Matthew Dimick
race and capital Dimick

This article uses Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism and subsequent theories of reification to understand the social-construction of race. Race is typically defined as a socially-constituted category that is misattributed as a natural one. The goal of this article, in contrast, is to explain how this misattribution arises. In addition to this main objective, the article uses this explanation of race to contest recent attempts that locate the ‘persistent entanglement’ of race and capital in their functional relationship. Finally, the article engages with related, commodity-based theories of race and racism and concludes with thoughts on what the socially-constructed category of race can teach us about the nature of value and capitalism.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital


Marxists often invoke class to help them understand race. [1][2] But this approach has always been met with considerable difficulty. Such a strategy typically has the character of subsuming race within class, in a way that inevitably fails to account for the distinctiveness of race—its autonomy. This article charts a different path and, instead of looking to class for insights into race, turns to capitalism in its most abstract form: value. Building on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and subsequent writings on reification and the form of value’s objectivity, the article explores the idea that the social relation between ‘things’ that comprises the world of commodities is also the objective form that socially constitutes race as an apparently unmediated natural or social fact. The popular social-constructionist approach to understanding race and racism, standardly defines race as a socially-constituted category that is misattributed as a self-sufficiently natural thing. The goal of this article, in contrast, is to explain how this misattribution arises.

In his critique of political economy, Marx analyzes value, ‘something purely social,’[3] which emerges only within historically-specific social relations. These social relations are those of the ‘exchange society,’ where production is undertaken for the purpose of exchange, rather than need. Within these relations, value exists as a ‘thingly’ form of objectivity that obtains, with absolute social validity, a real independence and autonomy. However, this form of objectivity—the thingly existence that value attains within the practical activity of the producers—also creates the appearance that value is a natural property of the concrete, material ‘use values’ that are value’s bearers.

The nature of value also has broader, societal implications. In a world of generalised commodity production, the objectification of social relations as the misattributed natural properties of things generates a social world where relations between people are merely material, one populated by individuals where social outcomes are only aggregates of the characteristics of individuals. One consequence of this ‘asocial sociality’[4] is that the stratification of individuals by ‘race’ according to income, status, or location appears to derive from the attributes and traits of the individuals belonging to racialised groups. In reality, racism produces race, and yet the specifically historical and social factors that constitute race—colonialism, enslavement, discrimination, segregation, as well as the indifference of ‘colorblind’ capitalism—disappear in the value form’s objectivity along with the historically-specific social relations of value production themselves. Moreover, the objectivity of value not only naturalises race for the racist, but also constitutes race’s form as a fact for the non-racist observer. If the racist misattributes phenotype with a set of race-specific natural abilities or traits, the non-racist view reduces race to mere phenotype, shorn of any historical or social meaning. Furthermore, it should be stressed that the reification of race is not merely a subjective delusion; because the source of the epistemic error derives from the form of value’s objectivity itself, recognition of this may ‘destroy the semblance’ of the ‘accidental’ facticity of race, ‘but by no means abolishes that determination’s material form.’[5]

The concept of reification comes to us primarily from the work of Georg Lukács. In Lukács’ famous essay, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,’ it is clear that he develops this concept out of an engagement with Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodities. However, it is an open question how much reification is a concept fully developed by Marx or whether it owes more to the innovations of Lukács and others. Lukács’ analysis also relies greatly on both Weber and Simmel, just as much as on Marx, which may set his theory apart from Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Members of the Frankfurt School also subsequently engaged with the concepts of fetishism and reification, in ways that further critique and refine the concept. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, these various refinements and subtleties need not preoccupy us. As the reader will see, this article relies primarily on Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism for its explication of race as reification. We therefore do not need to be overly concerned with the concept’s subsequent evolution in the hands of Marx’s intellectual inheritors.

Nevertheless, this article will use the term ‘reification’ (meaning literally ‘thing-ification’) because it is simply a good, overarching description of the phenomenon under investigation, namely, the process by which abstract, historically-contingent social relations are turned into the natural or independent properties of things. In this article, the process we are concerned with is racialization, but similar processes occur in commodity fetishism and elsewhere. Indeed, using this broader term of ‘reification’ also acknowledges, like Lukács himself did, that the theory of commodity fetishism can be used not just in the critique of political economy, which was Marx’s primary concern in Capital, but also as the basis for a wider critical theory of society. Finally, using ‘reification’ discloses, forthrightly enough, that my reading of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism has been informed by these subsequent thinkers in the tradition of critical theory, including contemporary theorists of social form such as Patrick Murray.[6]

The foregoing framing of the concept of reification will help situate the article among other studies of reification, including those that directly consider race. For example, Timothy Bewes’s wide-ranging cultural investigation of reification as ‘the anxiety of late capitalism’ has a far wider panoramic than the way reification is used in this article.[7] Perhaps for that reason, Bewes’s cultural analysis is also much less concerned either with the commodity structure of reification or the relationship between those phenomena and racial domination.[8] More related to this article is Joseph Gabel’s use of reification in what he describes as the ‘schizophrenic structure of racist ideology.’[9] However, unlike the notion of reification used in this article, which is closely tied to the fetishism of commodities, Gabel’s is far broader and, as he acknowledges, has no necessary connection to the commodity form, or even to capitalism. Gabel explains that ‘just as in psychopathology there can be a form of ‘reified consciousness’ unrelated to economic reification (schizophrenia), so also in sociology there can be (and indeed there are) forms of ‘reified consciousness’ which are linked to the conditions of existence so to speak without being in any way a reflection of a form of economic reification.’[10] Because one purpose of this article is to explore, in Nancy Fraser’s words, the ‘persistent entanglement’ of race and capital,[11] Gabel’s assertion that reification arises from the (universal) conditions of human existence is not free of problems, to put it mildly. Locating that persistent entanglement requires precisely that we view the reification of race as part of the value (or commodity) form’s fetishised objectivity found with capitalism, not a universal but a historically-specific form of production. Gabel’s unmooring of reification from commodity fetishism also essentially turns reification exclusively into an aspect of thought. Gabel’s explicit analysis reduces racism to the reified or schizophrenic psychology of the racist. Certainly, the social psychology of racist ideology undoubtedly constitutes an essential part of a much broader investigation of racial domination, and Gabel’s analysis contributes several interesting insights to this crucial component. However, a complete analysis of racial domination would also have to include the social psychology of the subjects of racial domination, as well as the historically-specific social conditions in which these psychologies arise. This article is concerned with the latter aim, and specifically with a critique of the subtle ontological and epistemological nature of the value form’s ‘false objectivity,’ which establishes just that social world in which racialised psychologies inhabit.[12]

A few other scholars have recently brought race and racism into conversation with the concept of ‘real abstraction,’ a concept which is closely related with the fetishism of commodities. However, at this stage, thinking of race as a real abstraction remains under-elaborated.[13] In the most important contribution to date, for example, Brenna Bhandar and Alberto Toscano catalogue several moments of abstraction. They write, ‘We would need to be able to think the articulation between events and processes of abstraction/dissolution … the ‘unconscious’ abstracting social practices … the high-level logic of abstraction intrinsic to value as a social form of capitalism; and the relatively autonomous and deliberate practices and devices of abstraction.’[14] What Bhandar and Toscano, in addition to Alberto Toscano’s earlier contribution,[15] fruitfully offer us is an agenda for how we should think about race and racialization in contemporary capitalism. This article does not object to subscribing to race as a ‘real abstraction,’ in the sense of a conceptually-mediated, ‘mind-dependent’ social construction that has practical purchase in the social world. Just to that extent, however, ‘real abstraction’ would seem to be ubiquitous, even beyond one that would ‘tie[] the singularity of real abstraction to capitalism and capitalism alone.’[16] Moishe Postone clarifies for us that all social practice is conceptually mediated.[17] In his doctoral dissertation, Marx asks, ‘Didn’t the Moloch of the Ancients hold sway? Wasn’t the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks?’[18] Humans have always lived, worked, and died through abstraction. Real abstraction, however, at least in the theoretical tradition that I am most familiar with, is something other than this more quotidian and generic kind of abstraction. In this sense, real abstraction is the process by which labour becomes abstract through exchange (specifically, practically abstract[19]), ‘behind the backs’ of society’s members, a process that precedes their conscious awareness.[20] To emphasise, ‘race’ can certainly and productively be thought of as a ‘conceptuality [or abstraction] which holds sway in reality,’[21] that is, as that generic kind of conceptually-mediated social practice. As this article will also claim, the real abstraction of the value form plays a crucial role in the hypostatization of race as a ‘thing,’ without reducing the latter to the former. However, whether in the more restricted sense, as something which is only cognised post festum, race counts as a real abstraction is an extraordinarily interesting question, but one that space prohibits me from entertaining.

The article proceeds in the following order. This first part engages the central question of the article, posed in the introduction, and shows how the value form can explain the social construction of race and how race is misattributed as fact or nature. The second part of the article applies this explanation to the ongoing problem of the ‘persistent entanglement’ of race and capital. It argues that understanding race as a form of reification can avoid problematic functional approaches to race and class (or even capitalism) to which Marxist analyses often resort. Rather than approach the relationship between race and capital within a functional framework, viewing race as a form of reification grasps that relationship at an epistemological and ontological level.

