Beyond the Color Line: Rethinking Ethnicity, Empire, and Capital

This is not yet an analysis of the catastrophic election victory of Donald Trump in the US 2016 election. That will be forthcoming, hopefully within a week. But I think it represents an important contribution to understanding what happened in the election which was, at least in significant measure, about identity and a rejection of globalism and cosmopolitanism. I welcome reactions to what is still very much a work in progress. 

Eight years ago the election of Barak Obama as President of the United States marked the extraordinary progress the United States has made in transcending its history of racism. There is, I would suggest, no European country which would elect a person of African descent –or indeed anyone belonging to an historically colonized people– as head of state and/or head of government.

Today we are compelled to face the limits to that progress. Those limitations are reflected not only in persistent economic disparities but also in a criminal justice system which effectively criminalizes African American identity and in efforts to use the immigration system to extend that criminality to those of Latin American descent and to Muslims regardless of their origin. These structural factors are, in turn, legitimated by hegemonic ideological formations which distinguish sharply between “makers” and “takers” and between “legals” and “illegals.” While the United States has, in fact, established a more honest relationship with the indigenous peoples of the continent, treating them as conquered “domestic dependent nations” (United States Supreme Court 1831), this has not really facilitated authentic liberation and human development, as indigenous communities are forced, in practice,  to choose between a sovereignty (however limited) which allows the conservation of elements of their traditional way of life, but only at the expense of economic and social marginality, and fuller social participation at the cost of assimilation.

The disproportionate impact of ethnic stratification on those of African and indigenous American (and therefore Latino) descent has, unfortunately led to a tendency to assume that racism is, in fact, about something called “race,” whether this is regarded as a biological reality, a pure social construct, or something in between. This way of formulating the problem, however, has the effect not only of missing the impact of enduring racism on those classed as “culturally superior (Chua and Rebenfeld 2014)” or “model” minorities (Freedman 2005, Li and Wang 2008) as well as on Euro-Americans who have had their history and authentic identity erased, but of reinforcing the socially constructed but now very deeply rooted “white” American identity which is the principal means by which racism and ethnic oppression reproduce themselves. It is quite impossible to understand the operation of racism globally or the fascistoid white supremacist/white nationalist movement which has both facilitated and profited from the successful campaign of Donald Trump for the Presidency of the United States apart from these phenomena,.

It is in this context we return to the fundamental questions of the nature of racism and, more broadly, of the nature of ethnicity and its articulation with Capital and Empire. Most historic treatments of racism have taken one of three approaches. Liberal theories have tended to regard racism as a relic of fundamentally pre-capitalist forms of oppression, such as caste, which will be fully transcended once the liberal ideal is realized, something which is ordinarily regarded as fully compatible with capitalism. This view is shared by those historical materialists who regard the struggle against racism as a liberal democratic rather than socialist task. Some, such as William Julius Wilson (Wilson 1974), have even argued that racism has already been largely transcended and that what we are now contending with is fundamentally its economic legacy, a legacy which is best analyzed using the category of class rather than of race. The communist movement has, on the contrary argued that racism is integral to the capitalist project and has tended to see it as an instance of the broader reality of colonialism and imperialism, something which can be transcended only through a national liberation struggle which recognizes the right of oppressed peoples within as well as outside the current boundaries of the United States to determine their own destiny specifically as nations (Haywood 1948). These national liberation struggles, while liberal and democratic in character, cannot be carried out under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, whose leadership has been compromised by the inherently imperialist character of the Capital by which it is constituted.  Those within oppressed minority communities themselves, finally, have criticized both approaches as reductionist and have argued that racism is a social formation sui generis, something which cannot be understood adequately using the categories of liberal, democratic, or socialist theory (du Bois 1903).

We will argue that all three approaches are fundamentally inadequate. Liberal theories are quite correct in citing a caste-like element to racism, but err in arguing that this will dissolve as the liberal order advances. Socialist theory, on the other hand, is quite correct that modern racism is intimately bound up with the capitalist project, and more specifically with the conquests which were the condition for primitive capitalist accumulation. But there are grave questions about the integrity and viability of the nation state as a modality of liberation and human development. And clearly the wave of national liberation movements which defined global politics in the last century has been defeated, effectively closing off this trajectory.  Making racism a reality sui generis, finally, implicitly accepts race itself as real, reinforcing the “white” identity which is integral to the larger racist ideological complex –and does so at a time when the deconstruction of this identity is, furthermore,  at long last becoming possible.

We will argue instead that ethnicity is neither something essential nor a pure social construct, but rather a distinct way, more specific than that represented by a civilization, of being human. Ethnicity is, in other words, a social construct, but one rooted in and anchored to specific material conditions, shaped through a definite history, and ordered to a (shared, universal) teleological end –that of Ripening Being. Because human history is, among other things, a history of conquests, it is also a history of conflict between peoples and their stratification within various imperial formations. This stratification is, however, sometimes more rigid and sometimes less so and is articulated with class and ideological, cultural and religious contradictions in diverse and complex ways. Race is just one of the many constructs secondary to both class and ethnicity which are invoked in this process and means different things at different place and different points in history.

The specific form which racism takes in the present period is the product both of a history of conquest –specifically the European Conquests of the Americas, Africa, and Asia which made possible the primitive accumulation which constituted Capital—and of the operation of specific ideological complexes which give this stratification meaning in relation to the broader social project of Capital, constituting a kind of global varna system which is partly but not completely racialized. But these conquests have their own prehistory in the Germanic migrations which brought an end to Roman hegemony in Europe and created European Christendom. The result is a structure which at once predates and is in some measure constitutive of Capital, and which cannot therefore be transcended exclusively by means of class struggle, but which is very far from being a reality sui generis and which is not, ultimately, about race.

We begin by outlining a general theory of ethnicity. We will then analyze the ways in which ethnicity has been articulated with the Germanic migrations, the European Conquests, the primitive accumulation of Capital and the ideological complexes which have given capitalism meaning. We will conclude by analyzing changes in the global nature and geopolitical structure of Capital which suggest significant realignment in the global varna system and which offer a framework for interpreting and acting on the current situation.


Theories of Racism, Ethnicity, and National Identity

There are, broadly speaking, three principal approaches to the problem of identity:

  • essentialism, which regards identities as objectively real and inherent in both the groups to which it pertains and their individual members,
  • pure social constructionism, which regards identities as the product of lines of difference which can be and are drawn and redrawn in such a way as to be entirely fluid and without any foundational significance morally or politically,
  • historicism, which regards identity as ultimately a social construct, but more specifically as the product of foundational events which give it a such stability as to make it objectively real. We will identify two subtypes here, idealist and materialist.

We will show that all three of these approaches are inadequate because they fail to take into account the ordering of the realities they acknowledge to a common higher end –that of Being as Such—but along distinct pathways which lead to authentically different, but all valuable, ways of being human.



By an essentialist approach to ethnicity we mean any theory which regards ethnic identity as fixed and defined by something largely independent of social and historical transformation. Such an understanding of ethnicity is in fact a relatively new idea and has little to do with the essentialism often ascribed incorrectly to the dialectical tradition from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle on which, as I have argued elsewhere (Mansueto 2010a) has more to do with the ordering of systems to transcendental ends in the context of definite material conditions, than with the concept of essence as such, which functions simply as a mediating term. Ancient authors tended to put more emphasis on geography (Aristotle c330 BCE/1912) or descent by way of family, lineage, clan and tribe (typical of accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures), an approach which is better classified as historicist. Essentialist theories of ethnicity have, generally, focused on biology, including physical anthropology and genetics (Barkan 1992, Agustein 1996, Banton 1998), language (von Humboldt in Trabant 2000), some concept of the collective unconscious (Jung 1936/1996; Noll 1994, 1997), or simply on an irrational intuition regarding identity cf Lukacs 1953/1980 on NAZI racism).

The most important contemporary example of a biological approach to ethnicity is the “human biodiversity” tendency within the emerging Alt-Right (Frost 2015, Fuerst 2015). Frost, for example, argues that while genetic diversity within populations is indeed greater than that between populations that the two types of diversity are different. Genetic variation within populations is largely random and meaningless and not susceptible to pressure for selection. Variation between populations, on the other hand, corresponds to geographical and thus ecological differences and reflects selection pressures and thus, at least potentially, different degrees of “fitness” for survival (albeit relative to specific conditions).

This is, in itself, at least a testable assertion. But Frost presents no real evidence to support it.  On the contrary, he moves immediately to what is essentially an ad hominem argument: that the thesis has not been given the reception it deserves largely because it is seen as compromising the struggle against racism. This war, he argues, was won long ago and antiracism has taken on a new function a form of ideological legitimation for a globalism which is contributing to relative economic decline in Europe and North America. His solution –also not argued: anti-immigration legislation and the election of antiglobalist parties.

This is not science –or even effort to reopen a debate that has been closed for compelling reasons, some of which (and in fact the most compelling of which), are political. It is an opportunistic attempt to exploit the fact that the precise role of genetics in shaping human behavior remains ambiguous to advance a very specific political agenda which has nothing to do with genetics as a science.  Genes code not for complex sociocultural patterns or even well-defined biological phenotypes, but for proteins. The process by which genetic codes are expressed in individual or species typical phenotypes is very poorly understood, and the relationship between such phenotypes and the human psyche and human society are tenuous at the very best. And there is growing evidence that the physical, biological, and social environment does, in fact, affect gene expression and ultimately the genome itself (Moore 2015).

