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 t