t is strikingly commonplace, within the hotly contested literature on race and capitalism, to find some version of the claim that we mustn’t engage – “in the abstract” – with whether or not capitalism is necessarily racialized. The historian David McNally, in a recent (and highly compelling) piece on social reproduction and the epistemological pitfalls of “intersectionality,” articulates this position well. In his words, such “abstract debates” are “decidedly flawed”: 

“One cannot know such things in advance, on the basis of principles abstracted from concrete historical life. What we can say is that the actual historical process by which capitalism emerged in our world integrally involved social relations of race and racial domination. From the standpoint of the ‘effect’—racialized capitalism—we can say definitively that racism is a necessary feature of the historical capitalism in which we live” (McNally, 2017: 107).

Indeed, if McNally differs from many of his contemporaries on this question, it is largely due to his approach to the problematique – not his response. For him, the claim that we must not consider the relationship between race and capitalism “in the abstract” emerges, at least in part, from a commitment to the philosophy of internal relations; it emerges, he argues, from a dialectical concept of totality that considers the social whole as constituted by a number of relatively autonomous partial totalities, which can only be properly understood “in relation to the other partial totalities that comprise the social whole in its process of becoming” (McNally, 2017: 105). But in McNally’s basic assertation that we should refrain from drawing the distinction between the necessary and contingent in “racial capitalist” society, he is far from alone (see, for my use of “contingent,” Sayer, 1991: 291).

In fact, a version of this claim is found in the work of scholars who depart from a range of epistemological positions; and from those who share no commitment to the presuppositions of a philosophy of internal relations, nor the lexicon of totality – be it expressive, longitudinal, normative, decentered, or otherwise (see Jay, 1986). In his classic exchange with Ellen Meiksins Wood in the early 2000s, Adolph Reed Jr. made a set of comparable claims, beginning from the assumption that we must reject outright any attempt to ground the analysis of capitalism in “elaborate ideal-typical formulation of capitalism’s ‘laws of motion,’ ‘rules of reproduction’ or ‘basic requirements’” (Reed Jr., 2002: n.p.). In response to Wood’s claim that “capitalism is conceivable without racial divisions,” Reed concedes that this is “true enough” only to then point out that “many things are conceivable that do not exist and have never existed – unicorns, dragons, and the homo economicus of neo-classical economists’ fantasies” (Reed Jr., 2002: n.p.). Today, Reed’s position on these matters is somewhat opaque: he seems to remain steadfast in his rejection of “ideal typical formulation,” but his critique of neoliberal anti-racism seems also to imply (if not entirely deliver) a theorization of capitalism’s necessary dynamics. And yet, what is quite fascinating – and critical to underscore – is that even some of Reed’s most forceful critics demonstrate a shared uneasiness surrounding the parsing of the necessary and contingent as it pertains to the race and capitalism debate (see, for context, Haider and Kang, 2021; Singh and Clover, 2018). 

The conversation surrounding race and capitalism is hardly confined to the academy (image source here).

Sensible as this position might appear at first glance, this general unwillingness to tease out the necessary and contingent elements of (racialized) capitalist society – a tendency which extends well beyond the theorists mentioned and cited above – is somewhat perplexing. In the first instance, this kind of abstraction (the parsing of the necessary from the contingent) is central to the project of historical-geographical materialism, and social theory more broadly. The very function of social-theoretical investigation is, after all, “precisely to differentiate the essential, primary, or necessary properties of a particular phenomenon from its superficial, secondary, or contingent elements” (Brenner, 2019: 40). And this process is effectively inescapable, insofar as we move from the “real concrete” through to simplifying abstractions that break down the social whole into mental units, arriving at the “thought concrete,” whenever we “do theory” (see Ollman, 2004). The question to be posed in relation to a particular social-theoretical observation is thus not whether it abstracts from a “constitutively multifaceted, overdetermined social world,” but rather “whether the specific kinds of conceptual abstractions proposed…offer a ‘practically adequate’ basis on which to demarcate, in analytically precise yet situated, historically determinate, politically informative terms, the constituent properties” and necessary elements of a given social formation (cf. Brenner, 2019: 41). And of course, to pursue this procedure does not put us at odds with a philosophy of internal relations – or, with an ontology that presupposes internally related parts, each of which is an “expandable relation” that can represent “the whole” (Harvey, 2009: 288). One can quite easily and coherently distinguish between the necessary and contingent elements of a particular abstraction of generality (or mode of production), while also understanding that all the elements of a particular socio-spatial totality are reciprocally co-evolutionary moments that make and remake the whole itself (see Levins and Lewontin, 1987; Ollman, 2004). 

