Revisiting Race and Marxism: A Conversation Between Gramsci, Hall, and the Operaisti

part of this text was presented at HM London earlier this month.


So, hey, team. I’m very excited and honored to be here. Thanks to all the organizers for putting on this event, I appreciate all the labor that is seen and unseen. I’d like to thank the team at Notes from Below for encouraging my participation at the event. And also thanks very much to my comrades Victor and Antje – whose unending input is the marrow that resides between the lines of this, and all my work.

That said, I’m here to talk about the relation between Marxism and the question of race and racism. The way Marxists handle racism today is especially important. The interregnum we find ourselves in is, no doubt, defined by danger.

Current events urge me to echo Hall’s observations around the crisis of Fordism in Great Britain: “race is the lens through which people come to perceive” a crisis in progress, it is “the framework through which the crisis is experienced” and “the means by which the crisis is to be resolved” (Hall, 2017, p.152). In short words, it is imperative we combat racism at the current conjuncture. That is, in a world where  the crisis of neoliberalism is defined by racism on the one hand and mass left organization on the other, it is particularly pertinent to try to theorize how these should relate.

And as an organizer in this crisis, someone that has been involved in both the American and German social formations, the question of developing an effective and mass antiracism is particularly salient. So here’s my first proviso: I am not a formal theorist of racism, I am a militant. And it is as such, as someone currently engaged in struggle and wishes to see victory, that I approach the subject. And it is as someone in the mesh of the grassroots, engaged in a churn of discourses around racism, that I came here today, to receive input on a possible method of analysis capable of understanding the specificity and function of racism on the one hand, and is, on the other hand, capable of mapping different processes of subjectivization within class formations in order to understand potential. 

In what follows, I will briefly sketch my issues with intersectional analysis (a dominant – but contested – form of analyzing difference) and state why understanding racism is so vital to movement building. From here, I’ll propose a methodological trajectory that necessitates understanding the life of racism in capitalism not at the level of mode of production, but at the historical concrete level, and examine the formal subsumption of racism into the historical organizational formation of capitalism. From here, I will propose charting the trajectory of racism, and in turn, the formation of racialized subjects within classes, through an expanded form of compositional analysis, And I will end this presentation by highlight the formation of historical blocs and the place of racism within these.  

On Developing a Framework Beyond Intersectionality

Now, while I find intersectional analysis to have been a necessary intervention, there are some theoretical and practical concerns I have with the framework. Without going to deeply into these, suffice is to say that I find Jasbir K. Puar’s observation that often times, intersectional analyses tend to center whiteness in such a way that it produces “others” by way of triangulating “difference from” whiteness (Puar, 2012). More often than not, this produces difference as a kind of contradiction rather than, as Puar says, “recognizing it as a perpetual and continuous process of splitting” (Puar, 2012, p. 53). As Puar reflects, “Subject positioning on a grid is never self-coinciding; positioning does not precede movement but rather it is induced by it; epistemological correctives cannot apprehend ontological becomings; the complexity of process is continually mistaken for a resultant product” (Puar, 2012, p.50).

Furthermore, at a practical level, I agree with Salar Mohandesi and Asad Haider that at the level of political grassroots, intersectional politics gives way to a kind of experiential-reductionism that equates one’s “identity” with one’s political conduct (Mohandesi, 2017; Haider, 2018).

Of course, we have to take seriously the production of racialized difference within the working class and social formations more broadly. I concur with Satnam Virdee’s assessment that “there is a long-standing racialization of class politics” and as Rodrigo Nunes points out, the turn to questions of identity and micropolitics “was motivated by questions of political effectiveness and started precisely from the idea that the reason for the shortcomings of vanguardist politics lay in its deficient understanding of who or what the enemy was” (p.171).

This isn’t a matter of being politically correct: it is a matter of understanding power and strategy. It is, a matter of political effectiveness.

Formal Subsumption as Form and Knowledge-Power

But, first things first: To understand racism, I don’t think it’s useful to explain it from the level of mode of production. If our concern is understanding the place of racism at a particular conjuncture, there is little that level of determinacy can say. That level of determinacy, to quote Hall, is not concerned “whether the capitalist is tall or short, brown or white, Chinese or American” as it has no consequence at the abstract level (Hall, 2016, p.91). But if we want to talk about “the formation of the particular capitalist class in Britain and the particular ways in which that class has evolved historically, then you have to say something about its emergence out of other social and class formations” (Hall, 2016, p.91).

