New Left Project

Racism and the Political Economy of Domination

Charles W. Mills is John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University.  He is the author of The Racial Contract and has written extensively about racism and political theory.  In an interview with Tom Mills he discussed his views on race, liberalism, capitalism and the potential for social change.

The concept of race as an objective category has long been discredited by anthropology and biology, yet the social sciences show that racial disadvantage persists. How do you understand the concept of race and racism?

On this side of the Atlantic, a lot of work has been done over the past twenty years in critical race theory to develop what could be called a ‘successor concept’ of race. In other words, we’ve inherited a concept that was central to the justification of imperialism, colonialism, African slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, the ‘colour bar’ and the ‘colour line’. And the question then is: what should anti-racist theorists and activists seeking to dismantle the legacy of these systems and practices do with it? 

One obvious option is eliminativism—drop the concept from one’s vocabulary and discourse altogether. On this line of analysis, ‘race’ should be seen as comparable to ‘phlogiston’—a term designating an element within combustible substances supposedly released during the process of combustion. The French chemist Lavoisier showed that combustion does not actually take place by this process, and that in fact ‘phlogiston’ does not exist. So ‘phlogiston’ is scientifically refuted, is doing no work for us, and should just be dropped. 

But contrast that with ‘witch’. Witches in the sense of evil women with supernatural powers don’t actually exist either, so those unfortunate women burned at the stake for this sin were not really witches. But the term is retained in contemporary usage, not just to refer to characters in fantasy novels or films (the White Witch of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels), but to indicate a believer in the Wiccan religion. ‘Witch’ has been reconceived. 

Now ‘race’ is arguably more like ‘witch’ than ‘phlogiston’ in that many social and political theorists have contended it can still do useful work for us. So for these theorists (anti-eliminativists), it is better to retain the term. ‘Race’ is redefined so that it is purged of its unscientific and morally pernicious associations. Instead of seeing race biologically, and as part of a natural hierarchy, one reconceptualizes it so it refers to one’s structural location in a racialised social system, thereby generating a successor concept. People are ‘raced’ according to particular rules—we shift from a noun to a verb, from a pre-existing ‘natural’ state to an active social process—and these ascribed racial identities then tendentially shape one’s moral standing, civic status, social world, and life-chances. In that sense, race obviously does exist, and we can talk about ‘whites’ being privileged and ‘non-whites’ being disadvantaged by particular racial systems without implying any biological referent. 

‘Racism’ has been given various competing definitions, and attributed competing areas of application. I would distinguish between racism in the ideational sense (a complex of ideas, beliefs, values) and racism in the socio-institutional sense (institutions, practices, social systems). For the first sense, the definition I favour would be: Racism is the belief that (i) Humanity can be divided into discrete races, and (ii) these races are hierarchically arranged, with some races superior to others. The second sense would then refer to institutions, practices, and social systems that illicitly privilege some races at the expense of others, where racial membership (directly or indirectly) explains this privileging.

If the earlier, more overt, forms of racism (asserting the inherent inferiority of non-whites) were rooted in the political economy of chattel slavery and colonialism, what are the politico-economic factors behind racism today? In other words, what continues to drive racism?

In a phrase, I would say it’s the political economy of racialised capitalism: the legacy of these systems (chattel slavery, colonialism) both globally (as North-South domination) and in particular nations (the former colonising powers, the former colonies, the former white settler states). White-over-nonwhite racism is not, of course, the only variety; one has to take into account intra-Asian and intra-African racism, as well as Latin American variants where racial antagonisms affect relations between Afro-Latins and indigenous peoples. But obviously on a global scale, white domination has been the most important kind, and some of the latter examples are themselves influenced by the colonial history, as with the Belgian shaping of Tutsi-Hutu relations in Rwanda. So this inherited system of structural advantage and disadvantage, which was heavily racialised, continues to affect life-chances today, thereby reproducing ‘race’ and racial identities as crucial social categories. Where whites are a significant population, they are generally privileged by their racial membership and their resistance to giving up this privilege manifests itself in racial ideologies of various kinds. So racism is most illuminatingly seen in this social and historical context—as an ever-evolving ideology linked with group domination and illicit advantage—rather than in the framework of individual ‘prejudice’ favoured by mainstream social theory. 

Before we get onto the idea of ‘racial liberalism’, could you first outline what you mean by liberalism?

By liberalism I mean the ideology that arises in Europe in the 17th-18th centuries in opposition to feudal absolutism, predicated on the equal rights of morally equal individuals, and having as its key figures such political thinkers as John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. Obviously, as even this brief list indicates, there are many different strains within liberalism: contractarian vs. utilitarian versions, property and self-ownership-based vs. personhood-respecting versions, right-wing neo-liberalism vs. left-wing social-democratic liberalism. But in theory all these different variants are supposed to be committed to the flourishing of the individual. 