There are surprisingly few investigations of race and reification. The third part of the article critically engages two of the best-known contributions, Moishe Postone’s analysis of Nazi antisemitism and Hylton White’s investigation of antiblack racism.[22] Both are remarkably insightful contributions which, like the present article, link racism with capitalism’s commodity structure. However, I question, first, what the racialised subjects of antisemitism and antiblack racism are said to represent and, second, exactly how capitalism’s abstract dimensions establish the ‘historical-epistemological frame of reference’[23] within which ‘race’ is practically and conceptually understood and produced. The article argues that the Jews or the black body do not represent abstract dimensions of capitalism (capital and labour, respectively), but rather that racialised attributes appear to have a thingly, pre-social existence because the abstract value-form hypostatises as natural or factual that which is actually social and historical.

Race and Reification

One of the most persistent ideological depictions involved in the production of race is the ‘naturalization’ frame. I take a broad view of ‘naturalization.’ Within this conception, a socially-constructed category, ‘race,’ is identified phenotypically but mistaken for fixed and immutable traits of the racialised grouping. In the extreme case, these traits are biological, as in nineteenth- and twentieth-century, ‘race science.’ More commonly today, these traits are said to be based not in biological but in no less invariant (and therefore, one could say, natural) ‘cultural’ differences.[24] In fact, the now predominant social-constructionist account of race would say that this naturalization frame defines what race is: ‘a symbolic category, based on phenotype or ancestry and constructed according to specific social and historical contexts, that is misrecognized as a natural category.’[25]

But we cannot be satisfied with a ‘definition’ of race as a misattributed natural category. We want to know why the naturalization of race is such a persistent ideological manifestation. Naturalization is not the only possible ideological construction of race. Historically, the naturalization frame has existed alongside religious and nationalist ones. This section of the article will propose that the theory of reification can explain why naturalization persists as the dominant ideological justification of race. As in the social-constructionist account, racism is a practice that produces race through a set of social relations. Adding to the social-constructionist account, this article will argue that the production of race as a misattributed natural kind is part of capitalism’s value form, a historically-specific form of objectivity and phenomenology.

I will first need to lay out what I will be calling the theory of reification. It begins with Marx’s account of the commodity and what he calls the fetishism surrounding it. A commodity has a dual character, comprised of both value and use value. The commodity’s concrete characteristics constitute its use value, its ability to satisfy some human want or need. A commodity is also a value, a product of human labour in the abstract, as distinguished from the concrete labour that produces particular use values. Marx calls abstract labour the substance of value. The magnitude of value—determined by the socially necessary labour time required for the commodity’s production—regulates the proportions at which commodities are exchanged when brought into relation with one another in the market. Value is a therefore a thoroughly social and—limited in time and place to a certain mode of production—historical category. However, the fetishism of commodities is that (like race) value does not present itself as a social and historical category.

There are both objective and subjective dimensions to the constitution of value. In its objective dimension, value is the objectified expression of the purely social characteristics of individual human labours undertaken privately. Marx calls this the ‘fetish character’ of the value form, ‘the essential determination consisting in the real inversion of human social powers as attributes of things.’[26] The objectivity of value is thus real, particularly in the sense that it has ‘social validity.’ This objectivity is autonomous, allowing the various, otherwise private and independent, producers to coordinate their activities (in a post hoc form) and which mediates the private labours of the various producers. Value is an objectified form of social mediation. However, it does not appear as mediated. Rather, in its subjective dimension, value appears to derive from the commodity’s character as use-value. Value, a ‘supra-natural property,’ ‘something purely social’ appears instead as a natural property of the use value, like its weight or color.[27] Marx calls this the ‘fetishism’ of the commodity, ‘the illusory consciousness that naturalises this social power of the commodity.’[28] Finally, the fetishism arises from the fetish character of the value form, ‘from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces’ commodities.[29] Because the specific social characteristics of labour only appear within exchange, the social relations between producers’ private labours ‘appear as what they are, … material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things.’[30] The way that value is rendered thing-like through exchange—the way value in practice is objectified, through exchange, as an attribute of the use-values which are their bearers—makes it appear as an inherent property of the use values themselves.[31] One crucial dimension of this insight is that if the social relation between the producers and the sum total of their labour appears as a social relation between objects, ‘a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers,’ then the historically-specific nature of those social relations in which the value form exists will disappear.[32] This insight about the hypostatization of social relations is as true for race as it is for the value form, as we will shortly see.

Subsequent thinkers have generalised Marx’s insight, extending the theory of commodity fetishism to a critique not just of political economy and of the nature of value, but also of capitalist society. We can call this the theory of reification.[33] ‘[T]he problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics,’ Georg Lukács famously wrote, ‘but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects.’[34] When Marx speaks of ‘material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things’[35] he is referring as much to capitalist society as he is to the capitalist economy. With the universalization of exchange relations, the social, not just the ‘economic,’ world appears as a set of things: discrete, independent, even accidentally-related objects that can, in this form, be immediately apprehended, without requiring meaning, interpretation, or history. It is a world of reference rather than inference. This objective dimension is contrasted with a subjective one, characterised by abstract operations like logic and the attribution of properties and relations. Within this strict dichotomy between object and subject, the task of the social scientist is to subsume the concretely given and immediate objects of sense data under formally rational, abstract laws. Because of the thing-like form of objectivity, the social world takes on a ‘fragmented’ character, which imparts a subdivision and autonomy both to the various intellectual disciplines and the institutions of society, such as the state, the law, and the economy. Similar to Marx’s concerns, ‘Lukács’s starting point is the appearance of autonomy of the economy and, modeled on it, other apparently autonomous social institutions. Society appears as a collection of independent social ‘things’ ruled by the laws of the differentiated domains.’[36] The aim of Marx, Lukács, and other critical theorists is to not merely describe these facts, but to show that that ‘facticity is not a self-evident category. It must be constructed in the social world to which it is effectively relevant. This is the deepest function of the concept of reification. It is meant to explain how the world can appear as a collection of facts.’[37]

One of these ‘facts’ is ‘race,’ and indeed the socially-constructed category of race exemplifies this process of reification at work. Racism, a set of social relations and practices, hypostatises race as a taken-for-granted, concrete and (or) natural fact.[38] On this the social constructionist and reification view agree. The task now is to demonstrate that the same process that hypostatises value as a thingly objectivity also accounts for the reification of race. Just as value appears as a natural attribute of the concrete use values which are their bearers, ‘race’ appears as the immutable or natural traits of the individual members of the racialised group. But this is not merely analogy: it is because a commodified, exchange society produces a peculiar kind of sociality (‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’) that the social and historical consequents of race appear as their causes.

Besides showing how value appears to be a pre-social, natural attribute of use-values, Marx extends his analysis of the fetishism of commodities to several other features of capitalist society. For example, money, a universally exchangeable commodity and the most general expression of value, underscores this same phenomenon.[39] Money, like any other commodity, appears to have value itself, ‘as a social property inherent in its nature,’[40] and so the social relation that money in fact expresses ‘vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind.’[41] As a consequence of this, money allows people to be ‘related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way.’[42]

To be clear, this is the way social relations actually operate in practice in capitalism, but it is also this practice that makes the social relation appear natural or material, rather than social.[43] But if the social relations of production appear material, then so does the socially-constructed category of race. To believe that people relate to one another in an atomistic way is to explain social outcomes in terms of the properties of the individuals themselves. Hence, if social outcomes are stratified by race, this must be—especially but not only in the reified mind of the racist—because of naturally-occurring traits held by members of the (in fact, socially constructed) ‘races.’ Because of money, Marx says that in capitalism the ‘individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket.’[44] Consequently, we should not be surprised that, ‘if the knapsack of privileges is carried by an individual already identifiable as white,’ as described by Peggy McIntosh in her influential article ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,’ ‘then whiteness must necessarily be understood as a biological trait.’[45]

Marx’s broad application of commodity fetishism can also be grasped more sharply when recognizing that the attribution of value to use-values holds with greater significance for labour power and means of production. In the famous section on the ‘Trinity Formula,’ Marx contends that profits and wages appear to arise naturally from the material objects that bear them rather than from the social relations of the exchange society: on the one hand, means of production (‘capital,’ in the reified sense) and, on the other, the individual ability and intelligence of the individual wage-labourers. In fact, profits are a division from the ‘the total value of the annual product, which is nothing more than objectified social labour’[46]: profits come from exploited labour, not from the machines that labour uses. For the same reasons, if the income distribution is stratified by race this can be interpreted as a result not of de jure and de facto discrimination; a history of enslavement and expropriation; or the dynamics of profit accumulation, labour market stratification, and superfluous labour; but of the abilities and intelligence shared by members of a given ‘race.’[47]

Marx therefore extends his theory of commodity fetishism in his analysis of money, profits, and wages. By this, and numerous other indications, he also clearly intends this theory to have broader social and political implications. Scattered in various places, Marx urges us to recognise that bourgeois ‘individualism’ is not merely an ideological trope, legitimating discourse, or strategic manipulation.[48] Rather, it has a practical basis in the kind of ‘asocial sociality’[49] that exists in a society characterised by generalised commodity production, where relations between people are treated as merely material.[50] In this sort of society, social outcomes are perceived simply as the aggregates of individual choices, preferences, and capabilities—all properties of individuals.[51] Again, therefore, if social outcomes are stratified by races, these consequences are turned into their causes, and the social and natural are conflated by attributing them to natural or factual differences in ability at the racial level. To introduce past or present racism, discrimination, or expropriation appears to fit only arbitrarily or accidentally with value’s form of objectivity.[52] Race is therefore not a simple analogy of the fetishism of commodities; rather it is the way that generalised commodity exchange reifies social relations that makes it possible for ‘race’ to emerge conceptually and practically in modern society.

