Indifferent Commodities and Abstract Labor-Power

By Joel Wendland-Liu

Angela Davis’ Critique of White Supremacy and U.S. Racial Capitalism


In 1951, W.E.B. Du Bois, writing for the National Guardian, warned of the danger of U.S. fascism. “Either in some way or to some degree,” he cautioned, “we must socialize our economy, restore the New Deal and inaugurate the welfare state, or we descend into military fascism which will kill all the dreams of democracy.”[1] Today, Du Bois’s comments register as prophetic. Writing at the height of the McCarthyist repression of the Communist Party and its allies, during which the ascendant U.S. right-wing sought to end New Deal reforms and to protect Jim Crow Laws, Du Bois offered his dire warning of the choice between fascism and socialism. An insurgency of the Black freedom movement[2] forestalled the worst option in his prediction and enabled the democratic reforms enacted subsequently during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. These radical, sometimes revolutionary movements gained so much traction that African American Communist Party leader Claude Lightfoot, one of many imprisoned for his political commitments, surmised confidently that “the [B]lack revolt [could] be complemented by a general social revolution.”[3] In what appears to be a significant departure from Du Bois’s apparent pessimism, Lightfoot affirmed, “I believe that objective conditions are maturing that can in time produce a radical shift in white America.”[4] Among the leading lights of the revolutionary movement lauded by Lightfoot stood Angela Davis, as a lightning rod figure in the Communist Party, and closely associated with the Black Panther Party.

Angela Davis argued that historically specific white supremacy in the U.S., like the development of capitalism, and like all social systems, was made and is remade by people and institutions developed within historically concrete conditions of existence.

Lightfoot’s optimism would not endure as an atmosphere of state and police repression dewcended. Scholars regard this period surrounding Angela Davis’s 1971 trial as the beginning of the end of the Black Power moment.[5]

Navid Farnia and Judson L. Jeffries highlight the “ruthlessness [of] the government repressive apparatus” in working to destroy radical Black organizations such as the Black Panther Party.[6] This ruthlessness drove the hunt for Davis, her arrest, and subsequent trial, and combined with threats to her life and livelihood by some of the most powerful men in the country. The assault on her freedom, however, was not merely an arbitrary abuse of power or demagoguery enacted by angry white men, like Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon. For Davis, the battle for personal freedom served as the opening of a career-long scholarly and activist struggle to make visible and counter the role of the criminal justice system as a pillar of intersecting systems of exploitative class processes, white supremacy, heteronormative patriarchy, and imperialism. Present-day scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Elizabeth Hinton, Marisol Lebron, and Michelle Alexander followed in Davis’s footsteps by exploring these links with varied emphases.[7] In addition to the closure of an era of Black revolt and working-class struggle, the wave of politically and racially motivated repression was an opening for the neoliberal project. The four-plus decades since that transition saw Du Bois’s prediction of fascist domination threaten to manifest, and it opened new forms of resistance.[8] The confluence of these momentous events in the early 1970s suggests that the foundation of neoliberalism—framed as a successful effort by the U.S. ruling class to restore white supremacy—achieved hegemony, in part, by gaining the willing consent of a multi-class formation of mostly white social actors. White supremacy, always foundational to U.S. capitalism, dovetailed with the emergence of neoliberalism, rearticulating the operations of capitalism and systemic racism anew. In this interactive process, exploitative class processes and oppressive social systems like racism, patriarchy, and imperialism recur as constitutive elements. This new moment affirms racism’s role, as Nikhil Pal Singh has argued, as “an infrastructure” of U.S. capitalism, rather than merely a tool or an ideology of the latter, and its persistence in ongoing state-making projects.[9] In this essay, I argue against the neoliberal elision of exploitative class processes in capitalist and imperialist formations, as well as its determined effort to obscure systemic white supremacy behind claims that racist actions are individual choices and that denying the systemic role of race renders it inoperative. Davis’s 1971 prison writings indexed an antidote to these features of the neoliberal project, and they also, by asserting the dialectical interaction of these systems, provided a Marxist-Leninist antecedent to contemporary ideas such as “intersectionality” and “racial capitalism.”[10] Davis’s work provided a corrective to the “retreat from race” that marks neoliberal colorblindness as well as some Marxist attempts to dismiss “identity politics”—a gesture that reads as dismissive of the concept of “race,” the central organizing principle of U.S. historical development.

