What is racial capitalism?
Racial capitalism is a way of thinking about the ways in which systemic racialised violence has been at the heart of capitalist development from the earliest moments of pre-capitalism, and that racism within capitalism is not an incidental aside but is absolutely core to the mechanics and logics of capitalism and capitalist development across its different phases.
It’s a way of thinking that I always say is more of a question than an answer. It's a question about the ways in which capitalism as a system wrecks all our lives but wrecks them differently.
It’s a way of asking questions about the different kinds of wreckage and the connections between the different kinds of wreckage. A lot of the more canonical work looks at the wreckage that happens differently between enslavement, industrialisation and colonialism. Racial capitalism as a question increasingly looks at the ways in which racial hierarchies assist capital to infect all our lives, but in ways that leave us still divided from each other.
The standard story of capitalism kind of foregrounds particular kinds of oppression — exploitation and domination in waged work — how does thinking through or with racial capitalism change how we understand oppression and the dynamics of capitalism?
Thinking about racial capitalism allows us to see, I think, the ways in which not everybody is being siphoned towards eventually becoming a wage labourer. For a long time, there has been an implicit story about how capitalism can’t help itself — it must make all of us into wage labourers eventually. Now, actually, human history is showing that that is not really how capital spreads its tentacles, and it spreads differently, meaning that the wage itself becomes something different. So, the question of racial capitalism helps us to spot the differentiations that are being made, even as people are incorporated into different moments of the capitalist economy differently. Capital still expands, capital still seeks to colonise new spaces, capital still rushes around the world, looking for ways to fix the problem of over-accumulation. However, as it does that, it doesn’t do it by making us all the same kind of wage labourer. Once you start to think that you can think a little bit more openly about, alongside wage labour, what other kinds of extractive relation happen both within one life and also across different lives and populations? You can think a little bit more about how within the space of wagedness itself, there are differentiations that subordinate some people more or spit people out of the wage economy more and less or make people more and less vulnerable and differentiated within that.
The question of racial capitalism helps us to spot the differentiations that are being made, even as people are incorporated into different moments of the capitalist economy differently. Capital still expands, capital still seeks to colonise new spaces, capital still rushes around the world, looking for ways to fix the problem of over-accumulation. However, as it does that, it doesn’t do it by making us all the same kind of wage labourer.
You can think too about — and I don’t like this work as much, but there is a whole load of work about it — the psychic machineries of racial capitalism, about the ways in which people can be anchored to quite unpleasant lives on the basis that they're still not as unpleasant as some other people’s lives. That’s the whole wages of whiteness discourse, which has, of course, really important strands. But I don’t think that racial capitalism works by, first of all, saying to the racially privileged “Hate those others”, I think it's much more of a material and mechanistic and strong structural set of issues rather than an affective one. I think the affective stuff is less and less important, and so very varied.
It seems important that in the everyone will be accumulated into wage labour story or at least some version of it, that the hierarchies will break down and there will be an equalising effect. Of course, not equality in the sense that we are interested in, but a form of equality, nevertheless. But it seems important to think about the ways in which those various differentiations of race, gender, between countries and so on, are resilient, perhaps because of the ways in which they are beneficial to capital.
Absolutely. It’s difficult because it’s talking about the unconscious of our collective movements, or the half-spoken of our collective movements. David Harvey tweeted something about this recently, really helpfully, saying something like “We should have stopped being fixated by the idea of the industrial working class a long time ago, certainly since the Paris Commune, because of the variety of sites of class struggle, of course, but also about the terms of life and other non-waged kind of encounters.” I think that it's helpful for someone like him to say it overtly again because it reminds us of what it is that we’re fighting about.
But despite that, I do think that it's really core to broad anti-capitalist thought that capital cannot help but make us more like each other, that have some kind of homogenising effect whether or not we centre the wage. I’m not convinced that we have a way of thinking about what our collective power against capital is, without quietly somewhere in the back of our heads thinking, “Because capital cannot help but bring us together”. Now, if we start to ask the question, but only what if capital really is quite happy about not bringing us together, as long as there are certain disciplinary techniques of what our not-togetherness means. Again, not only not in an affective way, but in a structural — structural is the wrong word, but structural is the best word I've got for it — way. That then changes our challenge, or at least requires an adjustment of how we think about how we mobilise, how we see each other, and what the nature of the beast is.
What might that practically or strategically guide movements toward in addition to changing our conception of capitalism?
