The phrase and analytic “racial capitalism” has become part of popular leftist discourse in recent years. In short, the term is meant to describe a historical or theoretical relationship between race and capitalism. Historians trace how this relationship persists and adapts across time, space, and economic sectors. Theoreticians attempt to make sense of this relationship: Is the connection between race and capitalism necessary or contingent? Is race an epiphenomenon of the capitalist order? Does it maintain its own logic? There are, broadly speaking, three traditions of relating race and capitalism: I will call them the Marxist, the Robinsonian, and the Regimes of Articulation traditions.
These traditions are important for political theology because they allow theologians and scholars of religion to think more carefully about the race/class/religion nexus. Marxist, Robinsonian, and Dawsonian theorizations can allow scholars of religion to explore whether race and religion depend upon political economy, or whether “race and religion” or “religion and capitalism” can be understood apart from one another. Moreover, these traditions open up avenues for political theology to examine the standpoints, emphases, and methods of religion scholars who theorize these connections.
The Marxist Tradition
The Marxist tradition focuses on the exploitative and expropriative processes of capitalism. Marx’s analysis of “primitive accumulation” (Part 8 of Capital, Volume 1) is an important departure point for most theorists in this tradition. Marx relegated the history of racial subordination (slavery and colonization) to a pre-history of capitalism. His account of the origins of capitalism begins with the transformation of feudalism into a new mode of production through the expropriation of land. Lands that were once common to all became enclosed, and those who worked those lands were “turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.” As nations began to consolidate and the bourgeoisie began to enclose lands for private use, new reserves of labor (i.e., the proletariat) became available for wage work. This process of proletarianization was accompanied by new laws criminalizing the poor as “voluntary criminals” who refused to work and thus kept them in a state of wage slavery to their new bosses. In short, Marx claimed that capital accumulation began with theft and the privatization of common spaces. Stealing and enclosing the commons created a new class of people who could only survive by selling their labor to the new owners of the once-common land.
Marx rejects the meritocratic myths that the hard work of “frugal elites” and the prodigality of “lazy rascals” inevitably led to a separation of classes. Instead, Marx claims that the creation of a bourgeoisie and proletariat began with the ugly moment of colonialism and slavery: “[I]n actual history, it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder—briefly force—play the great part.” Thus, for Marx, colonialism and slavery are essential to the rise of capitalism. It is important to emphasize, however, that while Marx describes the transition to capitalism and the need for “a new class of people to work,” his account lacks any analysis regarding antiblackness or the racial dimensions of this new laboring class. Marx’s shortsightedness in this regard can be gleaned from his parochial analysis of industrial capitalism in Europe, with scant attention paid to mercantile capitalism (where slavery was the center of economic activity).
Contemporary Marxists vary quite widely in their theorizations of and approaches to race. Some are relatively silent about the role that race plays in political economy; others are outspokenly critical of “race-talk,” fearing that it has the potential to divide workers and reinforce the role that identity politics plays in keeping the neoliberal order intact. However, others, such as Nancy Fraser, provide creative and provocative accounts of the role that race plays in dividing those expropriated from those exploited. Fraser’s approach to the role of race springboards off Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation,” criticizing Marx’s foregrounding of capitalist exploitation as the main story of capitalism. Although Marx claimed that expropriation was the primer or jumpstart to capitalism, the exploitation of the European worker within an industrial capitalist society was his primary focus. However, Nancy Fraser claims that the relationship between the “exes” (expropriation and exploitation) plays an ongoing role in capitalist accumulation. Indeed, Marx believed that the “hidden abode” of capitalism was the exploitation of the proletariat and the violent processes that were inflicted upon the worker. Consumers might be alienated from worker exploitation, but exploitation makes capitalism possible.
However, Fraser claims that expropriation is the condition of possibility for capitalist exploitation, its “hidden abode.” To understand what Fraser means, consider the following example: Suppose there are workers in a textile factory who are exploited by the owners of the factory. These workers sell their labor to weave cotton into shirts, blankets, and other textiles in exchange for a wage, but the surplus value of their labor is kept by the owner of the factory. The labor of the workers here is exploited by the boss – the boss keeps the excess profits for simply owning the means of production. Now suppose the cotton woven in the textile factories is supplied by the unpaid labor of enslaved people on a cotton plantation. These enslaved people are not selling their labor – it is stolen from them. Their labor is, in fact, expropriated. For Fraser, the unfree, coerced, subjugated class of people (e.g., enslaved peoples, inmates, or colonized subjects) is a necessary condition for “free” (actually exploited) waged labor. Fraser thinks that expropriation has evolved from slavery and other forms of expropriative practices into new forms such as prison labor, sex trafficking, corporate land grabs, foreclosures, and predatory debt.
It is here that Fraser’s analysis of race becomes clear: Fraser believes that race is the mark of division between the subjugated, expropriated people and the “free,” exploited waged worker. She writes, “race emerges, accordingly, as the mark that distinguishes free subjects of exploitation from dependent subjects of expropriation” (172). Fraser sees expropriation and exploitation as processes that work in a complex dynamic that results in capitalist accumulation, and this dynamic precipitates two “racialized” peoples: those selected for expropriation and those selected for exploitation.