Class, Race, Neoliberalism, and White Supremacy

In Class, Race, and Marxism, historian David Roediger criticized Marxist and Marxism-influenced radical scholars who have in the past two or three decades led a “retreat from race” in ways that unfortunately parallel neoliberal racial logics. An impulse for universalism situated supposedly in class processes and what some theorists call an attempt to “stabilize sameness,” motivated this retreat.[11] Central to this debate about the role of race or class is the supposed Marxist separation of “identity politics” and anti-capitalism.[12] This divergence appeared in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s influential book Democracy and Capitalism. Her work, for the most part, successfully defended Marxist theoretical positions from anti-Communist, neoliberal erasures of capitalist class processes found in postmodern cultural theories. In Democracy against Capitalism, however, Meiksins Wood made a staggering claim about the relationality of “extra-economic” questions like racism with the more fundamental questions of economic class. She wrote that political struggles around “extra-economic goods” (like racial equality) “remain vitally important, but they have to be organized and conducted in the full recognition that capitalism has a remarkable capacity to distance democratic politics from the decisive centres of social power and to insulate the power of appropriation and exploitation from democratic accountability.”[13] The structure of this argument opened a disciplinary (political and economic) space that elevated exploitative class processes above and beyond racism. She transformed racism into a separate problem that marginally impacts capitalism and its development, positioning racism and other forms of oppression that are said to center on identities as peripheral to the primary and universal problem of class exploitation. Thus, in this view, identity-oriented politics serve only as distracting particularisms that enable capitalist power.

The political-economic policies of U.S. neoliberalism are inseparable from racial politics in the form of white supremacy and capitalist imperialism. To survive, U.S. capitalism could not abandon its forms of oppression.

In contrast to an abstract universalist tendency in some Marxisms, Angela Davis argued that historically specific white supremacy in the U.S., like the development of capitalism, and like all social systems, was made and is remade by people and institutions developed within historically concrete conditions of existence.[14] Specifically, white supremacy cannot be remade without the actions of white people to defend their particular relationship to it, framing Blackness as the object of their scorn, even as the cause of their own suffering. Yes, some white people are more powerful than others, but this power difference is obscured by a general relation to whiteness, delivering what Du Bois called the “psychological wage of whiteness.”[15] The blueprints for those structures have been passed down like blue eyes, trust funds, and despair.[16] Thus, Davis’s direct experience with the criminal justice system, registered a systemic significance for the development of a theory of racial capitalism in her prison writings. This theory helped to frame how we understand neoliberalism—from a Marxist-Leninist perspective—as a hegemonic, multidimensional strategy for maintaining white supremacy and capitalist class rule.

Davis described the “mutual interpenetration”[17] of major social phenomena such as white supremacy, patriarchy, and exploitative class processes. This meant that systems of exploitation and oppression operate semi-autonomously and simultaneously in an overdetermined fashion.[18] If one applies Davis’s theoretical framework to U.S. neoliberal capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st century, it should complicate how scholars deploy the term neoliberalism and characterize its origins and goals. Neoliberalism, within the specific context of the U.S., was the political-economic strategy developed in the latter third of the 20th century designed to restore white supremacy and the fullest power of the U.S. capitalist class. This restoration involved coordinated attacks on organized labor, the civil rights movements, and civil rights laws, in favor of the restructuring of economic activity to enhance precarious work, the implementation of massive funding cuts to public institutions, the operationalization of ideological attacks on the use of public institutions to deepen an array of social inequalities, the militarization of the economy and coercive apparatuses, and the systematic integration of local and regional markets into global commodity chains through instruments of free trade.[19] Neoliberal policies, taken together, constitute a racial project[20]: a white supremacist response to Black liberation, Brown liberation, Indigenous sovereignty movements, and global anti-colonial struggles.[21] Davis’s arrest and trial were egregious maneuvers in that project.

The urgency of restoring white supremacy during an upsurge in Black liberation struggles, similar to the post-Reconstruction restoration constituted neoliberalism. The latter was rooted in U.S. systems of white supremacy and capitalism but altered and reconfigured in new contexts. Racial slavery thus constituted the structure of U.S. capitalist primitive accumulation, but also the constant operation of racist dispossession that has operated in the U.S.: Slavery in the pre- and early industrial era, Jim Crow in the industrial era, and “the new nadir” or Apartheid 2.0 in the neoliberal era of the “New Jim Crow.”[22] Struggles for liberation shaped each period and were framed by structural modes of dispossession legitimized in no small part by racist claims to white superiority.[23] The political-economic policies of U.S. neoliberalism are inseparable from racial politics in the form of white supremacy and capitalist imperialism. Instead, these systems should be regarded as semi-autonomous processes that are made to operate jointly in what Davis now, borrowing the term from Cedric Robinson, calls “racial capitalism.” Thus, to render neoliberalism as only or primarily an economic project is to participate in the colorblind racial project that neoliberalism initiated in the first place.[24]

