Adolph Reed Jr. provides a salutary contribution to “the race/class debate” with his “Response to Backer and Singh.” Like a good polemic it is short and to the point. It is hostile to the academicism that does indeed sometimes contaminate these debates. Its own contribution, if not academic, is a bit abstract. The essay’s villains are those “fundamentally committed to a racialist view that imputes a singular, authentic consciousness and values, aspirations and mores to racially designated populations.” These people imagine that race is somehow autonomous from class, and that certain racialized communities are nobly but passively victim to capital’s predations — that they do not do class, as it were, but rather that it is something done to them. Contrarily, as Reed argues, we must recognize that “class processes operate organically within populations identified as black et al.” The contradictions and dispossessions of class society are to be found within and without every community and thus it is the problem of class that always confronts us. We misrecognize this at our peril: “This isn’t a serious politics, or at least, it isn’t a left politics.”
Let us stipulate all of this. We are not sure that the thought villains imagined here, those who believe that “the Black Panthers can save us,” really exist in the dangerous proliferation that the polemic seems to suppose. But still, let us stipulate the basics of the argument: all society is class society; any demographic subsection features unequal class relations of exploitation, that is, the extraction of surplus value; treating race as an autonomous phenomenon upon which capitalism simply acts, rather than something entirely bound up in capital’s contradictions, is political error.
If we concede Reed these points for the moment, it is for a simple reason. His approach is designed, consciously or not, to draw a specific response. By insisting on the primacy of class over “identitarian” concerns, he invites an outraged counterdemand to recognize the foundational status of race as a feature of the political, with its own history and structure — an argument that will affirm his own critique of those who treat race autonomously. If one does not take that bait, he offers a fallback position to his imagined interlocutors: “bothandism,” weakly wishing that we can think about both race and class. Rather than follow either of these two courses that Reed puts on offer, we are more interested in noting the limits of his own argument even if one accepts his suppositions.
Proceeding in reverse, we note that “bothandism” both gestures toward and counterfeits the real situation. On the one hand, it indicates the need to grasp both race and class in thinking about political struggle. On the other, much as with the current usage of “intersectionality,” it supposes that race and class are distinct social phenomena that can merely be concatenated, like peanut butter and jelly. But they are not. And this is in some sense the entire point. It turns out that it is Reed who now treats race and class as autonomous phenomena, demanding that we recognize class as something that cuts across all other lines but is not itself similarly cut. Animated by antipathy to what he variously denotes as antiracism or culturalism or identity politics, he appears to have abandoned prior efforts within his oeuvre to better formulate the unity of race and class, in favor of an argument in which race is merely appearance, a “halo that obscures… material dynamics.”
This is a simple mistake. We might return to the work of Noel Ignatin and Theodore Allen, who argue in “The White Blindpot” — by way of Marx, that great identitarian — that the differential valuing of certain lives via racist (and nationalist) denigration is not only an ideological division of the working class against itself, but also a material method through which wages for all workers can be driven down. It is thus a basis for ongoing systematic profitability. If state violence, expressed most obviously by the police, goes to great lengths to make sure that black lives matter less, one necessary outcome is that black people can be (and are) paid less—which means that other people can be pushed to take lower pay in turn, with a readymade hierarchy of disposability in place for further disciplining labor. When we say “necessary outcome,” we mean in the first case necessary for capitalism, necessary to the bourgeoisie for whom profit is the one grail. That’s class, which is not wealth, but the matter of whether you extract surplus value from others or have it extracted from you. Class reproduces itself via this extraction, via the profitability of capitalism.
Let us return to Reed’s desiderata: all society is class society; any demographic subsection features unequal class relations of exploitation, that is, the extraction of surplus value; treating race as an autonomous phenomenon upon which capitalism simply acts, rather than something entirely bound up in capital’s contradictions, is political error. It should now be clear that one can accept all of this and still understand that race and class form a unity—that it is trivial unto meaninglessness to treat one without the other. It turns out that the reproduction of class depends, has always depended, on the unequal valuing of lives conducted according to race (and sex or gender as well, which Reed does not discuss), whether it is in the form of slavery, of Jim Crow, of last hired/first fired policies, of Chinese Exclusion Acts and the French Immigration and Integration Law and Windrush generations.
Have these dynamics so fundamentally changed in the post-civil rights era that the role historically played by racist differentiation within the field of internationalist class struggle is now played by antiracism? This seems very close to what Reed now argues elsewhere, holding that “antiracist politics now is fundamentally antagonistic to a left politics of broadly egalitarian social transformation....It is openly antagonistic to the idea of a solidaristic left.” Amidst nationalist calls to renovate white labor, the long period of sequestering black poverty via policing and prisons, and redoubled efforts across the west’s shrinking kingdoms to force labor without status into the shadows, it would appear that the racialized character of class domination has only intensified. We would concede that there are contemporary expressions of antiracism divorced from these phenomena—but there are others, part of the rich tradition of the left, that remain no less essential to elucidating and radicalizing opposition to them. An emerging left, struggling to fuse antiracist and anticapitalist commitments, should be engaged and supported, not dismissed.
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To insist that race is not some self-apparent essence but a historical fiction does not entail what Reed calls “culturalism.” Race is a necessary fiction for capitalism, just as is private property, just as is the idea that you can be free at the same time that you must sell yourself to another if you wish to eat. Conversely, a conception of “class” (and class struggle) confined to a normative national, social history of wage labor, one that excludes social relations anchored in rightlessness, wagelessness, and extra-economic coercion, obscures the violence constituting capitalism’s capacity to reproduce itself. It is that violence that undergirds the well-known formulation by Stuart Hall and his comrades, “race is the modality in which class is lived,” capturing the fundamental social experience of the unity of race and class. If anyone thinks they have a serious left politics that ignores both this lived experience and its material basis, and offers instead a one-sided and incomplete account of what capitalism is and how it works, we encourage them to think again.