revolutionary reflections | Capitalism, racialisation and resistance

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, even mainstream commentators have talked about how to combat racism. Arjun Mahadevan argues that to build effective anti-racist struggles we need to acknowledge how racism was central to the development of capitalism and the ways in which processes of racialisation have developed and changed constantly as the needs of capitalist economies have changed.

Two Black protesters on a motorbike, one of them raises a fist, in front of a burning car in a dark city street.

Everyone’s talking about racism

Following widespread protests against racist police violence, and a wave of activity led by the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups across the world, the subject of racism has once again become a mainstream talking point. Comparisons can be drawn with 2014 protests following the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others that had taken place in a similar context. However, with the current uprising emerging under Trump’s presidency rather than Obama’s, it feels as though many more people are now finding it a lot easier to choose which side they are on.

Conversations have been happening in the unlikeliest of places, with many workplaces opening up discussion forums for people to share their experiences, reviewing recruitment and other work policies, and changing the language used to describe different ethnic groups within the workforce. Businesses and corporations are putting out statements taking a stand against racism, like that in itself is enough of an act of solidarity to end racial oppression. Taxi firm Uber recently ran an ad campaign with the message ‘If you tolerate racism, delete Uber’ cynically using this cultural moment to position itself as an antiracist company whilst simultaneously exploiting workers of colour. There are so many organisations who now claim to stand with victims and against racism that there are very few of the direct beneficiaries of systematic racism who still remain seated.

Regardless of how hollow and opportunistic many of these words and actions are, it’s undeniable that people are beginning to talk about racism on a level that has not been seen previously, and with this more and more people are looking to educate themselves on the subject. Reading lists have been written up, articles shared around, and books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism have been topping bestsellers lists. But these texts often do not go very far in giving people a solid understanding of racism, its history and how we can combat it. They serve to centre the politics of racial oppression on the white identity, misdirecting people away from organising to challenge systemic racism and towards a focus on themselves, and their own thoughts and behaviour.

These books and articles are also often based on a problematic assumption of race as a natural characteristic used to define categories of people, and an ahistorical assertion that an ever-existing fixed racial hierarchy structures the entire world. Aside from its historical inaccuracy, this assertion can only be obstructive to genuine anti-racism. Naturalising race assumes that it is a human category, rather than a social construction and a consequence of processes of racialisation. Most importantly it fails to recognise how essential racism is to capitalism. Without acknowledging this centrality, all this talk is taking us in a direction where organising against racism will become impossible. In order to challenge this theoretical direction, we must begin with a definition of racism that is true to history and fit for purpose, so that we can focus our attention on what must be our goal – liberation.

The origins of racism

Racism isn’t a prejudice inherent within certain communities, groups or people – to assume so would be to believe that racism is a part of human nature and an impossible force to resist. Racism isn’t natural, nor eternal. It’s a modern invention, an ideology which was founded by European imperialism and rooted in the context of the transatlantic slave trade beginning in the 16th century. European settlers in the Americas found themselves with a wealth of raw materials that required labour in order to be turned into product. Although early forms of wage labour existed for this process to take place, slavery provided them with as much cheap labour as they could want, allowing them to mass produce the cotton, tobacco, sugar etc. that would form the basis for a dominant global economic system. In this way, the original capital was provided by the labour of slaves. As Marx theorised in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847):

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns, as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

This modern form of slavery became essential to industrial capitalism, and racism as a consequence, dependent on the racialisation of displaced African people from ‘the colonies’. As Eric Williams explains at the start of Capitalism and Slavery (1944):

Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro. A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.

This ‘economic phenomenon’ was foundational to capitalism. Although early forms of capitalism already existed, the transatlantic slave trade allowed for the expansion of industrial capitalism enabled by the exploitation of slaves – dehumanising a people and turning them into commodities, and what Marx called ‘labour power’. It was not just slavery that allowed for the rise of capitalism, but other processes such as colonialism that brought about the conditions necessary for it to thrive. In Capital Volume I (1867) Marx describes the various forms these take in relation to the process of ‘primitive accumulation’:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.

Colonialism also hinged on the racialisation of non-Europeans. The indigenous populations of the Americas, the ‘East Indies’, Africa and elsewhere were essentially othered in order to facilitate and rationalise the dispossession of land and the exploitation of populations alike, all for the benefit of capitalism.