I think we're in a moment, in lots of spaces, and certainly in Britain and Northern Europe, in a space of quite exciting but desperate survival politics of different kinds. Many people, certainly across the non-aligned left are having a reckoning with what it truly means to encounter this moment of climate catastrophe, state authoritarianism, and a moment of economic crisis in which capital once again, tells us with far more force and violence that many of you are dispensable and incidental to how capital might remake itself. That combination of forces which will lead to death, death and destruction are pushing lots of different people into slightly desperate but urgent, life-affirming forms of politics which we might, even if only a few years ago have thought of as more divided issues or concerns. I think it’s almost not possible anymore to think about anti-bordering politics apart from climate catastrophe politics, whereas I feel like a decade ago, not that people didn't know, but in the kind of day-to-day street politic that wasn't so centred, whereas now that's immediately in the how people are thinking, and it changes what people choose to do and who they choose to make links with and what we think the trajectory of our political vision is.
There is a different openness to what the urgency of survival means in a location but also looking across locations. I think that's one bit that the question of racial capitalism opens; it says that, as we fight for our lives, we must learn to be alert to people fighting for our lives in ways that are nothing like the ways that we are fighting for our lives.
What is the division between productive and non- or unproductive labour? How did this division come to exist?
I say productive and non-productive, because I think unproductive makes it sound as if it’s all leisure, but I think for our understanding, it's important to at least have a shorthand to talk about things: ways of remaking the world that feed the beast of capital, and ways of remaking the world that we must undertake to live, some of which remake the beast of capital, some of which don’t. It’s the ones that don’t that are non-productive work, but they’re still the remaking of life for all of us. Of course, productive work doesn't necessarily imply the wage because we know there are all kinds of forced work that has been absolutely central to the formal economy and has built the formal economy as we know it. But at the same time now, we've been moving for some decades into a space where what, in another time, we might have called the informal economy suddenly captures more and more space.
Now the informal economy is all a bit unclear — is the informal economy parasitic on the real economy? Is the informal economy an outcome now it clearly is in some spaces, but economists ask, is it an outcome of particular political arrangements that stratify the labour force? Is the informal economy partly a catch-all to talk about spaces of transition where the formal economy cannot sustain all of the life that is in that space?
We’ve already entered a time when the formal economy and productive economy are nothing like capacious enough to sustain life on the planet. When I say capacious enough, I know we’re meant to say, “Oh, there’s enough stuff, it’s just a problem of distribution”. That’s true. But the thing that we think of as the beast of capital that wants to eat us all and incorporate us all is not remaking itself in a way that’s incorporating all populations, if anything, it seems the balance between those who are partially incorporated or not incorporated at all, and those who are becoming something like wage-workers is shifting so that already half the world is not incorporated in the wage economy, and it's going to become more. It's highly skewed in terms of age, too, so younger people are much more likely to be in various forms of informalised economic sectors in the broader sense. And, of course, younger people are looking at life trajectories in which living your life cannot be easily refracted through a story of lifetime work. We're seeing that in the global north now as well. You've been seeing in the Global South for decades and decades; now, it is so very apparent in the metropolis as well.
It's quite hard to build our politics around only safeguarding the productive economy. Some of what we're seeing in workers' struggles in the Global North are about that now; some of the worker struggles around varieties of gig and precarious work about shifting what we think of as the productive economy and where our sites of struggle are.
Historically, saying some kinds of work are non-productive has been a way of enabling a greater stealing of value from the social reproduction of subordinated groups. That's what some of my work is about — partly how the question of racial capitalism has worked through a whole range of forces, economic and political, and through state violence and informal violence, rendering some people less able to access their humaneness, engaging in the capitalist economy through sometimes-wagedness or less than wagedness, and alongside that, to have kind of mechanisms that, in effect, give more of the value of social reproduction to the capitalist economy.
Historically, saying some kinds of work are non-productive has been a way of enabling a greater stealing of value from the social reproduction of subordinated groups. That's what some of my work is about — partly how the question of racial capitalism has worked through a whole range of forces, economic and political, and through state violence and informal violence, rendering some people less able to access their humaneness...
