Listening to Black lives matter: racial capitalism and the critique of neoliberalism

Abstract

This article explores left critiques of neoliberalism in light of the Black Lives Matter movement’s (BLM) recourse to the notion of ‘racial capitalism’ in their analyses of anti-Black oppression. Taking a cue from BLM, I argue for a critical theory of racial capitalism that historicizes neoliberalism within a longue durée framework, surfacing racialized continuities in capitalism’s violence. I begin by revealing how neo-Marxist and neo-Foucaultian approaches to neoliberalism, particularly that of David Harvey and Wendy Brown, respectively, partition race from the workings of contemporary capitalism. Such analyses obscure neoliberalism’s differential impact on non-white racialized populations, while simultaneously casting anti-racist struggles as divisive. In contrast, I then trace how the Movement for Black Lives policy platform invokes Cedric Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, investigating the utility of this framework for the movement’s demands. Building on BLM’s turn to the concept of racial capitalism, I finally offer an outline of a critical theory of racial capitalism to better theorize neoliberalism. By historicizing neoliberalism within racial capitalism’s historical arc, such a theory unravels the qualitatively different mechanisms through which racialized populations are pressed into circuits of capital accumulation. It also paves the way to move past the entrenched class-versus-identity debate on the American left.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Alvarez, S., Dagnino, E., & Escobar, A. (1998) Introduction: The Cultural and the Political in Latin American Social Movements. In Cultures of politics/politics of cultures: Re-visioning Latin American social movements. Westview Press.

  2. Banaji, J. (2003) The fictions of free labour: Contract, coercion, and so-called unfree labour. Historical Materialism 11(3): 69–95.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Baptist, E. (2014) The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

  4. Beckert, S. (2014) Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Vintage.

  5. Bhattacharyya, G. (2018) Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield International.

  6. Bohrer, A. (2020) Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism. Transcript-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Brown, W. (2015) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books.

  8. Brown, W. (2016) Sacrificial citizenship: Neoliberalism, human capital, and austerity politics. Constellations 23(1): 3–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Brown, W. (2019) In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. New York: Columbia University Press.

  10. Casas-Cortés, M., Osterweil, M. and Powell, D. (2008) Blurring boundaries: Recognizing knowledge-practices in the study of social movements. Anthropological Quarterly 81(1): 17–58.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Chakravartty, P. and Silva, D. da. (2012) Accumulation, dispossession, and debt: The racial logic of global capitalism—An introduction. American Quarterly 64(3): 361–385.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Chen, C. (2013) The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality. Endnotes. https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality.

  13. Combahee River Collective. (1983) A Black Feminist Statement. In: B. Smith (ed.) Home girls: A Black feminist anthology. Kitchen Table–Women of Color Press, pp. 264–27.

  14. Coulthard, G. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (First Edition). University of Minnesota Press.

  15. Cox, L. (2014) Movements making knowledge: A new wave of inspiration for sociology? Sociology 48(5): 954–971.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Dahl, A. (2018) Empire of the People: Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

  17. Davis, A. (1971) Reflections on the Black Woman’s role in the community of slaves. The Black Scholar 3(4): 2–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Davis, A. (1983) Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Dawson, M. (2016) Hidden in plain sight: A note on legitimation crises and the racial order. Critical Historical Studies 3(1): 143–161.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Dawson, M. and Francis, M. (2016) Black politics and the neoliberal racial order. Public Culture 28(1 78): 23–62.

  21. Day, I. (2015) Being or nothingness: Indigeneity, antiblackness, and settler colonial critique. Critical Ethnic Studies 1(2): 102–121.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Dean, J. (2015) Radicalism restored? Communism and the end of left melancholia. Contemporary Political Theory 14(3): 234.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1998) Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Free Press.

  24. Dubilet, A. (2015) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Syndicate. https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/seventeen-contradictions-and-the-end-of-capitalism/.

  25. Duménil, G., and Lévy, D. (2004) Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  26. Duménil, G., and Lévy, D. (2011) The Crisis of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  27. Ehrenreich, B., and Muhammad, D. (2009, September 12) Opinion | The Recession’s Racial Divide. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/opinion/13ehrenreich.html.

  28. Federici, S. (2004) Caliban and the witch. New York: Autonomedia.

  29. Foucault, M. (2010) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979 (Reprint edition). Picador.

  30. Fraser, N. (2014) Behind Marx’s hidden abode. New Left Review 86: 55–72.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Fraser, N. (2016) Expropriation and exploitation in racialized capitalism: A reply to Michael Dawson. Critical Historical Studies 3(1): 163–178.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Garza, A. (2014, October 7) A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. The Feminist Wire. https://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

  33. Harris, C.I. (1993) Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review 106(8): 1707–1791.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Hartman, S. (2016) The belly of the world: A note on Black women’s labors. Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture & Society 18(1): 166–173.

  35. Harvey, D. (2007) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

  36. Harvey, D. (2010). The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

  37. Harvey, D. (2015a) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Reprint edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

  38. Harvey, D. (2015b) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Syndicate. https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/seventeen-contradictions-and-the-end-of-capitalism/.

  39. Heng, G. (2018) The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press.

  40. Hudis, P. (2018). Racism and the Logic of Capital: A Fanonian Reconsideration. Historical Materialism, 26(2), 199–220

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Hudson, P. (2016) The Racist Dawn of Capitalism. Boston Review. http://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/peter-james-hudson-slavery-capitalism.