The construction of race

The term ‘racial capitalism’ coined by Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) is often used to emphasise the centrality of racism to, and therefore race within, capitalism. As Robinson states:

The term ‘racial capitalism’ requires its users to recognize that capitalism is racial capitalism. Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups–capitalists with the means of production/workers without the means of subsistence, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land made property/the dispossessed and removed. These antinomies of accumulation require loss, disposability, and the unequal differentiation of human value, and racism enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires.

In describing this concept, Robinson claims that race predates capitalism. He goes back to ancient Greek and Roman empires and cites those known as ‘barbarians’ as early forms of racialised people, explaining that much of the pre-capitalist history of racism existed within Europe. Although we can concede that elites in pre-capitalist societies often tried to reinforce divisions between groups of people, usually based upon cultural or religious criteria, these cannot be conflated with ‘race’ as we understand it. This is because they are not constructions forced on their subjects and reliant on a set of social and economic relations. Nevertheless, some have taken Robinson’s belief to feed ideologies that treat race as a universal entity, relying on a separation from capitalism that allows them to claim the existence of a fixed and immovable racial hierarchy. This leads to a sort of exceptionalism, where black people are always at the bottom and are doomed to never change the conditions which fuel their oppression.

Fixed ideas of race as having always existed contradict an understanding of racialisation as a dynamic process. Acknowledging the centrality of race within capitalism, it follows that over time as the forces of capital change, so too do the dynamics of social relations. We may look to the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century, and ask why it was abolished if it was so central to industrial capitalism? By then it had become clear that wage labourers in the American north were more efficient than the enslaved labourers of the south – economic coercion is deemed more effective than force. However, following the American Civil War, emancipated slaves and their descendants didn’t automatically lose their race. The state continued to exploit them on this basis, but this exploitation manifested itself in different ways. Despite being ‘freedmen’ and ‘freedwomen’, they were denied access to certain parts of the labour market due to their position in the racial hierarchy and were therefore forced to make up an unemployed and underemployed surplus workforce.

Racism in America still works like this with the state operating to maintain this unemployed underclass and continuing to force black people into low-paid, precarious work with high levels of competition for jobs – ‘the reserve army of labour’ that Marx notes is necessary to the capitalist system. In contrast to black Americans, whose existence in large numbers is essential to this system, indigenous Americans’ existence is obstructive to it. For them, it is not their labour that capitalists look to exploit, but their land that they need to steal. Their very existence puts them in direct conflict with capitalism and the project of settler colonialism. As a result, settlers do not racialise indigenous Americans as slaves or as exploited workers but eliminate them in order to gain access to their land.

We don’t just need to think about race in the American context. In 20th century post-war Britain, immigrants from Commonwealth nations in the Caribbean and South Asia were encouraged to come here to fill temporary shortages in the labour market. Attracted by promises of jobs, and better prospects in the land of their colonisers, they were soon faced with a reality where they were to be placed at the bottom of society. The state had no intention of integrating these workers into British society but continued a process of racialisation in order to prevent them from settling, or to allow them to be sent back once they’d served their purpose. After all, capitalism is reliant on competition and the existence of racial hierarchies. Despite some contextual differences, there were many similarities between the racialisation of Caribbean and South Asian immigrants in the 20th century and Irish immigrants over 150 years earlier. Following the Industrial Revolution, many Irish people came to Britain for work and became racialised in order to take up the most physically strenuous jobs. Race doesn’t need to be visible, and racialisation isn’t necessarily colour coded. As Satnam Virdee notes in the introduction to Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (2014):

The nature of racialisation against Irish Catholics was remarkably similar to that of ‘visible’ racialised minorities, comprising a discourse of race and physical representations of the Irish Catholics as simianized, ape-like creatures of ridicule.

The shortage in certain parts of the British labour market following the emergence of new industries, and capitalism’s constant demand for labour required the racialisation of Irish immigrants. This process was made easier by their status as colonial subjects, in a situation comparable to examples of post-war immigration to Britain from Commonwealth nations. However, unlike the latter, the former were physically ‘white’. Thus, the treatment of Irish Catholics in Britain also demonstrates that race is socially constructed and isn’t just a natural process based on skin colour and proximity to whiteness. The basis of this construction on specific relations is also illustrated through the assimilation of Irish immigrants in America. They were not subject to the same social conditions as those in the British context and were, therefore, able to avoid racialisation, as the exploitation of slaves was so integral to the formation of racial structures in America.