I’m riffing off Maria Mies there. When she talks about housewifeisation, she's really talking about that. She's not really talking about the domestic labour debate as we might have thought of it, or as other people in that moment did. She's not really interested in housework; she's saying there's something about how global capital strips value out of households, who never even have the small protections and incorporations of being in the waged economy. Housewifisation is the process to think about what does it mean, when I’m trying to just do the various things I need to do to keep my family fed, and capital — in different ways — finds ways of taking some of that from us, not only because I remade a worker, in fact, I might not even be remaking a worker, but through a whole other set of processes of incorporation and extractivism.
Could you talk about the processes of stratification in the British labour force? Particularly in relation to the legacy of Empire and the hostile environment.
There’s a very important and well-documented history of the ways in which Britain's long colonial history then shapes its labour force through the twentieth century and beyond. This is highly mediated through bordering practices which extend imperial power in that Britain is still both bringing in and inviting — all invited in are my parents’ generation — populations to be an overtly subordinated workforce. That's one bit of racial capitalism, that has different mechanisms to attribute arbitrary status that can stratify the labour force differently. Race is one, race-plus-bordering is even more resilient, one harder, and less re-makeable through internal legislation around equality. That’s what we’ve lived through in the last 40/50 years; an overt way of saying you just are lesser and we're allowed to say you're lesser because of your visa status or your route of entry. That's compounded by a much longer history around racialisation — you are this kind of person and people like you can only do this. We have informal ways within certain labour markets to say that you people can't do this job or when you do, you can't be paid as much, or we will just have an ongoing set of semi-formal disciplinary processes, which ensure that people like you are always paid somewhat less and that somehow works for us.
Part of the question is why that is such a good thing for capital, because it happens everywhere, and it happens around different populations. But the arbitrary differentiation of the labour force around markers such as religion, race, ethnicity, and region, seems common across locations. Britain has its own history of that, but other places have got things that are similar, but not quite the same.
Through the 70s and 80s, the British left, the bits of the British left that I'm interested in, that whole trajectory through cultural studies, was interested in how the spectre of race was used as a response to a very serious crisis of global capital: Britain is in the shit, the IMF comes in and says to Britain, “What kind of former imperial power are you can't even manage your balance of payments, what's going on here”. And there's a bit of a freefall and the success of the global right project. We shouldn’t forget that gains were made in the post-War period —even if they're differential games, but the gains of welfare and health and education, they were battled for. I think, sometimes now, because they are clearly also built on the back of colonial expropriation, that perhaps we too quickly say that they're all dirtied, that they were fought-for things, but they were fought for in a landscape which also was underpinned by colonial expropriation. But we need to be able to think both of those things at once. Anyway, in the 70s and 80s, that was all being rolled back very, very quickly and actively. We're still seeing the tail end of that in all of the extreme crises and rapid attacks on living standards and the ability to live at all. The terms of racial capitalism matter in terms of different kinds of sewing together of the machinery of what the British economy is, and what British politics is, both in the idea that these people, all of us second-generationers are kind of disturbance within the national psyche and in the economic psyche. Lots of things about who is unemployable? Or will this generation of people ever be employed? People really felt in the 80s that we would never work, that there was no way that we could be incorporated. And then the theatricalisation of the national fears about what it means to go from being a moderately stable industrial power that is never quite acknowledging that that stability is always built on the backs of people and across the globe, to no longer being one, to that collapsing very quickly. And then being told there’s a racialised battle about law and order and a racialised battle about decent work.
Now, I think we're in a phase in which the machineries of racial capitalism have remade the labour market. And this is exactly what black trade unionists always said: the reason why the white labour movement should care about what black and brown trade unionists say about organising is because we are the canary in the coal mine of the erasure of labour standards. It happens first with the migrant, with the racially subordinated, with the arbitrarily disempowered, and made vulnerable set of workers. It's a kind of reading ahead of what racial capitalism is doing.
Today we see an open deregulation of all sectors of the labour market, including into formerly professional sectors: the normalisation of terms of employment that don't even admit that their employment, again extending far beyond the big players that we talk about, you see that across what is left of public services, you certainly see it in all kinds of corporate sector. You see the breaking of all work into series of tasks, and again, that is stolen from the non-productive economy.
There are traces of what we think of as the wage but the things that even 30 years ago or 40 years ago we might have battled around, about what can be regulated about our lives, but battling around that has become very difficult because the other side has temporarily won that battle. I think they’ve made it very hard for us to make the same claims as we would have made in an earlier moment of the labour movement.
So now actually, some of the innovations that we're seeing around labour organising are about what is it to organise if we are deemed to be part of the non-productive economy.