Finally, advocates of “human biodiversity” should be careful about rejecting theories just because they serve (perhaps problematic) political purposes. The evolutionary theory on which their arguments are based is itself quite vulnerable on this front. Indeed, while there are profound reasons to defend evolutionary theory generally from attacks by creationists (biological evolution is demonstrated by the fossil record; creationism is a constitutive dimension of a univocal metaphysics and a theology of divine sovereignty which are hostile to human development, spiritual and civilizational) there are equally profound reasons to criticize Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism as a reflex of the emerging market economies, a simplistic application to biological evolution of an economic theory which was as –and remains–  as much ideology as science (Mansueto 2012).

Linguistic essentialism derives most especially from the work of Alexander von Humboldt (von Humboldt 1836/1999), who argued that language reflects the underlying worldview of a people and that highly inflected languages, such as those of the Indo-European family, are fundamentally superior to others because they make it possible theorize complex relationships more adequately. In this regard, he prefigures the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that language shapes thought  –though later advocates were more focused on conserving thought forms embodied in endangered languages than in rank ordering languages based on their complexity. This thesis remains the focus of intense debate, and is generally out of favor in the Anglo-American world, and probably a minority view elsewhere. But whatever one may think of the thesis itself, it is not fully adequate as a theory of ethnicity. This is because it is not at all unusual for cultural patterns to be shared among speakers of very different languages: the Puebloans of Southwestern North America, for example, or the various cultures of Southeast Asia.

We find yet another form of ethnic essentialism in analytic psychology. According to Jung each race or people has its own distinctive collective unconscious, which he regarded as biologically based though not in a way he could articulate in the language of secular biological science (Jung 1936/1996; Noll 1994, 1997). Even more so than with von Humboldt, who articulated a rising rather than defensive German nationalism, Jung’s theory is associated with a racist political agenda, in this case one tied directly to NAZI anti-Semitism. From a theoretical vantage point it is inadequate for the simple reason that apart from some specification of what the collective unconscious is, it remains simply its contents and the identification of ethnic or racially specific forms no more than an arbitrary –or politically motivated–  taxonomy.

Ultimately the inability to identify an essence of peoplehood resulted, among those whose political agenda requires such a concept, in pure irrationalism. What we might call spiritual essentialism is rooted the objective idealism and romantic reaction which emerged out of the collapse of the Hegelian synthesis after 1848. Specifically, it is based on the idea that first principles, while not really accessible to discursive reason, whether formal, critical, transcendental, or dialectical, are accessible to artistic, intellectual, or religious intuition. As Gyorgy Lukacs, points out in The Destruction of Reason (Lukacs 1953/1980) NAZI theorists were quite aware of the fact that there is no foundation for the concept of race in biological science, but argued that one true Aryan knows another intuitively, and that it was on this basis, for example, that the short, dark haired Adolf Hitler could be recognized as a true Aryan in spite of his phenotype. But a similar idea seems to be lie behind certain variants of Afrocentrism such as that represented by Molefe Kete Asante (Asante 1908, 2007, 2013), though the line between spiritual essentialism and semifoundationalism is often a fine one with respect to both Afrocentric and Raza Cosmica ideologies such as that advanced by Jose Maria Vasconcellos (Vasconcellos 1925), which pay more attention to historical processes of ethnogenesis.

The point is not that all of these essentialisms are morally or politically equivalent. There is a difference between an essentialism which is mobilized to legitimate Empire or even genocide and one which, while it may be mistaken in certain respects, is leveraged to resist oppression. But they share a common intellectual foundation and one which is weak and undeveloped at best. The result of both approaches is to reinforce socially constructed white identities which mobilize the European and Euro-American working classes to defend their position of privilege against “people of color” who aim not so much to transcend structures of privilege but to claim their own superiority or at least to claim a share in the privilege formerly enjoyed by so-called whites.


Planes of Difference in Which Everything is the Same

The second approach to identity is a pure social constructionism (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). According to this view race, ethnicity, nationality –indeed all dimensions of social identity– are pure social constructions which can be continually defined and redefined. This approach is rooted in structuralist and poststructuralist theory which claims that all meaning is defined by and that Being is difference. Words, for example, are defined in relation to and only in relation to each other and thus have no intrinsic reference outside of the internal semantic and grammatical structure of the language.  Things exist only insofar as they differ from and thus affect each other. This is, in turn rooted in a univocal doctrine of Being in which everything exists in the same sense –in this case by differing from other things, and there is no Being as such (Deleuze 1953/2004, 1968/1994).

The attraction of this approach is that it rejects the existence of any stable identity around which an oppressive political subject might be constituted. Indeed, it points us towards the importance of deconstructing such subjects, a point to which we will return shortly. But it also presents some serious problems. We have considered the philosophical problems of a univocal doctrine of Being elsewhere (Mansueto 2010b, 2016). Here we focus on some of the historical and sociological issues.

In the context of the debate around ethnicity the trend is especially associated with the work of Benedict Anderson (Anderson 1991) and Arjun Appadurai (Appadurai 1991). Anderson, for example, stresses the fact that nation states were, from the beginning, “imagined” communities, based on shared, socially constructed and mediated systems of beliefs and values rather than on actual face to face interaction. Appadurai takes a similar approach to the identities constituted by globalized cultural flows. The formation of a global market in capital and labor detaches peoples from particular places, resulting in “deterritorialization,” but also in movements for “reterritorialization,” literal and figurative, among which Islamic fundamentalism figures prominently, situating itself problematically between the global ideal of a universal “commanding right and forbidding wrong” and the place-historical character of Dar-al-Islam as a geopolitical formation.

The focus in this approach is on the constitution and reconstitution of identities in the context of a global play of forces. On the one hand, as we noted, it leaves all claims to ethnic superiority without foundation. At the same time, it also means that there is no privileged vantage point from which to contest attempts to construct such identities. The historic vacuity of efforts by a Donald Trump to build power on the basis of a promise to “make America great again” is irrelevant. Trump’s America is as real as he and his followers can make it. At the same time, pure social constructionism does nothing to safeguard subaltern identities from appropriation by outsiders. While there clearly are ways in which someone with no African American ancestry could legitimately come to identify with certain aspects of African American culture, the African American community was rightly outraged by attempt of a “white” woman in Spokane to put herself forward as African American in the Dolezal case (Walters 2015).

The net result of radical social constructionism is to render all difference ultimately irrelevant, because we are all, in the end, simply elements in a system of binary oppositions, no different from one another than the elements in any other formal mathematical system.

This is a very poor account of identity for the simple reason that it fails to account for the resilience resilience in the face of attempts to liquidate them. Indeed, what the advocates of the human biodiversity thesis claim about antiracism generally is, in fact, true of pure social constructionism. Global Capital, to the extent that it still needs human beings at all, needs only those who can assume whatever identity it requires of them, and then only for the length of time that assumption of identity is required. This is not a theoretical foundation for transcending racism and ethnic and national oppression, but for generalizing the marketing personality (Fromm 1947) which is typical of advanced capitalism.  And resistance to the liquidation of ethnic identities is, in fact, a form of resistance to Global Capital. The question is whether that resistance serves something higher, or simply buttresses local instances of Capital rooted in especially extractive and exploitative forms of production and thus even more inimical to human spiritual and civilizational development.



The third approach to the problem of ethnic identity is what we will call historicism. The underlying idea here is simply that ethnic identities, while social products, emerge and are transformed over relatively long periods of time and thus have a stability that makes pure social constructionism untenable. Ethnic identities, while not fixed essences, function as relatively stable realities which are not subject to unlimited manipulation. Here we identify two subtypes, one idealist and one materialist.

Heideggerian Semifoundationalist Populism

The idealist variant of historicism is reflected in contemporary debates around race and ethnicity most especially in what Michael Miller (Miller 2013) has called the Heideggerian Right. Heidegger rejects, of course, any sort of essentialism as part of the tradition of “ontotheology” which, he argues, focused the (Latin) West on understanding the world in order to control it technologically and politically. Instead, he argues that each people is constituted by a distinct and incommensurate unveiling of Being, which gives rise to its “gods” and its forms of life.  But Miller notes a sharp difference in the way in which Heidegger himself, together with his right wing interpreters and the Heideggerian (deconstructionist) Left read this doctrine. While the Left, focuses on respect for difference, and the Center Left –represented, for example, by Weber (Weber 1921/1968) on the interpretive understanding of diverse ways of Being, for the Right the focus is on the founding events in which a people finds its “god.” It was precisely the hope that the rise of the Third Reich might be such a new foundational event for Germany, which would represent a turn away from Latin ontotheology and what he regarded as its agenda of technopolitical control[1], which led him to support the NAZI party. Caution regarding this approach is thus not merely warranted but mandatory. Miller characterizes Heidegger’s position as “semifoundationalist.”

We should point out, however, that it is not only the birth of genocidal, empire-building regimes which have been owned as founding events by various peoples. Liberation struggles, from the Exodus to the democratic and socialist revolutions and national liberation struggles of the secular era can also be theorized and popularly interpreted in this way. Indeed, the Raza Cosmica doctrine of José Maria Vasconcellos regards both conquest (Aztec and Spanish) and liberation (especially the Revolution of 1910) as constitutive events of the new, mestizo Mexican people.

