Racism and the Logic of Capitalism

A Fanonion ReconsiderationPeter Hudis

While Blacks are waiting for change, whites are laughing!


The emergence of a new generation of anti-racist activists and thinkers battling police abuse. The prison-industrial complex and entrenched racism in the US. Alongside the crisis over immigration and growth of right-wing populism in Europe and elsewhere. This makes this a crucial moment to develop theoretical perspectives that conceptualize race and racism as integral to capitalism. Also, while going beyond identity politics that treat such issues primarily in cultural and discursive terms.

The last several decades have produced a slew of important studies by Marxists of the logic of capital. As well as numerous explorations by postcolonial theorists of the narratives that structure racial and ethnic discrimination.

Far too often, however, these two currents have assumed different or even opposed trajectories. Meanwhile, making it all the harder to transcend one-sided class-reductionist analyses. And equally one-sided affirmations of identity that bypass or ignore class. In light of the new reality produced by the deepening crisis of neoliberalism. And the looming disintegration of the political order that has defined global capitalism. Since the end of the Cold War, the time has come to revisit theoretical approaches. These can help delineate the integrality of race, class, and capitalism.

Few thinkers are more important in this regard than Frantz Fanon. He is widely considered one of the most creative thinkers on race, racism and national consciousness of the twentieth century. Fanon’s effort to ‘slightly stretch’ (as he put it) ‘the Marxian analysis … when it comes to addressing the colonial issue’[1] represented an important attempt to work out the dialectic of race and class through a coherent theoretical framework that does not dissolve one into the other. This may help explain the resurgence of interest in his work that is now underway. At least five new books on Fanon have appeared in English over the past two years[2] – in addition to a new 600-page collection in French of his previously-unpublished or unavailable writings on psychiatry, politics, and literature.[3] Although Fanon has remained a commanding presence for decades, the extent of this veritable renaissance of interest is striking. It is no less reflected in the many times his words have appeared on posters. Also, flyers and social media over the past year by those protesting police abuse. Also the criminal injustice system, and racism on and off college campuses.[4]

“A Radical Departure From Tenor”

These ongoing rediscoveries of Fanon’s work mark a radical departure from the tenor of debates among postcolonial theorists. Over the past several decades – when the prevailing issue seemed to be whether or not he was a ‘premature poststructuralist’.[5] If one were to limit oneself to such academic discussions, one might come away thinking that the validity of Fanon. His body of work rests on the extent to which he succeeded in deconstructing the unity of the colonial subject. This is done in the name of alterity and difference.[6] Yet these approaches could not be further from what drives the renewal of interest in Fanon’s legacy today.[7]

“The Revival of Right-Wing Populism”

capitalism is manifesting some of the most egregious expressions of racial animosity that we have seen in decades. One need only note the attacks on immigrants of color in the US and Europe, the revival of right-wing populism, and most of all, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

What makes Fanon’s work especially cogent is that contemporary capitalism is manifesting some of the most egregious expressions. Mainly of racial animosity that we have seen in decades. One need only note the attacks on immigrants of color in the US and Europe. The revival of right-wing populism, and most of all, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This raises the question of why there is such a resurgence of racial animus at this point in time. At least part of the answer is the work of groups like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100 and many others. Also which, in engaging politics from a ‘black-feminist-queer lens’, has put the spotlight on issues of race in as creative a manner as the Occupy movement did for economic inequality.[8] In reaction, a section of bourgeois society has decided to drop the mask of civility and openly reassert the prerogatives of white male domination. ‘Whitelash’ is in the driver’s seat – and not only in the US. This should come as no surprise since the forces of the old always rear their heads when a new challenge to their dominance begins to emerge.

Neo-liberalism: “Reactionary Critiquing”

Not unconnected to this is the growth of reactionary challenges to neoliberalism. This calls for a serious reorganization of thought since many have focused so much attention on critiquing neoliberalism that they have had rather little to say about the logic of capital as a whole. Neoliberalism is often overlooked but one strategy employed by capitalism. As was Keynesianism at an earlier point. Just as Keynesianism was jettisoned when it no longer served its purpose, the same may be true of neoliberalism today. What brought down the Keynesian project was the crisis in profitability faced by global capital in the 1970s. Capitalists responded by embracing the neoliberal stratagem as a means to restore profitability. This made perfect sense from their point of view, since it is profitability – not effective demand – that in the final analysis determines the course of the development of capitalist society.[9] 

Profit-rates did go up from the early 1980s to 2000 as the forces of global competition, free trade, and privatization were unleashed, but most of these gains were in real estate and finance – whereas manufacturing profitability remained at historically low levels. And since much of the profit from real estate and financialization has not been invested in the real economy, there has been a decline in recent decades in the rate of growth in the productivity of labor.[10] This at least partly explains the anemic rate of growth in today’s world economy, which is causing so much distress – not only among those most negatively impacted by it but also to sections of the ruling class that increasingly recognize that the neoliberal ‘miracle’ has proven to be something of a mirage.

