A Contingent or Necessary Relationship

Charlie Post
race and capital Post

Anti-racist debate today remains polarized between “class reductionist” (any attempt to address racial disparities reinforces capitalist class relations) and “liberal identity” (disparities in racial representation can be resolved without questioning class inequality) politics. Both positions share a common perspective—racial oppression and class exploitation are the products of distinctive social dynamics whose relationship is historically contingent. This essay is an initial step toward a structurally necessary relationship between capitalism and racial oppression. The essay draws upon on Anwar Shaikh and Howard Botwinick’s elaboration of Marx’s political economy; and Ellen Wood’s analysis of the specificity of capitalism imperialism.

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

The uprising sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020 has again placed the question of race at the center of politics.[1] While the right steadfastly denies the existence of racism and advocates greater repression against those protesting police violence, the left—both liberal and socialist—is scrambling to come to grips with the rebellion. For the liberals, the problem is simply a “lack of diversity”—the police, the middle classes, corporate America, and the political establishment do not “reflect” the population as a whole. The liberals hope to derail these struggles as they did those of the 1960s and 1970s, by promoting a new middle class of color without addressing the growing poverty and insecurity of working people of color. As Asad Haider[2] has argued, the neo-liberals have transformed “identity politics” from an attack on racism, sexism, and capitalism into a demand to diversify the political and economic elite without tampering with capitalist class relations.

The US socialist left is also attempting to catch up with events. The main organization of the U.S. left, the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) was caught back-footed by these new struggles and has found it difficult to move from the routines of Democratic Party electoral politics to organizing an ongoing movement against racism and capitalism.[3] Some in DSA have failed to embrace the most radical demands of the uprising—to defund, disarm, and disband the police—and instead argue for continued campaigning around “universal” demands to raise wages and the funding of public services—including the police.[4]

Both the liberal “identitarian” and class reductionist positions, despite their divergent political trajectories, share a common conceptual starting point—they both view the relationship of racial oppression and capitalist exploitation as contingent rather than necessary. This can be seen in radical and Marxian approaches to the relationship between racism and capitalism. While resting on very different theories of the origins and dynamics of capitalism, both Cedric Robinson’s[5] highly influential theorization of “racial capitalism,” and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s[6] assertion of the possibility of a “non-racial” capitalism view the relationship capitalist exploitation and racial oppression as historically contingent.

Robinson’s begins from the problematic ‘commercialization model,’ where capitalism emerges out of the revival of European trade and is consolidated in Europe’s imperial expansion and the creation of the early modern Atlantic economy.[7] Racism, according to Robinson, already existed in Europe as early as classical antiquity, making racial oppression’s relationship with capitalism contingent on capitalism’s alleged dependence on European expansion in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Robinson’s assertion of a “long duree” of European racism is based on a fundamental confusion between pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of differentiating human beings.[8] Black Marxism leaves open the possibility that if capitalism had emerged outside of “racialized” European feudalism, racism would not be a feature of capitalism.

Ellen Meiksins Wood, one of the most perceptive theorists of the origins and expansion of capitalism, also explicitly rejects any necessary relationship between capitalism and racial oppression:

At the very least, class equality means something different and requires different conditions from sexual or racial equality. In particular, the abolition of class inequality would by definition mean the end of capitalism. But is the same necessarily true about the abolition of sexual or racial inequality? Sexual and racial equality… are not in principle incompatible with capitalism…although class exploitation is constitutive of capitalism as sexual or racial inequalities are not, capitalism subjects all social relations to its requirements. It can co-opt and reinforce inequalities and oppressions that it did not create and adapt them to the interests of class exploitation.[9]

Wood confuses the theoretical and historical preconditions of capitalist social property relations with the results—the unintended consequences of the reproduction of these social property relations.[10] Wood argues, correctly, that racial oppression is not a necessary precondition for the establishment of capitalist social-property relations. The necessary preconditions of capitalist production are the emergence of producers and non-producers who are compelled to reproduce themselves through market competition—through the operation of the law of value. Historically, racism was the result, not the cause, of the global expansion of English capitalism in the 17th century. While not a precondition of capitalism, there are strong theoretical reasons to argue that racial oppression is a necessary consequence of the expansion and reproduction of capitalist social relations.

Similar methodological and theoretical problems haunt other attempts, influenced by notions of intersectionality, to analyze the relationship between capitalism and racial oppression. The roots of intersectionality can be found in the “dual systems” theories of gender oppression that emerged in the late 1970s. Many socialist-feminists had concluded that Marxism was a “gender blind” theory capable of grasping the dynamics of class exploitation, but possessing few insights into the dynamics of an independent “sex/gender” system of patriarchal oppression that coexisted with capitalism.[11] In the last twenty years, theories of intersectionality have expanded the notion of multiple systems to race, sexual preference, gender identity, and differential ability. While the earliest version of intersectionality saw distinct systems of class, gender, racial and other forms of oppression shaping social identities and practices, later versions have attempted a more integrative perspective. Patricia Hill Collins[12] collates oppressions in “matrices” and attempts to explore the interrelationships between different vectors of oppression. Ashley Bohrer’s[13] work is the most rigorous attempt to date to reconcile Marxism and intersectionality, arguing that capital’s social domination is based on both exploitation and oppression.