Clearly semifoundationalist approaches to ethnicity have stronger explanatory power than either essentialism or pure social constructivism and they are better supported by the historical evidence. We do, in fact, witness peoples coming into being and passing out of being as historical events unfold, without, for all that, being defined simply by their differences from other peoples. And in the hands of Weber, Gadamer (Gadamer 1960/2004), or Geertz (Geertz 1973) this approach can point towards a focus on the interpretive understanding of the other which facilitates dialogue and collaboration. This approach does, furthermore give us a bit of distance from the simplistic notion that race is about an ineluctable conflict between “whites” and “people of color.” It forces to ask how these categories were constituted and delivers an answer which suggests that we might want to transcend them. “People of color” were the principal, but as we will argue by no means the only objects of the process of conquest and dispossession which constituted Capital and its Empire; “whites” are those who, without necessarily sharing in Capital, occupy a relatively privileged status in the sense of being exempt from the most exploitative and degrading forms of oppression, such as slavery, forced labor or encomienda, vulnerability to extrajudicial killings, etc. This is a better starting place for understanding how racism works than either essentialism or social constructivism.

But semifoundationalism presents two closely related challenges. First, from a scientific vantage point, it offers no explanation for the emergence of particular ethnic identities. Indeed, peoples would seem to simply be presented with their identities as, in effect, a revelation and have no role in charting their own course through history. This means that, second, there is no criterion, either material or spiritual, by which the way in which a people, or a section thereof, understands its identity, can be judged. Thus Heidegger’s theory left him no critical distance from the NAZI party when it turned out to be a uniquely intense expression of the very agenda of technopolitical control he claimed to despise. And the fact that the founding event of a people might be liberating does not mean that all subsequent interpretations of that identity will also be liberating. On the contrary, the history of revolutions is as much a history of the betrayal as of the realization of founding ideals, and even when there is no question of betrayal, ideals require ongoing interpretation in the light of changing historical conditions. This suggests that we need to look further for an adequate theory of ethnic identity.


Historical Materialism

It is here that the historical materialist theory of the nation as developed by Joseph Stalin and revised by Samir Amin is helpful. Within the context of historical materialism, the problem of ethnic identity arises in the context of the “national question,” and of the role of nation states as both agents of liberal and democratic liberation and of imperialist oppression, something which raises from the beginning the question of how ethnicity relates to Capital and Empire. It is, however, possible to extract from historical materialist theories of national identity a theory of ethnic identity as something distinct. For Stalin (Stalin 1913/1993) a nation is any group sharing a common territory, language, culture, history, and market. The role of this final element is associated with the capacity of a people to determine its own identity. Peoples lacking a unified national market, or at least the capacity to develop one, were deemed by Stalin to be incapable of self-determination and thus could not reasonably aspire to national independence. They are thus classed as ethnic groups rather than nations.

This theory assumed, of course, that all countries developed along a more or less common pathway –towards industrialization and capitalist development, including the formation of a domestic market for manufactured goods. This process might be hindered by colonialism but it would not be fundamentally transformed. The weakness of national bourgeoisies in colonized countries created an opportunity for communists to lead the national liberation struggle, but the principal aim of colonized peoples remained national self-determination. It is this understanding of the national question which led the Soviet Union in the period following the Second World War to support what they regarded as national bourgeois movements for national liberation, such as the Mexican Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Arab Nationalism and Baathism, or the Indian National Congress, which fell short of fully socialist aims, and to reject armed struggle and socialism in most the Third World. The theory also served to ground Soviet and Chinese doctrines which limited the autonomy of ethnic minorities deemed to lack the material conditions for national self-determination and to create a system of nominally autonomous nation states which masked the enduring reality of Russian imperial rule.

The emergence of dependency theory Amin (Amin 1978/1980), which regarded imperialism as in fact constitutive of Capital called this approach into question. National liberation movements, especially from the late 1960s on increasingly questioned the existence of a national bourgeoisie and saw socialism –and not just the leadership of the Communist Party—as itself as the condition for national liberation. Dependency and world systems theorists such as Amin stress the common history of a struggle for national liberation in the formation of national identity, as opposed to the, which makes a nation. On the one hand, this validated the experience and aspirations of peoples whose material conditions made anything like a “normal,” i.e. European pattern of capitalist development impossible to nonetheless aspire to self-determination. But it also pushed socialist approaches to the national question back towards populist semifoundationalism. This is because the ideal of national liberation and socialism, backed by a strong popular movement (generally based in the peasantry and pursuing a strategy of prolonged popular war) was regarded as constitutive of a national and subject and a basis on which to begin the process of socialist construction, the presence or absence of material conditions notwithstanding.

This trend was able to achieve some surprising victories during the 1970s and 1980s, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union it quickly became clear that these were largely an artifact of strategic reserve support from the Soviet Union, offered on the basis of geopolitical interests and in spite of political differences, and did not reflect the authentic global balance of power. By 1991 the era of socialist national liberation struggles was over.

Mao avoided voluntarism during the course of the national liberation struggle and the early stages of socialist construction. But the developing conviction, beginning in the late 1950’s and peaking in the later stages of the Cultural Revolution that the national bourgeoisie and even the petty bourgeoisie constituted a basis for a capitalist restoration which had to be resisted through vigorous ideological struggle (Chang 1975, Yao 1975)  represented an even more radical turn in the same direction. The result was a voluntarism which led to catastrophic attempts at delinking from the global market and at the imposition of communist relations of production for which neither the material nor the spiritual conditions existed. The result was a terrible wave of anticivilizational violence, genocide in Cambodia, and the creation of perverse socialist sacral monarchy in North Korea.

Clearly historical materialism, while it represents an advance over semifoundationalism, still lacks a fully adequate way of theorizing ethnic identity. Thus the need for further exploration.


An Alternative

We approach this problem from the vantage point of the broader social theory we have articulated in Religion and Dialectics, The Death of Secular Messianisms, and The Ways of Wisdom (Mansueto 2002, 2010, 2016). Human societies represent specific attempts on the part of a species with particular evolutionary adaptations –big brains and dexterous hands—to seek Being under definite material conditions (i.e. on a specific planet, in a particular ecosystem or ecosystems), using specific structures (technologies, economic structures, political systems, cultures, etc.). A complete taxonomy of human societies includes multiple levels. There are meta-civilizational projects, such as the primal or archaic, the sacral monarchic, the axial, and the secular. There are specific civilizations. And then there are, within the context of specific civilizational projects, particular peoples.

A people, then, is a specific way of being human. This approach to the problem of ethnicity conserves a great deal of both the semifoundationalist and historical materialist approaches. Peoples are the product of long histories which unfold in one or many lands, using changing technologies, economies, and polities, and which give rise to particular languages and cultures which themselves change over time. And they do, indeed, represent specific ways of Being. But they are not a “self-disclosure” of Being, as Heidegger and the Heideggerian Right would have it, so much as emergent forms of Being.  Peoples are as real as anything in the phenomenal world. Ethnic identity cannot simply be created out of thin air or adopted on a whim. It emerges over centuries or even millennia and assimilation to a new identity is always a work in progress which, if it happens on any large scale, involves change in the majority as well as minority identities. But for this reason ethnicity is not an absolute. Ethnic identities are not utterly incommunicable or incomprehensible to each other. They are always and only changing forms of a common humanity, based on a shared common home, this Earth, a shared biology, and a shared goal, which is nothing less than the power of Being as such.

Lineage, heredity, and biological phenotype in particular can, to be sure, become part of ethnic identity. Someone who does not look African American or Chinese is unlikely to be fully accepted –or oppressed—as African American or Chinese. But phenotype does not make ethnicity and meaningful if partial assimilation is possible even for those who are phenoatypical among the ethnos to which they assimilate. Phenotype, especially in combination with other cultural factors, can also, often be misread.

The question remains, of course, how ethnicity, whether racialized or not, becomes a basis for oppression and resistance. It is to this question that we now turn.



Ethnicity, Capital, and Empire


There have, historically, been two principal approaches to the problem of the articulation between ethnicity, Capital and Empire. The first of these is the “caste/class” theory, which draws on Weber’s distinction between ascribed and acquired status. The theory argues that African Americans in particular, though to some significant extent other oppressed ethnic minorities as well, were effectively subaltern castes in the antebellum United States. Being born Black meant being a slave and most often being deployed in plantation agriculture. The most important recent appropriation of the theory, William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race (Wilson 1974) argues that this began to change after the Civil War, but that “white” workers saw African Americans as potential competitors and thus allied themselves with Southern planters in maintaining as much of the old system as possible. The Civil Rights movement, however, effectively ended the old caste system and, with affirmative action, even established some legal preferences, however modest, for historically oppressed minorities. This does not mean that racism has disappeared, but for Wilson it is no longer the principal problem facing African American and other minority communities. Rather, these communities suffer most from the economic after effects of the old caste system and will find authentic liberation, empowerment, and economic development only with significant resource transfers which provide the access to Capital necessary to prosper.

This theory has some merit. Among other things it explains why affirmative action, while creating a flourishing African American and Latino middle class, has done so little to alleviate poverty in these communities. Affirmative action doesn’t help if you don’t have the education and capital to take advantage of it. But the theory is, at a deeper level, profoundly flawed. On the one hand, it fails take into account the existence –or analyze the oppression of—free African American communities and even of some Hispano landed elites and quasi-aristocracies in Tejas, Nuevo Santander, Nuevo Mexico, and California. On the other hand, it misses entirely the enduring oppression faced even by very prosperous African Americans and Latinos, especially at the hands of the criminal justice system.  Indeed, we will demonstrate shortly that there is, in fact, a “caste” dimension to racism and related forms of ethnic oppression in the United States and globally which is very far from having been eradicated, though it is also more complex and subtle than a simple color line.