Second, the claim that we should eschew any attempt to determine whether or not racism is necessary to capitalist society is additionally perplexing given that both implicit and explicit understandings of capitalism’s necessary features are at the very core of contemporary political battles and debates – both within and beyond the academy. One of the more explicit invocations of the political stakes of the necessity/contingency distinction appears in Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, wherein she suggests that “the political lesson” of the text is that “capitalism, as a social-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism” (Federici, 2004: 17, emphasis added; see also, Mies, 2014). But Federici is far from alone. Nancy Fraser has recently attempted nothing short of enlivening the global, eco-socialist movement by similarly suggesting capitalism’s necessarily racialized and gendered character (see Fraser, 2018). And for those less sympathetic to the project of the anti-capitalist Left, the (at times implied) distinction between the necessary and the contingent does comparable political work. An understanding of capitalism’s logically contingent relationship to “racial exploitation” appears to be at the very heart of the late Charles Mills’ project of “black radical liberalism” – and to the political project of many contemporary Left liberals as well. As is well known, Mills (2017: xvii) urges 

“a self-conscious deracializing of liberalism that would begin by recognizing the centrality of a social ontology of race to the modern world and the acknowledgement of a corresponding history of racial exploitation that needs to be registered in liberal categories and addressed as a matter of liberal social justice.”  

But overcoming capitalism appears as outside of Mills’ political project – suggesting, again, capitalism’s contingent relation to racial exploitation. 

And yet, if these (relatively brief) reflections suggest that any obfuscation of the necessity/contingency distinction should be viewed with some skepticism, a critical question remains: how should we account for that relationship? Here, we might simply begin by recalling that at the core of such a question is a longstanding problematique in Marxist political economy. In the 1970s and 1980s hotly contested debates raged regarding the meaning and significance of the “capitalist mode of production,” “capitalist social formations,” and their necessary dimensions. Unfortunately, much of this debate proved to be a stalemate, pitting those that understood capitalism primarily in relation to the sphere of circulation – rendering any social form that participated in generalized commodity exchange as capitalist – against those that reserved the appellation “capitalist” for “a determinate type of ownership of the means of production” (see, for context, Laclau, 1971: 33). Neither of these approaches proved particularly compelling in that both pursued “formalist” explanations, which deduced an understanding of capitalism from “simple categories” that appear across various epochs of production (see Banaji, 2010). 

However, scholars like Jairus Banaji did manage to cut through the noise. Simple as it may sound, Banaji suggested that capitalism is, above all, necessarily “identified with capital accumulation” (Brewer, 1990: 239). The capitalist mode of production, therefore, refers to “‘a definite totality of historical laws of motion’” (Brewer, 1990: 239, emphasis added), and not to commodity circulation nor to a particular form of exploitation. Indeed, Banaji suggested that capitalism is unique precisely because it necessarily involves, inter alia, “the production and accumulation of surplus-value, the revolutionisation of the labour-process, the production of relative surplus-value on the basis of a capitalistically constituted labour-process, [and] the compulsion to increase the productivity of labour” (Banaji, 2010: 60). 

Such an insistence that we ground our understanding of capitalism not in its historically mutable forms of appearance but rather in its underlying, necessary laws of motion is very well taken in the context of the race/capitalism debate. If there is anything to add to such an account, it is simply that at this abstract, necessary level, we also find capital’s enduring and endemic crisis tendencies. And, more precisely, capital’s necessary dialectical relationship between appropriation and capitalization (or expropriation and exploitation), which capital itself consistently undermines and undercuts (see Moore, 2015). It is thus not simply necessary for capital to pursue the accumulation of surplus value – to seek “accumulation for accumulation’s sake,” and to move through Marx’s famous circuit of M-C-M’. It must also maintain the relative disequilibrium between the value form and its necessarily more expansive (extra-economic) value relations. If it fails to do so, capital will be forced to restructure the geographies of accumulation, to locate sites for surplus investment, and to regain access to cheap socio-ecological inputs (Moore, 2015). Put otherwise, at the highest level of abstraction, capitalism is both necessarily “identified with capital accumulation,” and necessarily propelled by an ongoing and endemic need for cheap expropriable (human and non-human) work. 

The capitalist laws of motion emerge in and through concrete socio-ecological conjunctures (image source: here).