All of the variants of intersectionality suffer from a number of analytic problems. The earliest versions suffer from the same issues as dual-systems theory identified by Lise Vogel in the early 1970s—a failure to consistently specify the dynamics of patriarchy and its relationship to capitalism.[14] Holly Lewis, in her path-breaking analysis of gender and sexuality, argues that intersectionality “assumes that each system of oppression is a vector with a nebulous origin intersecting with the individual subject... Disconnected from material life, oppression seems it as if it “were born of ill will and bad ideas.”[15] Not only are the origins and trajectory of each separate “street” of oppression unspecified, but as Tithi Bhattacharya argues intersectionality fails to specify “the logic of their intersection.”[16] The later and more sophisticated versions of the theory avoid the “atomistic”[17] methods of the earlier versions, but work from an idealized understanding of capitalist accumulation and competition.[18] Specifically, the latter incarnations of intersectionality assert that Marxist theorizations of accumulation and competition posit the homogenization of both capitalists and workers, and are thus incapable of explaining gendered and racialized divisions amongst them.

This misunderstanding of the dynamics of the reproduction of capitalist social relations is evident in the work of David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch.[19] They have produced a rich description of how both capitalists and wage workers deploy race—the myth of intrinsic and unchangeable differences amongst humans—to defend and advance their social positions in capitalist societies. They provide a detailed map of both shifting “racial boundaries” within the working class across time; and the persistence of racialization throughout the history of US capitalism. However, racism remains an independent vector of oppression that operates externally to, but in a functional relationship to capitalist accumulation and competition. Roediger and Esch argue, as does Boeher and others, that the operation of the law of value homogenizes labor--- equalizing wages, conditions of work and the like:[20] For them, racism exists because it is functional for capital—as a mechanism to ideologically and politically divide an increasingly homogeneous working class. As do other intersectional theorists, Roediger and Esch deploy a simplistic understanding of capitalist accumulation and competition that leaves them unable to explain how the structure of capitalism both compels and enables[21] capitalists to ideologically and politically differentiate workers whose conditions of life and work are ostensibly becoming homogeneous.[22]

Lise Vogel’s seminal, but long ignored, attempt to construct a unitary theory of gender oppression provides a model for transcending the dilemmas of contingent theories of racial oppression and capitalism. Vogel situates women’s oppression within the real dynamics of capitalist accumulation, which requires the continuous reproduction of capitalism’s “special commodity,” labor-power. There are three aspects to the social reproduction of labor-power: the capacity to work must be reproduced daily (workers must be fed, clothed, etc. to appear at work each day), those who cannot work (the young, the old and the disabled) must be cared for, and the working class must be reproduced inter-generationally. While capitalism has found various ways to organize the daily reproduction of labor-power and the care of non-workers—work-camps, single-sex dormitories, immigration, old-age homes, orphanages, etc.—the generational reproduction of labor-power requires both the social and biological reproduction of human beings. All class societies socially organize the biological capacities (childbearing and nursing) that create women’s “differential role in the reproduction of labor-power.” Capitalism takes hold of and transforms the main site of the daily and intergenerational reproduction of labor-power, the family/household, creating “a severe spatial, temporal, and institutional separation between domestic labor and the capitalist production process.”[23] Women’s primary responsibility for the privatized, “domestic” aspects of social reproduction is the matrix for the production of gender oppression.

What follows is an attempt to sketch a unitary or necessity theory of capitalism and racial oppression. We begin with a rigorous understanding of both the necessary dynamics of capitalist reproduction and the radical discontinuity between non-capitalist and capitalist forms of social production. Contrary to most radical and “Marxian” accounts of capitalist accumulation and competition, we will argue they do not homogenize capitalists and workers. Instead, accumulation and competition necessarily produce heterogeneity of profit rates, labor-processes and wage rates. The dynamics of the capitalist mode of production—market-competition and the continuous development of the productivity of labor through labor-saving technological innovation—cannot explain the emergence and expansion of this form of social labor. The continuing process of “primitive accumulation”—the creation of capitalist social property relations—requires political-legal coercion and, in many circumstances, does not immediately produce specifically capitalist social relations of production.[24] These social and historical processes create the matrix for the production and reproduction of race—the notion that humanity is divided into distinct groups with unchangeable characteristics that make one group inherently superior and other groups inherently inferior—as the “mental road map of lived experience” of both exploiters and exploited under capitalism.

This analysis owes a profound debt to three Marxian thinkers in the Black Radical tradition, whose attempts to grapple with the relationship of capitalism and racial oppression prefigure what I argue here. W.E.B. DuBois is best known for his notion that white working class and popular racism is rooted in a “public and psychological wage” that gives them political rights and social deference. While he used this term only once in his magisterial Black Reconstruction, in most of his other work he roots racist ideology and practices in labor-market competition. [25] In his analysis of the 1919 St. Louis “race riot”—a white working-class pogrom against newly arrived Black workers—DuBois argued:

If the white workingmen of East St. Louis felt sure that Negro workers would not and could not take the bread and cake from their mouths, their race hatred would never have been translated into murder. If the black workingmen of the South could earn a decent living under decent circumstances at home, they would not be compelled to underbid their white fellows.[26]

Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Race, Class and Caste[27] made the first systematic attempt to analyze the necessary relationship between capitalist exploitation and racial oppression. Cox, despite sharing Robinson’s commercialization model of the origins of capitalism, clearly distinguished between pre-capitalist forms of differentiating humans, in particular caste, and the distinctively capitalist form, racism.[28] Ruth Wilson Gilmore[29] deploys an analysis of the reserve army of labor since the 1970s to reveal the actual social basis for the expansion of racialized incarceration in the United States. Her insights into the capitalist management of growing “relative surplus populations” informs our analysis of the necessary relationship between capitalist accumulation and racial oppression.