The Black, Chicano, and other National Theses

The second principal approach to the relationship between race, ethnicity, and capital in the US is the national thesis or what is sometimes called the internal colonialism thesis. According to this view oppressed minorities, whatever they were before the European conquests and capitalist developments have emerged as oppressed nations and internal colonies with the right to self-determination up to and including the right to secession.

This approach has two roots. It is, on the one hand, the product of culturally oriented nationalisms loosely grounded in semifoundationalist theories such as those of José Maria Vasconcellos and Marcus Garvey. The latter, in turn, appears to trace its roots to the formation of a Pan African identity by and among African Methodist Episcopal missionaries to African in the nineteenth century (Wilmore 1998). It is also, however, a product of the application of Stalin’s theory of nationality by the Communist Party in the United States. According to this view the struggle against racism was simply part of the broader struggle for national liberation which became the principal way in which Communist Parties came to power in the twentieth century.  Unlike Pan Africanists, however, the CPUSA argued that after Reconstruction African Americans created a new nation, with its own territory, language, culture, and history in the Black Belt South. Similar nations were regarded as having emerged in the Chicano Southwest (Azatlan) and in those parts of the West with significant American Indian presence.

The Pan African and Raza Cosmica forms of the thesis remain influential among African American and Latino intellectuals, who find some constituency in their broader communities for Pan African and Raza identities. But advocates of Pan Africanism struggle with the sharp differences between the experience of Africans, African Americans, and African immigrants, just as advocates of Raza ideologies struggle with the sharp differences between those whose history is rooted in the Mexican meztizaje and more specifically its interpretation over the course of the Revolution of 1910 and those who, whether descendants of old Tejano, Nuevo Santander (Rio Grande Valley), Nuevo Mexico, or California families or immigrants from other parts of Latin America who do not share this specific experience and the identity it has created.

The Black and Chicano Nation theses have had an even more challenging history. While advocates of this thesis were quite clear that secession was a right, not a necessity, the idea that inheriting the economically most backward parts of the country would constitute adequate compensation for slavery, genocide, and other forms of racial and ethnic oppression always lacked credibility. And the migration of African Americans and Indians to the cities of the North and the complex transformation of long-standing Chicano communities by Mexican immigration ultimately rendered this approach to racism difficult to prosecute in its more radical forms. It survived and survives as a focus on minority electoral empowerment and local control over schools, police, etc.


Ethnicity and Class, Historically and in the Present Period

Before Capital

The relationship between ethnicity and Empire is longstanding. Broadly speaking, it is possible to identify three stages in the development of this relationship. The first is the sacral monarchic stage (3000-1000 BCE), during which the development of bronze technology allowed warlords to move beyond raiding and lay large numbers of villages under tribute, forcing them to pay rents, taxes, and/or forced labor in order to avoid annihilation or at least continuous harassment. Some of the resulting polities were little more than city states with an extended hinterland. Others embraced much or all of large river valleys, such as the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Huang He. While these warlords certainly developed cultural forms –specifically the divinization of their rulers— which legitimated their exploitation and domination, and while their reach often extended beyond the limits of their own ethnos to include subject tribes and villages with different languages, histories, and cultures, exploitation was not on the basis of ethnicity. Rather, ethnic oppression was a historically contingent product of empire building.

The crisis of the Late Bronze Age (1200-1000BCE), during which these sacral monarchies began to crumble under their own weight, and the advent of iron technology around 1000 BCE, briefly allowed some peasant communities, such as Ancient Israel, to throw off imperial domination. Those that did, because they defined a new way of being human, also developed as distinct peoples. In other cases subject peoples, such as the Zhou, simply overthrew particularly oppressive empires (the Shang) and replaced them with less oppressive structures or, as in Greece, relatively weak Bronze Age urban centers collapsed entirely and new polities emerged over a period of hundreds of years on the basis of iron technology, specialized agriculture, and petty commodity production. In still other regions, such as India, Bronze Age societies which do not appear to fully fit the sacral monarchic pattern, such as the Indus Valley civilization, collapsed or declined and new iron age peoples, the Indo-Aryans, moved into the region and set in motion a second wave of urbanization which shared elements of both the more democratic Hellenic pattern and of sacral monarchy.

Eventually the formation of the Silk Road trade network catalyzed the emergence of a second wave of Empires, this time based on iron weapons, which spanned far larger territories. Here we include the Hellenistic, Roman, Persian, Mauryan, and Qin/Han empires. For these empires the way in which subject cultures were handled varied considerably, with some, such as the Ptolemies, the Romans, the Mauryans, and the Han being relatively tolerant, integrative, or pluralistic, while others, such as the Seleucids and the Qin attempted to impose a uniform state ideology. Even so, while Empire in some cases meant attempted cultural genocide, it was not based on ethnicity. As in the case of sacral monarchies, ethnic oppression was an historically contingent product of Empire.

It is also important to point out that in most cases race played essentially no role even in the legitimation of these empires. Rome, for example, while it certainly took slaves from Africa also took them from the Greeks whose culture they regarded as superior. And our word for slave comes from the Latin name of the people most associated with this status: the Slavs of Eastern and Southeastern Europe who were lighter –not darker– than Romans. There was no color line. Indeed, there is only one case in which something like an idea of race became significant –the varna system which developed in India in the wake of the second, Indo-Aryan wave of urbanization. Varna means color and a complex hierarchy developed in India based in part on the conquest of earlier Dravidian by later Indo-Aryan arrivals. But again, this was an historically contingent product of conquest, not a cause.

Gradually these empires adopted axial age ideologies (Hellenism, Christianity, Buddhism, Puranic Hinduism, and the Chinese daoxue), which considerably softened their exploitative character. One new empire, Dar-al-Islam, emerged as part of a liberation struggle on the part of the Arab people against the oppressive remnants of Rome and ended up extending well beyond historically Arab lands, with ambiguous  results for the peoples involved. Like their more brutal Iron Age predecessors, these empires used their axial ideologies to legitimate their rule and thus sometimes oppressed local cultures, but this was incidental to their underlying function of taxing trade along the Silk Road (Mansueto 2016).


Primitive Accumulation

The articulation between ethnicity, Capital, and Empire with which we are familiar today, and which defines the modern idea of race is largely the product of the European conquest of Africa, the Americas, and eventually of parts of Asia. And this process was, ultimately, both an extension of the Germanic migrations which could themselves be read as legitimately a form of resistance to Roman domination and of an internal crisis in Europe which turned what had been a political-economic backwater into a global hegemon.

The nature of this crisis was rather paradoxical in character. The Germanic incursions into Celtic and Latin lands created a symbiosis between transhumant pastoralism and specialized agriculture which resulted in a number of innovations, including the alpine plow, which required strong oxen to pull it, but which could render dense, rocky, forest and montane soils arable, and the three field system (compelling evidence that European civilization is, in the very best sense, based on bullshit), which increased yields by some 250% over the course of five centuries (Anderson 1974), enormously expanding the surplus which could be devoted to crafts production, trade, the arts, scholarship, and religion. It also led to rapid increases in population. The transition from chattel slavery to feudalism, already in motion in the later Roman period, and facilitated by Christianity, allowed peasants to keep a portion of what they produced and facilitated this demographic and economic expansion. But it also required virgin land which could be allocated as knights’ fees to young warriors who had demonstrated their worth. While the population of Europe never exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, it by the middle of the twelfth century there was a shortage of virgin land to be allocated to young knights. This lead to an accumulation of armed young men with no land and thus no prospect of marriage –always a dangerous situation for any society— and what amounted to an aristocratic gang problem. Much of what we associate with medieval courtly culture, including the ethics of chivalry and courtly and romantic love derives from attempts to resolve this problem culturally. But ultimately Christendom opted for the obvious, military solution: the integration of the remaining Celtic periphery into Germanic Europe, the “re”-conquest of the Holy Land, al-Imarat Siqilliyya, and al-Andalus, and eventually the conquest of Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia.

There is considerable debate around the role of these conquests in the process of capitalist development. Other factors clearly played a role. The already sparse population of Europe was further reduced by the Black Death, increasing the price of labor power and leading to a search for and implementation of labor saving technologies which were of little interest in places like South China, Southeast Asia, or India which could produce three crops of wet rice a year and thus had an unlimited supply of nearly free peasant labor (Frank 1998). The political stalemate between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy blocked formation of a single state structure which could effectively centralize surplus, leaving room for private entrepreneurship and a competition between these two entities to chart free cities with special economic privileges and self-government rights which were conducive to trade and commerce (Amin 1978/1980). At the same time the emergence of absolutist states, first in Norman Britain and then in France and Spain created the basis in experience for the idea of a divine sovereign which at once undercut Aristotelian science, causing a shift from teleological explanation to mathematical formalization which, over the course of four centuries, led to the emergence of secular mathematical physics (Mansueto 2012). It also set in motion the theological developments which led to the Reformation. And there is little doubt that the Protestant and specifically the Reformed mutation of Christianity endowed innerworldly productive activity with new meaning created a social psychology which, as Weber demonstrated, helped support capitalist development (Mansueto 2010a, 2010b, 2016).

This said, the greater part of the surplus which eventually supported capitalist development was extracted from conquered lands and peoples: not only from Africa, the Americas, and Asia, but from the Celtic and Slavic peripheries of Europe, from the ravaged, still half-Muslim territories of the Algarve, Andalusia, and Sicily, and from the Jews and Muslims expelled from these lands.