A Theory of Racial Capitalism

In her essay, “Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation,” Davis deployed a Marxist analysis of Marxist theory itself to understand the intersection of systemic oppressions. Her essay touched on the racist dimensions of capitalist development, but it mainly focused on how a gendered division of labor helped to shape capitalism’s development. Reading the logic and movement of Davis’s argument unearths how she crafted useful theoretical and practical tools for understanding U.S. neoliberalism as a racist project and for imagining and enacting revolutionary struggle and liberation. Davis built that theory by making a case for understanding “the mutual interpenetration of ostensibly unrelated modes of oppression,” such as heteronormative patriarchy, racism, imperialism, and class exploitation.[25]

Following Marx, Davis asserted that in the early stages of capitalist development, i.e., primitive accumulation, people who had usually been organized in localized households or communities found themselves separated from the means of subsistence in favor of social production organized within a space controlled and owned by capitalists. To survive, workers sell their labor power for a wage based on the “socially necessary labor time” needed to produce the commodities they make. If this abstract process mirrored real-life precisely, capitalism should have produced an egalitarian effect on the working class. Davis writes:

[a]s a person, [the worker] would be superfluous to production; only his[26] abstract ability to work would be pertinent. Even in this contingency, he could also discover beneficial features, for, with the notable exception of racism, caste-like distinctions should not interfere when he sold his labor-power on the market. The capitalist commodity is totally indifferent to the origins of the labor which produces it; labor becomes “abstract labor-power,” and each worker of similar skills should always be equal to the next.[27]

This leveling of workers to units of abstract labor should have resulted in a process of “equalization” where distinctions of gender or racist discrimination associated with types and products of labor should have reduced to inconsequential.[28] Even in this formulation, Davis’s notable exception of racism (to the concept of abstract labor) highlighted her skepticism toward this theoretical concept and its worth for understanding how people experience capitalist processes in real life.

If exploitative class processes determined this process solely, why do we find racism and white supremacy prevalent in real life? Why do racist and gender-based discriminations (as well as citizenship-based discriminations) in labor markets, political centers of power, financial markets, policing systems, and educational institutions ensure that one subordinate group earns less income and accumulates less wealth than the next? Why are massive groups of people segmented into structurally determined subordinate workforce positions, and secure fewer public resources for socially necessary goods and benefits, if capitalist development supposedly produces abstract labor and cares nothing for the worker’s social identities? To answer questions such as these, Davis pointed to “a peculiarly society phenomenon” apart from capitalist development, which expresses itself as “an extra economic determinant” that had created the possibility and necessity of racism and sexism to condition and determine the value of labor. While “[t]he capitalist mode of production outstrips all previous modes in transcending virtually all extra-economic determinants,” in the cases of these two social systems, it could not do so for specific “socio-historical” reasons.[29] In contrast to Meiksins Wood’s complete separation of the “extra economic” from class processes, Davis theorized systems of oppression as technologies that condition the terrain of value, exploitation, and accumulation, not merely tools of U.S. capitalist class rule. They made it possible. The distinction here is one of theory and political strategy. For Wood, capitalism was an economic process of class exploitation, despite enduring non-economic processes like racism. The strategy for revolutionary transformation, then is an economic class struggle against capitalist class processes which will subsequently resolve non-economic inequalities. For Davis, political struggles against white supremacy constituted elemental features of U.S. class struggle and necessitated multifaceted revolutionary strategy that mirrored this reality.

To survive, U.S. capitalism could not abandon these forms of oppression.[30] Notably, women’s oppression defied the logic of abstract labor because “their oppression is indeed a result of critical social forces in whose absence the mode of production could not effectively be sustained.”[31] In other words, the necessities of material relations outweighed the rigors of abstract logic. Because the family as a unit of production in pre-capitalist relations tended to divide labor by gender, Davis argued, that division was preserved in the industrial capitalist era to create a separate domain apart from social production, tying women to the domestic sphere in the new period as well (or, in the case of working women, to the dual worlds of publicly and privately exploited labor).[32] All of this was justified by ideological proclamations of a natural order that considered gendered labor as part of the biological identity and role of particular human bodies, and primarily relegated to function as biologically extending from the male anatomy and masculine identity. This material and ideological system did not account for and, thus, systematically erased the reality of non-gender binary individuals or non-heteronormative familial relations. Thus, capitalism adapted gender to organize the labor and production process, as well as an ongoing ideological, cultural, and political project to link men in a chain of heteronormative patriarchal power over the bodies of women. That this project sublimated processes of capitalist exploitation should not cause theorists to dismiss it as simply illusory. Patriarchal power is real, Davis argued. It functions for capitalist accumulation and the political realignment of social forces in reactionary forms.