Accumulation, Competition, “Primitive Accumulation”

Contrary to most interpretations of capitalism and its origins, including many ostensibly Marxist accounts, capitalist reproduction through competition and accumulation and the process by which capitalism emerges are not elements of the “material” economic “base” which in turn determines the “social superstructure” of culture and politics.[30] Contrary to notions that trans-historical processes—market competition, technological innovation, and plunder—produce and structure capitalism, capitalist accumulation and competition and “primitive accumulation” are social and historical processes.[31] Put simply, specific social property relations—relations amongst human beings (class relations) and between humans and nature (labor processes)—shape the social dynamics of any form of social production and co-constitute the political and cultural relations, including specific forms of oppression, of these forms of production.

Under capitalism, both producers and non-producers must reproduce themselves through market competition. On the one hand, the capitalists’ continued possession of the means of production requires compelling workers to produce at or below the socially average necessary labor-time—they must “sell to survive.” On the other hand, the dispossession of workers from non-market forms of subsistence makes them dependent on wage labor for survival, and easily hired and fired by capital. These social property relations, as we will argue in detail below, do not lead to economic equilibrium or the homogenization of profits rates, labor-processes, or wage rates. Instead, they give rise to the uniquely capitalist dynamics of accumulation and real competition through the uneven and combined mechanization of production—processes that necessarily produce heterogeneous social classes. “Primitive accumulation” is not a process of spreading markets, technological innovation running up against the “obstacle” of “outdated” social relations or simple geographic expansion, plunder and looting of the non-capitalist world. Instead, primitive accumulation—the transformation of means of production into capital and of direct producers into wage labor—is the unintended consequence of the struggle between non-capitalist exploiters and exploited attempting to reproduce themselves as non-capitalist classes. In sum, the emergence and development of the capitalist “economy” are historical and social processes of the creation and reproduction of distinctive social class relations.

Nor are politics and ideology “social superstructures” separate and apart from the “material base.” Instead, these ostensibly “superstructural” elements part of:

…a continuous structure of social relations and forms with varying degrees of distance from the immediate process of production and appropriation, beginning with those relations and forms that constitute the system of production itself. The connections between ‘base’ and superstructure’ can then be traced without great conceptual leaps because they do not represent two essentially different and discontinuous orders of reality.”[32]

From this perspective, ideology is not a free-floating set of cultural ideals or discourses separate and apart from the social relations that constitute social production. Nor is it mere propaganda “imposed” on a passive population through the media, schools and the like; or the equivalent of “doctrine,” a coherent and stable set of beliefs about the world. Instead, ideologies are the “mental road map of lived experience”– the “vocabulary of day-to-day action and experience” shaped by social property relations.[33] These mental road maps change as the lived experience of social relations change through practice and conflict. Put another way, ideological notions and practices, including racial oppression, are “co-constituted” by the reproduction of specific social relations of production and form part of the “internal relations” of different modes of production.[34]

Most Marxists and non-Marxists attribute to Marx a theory of value, accumulation, and competition that homogenizes capital and labor. This reflects neither Marx’s mature theory in Capital nor the actual history of capitalism. Instead, the reproduction of capitalism does not homogenize but constantly differentiates capitalists and workers.[35]  The operation the law of value—where the exchange-value of different commodities are expressed in the amount of socially average abstract labor time required to produce them—does not depend upon the homogenization of labor. Rather, it is capitalist competition and accumulation that allows the products of fundamentally different concrete human labor-processes to exchange as equivalents by abstracting from those concrete differences.[36]

The notions that accumulation and competition homogenize conditions of production confuse Marx’s account of real competition with neo-classical economics’ idealized vision of competition. “Perfect competition,” where numerous firms are passive “price-takers” and any firm’s market advantage is temporary at best, produces uniform profit rates and wages. This vision of competition makes the existing economic order appear efficient and just. Real capitalist competition has little to do with the dream world of neo-classical economics. Real competition is fought through what Marx called the “heavy artillery of fixed capital”—constant technological innovation, taking the form of the increasing mechanization of production—for market share won at the expense of other producers. According to Shaikh,[37]real competition, antagonistic by nature and turbulent by nature… is as different from so-called perfect competition as war is from ballet.”