With this sense of the necessary laws of capitalist motion, we are well positioned to properly grasp the relationship between race and capitalism, broadly conceived. Race cannot be understood as logically necessary to capitalism, precisely because it fails to necessarily inform the generative principles or transformation rules identified above (see Harvey, 2009 on “transformation rules”). Race and racialization are much better understood as enduring yet logically contingent phenomenon within capitalist social formations. Of course, to say that race is a contingency is decidedly not to suggest that its implications in the history of capitalism are local, nor is it to suggest that they are random or haphazard. Contingency, as Andrew Sayer has forcefully pointed out, must be dissociated from the concept of scale altogether (Sayer, 1991). It seems quite clear that capitalism has always been racialized (in some form or another) at the scale of the world-system – and it is possible that racism predates the emergence of capitalism and that, “[c]onsequently, the abolition of capitalism will not do away with [racist] oppressions, only with their capitalist forms” (Ollman, 2004: 93). But these are matters beyond the scope of a short intervention. The fundamental point is simply that race can hardly be understood on the same terms as capitalism’s abstract-level dynamics – a point which holds critical salience for historical-geographical analysis (see Go, 2021 for a closely allied argument). 

I submit the qualifier of “enduring” in the above formulation precisely because race and racism have historically functioned overwhelmingly in the service of accumulation, and – most critically – to guarantee the necessary disequilibrium between the value form and its value relations in capitalist society (see Moore, 2015). Race has historically and consistently worked to “organize[], regulate[], and give[] meaning to social practices through the distribution of symbolic and material resources between different groups” (Hall, 2021: 330), primarily with an aim toward the racialization of capital’s necessary distinction between exploitable and expropriable work. But of course, what the above formulation also suggests is that to fully grasp the operations of race and racialization – as contingent features in the capitalist social totality – we must enter into the domain of historical materialism (see, for context, Amin, 1977: 126). In doing so, it becomes clear that the abstract-level dynamics (or necessary features) of capitalist society can only be constituted in and through socio-spatial conjunctures, which always maintain their own contextually embedded dynamics and path-legacies. 

The abstract-level dynamics of accumulation thus generally collide with, transform, and emerge through relatively place specific and entrenched forms of racialization; they hit the ground and are constituted through the often highly racialized “specificity of spatial, social, legal, and political formations” (cf. Neilson and Mezzadra, 2019: 3). As such, the meaning of racism, and its relation to capitalism, can hardly “be finally or transhistorically fixed” (Hall, 2021, p. 362) – even if racism has played an enduring role in guaranteeing capital’s necessary moment of “extra-economic” violence. Indeed, what we find in the historical-geographical record are variegated racisms, which are themselves the (partial) cumulative effect of previous rounds of capitalist metabolic churn, and which are made and remade through subsequent rounds of accumulation. Such racisms always maintain some autonomy (they have, after all, no necessary relation to accumulation), and the complex unity might even be “structured in dominance” by the logics of racism and racialization. This is, in short, a far cry from a model of “racial capitalism” in which race operates uniformly across abstractions of extension; it is, rather, uneven and combined racialized capitalist development (see, for context, Peck, 2019).

While racism is not logically necessary to capitalist society, it has functioned overwhelming to demarcate capital’s necessary distinction between exploitable and expropriable work (image source: here).

Such highly uneven and variegated articulations are clear enough in the recent political economic literature on post-1980s capitalist development, in both the global North and South. As this literature points out, the post-1980s conjuncture has seen a general “return of the spectre of wageless life, now under the sign of redundancy” (Denning, 2010: 85). This has been propelled by capitalism’s abstract-level dynamics – by the tendency of the world rate of profit to fall, which compels capital toward “declining rates of accumulation and increasingly fierce competition” for “markets, materials, and cheap labor-power” (Shaikh, 1978: 231; see also Moore, 2021). Today these abstract-level pressures are particularly acute because “frontiers” of cheap inputs do not exist to adequately absorb idle surplus capital and maintain profitability; and because the productivity of labor in manufacturing and services has “slowed dramatically” since the signal crisis of the US-centered systemic cycle of accumulation several decades ago (Moore, 2021: 25-27; see also, Arrighi, 2010). On a world scale the “mass of accumulated capital” has continued to grow “without a corresponding expansion of profitable investment opportunities”; and we have seen a turn toward “a kind of rentier capitalism” incapable of absorbing the vast global surplus population that capital itself has produced (Moore, 2021: 25; see also, for context, Benanav, 2019) [1]. Predictably, race and racism have generally played their part – on a planetary scale – in mediating the development of these dynamics. Global capital has, as we might expect, broadly worked to increase the rate of profit and mitigate the tendency toward overaccumulation in highly racialized ways; forms of ascriptive difference have functioned to undercut the cost of labor and/or to determine which populations are most easily rendered disposable (see Clover, 2016; Moore, 2021: 36).