White Americans perpetually feared victimization, believed criminal perpetrators arose inevitably from specific populations, and accepted the delusion of individualism. They, thus, were more likely to support policies that promoted militarized police presence, the expansion of the privatized prison-industrial complex, and the generalized criminalization of unemployment, houselessness, poverty, or diminished educational access.

The concept of necessity within capitalist relations, e.g., the necessity of capitalism to retain gender hierarchy to function, and the simultaneity of a materialist process and an ideological one seems eminently transferable from this argument to one about the nature of the relationship of racism to capitalism. How then does the supposed production of abstract units of labor explain racism? If commodities do not care who makes them, why would the racial identity (or citizenship status or religious affiliation) of the person making them matter so intensely? Thinking about Davis’s essay in relation to the emergence of neoliberalism, we can apply a new focus on the relationship of racism (white supremacy) with capitalism.

Davis did not address the origins of the relation of racial slavery to capitalist development in the same way she explored the connection of gender oppression and capitalism’s origins, but she did draw out how African-descended people were structured within capitalism as enslaved laborers and excluded from the idealized familial relations intended to serve the reproduction of the laborer and the system. Davis more carefully analyzed this aspect of the development of heteronormative patriarchy under capitalism in her essay (also written in jail) “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” Her analysis of this process began by identifying an originating neoliberal logic: the definition of the African American family as a pathologically failed social institution, a thesis first published in the now infamous 1965 Moynihan Report. That study, with its veneer of academic scholarship, established the myth of the “black matriarch” as the source of that failure, driving subsequent stereotypes of African American women as domineering on the one hand and as welfare cheats on the other. Underlying this ideological appeal to African American cultural inferiority lay the white denial of agency to Black women and men who refused to accept the traditional heteronormative patriarchal model of man-headed households echoed in what Davis calls the “varied, often heroic responses” of African American women to “the slave-holder’s domination” and to the inherent inequality within the patriarchal model of family idealized under modern capitalism.[33]

The managers of U.S. neoliberal policies targeted African Americans in concrete ways. African American responses in the 1970s and 1980s to de-industrialization, rising unemployment, an urban crisis fueled by “white flight,” cuts in resources for public education, unevenly developed healthcare systems, massive influxes of drugs, diseases, and other public health crises are nothing short of heroic. In an essay co-authored with her sister Fania Davis, they reference a study showing that in addition to the permanent loss of more than 11 million jobs in industrial production, which working-class Black households depended on in the period leading up to the mid-1980s, the militarization of the U.S. federal budget and the economy cost Black people “thirteen hundred jobs for each increase of $1 billion in the military budget.”[34] The military budget exploded with the escalation of the war in Vietnam and subsequently with Reagan’s intensification of the Cold War. Meanwhile, rollbacks in welfare, education spending, and healthcare funding along with massive tax cuts for the 1% and powerful corporations exploded the crisis suffered by millions of working-class people to restore the hegemonic power of the 1%.

In this crisis, the idealized family became an ideological tool of the powerful. Heteronormative, patriarchal familial forms under capitalism constituted an institutional myth to preserve the haven for the idealized working male.[35] This fantasy supported the adherence to patriarchal practice, which, as Davis later illustrated in Women, Race, and Class, has historically ensured cross-class solidarity among whites, aimed at the dehumanization of the entirety of African American people, worked to preserve slavery and its subsequent forms of anti-Blackness, not merely as a production system but as a system of white supremacy.[36] The cultural role of the family dovetailed well with neoliberalism, continuing the white supremacist practice of dehumanizing Black people while attacking public institutions that fought poverty. This role fostered contempt in the dominant culture for material kinship relations among African Americans and encouraged the elimination of public institutions that could be blamed as a cause of those relations (like welfare). Individuals and families of color, in the dominant political discourse, became the cause of economic and social crises, rather than their effect. Furthermore, “family values” concepts proved useful in sustaining the projection of a myth of African American cultural breakdown, a source of criminality and crisis generally, and to promote the expansion of mass incarceration facilities and the school-to-prison pipeline.