The reification view of race really gains traction because it not only historically situates the beliefs of the avowed racist, but also the facticity-of-race view of the non-racist. That is, one might be tempted by a functionalised approach to account for racial ideology out of self-interested and strategic ideological manipulation by a dominant race or class. But even those with a sincere desire to eradicate racism, or at least mitigate its effects, frequently adopt a taken-for-granted view of race as natural or given fact.[53] An ‘objective’ view of race—one that attempts to grasp race from a perspective outside the subjectively held beliefs of the racist—is characterised by the same form as, even if its content is the opposite of, racist ideology.

In this view, racism is the product of an unmediated, given set of attitudes, ‘tastes,’ or ‘preferences’ of the individuals who hold those views about, likewise, objectively given races.[54] Racism is a manifestation of animus or hatred or, less explicitly, intentional or disparate treatment, whether conscious or unconscious, of one race against another. Inequalities of race, expressed socially in differences in status, income, political influence, education, and so forth, are understood as the effect of such attitudes, norms, or institutions. Even from the standpoint of institutional or structural racism, race often retains its thingly facticity. In this perspective, racism is institutionalised in the facially-neutral rules, laws, or practices of organizations, firms, or states that nevertheless have racially-disparate impacts. But as long as those impacts are assessed like a treatment effect in a counterfactual causal model, the concept of race will preserve its unmediated, factual fixity. In fact, as Kohler-Hausmann persuasively demonstrates, the distinction between disparate treatment (intentional) and disparate impact (unintentional) racial discrimination only makes sense if race is simply defined as skin color, phenotype, or some other physical or social signifier.[55] Unless one acknowledges that these practices are part of the constitution of race itself, the notion that race can simply be toggled off or on, as if it was just phenotype, will persist.[56] Thus, in all of these anti-racist views, race remains a given, a taken-for-granted category.

Before moving on to the next section, I offer four clarifying points about the preceding account of race and reification. First, I wish to emphasise that fetishism is not equivalent to consciousness or ideology. It is not a theory of consciousness, but neither does it have nothing to do consciousness.[57] It is better described as the way the social world of commodities presents itself immediately to consciousness as observed in a pre-conscious or unreflective conscious way. How this unreflective consciousness is brought into reflective consciousness is an interpretive act—certainly an inevitable act, but no less interpretative for that.[58] Moreover, given that interpretative stage, the ‘sense data’ available to consciousness does not cause racist ideology or beliefs, at least not in any sort of deductive, unique, or immediate way.[59] Nevertheless, the value form’s objectivity has definite predispositions for acts of interpretation, especially as they interact with other prevailing assumptions about the nature of the world, social and natural, and which are not free of extant economic or political biases and ‘interests.’ For these reasons of interpretation, we can say that racist ideology, in its manifold forms, including its construction as a natural category, is an expression of capitalist commodity relations.[60]

Second, for these reasons, the theory of reification and commodity fetishism is not a ‘pierce the veil’ theory of race and the relationship between reality and representation. That is, reification is not reducible to an ideological representation, a sort of veil that covers a deeper, more fundamental reality, and which requires only an intellectual debunking for this false belief to be eliminated.[61] To the contrary, destroying the false semblance of race—including in its more explicit, reflective, and ideological forms—does not abolish its material form, to paraphrase Marx on value.[62] The form of objectivity, the fetish character described earlier, established in commodity exchange is a process that operates ‘behind the backs’ of the producers themselves—i.e., without their direct conscious awareness—and will itself nurture the ‘false semblance’ of race even after it is demonstrated to be a social construction.[63] Value and race have a practical validity; their ‘falsity’ resides not in their existence sans phrase, but in their seemingly immediate, pre-social existence. The reification theory of race is therefore not just consistent with, but explanatory of, the persistence and resurgence of race in our contemporary times, where race stubbornly survives even in the wake of the civil rights and anticolonial movements.

Third, because everyone in capitalist society inhabits this world of commodities, no one has the privilege of being exempt from its self-presentation. The reification theory of race is not a standpoint epistemology, and does not promise, as some necessary process of social change, that a privileged subject will, in a moment of subject-object identity, see purely through the world of commodities. (In any case, as I have just insisted, the problem of representation—as if race were some pure error—is secondary to the real epistemological issue: race’s seeming facticity.) At the same time, this hardly means that the effects of reification are uniform—once again, as if interpretation were a mechanical and deductive causal process. The conditions of the colonised in a relatively pre-commodified society may, for example, be experienced in sharply different ways than the colonisers, who bring to their colonies the experience and epistemology of their commodified societies. Du Bois, as well as Fanon, recognised that the racially dominated may experience, through a ‘double consciousness,’ a profound diremption within their subjectivity that calls into question the objectified category of ‘race.’[64] Nevertheless, the crucial point is that because no one is exempt from the social world in which they live, nor the historicised epistemologies that come with them, there is no necessary guarantee that anyone will transcend this division between subject and object, between one’s own experience of race and its seeming facticity.[65]

Fourth, just as it is common to refer to race as a social construction it also common to treat race normatively as a form of inequality or difference.[66] However, the race-as-reification view presented in this article necessarily suggests instead a critique of race as a form of domination. A complete account of this problem would require exploring the meaning of domination and why race and racialization count as forms of domination. Also crucial to this account would be how reification partly constitutes racial domination through an act of subject-object inversion, by substituting ‘race’ for racism.[67] The question, again, is how this inversion takes place. I would contend that the form of objectivity constituted by the creation of value also accounts for the inversion of race and racism, and that reification is therefore essential for understanding how, within capitalism, racial domination instead comes to be seen as a problem of difference or inequality. That argument, however, must await another time, and for that reason, this article does not claim to offer, by any means, a complete treatment of race, racialization, and racial domination.[68]

Race and Its Reproduction

This section uses the concept of reification to untangle race’s tenacious attachment to capitalism. Nancy Fraser pointedly asks what accounts for capitalism’s ‘persistent entanglement with racial oppression’?[69] Similarly, Chris Chen acknowledges the deep and obstinate relation between race and capital: ‘“Race” is not extrinsic to capitalism or simply the product of specific historical formations such as South African Apartheid or Jim Crow America.’[70] This section argues that this association cannot be understood in terms of a functional relationship, which is where Marxist approaches to race have traditionally turned. Rather, it is only at an epistemological and ontological level—the level on which the fetishism of commodities and, more generally, reification operate—that this association can grasped.

What accounts for capital’s persistent entanglement with racial domination? Traditionally, Marxist approaches to race have been pitched at a functional level. Race exists because it is functional for capital. Racism either facilitates the accumulation of capital or serves the interests of capitalists, by dividing the working class and impeding the emergence of a revolutionary class consciousness. The limitations of a functional analysis are well known, and examples of the failure of functional analysis are easy to multiply. For instance, the Nazi regime’s antisemitism may have served the interests of German industrial capital, but this view makes it difficult, if not impossible, to grasp other crucial dimensions of Nazi antisemitism. The operation of the extermination camps was not a benefit to capitalists, which drew away resources from industrial production, and even impeded the Nazi war effort.[71] Moishe Postone emphasises this, pointing out that the extermination of the Jews was scarcely a means to an end ‘but was its own goal—extermination in order to exterminate—a goal which acquired absolute priority.’[72] Racial domination cannot be reduced to its functional effects.

As other recent contributions have recognised, a traditional Marxian focus on waged labour also frustrates the attempt to understand the ubiquity of ‘gratuitous violence’ in antiblack racism, both historically and contemporarily.[73] Assuming that the ‘privileged subject’ ‘is a subaltern who is approached by variable capital—a wage,’ distorts the nature of the domination of the unwaged, those who stand outside the wage relation.[74] Unable to directly apprehend the unwaged relation, this assumption makes that relation derivative to the waged relation. The assumption also obscures the way that those standing in an unfree or unwaged relation to capital have historically conferred, as their social others, a privileged political status on waged labour and helped to bring workers within the ambit of ‘free citizens.’ Finally, the assumption underscores a progressive view of capitalism, which would, sooner or later, eliminate racism as the expanding circuits of capital would bring more and more previously excluded dependents into the wage relation. As our present-day ‘planet of slums’[75] makes conspicuous, this view of capitalism has not been born out. Ultimately, viewing race through the lens of wage labour amounts to what Postone has described as an affirmative critique of capitalism, one made from the standpoint of labour and the improvement of waged work within capitalism, rather than its abolition.[76]

Several recent contributions have, in my view, successfully responded to the wage-labour critique of Marxist approaches to race. In short, capital’s drive to accumulate entails the constant expulsion and expropriation of labour, creating massive surplus populations in excess of any functional requirement of capitalism.[77] However, even those who avoid an affirmative critique of class and capital still tend to explain racial domination in terms of its function for capital. Nancy Fraser, for example, contrasts wage-based exploitation with expropriation, and rightly conceives of the latter as a mode of accumulation that does not depend on the wage relation.[78] Yet tying race and capital together through expropriation (rather than exploitation) still cognises race as functional for capital: ‘Expropriation lowers capitalists’ costs of production, supplying inputs for whose reproduction they do not fully pay.’[79] In other words, according to Fraser, racial domination exists because race-as-expropriation facilitates capital accumulation.