What I call ‘racial liberalism’ is then a liberalism in which—independent of which particular version we’re considering—key terms have been rewritten by race so as to generate a different set of rules for members of different ‘races’, R1s and R2s, because (historically) the R2s don’t meet the criteria of the capacity for attaining individuality. So I am following the example of second-wave feminist liberals from the 1970s onwards, and arguing that we need to see liberalism as structurally shaped in its development by group privilege, in this case white racial privilege. ‘Racial liberalism’ as a theoretical construct is then supposed to be analogous to ‘patriarchal liberalism’. 

There is little overt racism in political theory today. In what way is liberal political theory still compromised by the issue of race?

Again, the feminist model and theoretical precedent is very useful here. Women active in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s who went into the academy and political theory came to the realization that the ‘maleness’ of the work of the central canonical figures ran deeper than stigmatizing references to women, though these were offensive enough. Overtly sexist patriarchal liberalism explicitly represents women as lesser creatures not deserving of equal rights, appropriately to be subjected to male authority, not permitted to vote or own property, having their legal identity subsumed into their husbands’ under the doctrine of coverture, etc. But the point second-wave feminists made was that even now, when formal gender equality has been attained and sexism is officially repudiated, liberalism remains patriarchal in its conceptualization of the official polity, its view of the individual, its division of society into public and private spheres, its exclusion of the family from the ambit of justice, and so forth. So for substantive as against merely nominal gender inclusiveness, what is necessary is a rethinking of inherited political categories from the perspective of women, a rethinking guided by the desire to achieve genuine gender-inclusivity in the cartography of the political and thus facilitate the struggle for genuine gender equity in the polity itself.

You can see how this line of argument can be adopted and translated for race. My similar claim is that liberal political theory is so shaped by the history of white domination, both national and global, that, analogously, it tacitly takes as its representative political figure the white (male) subject. The parallel is not perfect, since male domination/patriarchy already exists at the dawn of modernity, whereas European domination/white supremacy does not. So you don’t get the same taken-for-grantedness of the rightness of European rule that you get for male rule—it’s more contested. Jennifer Pitts’s A Turn to Empire, for example, is subtitled The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France, and the point is to demarcate a transition from an early liberalism with significant anti-racist and anti-imperialist elements to a later liberalism more uniformly racist and imperialist. But the dominant variety does, of course, eventually become a liberalism that assumes the superiority of Europe as the global civilization, and the identity of Europeans as the appropriate agents of the civilizing process. John Locke justifies aboriginal expropriation and invests in African slavery; Immanuel Kant turns out to be one of the pioneering theorists of modern ‘scientific’ racism; Georg Hegel’s World Spirit animates the (very material) colonial enterprise; and John Stuart Mill, employee of the British East India Company, denies the capacity of barbarian races in their ‘nonage’ to rule themselves. 

The way in which contemporary liberalism is still compromised by race is, in my opinion, in the failure to rethink itself in the light of this history. Liberalism needs to be reconceptualised as ideologically central to the imperial project; colonial and imperial domination need to be recognised as political systems in themselves (so, as with the gender critique, the boundaries of the polity would be redrawn); liberalism’s official ontology needs to officially admit races as social existents (they’re already tacitly there); and above all, in normative political theory (the distinctive terrain of political philosophy), racial justice needs to be placed at centre-stage. 

What causes the ‘colour blindness’ of liberal political theory?

To begin with, there’s just the huge weight of the European tradition’s focus on the white political subject (which we’re now to read as the generic colourless political subject), and the thousands of books and tens of thousands of articles over the years that take it for granted, thereby constituting an overwhelmingly hegemonic set of norms for what counts as ‘real’ political theory. Perhaps one could also add that it’s just theoretically simpler and easier to operate as if people of colour can be subsumed under these categories without rethinking them. And it could be argued that group interest plays a role: the interests of a largely white profession in not having these troubling questions raised, given their disruptive implications for the social order that racial liberalism has rationalised and from which whites benefit. 

Radicals argue that it is impossible to realize the liberal vision of class equality within the framework of a capitalist system. Is the same true of race? How do you see race as relating to class and can racism be defeated without fundamental social change?