  42. Hudson, P. (2018) Racial Capitalism and the Dark Proletariat. Boston Review. https://bostonreview.net/forum/remake-world-slavery-racial-capitalism-and-justice/peter-james-hudson-racial-capitalism-and.

  43. Ince, O. (2017) Between Equal Rights: Primitive Accumulation and Capital’s Violence. Political Theory.

  44. James, C. L. R. (1989) The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (2 edition). London: Vintage.

  45. Johnson, W. (2013) River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  46. Kelley, R. (2017) What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism? [Text]. Boston Review. http://bostonreview.net/race/robin-d-g-kelley-what-did-cedric-robinson-mean-racial-capitalism.

  47. Lazzarato, M. (2015) Governing by debt (J. D. Jordan, Trans.). Semiotext.

  48. Lazzarato, M. (2012) The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (J. D. Jordan, Trans.). Semiotext.

  49. Lloyd, D. and Wolfe, P. (2016) Settler colonial logics and the neoliberal regime. Settler Colonial Studies 6(2): 109–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Lowe, L. (2015) The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books.

  51. Lugones, M. (2007) Heterosexualism and the colonial/modern gender system. Hypatia 1: 186.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Manning, F. (2015) Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Syndicate. https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/seventeen-contradictions-and-the-end-of-capitalism/

  53. Markell, P. (2017) Neoliberalism’s uneven revolution: Reflections on Wendy Brown’s undoing the demos. Theory & Event 20(2): 520–527.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Melamed, J. (2015). Racial capitalism. Critical Ethnic Studies 1(1): 76–85.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Mies, M. (2014) Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed Books.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  56. Mignolo, W. (2005) The Idea of Latin America. New York: Blackwell Pub.

  57. Mills, C. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  58. Moore, J. (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.

  59. Morgan, J. (2004) Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  60. Myers, E. (2017) Beyond the Wages of Whiteness: Du Bois on the Irrationality of Antiblack Racism. Items. http://items.ssrc.org/beyond-the-wages-of-whiteness-du-bois-on-the-irrationality-of-antiblack-racism/

  61. Nichols, R. (2015) Disaggregating primitive accumulation. Radical Philosophy 194.

  62. Olson, J. (2004) Abolition Of White Democracy (1 edition). Minnesota, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  63. Omi, M. and Winant, H. (2014) Racial Formation in the United States (3rd edition). London: Routledge.

  64. Porta, D. della and Pavan, E. (2017) Repertoires of knowledge practices: Social movements in times of crisis. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal.

  65. Post, C. (2012) The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620-1877. Haymarket Books.

  66. Quijano, A. (2000) Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America (M. Ennis, Trans.). Nepantla: Views from South 1(3): 533–580.

  67. Ransby, B. (2018) Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century (First edition). University of California Press.

  68. Robinson, C. (2000) Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Oakland, CA: University of North Carolina Press.

  69. Roediger, D. (2007) The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso.

  70. Roediger, D. (2017) Class, Race and Marxism. London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Singh, N. (2016) On race, violence, and so-called primitive accumulation. Social Text 34(3): 27–50.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Singh, N. (2017) Race and America’s Long War. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  73. Soss, J., Fording, R., and Schram, S. (2011) Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  74. Speak Out Now. (2016, October 23) Robin Kelley: Revisiting Black Marxism in the Wake of Black Lives Matter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxRuTQZAT2Y&t=2736s.

  75. Spence, L. (2015) Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Punctum Books.

  76. Taylor, K. (2016) From #BlackLivesMatter to Black liberation. Haymarket Books. 

  77. Taylor, K. (2019) Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Oakland, CA: The University of North Carolina Press.

  78. The Movement for Black Lives. (2016) The Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform, “A Vision for Black Lives.” The Movement for Black Lives. https://policy.m4bl.org/.

  79. Wang, J. (2018). Carceral Capitalism. Semiotext.

  80. West, C. (2001) A genealogy of modern racism. In: P. Essed and D.T. Goldberg (eds) Race Critical Theories: Text and Context (1 edition). New York: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 90–112.

  81. Wilderson, F. (2003) Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the slave in civil society? Social Identities Social Identities 9(2): 225–240.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. Williams, E. (1994). Capitalism and Slavery (1 edition). Oakland, CA: The University of North Carolina Press.

  83. Wood, E. (1999) The Origin of Capitalism (1st edition). Monthly Review Press.

Download references

Acknowledgements

I am thankful to Lisa Disch and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions. I am also grateful to participants at the Abolition Collective’s Inaugural Convergence in 2017, the Western Political Science Association 2018 meeting, and the University of Chicago’s Race and Capitalism Graduate Conference in 2018, and to Nick Xenos, Yasmeen Daifallah, Sonia Alvarez, Adam Dahl, John McMahon, Rachel Brown, Basil Zeno, Sean Gordon, James Padilioni, Rob Echeverria, and Lars Cornelissen for their feedback.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Siddhant Issar.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Issar, S. Listening to Black lives matter: racial capitalism and the critique of neoliberalism. Contemp Polit Theory 20, 48–71 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-020-00399-0

Download citation

Keywords

  • Black Lives Matter
  • racial capitalism
  • neoliberalism
  • race
  • left politics