To understand racism, we have to begin by understanding the historically developed ways it emerged from the concrete, historical level. And at the concrete historical level, we see that racism has its roots in the discovery of the Americas as a classificatory and organizational system rooted in religion as the guarantor of ‘truth,’ to quote Hall. Entire societies within the colonies (and in relation to the metropole) become organized along racialized lines that without a doubt intermixes with class formation. In the colonies, class formation is racialized. The foundational question of the colonies is which people can be enslaved, which cannot?

To echo Karen and Barbara Fields, racism invented race. And race, as Hall postulates, “is a discourse” that operates “like a language, like a sliding signifier” that “reference not genetically established facts but the systems of meaning” that through their institutionalization are instituted as regimes of truth. Race achieves  “its effects through the ways in which discursive systems organize and regulate the social practices of men and women” (Hall, 2017, p.45-46)

And it was in precapitalist colonial society – where  race was the dominant organizer social and economic relations –  where biopolitics actually first emerges. Not alongside the ascendance of historical capitalism in Europe, but with the discovery of the Americas. Here, you have the discovery of populations so to speak and the discovery of the trainable body, both of which form part of the technological core capitalism as Foucault (2012) states in his “Mesh of Power” lecture at the Federal University of Bahia in 1976. It is in the colonies that know-how becomes increasingly important (before the ascent of capital as a mode of production), and increasingly instrumentalized for the purpose of “making society into a machine of production.” Indeed, the object of the colonies is not to construct a society: it is to maximize production.

This ability to instrumentalize know-how is what Foucault calls knowledge-power and it is defined, as Jaques Bidet (2016) informs us, by the possession, production, and application of knowledge, geared ‘separating, distinguishing, objectivizing’ people such that it at is at once ‘subjectivizing and productive” (p.64-65). Racism operates as such s system of knowledge-power that provides a definitive quality (alongside patriarchy) of the feudal mode of production.

Now, when capitalism becomes ascendent, it’s not like the organizational forms of the subsumed social formation just disappear, right? It’s not like, “Hey make room world, the stage can only fit proles and capitalists, so the rest of y’all gotta GTFO.” Taking the United States as an example, racism is in operation across the apparatuses. It was at play at worksites, its at play on the streets, at the universities, at play in cultural productions, at play in the legal system, and no doubt at play regarding property ownership. The entire field of power relations is endowed, saturated with racist characteristics. Racism becomes an integral part of capitalism. It’s in its marrow.

So when capitalism comes into being, again taking the US as an example, it has to do something with this racist world it’s coming up into. I disagree that capitalism “opportunistically” deploys racism. Because again, not at the level of mode of production, but at the level of concrete history, the circuitry of relations is saturated by racism to the degree that they become historically necessitated, in a manner derived in fact from Cinzia Arruzza’s arguments for a unitary analysis of capitalism,.

And I say this in order to highlight this process of formal subsumption wherein, capitalism encounters pre-existing forms of production and ‘it encounters them as antecedents, but not as antecedents established by itself, not as forms if its own life process” to quote Tomba (2017) quoting Marx.

This produces, as Harry Harootunian observes, a “heterogenous [temporal] mix rather than the destruction of one mode by another” (p. 206).  Regarding Harootunian’s perspective, Tomba (2017) discerns that “formal subsumption as form does not belong to a specific historical stage, but more generally, it characterizes the struggle between the temporality of the capitalist mode of production and different temporalities.” This process is no doubt specific to each social formation.

Again, in the United States, we see clearly the results of this struggle between temporalities. Regardless of north or south, racism continues to define social relations across the American social formation after the Revolution (which marks the final political divorce of the American bourgeoisie from the British social formation), but to stratified degree given the bifurcation around slavery. That equilibrium that constitutionalization marked was no doubt unstable leading to a final confrontation between what is essential a dual-power scenario between the capitalist North and the feudal South.

And of course, racism didn’t disappear after the Civil War, but it did transform. And it transformed due to struggles that were forcing transformation on the capitalist totality, because, after all, capitalism is defined by the struggle between capitalists and the proletariat.

