Reviewed by Guy Lancaster
‘Democracy is in recession’. So began Martin Wolf’s September 19, 2017, column in the Financial Times. The use of an economic term to describe the state of democracy was no accident, for Wolf described democracy and capitalism as “married”, a fact ostensibly revealed by their mutual decline across the globe. The loss of civil rights and political liberties, especially in Europe, represented a net decline of democracy, while, oddly enough, Wolf viewed the undemocratic 2016 election of Donald Trump as indicative primarily of a threat to liberal trade regimes. Of course, the Financial Times is not alone in linking the fates of capitalism and democracy—the larger metanarrative of “Western values” has long regarded these as parallel developments in our history, given that bourgeois revolutions were often waged in the name of both political and market “freedoms.”
However, these words, “democracy” and “capitalism”, signify no fixed points but, instead, represent evolving systems not independent of the contexts in which they emerge and develop. For example, “democracy” may literally mean “rule by the people”, but how are “the people” defined? Before you have a democracy, you must have some idea of the people who will constitute it. In the United States, political personhood excluded people of African descent until after the Civil War, but even more than 150 years later, formal political rights have not yet undone the regime of constitutional anarchy that consistently hinders the exercise of those rights. Thus, the nature of democracy depends heavily upon the racial frameworks by which those in power define “the people.” Or as Michael G. Hanchard writes in The Spectre of Race: ‘[a]n inquiry into the history of politics—any politics—requires an understanding of the practices of human actors and the institutions they seek to forge or dismantle, not just comprehension of the ideas and concepts that inspired and revolved them’ (4). Political and social inequality is, in itself, not antithetical to democracy, but rather a direct result of how democracy is practiced through the primordial decisions to exclude certain groups from the category of “the people”. No accident, then, that the most robust democracies in our modern era have also been regimes of worldwide slavery and imperialism.
The Spectre of Race is to the field of political science what Charles W. Mills’s The Racial Contract (1997) is to philosophy, in that both books critique not just large-scale institutional racism but also the roles their respective academic disciplines have played in justifying, or even advancing oppressive frameworks. Hanchard opens with a chapter on Edward Augustus Freeman, who pioneered the field of comparative politics and who viewed political institutions as representative of the racial or national groups in which they emerged. For Freeman, the United States, in this respect, was engaging in an unprecedented “experiment with multi-racial democracy, which provided opportunities—at least in theory—for people from inferior races to acquire state power and consequently rule over their racial superiors” (31). The era of nationalist mobilization and decolonization following World War II gave scholars an opportunity to explore state formation from the ground up, but limitations in comparative politics led many to draw upon anthropology for the tools to study societies that did not resemble a modern state. Consequently, culture ‘seemingly supplanted racial and regional determinism in the assessment of non-Western political and economic advancement’, but, in fact, supplied a functional equivalent of the outdated race concept (56). Thus was political instability in Africa, Asia, and Latin America attributed to local cultures, while Western-backed coups in these regions, not to mention instability in Europe itself, were not actually viewed as signifying the intrinsic savagery or backwardness of the world’s whiter populations.
With this background on the discipline of political science, Hanchard takes the reader back to Classical Athens to illustrate ‘coercion, empire, and forced labor have been deeply intertwined in democratic experiments in the Greek city-states and in contemporary societies’ (68). The myth of autochthony—of a foundational people who sprang from the land, to whose descendants citizenship was bestowed—limited membership in the political community and justified (and reinforced) social hierarchies. Fast forward several centuries, and we see that even the Jacobins of the French Revolution did not only impose limits upon citizenship but continued the profitable practice of slavery despite their ostensible celebration of the rights of humankind. The same regime of difference had undergirded the foundation of the United States. By contrast, Haiti, which failed to receive diplomatic recognition by any Western power until some two decades following its revolution to end slavery, made citizens of all African-descended persons across the world and even invaded the adjacent Spanish colony in order to free slaves there.
