen. They give us the number of slaves brought to the United States over two centuries and then the population of Ireland at an unspecified time in the 1600s. For the right comparison, you would have to know the number of slaves needed in the cotton fields in a given year, preferably in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Then, since economists agree that free labor is more efficient than slave labor, you would have to figure out how many fewer paid workers could do the necessary work. And, though cotton picking machines weren’t developed until the 1930s, more minor improvements might have been invented by free workers and further reduced their required number. Slavery blocks innovation. Finally, you could look for the number of available workers in Ireland, or among any of the other oppressed races, in the given year. It is nothing definitive, but it’s a possibly useful thought experiment, so long as you are straight about the relevant statistics.)
But I am more comfortable with politics than with history or theory. So here are a few examples of important political struggles, where victory would benefit Black Americans (and other Americans, too) and where “racial capitalism” is no help.
–The fight for decent health care for all Americans is necessary even though its success will stabilize the capitalist order, just as New Deal reforms did in the 1930s.
–The fight for gender equality is necessary even though capitalism will be better managed if there are more women in its highest positions and up and down its hierarchies.
–The fight against the symbols and appearances of racism is necessary even though capitalism won’t totter as the statues fall.
–The fight to reform, defund, demilitarize, or abolish the police is necessary even though American capitalists can probably make do with the existing private security firms, which will expand and hire the unemployed cops.
–The fight to end housing discrimination and provide housing subsidies and low-interest loans to poor families is necessary even though its success will mean greater profits for the privately organized housing industry and help to avoid capitalist crises like that of 2008.
And at the same time, the fight against the capitalist system itself is necessary: against its entrenched hierarchies, against the inequalities it enforces, and against the corrupt governments it promotes. We have many battles, not one, not even one at a time; they are not necessarily connected, and it is important for reasons of tactics and strategy to recognize the differences among them.
Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.