Perhaps the most accurate formulation would be simply to say that capitalism is not only an economic system; it is a way of life, a way of being human, and thus a modality of Being as such. This way was forged through a complex process in which conquest played a driving force, so that ethnogenesis, ethnic hierarchy, and ultimately racism and related forms of ethnic oppression became integrally bound up with it to such a degree that even as capitalist relations of production penetrated the planet and “late industrializers” and former colonies began to contest the position of the old imperial metropoles, they did so on terms defined by a metropolitan culture, which if not based on race, was fundamentally racist in its operation.

Let us see how this worked.

Class and Race

Ethnic difference was initially incidental to the process of primitive accumulation and capitalist development, a function of who happened to have the means and motive to conquer, and who was conquered as a result. But the overall pattern of conquest resulted in a situation in which Christian, Germanic Europe won and everyone else lost. Within Europe the more Germanic elements: the Norman Conquerors of England and al Imarat Siqilliyya, the Frankish conquerors of Gaul, the Nordic Rus in the Slavic east and the Visigothic and Frankish aristocrats who led the Reconquista in al-Andalus and eventually the Lombard north of Italy celebrated their superiority over the Celtic, Slavic, Moorish, and Jewish peoples they conquered, displaced, and sometimes even tried to annihilate.

But even so the emerging discourse around “race” was not exclusively about color and the idea of race, while used primarily by conquerors, was sometimes also invoked by those they conquered. In Spain and later in Latin America for example the Reconquista and Conquista mobilized ancient antisemitisms and emerging concepts of whiteness and sangre azul to differentiate the emerging Spanish nation from the Jews and moriscos of al-Andalus and later to create a complex hierarchy of castas in the New World. In England, on the other hand, the concept of race initially helped constitute the popular subject of the English and Glorious Revolutions, and pit the English people (under the leadership of the East Anglian Puritan gentry) against the Norman monarchy and aristocracy. In France philosophers of the Ancien Regime argued against the emerging concept of a secular, democratic French nation by imagining the aristocracy as the descendants of (racially superior) Frankish conquerors whose rights they defended against a “nation born of slaves.”

In this sense, racism in the Saeculum does indeed predate capitalism. It is the product of the conquests which permitted the primitive accumulation which constituted Capital and created a global system of ethnic stratification, both between Europeans and the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Americas but also, to a far greater extent than is generally acknowledged, among Europeans.

From here, however, race and ethnic identity became bound up with two ideological complexes fundamental to the secular[2] project, which in turn gave racism a relatively autonomous character. The first, which is integral to the capitalist project, is what Weber called the Protestant Ethic (Weber 1968/1920). The second, what we called the “Lockean Exception,” which we will examine shortly, forms part of the humanistic secular project, which we will have to explain in order for its impact on the dynamics of racism to be properly understood.

Weber argues that what he called the Protestant Ethic gave religious meaning to hard work, savings, and investment and thus helped encourage the accumulation of capital. This was, for Weber, part of a broader arc of religious rationalization reaching back to what Jaspers (Jaspers 1953) later called the Axial Age, and more specifically to the tradition of prophetic ethical monotheism represented by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these traditions, he argues, are focused on doing God’s will in the world. Judaism and especially Islam might reasonably be regarded as the most intense expressions of this way, but Weber argues that because both provide a relatively clear system of laws which allow one to determine whether or not one is a good Jew or a good Muslim, they produce relatively little psychic tension. Catholicism (and presumably Orthodoxy), on the other hand, while focusing on doing God’s will, see the term of this activity as otherworldly –as beatitude and even theosis, something which tends to privilege religious vocations over other callings. Because of this they demand rigorous rationalization of day to day life only of monastics and other religious virtuosi focused on achieving spiritual perfection.

Protestantism, on the other hand, because it rejects Catholic and Orthodox ideals of beatitude and theosis, and because it regards justification and sanctification as fundamentally God’s work and not that of humanity, redirects human activity towards this world. Human beings become instruments of the divine will, making that will effective in the world. Not only religious vocations, but all useful work, form an integral part of God’s work of redemption. But even here there are degrees. Specifically, Weber argues, the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, by which God not only elects some to salvation but consigns others to the damnation that all merit because of their sins, induces intense spiritual and psychological anxiety, as people look for signs that they might be among the elect. Hard work, savings, and investment are among these signs, as they indicate effective implementation of the divine mandate to “be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth.” The result is intense, unrelenting innerworldly activity which, among other things, fosters the accumulation of capital. Other forms of Protestantism, such as Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist tradition, with their greater emphasis on religious feeling and greater latitude for freedom of the will, give a somewhat less intense expression to the Protestant Ethic, but one more amenable to the working classes, who rarely feel “elect” but whose religious anxiety can nonetheless be mobilized to promote the discipline required for productive labor in an industrial society.

Weber recognized, of course, that by his own time, the Protestant Ethic had become unhinged from its theistic foundations, so that hard work, savings, investment, and the accumulation of Capital were no longer, for the vast majority of people, signs of election and an effective expression of God’s work of redemption, but rather ends in themselves.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development, entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said:’ “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved” (Weber 1921/1968:123-124).

We have put this a bit differently in saying that the theistic secularism represented by the Protestant Ethic gradually transforms itself, by way of the scientific and industrial revolutions and the process of capitalist development into the technocratic secularism which represents the hegemonic ideal of our own civilization.  At the same time, we would argue, the Protestant roots of technocratic secularism give it a drive which rather transcends capitalism –or for that matter socialism. The Calvinist God, after all, is not merely a self-disciplined, hardworking saver and investor. He is, rather, an all-powerful creator who produces infinitely without consuming at all and thus actually has no need for his human agents or anything else that he creates.

When joined to an historical materialist analysis of capitalism and of class, Weber’s thesis enormously enriches our understanding of the trajectory of capitalist development and of class struggle, especially in Protestant societies. The Calvinist God is, ultimately, Capital itself, or rather the apotheosis of Capital once it has rendered human labor and eventually all material inputs redundant. That this may be impossible from the vantage point of secular mathematical physics (due to the second law of thermodynamics) does, not, of course, prevent it from operating as an ideal or even from attracting the efforts of scientists anxious to circumvent their own laws in its service (Tipler 1994). And the various classes of capitalist society, constituted by their relationship to Capital, engage each other first and foremost on the distinctly capitalist –and Calvinist—terrain of productivity. This has the effect of forcing socialism to defend and thus to define itself in essentially capitalist terms –as a superior engine of technological and economic progress rather than as transitional form terminating in the decommodification of labor power. Thus the tendency of the leftist intelligentsia in Protestant societies to criticize Capital on the basis of its unproductive consumption rather than its instrumentalization of labor.[3] And thus the tendency of those left behind to opt for religious and ethnopopulist ideologies which stress an emotional conversion experience or which valorize identities distinct from those defined by one’s position in the relations of production, effectively dooming efforts at building a mass communist movement.

But this is a line of reasoning for another article.  What interests here is the fact that the Protestant Ethic also provides the basis for hierarchizing peoples based on their degree of conformity to the Protestant Ethic, more or less regardless of how they come by this conformity. This hierarchization had, in turn, two effects. First, it effectively constituted the Anglo Saxon[4] elites associated with Core Capital as a religiously and spiritually superior caste. Second, it established criteria on the basis of which other ethnoi could be ranked. Thus the emergence of  “new superior cultures (Chua and Rebenfeld 2014),” And “model minorities (Freedman 2005, Li and Wang 2008);” thus the distinction between productive “makers” and outcaste “takers.”

The second ideological complex affecting ethnic stratification is rooted not in theistic and technocratic secularism, but rather in the liberal variant of humanistic secularism and specifically in the way in which this ideal was formulated by John Locke –the formulation most important for Anglo-American civilization. We should note, to begin with, that freedom and democracy on the one hand and slavery on the other have always been intimately bound up with each other. The democratic space created in Athens by the Seisachtheia and later by the reforms of Cleisthenes and Pericles liberated the Athenian peasantry from debt slavery only to replace it with a chattel slavery founded on wars of conquest. This was legitimated, albeit with significant reservations, by Aristotle, based on a natural difference between rulers and ruled, free and slave, defined by the full development of the rational faculty, as evidenced by the ability to deliberate around questions of meaning and value, as opposed by the more limited ability to understand and follow commands (AristotlePolitics, 1254b16–21) – though to be fair Aristotle argued that this distinction did not necessarily correspond to that between those who were actually free or actually enslaved, which was more a matter of fortune than of natural ability. It is, in fact, possible to read the whole arc of development of the Hellenistic and Roman empires as an attempt to sustain the ideal of the free human being and citizen, which depended on the liberating work of the slave, which alone allowed the citizen to live a life of free deliberation, long after its material basis in the innovative specialized wine, oil, pottery and wool producing economies of the Greek city states had vanished, by building “world empires” the conquest of which created a steady supply of slaves but also a military dictatorship which rendered the formally surviving democratic public arena largely impotent, even for the small number, the Senatorial Order, who were afforded meaningful participation.

Aristotle’s distinction was never fully coherent. Clearly there are degrees of development of the rational faculty. But the capacity to deliberate around questions of meaning and value is constitutive of humanity. And attempts to apply this distinction to the peoples of Africa and the Americas foundered on evidence regarding their societies acknowledged by missionaries such as Bartolomé de las Casas, whose arguments were formally accepted by the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Representatives of the rising gentry and bourgeoisie, such as John Locke, could not, in any case, accept any doctrine of natural superiority which might be turned against their own constituents and use to argue for their subordination to the monarchy and the aristocracy. And so he argues for an underlying equal humanity based in the fact that we are all created by God, and are thus God’s property. No one can lawfully kill us, harm us, or deprive us of our freedom. Slavery –except, of course, our underlying slavery to God—is excluded.