‘A central question is the following: under what conditions does democracy require barriers to membership?’ writes Hanchard. ‘How and why do certain barriers to membership become more politically salient than others?’ Many forms of government entail barriers of participation, but in democracy ‘the criteria of membership and exclusion from the political community is undertaken—at least in theory—with the consent of the citizenry?’ (106). This means those granted full citizenship are not only implicated in the racial regimes but actively work to impose and maintain these regimes. These regimes combine formal and informal institutions (both law and custom) to allocate the distribution of public goods. For example, in the United States, these customs helped to direct vigilante violence (such as lynching) in ways ‘consistent with the aims and objectives of the formal state institutions’ (124). However, public law was the ultimate source of political, and, consequently, economic inequality. Kenya was a member of the British Commonwealth, and Algeria was considered a part of France, but in both places, the metropole carried out counterinsurgency operations that revealed a racialized lack of rights for natives. Both Britain and France also had complex immigration protocols that limited the movement and colonial subjects through their respective empires, revealing the shadow side of abstract universalism. However, turning his eye back toward his own discipline, Hanchard acknowledged that comparative politics “has largely avoided the legacies of colonialism, racism, and imperialism within nation-states even though the institutional imprint of these practices are evident” in a variety of policies (174).
So, if, as Martin Wolf and others want to claim, democracy and capitalism are married, then is capitalism implicated in the difference-making mechanisms that serve as the hidden foundation of democracy? As Hanchard writes, ‘[i]f one society’s democracy is premised upon another society’s (or population’s) impoverishment, poorly remunerated labor, and coercion, then we would have to, at minimum, acknowledge that development and underdevelopment are not only dramatically intertwined, but may also be correlated’ (195). In other words, political and economic development do go hand-in-hand, and the problems of economic inequality do have political origins and solutions. As with democracy, the most robust regimes of capitalism have also depended upon generating differences in the human population. As Gargi Bhattacharyya writes in Rethinking Racial Capitalism, ‘[t]he tendency of capitalism is to dehumanise labour in the pursuit of profit. Racialised differentiation can be used as an attempted defence against this over-arching tendency, a set of practices that arises to deflect the dehumanising tendencies onto a particular population and to redirect the encroachment of such tendencies into the lives of those designated (however fictionally and temporarily) as lesser beings’ (21).
Bhattacharyya’s volume is not intended as a theory of racial capitalism, but, instead, a series of analyses illustrating how capitalism has been consistently linked, throughout history, to patterns of racist exploitation. These are patterns that have recurred even as the conceptual content of both capitalism racism shifted throughout the centuries. This racial capitalism ‘includes these three interlocking regimes—exploitation, expropriation, expulsion’ (37). Her first subject of inquiry is social reproduction, especially the racialized (and gendered) divide separating so-called “productive labor” from “reproductive labor”, the latter being ‘[t]he hidden and undervalued work that surrounds and precedes waged labour, and which allows waged labour to be possible’ (42). This labor is exemplified by the maid and the nanny and the home-health nurse—the work that frees individuals and families from certain realities of an incarnate existence and thus allows them to focus their days upon productive labor. Such a divide proves indicative of a shift attitudes toward labor and its relationship to individual and collective identity, as we leave working to live, and arrive at living to work. This is also a shift that indicates a division between nature and humanity. It has long been a theme of racial thinking to ascribe, to those populations deemed inferior, a greater proximity to nature, and so-called non-productive labor (the work of nurturing) becomes racialized in its linkage to nature. Moreover, as Bhattacharyya argues, ‘[i]n a time when access to “cheap nature” may be at an end, racial capitalism might come to describe the processes by which some populations are forcibly “re-naturalised”, as the boundaries between human and nature are redrawn again in an attempt to preserve status, stability and access to resources for some’ (63). Thus do the world’s growing “surplus populations”, those whose labor is neither valued nor needed, enter the field of nature and become a new resource to be exploited.
