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Does David Roediger disagree with Ellen Meiksins Wood?

Originally published: Verso on July 24, 2017 (more by Verso)  |

I. David Roediger’s new collection of essays is the subject of a kind of symposium over at the Verso blog, with a predictable commentary on social media.

I have a question. It’s been gnawing at me for a while. And it is this: does David Roediger actually disagree with Ellen Meiksins Wood? To those not invested in such debates, this will sound impeccably nerdile, as indeed it is. But for those who have an interest in marxist debates, if you bear with me, the question has ramifications for our analysis of capitalism.

Let me quote him directly from his new book, where he takes David Harvey to task for refuting the idea that Black Lives Matter and Ferguson type struggles are in any sense anticapitalist:

“The most dynamic new work often calls into question the easy distinction that Harvey makes between capital, whose logic is said to exclude racial divisions, and capitalism, which has on his view happened to hold sway in a long epoch littered with such divisions. In making this distinction Harvey retools the theorist and historian Ellen Meiksins Wood’s contention that “Class exploitation is constitutive of capitalism as gender or racial inequality are not.” While Wood’s shorthand has provoked criticism from within Marxism, hers and Harvey’s view remains broadly the dominant interpretation.” (p 25)

The Harvey/Wood interpretation (see Wood’s argument with Adolph Reed here for the background), he acknowledges to be the dominant interpretation among Marxists.

But Roediger has sought from the beginning to question this approach, attacking the idea most directly in How Race Survived US History, and The Production of Difference, co-written with Elizabeth Esch. In the former, Roediger situates race not as incidental to US capitalism, but as a key organising principle. In the latter, Roediger & Esch survey the history of race management in US corporations, arguing that the ‘production of difference’ has been integral to the efficient extraction of surplus value, so that race is not separable from the ‘logic of capital’.

Again, let me quote directly, from each publication respectively. In the first, Roediger argues with neoliberal accounts of slavery and capitalism:

“That the spectacular industrial capitalist take-off of the post-revolutionary US produced no firm drive to make labour abstract, raceless, and subject to a level playing field of market forces, nor any successful attempts to insure that free, self-employed labour would be a reality even for white men, are omissions both deserving of discussion … Multiple economic, cultural and political ties bound Northern capital to Southern slavery. Not only did the earlier legal slave trade provide both finance and models for pooling capital to Yankee investors, but the illegal post-1808 slave trade continued to power investment in New England textiles. … Without such interregional ties it would hardly have been possible for the small number of large-scale slave owners to dominate politics and law for so long, even given the constitutional arrangements aggrandising their power. … Plantation owners made management and investment decisions fully within a context of transnational capitalism. In 1860, for example, 75 per cent of US cotton was exported, while no more than 5 percent of antebellum grain production was sold in foreign markets. Understanding such patterns ensures that we do not opt for the easy explanation that capitalism and trade automatically acted as a solvent for racial inequality, or for the mirror twin of such an explanation—that the real dramas of US history were about ‘economics’ in ways that were somehow separable from race.” (pp. 68 & 72-3)

In the second, Roediger & Esch argue with the tendency of Marxists to flatten out distinctions within capitalist labour:

From The Communist Manifesto forward, capitalism has for more than 160 years received credit from the mainstream of Marxism for introducing a “cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.” Marx later argued, “As against capital, labor is the merely abstract form, the mere possibility of value-positing activity, which exists only as a capacity, as a resource in the bodiliness of the worker.” The body, so central to Riebe’s images of management’s manipulation of racial difference, is not absent in Marx, but the emphasis lies on its particularities being overcome by reducing it to standardized movements, on its race yielding to its class. Value arises from making labor abstract, not from accentuating differences among workers. Appreciation of the ability of capital to create a homogenized “world after its own image” has meant that the major Marxist studies of management in the United States have emphasized only the common experience of oppression visible in Riebe’s cartoon. … [Literary historian and theorist Lisa Lowe] argues that Marxism has too often stopped at viewing race-making processes like the slave trade and the seizure of indigenous lands as existing only in an early period of the “primitive” accumulation of capital. In the world’s most developed capitalist nation, Lowe maintains, the connection of race and exploitation persisted, driving the accumulation of capital and shaping subsequent strategies of rule. (pp 23-4 & 28)

II. The question I want to raise is whether and how you think, having read this, Roediger in practice fundamentally disagrees with Wood’s stance? I am not raising this question rhetorically, as though we already know the answer. The way we answer this question opens every possible can of worms.

Let’s recall the terms of the argument. Wood contends that capitalism’s relationship to ascriptive oppressions is opportunistic and selective, and that racial oppression is not constitutive of capitalism in the way that class exploitation is. In the essay in question, Woods goes on to say: “Capitalism is conceivable without racial divisions, but not, by definition, without class.” It is only “for historical reasons” that race happens to be “a major ‘extra-economic’ mechanism of class reproduction in US capitalism”.