Real competition and accumulation through increasing the mechanization of production creates heterogeneity among capitalists and workers. The process of the division of tasks and their mechanization in one branch of production leads to a portion of the workforce being made redundant for capital. This constant replenishment the reserve army of labor, the mass of unemployed and underemployed, not only regulates wages within the boundaries of profitability, but creates the possibility of heterogeneous labor-processes, profit-rates, and wages between branches of industry. While the increasingly capital-intensive industries enjoy higher profits and the possibility of higher wages, the constant replenishing of the reserve army allows the constant reproduction of labor-intensive industries with lower profits and lower wages. In other words, “sweated labor” under capitalism is not some atavistic hangover of earlier forms of production, but the necessary consequence of the continued, but necessarily uneven and combined mechanization of production.[38]

The constant generation of the reserve army, with workers experiencing different levels of precarity and desperation, produce workers who have little choice but to accept the worst jobs across the economy. In the presence of the reserve army, the mobility of capital and labor sets limits to, but cannot eliminate, overall wage differentiation. Low wage sectors can avoid raising wages by tapping into pools of desperate workers. Low-wage industries often draw from specific labor-reserves—specific layers of unemployed and underemployed workers whose labor-power is reproduced under distinctive social conditions—in order to maintain their profitability.[39] Migrant workers are a contemporary example of such a distinct reserve army of labor. The physical separation of inter-generational reproduction in the global South and day-to-day reproduction in the global North, allows capitalists in low wage industries to pay wages below the costs of reproduction of labor-power in the global North.[40] “Undocumented” immigrants’ lack of the most minimal political rights enjoyed by “citizens” intensifies the precarious conditions of the social reproduction of this segment of the reserve army of labor.

Competition within and between industries also necessarily differentiates labor-processes, profits and wage rates. In the competitive “war of all against all,” firms with older investments in fixed capital have difficulty reducing unit costs and raising profit margins and rates. However, they cannot abandon these investments immediately in favor of new and more efficient methods. Capitalist investment in buildings, machinery, and the like create barriers to immediately adopting new techniques or exiting a branch of production. Capitals with older and less efficient fixed capital, the non-regulating capitals, have no choice but to remain in business until their investments are amortized. They compete with “state of the art” capitals, the regulating capitals, by paying below average wages, and intensifying work through speed-up, sub-division of tasks, and other means of increasing absolute surplus-value extraction.[41]

Contrary to contemporary usage, “primitive accumulation” is not simply a process of the accumulation of wealth through plunder, slavery, and colonialism.[42] Marx explicitly rejected this notion in Capital, arguing that it reduces the process of primitive accumulation to a morality tale in which “the frugal elite” accumulate wealth through means fair and foul, while “the lazy rascals” are left with no choice but to labor for their betters.[43] Means of production and subsistence become capital only when means of production are transformed into a commodity whose possession requires successful market competition. It is only on the basis of new social relations of production that the wealth appropriated through the colonization and plunder is accumulated as productive capital rather than transformed into pre-capitalist forms of surplus extraction.[44]

Primitive accumulation necessarily requires non-market compulsion.[45] All non-capitalist forms of production are based on the direct producers’ effective possession of means of production or subsistence, and the non-producers use of non-market coercion to appropriate surpluses from the direct producers. Prior to capitalism, the reproduction of both the exploiters and exploited was not predicated on successful market competition through specialization, technical innovation and accumulation, but instead on these classes’ political organization. As a result, neither the growth of markets nor the development of labor-productivity could displace non-capitalist social relations and replace them with those of capitalism. Instead, the deployment of legal and political force was necessary to force producers to become market dependent (the imposition of capitalist ground rent, public land systems, etc.) and to compel the expropriated to sell their labor-power (enforcing the closure of access to common lands through state violence, taxations, forced labor and various forms of servitude, etc.) Both the original process in England in the sixteenth century, and the uneven and combined geographic expansion of capitalism globally in the five centuries afterwards was “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”[46]

Capitalism and Racist Ideology and Practices

Why do the creation and reproduction of capitalist class relations necessarily lead to racialization—the division of humanity into distinct groups with unchangeable characteristics that make one group inherently superior and others inherently inferior? Accumulation and competition give rise to a contradictory lived experience for both capitalists and workers. Capitalism is the first form of social labor in human history where exploitation takes place through what appears to be the exchange of equivalents in the labor-market.[47] Rather than relying on personal domination or other forms of extra-economic coercion, capitalists and workers confront each other on the labor-market as owners of distinctive commodities—capitalists own the means of production, workers their labor-power. Capitalists purchase the workers’ capacity to work generally at its value—the historically constituted social conditions of the reproduction of labor-power. As capitalist consume labor-power—put workers to work in labor-processes under the command of capital—workers are compelled to produce value in excess of the value of their wages.

The buying and selling of labor-power gives rise to a very specific vocabulary of lived experience that spontaneously disguises exploitation and produces the notion of the equality of all human beings. In Value, Price, and Profit,[48]  Marx argued that under slavery all labor appears unpaid, and under serfdom the division between paid and unpaid labor is clearly visible in the division of crops and labor. By contrast, under capitalism “even the unpaid labor seems to be paid labor” because “the nature of the whole transaction is completely masked by the intervention of a contract…” In Capital, Marx identified how this produces a distinctive ideology, “the sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham.”[49]

However, once we leave the idealized world of commodity exchange, we enter the real world of capitalist production, accumulation, and competition, which necessarily produces substantial inequalities—between capital and labor, within the working class and between societies in the capitalist world economy. In pre-capitalist societies, human inequality was assumed to be part of the “order of things;” inscribed in relations of personal dependence and extra-economic coercion. By contrast, the actuality of inequality must be explained under capitalism in a way that is compatible with the notion that human beings should be free and equal. This requires a re-naturalization of difference—the division of humanity into groups with unchangeable characteristics making some inherently superior, others inferior. Only if some people are viewed as and treated as less than “fully human” can either capitalists or groups of competing workers make sense of a society where all appear to be equal, but there is real inequality between and within classes.