Likewise, in an illuminating contribution, Chris Chen effectively criticises and avoids the problems with a Marxist view of race made from the standpoint of waged labour. ‘In these [traditional Marxist] accounts,’ Chen acknowledges, ‘“race” becomes a functional or derivative component of class rule.’[80] More carefully than Fraser, Chen avoids the language of ‘expropriation as accumulation,’ and brings vivid attention to the ‘superfluity’ that capital renders to staggering numbers of humanity.[81] Nevertheless, even Chen seems to slip into functional language, asserting that ‘[c]apitalism … has required the systematic racialisation of … labour,’ as much through the wage relation as through its absence.[82] While avoiding the ‘privileged subject’ of the waged labourer, the problem with this formulation is that if capital requires racialization, how is racialization also not functional for capital? At the very least, Chen leaves open the question: if the relation between capital and race is not a functional one, what is it?

There is an even more fundamental problem with a functionalist analysis of race and class. This problem is that the functional relation between race and class can only be contingent. An interesting historical feature of capital is its social autonomy, both independent from direct formal relationships (i.e., status) and as social form.[83] As a real abstraction, capital exhibits an absolute indifference to other social forms. Marx’s method, to the extent it relies on abstraction, is not a clever way to marginalise the existence of racial domination, but rather a method adequate to the phenomenon under examination.[84] Chen recognises this, but in doing so inadvertently admits a serious incongruity. Chen writes, ‘If capital is first and foremost an indirect or impersonal form of domination (unlike black chattel slavery or feudalism, for example), in which production relations are not subordinated to direct social relations, there is no necessary incompatibility between this and the persistence or growth of direct, overt forms of racial and gender domination.’[85] Yet, the incongruity is that, by precisely the same token, there is neither any necessary functional connection between capital accumulation and race (or gender) domination. If capital as an impersonal and abstract form of social domination is indifferent to the existence of labour in free or unfree forms, then it is necessarily indifferent to the non-existence of unfree and racialised labour. To stress this point, as a functional matter, capital is indifferent to the continued existence or non-existence of racial domination. Once again, we need to look for the ‘persistent entwinement’ of race and capital somewhere other than in capital’s functional requirements.

This is hardly to deny that racial domination has exactly these functional effects for capital. Racialised wage differentials and occupational segmentation fragment the working class, frustrating its formation into a class for itself. Formal and informal status differentiation generates privileged free and ‘unfree’ (or ‘undeserving’) political categories of citizenship, further undermining social and political opposition to capital. Racialised expropriation and colonization ‘cheapens’ the costs of capital accumulation. All of these effects and more are too agonizingly true to be questioned. These functional effects undoubtedly figure heavily into any account of the reproduction of racial domination. I only deny that such functional effects are sufficient to account for the existence of race, in light of that functional account’s evident shortcomings. One need only recall the example of the Nazi extermination camps mentioned previously.

Rather than locate the ‘persistent entanglement’ of race and capital in their functional imbrication, this article proposes that we find it in the ontological and epistemological horizon of the exchange society. By situating this as an epistemo-ontological problem we raise a different question about race: not how race functions for the origin reproduction of capitalism, whether as expropriation or exploitation, but what is race and how do we know it?[86] Throwaway concepts, such as operationalizing definitions, are inadequate to this task. Rather than begin with a definition, the understanding of a concept and its object requires as much thought and analysis as the functional analysis of race and capital.[87]

Following on race’s problematic standing in the functioning of capital, it is not surprising that critiques of affirmationist approaches to race and capitalism are pitched at an ontological level. For example, the writing of Frank Wilderson is replete with the language of ‘being’ and ‘ontology.’ Wilderson writes, ‘[V]iolence against black people is ontological and gratuitous as opposed to merely ideological and contingent.’[88] Wilderson argues that violence against black people—antiblackness—is what constitutes blackness in modern society. Wilderson wants us to understand what the nature of black being is, not how it functions for some other end. In a traditional Marxist or waged-labour view, ‘racism is read off the base, as it were, as being derivative of political economy.’[89] In contrast to its functional instrumentalization, the gratuity and pointlessness of antiblack violence underscores the ontological status of the black subject.

But we have to be clear about what sort of ontology we are after in this approach to race. By raising questions about the existence and nature of race, ontology responds to a genuine ‘need,’ a ‘lack,’ as Adorno calls it, that is left by functional analysis and a factualizing positivism.[90] However, ontology is a slippery subject. Pointing to ‘being’ promises something fundamental, absolute—even immediate—by exploiting an ambiguity in the term itself. ‘Being’ suggests something prior to or outside mind, something independently existing, and yet, because ‘being’ is distinct from concrete, individual beings, this usage actually obscures its more properly conceptual status.[91] In Wilderson, the search for a fundamental grounding is evident where, after objecting to the Gramscian attempt to ‘read’ racism ‘off the base,’[92] he proposes substituting ‘white supremacy as a matrix constituent to the base, if not the base itself.’[93] The immediacy of this form of black being is also evident in the putatively non-discursive images of violence and the body. Wilderson writes, for example, ‘State violence against the black body … is not contingent, it is structural and, above all, gratuitous.’[94] Thus, appeals to being and ontology are often ontologizing, and run the risk of attempting to ground claims outside of subjectivity and history.

In addition to avoiding the pitfalls of functional accounts of race, the race-as-reification view advanced in this article also avoids the problems ahistorical ontology. The kind of ontology proposed here is a critical one, a negative ontology. Appeals to being or existence cannot be made outside the historical conditions and subjective categories that establish them. Ontology, according to Adorno, encourages us not to be ‘hindered from pursuing that which ultimately matters.’[95] But ‘if this claim still survives, then it can genuinely do so only in the form of critique, which has taught us that the attempt to grasp ‘being’ immediately is impossible.’[96] Being, in whatever shape or form, is always conceptually and subjectively mediated, however violently, objectively, and structurally it is constituted. Because any possible being is subjectively mediated, there exists the possibility that the objective constitution of that being will appear ‘wrongly’ to consciousness, even if practically valid. This is the case with value—as well as race. Like value, race exists and does not exist. Race has a practical validity, not a natural one. Race has no existence outside historically specific, and conceptually mediated, circumstances. The goal of a critical ontology is to demonstrate this contradiction, to show why ‘race’ is a false ‘being,’ why race does not exist, but also why it persists and subsists as an apparent fact or natural object.

We reach a contradiction. On the one hand, race and capital are autonomous. They are distinct social forms. One cannot adequately account for race by instrumentalizing it in terms of functions or interests. Even speaking in terms of the ‘material interests’ of the racially dominant group cannot account for cases where the annihilation of a ‘race’ acquires such an absolute priority that it requires sacrificing those exact material interests. On the other hand, racism and capitalism are inextricably linked. Not only are race and capital intimately connected in their mutual, historical constitution, but capitalism contributes to the reproduction of race with all of its cold, ‘colorblind,’ indifference. If there is a determinate negation of this contradiction it lies in the commodity structure of capitalism itself. The varying degree of overlap between race and class that we observe historically and comparatively demonstrates, at a functional and causal level, the contingent nature between them. That functional-contingent relationship, however, is ontologically rooted in the reified structure of the exchange society. The value form that constitutes race and capital as autonomous forms of domination is what unites their existence. Furthermore, once historically and contingently joined, value’s reflection form makes that history disappear. Consequently, the notion that white supremacy could be eradicated under capitalism—the notion that there could be a race-neutral form of domination—strikes me, like Hegel’s moon falling to the earth, as the kind of abstract possibility whose actuality finds no adequate ground within present-day society. The struggle against racism and capitalism cannot be separated.

Race and Its Critique

Also finding limitations in class-based views of race, other writers have turned toward Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism to glean insights into the sources of modern racism. Moishe Postone pioneered this approach, applying it to the Jewish Holocaust and modern antisemitism.[97] More recently, Hylton White has built on Postone’s interpretation to develop a theory of antiblack racism.[98] This section will compare Postone’s and White’s accounts with this article’s analysis, in order to clarify the present argument and point to alternative paths forward.

