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The Pursuit of Despair: How Capitalism Perpetuates Hierarchies


On Wednesday, February 28th, the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism held its signature event of the year: a roundtable featuring Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard Walter Johnson, Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at UCLA Robin Kelley, and Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Tufts University Lisa Lowe. Each scholar offered their own perspective on the legacy of racial capitalism and challenged what we know about capitalism’s effect on race and gender relations.

The roundtable consisted primarily of each professor giving a presentation outlining their thoughts about racial capitalism.

Walter Johnson: Capitalism, Slavery, and Native American Dispossession

Johnson, whose most recent book River of Dark Dreams challenges the notion that the slaveholding South was pre-capitalistic, noted that there has been a renewed interest in capitalism’s relationship to slavery. At the same time, he reiterated that this topic is not new to scholars: in the twentieth century, W.E.B. DuBois, Eric Williams, and Cedric Robinson all explored capitalism and its relationship to systems of subordination.

He also emphasized the idea that white racism goes beyond mere economic exploitation. That is to say, whites have historically received something else from acts of racism, some other form of compensation beyond monetary gain. Johnson pointed to the gleeful faces of white supremacists in Charlottesville as evidence that this phenomenon continues in the present.

Johnson ended by discussing his forthcoming work on the history of 19th-century St. Louis. He described St. Louis as a “nexus of racial capitalism and US imperialism before the Civil War,” and argued that future works on racial capitalism must consider the dispossession of Native Americans, and how this was tied to the desire to give land to white yeoman farmers. Indeed, expulsion is, along with enslavement, key to understanding racial capitalism.


Robin Kelley: Capitalism and the Origins of Subordination

Robin Kelley’s presentation further emphasized the subordinating effect of capitalism. He argued that race and gender are not “incidental features of the global capitalist order,” and that instead, capitalism itself emerged as a raced and gendered machine. For Kelley, “the secret to capitalism’s survival is racism,” because it ensures that there will always be a subordinate class of people who’s labor enrichens those who control the means of production.

Kelley also delved into the history of racial capitalism as a concept, noting that it first emerged in South Africa during the apartheid regime. As one might suspect, the apartheid regime viewed racial capitalism as a positive, being more than happy to describe themselves as “racial capitalists.”

As a student of Cedric Robinson, Kelley also took to clarifying some of his mentor’s arguments (Robinson’s book, Black Marxism, served as one of the inspirations for the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism). For Robinson, capitalism was not something that broke from feudalism, as was argued by Marx, but something that evolved from it. It thus becomes easier to understand why the perpetuation of hierarchy defines capitalism to such a large extent.


Lisa Lowe: Capitalism, Gender, and the Shadow Processes of Social Reproduction

Last to speak was Lisa Lowe, who emphasized the importance of racial capitalism in terms of its potential to create a more accurate historiography. She criticized most histories as being “liberal histories of progress,” which blind people to the realities of the world. One such reality, she contended, is that “Trumpism” is more of a baseline of American democracy than an aberration.

For Lowe, gendered racial capitalism is linked to colonialism, slavery, the exploitation of migrant labor, and other forms of subordination. One of the effects of global capitalism has thus been to divide people of different races and cultures for the benefit of Europeans.

How does racial capitalism continue to exist if it’s so deleterious to so many people? Lowe blames social reproduction, i.e. the “shadow processes” of capitalistic production that lead us to continually think in raced and gendered terms, which then reproduces a raced and gendered world. For us to properly combat this phenomenon, the idea of “social reproduction” must be, according to Lowe, more properly theorized by scholars.

After the presentations, the roundtable took questions from the audience. The first, and perhaps most controversial, addressed Johnson, Kelley, and Lowe’s tendency to speak of Marxism as something that we’ve moved beyond as a means to criticize capitalism. The question was thus primarily concerned that scholars might be seeking solutions to ending capitalism that are watered down compared to the “revolution” prescribed by Marx.

To the contrary, noted Johnson, Kelley, and Lowe, they don’t see themselves as throwing out Marxism. Rather, they wish to complicate Marxism, specifically in how it defines the “class subject.” They also see themselves as broadening the definition of capitalism, which Marx conceived of as primarily relating to business.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, another audience member asked the panel why they think socialism would do any better than capitalism in terms of managing race and gender relations, given the fate of the Soviet Union. They responded by noting that the U.S.S.R. was more capitalistic in function than it was Marxist, and that our inability to “imagine human freedom outside of the terms of capitalism and imperialism” is part of the problem. Kelley put it most succinctly by reminding the audience that “we’re addicted to these systems of subordination that we have to imagine ourselves out of.”

The last question, specifically directed to Kelley, asked what we should be doing to make progress in the age of Trump. Kelley stated that the best solution is to remind ourselves that we are “always in a state of exception,” and that while we shouldn’t dismiss Trump, we need to put him and the white supremacy he’s inspired in the proper historical context. He added that it’s impossible to know in the moment what will later be remembered as the prime issue of our age, whether it be indigenous struggles, prison abolition, anti-police violence, etc. What’s truly crucial, he emphasized, is that we be ready for anything.

The last Mellon Research Initiative Event for Winter Quarter, a research forum intended to help scholars determine how their projects are related to racial capitalism, will take place this Wednesday, March 7th at 4:00pm in Voorhies 126.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History


This page was last updated: March 5, 2018



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