A similarly contradictory lived experience marks the process of the geographic expansion of capitalism.[50] On the one hand, capitalist imperialism presents itself as “universalizing” the “benefits of civilization” -- the “fair and equal exchange” of the market and the blessing of capitalist “improvement,” the development of the productivity of labor through technical innovation and accumulation. Unfortunately for capital, the subordination of non-capitalist producers to market compulsion cannot be achieved on the basis of “fair and equal exchange” or “out-producing backward producers,” because both non-capitalist exploiters and exploited have effective possession of means of production and subsistence. As a result, race becomes central to the “mental road map of lived experience” that explains and justifies the violent expropriation of non-capitalist producers and the establishment of capitalist social property relations.[51]

Racial and gender differentiation are the most common ways both capitalists and workers navigate the contradictory lived experience of capitalist development. Gender differences are ideologically reduced to biology—gender is equated with sexual differentiation-- which purportedly explains women’s inherent inferiority to me. While race has no biological existence, the process of racialization socially constructs differences that are purported to be permanent and unchangeable.[52] Racialization naturalizes differences in physical appearances, religion, language, and the like.[53] Racist ideology, with its notion of inherent and unchangeable relations of inequality provides a potent mental road map for both capitalists and workers of the contradictory lived experience of the creation and reproduction of capitalist social property relations.

The History of Racism

If racism is a central “vocabulary of the lived experience” of the creation and reproduction of capitalism, then it must have a distinct history. The notion that race and racism exist trans-historically, at least since European antiquity is at the heart of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism.[54] Other scholars[55] have rooted Ancient ‘racism’ in the belief that differences between “civilized” and “barbaric” groups were rooted in environmental factors that became inheritable. However, even proponents of a Greco-Roman racism admit that the inheritance of acquired characteristics were not seen as constant and stable”[56] from one generation to another. Put another way, a new physical environment could easily produce new social and behavioral characteristics—making them fluid and flexible. In addition, those claiming the existence of racialization in classical antiquity have not demonstrated that certain groups were excluded from political life if they paid rent, taxes, or tribute to their rulers. In fact, there is considerable evidence of Africans, in particular, being integrated into the Greek and Roman states as soldiers and public officials.[57]

Before capitalism, humanity was differentiated by religion (“heathens and believers”) and kinship-community (“strangers and neighbors/kin”). Both tended to be highly flexible and changeable through conversion, adoption, and the like. In almost all non-capitalist forms of social labor, class exploitation was indistinguishable from political-legal unfreedom, making inequality appear “natural.” Pre-capitalist imperialism did not generally disrupt the direct producers’ effective possession of means of production and subsistence, but transferred lordship or politically regulated trade monopolies from one group of non-capitalist exploiters to another.[58] Thus, the fluid character of “othering” provided an adequate understanding of the lived experience of these social and historical processes. Under capitalism, race is a form of human differentiation where distinguishing characteristics become unchangeable. According to Go,[59] “it is not that capitalism was built on prior racial differences; rather, capitalism served to racialize the preexisting ethnic division of labor, turning religious, cultural, or linguistic differences into ‘racial’ ones to legitimate its new exploitative strictures… racialization… was a part of modern capitalism, not its precursor.”

There is evidence that an early form of “proto-racism” emerged in one region of pre-capitalist Europe.[60] In late fourteenth and early fifteenth century Castile and Aragon, the conquering Christian monarchs forcibly expelled the previous Muslim rulers and those Jewish bankers and merchants who failed to convert to Christianity. By the mid-fifteenth century, as competition for venal offices in the new Absolutist monarchies intensified, Christians began to exclude Muslims and Jews who had converted to Christianity (conversos or “New Christians”) from the ranks of the nobility and key public offices. The claim was that these converts lacked “purity of blood” (limpieza de sange), and detailed genealogical records demonstrating that families had been Christians for several generations became a prerequisite for social advancement. With the unification of Spanish absolutism in 1492, the expulsion of Jews and Muslims who refused to convert, and the exclusion of conversos became generalized.[61] Despite its emergence in late feudal Iberia, the generalization of race did not occur across European Absolutism, where the continued reality of non-market coercion made human inequality continue to appear to be natural.

Racial oppression in its modern form was crystallized two centuries later during the English capitalist colonization of Virginia.[62] When legal unfreedom is the typical status of the laboring classes, as it was in most pre-capitalist societies including Virginia before the late seventeenth century, inequality was assumed. It was only when all other forms of bonded labor, in particular indentured servitude, were abolished in early eighteenth-century Virginia, that the enslavement of people of African descent needed to be explained and justified. The notion of race was systematized to justify the unfreedom of Africans alone in a society where legal freedom and equality were becoming the norm. According to Fields:

By the Age of Revolution, English society and its American offspring [shared-CP] … the assumption that the individual is the proprietor of his own person… [This notion—CP] had advanced sufficiently to make bondage a condition for calling for justification and to narrow the basis on which such a justification might rest. Slavery by then could be neither taken for granted nor derived from self-evident general principles. Pro-slavery and antislavery publicists… unconsciously collaborated in locating that basis of the slaves’ presumed incapacity from freedom, an incapacity that crystallized into a racial one and all of its subsequent pseudo-biological trappings.” [63]

While plantation slavery in Virginia was a non-capitalist form of production,[64] it emerged as part of the first process of capitalist colonization.[65] The break through to capitalist agriculture in England in the sixteenth century gave rise to a mass consumer market among prosperous capitalist tenant farmers. Merchants operating outside the declining system of royal monopolies sought to supply this market, initiating plantation production of sugar and tobacco in the English Caribbean and southern North American mainland. While the new merchants were unable to establish capitalist social relations in their colonies, the colonies were extensions of the first capitalist society—the first society where juridical-legal freedom and equality was becoming the norm.