According to Postone and White, antisemitism and antiblack racism are the fetishised forms of appearance of different, abstract dimensions of capitalism, money and labour, respectively. For Postone, in modern antisemitism, the Jews become a personification of ‘money,’ which he describes ‘as the manifestation of the purely abstract … form of the value dimension.’[99] For White, in antiblack racism, Blacks, and ‘above all the identification of blackness with the untamed biological,’ are ‘precisely the form that abstract labour assumes within its fetishised representation.’[100]

Both Postone’s and White’s analyses remain unsurpassed accounts of how capitalism’s commodity structure constitutes forms of racial domination. Ultimately, I largely agree with Postone and White that antisemitism and antiblack racism are fetish forms associated with the commodity structure of capitalism. Where I differ is in, first, precisely what those forms represent and, second, exactly how these processes of fetishization (or reification) work. Let me first give a brief overview. As to the first point, I disagree with Postone and White that the abstract dimensions of capital and labour, respectively, have their forms of appearance in, respectively, the Jewish and Black ‘races.’[101] Rather, I argue that what in fact are arbitrary, contingent, and historical social circumstances—the place of the Jews in medieval and early modern Europe or the role of colonization and slavery in global history—appear as properties of these ‘races,’ as attributes that have a misattributed natural or even biological basis. As to the second point, it is precisely because the abstract social and relational dimensions of capitalism do not directly appear, as real abstractions that take place behind the backs of society’s members, that makes these contingent social and historical factors appear as the attributes of ‘race.’ Thus, it is not capitalism’s abstract dimensions that appear in the form of racialised subjects; rather, those abstract forms explain how what does appear is taken as fact, natural or otherwise.

Understanding these objections requires that we reconstruct both of these prior accounts. Postone is particularly concerned to explain why antisemitism, in worldview and practice, targets the Jews as a personification, or representation, of capitalism’s social dislocations. Postone explicates this personification by identifying how the attributes of the Jews are similar to those of capital itself, especially money. Modern antisemitism, according to Postone, attributes a peculiar form of power to the Jews. Perhaps all forms of racism attribute power to the other, Postone explains, but in antisemitism this power is ‘mysteriously intangible, abstract and universal.’[102] It is not a concrete power (material or sexual) but a hidden, conspiratorial power—an abstract power. ‘The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy.’[103] Postone then reminds us that these are precisely the same characteristics shared by capital: ‘When one examines the specific characteristics of the power attributed to the Jews by modern anti-Semitism—abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility—it is striking that they are all characteristics of the value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx.’[104]

Postone clarifies that the Jews became the personification of the abstract domination of capital ‘not because the Jews were consciously identified with the value dimension.’[105] Rather, Postone insists that anti-capitalist discontent became directed toward the Jews because capitalism is itself antinomical. Capitalism appears in two different, opposed dimensions, abstract and concrete. He derives this from the commodity itself, which has the ‘double character’ of being both use-value and value:

The effect of this externalization [i.e., the ‘doubling’] is that the commodity, although it is a social form expressing both value and use-value, appears to contain only the latter, i.e., appears as purely material and ‘thingly’; money, on the other hand, then appears to be the sole repository of value, i.e., as the manifestation of the purely abstract, rather than as the externalized manifest form of the value dimension of the commodity itself.[106]

As capitalism develops, this antinomical structure of capitalist society becomes more and more entrenched, with ‘both sides of the antinomy’ becoming ‘objectified’ and each appearing as ‘quasi-natural.’[107] Society comes to be understood more and more in organicist terms.[108] The division of society into concrete and abstract dimensions allows a positive, material, and industrial capitalism to become separated from a negative, abstract, and financial capitalism. ‘The opposition of its abstract and the concrete dimensions allows capitalism to be perceived and understood in terms of its abstract dimension alone; its concrete dimension can thereby be apprehended as noncapitalist.’[109] This separation acquires an increasingly Manichaean character.[110] ‘The opposition of the concrete material and the abstract becomes the racial opposition of the Arians and the Jews.’[111] Postone argues that the Jews become the personification of financial capitalism, not because of some conscious manipulation to exploit their status as such. Rather, capitalism’s division into positively-valued concrete and negatively-valued abstract dimensions itself permits the association of Jews with financial capitalism, and from thence their persecution and the horrors of the Holocaust.

White’s analysis of antiblack racism follows a similar arc, and extends Postone’s analysis without however erasing the particularities of antisemitism and antiblack racism as distinct forms of racial domination. Following Fanon, White says that what is striking about antiblack racism is its concrete, bodily form, which sets it apart from antisemitism.

The Black of antiblack racism is hated not as a member of a people but as a concrete bodily being. Unlike the Jew, the Black does not control others through the exercise of will. To be black is to be the opposite of control: an uncontrolled bodily energy. And the violence that this calls forth is a destruction of life in its concrete, corporeal, visible existence, rather than as the agent of a race. For Fanon, this is the key generic difference between the industrialised mass murder of the Holocaust and the ritualised destruction of the individual black body by a lynching mob.

The ‘polarised’ way that antisemitism and antiblack racism express themselves leads White to identify the source of this opposition in the dialectical contradiction of Marx’s concept of value. For Postone the Jews represent money or finance capital, ‘the human body of money.’[112] But, explains White, ‘[T]he other side to capital is labour. Indeed, they are the same thing in different appearances: both of them are moments in the manifestation of value.’[113] As White continues to argue, where the Jews are a representation or personification of (finance) capital, Blacks are a representation of labour, capital’s dialectical opposite.

Moreover, when labour does appear, it does so as ‘biological energy,’ unlike capital, which is ‘monetary intelligence.’[114] When labour appears, it does so in ‘its most brutish, biological expression: animal vigour.’[115] The forms of power expressed in capital and labour are also different. The power of money is ‘cunning,’ while the power of labour is ‘brute.’[116] Labour ‘appears … as a visceral human capacity, intrinsically and constantly in need of external direction.’ Consequently, ‘Money is a power of control, but the biological body is a power that requires control.’[117] This contrast returns us to one of White’s most insightful points: that the commodity structure explains the modernity of ‘race’ across its different manifestations, but that antisemitism and antiblack racism are nevertheless distinct forms of racial domination.

Finally, why, in White’s account, does abstract labour take this form of appearance, in the ‘brute,’ ‘bodily,’ and ‘biological’ form of antiblack racism? For White, the history of slavery and colonialism is the crucial link that answers this question: ‘[T]he history of Atlantic slavery … and of European colonialism in Africa has bequeathed a lasting identification of Blacks with regimes of forced labour.’[118] The legacy of slavery and colonialism grounds the identifying association of antiblack racism as abstract labour’s form of appearance.

We are now in a position to discuss some of the limitations in these otherwise illuminating arguments. Both Postone and White argue that the racialised subjects of antisemitism and antiblack racism are said to represent different abstract dimensions of capitalism, capital and labour. Perhaps the most fundamental problem with this argument is that the abstract dimension of capital—value—already has its forms of appearance in capital’s various economic categories: prices, money, rent, wages, profit, etc. The first three chapters of Capital can be regarded as a painstaking effort to explain how value necessarily takes these forms. If value is already represented in these forms, why do they also take on different racial representations, as Postone and White argue? Of course, it is not impossible that value could have forms of appearance in addition to these categories. This duplication of appearances nevertheless raises doubts about whether the problem of race is understood as what capitalism’s abstract dimensions represent—or whether, as this article contends, it is better understood as what the abstraction of value does not represent, that is, what it forgets.

Let us take a closer look at Postone. Another of the difficulties in Postone’s argument is his insistence that capitalism appears in both concrete and abstract dimensions. Postone is correct, in my view, to link this with a particular, historically-situated epistemology. But what is characteristic about epistemology in capitalist society is that the abstract not only does not appear but does not ‘exist.’ In capitalism’s historical epistemology, ‘appearance’ is an empirical category and only ‘real,’ concrete objects appear. This epistemology is characterised by a ‘purist split,’ a hard-and-fast division between subject and object, mind and world, logic and experience.[119] ‘All rational cognition,’ says Kant, ‘is either material and concerned with some object, or formal and occupied only with the form of the understanding and of reason itself …’[120] Thus there is a real, independent world of concrete, material objects and a logical and abstract world of the mind. In this dualist epistemology the abstract does not appear.[121] Rather, everything concrete is part of the empirically given ‘real’ world and assigned a ‘thingly’ status while, in contrast, everything abstract is associated with pure mind. Postone’s argument depends crucially on establishing the link between finance capital and antisemitism by identifying the Jews with this abstract dimension of capitalism’s appearances. But if capitalism’s abstract dimensions do not directly appear—in other words, do not appear as abstract—then Postone cannot explain how the Jews become associated with finance capital.[122]

We can push this line of critique even further, contrasting Postone’s claim with how Marx talks about money’s thingly, non-abstract appearance. Postone references Marx’s concept of the double character of value and use-value, saying that money is the ‘sole repository of value’ or the ‘manifestation of the purely abstract.’[123] Marx does in fact emphasise the universality of money as a general commodity. Marx even remarks, ‘Exchange … produces a differentiation of the commodity into two elements, commodity and money, an external opposition which expresses the opposition between use-value and value which is inherent in it.’[124] To that extent, Postone’s association of money with the abstract dimension of the commodity (its value as distinct from its use-value) is correct. But it is not quite so simple, as Marx makes clear in the passage immediately following: ‘On the other hand, both sides of this opposition are commodities, hence themselves unities of use-value and value.’[125] Money is therefore just as much use-value as it is representation of value, and, as such, is prone to all of the fetishism of the commodity—in fact, even more prone. As we have already seen, Marx writes pervasively about our unreflective perception of money as a ‘thing,’ as distinct from its being an expression of value, as stressed by Postone. Marx says, ‘All the illusions of the Monetary System arise from the failure to perceive that money, though a physical object with distinct properties, represents a social relation of production.’[126] Thus, the conception of capitalist society is not that money appears as value’s abstract dimension, but that the abstract value form, although expressed in various forms of appearance including money, appears concretely rather than abstractly. In capital’s historically-given epistemology, capitalism appears concrete through and through. This is problematic for Postone, who argues that it is because capitalism appears in both abstract and concrete dimensions that Jews become the representation of abstract money or capital.[127]

