Race, surveillance, empire

A response to Bhattacharya and Selfa

Tithi Bhattacharya and Lance Selfa have raised some critical questions about the theoretical orientation of our article, “Race, surveillance, and empire.” In doing so, they have called for and contributed to a deeper exploration of the relationship between racism, capitalism, and the state—a large and complex topic that cannot be done justice in a short article. We welcome their response in helping to advance this much-needed exploration. At the same time, we believe that there are several ways in which they have misconstrued our argument and we seek to correct that misreading and put forward some preliminary thoughts on the larger questions.

Bhattacharya and Selfa’s main charge is that the article is an excellent description of surveillance and racism in the United States but an inadequate explanatory account. On this primary point, we completely agree. Indeed, what we set out to do was to write an excellent descriptive article, without directly addressing the thornier questions of how race generally relates to class, capitalism, and the state. Our aim was quite specific: to describe how “race as a sociopolitical category is produced and reproduced historically in the United States through systems of surveillance,” and how “the production of racialized ‘others’ as security threats helps to stabilize capitalist social relations.” Since Bhattacharya and Selfa have themselves introduced more general questions in their response to our article, we will take this opportunity to outline our own answers and clarify where we differ from them. These questions are, of course, both theoretical and practical, with profound implications for how the Left best fights racism in capitalist societies. We hope that this exchange is not just an academic debate but also serves to clarify these issues in a way that is useful for activists trying to think through these questions.

We will not spend too long on Bhattacharya and Selfa’s academic discussion of whether “surveillance” or “enumeration” is the correct term to refer to some of the practices we describe. For us, surveillance is the systematic collection of information for the purposes of maintaining or opposing political power or social order. Censuses thus fall under our definition of surveillance.

More important is the question of whether we 

misdiagnose the political project of the capitalist state as the primary determinant of the historical process, rather than seeing the state as a component of the system as a whole and its political policies as effects of a more fundamental motor of development: that of the needs of profit and how to extract it most efficiently from a changing working class.

First, let us clarify where we agree with Bhattacharya and Selfa. Indeed, the state is a component of the capitalist system as a whole and therefore neither neutral nor simply an instrument of the capitalist class. The role of the state in capitalist societies is to advance and facilitate capitalist accumulation and we operate from such an understanding in our essay. 

Our source of disagreement is with Bhattacharya and Selfa’s characterization of how we view the relationship between race and the state, and their representation of our methodology. The authors suggest that we take “race” to be the underlying driver of state surveillance practices. Additionally, they claim that we have put forward an idealist conception of history where ideas are seen to drive historical changes. To support this reading of our article, the authors repeatedly quote one sentence from the article that speaks of “racist ideas that form the basis for the ways national security surveillance is organized and deployed.” 

There are a number of points to make here. First, this is a misreading of our argument. When we say that “racist ideas” inform state racism, we do not mean “basis” to have the sense of the Marxist term “base.” To do so would imply that we had no broader theory of where racist ideology comes from except to say that it just happens. Our point was much narrower: to point out that state surveillance practices are often, though not always, bound up with racist ideologies. Second, Bhattacharya and Selfa state that Du Bois’s concept of “psychological wage” cannot explain the rise of the security state. This is a claim we never made; and indeed it would be absurd to do so. Our only point was that a new “psychological wage,” centered upon racial security, was one of the ways that the security state is legitimized to the public. It is worth noting here that at the same time that incarceration rates for African American men have skyrocketed, the rates of incarceration for working-class white men, particularly among high school drops outs, has also increased.1 This is why work on the “carceral state” has tended to emphasize class and race. 

Third is the reference to Foucault. Because we set out to describe how social identities are constructed through surveillance, our respondents assume we have adopted a Foucauldian methodology. Let us clarify that the question of how racial subjects are produced through state systems of information is unavoidable for any serious analysis of US racism. However, and more importantly, it is worth noting that, in our thinking on the question of how racialized identities are produced, the 1993 book by the radical criminologist Paddy Hillyard—Suspect Community: People’s Experiences of the Prevention of Terrorism Act—has been more important to us than Discipline and Punish

In sum, we agree that racist ideas have deeper causes that require explanation in terms of the reproduction of capitalism. We did not argue, as Bhattacharya and Selfa suggest, that race is “the primary explanatory category.” We would strongly object to such a formulation or to any analysis that saw race and class as two entirely separate systems of oppression and exploitation. Further, we do not at any point claim that only white people accept racist ideologies, and the suggestion that we view white workers as a “Herrenvolk” is a caricature of our analysis. For us, the only adequate way to account for racism is by reference to class and capitalism.

