Race, surveillance, and empire:
 A commentary

Deepa Kumar and Arun Kundnani have written an excellent and provocative article, “Race, surveillance, and empire,” (ISR 96, Spring 2015) that challenges ISR readers to look at the evolving US surveillance state in a different way. The article offers valuable insights, particularly in its discussion of the origins of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the transfer to the “homeland” of surveillance techniques pioneered in the conquest of the Philippines, and today’s mass surveillance of Muslim Americans.

We keep these important contributions in mind as we raise some critical questions about the theoretical orientation of the article. Our comments are offered in a spirit of comradely discussion to collectively develop clarity about these issues. Our primary concern about the essay is that it is an excellent descriptive account of surveillance and racism and an inadequate explanatory one.

Surveillance: From description to explanation
The article begins and ends with the 2013 revelations of NSA spying and its particular targeting of Muslims. In this conception, surveillance (government spying) is clear and understandable. Kumar and Kundnani, however, employ “surveillance” to describe multiple activities, not all of them government-sponsored: missionaries’ contacts with First Nations; the actions of Southern slave patrols; government census taking; welfare state regulations on the poor; industrial blacklists of labor militants; screening of immigrants; the new Jim Crow mass incarceration state, and others. 

The authors clarify why they think these multiple social processes cohere to a core project of surveillance: “race as a sociopolitical category is produced and reproduced,” they argue, through these multiple “systems of surveillance.” 

To us, these activities seem too broad and differentiated by their historic functions and origins to meet a common understanding of surveillance. In our opinion, instead of all being surveilling techniques, what these multiple processes have in common is a core project of enumeration, something unique to modern capitalism. Some of those enumerative functions certainly serve as the basis for surveillance but others play different roles.1

It is true, as the liberal social scientist Paul Starr has written, that

Every state must draw lines between kinds of people and types of events when it formulates its criminal and civil laws, levies taxes, allocates benefits, regulates economic transactions, collects statistics, and sets rules for the design of insurance rates and formal selection criteria for jobs, contracts, and university admissions. The categories adopted for these institutional purposes do not float above society in a “superstructure” of mental life. They are sewn into the fabric of the economy, society, and the state.2

As the modern state goes about this business, it is understandable that its “drawing of lines” will reflect the ruling class’s views of how to categorize populations it rules over. The question is why the ruling class, through the state and other institutions, feels compelled to act in this way. 

The essay documents excellently the various moments in American history when the American state used racism and surveillance to “tame” particular sets of subject populations. The authors correctly point out that the targets of racism vary according to the needs of different historical epochs.3 In the last instance, the authors say, “empire and capital, at various moments, determine who will be targeted by state surveillance, in what ways, and for how long.”

We are fully in agreement with the authors here. But the essay itself does not follow through on this analytical claim to show why capital makes those determinations. 

Characterizing the capitalist state
The authors illustrate the different political projects the American state has pursued in different epochs, resulting in different policy decisions regarding racism. But they fail to draw attention to the core project that capitalism as a system has in common throughout these different moments, namely capital accumulation and the successful management of the labor force. 

In failing to do this, the authors 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.

All the policy decisions the colonial and postcolonial state pursued from the separation of the white working class from the Black after Bacon’s Rebellion, through the period of Manifest Destiny, on to the period of Civil War and Reconstruction, need to be seen through the analytical lens of this common project: management of a changing labor force, or to use its real term, the management of class conflict. 

While Kumar and Kundnani etch a careful and detailed picture of how these different moments play out through history, we do not get a sense of what unites the different moments and primarily determine the various racialized strategies that inhere to each moment. Moreover, while the authors are concerned with “production of racialized ‘others’ as security threats and the ways this helps to stabilize capitalist social relations,” it seems, from their account, that racialization is a cause of the early American state’s accumulation drive rather than an effect of and justification for it. In substituting the role of the capitalist state for the role played by the capitalist system in its totality, the essay ends up with a narrow conception of both the state and capitalist social relations.

It is important to clarify here, on this key question of the role of the state, where we agree with Kumar and Kundnani and where we diverge from them. We agree with the authors’ approach to the function of the state as it applies to racist policy making. We think, however, that the Marxist approach to the state is more than seeing it as a repressive and willing tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie—this characterization permits a necessary but not sufficient analysis of the capitalist state. 

For all of the political and juridical power that it wields, the state is a component in the capitalist system as a whole. Therefore while its raison d’être often seems to be repression of its people, its actual systemic role is more complex than either (a) wholly acting on behalf of the capitalist class, or (b) being neutral. As Colin Barker reminds us, capitalism cannot “ensure its own continuance, its own necessities, without some other institution outside capital to enforce a common interest on capitalist society.”4 

This qualification is necessary to understand the state not simply as an aggregate of diverse policy decisions (such as surveillance) but as a deeper entity embedded in and constituted by the fundamental capital-labor relation. The state may even act against the interests of a section of the bourgeoisie at times but never against the interests of capital accumulation. 