There are similar challenges with White’s analysis of antiblack racism. According to White, the Black body in need of discipline and control is a representation of abstract labour, that is, of labour under capitalism. However, abstract labour is not capital’s dialectical opposite; rather, abstract labour is capital. White writes, ‘Most importantly, the other side to capital is labour. Indeed, they are the same thing in different appearances: both of them are moments in the manifestation of value.’[128] But this expression actually reverses the order of the presentation of the categories. Abstract labour is not a manifestation of value, but the source of value. Marx describes abstract labour as the substance of value.[129] More precisely, capital is one of abstract labour’s forms of appearance: abstract labour is value, value’s finished form is money, and money, in its most adequate expression (as value in-process) is capital.[130] It is true that labour and capital appear as opposites under capitalism, each generating distinct forms of ‘return,’ wages and profit (or interest). But then we no longer have a problem of representation: the Black body cannot be the representation of abstract labour because abstract labour—value—is already represented by (or, appears as) wages and profit. Similar to the problem in Postone’s account, if value already has its forms of appearances, in wages and profits, why does value—or abstract labour, in White’s approach—also appear in the form of the racialised subjects of antiblack racism?

It might be better not to see antiblack racism as a ‘representation’ of abstract labour, or indeed, of anything else. Rather, to paraphrase Marx, racialised subjects ‘appear as what they are,’ that is, as reified stereotypes of historically-contingent social relations. The explanation for antiblack racism is not that the black body represents abstract labour in need of discipline and control, as White would propose. Race in its antiblack form emerges, rather, as the reified ‘cause’ of what are in reality the consequences of the social and historical production of this racialised category. The black body is in need of discipline and control because the actual social and historical process of colonial enslavement, domination, and control vanish within these reified social relations. These processes ‘appear’ in a set of biologically or culturally innate characteristics imputed to a racialised category that necessitate discipline and control. This inversion is made possible by the fetish character of the value form, which makes society a material, rather than a social, relation between persons. Within this reified social world, antiblack racism misattributes outcomes of capitalism and colonialism to the characteristics of a particular ‘race.’

We can also explain modern antisemitism in terms more consistent with Postone himself, who writes, ‘The structure of alienated social relations which characterise capitalism has the form of a quasi-natural antinomy in which the social and historical do not appear.’[131] In my alternative construal, the Jews do not represent capitalism’s most ‘abstract’ elements, but are made to bear the burden of capitalism’s not conforming with the abstract and formal laws prescribed to it by bourgeois political economy.[132] One consequence of the reified world of commodities is the attempt to describe (concrete) objects according to (abstract) laws. For Lukács, for example, because this objectivity is separated from any broader social processes, these laws take on an increasingly formal character. Synthesizing the world of objects and appearances, capitalism is assumed, like the natural world, to operate under self-regulating and self-equilibrating objective laws. There is therefore something inexplicable when economic crises occur, or whenever social upheavals and dislocations of capitalism do not obey these formal laws of ‘second nature.’[133] A product of capital’s own contradictory movements, these economic catastrophes operate outside the conscious control of any individual member of society. Certain individuals or institutions—banks, financiers—stand in proximate relation to these crises and perhaps even to stand to benefit and, at the very least, are shielded from them. Because the abstract relation of value is not immediately apparent to consciousness, we observe only their concrete appearances: prices, use-values, money, profits. Just as the fetishism of commodities imputes value as a natural property of the commodity itself, capitalism’s woes, which are in fact immanent to capital, are assigned to seemingly concrete individuals and institutions: ‘the Jews.’ On the one hand, according to the impersonal domination of the law of value, no single individual or group can be assigned blamed for capitalism’s catastrophes. On the other hand, political economy’s ‘proper’ and formal laws of the economy (e.g., a self-equilibrating and harmonic system of exchange with a rational allocation of resources), requires that someone must be blamed. Under the abstract laws of reified consciousness, capitalism’s crises cannot not be the product of capitalism itself, since this would defy its formal laws, based on an understanding of capitalism as a world of objects, a social relation between things. Rather it is the greed, cunning, or deviousness of a particular ‘race,’ historically associated with finance, that must bear responsibility for capitalism’s shortcomings.

In this argument antisemitism is not the identification of capitalism’s abstract forms with the Jews, because the abstract never appears as such. Value already appears concretely in the form of money. As to what the racialised ‘Jews’ represent or personify, it is not the abstract dimension of capitalism, but all of capitalism’s crises and dislocations, which are inconsistent with its fetishised apprehension as a rational and formalised process of allocating resources. As to how this personification arises, we agree with Postone that it is not merely the product of scapegoating or an irrational, atavistic prejudice. However, in contrast to Postone, the Jews are not personified as capitalism’s abstract dimension through capitalism’s antinomical appearance, as concrete versus abstract, because, as I have argued, capitalism appears concrete through and through. Rather, it is precisely because the abstract, historical, and social do not (directly) appear within capitalist exchange relations that what is actually historically contingent (i.e., the relationship between Jews and finance) is hypostatised as the biological properties of a racialised group. In this reified view, capitalism’s social dislocations are not the result of capital’s abstract and contradictory drive to accumulate profit but are caused by a powerful conspiracy of concrete individuals and institutions. The same processes can be said to operate in antiblack racism, as described in our discussion of White. Given the very different histories and social relations, those processes yield two very different forms of ‘race.’


This article has tried to answer a few questions: how is it possible for race to be a social but misattributed natural category? How are race and capital both autonomous and imbricated? Rather than recapitulate the answers to those questions, the conclusion will discuss what ‘race’ can teach us about the nature of our exchange society. In their brilliant book Racecraft, Barbara Fields and Karen Fields pose the following question: Is race true or false, rational or irrational? Comparing race to the practice of ‘witchcraft’ in historical or non-capitalist societies, they are puzzled by our modern sensibility to accept race as ‘real’ or rational but witchcraft as false or irrational.[134] Both however, are founded on false assumptions and yet have a legitimate social validity for those who practice them. It is therefore a ‘mistake’ to treat one as rational the other as irrational, when they should both be judged the same, either both false or both true.

The Fields’ question is the same that which confronts scholars in the Marxist tradition when grappling with the nature of the fetishism surrounding the commodity. The current trend demotes talk about the ‘false semblance’ of value. For example, according to William Clare Roberts, ‘Fetishism is … first and foremost’ a political problem concerning domination and freedom ‘and an epistemic problem only derivatively.’[135]

Yet, ultimately, to ask whether value is true or false does not do justice to the complexity of the problem. Our deep ambivalence about ignoring the falsity of race explains why. For Marx, value is a true contradiction. While ‘[n]ot an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values,’[136] and so the naturalization of value is false, value nevertheless has a ‘social validity.’ Value is therefore both true and false. Likewise with race.[137] Race is true because it has a practical validity. Race is false because these practices are premised on the epistemic error that race has an objectivity that exists outside of these practices of race domination. If we are less inclined to accept the falsity of race as truth, neither should would shirk from acknowledging the falsity of value. To insist on the falsity of value is neither to succumb to delusion nor to believe that freedom is found merely by piercing the veil of illusion. Rather, what is delusion is to believe that one can practically transform the real objectivity of race or value without a conscious contestation of their false reflections. Marx never flinched from attacking the ‘false semblance [falschen Scheins]’[138] of value because of the way the ‘bourgeois political economy’ bolstered—and continues to bolster—the taken-for-granted, thingly nature of value into capitalist apologetics.[139] Destroying the false semblance of race or value will not abolish their material form, but neither is the abolition of value’s or race’s form of objectivity possible without the critique of their forms of appearance.


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[1] For questions and comments, I wish to thank Guyora Binder, Luis Chiesa, Nate Holdren, Rob Hunter, Rob Knox, Ashok Kumar, Sarah Ludin, Athena Mutua, Sara Ludin, Tad Skotnicki, Tico Taussig-Rubbo, Dom Taylor, the editors of Historical Materialism, and two anonymous reviewers.

[2] Along with Chen 2013, p. 207, the term ‘race’ is used throughout this article not as an object to which independent causal properties are attributed, but rather as the consequence of ‘racial ascription’ or ‘racialization processes’ that ‘justify historically asymmetrical power relationships through reference to phenotypical characteristics and ancestry.’ See also Fields and Fields 2014, p. 16–19.

[3] Marx 1976, p. 149.

[4] Murray 2016, pp. 211, 213.

[5] Marx 1976, p. 168.