This said, the enslavement, or at least the radical instrumentalization of the many remained the condition for the freedom of the few, as it always does until scarcity and selfishness are transcended. Someone has to generate the surplus necessary to support the leisure which full democratic participation requires. Like Aristotle, Locke was presented with a de facto system of exploitation (in this case also chattel slavery) which he then had to legitimate if the freedom and democracy he valued were to be possible for anyone. What is important to us here is not whether or not he actually believed in his exception, but rather the fact that it defined one of the principal and perhaps the most enduring of the many ideological complexes which have legitimated slavery and racism in the United States.

Locke says that anyone who commits a crime worthy of death can instead be enslaved for whatever term the offended party (in the state of nature or in a state of war between two peoples) or the government (in civil society) sees fit. While Locke never specifically draws out this implication, this lead the existence of legal slavery (including slavery in the Carolina Colonies for which Locke helped draft the Constitutions) to be read as hereditary penal servitude in perpetuity. Thus the outlawing of African Americans. And, since crime and the state of  war were not, in this context, rigorously distinguished, it being assumed that a liberal state would wage war only in defense of natural rights and thus against natural rights criminals, all of the global adversaries of the liberal state were, at least potentially outlawed. Thus the constitution of a broad social category including (and effectively criminalizing) slaves, ex-slaves, and their descendants, indigenous peoples resisting conquest, undocumented migrants, revolutionaries, terrorists, rogue nations, war criminals, those guilty of crimes against humanity, and defeated foreign powers, even when the conflicts in question were more contests for global Empire than struggles for universal human rights.[5]

Ultimately the Lockean exception is product of the attempt to realize the liberal and democratic ideals under conditions of enduring scarcity and more specifically of emerging capitalist relations of production. It is difficult at best for people to devote themselves to deliberation around questions of meaning and value when they lack the leisure to pursue extended intellectual, moral, and spiritual self-cultivation. It is even more difficult when forced to sell one’s labor power, and thus to act in accord with another’s judgment rather than one’s own, in order to survive.[6] [7]


The ethnic stratification constituted by the Germanic conquests was, in the first instance, one which set European peoples above Asians, Africans, and indigenous Americans. Among Europeans, it set Germanic peoples over Slavic, Celtic, Latin, and other European peoples. And among Germanic peoples it set the Normans and Anglo-Saxons against each other and over everyone else. It is not surprising that, from the vantage point of an African, Asian, or indigenous American, the principal demarcation would be experienced as a color line. But the operation of the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception had the effect of actually softening the racialization of ethnic stratification, both globally and within the United States. Collective economic success allows a people or an ethnic community to bargain its way up the global and North American varna hierarchy much more so than it allows an individual to do so. The same is true of rigorous adherence to the norms of the liberal order. Undocumented entry into the United States, or participation in black market economic activities of the sort typical of excluded communities marks a group as “illegal” or as a group of gangsters, a stigma which has affected not only African Americans and Mexicans but also Italians and Sicilians. Countries which adhere to liberal norms both internally and in their international relations (including respect for intellectual property norms) rise on the varna scale. Those which do not risk being labelled “rogue nations” or “failed states.”

At the same time, the Lockean exception in particular has been reproduced, generally for geopolitical or strategic reasons, in ways which reinforce the racialization of stratification. After the Civil War the North, led spiritually by East Anglian elites which had been struggling with Norman aristocrats since the Battle of Hastings, decided that they could not permanently criminalize the entire Southern landed elite. Doing so would have required criminalizing most of the non-African American population of the South (or admitting that they were not sufficiently competent to be held responsible for their participation in the rebellion), would have unleashed the freed slaves to extend their struggles in ways which called into question property rights constitutive of the Northern ruling class, and alienated the British Empire, still much stronger than the United States, which had been allied with the Confederacy. And so a war which actually had been prosecuted against positive and natural law criminals (guilty of rebellion and slavery) was resolved as if it were a family feud, marking the Southern landed elite and their non-African American collaborators as “within” the law when they had actually been outside it. This effectively constituted a “white” identity in the South which was then extended to other Euro-American groups over the course of the next 100 years.

What does this analysis imply with respect to the relationship between ethnicity and Capital? First, it should be clear that the history of conquest which constituted Capital coupled with the forms of legitimation of both Capital and the liberal state (the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception, the latter of which also ensure the compatibility of liberalism and Empire), has created what amounts to a global varna system. This system is not based on race, but rather on the position of a particular people in the global imperial hierarchy and its conformity to the Protestant Ethic and liberal norms as modified by the Lockean Exception –i.e. reading de facto criminalization resulting from a history of slavery, exclusionary immigration policies, etc. as indicating actual criminality, both individual and collective.  The result is a hierarchy which corresponds closely with race, with groups conforming to the Protestant Ethic  and free from outlaw status (i.e. “model minorities”) allowed to migrate up the hierarchy, though only so far.

There remain significant global and regional variations in this hierarchy. Much of this has to do with the persistence of what amounts to aristocratic lineages to which most in the United States, regardless of ethnicity, remain blind. Old East Anglian families of Puritan extraction and the Dutch and Scottish aristocrats with whom they allied dominate in New England, the Northeast, and much of the Midwest. In the South old Cavalier and Tidewater gentry lineages remain important. The further west one goes, the less this matters until one gets to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, where there is at least an echo of Northeastern hierarchies. At a global level continental European aristocracies chafe at the hegemony of US based Anglo-Norman elites and foment anti-Americanism on both the Left and the Right. Ancient elites in China (some of which survived the Revolution and the Cultural Revolution), India, Japan, and Dar-al-Islam, similarly, all engage global politics in a way which is determined both by their current reality as instances of Capital and their identity as carriers of civilizational ideals very different from the Protestant Ethic and liberalism. All this merits further investigation, especially in light of the evolution of Global Capital we will discuss in the next section. But the fact that remains there is a global varna system shaped by the process of conquest which constituted Capital, modified by the operation of the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception. This system operates both among European groups and between those of European origin and the rest of humanity. It is deeply bound up with class structure by relatively independent of it.

Just how this system is evolving in the present period and what we should do about it depends significantly on the way in which Global Capital is evolving.

Global Capital

The current situation represents a sharp departure from the realities which gave birth to the national liberation movements. However much capitalism may have been born by the global conquests of ethnically specific ruling classes, which in turn defined a series of imperial hegemonies: Spain, the Netherlands, England, and the United States, with France, Germany, Japan, and to a far lesser extent Italy and Russia as secondary hegemons, in the present period Capital has emerged as an autonomous force independent from human beings generally, and certainly from any putative nations. The formation of a unified global market in capital has led to the rapid industrialization of the former Third World and to a gradual closing of the international wage gap in spite of continued barriers to a mobility for labor comparable to that enjoyed by Capital. While it is unlikely that the working classes of India and China will ever enjoy a standard of living under capitalism comparable to that enjoyed by workers in the United States, Europe, and Japan during the postwar period, their wages, working conditions, and standards of living are improving while those of the old “labor aristocracy” of the imperial metropoles has begun a gradual and irreversible decline. The planet’s future, at least under global Capital, is neither Denmark nor Darfur, but rather Bangalore and Shenzhen. As Andre Gunder Frank has argued (Frank 1998), this simply represents a restoration of the historic norm of Chinese and Indian economic dominance which was briefly undercut by some very anomalous developments in Europe.

This new situation presents grave dangers, and from two fronts. On the one hand, it creates in the old imperial metropoles the classic configuration of forces which gives rise to fascism. A mass of workers fearing or experiencing loss of long held privileges creates a mass racist movement which then supports efforts on the part of the more backward sectors of Capital which still have some attachment to people or place (mostly likely the extractive and perhaps the agrarian sectors) and those whose function is to defend people and place (defense/aerospace) to militarize the population and seek to restore former imperial glory. At the same time we should not be surprised that as the limits to growth under Capital become apparent, both major rising powers such as India and China, and those permanently stuck because of unfavorable ecological and geopolitical factors such as Russia should take a nationalist, populist turn which itself has fascistoid characteristics. Far more than in the 1920s-1940s we are entering a period in which the liberal bourgeoisie, itself increasingly dispossessed by a Capital which has become an autonomous force, might find itself not only vacillating and weak, but actually impotent to resist a fascistoid resurgence which captures essentially all of the most powerful nation states on the planet.

The two ideological complexes which we defined above serve, in turn, both to strengthen and to inflect this potential fascistoid trajectory. First, the Protestant Ethic, which is the principal mechanism governing the terms of status struggle in the Third Saeculum, has been turned increasingly against the old labor aristocracies of the declining imperial metropoles, which now find their comparative advantage in productivity declining as the planet becomes technologically uniform. As their incomes stagnate they find themselves, furthermore, an in increasingly weak position to acquire the academic titles and embrace the lifestyle markers which convey productivity or usefulness to society by the standards of the contemporary global elite: a healthy diet consisting only of locally sourced, humanely produced organic food, prepared at home using labor intensive methods or in restaurants which charge a status premium on top of the very real actual costs involved in preparing and serving such food, regular exercise, preferably during work hours so others are aware of it, and a physique which demonstrates that both of these practices are, in fact, bearing fruit, indicating a strong underlying genetic endowment (yes, the cultural left is into human biodiversity as well, just along different dimensions). Even the significant attempts to understand the challenges faced by so called “less educated white workers” (Case and Deaton 2015) depict their subjects as hopelessly pathetic drug and alcohol abusers.