This claim is predicated on an analysis of the “laws of motion” or “rules for reproduction” that make capitalism what it is. To quote, this time from Wood:

capitalism is a system in which all economic actors, producers and appropriators, depend on the market for the most basic conditions of their self-reproduction. Class relations between producers and appropriators, and specifically the relation between capitalists and wage laborers, are also mediated by the market … the market dependence of both appropriators and producers means that they are subject to the imperatives of competition, accumulation and increasing labour productivity; and the whole system, in which competitive production is a fundamental condition of existence, is driven by these imperatives. … capitalism, alone among all forms of class society, is constituted by relations of exploitation that are not defined by a hierarchy of civic status. … The relation between capital and labor is supposed to be a contractual relation between juridically free and equal individuals; and it has even become a major ideological principle of capitalism that all citizens, capitalists and workers alike, are free and equal. … The racial hierarchy in the U.S. today is a legacy of the historical moment in which the ideology of formal freedom and equality came up against the realities of slavery and imperialism. … Race reinforces class because it obscures relations of class exploitation in capitalism; and it can do so, in a way that non-capitalist civic hierarchies could not, precisely because civic status in capitalism does not define class. … Harry Braverman, in his classic work on the labor-process, explains how capital subdivides labor … Race, as an ascriptive category (as well as gender and ethnicity), has served as a means of organizing this differentiation of work and workers.

Roediger’s contrasting position could be distilled into the following points. First, race has been remarkably persistent throughout the history of capitalism, and the two have been more intertwined than is often acknowledged. This is a compelling fact. Second, in the actuality of history, race has not been separable from the economic logic of capital in the way that is implied. Indeed, it has been actively conducive to its efficient operation. Third, this brings into question the idea that the “laws of motion” of capitalist societies would tend, barring ‘extra-economic’ intervention, to homogenise labour. In fact, the production of difference is arguably essential to the capitalist labour process.

It isn’t immediately clear in what way these two stances are in disagreement. After all, Wood seems to acknowledge that the division of workforces and the production of difference is essential to capitalist exploitation, and that race has proved to be an apt and fitting means of doing this. The fact that capitalism needs the production of difference doesn’t seem to be in conflict with the claim that class is constitutive of capitalism, while race is not, or that capitalism could outlive race.

Couldn’t you argue that the difference between Wood and Roediger is simply over their respective levels of concreteness, with Roediger dealing more directly with the grain of historical American capitalism, and Wood expending most of her effort on refining an analysis of the logical structure of capital?

III. Except that there are a number of problems in Wood’s seemingly lucid account.

First of all, the question of concreteness isn’t as secondary as it may seem given the way that I posed it. Theoretical abstractions about the logical structure of capitalism help us navigate the terrain of history. But unless we want the theory to die, the terrain of history has to be the ground for both testing and new theory-generation. So, the logical structure of capitalism cannot be taken as a closed subject. Even if we accept that nothing about our current abstract models of the logic of capital necessitate the concept of race, the fact of the resistant reality of race under capitalism is an important piece of evidence that invites us to look again at the theory. There remains a lot to be discovered, about the logical structure of capitalist law, capitalist politics, capitalist ideology, and of the articulation of all of these.

Second, the logical structure of capitalism as Wood describes it seems surprisingly economistic. This is weird given her perfectly reasonable objections to the base-superstructure model of analysis, but the “rules for reproduction” of capitalism offered by Wood concern only the sphere of production and exchange. Pivotally, they concern “the market”, and the contention that all the economic actors under capitalism “depend on the market”. I think this “market” is a metaphysical conception, and that there are only markets, each variously constituted by law, politics and culture. I also wonder what would happen, with this mode of analysis, if we were to use it to try to analyse the many twentieth century capitalist economies where the state was the single biggest actor? In all formulations about the “relative separation of politics and economy” under capitalism, we have to recognise just how messy and broad a term “relative” is: the separation is, after all, an internal distinction produced by capitalist states themselves. Moreover, economic actors may depend on markets for their reproduction, but they also depend on public transport, schools, welfare offices, spouses, children, relatives, sometimes charity, and a whole range of things that aren’t “the market”. What is more, markets also depend on them. By all means reject base-superstructure models, but if your account of the logic of capitalism takes place only at the level of the economy and economic imperatives, then this draws the analysis back into economism.

Third, Wood focuses on the concept of “civic status” as the crucial modality of race under capitalism. The term “civic status” refers to the juridical rights and entitlements to which various members of a polis have access. In Wood’s work (e.g.), the separation of civic status from class is what enables members of different classes to encounter one another as “formally free and equal” citizens. This means that capitalism doesn’t need hierarchies of civic status, because workers can be exploited even if they belong to the same rank as the owners. But, obviously, civic status is not exhaustive of the forms of status distinction and oppression in a society. Equally obviously, the abolition of de jure hierarchies of civic status (slavery, segregation, imperial non-citizenship) clearly hasn’t resulted in the abolition of race. The ascriptive hierarchy continues to operate through other means.

Wood is right that capital does not need employees to be defined by a distinctive “civic status”, but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t need status differentiations within the working class: a necessity implied if, as Wood says, the sub-division of labour along hierarchical lines is an essential feature of capitalism.

Exactly how that works out, however, with regard to ascriptive characteristics, couldn’t be resolved by looking at either the labour process (viz. production of difference) or “the market”. I don’t see how it could be analysed, even at the level of theoretical abstraction, without taking into account the question of the relationship between capitalism, nation-states and imperialism (I have argued about it here). In other words, the logic of capital would need a state theory, and probably a theory of ideology too.

On the basis of such a theory, one might conclude—and I genuinely raise this simply as a possibility—that the capitalism system not only needs hierarchies in the working class, but that it needs them to have the sort of regularity, predictability and ideological legitimacy that comes with ascriptive essentialism. In other words, one could argue that, if not race, then capitalism needs race-like ascriptive hierarchies. Which, in any probable future, would likely continue to be race anyway.

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