[6] Murray 2016. See also Feenberg 2013 and Elbe 2020 for more recent analyses of the relationship between fetishism and reification.

[7] Bewes 2002.

[8] Bewes does make several brief and scattered statements about race and racism which align with the argument of this article. See Bewes 2002, pp. 4, 75–76, 160, 174.

[9] Gabel 1975, pp. 119–136.

[10] Gabel 1975, pp. 86–87.

[11] Fraser 2016, pp. 163, 173.

[12] I am therefore in complete agreement with Postone 1980, p. 107: ‘The intention is not to negate socio-psychological or psychoanalytical explanations, but rather to elucidate a historical-epistemological frame of reference within which further psychological specifications can take place.’

[13] O’Kane 2020, p. 281.

[14] Bhandar and Toscano 2015.

[15] Toscano 2008.

[16] Toscano 2008, p. 277.

[17] Postone 1993, pp. 48­–49.

[18] This passage is quoted in Lukács, who cites Marx precisely to undermine dialectically the hard Kantian distinction between subject and object, mind and world. It should be noted, however, that Marx uses the phrase in a different, more specific sense, namely, to challenge Kant’s critique of the ontological proof for the existence of God. Lukács 1971, p. 127.

[19] Murray 2016, pp. 120–188.

[20] Bhandar and Toscano 2015, p. 9; Toscano 2008, p. 281, both recognise this distinctive approach to real abstraction, whose explicit elaboration comes from Sohn-Rethel 1978.

[21] Adorno 1976, p. 80.

[22] For another noteworthy contribution, see Smulewicz-Zucker 2020.

[23] Postone 1980, p. 107.

[24] Etienne Balibar nicely distinguishes the newer, ‘cultural’ racism from the older, ‘biological’ racism: ‘[Current racism] is a racism whose dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which, at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but ‘only’ the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of life-styles and traditions … .’ Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, p. 21. What unites these two forms of racism and makes the reification theory of race a suitable explanation for both, is that in either case the attributes or characteristics of the supposedly different races are the pre-social and invariant properties of the individual members, inherited either biologically or culturally.

[25] Desmond and Emirbayer 2009, p. 336; see also Golash-Boza, p. 2.

[26] Starosta 2017, p. 102 n. 1. Both White 2013 and Elbe 2020 also emphasize the objective, ‘real inversion’ of the commodity form.

[27] Marx 1976, p. 149.

[28] Starosta 2017, p. 102 n. 1.

[29] Marx 1976, p. 165.

[30] Marx 1976, p. 166.

[31] Patrick Murray draws a helpful distinction between ‘abstract labour as “physiological” labour’ and ‘“practically abstract” labour.’ Labour of any form, in any sort of society, can be considered abstract ‘[b]y making a distinction of reason,’ for example, by measuring chronologically the amount of undifferentiated physiological labour expended in production. But Murray argues, and I agree, that Marx thinks of abstract labour as labour that ‘society treats as abstract … in practice.’ ‘“Practically abstract” labour is socially validated in a way that shows society’s actual indifference toward labour’s specific character, that is, toward labour’s specific ways of transforming nature and toward the specific use-value characteristics of its end product.’ Murray 2016, pp. 136, see also 136–45. Heinrich 2012, pp. 50–51, makes a similar distinction.

[32] Marx 1976, p. 165.

[33] I wish to focus on the underlying continuities in the accounts of Marx, Lukács, and subsequent writers, including Adorno and Horkheimer. Like Lukács, Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment could be read as an anthropological extension of the concept of fetishism.’ Hall 2011, p. 67. Adorno’s main objection is that Lukács’s reification is too subjective, and is fixated on the ‘reflection form’ rather than the objectivity—even if ‘false’—that lies beyond the subject. Adorno 1973; Hall 2011. In other words, Adorno says that Lukács reduces the fetish character of the commodity to fetishism. It should be clear in this article, that I am using reification in the more capacious sense that embraces both its objective and subjective dimensions.

[34] Lukács, 1971, p. 83

[35] Marx 1976, p. 166.

[36] Feenberg 2014, p. 86.

[37] Feenberg 2014, p. 86 (emphasis in original).

[38] Kohler-Hausmann 2018, p. 1169.

[39] Already, in the section on commodity fetishism, Marx alludes to the crucial role that money plays in making social relations disappear under capitalism: ‘It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities—the money form—which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.’ Marx 1976, p. 168–69.

[40] Marx 1976, p. 187.

[41] Marx 1976, p. 187. See also Adorno and Benjamin 1999, p. 321: ‘For all reification is a forgetting: objects become purely thing-like the moment they are retained for us without the continued presence of their other aspects: when something of them has been forgotten.’ Cited in Lijster 2017, p. 57.

[42] Marx 1976, p. 187.

[43] On the ‘asocializing’ effects of money, see also Murray 2016, pp. 290: ‘Because value, which is something purely social, appears, first, to be a natural property of a commodity (the fetishism of the commodity) and, still more perversely, to be a thing, money (the money fetish)—social relations seem to be absent.’ For further discussion, see pp. 290–93.

[44] Marx 1973, p. 157.

[45] Haider 2018, p. 46.

[46] Marx 1981, p. 961. See also the entire section on ‘The Trinity Formula’. Marx 1981, pp. 953–70.

[47] Typification versus individuation.

[48] Marx 1973, p. 84. Marx frequently reflects upon how the universalization of exchange relations underwrite bourgeois society’s conceptions of freedom and equality. Think, for example, of the famous passage on ‘Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham,’ Marx 1976, p. 280. Elsewhere, he writes similarly: ‘[A]ll inherent contradictions of bourgeois society,’ says Marx, ‘appear extinguished in money relations as conceived in a simple form … .’ Marx 1973, p. 241. The exchange relationship is one of equality: ‘Each of the subjects is an exchanger; i.e. each has the same social relation towards the other that the other has towards him. As subjects of exchange, their relation is therefore that of equality.’ ibid.

[49] This is Patrick Murray’s phrase, not Marx’s, but it nicely captures what I believe is Marx’s meaning when he suggests that commodity relations reduce society to ‘material [dinglich] relations between people and social relations between things,’ Marx 1976, p. 166. See Murray 2016, pp. 211, 213.

[50] Murray 2016, p. 502: ‘It is not only that capitalist social relations naturally reproduce the ideologies of vulgar and classical political economy; they engender the many faces of bourgeois philosophy generally’ including ‘“state of nature” and social contract theories’; see also Habermas 1996, p. 44: ‘To be sure, the model of the social contract found support in the evidence that modern exchange society seemed to secure some­ thing like a natural autonomy and equality for private persons through their participation in market transactions.’

[51] Within the social sciences, these conceptions survive in the influential perspectives of ontological and methodological individualism. Although methodological individualism is said to eschew the more controversial claims of ontological individualism, it is hard to take these claims seriously. Otherwise, methodological individualism quickly collapses under its own weight.

[52] Left-wing liberalism has a curious way of recognizing the ‘historical,’ distinguishing between a possibly tainted origin of capitalism with the possibility of a perfectly just present-day capitalism. It recognises history only as a kind of artificial obstruction with a natural system of free and equal individual exchange. ‘Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any.’ Marx 1976 [1847], p. 174.

[53] Loveman 1999.

[54] Becker 1957.

[55] Kohler-Hausmann 2018, p. 1175.

[56] Kohler-Hausmann 2018, p. 1171 n. 19. Kohler-Hausmann also cites Martin and Yeung 2003, pp. 521–25, who show ‘that although the constructivist position is explicitly embraced by social scientists, many fail to operationalize it in any meaningful way in their research methodology.’

[57] I take it that a basic starting point, beginning with Hegel, and continuing with Marx and the Frankfurt School, is the rejection of a hard dichotomy between subject and object. The tendency to describe fetishism as ideology or a purely subjective category is symptomatic of this dichotomised way of thinking.

[58] Beverly Best puts a similar point this way: ‘the perceptual economy of capital establishes the foundation, building blocks, or “raw material” for the development of collective imaginaries, common sense, and so on.’ Best 2015, p. 106; see also, pp. 107 n. 7, 120, 127.

[59] Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that ‘sense impressions’ are a cause of what it is that is being interpreted. See, e.g., Sellars 1956, p. 290; O’Connor 2004, p. 90.

[60] Another point that can be emphasised is that reification is not an ‘economism.’ While the reification theory avoids the reductionist problems of making race a problem of class, it would still be inaccurate to describe it as one where ‘the economy’ determines, in a causal sense, ‘race’ or ‘racial ideology.’ The main reason for this is that we are not describing a causal form of explanation. Race is the expression of a certain kind of society, rather than a functional effect of a hypostatised ‘part’ of society, e.g., ‘the economy.’ This kind of society happens to be a commodity-producing society.

[61] Pepperell 2018 criticises Lukács’ theory of reification as a ‘pierce the veil’ theory of knowledge and representation, a criticism I do not believe is entirely warranted.

[62] Marx 1976, p. 168.

[63] Marx 1976, p. 135. In this sense, the real abstraction of the world of commodities is critical for the abstract category of race to become objective (i.e., to have practical validity), whether or not one wants to think of race as a real abstraction in its own right.

[64] Du Bois, 2008; Fanon, 2008. See also Henry 2005.