One’s view of the relation of race and class will obviously depend on one’s larger social theory. Within the Marxist tradition, various attempts have been made to give a historical materialist explanation of race and racism, usually centring (as your second question intimated) on claims about the peculiar political economy of imperial capitalism and the articulation of modern African slavery to its workings. Class-reductionist versions would represent race as ‘really’ being class in disguise, class in non-white skin—non-wage-labour in the form of slavery, or as sub-proletarianised labour. Other versions, drawing on Gramsci, would talk about race as ideology, as a particular way of being in the world and making sense of that world. 

My own sympathies are with attempts to combine the materialist dynamic that is crucial for Marxism with a theorization that takes account of issues like personhood, less well theorised in the Marxist tradition. In my own work, I have argued that we need to see white supremacy as a system of domination in its own right, whose dynamic—even if it is originally generated by expansionist capitalism—then attains a ‘relative autonomy’ of its own. So when, in the U.S. for example, the white working class excludes blacks from unions and joins lynch mobs, they are not just (as a top-down, bourgeois manipulation model would have it) serving capitalist interests but affirming and developing an identity that, in certain respects, pays off for them. David Roediger, inspired by E.P. Thompson, argues in his The Wages of Whiteness that the white American working class makes itself as white. 

In the US, whites in general, including the white working class, benefit materially from their whiteness in numerous ways: the original expropriation of the continent from Native Americans; the diffusion within the white economy generally of the surplus from slave labour; the differential access to jobs, promotions, bank loans, transfer payments from the state; the benefits of segregated housing and consequent wealth accumulation. Moreover, things are getting worse rather than better. A 2011 online report by the Pew Research Center says that, because of the recession and the sub-prime meltdown, the median wealth of white households is now twenty times the median wealth of black households and eighteen times the wealth of Latino households, the highest ratio since the government started to collect these figures. 

So for me it is a mistake, as the left tradition has too often done, to see only class—one’s relationship to the means of production in the famous ‘base’ of the base-and-superstructure—as material, and to only recognize class exploitation. Socialist feminists in the 1970s and ‘80s argued that we needed to see capitalist patriarchy as a dual system in which gender was also part of the material base. I would claim that this needs to be extended to race. Races as social entities exist and are connected in relations of racial exploitation. So the ‘big three’—class, gender, race—are all part of a political economy of domination. And race is material also, both in terms of economic advantage/disadvantage and in terms of patterns of social cognition being shaped by the body. It’s not a biological materiality (that would be biological determinism); it’s a social materiality rooted in the relation between the individual body and the body politic that needs to be conceptually differentiated from class, even if class forces explain its origins. (That would be a point of disanalogy with gender.) 

My own view of the race/class differentiation is that race is originally the demarcator of full and diminished personhood. The white working class in capitalist modernity do attain personhood status; the Native American or Native Australian, the African slave, the colonial subject, do not. 

You can see why this would immediately seem very problematic from the perspective of orthodox Marxism. I am claiming to be sympathetic to materialism and yet giving theoretical centrality to a moral category! But bear in mind that what I really mean is (in the Hegelian tradition, materialistically understood) socially recognised personhood. Race functions as a ‘materially embedded’ moral category, signifying membership or non-membership in the subset of humans recognised as fully human, and linked to the materialist political economy of Euro-domination. So what we have is a triple system involving the interaction of one’s relationship to the means of production, to gender structures, and to socially recognised personhood and sub-personhood. 

So I would agree that ‘fundamental social change’ is required to defeat such a system. The question is: what counts as fundamental? The original left claim would have been that the imbrication of class and race is so thorough that a socialist revolution is required to get rid of racism. But the problem today, of course, is the discrediting of the left in a ‘post-Marxist’ world without any attractive ‘post-capitalist’ models. So could you have ‘fundamental social change’ in the form of a revolutionary transition from white-supremacist capitalism (the dominant variety since modernity) to non-white-supremacist capitalism? I am hoping so, since a socialist revolution in the Marxist sense no longer seems likely, and the 20th-century history of Stalinist regimes claiming the socialist label is a depressing one. But given the points I just made myself about white working-class benefit from racialised capitalism, what is going to motivate them to join with people of colour in such a struggle? Materialism rules out moral motivation as a prime social mover, so it would have to be perceived group interest. 

What would be necessary is a political project that makes a plausible case that the long-term group interest of poorer and working-class whites (looking ahead to the fates of their children and grandchildren) would be better served by a more egalitarian, redistributivist capitalism, and that racial division, by its weakening of the working class, has played a crucial role in enabling the development of plutocratic capitalism. I believe that one can make such a case in the United States, given the historic centrality of race to social division here and the dizzying heights to which income and wealth inequality have ascended in recent years (the highest in the Western democracies). I’m not sure about Britain. 

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of the New Left project.

About this article

Published on 12 April, 2012
By Charles W. Mills, Tom Mills