It is in this more complex understanding of the state that we part ways with Kumar and Kundnani. They show the state as primarily a political entity bound to society through its repressive, in this case, racialized, functions: “It is racist ideas that form the basis for the ways national security surveillance is organized and deployed, racist fears that are whipped up to legitimize this surveillance to the American public, and the disproportionately targeted racialized groups that have been most effective in making sense of it and organizing opposition.” (emphasis ours)

This approach to the state, where the state appears as a “political” entity alone separate from the “economic,” misses the logic of the capitalist state and its determined relationship to capital. 

The analysis stemming from this approach then falls short in the face of their own evidentiary basis when cataloguing targets of surveillance and Kumar and Kundnani are forced to conclude: “State surveillance regimes have always sought to monitor and penalize a wide range of dissenters, radicals, and revolutionaries. Race was a factor in some but by no means all of these cases.”

If, by their own reckoning, race is not the sole criterion, then we need to delve further into what determines the logic of the state’s operation, and we believe that the state’s role is best understood not through its (changing) policies but through its (constant) relationship to the processes of accumulation that determine the logic of those policies. 

Seeing the state’s role through the prism of race rather than through its role ensuring the social reproduction of the system is particularly problematic when the authors describe the state’s role during the postwar period of capitalist boom. For example, in their discussion of the postwar “social contract,” the authors argue that it “rested on the premise that, if the white, male worker ‘played by the rules,’ he could see increases in wages and living conditions.” This formulation makes it seem as if no other social group but white workers were part of this process. This obviously was not the case, given increased unionization among nonwhite workers and the growth of the welfare state. To be sure, prosperity was not spread evenly and many people, especially whole sections of the Black population, were left out. But it is still the case that postwar living standards went up for millions of nonwhite workers. Recently Michael Brown has shown how the “class logic of the New Deal” appealed to African Americans:

Two of the most prominent and influential black New Dealers, Mary McLeod Bethune and Robert Weaver, firmly believed in the liberating possibilities of New Deal reform for blacks.… But nowhere was the growing salience of class consciousness more apparent than among black elites in the main African American political organizations—National Urban League (NUL), NAACP, and National Negro Congress (NNC)—who came to believe that only through a class-based alliance of black and white workers could economic deprivation be overcome. Many black organizations broadened the base of their alliances with whites by including union leaders on their governing boards.5

Contradictory social processes took place in response to the New Deal and the postwar economic boom. In fact, in his Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement, Jack Bloom points out how this period’s industrialization of the South and the urbanization and proletarianization of the Black population set the stage for the rise of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.6

More problematic is Kumar and Kundnani’s explanation that the present-day American state has compensated white workers with a “psychological wage” that addresses their neoliberal economic insecurity by promising “security” against “the Black or Brown street criminal, welfare recipient, or terrorist.” It is not our intention here to address the analytical validity of W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous hypothesis to explain white working-class racism that has become a cornerstone of “whiteness” theory.7 It is only to point out its weakness as a tool to explain the rise of what sociologist Loic Wacquant has called the “carceral state.” Wacquant, whom Kumar and Kundnani credit as influencing their thinking about the neoliberal prison state, roots his analysis in the political economy of the management of what he calls a “sub-proletariat.” And in his analysis of what he calls “hyperincarceration” he argues, “Class, not race, is the first filter of selection for incarceration,” with race being the second.8

What’s more, in a political context where concepts of race and nation crosscut, the state’s attempts to win support for the “war on terror” aren’t merely confined to a white “Herrenvolk.” As Sofia Arias has written recently,

Prior to September 11, 80 percent of Americans opposed racial profiling in opinion polls. That was reversed almost immediately—and as lawyer and author Michelle Alexander described, “What was most disturbing was that African Americans and Latinos agreed.”

In September 2001, a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Black respondents said they would favor more intensive security checks for Arabs, including those who are US citizens, before they boarded airplanes—compared to 57 percent of whites and 63 percent of those who identified as nonwhite overall. The poll also revealed that 64 percent of Blacks and 56 percent of other nonwhites favored requiring Arabs, including US citizens, to carry special identification as a means of preventing terrorist attacks, as compared to 52 percent of whites.