The Robinsonian Tradition
Whereas the Marxist tradition prioritizes the exploitative and expropriative processes of capitalism in its analysis of racial capitalism, the Robinsonian tradition, following political theorist Cedric Robinson, sees processes of racialization as a retention of feudal society that carried over into capitalism and organizes labor accordingly. This tradition of racial capitalism is arguably the most widespread among scholars and activists, and continues to exert its influence in the fields of history, political theory, and theology.
The development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism. I have used the term “racial capitalism” to refer to this development and to the subsequent structure as a historical agency.Black Marxism, 2.
For Robinson, capitalism’s racial aspect was clear because racism “was not simply a convention for ordering the relations of European to non-European peoples but has its genesis in the ‘internal’ relations of European peoples” (2). Therefore, Robinson begins Black Marxism with Europe – because Europe, not the coast of Africa in the 15th century, is where he claims the story of race begins. Robinson believed that although the Atlantic slave trade and the system of slavery that emerged in the New World were crucial to the foundation and growth of capitalism, the processes of racialization existed before it. He claims that “the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as ‘blood’ and racial beliefs and legends” (67) carried over into capitalism.
Whereas Marx believed that “the economic structure of capitalist society ha[d] grown out of the economic structure of feudal society,” and that the “dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former” (Part 8), Robinson maintained that the capitalist transformation of feudalism did not completely dissolve the racial aspects of the latter. For Robinson, the racialist elements of European civilization persisted in the new global, merchant economy and borrowed racial ideas to justify the inequalities it would produce. He believed that capitalism relied on the same techniques of racialization that were deployed in feudal Europe. Under capitalism, however, the racial ideas were transformed from myths and legends about Slavic and other European tribal workers into newer categories of difference related to people of African descent. Race as a mode of social organization preceded capitalism and significantly shaped its emergence and direction. “Racialism” was necessary to justify the inequality inherent to the organization of labor.
Robinson uses the term racial to describe social organization across feudal and capitalist histories, and contemporary Robinsonians deploy this capacious notion onto other stages of capitalism, from Europe’s industrial period to the current neoliberal moment. This can be gleaned from Jodi Melamed’s essay, “Racial Capitalism” (2015). For Melamed, the liberal story of primitive accumulation that Marx rejects, of “lazy rascals” and “frugal elites,” operates in much the same way as current notions of race – namely, by attributing worth and value to some while justifying the dispossession of others. Race explains inequality as right, or naturalizes it as fair or necessary. In other words, capitalism relies on processes of racialization to justify the inherent inequalities within it. She claims:
Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups–capitalists with the means of production/workers without the means of subsistence, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land made property/ the dispossessed and removed. These antinomies of accumulation require loss, disposability, and the unequal differentiation of human value, and racism enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires. Most obviously, it does this by displacing the uneven life chances that inescapably part of capitalist social relations onto fictions of differing human capacities, historically race.Melamed, 77.
Melamed claims that capitalism separates humans by race and turns them into individuals with no vested interest in the collective welfare of others. Her remedy picks up another Robinsonian notion, the black radical tradition, which she claims challenges the racial and individualist logics of capitalism. She claims that “at the center of the black radical tradition” is “the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being,” and that “collective resistance takes the form of (re)constituting collectives” (80). Robinson understood that epistemological modes of resistance existed outside of the racialist-capitalist order and that their resolve for freedom would inevitably negate it.
Destin Jenkins and Justin LeRoy maintain that Robinson’s use of the word “racial” might lead the reader to interpret him as being “inattentive to historical specificity, or even as ahistorical.” However, they maintain that Robinson “argued that the emergence of capitalism exaggerated older, precapitalist forms of social difference into racial difference” and that the “modern concept of race, in other words, built upon but was not identical to earlier forms of difference.” Nevertheless, even if these forms of difference are transformed, the kind of transformation they undertook remains unspecific.
The Regimes of Articulation Tradition
Are earlier categories of race really in direct continuity with modern forms of antiblackness? Is the transformation simply linguistic or does it describe the emergence of a new phenotypical hierarchy? Can antiblackness itself remain within the same categorical space as other forms of racism?
Whereas Robinson maintained that race carried over from feudalism to capitalism, Michael Dawson contends that slavery radically ruptured former conceptions of race. Dawson agrees that categories of superior and inferior preceded modern notions of racism, but he holds that the Robinsonian notion of racialism that dictated the organization of Slavic labor in feudalism is utterly discontinuous with contemporary forms of racism, especially antiblackness. For Dawson, antiblackness is foundational to modern forms of racism and did not exist before the emergence of capitalism. Dawson links race and capitalism’s historical relationship with the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade since the emerging nations in Europe – especially Portugal, Spain, England, and France – relied on slavery as their economic center.