The invocation of the Lockean Exception by those left behind by globalism is, in this regard, not surprising, nor is the partial displacement of Christian fundamentalism by Lockean Exceptionalism as the principal linking ideology on the right.  This invocation amounts to a cry on the part of the newly disprivileged that while they may no longer be productive and thus among the “elect,” at least they are “legal,” or  at most guilty of misdemeanors.


What is to Be Done?

The question is how, under these circumstances, to respond to the enduring reality of racism both globally and in the United States. It should be clear, first of all, that while the caste/class theory clearly captures important elements of the way in which racism operates, the process of capitalist development leaves intact not only the economic effects of racism, as Wilson acknowledged, but also significant elements of caste itself.  Racism will not disappear simply as a result of capitalist development supported by the extension of the liberal order. On the contrary, capitalism is not simply an economic structure but an entire way of being human, a way which hierarchizes not only individuals but communities, and indeed whole peoples, based on their conformity to the Protestant Ethic, fully secularized as the civilizational ideal of the Third Saeculum.

There has been much agonizing recently over the so called decline of the “middle class.” From the vantage point of the historical materialist tradition, of course, the concept of the “middle class” is vacuous to begin with. There is the bourgeoisie, which owns enough capital not to have to work and the proletariat which must sell its labor power in order to survive. In between lies only the ever declining petty bourgeoisie, which has enough capital (whether in land, tools, money, or skills) not to have to sell its labor power, but not enough to be exempt from labor altogether.

The much vaunted “decline of the middle class” is, at an economic level, a reflex of the declining demand for routine human labor. It is no longer sufficient, in order for one’s labor to be worth exploiting, and thus to be regarded as among the elect, to work hard and live with enough self-restraint to remain productive throughout most of one’s natural life. Indeed, it is no longer sufficient that one have the ability and self-discipline necessary to acquire significant skills. As technological progress drives the demand for human labor down towards zero, it is necessary, rather, to be an innovator who can command what amounts to a monopoly rent on innovations. And this is a much narrower group indeed than the old “middle,” actually working class, which in fact encompassed the vast majority of the population.

We are, of course, still quite a way from the point at which the demand for human labor, or even unskilled human labor, approaches zero. But even relatively modest economic declines have generated significant insecurity. And status declines much faster than relative income. People are now being told that in order to be counted among the “saved” they have to be something that essentially no one can be assured of being just through hard work. Instead, one has to “make it” much as a performer or athlete would, something which depends on both extraordinary talent and on matching the demands of the market, as well as on significant good luck.

This, in turn, generates a reaction formation which invoke alternative ways of asserting status or at least claiming dignity. Evangelical Christianity and Lockean Exceptionalism are the most important of these in the United States, with the latter forming the basis of a racialized “white American” identity.

Second, the struggle against racism is no longer simply or even primarily an anticolonial struggle and anticolonialism, furthermore, erred fundamentally in understanding its aim as the construction of autonomous nation states. While colonial elements remain in the relationship between the United States and its oppressed minority communities, and between the United States and its dependents in Asia, Africa, and especially Latin America, the same is true both for great powers in the old Soviet Bloc, chiefly Russia itself, and emerging powers formerly part of the old “Third World,” and in particular for China, which has been an imperial formation for over 2000 years and which has both its own internal colonies and emerging external colonies in Africa as well as Asia. India, always more powerful as a civilization than as a state, presents a somewhat more complex picture, but the idea of a subcontinental Hindutva leveraged by emerging economic prowess and backed by nuclear weapons can only be called quasi-imperial in character. Dar-al-Islam remains too divided in too many ways to bring into being the restored counterimperium envisioned by fundamentalists, but declining petroleum supplies (reflected in rising mineral rents), access to nuclear weapons through the Pakistani, most likely the Saudi, and perhaps eventually the Iranian states, and the enduring civilizational power of Islam will ensure that counterimperial aspirations remain powerful.  Globally we are looking at an integrated world market in which the economic inequality between regions gradually decline while internal inequalities increase, something which will not infrequently put local ethnic minorities at a substantial disadvantage.

As our analysis suggests, racism as it actually exists, while in a certain sense predating capitalism, is intimately bound up with it through the ideology of the Protestant Ethic, which provides Capital with its most powerful form of legitimation and with the articulation of the liberal ideal across capitalist relations of production which inevitably generates “exceptions” to a dignity which, precisely because it is supposed to be grounded in a universal shared humanity, radically dehumanizes those it excludes. There can be no definitive transcending of racism apart from a transcendence of Capital.

This said, for precisely the same reason, the struggle against capitalism is in significant measure a struggle against racism.  It is quite impossible to resist Capital without resisting the Protestant Ethic and without understanding the dynamics of the Lockean Exception. With respect to the first it is essential that we reject fundamentally the demand that human beings legitimate themselves on the basis of their usefulness to society. A dignity grounded on usefulness is already only the dignity of the slave. If we distinguish ourselves from others based on our superior usefulness (because we consent to and take responsibility for our own exploitation) then we say, in effect, that others are useless takers who must be compelled, whether by law or by market forces, to make themselves useful.  And when we break with this ideology we begin deconstructing the core of white identity, the Anglo/Puritan identity of Core Capital, much more powerfully than we do when we simply point out that Capital itself, because it also consumes, falls short of its own ideal. At the same time, this means recognizing that Capital instrumentalizes everyone, even those who nominally own and certainly those who manage it, and that Capital is rapidly rendering us all redundant.

And redundancy, ultimately, means outlawry. It is quite impossible for the useless –which ultimately means all of us— to survive within the norms of the law. And so the Lockean difference between the law-abiding, who retain their natural rights, and the outlaw who may be enslaved, is ultimately groundless. We are all criminals. We are all outlaws. Or at least we become that as the accumulation of Capital renders us redundant.

What does this mean concretely? At the most fundamental level it means recognizing the inherently destructive character of the secular project, in both its theistic/technocratic and humanistic forms. Precisely because we crave the infinite, we will always have desires which no technology can satisfy. What both Capital and historic socialism tell us is simply a difficult period of primitive accumulation or socialist construction which will eventually open up into a technological utopia in which scarcity will at long last be vanquished is, in fact, as Weber pointed out, an iron cage from which there is no escape. This does not mean that technological and economic progress are not values or that they cannot help us solve real problems and promote human flourishing. But they are neither ends in themselves, as the Protestant Ethic and its technocratic residues ever so subtly lead us to believe, nor are they the quantitative path to a qualitative omnipotence which would at long last allow us to cross the threshold from necessity to freedom. Productivity is a participation in the creativity of Being as such, but only a participation.

The humanistic variant of the secular ideal is, perhaps, less vacuous, but it is also fatally flawed. The individual and collective autonomy and self-determination promised by liberalism, democracy, and communism are ultimately nothing other than secular forms of the religious ideal of theosis. Rational, lawful autonomy is impossible in the context of the commodification of labor. To this extent Marx was right. But Aristotle was also right that such autonomy is impossible apart from leisure. And if, precisely because of our craving for the infinite, scarcity cannot be overcome, then the uncontested universal leisure which an authentically democratic autonomy and self-determination require is also impossible. There will always be the possibility that if someone else labored more on our behalf, we would be able to do and be more. This does not, once again, mean that we should not work to promote liberal rights and democratic participation, and to decommodify labor power once and for all. But these are only participations in a self-determining Being to which we aspire but which will never be our own. We lack the power of Being as such and are thus not fully autonomous. We cannot be. We will always instrumentalize and always be instrumentalized. There is no exit.

No exit, that is, so long as we imagine that our closest approach to Being as such is impassivity or self-determination. If, on the other hand, we recognize that the Being we crave is a radical self-giving, a pure relational, transformative generativity, things begin to look different. What seemed like instrumentalization now appears as radical interdependence, as gift giving even. The labor of bringing the universe into being becomes a great liturgy. Our less than fully autonomous participation in deliberation regarding the Common Good makes the public arena a great synagogue.

Just what this looks like institutionally remains an open question. We do not yet know how to transcend the commodification of labor, but we can restrict it by restoring and expanding the commons. We need to support rational autonomy not only with legal protections for liberal rights but with liberal education which cultivates the capacity of people to decide for themselves, in the context of humanity’s ongoing deliberation, what it means to be human. We need to respect as far as we can the right of individuals and communities –including  whole peoples—to live different ways, while at the same time undertaking a common deliberation regarding our shared ends as human beings.

More immediately, we need to target the institutional mechanisms in which the Protestant Ethic and the Lockean Exception are embodied. Understanding that labor is a participation in Ripening Being, we need to restrict as much as possible the extent to which it is merely a means of survival. The commonwealth of humanity should be the soil out of which our creativity grows. There are many ways to progress gradually in this direction. Guaranteed Basic Incomes, as well as subsidized housing, food, transportation, education and other basic necessities without a work requirement are increasingly within reach given the overall level of productivity and the declining demand for human labor. We need to put them more and more on the public agenda and gradually break down the distinction between “makers” and “takers.” For those who still find their labor in demand, we need to change the incentives from relentless productivity to balanced social contribution and self-cultivation, while spreading the opportunity to work more broadly. Here a shorter work week, extended paid vacations, and a range of sabbatical opportunities are fundamental.