Forms and Variations of Racism

Race and racism did not disappear with the abolition of New World slavery, but instead becomes generalized across the capitalist world. The specific terms of racist ideology, what specific characteristics made some groups superior and others inferior, and the forms of racial oppression varied according to the specific historical forms capitalist social relations and their geographic expansion took. Unfortunately, many critical social scientists have attempted to grasp these variations through the notion of “racial formations.”[66] These typologies often take on a ‘life of their own,” leading to attempts to assign distinctive dynamics to each idealized “racial formation” and a loss of the historical specificity of each set of racist ideologies and practices. Instead, we need to proceed from the abstract understanding of the necessity of racial oppression to capitalist reproduction and expansion, and then move to the concrete, historical specificity of racial oppression in specific, historically constituted capitalist societies.

For example, in the aftermath of the abolition of US plantation slavery, the forms of racism changed because “there is, after all, a profound difference in social meaning between a planter who experiences black people as ungrateful, untrustworthy, and half-witted slaves and a planter who experiences black people as undisciplined, irregular and refractory employees.”[67] Through the history of capitalist imperialism, the racialization of indigenous populations varied according to whether these people were forcibly expelled to make room for “white” settlers (US Native Americans, Australian “Aborigines,” Palestinians, etc.) or were compelled, under varying degrees of legal coercion, to labor for wages for their conquerors (South Africa, part of colonial India, most of Latin America since the early twentieth century, etc.) In the former case, the indigenous populations are seen as inherently incapable of “improving” land in a capitalist manner and must be expropriated and expelled to make room for “civilized” farmers and workers. In the latter case, the indigenous people are seen as having inherently different requirements for social reproduction and commitment to “steady work.”

Under specifically capitalist accumulation and competition, the differentiation of capital and labor spontaneously generates the notion that different groups of workers have unchangeable characteristics, making some inherently more or less “reliable” workers. Both capitalists and workers, especially when working class organizations like unions are weak, utilize race as a way of ordering the access to employment. The constant subdivision and mechanization of tasks characteristic of capitalism, creates a mass of workers in both the active and reserve armies of labor who can perform almost any specific job.[68] Workers and capitalists invent fictional racial “characteristics” to determine who are the most “reliable” and “efficient” workers for different tasks. [69]   At the center of this process of constructing a racial “roadmap of lived experience” is the notion that different “races” have inherently different costs of social reproduction and capacities to produce different quanta of surplus value (inherently different levels of skill, intelligence, motivation, and productivity).

English capitalists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century viewed the Irish, who were being rapidly expropriated by English landlords, as ignorant and crude peasants whose costs of reproduction and capacity for “steady” and skilled work was less than those of English workers. The Irish were deemed suitable only for “pick and shovel” work on the docks, canal and railroad construction, and the most deskilled positions in manufacturing.[70] In the US, capitalists developed an elaborate racial hierarchy of costs of reproduction and work capacities for the Irish in the early nineteenth century and the varied southern and eastern European immigrants in the late nineteenth and twentieth century.[71] As Blacks are expelled from southern agriculture before and during World War I, their purported lower costs of social reproduction and lesser capacities for “disciplined labor’ justified their assignment to the least desirable, lowest skill and most poorly paid work in industry. The racialization of the labor-market is evident in the global South as well, as British and later Arab capitalists assigned different costs of reproduction and laboring capacities to different groups of migrant workers in the Gulf ports.[72]

The process of the racialization of the labor market and reserve armies does not proceed simply “from above”—through the agency of capitalists—but “from below” – through the activity of workers when collective action and organization against capital does not appear viable. Working class racism is rooted in the contradictory position of workers under capitalism: “workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.” [73] As competing sellers of labor power, workers are open to the appeal of politics that pit them against other workers—especially workers in a weaker social position. For example, Skilled artisanal workers in the early nineteenth century US attempt to socially construct themselves as “white” to protect themselves from the pressures of the reserve army of labor and the threat of being easily replaced as capital deskilled their work. Fears of impoverization and deskilling fueled antebellum northern white skilled workers projection “onto Black workers what they still desired in terms of the imagined absence of alienation, even as they bridled at being treated as slaves or ‘white n*ggers.’”[74] By the mid-nineteenth century, competition between for unskilled work in northern cities led to racist pogroms by Irish workers against African Americans, culminating in the bloody “draft riots” in New York and other cities during the Civil War.[75] As the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern cities began before World War I, competition among workers exploded in the “race riots” of 1919, and again in the wave of “hate strikes” during World War II.[76] In the past four decades, the support of a minority of older, white workers for right-wing politicians, beginning with Reagan and culminating in Trump, reflect a similar dynamic[77]. Satnam Virdee[78] traces similar racialized competition stimulating working class racism in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Multi-racial working-class unity will not be produced spontaneously-- it will require the rebuilding a culture and organization of solidarity among workers.[79] Clearly, struggles for universal, class wide demands—higher wages, greater job security, health care (“Medicare for All”) and pensions not tied to employment, etc.—reduce competition among workers and are a necessary, but not sufficient conditions for building a multi-racial workers’ movement. The mainstream of the industrial union movement of the 1930s and 1940s made “color-blind” appears to workers, allowing racial divisions to deepen and contributing to the failure to organize the southern US.[80] Race-specific demands like defunding and disarming the police, ending housing and residential segregation, plant and industry-wide seniority,[81] affirmative action in hiring and promotion, full citizenship rights for all immigrants upon arrival, an end to racial harassment and discrimination on the job, and the like will be essential to building multiracial working class solidarity. The experience of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Negro Labor Congress, the Negro American Labor Council, and Black and Latino caucuses in unions in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrate that a multiracial workers’ movement also requires self-organization by workers of color within the broader labor movement. Finally, non-work place movements against racism, like the uprising of 2020, have radicalized workers and promoted multiracial unity. Put simply, effective class organization and politics—forging working class unity among a racially heterogeneous class—must include anti-racism.