And yet, when we zoom in on the contours of particular geographies, it is also clear that these abstract-level dynamics have emerged in and through a highly heterogenous set of socio-spatial contexts; the phenomenon of race and processes of racialization have interacted with and constituted world capitalist stagnation and global de-proletarianization in ways that are more or less (dis)associated from capital’s historically preferred strategies. Indeed, in the classic work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore we find precisely the abstract-level dynamics identified above. However, in tuning her study to the scale of California, Gilmore also notes that this broad, post-1980s trend toward economic stagnation was not only highly racialized – rendering many non-white communities as superfluous to the demands of capital – but “fixed” in that context (albeit momentarily) through the process of prison expansion and mass incarceration, with strikingly uneven effects along contextually embedded axes of racialization. Gilmore demonstrates how the problem of post-1980s “surplus humanity” and surplus capital coincided, in that specific context, with a concurrent rise in surplus agricultural land as a result of, inter alia, local labor-saving innovations in agribusiness, the weakening position of California’s food exports in the face of a “burgeoning ‘global food regime,’” and the local impacts of draught (Gilmore, 2007: 47). These trends – together with the availability of (highly circumscribed) surplus state capacity following California’s tax revolts – provided the distinctive conditions for a “prison fix”: a boom in prison construction in rural communities, which allowed for the investment of surplus capital, the utilization of surplus state capacity, and the absorption of inner-city racialized surplus labor [2]. 

Further, these very same abstract-level tendencies have been mediated in other ways in other US contexts, producing distinctive articulations of race and capitalism – as the historian Walter Johnson has demonstrated in the context of Ferguson, Missouri. The generalized dynamics of overaccumulation and “surplus life” in the post-Fordist moment collided with entrenched dynamics of racialization in Ferguson, ultimately leading to a conjuncture in the 2000s in which the policing of Black mobility – and the spatial containment of a deproletarianized Black population – was specifically used to service municipal bonds which were bundled and sold on the secondary market (Johnson, 2020). And this is to say nothing of the variegated and highly complex articulations, collisions, and re-territorializations of the race/capitalism nexus that we can find outside of the United States in this very same moment. While space precludes a full accounting here, we would do well to recall that in much of the postcolonial world the dynamics described above have manifested in and been mediated by a vast movement of depeasantization with deproletarianization. As Farshad Araghi (2008: 119) points out, the post-1980s situation has manifested in two tendencies in the formerly colonized world:

  • “global deruralization, which is witnessed in the constriction of global rural space via depopulation, an expansion of enclosed suburbias and exurbias, and the increasing encroachment of industrial, agro-commercial, information and service economies into what was formerly rural space”; as well as
  • “global hyperurbanization, demonstrated by the peripheral expansion of global urban space via the amassment of deproletarianized and homeless surplus labour populations.”  

Local dynamics and norms surrounding race and ethnicity are, again, absolutely fundamental to this story – structuring, in highly complex ways, not only the uneven absorption of dispossessed populations into circuits of capitalist valorization; but also shaping social struggles surrounding the reproduction of wageless life and the biopolitical imperative of postcolonial states to either “make live or let die” (see, for context, Arboleda, 2020; Ferguson, 2015; Li, 2009).  

In sum, the post-1980s moment helps to underscore the broader argument at stake: while race has operated, and continues to operate, in relatively enduring and predictable ways (namely, as a means of distinguishing between exploitable and expropriable work), it also remains contingent to capitalist society at the highest level of abstraction, and its operations must not be taken for granted. Put otherwise, the laws of capitalist motion generally collide with, transform, and emerge through place specific and entrenched forms of racism which can both support and exceed the imperatives of capital. Politically, this observation demands that we move beyond sloganeering regarding racial capitalism, and/or persistent theoretical obfuscation. To overcome both racism and capitalism we require a grounded, conjunctural sense of their relationship within distinctive geographies – and, thus, a clear understanding of the necessity/contingency distinction. 

[1] I am identifying broad trends that have emerged slowly and unevenly in the post-1980s conjuncture. Countertrends and dynamics can be identified and are critical to a more complete historical account than the one offered here (see, for context, Moore, 2015: 228).
[2] We might here point out that Gabriel Winant’s recent book The Next Shift (2021) tells a complimentary story to Gilmore’s, sketching the fall of industry and the rise of health care in Pittsburgh, while paying close attention to the conjunctural role that race and gender played in mediating that crisis and its uneasy resolution.


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William Conroy is a PhD student in Urban Planning at Harvard University. He is interested in histories and theories of capitalist urbanization.