Bhattacharyya next explores the legacies of racist violence and whether they can or should be translated into economic terms. After all, although capitalists like to maintain that their system is a level playing field for all who are willing to work hard, the truth is that the system is not set up to work for everyone. As Kidada E. Williams observed in They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (2012), many freed slaves, in the immediate years following the American Civil War, had earned enough money to buy land and support themselves with their own labor, but such success only attracted violence, so that many in the South were savagely murdered or driven from their farms, suffering an economic and psychological loss that echoed through subsequent generations. As Bhattacharyya argues, rather than collapsing analysis and debate into identity claims, ‘the terms of the racial reveal the globality of past exploitation and violence and help us to see something of the global machinations of similar systems of violence today’ (73). In other words, we can view dispossession as an ongoing process without mirroring the ideas of biological and cultural determinism which regard certain populations as perpetually behind. Attempts to track the legacies of historical injustice down to the present day ‘retain an underlying acceptance of the rationality of economic life, conceiving economic behaviour and outcomes as if they constitute an abstract level playing field in which inequality arises only from the actions and capacities of economic actors’ (86). Crimes against people become crimes against property and will remain that way unless the terms of engagement are changed going forward into the future.
Halfway through her book, Bhattacharyya offers a chapter titled What Racial Capitalism Is and What It Is Not. She argues that ‘[r]acial capitalism is not an account of how capitalism treats different “racial groups”, but it is an account of how the world made through racism shapes patterns of capitalist development’ (103). The framework of racial capitalism allows us ‘to see more clearly the varieties of dehumanisation that can be mobilised in the name of capital’, and thus emphasizes more clearly ‘that capitalism cannot be reformed in some way that comes to value human life’ (107), for everything from large-scale ecological depredations to small-scale workplace microaggressions constitute mutually reinforcing components of the same system. Bhattacharyya sees this intimate interconnection coming to the fore in regimes of border control, long a regime of controlling the flow of labor with its own systems of inclusion and exclusion separating the deserving from the undeserving, and its violent communion of state and non-state actors, for the ‘repertoire of state violence [that serves the border is a] repertoire of expelling and containing techniques that enjoy political legitimacy and render racialised exclusion unremarkable’ (144). Just as racial capitalism keeps racialized individuals stuck at the bottom end of a service economy, so, too, does it keep whole racialized populations spatially fixed through systems of border control, either trapped as “surplus” in refugee camps or excluded from “developed” economies.
Let us return to the statement that began this review, namely that democracy is in recession. Understanding now that the nature of democracy is predicated upon the pre-political determination of who constitutes the people, we can perhaps now see that those most robust regimes of democracy in our world were founded and perpetuated in an inherently recessionary state of being. Nothing is intrinsically racial about the idea of the people ruling, but, as Bhattacharyya said of capitalism, the world made through racism has shaped the development of democracy. However, it would be in error to see democracy and capitalism as “married” to each other. Instead, it may be valuable to view them as existing in a polygamous marriage to racism. After all, democracy can expand as its definition of “the people” grows beyond class, racial, and gender divisions, while capitalism, a system predicated upon the division of humanity, may grow in terms of the people and populations brought under its sway, but it cannot include the whole of humanity within its ruling classes—it cannot make everyone rich. No wonder then that as democracy actually expanded, it moved further from the interests of capital, as exemplified by the electoral success of communist and socialist parties in Europe in the nineteenth century following the greater enfranchisement of the masses. The backlash against this electoral success took the form of fascism, an explicitly anti-mass ideology that sought to advance the interests of capital by reigning in democracy. Reading these two books together, one can arrive at the same conclusion advanced in Ishay Landa’s 2018 book Fascism and the Masses: The Revolt against the Last Humans, 1848–1945: namely, that greater mass politics constitute the solution for which we have been seeking. As Bhattacharyya writes:
We may achieve a version of liberal antiracism in one country, perhaps, but all the troubling caveats about who can be included in this framework will continue. The ever-extending techniques of the border will continue to mark and exclude some unlucky souls. Other tests of belonging will continue to ration access to justice. Variegated regimes of racism will continue to pit us against each other until we can learn to refuse the terms of these corrupted partial freedoms. (183)
In short, the horrors of capitalism can be combatted with a radical expansion of democracy beyond national borders and citizenship tests. The future of humanity depends upon just such a Great Divorce.
10 October 2018