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[1] The author would like to thank two anonymous reviewers, the editors of Historical Materialism, Tithi Bhattacharya, Howard Botwinick, Robert Brenner, David Camfield, Sue Ferguson, Todd Gordon, Kate Doyle-Griffiths, Asad Haider, Paul Heideman, Aaron Jaffe, David McNally, Kim Moody, Richard Seymour, and Lise Vogel, for their comments on earlier versions of this essay. I want to acknowledge, as well, the participants in my “Capitalism, Race and Class” seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center in the Fall of 2016 and Spring of 2020, and in the Graduate Center Political Economy Workshop in November 2018 where many of these ideas were discussed. A special thanks as well to Satnam Virdee, with whom I have debated these issues in other venues. This essay is dedicated to the memory of James A. Geschwender (1933-2020), who taught me how to think about race and class when I was his graduate student at Binghamton.

[2] 2018.

[3]Activist Roundtable, 2020

[4] Chibber 2020 and Guastella 2020.

[5] 1983.

[6] 1995, Chapter 9.

[7] Wallerstein 1974. For a thorough theoretical and historical critique of this approach, see Brenner 1977 and Wood 2002.

[8] Go 2020, pp. 3-4 makes a similar point.

[9] 1995 p. 259.

[10] Arruzza 2015 and 2015.

[11] Hartman 1979

[12] 2000.

[13] 2019.

[14] 2013, Chapter 2.

[15] 2016, pp. 273-274.

[16] 2017, p 17. 

[17] McNally 2017.

[18] Jaffe 2020, Chapter 2020.

[19] 2012.

[20] Roediger and Esch’s understanding of value theory, accumulation, and competition are drawn from Lebowitz 2006.

[21] The notion that structures both compel and enable agents to act in determinant ways is drawn from Callinicos 2006.

[22] Julian Go’s attempt to resolve the tensions in Robinson’s account of racial capitalism suffers from a similar problem. Go deploys David Harvey’s (2014) distinction between “Marx’s theory of capital and his theory of capitalism.” The theory of “capital” in the Grundrisse and Capital works at level of abstraction that cannot account for “categories of race, gender, or ethnicity… because they are too concrete.” (Go 2020, p. 5) By contrast, Marx’s theory of “capitalism” refers to attempts to deploy his theory of “capital” to explain concrete historical developments, including racial oppression. However, Go argues that the relationship of capitalism and racism remain historical and contingent, because it is not possible “to deduce, from the categories of Marx’s theory [of Capital—CP], the necessity of racism or racial differentiations in society.” Harvey’s distinction between a “theory of capital” and a “theory of capitalism” confuses scientific abstraction with the construction of ideal types, which makes a rigorous relationship between theory and history impossible. See Post 2021 for a more detailed exposition of these issues in another context.

[23] Vogel 2013, pp. 151,159.

[24] Legally coerced wage labor continues to be reproduced through capitalist accumulation and competition, in particular in branches of social production where capital relies on highly skilled labor or must pay wages often below the cost of social reproduction to remain competitive and profitable. See Post 2016.

[25] DuBois 1920, Chapter IV. See Melchor 2019 for a discussion of DuBois’ belief that labor-market competition made interracial labor unionism impossible in the US prior to World War II.

[26] 1920, pp. 66-67.

[27] 1948.

[28] Drawing on the work of Cox, Raju (2021) makes a powerful critique of recent attempts to equate caste and racial oppression. Charissee Burden-Stelly (2020) defends Cox’s rejection of the equation of race and caste against Isabel Wilkerson (2020).

[29] 2007, pp. 70-78. Bhattacharyya’s (2018, p. 5) analysis of racial capitalism, despite its reliance on notions of intersectionality, also highlight the way in which capitalist accumulation produces “edge populations” of the unemployed and underemployed globally, whose “racialization… arises retrospectively as a result of marginalization from structures of production and/or the formal labor market… the fiction of race springs up, conveniently and almost spontaneously, to give rationale to the exigencies of capital.”

[30] This version of Marxism, which is rooted in the “systematization” of Marxism by the Second International, continues to shape the approach of both “productive forces” Marxists like G.A. Cohen (1980) and “structural” Marxist of the Althusserian school. This approach mars Hall’s (1980) provocative, but ultimately disappointing attempt to theorize racism.