What do you understand democracy at work to mean? Are there any horizons or moments that it suggests for you?
I love it as a way of thinking. Our current Vice Chancellor — one of the first things they did when they came was to have all of the senior management of that time write in felt-tip on this big statement “We are not a democracy, this workplace is not a democracy”. So, the terms of democratic voice in the workplace do matter to the other side, and we shouldn't think, “Oh, that's all liberal stuff”.
It’s part of the terrain of struggle. What is left of the regulation of workplaces — issues around health and safety and equality, even just issues like enforcing contract — those do require something like an engagement with democratic processes.
Now, however much our bosses might hold to their kind of feudal fantasy — which I think really I only truly understood when the Queen died, and then you suddenly understand that all these bosses, they think that they are kind of offshoots of the royal family and that's kind of built into British class psyches — however much they want to say “Of with your head, off you go”, this isn't how the organising of any organisations, small or large, can happen.
So, the terms of what democracy is for our side is quite important. I think the job of the labour movement is always to wrest back control of the workplace. I don't think it is about a moment of contract with the employer. Of course, that's one moment, and that's a space in which, because of the legislative framework and how work is structured, much of our noisiest work does.
But really, the objective of the labour movement is to steal back control of the workplace to make our lives liveable, as we move towards freedom. Now, that happens slightly differently in different kinds of workplaces. But it's always a version of finding ways of saying, doesn't matter who sits in the top office, we are the workers, we are this working organisation, we together must decide how it happens. And of course, some older, I say older, but coming back ways of organising are ways of just enacting workplace democracy, things about what we will touch, how quickly we will work, things which bypass and just trade union law because they're built into the practices of what it is to collaboratively work together, which managers are never really part of. Even the employers that divide their workforce all over the place, they'll never see each other really, we're talking about a collaborative machine to make an output. But also, I think, within that, to try and think about subversive and imaginative uses of employee voice.
The job of the labour movement is always to wrest back control of the workplace. I don't think it is about a moment of contract with the employer. Of course, that's one moment, and that's a space in which, because of the legislative framework and how work is structured, much of our noisiest work does. But really, the objective of the labour movement is to steal back control of the workplace to make our lives liveable, as we move towards freedom.
We’re also seeing all kinds of innovations and the return to varieties of workers’ inquiry. Certainly, the insertion of different social media forms into workplace organising, all of that is about saying, Whose voice counts? Who is really the voice of this, this community, this, this collective? I think it's the right place or one of the right places for us to put our energies and to think about what matters.
But of course, and I'm sure you know, this, there's always that danger of that kind of language being recaptured into highly proceduralist partnership. It has to be a bigger aspiration than having lunch twice a year with your CEO. You may or may not wish to do that for propaganda reasons. But that's not what workplace democracy is, what the prize is.
What’s a book on work that people don't read enough that they should?
Rather than don't read enough, I think there’s really interesting and exciting series of quite recent books, including your own, Lost in Work, which are clearly speaking to a very changing politics of work.
There's part of me that loves the longer history of the labour movement, and I am a bit of a labour movement nerd. But I also think, for a long time, we wrote about, and shared our knowledge about the history and present of the labour movement in an overly worthy and overly scholarly way — the kind of stuff of an evening local history course or not attentive to what we need to do now. But now there are things like your book, Eve Livingston's book, Make Bosses Pay, and I'm just reading Lydia Hughes and Jamie Woodcock’s book, Troublemaking, and Workers Can Win by Ian Allison too.
Something’s going on in how people are thinking about an analytic but not an academic writing, it’s also part of how we see each other, which I also think is part of the question of racial capitalism, because the question of racial capitalism says, we're all involved in the same struggle, but capital makes it hard for us to see that. So our analytic resources — which are not only about writing a book for my employer or getting REF’ed — but rather having an analytic language that is adequate to the challenge for us in different places.
I think this feels to me at my age, quite a sudden explosion of quite a few different things in different ways that are both attentive to the challenges of organising and attentive to what really is work in our moment. And of course, too, Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back. Lots and lots of different people are reading these things. Because, again, god bless them and I don't want to be rude — some of these people are my friends! — but 20 years ago the idea that anyone who wasn’t an industrial relations scholar or a trade union full-timer — would be writing or reading about work like that would have been very unusual. So these are ways of writing about the politics of work that can speak across different interests. And that's a collective project. It’s not just read this particular book or that particular one, but read one of them, any one of them would be a good start.