By the end of 2001, these numbers leveled off, but the damage was done, and the conservative tide that accompanied the “war on terror” had knocked back hopes for organizing for social justice.9

Racialization, resistance, and the multiracial working class
In our opinion, the concept of “racialization” used in the article is too neat and fails to demonstrate the messy process that it actually is when it is applied at the level of policy by the ruling class on a multiracial working class. Kumar and Kundnani’s account of racialization efforts by the American state paint a picture of an apparently congruent set of practices when in practice it was far from that. The breaks, discontinuities, and challenges to racialization are sometimes referred to by the authors (the case of Bacon’s rebellion, for instance) but they are not integrated theoretically in their overall analysis. 

We think that it is best to show processes/policies of racialization as a tool, by no means the only one, to make and unmake a multiethnic working class.10 That is racism’s purpose and hence racist policies and ideas have to be updated and modified by capitalist institutions depending on the make-up, combativeness, and history of the working class at any given moment.

To see racism in this way gives the processes of racialization the historical complexity they deserve, for it also helps explain why at different moments of history, sections of the working class do not consent to these processes. Kumar and Kundnani’s narrative simply deals with the part played by the ruling class in racializing the narrative and policymaking of the American state. However, history shows that despite the best efforts of the ruling class, the working class often escaped or contested such displays of state power. White indentured servants fled to live their lives with Native Americans to escape the discipline of capital,11 while free Blacks united with white servants to struggle against plantation slavery.12 Such instances of working class resistance to the race-narrative of capital, whether covert or overt, are important to foreground, because they again highlight what capital’s project is and how its hegemony is always shot through with contradictions and possibilities of disruption.

Because the authors posit race as the primary explanatory category, the essay often conflates ideological justifications for particular US policies or practices for the explanation of the policies or practices themselves. This may be the inevitable product of a thesis that asserts that “It is racist ideas that form the basis for the ways national security surveillance is organized and deployed.” Early in the article, they quote President John Quincy Adams explaining Manifest Destiny, the idea that “Divine Providence,” had ordained that the United States would be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation from coast to coast. After the Civil War, they argue, “free Black men were positioned as threats to white women.” During the Cold War, they argue, the “settler-colonial mentality” and the ideology of Manifest Destiny were reworked to justify an exceptional American empire “where the white middle class home was cast as the locus of a privatized notion of self-defense and military preparedness.” Other examples could be cited.

The main problem with these types of formulations is that they tend to explain concrete historical developments as products of ideas, rather than ideas (ideologies, propaganda, etc.) as being the products of concrete historical developments. We have already touched on the postwar “social contract,” but it is hard to see how a “settler-colonial mentality” and the notions of “citizen soldiers” could top capitalism’s longest boom, when average family income more than doubled, in underpinning a notion of American exceptionalism between the 1940s and 1960s. At best, these ideological formulations show the malleability of the ideology of racism and empire over the years. But they do not provide a convincing explanation for the development of the national security state.

The work of Alfred McCoy that Kumar and Kundnani cite makes a concrete historical case for the establishment of the American national security state in the techniques developed in the suppression of the early twentieth century Philippines insurgency. More recently, Sabrina Alimahomed has shown that the neoliberal construction of “Homeland Security, Inc.” relies not just on anti-Muslim racism, but also on good old-fashioned corporate profiteering.13 These authors would not deny the role of racist ideology in the construction of the national security state. But for our part we would like to draw attention to the fact that Alimahomed’s account actually reveals the explanatory pivot for these racialized policies: the needs of profits nationally and the need to maintain imperial profits internationally. 

This brings us to an important and related conceptual framework that Kumar and Kundnani employ in this essay that we would like to question. One of Kumar and Kundnani’s fundamental claims is that “race as a sociopolitical category is produced and reproduced . . . through systems of surveillance,” and that their “focus here is on the production of racialized ‘others’ as security threats and the way this helps to stabilize capitalist social relations.” Obviously we agree that “race” is a sociopolitical category. But we would contest the methodology of the production of racism that Kumar and Kundnani outline. 

In their account it seems that the state/capitalism/empire decides on a process of oppression—surveillance—and that process then creates the historical subject of oppression. We have outlined above the actual historical (concrete) messiness of how the technique (surveillance) is not always successful in creating the subject, but here we would like to state our theoretical disagreements with this methodology.

Since the 1980s, scholars influenced by Michel Foucault’s writing on the imbrication of knowledge and power and Edward Said’s Orientalism have creatively exposed how apparently “objective” knowledge embodied in data and facts (such as census reports) actually conceal extremely subjective assumptions about a people/community depending on the social relation between the surveyor and the surveyed. 

The most important contribution of this scholarship has been to show how such knowledge applied through concrete administrative procedures of a ruling class actually came to produce and reorder social realities. This is where Kumar and Kundnani leave off their argument. As far as it goes, this is correct. But this leaves us wanting in two respects: Why does social reality need to be reordered? What effect does it have on class relations?