The fragility of these structures was made clear in pre-Apartheid South Africa. In 1932 The Carnegie Corporation published a report entitled The Poor White Problem in South Africa, in response to developments that had led to increased poverty amongst the white population. White workers in the same or worse financial situation as black workers would be more likely to question what capitalism had forced them to believe – that they were entitled to a higher social position by virtue of their race. Their class position would become clearer and they may start to see the similarities in their struggle and that of their black counterparts. This would be disastrous for capitalism, and so the report’s recommendations outlined measures to tackle white poverty and ensure the black population was kept poorer than the poorest whites, paving the way for Apartheid as a means to maintain racial order.

Racial divisions

Whilst extreme in the case of South Africa, states have often sought to divide populations in less direct and often more complex ways across the world. This is the case if we look at the experience of racism in Britain in recent decades. In 1970s Britain, as the second generation of Caribbean and South Asian immigrants grew up, they began to organise collectively against racism, with groups like the British Black Panthers and the Asian Youth Movements appearing across the country. The AYMs adopted the slogan ‘Black people must unite, here to stay here to fight!’ in solidarity with all victims of racial oppression, united in shared struggle. They supported workers victimised by employers, victims of the state and mobilised against fascists and police in their local areas. Many were arrested for their activism, for which they garnered a lot of public support, including the successful legal campaigns of the Mangrove 9 and the Bradford 12. All of this meant their presence became difficult to ignore, and by the 1980s the Thatcher government sought new and less direct ways of dividing these communities, partly through offers of state funding. In his essay RAT (Racism Awareness Training) and the degradation of black struggle (Race & Class, 1985) Ambalavaner Sivanandan describes the effects of this perceived embrace of Britain’s multiculturalism:

Between them, the Scarman report (April 1981) and the Home Affairs Committee report (July 1981) set out the terms of West Indian and Asian ethnic need and provided the criteria on which the government based its (ethnic) programmes and allocated its (ethnic) funds. The ensuing scramble for government favours and government grants (channelled through local authorities) on the basis of specific ethnic needs and problems served, on the one hand, to deepen ethnic differences and foster ethnic rivalry and, on the other, to widen the definition of ethnicity to include a variety of national and religious groups – Chinese, Cypriots, Greeks, Turks, Irish, Italians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs – till the term became meaningless (except as a means of getting funds).

Various communities that had been defined by their racialisation, and united against a shared oppression, were now divided into separate ethnicities. No longer did they share the political term ‘black’ to define their race, but this became Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc. These divisions were only strengthened by the need for these individual identities to be differentiated and recognised separately, and by a welcoming of particularism in organising. This process pleased their oppressors as a heterogeneous group splitting into its various constituencies makes it easier to control.

Today we have seen these divisions become so ingrained that some people see no similarities in struggles between different racialised groups and find working together and genuine solidarity unimaginable. Arguments are now happening about what terms should be used to describe ourselves to ensure that one’s individual experience is differentiated from another’s. Our understanding of race as a social construction is being eroded and its centrality to capitalism forgotten. Race is being naturalised and as a result racialised people are being reduced to smaller and smaller fractions for capitalists to exploit. When groups then reinforce these divisions themselves, they are encouraging competition with other racialised groups, fighting for crumbs and building the racial hierarchy that capitalism relies on – literally doing the job of our oppressors for them.

One of the dangerous directions this also takes us in is one where these separate groups of racialised people are encouraged to embrace capitalism. People from a specific community or belonging to a particular identity will feel invested in everyone with that shared identity. This sort of thinking leads to all kinds of problematic people, groups and organisations being used to signal anti-racism based on their identities regardless of their politics. This is why Barack Obama becomes a symbol of blackness despite his commitment to racist foreign policy that hurts black people, or why black and brown owned businesses are celebrated even when they profit from the exploitation of black and brown workers, exemplified by the South Asian owners of Boohoo exploiting predominantly South Asian women garment workers in Leicester. It comes from a belief that an individual’s success, wealth or status is somehow shared amongst that community. It’s rooted in Mark Fisher’s concept of ‘capitalist realism’ and described by Frederic Jameson as a perception that ‘it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism’ and so through this, we can only conceive of our liberation within a system of exploitation.