[65] Perhaps the main problem with Lukács’s reification essay is the implication that the proletariat would achieve a ‘subject-object’ identity. Postone 2003.

[66] On problematic politics of ‘difference,’ see Chen 2013, p. 206.

[67] Karen Fields and Barbara Fields write that the production of race through racism ‘has permitted the consequence under investigation to masquerade among the causes’ and that the ‘substitution [of ‘race’ for ‘racism’] … transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object.’ Fields and Fields 2014, pp. 41, 96, 41. ‘Racecraft’ is the Fields’ terms for this subject-object reversal. ‘Like physical terrain, racecraft exists objectively; it has topographical features that American regularly navigate, and we cannot readily stop traversing it. Unlike physical terrain, racecraft originates not in nature but in human action and imagination.’ Fields and Fields 2014, p. 18.

[68] Also useful in this discussion of racial domination would be the roles of ‘double consciousness,’ in Du Bois 2008 and Fanon 2008, and the related concepts, ‘personification’ and ‘character masks,’ which are counterparts to reification, in Marx 1976, p. 179; Heinrich 2012, pp. 88, 232n21.

[69] Fraser 2016, pp. 163, 167, 171, 173.

[70] Chen 2013, p. 214

[71] A functional interpretation, according to Postone, also results in the view that the Nazi extermination camps were instances of indiscriminate mass murder, murder in general, either misapprehending precisely who were among its victims, European Jews most conspicuously, or leaving them unexplained. Postone 1980, p. 101.

[72] Postone 1980, p. 105.

[73] Wilderson 2003, p. 237.

[74] Wilderson 2003, p. 225.

[75] Davis 2006.

[76] Postone 1993, p. 17, 64–71. Applying the idea of an affirmative critique to race, see Chen 2013, p. 207–08, 212.

[77] Chen 2013.

[78] Fraser 2016, pp. 166–69.

[79] Fraser 2016, p. 167.

[80] Chen 2013, p. 220, very astutely observes, ‘“Race” typically persists in academic Marxist discourse as a social division internal to the working class and sown by economic elites in order to drive down wages, fragment worker insurgency, and create the permanent threat of a nonwhite reserve army of labour. In these accounts “race” becomes a functional or derivative component of class rule.’ However, Chen never fully makes clear how the colorblind process of stratification, superfluity, policing, and incarceration emphasised throughout the article are also not ‘functional’ components of, if not class rule, then the rule of capital.

[81] ‘From the point of view of capital, “race” is renewed not only through persistent racialised wage differentials, or the kind of occupational segregation posited by earlier “split labour market” theories of race, but through the racialisation of unwaged surplus or superfluous populations from Khartoum to the slums of Cairo.’ Chen 2013, p. 217.

[82] Chen 2013, pp. 214, 215 (emphasis in original).

[83] Reichelt 2007, pp. 5–6.

[84] For example, Sorentino 2019 lodges this critique, unsuccessfully in my view, against Marx’s method of abstraction.

[85] Chen 2013, p. 212.

[86] Adorno 2019, p. 36: ‘The linguistic form which is supposedly substantiated in the concept of being is the copula. The copula is simply nothing but the “is” in the predicative judgment A is B.’

[87] Adorno 2000, p. 5: ‘I believe that while philosophy may well terminate in definitions, it cannot start out from them.’

[88] Wilderson 2003, p. 229.

[89] Wilderson 2003, p. 225.

[90] Adorno 2019, pp. 104, 95–105. ‘[T]he influence exerted by the new ontology [i.e., of Heidegger and others] … is the perfect complement to positivism,’ p. 103.

[91] Adorno 2019, p. 90.

[92] Wilderson 2003, p. 225. The attempt at fundamental grounding is also evident in Sorentino 2019, which ‘moves to substitute the abstraction of labor with that of slavery,’ p. 17.

[93] Wilderson 2003, p. 231.

[94] Wilderson 2003, p. 229 (citing Martinot and Sexton 2003).

[95] Adorno 2019, p. 167.

[96] Adorno 2019, p. 167 (original emphasis).

[97] Postone 1980.

[98] White 2020.

[99] Postone 1980, p. 109.

[100] White 2020, p. 10.

[101] As I will also argue below, value, an abstract social relation, already has its forms of appearance in the economic categories analyzed by Marx: prices, wages, rents, profits and, above all, money. Furthermore, the relationship between money and antisemitism, central to Postone’s account, is more complicated than his presentation suggests.

[102] Postone 1980, p. 106.

[103] Postone 1980, p. 106.

[104] Postone 1980, p. 108.

[105] Postone 1980, p. 112 (emphasis added).

[106] Postone 1980, p. 109.

[107] Postone 1980, p. 109.

[108] Rather than in the eighteenth-century mechanical terms borrowed from Newton’s physics.

[109] Postone 1993, p. 174 n. 115.

[110] Postone 1993, p. 163; Postone 1980, p. 106.

[111] Postone 1980, p. 112; Postone 1993, p. 174 n. 115.

[112] White 2020, p. 9.

[113] White 2020, p. 10.

[114] White 2020, p. 10.

[115] White 2020, p. 10.

[116] White 2020, p. 10.

[117] White 2020, p. 10.

[118] White 2020, p. 11 (citations omitted). White’s answer to this seems to depart somewhat subtly from Postone. Although Postone acknowledges the association between modern antisemitism and its premodern, historical antecedents, he appears eager to distance himself from that connection, at least as the linchpin for his account. For White, by contrast, the historical is the link.

[119] Murray 2016, p. 69–70.

[120] Kant 1999, p. 43.

[121] Rather, as Lukács and others have made clear, bourgeois epistemology, to use a phrase borrowed from Murray 2016, p. 69–70, presents us with a ‘purist split.’

[122] We might also add that the Jews were not vilified by the Nazis because of their representation of the abstract dimension of capitalism, in contrast to its material and thingly ‘good’ dimension, but because finance capital, especially as credit and interest-bearing capital, appears as a concrete perversion of capital’s concrete dimension. Through the M–M´ circuit, interest ‘seems to derive from capital as its own independent source,’ inexplicably. Marx 1981, p. 968. It is not because money appears as abstract that makes this property of money suspect, but rather than the abstract social relations which are their actual basis does not appear in the circuit of exchange.

[123] Postone 1980, p. 109.

[124] Marx 1976, p. 199.

[125] Marx 1976, p. 199.

[126] Marx 1986 [1867], p. 276 (emphasis added). Marx also remarks, ‘But money is itself a commodity, an external object capable of becoming the private property of any individual. Thus the social power becomes the private power of private persons,’ Marx 1976, pp. 229–30. Further: ‘[T]he mystifying character’ of capitalist social relations ‘still more explicitly transform[s] the relation of production itself into a thing (money),’ Marx 1981, p. 965. For discussion, see Murray 2016, pp. 37–42, 290–92. See also Smith 2014, p. 31, for a brief recapitulation of the ‘thingness’ of money and its relation to value.

[127] Not only does the effort to establish the link between capitalism’s abstract dimension and antisemitism run into the problem that capitalism, in any dimension, does not appear directly as abstract, but there are also other complications in Postone’s account. If ‘[m]odern anti-Semitism involves a biologization of capitalism … as International Jewry,’ Postone 1980, p. 112, this should bring the Jews into the concrete, thingly, and positively-valued dimension of capitalism, according to Postone’s dichotomization of capitalism’s appearances.

[128] White 2020, p. 9.

[129] Marx 1976, pp. 125–31; for discussion of the use of the term ‘substance,’ see Heinrich 2012, p. 49.

[130] Mau 2018.

[131] Postone 1980, p. 109.

[132] Earlier in his essay, Postone 1980, p. 107, acknowledges, ‘It is not that the Jews merely were considered to be the owners of money, as in traditional anti-Semitism, but that they were held responsible for economic crises and identified with the range of social restructuring and dislocation resulting from rapid industrialization … .’ At this stage, what the racialised ‘Jews’ personify are the consequences of capitalism’s crises and development. Later, however, Postone shifts, and the Jews then come to represent ‘money,’ or capital in the abstract.

[133] Lukács 1971, p. 105: ‘[W]e see that it is the very success with which the economy is totally rationalised and transformed into an abstract and mathematically oriented system of formal ‘laws’ that creates the methodological barrier to understanding the phenomenon of crisis.’

[134] Fields and Fields compare what they call ‘racecraft’ with E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s famous study, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Fields and Fields 2014, p. 16. Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft is renowned for abstaining from any judgment about the ‘falsity’ regarding the beliefs about witchcraft among the Azande. Interestingly, Paul Mattick has also described Marx’s project in Capital in terms of Evans-Pritchard’s, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Marx approaches not just the world of capital, but the way that we (including the ‘political economists’) interpret and experience this world, and how these particular forms of experience and interpretation can arise within the world they inhabit. Mattick 2020, p. xxi.

[135] Roberts 2017, p. 85.

[136] Marx 1976, p. 138.

[137] Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, pp. 137: Fascist antisemitism is ‘true and false at the same time. … [it] is true in the sense that fascism has made it true.’

[138] Marx 1976, p. 187.

[139] Marx 2016, p. 897.