The white voting public’s response to the structural crisis of capitalism and the neoliberal agenda, in embracing the political figures and policies of the neoliberal agenda, has proven truly pathological. While the managers of the neoliberal policies and structures gained traction in power, a slate of democratic and working-class leaders and movements offered alternatives to that direction of political-economic development. As a leading Communist Party figure and political candidate, Angela Davis supported and campaigned on behalf of many of these programs, laws, and policies. Whites—especially those who formed and still form the overwhelming majority of the right-wing voting bloc in the U.S.—responded by rejecting the social-democratic economic policies of Jesse Jackson in both of his 1980s presidential campaigns,[37] the fundamentally economically oriented Income and Jobs Action Act of 1985 sponsored by Reps. John Conyers and Charles Hayes, a 1989 proposed Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing jobs for every adult American authored by Rep. Major Owens, or similar proposals in 1994 by Rep. Ron Dellums, in 1995 by Rep. Matthew Martinez, and in 1999 by Rep. Barbara Lee.[38] Too often, majorities of white voters resisted those economic solutions to the crisis of capitalism in favor of aligning with heavily racialized appeals to “family values,” individualism, suburban life, segregation, middle-class culture, and law and order. In other words, broadly social-democratic—even socialist—economic solutions to neoliberalism did not win hegemony as a multi-class alliance of whites (and occasionally fractions of minoritized communities) re-forged white supremacy built around ideological configurations of racial hierarchy, colorblind racism, but deeply rooted in anti-Blackness.[39]

“Insidious Individualism,” Intersections, and Revolutionary Praxis

At the heart of the neoliberal racial project lies the cancer of “insidious individualism.”[40] Nurtured on the capitalist mythology of the abstract unit of labor, the pathological “society composed of fragmented individualism lacking any organic or human connection” is held as ideal.[41] As capitalist social relations of production ensnared workers, they became “transfigured into an isolated private individual—isolated from the means of production (hence from the means of subsistence) and equally isolated from the community of producers.” This individualistic alienation fundamentally altered how workers view themselves. According to Davis, “social relations as the nexus of exchange binding commodity to commodity” operated as the only way for one individual to associate with other community members.[42] Identities appeared often as a consequence of commodity acquisition and conspicuous display: white middle-class nuclear families purchase houses in suburbs, cars, big TVs, furniture, and send their children to good schools all of which must be paid for with private resources, usually on credit. They worried about crime, bought security systems and assault rifles, demanded politicians lower their taxes, and expressed anxiety about the creeping dangers of the inner cities—mainly to contrast their own lives with urban others, codewords for Black, Latinx, or people of color communities. In this way, insidious individualism registered fundamentally as a constitutive component of white racial identity. Individualist mythology as whiteness renders collective solutions founded on inter-racial political alliances as marginal, expensive, or inefficient—or even as un-American and racially and culturally “other.”[43] State monopoly capitalism produced obvious social problems, but only the costs and risks socialized for the people were those that offered new avenues for capital accumulation.

Working-class people should prioritize the creation and recreation of identities that in part foster behaviors culturally associated with those yearnings for identity, humanity, and its true essential nature undivided, unalienated by heteronormative patriarchy and capitalist social relations of production.

Davis explored developments such as these, connecting international events with localized patterns of behavior, arguing that current structures and practices of oppression are made possible because they have their origins in slavery laws, institutional racism, and the U.S. Constitutional regime.[44] While the present is not identical to the past, there survived a continuity of structural and ideological racism in those institutions of oppression. Writing from the Marin County jail in 1972, Davis argued that the racist structure of law enforcement should be linked directly to the super-exploitation of Black people as workers. In other words, the descendants of slaveholders had produced a new reality in which “Blacks are imprisoned in a world where our labor and toil hardly allow us to eke out a decent existence.”[45] This function of law enforcement institutions mocks the hypocrisy of U.S. democracy as it “becomes the grotesque caricature of protecting and serving the interests of our oppressors and serving us nothing but injustice.”[46] Today, even though dominant social institutions present themselves as colorblind, they remain inextricably tied to the history of slavery and white supremacy. Indeed, a majority of U.S. whites can be called upon to act with appeals to racism, especially if coded in non-racist terms.

Within this web of connections and the historical recurrence of new articulations of white supremacy was the relation between profits and the popular cultural obsession with insecurity, fear, and terror. White Americans perpetually feared victimization, believed criminal perpetrators arose inevitably from specific populations, and accepted the delusion of individualism. They, thus, were more likely to support policies that promoted militarized police presence, the expansion of the privatized prison-industrial complex, and the generalized criminalization of unemployment, houselessness, poverty, or diminished educational access.[47] Though they rarely saw themselves as racists, they still blamed the victims of social problems as the cause of those problems. They accepted the profitability of private corporations and the logic of growing mass incarceration, because they consented to the notion that private corporations run prisons better than the government and that large swathes of racially “othered” people simply needed to be locked up. As some