Black protesters kneel and raise a fist at a demonstration.
Photo by Clay Banks


The more we reinforce the divisions imposed upon us, the harder solidarity becomes. But race shouldn’t be a barrier to collective organisation. Sectarian divisions were often sewn between the Irish and English working class in the 19th century because organising together, particularly in labour disputes, made them much stronger and more of a danger to the ruling class. Satnam Virdee describes the importance of this unity in radical movements of the time:

Irish Catholic migrants and their descendants emerged as an integral element of the working class movement in England, often playing an important role in the radical industrial and political movements of the period. There was, as Belchem observes, ‘an essential interweaving of English and Irish interests and endeavour, indicative of an all-embracing class loyalty’.

The movements in 1970s and 1980s Britain were crushed because they were growing stronger through organising together. The term ‘black’ was used to represent broad communities of racialised people at the time, and groups like the British Black Panthers and the United Black Youth League organised across racial barriers. The state’s tactic to play on cultural differences within these groups was a deliberate attempt to stop them from working together. In Chicago in 1969, Fred Hampton set up the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ – a movement bringing together disparate groups of working-class people in a united front, addressing the most important issues to working-class communities. It was because of this collective organisation that Hampton was murdered by the state later in the same year. Capitalists fear our unity, and there are many more examples of political proponents of collective organisation across racial barriers that have historically been targeted and attacked by the state, from Steve Biko to Angela Davis. As Hampton said:

Why do I have a lot of arrests? Because of harassment. Why is there harassment? Because the people that harass me set up a problem that made me disagree with them violently. They set up this problem in order to exploit me and other people like me. And why do they want to get rid of me? Because I’m saying something that might wake up some other exploited people and some other oppressed people and if all these people ever get together then these pigs that are exploiting us, we’ll be able to run them into the lake – that’s why they want to get rid of us.

What people like Hampton knew was that we can’t achieve liberation without solidarity, so strengthening divisions and refusing to work together is totally counter-productive. Emphasising our differences and focusing on individual experiences and identities at the expense of organising against structures of oppression is worthless.

There are so many ways in which we can show practical solidarity with victims of racism. In Britain, we don’t have the level of police funding and militarisation that exists in the US and this has been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, but we still experience police brutality. The United Friends and Families Campaign has worked tirelessly for over 20 years calling for justice for those who’ve lost their lives in state custody, working with people from various backgrounds in doing so. There is also the disproportionate targeting of black people through racist tactics like stop and search, and fining people during the recent lockdown. Police monitoring group Netpol states:

Black people are over eight times more likely nationally to be stopped and searched, which rises to 17 times in certain areas. More black people are criminalised and jailed in England and Wales proportionally than in the USA. Recently released ‘use of force’ figures suggest a disproportionate use of force, including Taser use, against men who are black or from an ethnic minority in certain London boroughs.

Monitoring the police, challenging racist tactics and behaviour and supporting legal campaigns against wrongful arrest are important, but developing an understanding of what the police does and why it exists as part of a system of exploitation is key. Calls to defund the police, an explicitly anti-capitalist demand, are gaining traction in many mainstream forums in the US, but also in Britain and across the world. These are forums where we as revolutionaries must be present in making these political arguments, as even those that supported Corbyn’s Labour project were signing up for 10,000 more police on the streets.

And we shouldn’t restrict the target of our anti-racism to the police. The most violent forms of state repression from prisons and detention centres to immigration enforcement are all deeply racist. One of the most visible expressions of this racism and of inhuman government policy is seen at the border, with thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty, risking their lives trying to travel to safety. And yet last month the Home Secretary pledged to make it ‘unviable’ for migrants to cross the Channel, making a dangerous journey more deadly. The state uses its border as a weapon with which to attack the racialised other – migrants trying to find safety and freedom – and as a shield to protect capital. Within Britain, immigration rules have left migrants already exploited by bosses with no support from the state, and without access to healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic. Protests in solidarity with migrants have been loud and demands for safe passage and against racist immigration policies are garnering support, but it is imperative that people are able to see these struggles as inextricably linked to the mass anti-racist struggles that we’ve seen explode around the world this Summer.

The left has to build these links and counter the divisions within our movement urgently if we’re to stand any chance of achieving liberation. We have to have difficult conversations about how we do that, about how we rebuild methods of collective organising and counter the liberal arguments that misdirect our movement wherever they appear. As Marxists we know that in order to destroy racism, we must destroy capitalism, and we can only do that with a mass movement of the working class.


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