[31] See Wood 1995, Part I and LaFrance 2021, pp. 85-92.

[32] Wood 1995, pp.25-26.

[33] Our approach to ideology is indebted to the work of Fields, 1990, pp. 110-113.

[34] McNally 2015.

[35] Shaikh 2016, Botwinick 2018

[36] A similar point, derived from Shaikh’s work, is made in Chibber 2013 pp. 133-137, 145-147.

[37] 2016, p. 14.

[38] Botwinick 2018, Chapter 3.

[39] Friedman 1984.

[40] The original formulation of the physical separation of inter-generational and day-to-day reproduction of labor power as the basis of migratory labor system was in Buroway 1976. For a recent deployment of this argument in social reproduction theory see Ferguson and McNally 2014.

[41]This argument should not be confused with ‘dual economy’ theories that posit a “core” with permanently higher profits and wages than the “peripheral” regions of the economy. See Botwinick 2018, Chapters 5-7 for a detailed argument on how the “turbulent regulation” of profit rates, profit margins and wage rates through real capitalist competition prevent any branch of production or individual capital from permanently retaining its “core” position

[42] For a thorough review and critique of the recent literature on primitive accumulation see Roberts 2017.

[43] Marx 1976, p. 873.

[44] Blackburn 1997, Chapter XII details how the profits from Absolutist France’s slave colonies flowed into the purchase of feudal estates and venal office, while only the profits from capitalist England’s’ slave colonies were accumulated as productive capital.

[45] Brenner 1977 and Wood 2002.

[46] Marx 1976, p. 875.

[47] Marx 1976, Chapter 6.

[48] 1910 pp. 83-86.

[49] 1976 p. 280.

[50] This is account of specifically capitalist imperialism is based on Wood 2003, Chapters 4-6.

[51] Jessica Evans (2018), working from a similar understanding of capitalist imperialism, analyzes how the Canadian transition to capitalist agriculture in the mid-nineteenth century led to the racialization of the indigenous people as a group “incapable” of “improving” landed property. Bonnett 1998 traces how European imperialist expansion transformed non-European forms of differentiating people, racializing non-Europeans as non-white and inherently inferior. Other works, which do not share our understanding of capitalist imperialism have produced insightful descriptions of the ways in which capitalist colonization has led to the racialization of non-Europeans in a variety of frameworks. See Bhandar 2018, Bhattacharrya 2018, Lentin 2020, Wolfe 2016.

[52] Such “permanent and unchangeable” characteristics are often viewed as biological. However, in the post-World War II era racial differences became “inherited and unchangeable” cultural characteristics. While liberal discourses of “assimilation” and “diversity” often call on the racially oppressed to adapt the cultural characteristics of “whites” (“pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”), the structural obstacles to the majority of those constituted as “non-white” to become “respectable” leads to liberal despair about “cultures of poverty.” See Steinberg 1989, Party Two Introduction and Chapter 4 for a discussion of ‘culture’ in racist discourses in the second half of the Twentieth Century. 

[53] Virdee 2014 provides an account of “non-color coded” racism in Britain. Roediger 2005 brilliantly charts the shifting boundaries of race among European immigrant workers in the 20th century US.

[54] 1983.

[55] Isaac 2004.

[56] Isaac 2009 p. 42.

[57] Snowden 1983, Chapter 4.

[58] Wood 2003, Chapters 2-3.

[59] 2020 pp. 3-4

[60] I want to thank David Camfield bringing this to my attention.

[61] Herring Tore’s, et al, 2012, and Nirenberg 2009.

[62] Morgan 1975, Fields 1990, Virdee 2018 pp. 11-15. Many Marxists embrace Theodore Allen’s (1995 and 1997) claims in his that racism emerges simultaneously in Colonial Virginia and during the English colonization of Ireland. However, as David Camfield has pointed out in comments on an earlier version of this essay, the oppression of Irish Catholics was not racial—if they converted to Protestantism, they would enjoy the same rights as other Irish Protestants.

[63] Fields 1982 pp. 161-162.

[64] Post 2012, Chapter 3.

[65] Wood 2003, Chapters 4-5; Brenner 1993, Part One.

[66] Omi and Winant 2015.

[67]Fields 1990 pp. 154-155.

[68] Braverman 1974. Unfortunately, most readers of Braverman’s masterpiece tend to equate deskilling with the homogenization of labor. Braverman himself was quite clear that the tendency to deskill work constantly differentiates work.

[69] I am deeply indebted to Kim Moody for much of the following.

[70] Virdee 2015, pp. 26-27, 34-37; Virdee 2018, pp. 15-18

[71] Roediger and Esch 2012, Roediger 2005.

[72] Khalili 2020, p. 185.

[73] Brenner and Brenner 1981, p. 31.

[74] Roediger 2019, p. 68.

[75] Ignatiev 1995, Bernstein 2010.

[76] Wolfinger 2009.

[77] Post 2017.

[78] 2014

[79] Chibber 2017.

[80] Goldfield 2020.

[81] Nelson 2001, Chapters 5-7, demonstrates how the CIO’s acceptance of departmental seniority set the stage for the reproduction of racial divisions among steel workers and other organized industrial workers in the post-war period.