But exactly how does racism relate to capitalism? The suggestion from Bhattacharya and Selfa is that we need to see racism in terms of the efficient extraction of profit from a changing working class. Racialization is then a “tool” to “make and unmake a multiethnic working class” and to create “differences to undercut what were previously existent cultures of solidarity” among the working class.

No doubt at specific moments, racialization occurs in something like that fashion. We cite Theodore Allen’s analysis of Bacon’s Rebellion as one such example. Yet can such an instrumentalist analysis really account for the sheer pervasiveness and depth of racism under capitalism? We would argue that to view race as a capitalist “tool” to divide the working class reduces racism to a kind of conjuring trick consciously deployed by the ruling class in response to working class solidarity. In a debate with Bill Mullen, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor makes a similar point when she states that it is not enough only to emphasize the racist ideologies cultivated by the ruling class; we also need to examine the conditions that lead to acceptance of these ideologies. She points to various benefits granted to whites, from better healthcare to housing, and argues that the “mixed and uneven consciousness of white workers is not just ideological, but is rooted in material reality.”2 Indeed, any effective political opposition to US racism has to begin with a frank recognition of such material racial inequalities.

Moreover, even a cursory reflection on the history of racism in the United States demonstrates the inadequacy of seeing racism as no more than an ideological response to working-class solidarity. The racist genocide of the Indigenous population of the Americas was carried out for profit and primitive accumulation but began before there was a potential working class to be “made or unmade” in the Americas. Equally, the labor of the plantation slave system, which was fundamental to the emergence of a global system of capitalism (integrating the City of London, the US South, and the British East India Company), was not working-class labor but unfree slave labor. It is clear then that analysis of racism’s relationship to capitalism has to operate at a deeper level of generality than just the struggle between the ruling and working classes; indeed, racism can and should be understood as, among other things, the form that capitalism uses to integrate non-working-class labor, such as slave labor, indentured labor, peasant labor, etc., into a system of uneven and combined development.

We suggest that all capitalisms are necessarily racial capitalisms, not as a matter of contingent political circumstances or a conscious ruling class conspiring, but as a matter of the internal logic of the system. If we are to take such a broader view, we need to move away from the old Left reflex that assumes racist oppression to be a relatively superficial aspect of capitalism, while class exploitation operates at a deeper ontological level. Such thinking has been historically devastating for the Left, fostering an activist culture that doesn’t take racism seriously because it fails to see it as a systematic aspect of capitalism. 

The recent revival of social reproduction theory has pointed towards an analysis of gender that is integrated into the analysis of capitalism and that links the struggle at the point of production with the sphere of reproduction. Indeed, Tithi Bhattacharya has herself contributed to such a project, stating that it is not enough “to simply talk about the importance of class struggle, but to link the struggles of the formal economy to those outside of it.”3 What is true of gender’s relationship to class is also true of race’s relationship to class. With the long legacy of engagement on these questions—after the work of thinkers such as Oliver Cromwell Cox, Angela Davis, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson, A. Sivanandan, etc.—we should be able to do the class struggle walk while also chewing an antiracist gum.


  1. Bruce Western and Betty Pettit, “On Mass Incarceration: Incarceration and Social Inequality,” Daedulus, Summer 2010, https://www.amacad.org/content/publicati....
  2. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Making Sense of Society in Order to Change it,” Socialist Worker, November 7, 2013, http://socialistworker.org/2013/11/07/ma....
  3. Tithi Bhattacharya, “What is Social Reproduction Theory?” Socialist Worker, September 10, 2013, http://socialistworker.org/2013/09/10/wh....

Issue #95

Winter 2014-15

The political economy of low-wage labor

Issue contents

Top story

Features

Interviews

Reviews

WeAreMany.org