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


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.

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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.

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Issar, S. Listening to Black lives matter: racial capitalism and the critique of neoliberalism. Contemp Polit Theory 20, 48–71 (2021).

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