The Specific Conjuncture and Expanded Compositional Analysis

Returning to Hall however, the historical concrete forces of capital and the working class are often difficult to locate. No doubt, when it comes to the historical and concrete formation of forces, Hall highlights Marx’s exemplar conjunctural text: the eighteenth Brumaire. Here one encounters a Marx for whom  the world is not composed of capitalists and proletarians, but a diverse cast of actors.

Hall is perceptive to note that “at the level of the specific conjuncture, all kinds of social and political forces come into play that could not conceivably appear at the level of the mode of production, and which have no precise class location: the army, priests, officials, lawyers, writers, and journalists.” Marx “hardly talks about” “capital and labor” and instead talks about “the real fractions, divisions, and subdivisions of classes.”

It is here, within class formations, that one can clearly discern racialized segmentations. It is this “process of splitting” that is the result of class struggle, of the war between capital and the working class.

The Operaisti and Foucault are particularly useful in charting the dynamics and physics of this war: that is, in drawing up a moving map of relations that allows us to chart the ever changing composition of classes and subjectivities at and across particular conjunctures.

The creation and deployment of compositional analysis by the operaisti is perhaps one of their most definitive theoretical innovations. In what follows, I borrow from their original discoveries, and the recent innovations made by the Class Inquiry Group from Notes from Below, alongside the amazing work done around Social Reproduction Theory, and expand these in order to account for racism and racialized class segmentation.

Composition is composed in part by technical composition, which for me, should refer to the ever-changing material organization of labor power and its relation to political and instrumental technologies, managerial techniques (including those that are racialized and gendered), and the overall design of the labor process and its relation to the state. Technical composition is about figuring out what the working class and capitalist class are, about the workplace and production, and the ways the state orders these relations.

Social composition, on the other hand, points to the ever-changing spheres of activities and structures outside of the production circuit and the workplace – where social reproduction takes place. It involves factors like: the spatial and social segregation of populations, the gendered division of reproductive labor, the ethnicization of social groups, patterns of leisure, cultural formations, the places of the state in these activities, etc. It includes then the specific material organization of classes and subjects through activity outside of the workplace. As those spearheading social reproduction theory constantly remind us, it’s about looking at capitalism as a totality not just as a production process.

Political composition then refers to the conduct of political forces that are born out of these constantly shifting, changing configurations and arrangements of forces. The way these forces conduct themselves, form themselves and develop re-subjectivize themselves, how they combine, articulate and fall apart, how they conduct struggle and resistance. Political composition thus signals the non-mechanical way people – at the individual and collective level – conduct themselves politically within the material boundaries established by technical and social composition.

Now, Mario Tronti is renowned for his so-called Copernican Inversion, wherein he posited that it is the struggle by the working-class that propels history and innovates the forms of domination and exploitation wielded by the bourgeoisie. While I think this takes away quite some agency on the part of capital, it is his focus on struggle as motor of history that I wish to emphasize. This struggle, between forces, gives rise to endless segmented cycles of composition, de-composition, and re-composition.

To understand this segmented nature of composition, Its necessary to articulate composition with Foucault’s conceptualization of relations of power and relations of strategy.

Now, in their recent work Wars and Capital Maurizio Lazzarato and Eric Alliéz rediscover a very important relationship that Foucault postulated in “The Subject and Power” between relationships of power on the one hand and strategic confrontations on the other. Here they observe that “Power relationships are of the type governing/governed and designate relationships between partners, whereas strategic confrontations oppose adversies” (Alliéz & Lazzarato, 2016, p.279). They quote Foucault “A relationship of confrontation reaches its term, its final moment (and the victory of one of the two adversaries), when stable mechanisms replace the free play of antagonistic reactions. Through such mechanisms one can direct, in a fairly constant manner and with reasonable certainty, the conduct of others” (Alliéz & Lazzarato, 2016, p.279).

The ‘automatisms’ that such subjectivization secure are the results of strategic confrontations, as all strategic confrontations “dream” of becoming a relationship of power (Alliéz & Lazzarato, 2016, p.281). Of course, “once power apparatuses ensure a certain continuity, predictability, and rationality of conduct of the governed” it does not mean this is a permanent state as struggle always ensues: for this reason, “relations of power and strategic relationships should not be seen as successive moments but as relationships that can continuously be reversed and which, in fact, co-exist.”