Dawson’s approach to the relationship between race and capitalism should be understood in two ways: historically and theoretically. Historically, Dawson maintains agreement with scholars like Anna More (2019) who locate the emergence of race and capitalism with the sale of 235 Africans at the Port of Lagos in the mid fifteenth century. More explores this setting within the context of what Marx referred to as “originary accumulation,” noting the exception that phenotypical conceptions of race made to natural law and the profit that it provided for the Crown. Dawson cites More’s work and other modern scholarship to argue decisively on this matter: antiblackness is radically different from previous forms of racial difference.
Dawson is agnostic about the necessity of the connection between race and capitalism. However, Dawson and Emily Katzenstein first theorized the relationship between race and capitalism as a “regime of articulation” in a 2019 article entitled “Articulated Darkness.” By articulation, Dawson and Katzenstein follow Stuart Hall’s definition to conceptualize a connection or link which is not necessarily given in all cases. Dawson thinks that conceiving of the relationship between race and capitalism in law-like terms obscures the nuances that make them distinct. Instead, he argues that although white supremacy and capitalism often reinforce one another and work together, they remain relatively autonomous with their own distinct logics.
A “regimes of articulation” perspective can also be gleaned (though not explicitly) in the work of historian Walter Johnson, who argues that “the notion of racism and capitalism as organically related but not identical helps us understand the excessive pleasures of white supremacy.” Similarly, Black studies scholar Jackie Wang argues that “[a]ntiblack racism, and not merely the profit motive, is at the heart of incarceration.” Although Wang explicitly cites Dawson in her work throughout Carceral Capitalism, she does not make it explicit that she is following a “regimes of articulation approach.” However, she shows how an analysis of carceral capitalism “is not an attempt to posit carcerality as an effect of capitalism, but to think about the carceral continuum alongside and in conjunction with the dynamics of late capitalism.” These two citations from Johnson and Wang gesture toward the “regimes of articulation approach.” Race and capitalism are semi-autonomous domains, to be analyzed separately and with an agnosticism about whether or not they are necessarily connected.
It is common for scholars of religion and theologians to gerrymander their fields of expertise into “race and religion” or “race and capitalism” studies. Political theology can help blur (or perhaps expose!) the artificial lines that separate these theorizations by taking time to understand what “racial capitalism” means in a variety of contexts and traditions. The historical and theoretical relationships between race and capitalism are internally contested and in need of further exploration from theologians and scholars of religion. For example, if the modern context to the emergence of race and capitalism is the sale of 235 Africans at the Port of Lagos (as the Regime of Articulation tradition maintains), then how does one conceive of that relationship in the context of mission? Situating oneself in a theoretical tradition can open possibilities for further exploration or limit oneself to other insights.
Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor focuses her analysis on the relationship between racial subordination and capitalism through a history of the US housing market. Taylor’s analysis explores “the transition from the exclusionary policies of HUD and the FHA to inclusion into the world of urban real estate sales.” These two terms – exclusion and inclusion – are critical in Taylor’s analysis, because her work is not primarily focused on the racist practices of banks that excluded Blacks from the housing market in the early half of the twentieth century (redlining, etc.). Instead, Taylor is interested in the racist practices that followed the inclusion of Black people into the housing market – an inclusion that was permitted on strictly racist terms as it created a new class of people for extraction. Following the success of Brown v. Board, the housing industry was determined to keep neighborhoods segregated. The processes of maintaining segregation were many, but Taylor emphasizes the role of public-private partnership.
Stephanie E, Jones-Rogers. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. United Kingdom: Yale University Press, 2019.
One of the key criticisms marshaled toward contemporary scholarship of race and capitalism/racial capitalism is its sparse attention to gender and patriarchal analysis. Stephanie E. Jones Rogers challenges the notion that it is possible to discuss race and capitalism without attention to its gender dynamics. Her work on the antebellum south’s slave economy is to “examine women’s economic investments in slavery, rather than simply their ideological and sentimental connections to the system” and to “uncover hitherto hidden relationships among gender, slavery, and capitalism” (xii).
Histories of Racial Capitalism. Edited by Destin Jenkins and Justin LeRoy. United States: Columbia University Press, 2021.
Histories of Racial Capitalism is a collection of essays that explore the relationship between race and capitalism in a wide variety of economic sectors from a range of disciplines. In their introductory essay, Jenkins and LeRoy offer a provocative definition that helps frame the subsequent essays and is helpful for readers who are interested in a definition: “Racial capitalism is the process by which the key dynamics of capitalism– accumulation/dispossession, credit/debt, production/surplus, capitalist/worker, developed/underdeveloped, contract/coercion, and others — become articulated through race.” Jenkins and LeRoy provide helpful ways of interpret the “old” and “new” historians of capitalism; the former deployed Marxist methodologies and critically analyzed capitalism but “did not define or utilize race” as robustly or with as much nuance as the “new” historians do. This collection of essays demonstrates that today’s social and political theorists of racial capitalism are offering creative, nuanced examinations of race, capitalism, and their theoretical relationships with one another.