A Racial Theory of Labour

Racial Capitalism from Colonial Slavery to Postcolonial Migration

Nicholas De Genova
A reconsideration of the crucial historical role of slavery in the consolidation of the global regime of capital accumulation provides a vital source of Marxian critique for our postcolonial present.  The Atlantic slave trade literally transformed African men and women into human commodities.  The reduction of human beings into human commodities, or ‘human capital’ — indeed, into labour and nothing but labour — which was the very essence of modern slavery, served as a necessary predicate for the consolidation and perfecting of what Marx called ‘labour in the abstract,’ and requires us to re-situate enslaved labour as the defining and constitutive limit for how we comprehend labour as such under capitalism.  The production of labour in the abstract, or labour ‘in general,’ depended nonetheless upon concrete productions of sociopolitical difference, particularly the branding of race.  The term ‘Black,’ which was devised to literally and figuratively brand the flesh of enslaved people, was also contrived to signify their particular sociopolitical condition of brutal degradation as the ultimate limit for the subjugation of labour.  Blackness names that limit.  Thus, Blackness is in fact necessary for apprehending labour as such under capitalism.  Marx’s scathing critique of wage labour is always haunted by the long shadow of slavery as its limit figure.  If we comprehend labour to be the antithesis of capital, then to the extent that Blackness names the ultimate condition of labour's subordination and subjection to capital, we need to recognize the tendency forall labour under capital to be pressed toward a sociopolitical condition of Blackness (or approximating Blackness), where Blackness does not name any kind of essential identity but the racialised sociopolitical condition of that subordination/subjection.  Consequently, the labour theory of value — which has always been in fact, more accurately, a value theory of labour — must be complemented with what we might posit to be a racial theory of labour.  Such an ostensibly historical perspective on the foundational role of slavery in the genesis of capitalism is no mere scholastic exercise in the historiography of ‘primitive accumulation,’ however, but rather must be re-purposed toward the ends of elaborating what has remained an as-yet underdeveloped Marxian theory of migrant labour. Extrapolating key insights from Marx’s corpus for the formulation of a racial theory of labour, this essay is ultimately concerned with the ways that slavery supplies capitalism with a defining horizon forall labour, and thus how this insight might instructively serve to comprehend the racialised subordination of migrant labour within our global/ postcolonial sociopolitical order.