So, these strategic confrontations that Alliéz and Lazzarato bring up, these occur at the level of political composition and they transform the power relationships of the regions (sites) that make up the technical and social compositional spheres. In this way, power effects can circulate across the map. They molarize in Guattarian terms. Or they don’t and they stay molecular: that is, local, disarticulated, insular. However, what is key is that the formation of power relations create a multitude of subjects through a “perpetual process of splitting” as Puar said earlier.

Indeed as David Roediger observes in colonial Virgina, black and white subjectivizations don’t become made until a rebellion spurs property owners to create divisions that confer different ranks and privileges according to phenotypes. These racial classifications that are really what Foucault would call political technologies: “inventions” that are “in the last instance, the condition of possibility for the functioning of other” technologies (like the factory as a whole). If race is a language, it signifies who can be expropriated.

Nonetheless, what these significations, these subjectivities mean is always changing. As Hall would remind us, racism is always historically specific as race functions as a sliding signifier. And what makes that signifier slide is struggle of course. The discourses, practices, and techniques around people with black skin are always changing through the constant stabilization, destabilization, and restabilization of power relations. The signifier that is the “body schema,” the “data” that weaves Fanon “out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories” constantly slip and slide according to the motions of struggles. This is why, for example, the grammar of racism has shifted from biological to cultural frames –  an example of the ways struggle continues to achieve discursive victories.

It is this constant struggle that results on the one hand with a multiplicity of subjects and on the other explains the concrete ways in which classes form and develop differentials within these that are always in motion, never static, continuously in a process of arrangement and articulation across multiple axes and vectors.

Now, as struggles unfold over the compositional spheres and between them, disequilibriums develop and the relation of forces naturally becomes unstable resulting in crises. That is, as power relations become contested through war relations – which are, in the end, themselves characterized by relations of maneuver or position in Gramscian terms – the arrangements of victories and defeats by fundamentally antagonistic adversaries necessitate new equilibriums.

Historical Blocs and Settlements

This leads me to Gramsci’s concept of historical blocs which Brecht de Smet acutely observes, represent “the moment of unity of society, pointing to the integration”  of “specific and dynamics ensemble of social relations” that contain within themselves internal contradictions (Brecht de Smet, p.17 & p.23). These operate as “historical settlements” as Hall would call them, but given their foundation on exploitation and domination, they give way to struggle which re-initiates the ending cycles of composition.

Each historical bloc marks a specific settlement or equilibrium of hegemonic forces, discourses, and power relations that are defined by the non-mechanical ways struggle unfolds across the compositional fields and composes class relations inherited from the previous historic cycle.

Racism thus functions particularly to each bloc and it is subject to change alongside the cycles of struggle that are shifting the terms of racism and racialized subjectivization.

Not only does this produce an array of subjects within the strict capital-labor relation, but as these struggles unfold, the equilibriums of historical blocks become tense, and the relations between force must be re-modulated through revolutions in both social and technical compositional fields.

And now, unlike intersectional theory, we’ve come across a de-centered way of tracing the ever shifting articulation of subjects, of situating the sequential development of racism through the lens of composition, and charting the ways struggles slide signifiers and are themselves the result of strategic confrontations that temporarily solidify into power relations. What is white is not at the center, but the way struggle unfolds and constantly composes, decomposes, and recomposes relationships and spheres of activity within a capitalist totality, moving from equilibrium to equilibrium until revolution may provide a rupture from the cycle. This totality, in turn, is an expressive, structural totality in which “different processes are functioning together, not because they are the same, but because they are different and because they are articulated together” (Hall, p.89).

The subjectivization that results from these power relations push for a particular kind of conduct, but this relationship is not stable. And thus one can be in a technical position of whiteness (positionally benefiting from the historically specific regime of ranks and privileges it allots), but does not necessarily equate a specific or mechanical political conduct. 

Once more, the task is to uncover the historically developed relationships of the subjects at play, and these have no intrinsic value, as Deleuze and Guattari would tell us. This is determined by the broader arrangement of historically developed relations of force.

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