A leading Marxist scholar of India, Sumit Sarkar, has in his recent work a more satisfying account of this relationship between (a) the modern enumerative projects that the ruling class develops under capitalism, and (b) class struggle. Sarkar first theoretically clarifies for us how the very method of classification and enumeration actually affects social agents. Any enumerative procedure, Sarkar argues,

needs to homogenize the units being counted, and so classification, imparting fixed and firm boundaries to such units, become indispensable. If the census authorities decide to count the numbers of “Hindus” and “Muslims,” for instance, the boundary lines between the two become definitive: a census respondent cannot claim that s/he shares in a bit of the rituals and beliefs of both [when in reality syncretism was the norm amongst ordinary people]. Again, enumeration can stimulate competition, rivalry and conflict, for a new awareness may dawn about the existence of imbalances in the respective shares of communities within a population—their access to education, jobs and political influence. The official choice of classificatory categories, therefore, becomes important.14

A similar case can be made, as indeed Theodore Allen makes it in The Invention of the White Race, for the creation and then calcification of “white” and “Black” categories for the working class after Bacon’s rebellion.

Where Kumar and Kundnani’s analysis stops and Sarkar’s analysis presses further is in explaining why it is that all capitalist ruling classes have a need to differentiate a subject or laboring population along nonclass lines. And to this Sarkar has a clear answer. The ruling class creates these differences to undercut what were previously existent cultures of solidarity. So in colonial India, Sarkar shows that the census emphasis “on religion and caste differences was obviously made with an eye on their potential for divide and rule.”15

If we apply this explanatory framework to American history, it is instructive to look at the US Census of 1790, as Kenneth Prewitt recently recounted it.16 It enumerated five groups: free white adult men; free white adult boys, free white females, other free people, and slaves. First, it’s interesting to note that “white” is the only racial categorization used; “free” and “slave” are obviously social relations (even though “slave” would be understood as synonymous with Black). All of these groups counted to determine representation in Congress (with slaves counted as three-fifths of a person). But the government was most interested in the count of adult white males who were voters, taxpayers, workers, and soldiers. Second, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson both supported counting individuals by occupation, too. But Congress refused to go along because, it concluded, dividing up the population by occupation would admit for the possibility of economic, or what Marxists would call class, interests in the new republic. So in reifying the counting of the population by race, the early American state was reinforcing a racial schema devised more than a century earlier to divide the working population.

In conclusion, let us reemphasize our broad agreement with most of what Kumar and Kundnani have laid out in their essay. We raise the questions we do because we agree so deeply with Kumar and Kundnani’s conclusion that our understanding of these questions means “finding a basis for unity across different groups who experience similar kinds of policing: Muslim Latino/a, Black and white dissidents and radicals.” 

For we too believe that it is through these collaborative discussions and thinking that we shall “see the beginnings of an effective multiracial opposition” to capitalism and empire. 


  1. See for example an excellent discussion by Benedict Anderson of these differentiated processes in his chapter “Census, Map, Museum” in Immagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Verso: London, 1991.
  2. Paul Starr, “Social Categories and Claims in the Liberal State,” Social Research, Vol. 59, no. 2. (Summer 1992), 264.
  3. “It is however important to note that the production of the racial ‘other’ at these various moments is conjunctural and heterogeneous.”
  4. Colin Barker, “The State as Capital,” International Socialism, July, 1978, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/wr....
  5. Michael K. Brown, Race, Money and the American Welfare State (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 66.
  6. The New Deal era is a concrete historical instantiation of our argument that the capital-labor relation constitutes the central framework upon which the capitalist state rests. Throughout the New Deal period the American state had to negotiate carefully between sections of capital, different political representatives, and outright repression—but all these negotiations happened within the singular framework of the capital-labor dynamic, keeping the needs of the management of class struggle strictly in the forefront. For a detailed history of the New Deal period and this complex political landscape, See Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working Class Radicalism in the United States, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).
  7. It is, however, worth noting that the premise of Du Bois’s comments are not so much to point towards the racism of white workers, but as a reflection on figuring out the best interventionist strategy to overcome racism.
  8. See Loïc Wacquant, “Class, Race & Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America,” Dædalus, (Summer 2010): 74–90.
  9. Sofia Arias, “Solidarity is Not Cooptation” Socialist Worker, March 5, 2015, http://socialistworker.org/2015/03/05/so....
  10. See, Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
  11. See for instance, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013).
  12. See Rediker and Linebaugh. Also, Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race Vols. 1 &2 (London: Verso, 2012).
  13. See Sabrina Alimahomed, “Homeland Security Inc.: public order, private profit,” Race and Class 55, no. 4 (2014): 82–99.
  14. Sumit Sarkar, Modern Times: India 1880s–1950s (Permanent Black, 2014), 33.
  15. Ibid., 34.
  16. Kenneth Prewitt, What Is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

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