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Capitalism reproduces itself through racial divisions. Can we reproduce life differently?

  • Feb 23 2022
  • Gargi Bhattacharyya
    (they/them) is professor of sociology at the University of East London. Her research areas are race, the war on terror, sexuality, and austerity and racial capitalism. Her books included, Dangerous brown men: exploiting sex, violence and feminism in the war on terror (London: Zed Books, 2008), Crisis, austerity and everyday life: Living in a time of diminishing expectations (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and Rethinking racial capitalism: questions of reproduction and survival (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).

The only capitalism we have ever known is the one built on violent, racist dispossession and is reliant on the remaking of racialized divisions between people. Perhaps we can conceptualize a capitalism that is not intertwined in these histories and presents of violence,
but any analysis of actual, existing capitalism must engage with this aspect of capitalist practice.

The term ‘racial capitalism’ - coined by Black radical intellectual, Cedric Robinson - helps us to think about the centrality of racist dispossession to the development of capitalism. Racism, Robinson argues, is not an unfortunate but incidental by-product of this process. The very process of disciplining human life to become subordinate to the needs of capital already involves the process of constructing racial hierarchies. In this process, ethnicized differentiation enables the demarcation of segments of labour, instituting degrees of exploitation, exclusion from work and coercion into unfree labour. Versions of this differentiating process continue in the present.

Capitalism is always in the process of remaking itself.

When we look at capitalism today, we see an entrenchment of racialized divisions wherever and whenever capitalism remakes itself. For example, when some places industrialize, some adjacent places become the informal hinterland where hawkers, hustlers and illicit
service-workers survive through economic activities that are under-protected and under-regulated, but necessary to the workings of the productive economy. When borders become an emotive, political issue and governments respond with more policing, some people are
compelled to enter the hidden economy of the undocumented and to provide the cheap and/or dangerous and/or criminalized work. Dirty, dangerous, illicit work, which sustains the more “respectable” end of the economy. Or, when capitalism restructures and factories
or whole industries are moved to nations or zones where labor is cheaper, many people are thrown out of work, reshaping the relations of employment. Some of these now-unemployed people become concentrated in the haphazard piecework of the platform economy, once again providing cut-price services to those still clinging on to slightly less precarious work. Race organizes populations into these variegated economic ‘opportunities’. If you want to know where capitalism is going next, look at the conditions of those marked as racially subordinated. The lives they are leading indicate where the next battle lines for survival under capitalism will be drawn; and this is why an analysis of race is crucial to strategizing anti-capitalist struggle.

Should we think of Marx, who lived in poverty in London after being exiled from Germany, as a refugee intellectual?

Marx was a refugee; he was forced to move due to political persecution. There is no ambiguity about this, I think. And he was surely an intellectual, forged in moments of struggle, although he was operating at a time before the insistent commodification of intellectual life that we know: no absorption into the various cultural and educational apparati remaking capital for him, certainly no push to publish for promotion or tenure or for any need to quantify his reach with international readers to show impact.

But was he a refugee intellectual? That, perhaps, is another kind of question. Was he someone who undertook their intellectual work through the lens of displacement? Was his analysis a reflection of the varieties of unheimlich that characterize the sensibilities of the displaced? Not consciously, it seems.

Perhaps there is something in the push of expulsion and the pull of internationalism which shapes Marx’s work. Perhaps this is what made his work possible. However, I think of a refugee intellectual as someone who centres questions of displacement and belonging, and I always think of Marx as someone who seems to have refused this framing. Perhaps we might consider the very concept of a communist international as a refusal of the; terms of refugee-ness. After all, the international aims to make the bounded spaces of the nation irrelevant (or less relevant). Perhaps it also demands a revisiting of the ideas of ‘native’, and ‘refugee’.


This text was published in the Extrablatt of ISSUE 19: ANTICRISTOS, a dialogue between AWC and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), in the frame of the exhibition Karl Marx und der Kapitalismus, opening on February 10, 2022.

    Kara Walker, Barack Obama as Othello "The Moor" With the Severed Head of Iago in a New and Revised Ending by Kara E. Walker, 2019, Pastel, conté crayon, charcoal on treated paper, 221,9 x 182,9 cm , The Joyner / Guiffrida Collection, San Francisco, USA © Kara Walker, Photo: Jason Wyche



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