“Trump: Capitalism goes Unquestioned”

In many respects, this established the ground for Trump. His electoral victory (pyrrhic as it may well turn out to be) is a sign that a significant section of the Right has found a way to speak. The disaffected segments of the working class by draping criticism of neoliberalism in racist and misogynist terms – while ensuring that capitalism goes unquestioned. Hence, opposition to such tendencies must begin and end with a firm and uncompromising rejection of any programme, tendency or initiative that in any way, shape or form is part of, or dovetails– no matter how indirectly – with racist and/or anti-immigrant sentiment. Any other approach will make it harder to distinguish a genuine critique of class inequality, free trade, and globalization from reactionary ones.

For this reason, holding to the critique of neoliberalism as the crux of anti-capitalist opposition no longer makes much sense. Needed instead is an explicit attack on the inner core of capitalism – it’s logic of accumulation and alienation that is inextricably tied to augmenting value as an end in itself. And racism has long been integral to capital’s drive for self-expansion.

Capitalism first emerged as a world system through the anti-black racism generated by the transatlantic slave trade, and it has depended on racism to ensure its perpetration and reproduction ever since.[11] Marx argued,

Slavery is an economic category like any other … Needless to say, we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America. Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton, you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.[12]

“Racism Might have been a mere Exogenous” Factor

Marx was clearly cognizant of the peculiar role played by race in American slavery – and he was no less aware of how integral race-based slavery was to capitalism’s origins and development as a world system. But does this mean that racism is integral to the logic of capital? Might racism be a mere exogenous factor that is only built into specific moments of capitalism’s contingent history? To be sure, it is possible to conceive of the possibility that capitalism could have emerged and developed as a world system without its utilizing race and racism. But historical materialism does not concern itself with what could have occurred, but with what did occur and continues to occur. According to Marx, without race-based slavery ‘you have no modern industry’ and no ‘world trade’ – and no modern capitalism. Hence, the logic of capital is in many respects inseparable from its historical development. I am referring not only to the factors that led to the formation of the world market but to the role played by race and racism in impeding proletarian class consciousness, which has functioned as an essential component in enabling capital accumulation to be actualized. Marx was keenly aware of this, as seen in his writings on the US Civil War and the impact of anti-Irish prejudice upon the English workers’ movement.[13] He took the trouble to address these issues in Capital itself, which famously declared ‘labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in black skin.’[14]

“Racism is integral to Capitalism”

Racism is not and never has been an epiphenomenal characteristic of capitalism. It is integral to its very development. The time is therefore long past for holding onto such notions as ‘there is no race question outside the class question’[15] or ‘the race issue, while important, is secondary to the class’. Since capitalism was shaped, from its inception, by racial factors, it is not possible to effectively oppose it without making the struggle against racism a priority. And for this very reason, the present situation also makes it increasingly anachronistic to hold onto forms of identity politics that elide issues of class and a critique of capital. The effort to elevate ethnic identity and solidarity at the expense of a direct confrontation with capitalism is inherently self-defeating since the latter is responsible for the perpetuation of racism and the marginalization of peoples of color in the first place. Since race and racism help create, reproduce and reinforce an array of hierarchies that are rooted in class domination, subjective affirmations of identity that are divorced from directly challenging capital will inevitably lose their critical edge and impact over the course of time.

Blacks are still considered chattel under the classification of 2nd class citizens instead of 1st class.

Class struggle and anti-racist struggle have a common aim – at least from a Fanonian perspective. It is to overcome the alienation and dehumanization that define modern society by creating new human relations – termed by Fanon a ‘new humanism’.[16] But the path to that lofty goal is not one of rushing to the absolute like a shot out of the pistol. It can be reached only through ‘the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative’.[17] Re-engaging Fanon on this level can speak to us in new ways.

“The US Slave Trade & Neo-Colonialism”

One need only note the attacks on immigrants of color in the US and Europe. The revival of right-wing populism, and most of all, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

Fanon repeatedly emphasizes that anti-Black racism is not natural but is rooted in the economic imperatives of capitalism – beginning with the transatlantic slave trade and extending to the neo-colonialism of today. As he writes in Black Skin, White Masks, ‘First, economic. Then, internalization or rather epidermalization of his inferiority.’[18] At the same time, he held that racism cannot be combatted on economic or class-terms alone since racialized ways of ‘seeing’ and taking on a life of their own and drastically impact the psychic, inner-life of the individual. Both the black and the white subject are impacted and shaped by class domination, but they experience it in radically different ways.

Any effort to ignore or downplay these crucial differences for the sake of a fictive ‘unity’ that abstracts from them is bound to fall on deaf ears when it comes to a significant portion of the dispossessed. On these grounds, Fanon insisted that both sides – the economic and the cultural/psychic – have to be fought in tandem. As he put it, ‘The black man must wage the struggle on two levels: whereas historically these levels are mutually dependent, any unilateral liberation is flawed, and the worst mistake would be to believe their mutual dependence automatic … An answer must be found on the objective as well as the subjective level.’[19]

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