Recognizing that the liberal state has sustained itself from the beginning only by setting itself over and against the criminal Other, we need to target the very notion of the criminal condition. This does not mean that communities should not protect themselves from violence or theft. But we need to reject on principle the idea that there is any offense which is deserving of death even if on rare occasions we still find it necessary to kill those whose violence cannot otherwise be contained. Nor, indeed, is the basic liberty of person forfeited because they have become a threat to others. It is just that their right to freedom is outweighed, temporarily, until they learn self-restraint, by the rights of those they have threatened.  And we need to reject on principle the idea of a felonious state in which someone, because of their actions, is deprived of the right and capacity to participate in deliberations regarding the common good.  The argument for democracy rests on the idea that we all share a common reason, even if some have cultivated that capacity further than others. This rationality does not disappear just because we do something wrong.

In short, when we look at a homeless person with no marketable skills, when we look at the convict on death row or sentenced to the ridiculously long terms of imprisonment which have become the norm, we need to see not some sort of radically different creature, but rather our own selves.

This may not sound like a strategy for fighting racism. And it is, indeed, not just that. It is a comprehensive way of directing the main blow against our instrumentalization by the Saeculum, whether in the form of Capital or, more rarely, the State. But we have demonstrated that racism is not about race. It is about capitalism as a way of life, which rank orders individuals and peoples against the criterion of the contribution to the accumulation of capital and which systematically outlaws and criminalizes those peoples deemed useless.

This is the only way to fight racism as it actually exists.



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[1] For a critique of Heidegger on this point see Mansueto 2010a.

[2] We use to term Saeculum or more precisely the Third Saeculum to denote our own civilization, because it seeks to ripen Being through inner-worldly civilizational progress. Within this context there are competing civilizational projects, including theistic secularism, which understands innerworldly civilizational progress as fundamentally the subjection of the world to divine sovereignty, technocratic secularism, which focuses on transcending finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress, and humanistic secularism, which seeks to transcend contingency by creating a political subject which makes humanity the master of its own destiny. The latter, in turn has liberal, democratic, socialist, and populist variants which identify this subject with the rationally autonomous individual, the people as demos or citizen body, the working classes, or the people as ethnos. Of these, it is the technocratic project which is clearly hegemonic. The First Saeculum was constituted by the sacral monarchies of the Bronze Age, which sought divinization by means of conquest and sacrifice. This project collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age and gave way to the axial project focused on cultivating spiritual progress by means of seeking wisdom, doing justice and restoring harmony with the cosmos. The Second Saeculum  was constituted by the great Iron Age empires which revived the sacral monarchic project on a much larger scale, bolstered by new iron technologies and with a focus on taxing the global Silk Road trade network rather than direct producers.

[3] In this sense the cultural left in the United States is, whether it likes it or not, the heir of the hyper-Calvinist New Divinity movement founded by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards began his career organizing those marginalized by the penetration of capitalist relations of production into the countrysides of Western New England, and was one of the leaders of the First Great Awakening, which staked out a broadly evangelical position in insisting on personal coversion, and not mere “usefulness to society,” too easily confounded with actually ill gotten wealth as an index of salvation. Gradually, however, Edwards constituents found new avenues for resolving their economic woes (specifically the confiscation of Indian lands) and Edwards turned a more critical eye to the emotional enthusiasm of the Awakening. Specifically, he argued that “true religion” while indeed situated in the affections, consisted in loving God not for what he could do for us, but for his own sake, because of His goodness. This led in turn to the development of the ideal of “disinterested benevolence” associated with his follower Samuel Hopkins, who argued that only those willing to be damned for the greater glory of God has any reason to even think they might be among the elect. The New Divinity movement soon collapsed on under the weight of its own impossible demands, but it set a standard which culturally Protestant reformers in the United States have upheld ever since. What is wrong with Capital is not its demand for absolute discipline and infinite productivity but rather the fact that empirical capitalists themselves still consume. The cultural left is all about asserting status superiority over Capital by showing itself more disciplined and more austere and indeed attracts significant elements of the bourgeoisie, especially among rentiers who no longer need to earn wealth in order to be free of the need to work, to this banner. But it is hardly an attractive ideal for those already exhausted by their instrumentalization in the service of Capital (Heimart 1966, Hatch 1977, Mansueto 2010a, 2016).

[4] The term Anglo-Saxon is, in this context, used with some precision, in that the core Puritan elites were in fact, quite specifically from East Anglia. It is these elites which settled in New England and constituted the core of the old Northern ruling classes, which aggregated to themselves other Reformed elements from Scotland, the Low Countries, and eventually Germany. The landed elites of the Tidewater and the Deep South were, on the other hand, drawn largely from the Southwest of England which had stronger Norman traditions (Zelinisky 1973, Fischer 1989, Woodward 2011). In England, it should be noted, this difference was one of the first sites of a discourse around race, with the concept of race initially serving to constitute the popular subject of the English and Glorious Revolutions, and pit the English people against the Norman monarchy and aristocracy.

[5] This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as terrorism, war crimes, crime against humanity, or even rogue nations. It is just that the definition of these categories in the context of the liberal order has been significantly deformed by the Lockean “exception” for slavery.

[6] It might be asked what relationship there is between what I have called the Lockean Exception and the state of exception and the status of homo sacer, also a kind of outlawed, analyzed by Giorgio Agamben (Agamben 1995/1998, 2003/2005). At the most basic level the answer is simple: the bare phenomenon (outlawry) is the same, the cultural forms through which it is mediated (Roman law on the one hand and Anglo-American liberal political theory on the other) are, if not unrelated, rather different as are the perspective from which they are being analyzed. Roman Law recognizes certain statuses which are entirely outside the purview and protection of the law. Thus, the state of exception is prior to and constitutes the state but is also recurring within the history of actual polities. The homo sacer is not strictly a criminal but rather someone outside legal protection. Anglo-American liberal theory rejects this possibility by invoking a system of natural rights which is prior to the state, so that it is quite possible to be a criminal even where no state and no positive law exists. There is, to be sure, a difference between people in state of war and a fugitive criminal in civil society, but the constitution of a liberal state which exists only to protect natural rights largely abolishes this distinction, since, at least in principle, it goes to war only against those who infringe on natural rights.


Agamben invokes the memory of Roman Law and analyzes the War on Terror as a state of exception partly because this framework is more important than Anglo-American liberal theory to his own Italian cultural context and especially to the fascistoid political theory of Carl Schmitt of which he sees himself presenting a kind of critical appropriation and transformation, much like Marx’s critical appropriation of political economy. Whatever one thinks of this broader project –and I am skeptical– he does manage to point out the difficulty of legitimating entirely extra-legal violence, something to which even the Obama administration has ultimately had to have recourse (in the liquidation of Bin Laden) in the context of the liberal state and the liberal world order. Ultimately, however, this option was embraced explicitly only by a narrow sector of the Republican Party (the Cheney-Rumsfeld group), supported materially by narrow extractive and aerospace/defense interests and spiritually and theoretically by a segment of the Straussian neoconservative right. In the end even the Bushes abandoned this approach. What the United States is currently struggling with, across a broad spectrum that extends on both Left and Right well beyond the “mainstream” is the reality that our hegemonic cultural forms render a very large swath of humanity –the “useless” and thus unwaged, and therefore propertyless, at least potentially outlawed.

[7] Alternative formulations of the liberal and democratic ideals, such as social contract theory and formalism do not really remedy this problem. Social contract theory (Rousseau 1762/1962), by vesting self-determination in the collective demos effectively liquidates rational autonomy and while it abstracts more fully from property relations than Locke’s natural rights theory is by no means full resistant to mobilization by racist and even slave-owner interests. Witness the long tradition of invoking popular sovereignty doctrines to legitimate slavery and later Jim Crow in the South.

Formalism (Kant 1781/1969) does a better job of grounding liberal freedoms in human rationality, independent of property rights, but does not touch the external relationships between people so long as they are formally free and consensual, with the result of leaving capitalist relations of production untouched. At the same time, formalism defines a subjective morality which, in rejecting instrumentalization of any kind, matches the New Divinity in erecting a standard no rational animal can meet. It thus provides the liberal intelligentsia with a permanent ideological weapon against instrumentalizing Capital, but at the same time renders it permanently unable to meet its own moral standards and thus to legitimate itself  to actually lead.

Communism, as originally theorized by Marx in the Paris Manuscripts (Marx 1844/1993) is, first and foremost, an answer to this problem. On the one hand, Marx points out, rational autonomy is impossible apart from the decommodification of labor. At the same time, because labor is fundamentally social in character, the resulting autonomy is not individual but rather collective and transhistorical. For the individual, as Lukacs later commented (Lukacs 1921/1977), alienation remains. Historic socialism imagined itself as a transition to this communism, which would, in the end, transcend “the contradiction between existence and essence,” and thus make humanity, collectively if not individually, divine. In fact, however, by confusing quantitative productivity with qualitative creativity, it transformed itself into simply a modality of the primitive accumulation of capital, and left the commodification of labor power untouched. And it is not clear how, even with the commodification of labor power transcended, human beings could actually make their own the power of Being as such.  This requires transcending humanity and indeed animality, life, physicality, and ultimately material existence.

In this sense, the trajectory of the humanistic ideal is ultimately a demonstration of our inability, as finite and contingent Beings to transcend a servitude which we all share. Attempts to create a political subject which transcends this servitude, whether the rationally autonomous individual, the people as demos, or the international working class, while reflecting authentic aspirations capable of catalyzing real social progress, also become dangerous illusions which can legitimate what amounts to an extension and universalization of slavery if taken literally. In this way they are not at all unlike traditional religious ideals of theosis, of which they are in fact secular forms. Aspiring to be God can motivate wisdom and compassion. Believing we are or can become God in and of ourselves, individually or collectively, legitimates instrumentalization.


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