Our Global Humanities Network’s workshop on “Histories of Racial Capitalism in the Global South” showcases the deep connection between traditional subfields of social history (race, gender, ethnicity, and class) and the new histories of racial capitalism that have emerged in the last decade. Building on the development of this rapidly growing field, we gathered four papers that continue to illustrate the diversity of the histories of racial capitalism(s) through a variety of geo-historical perspectives.
From South Africa’s gold diamonds in the late XIX century and the construction of black consciousness in the XX century to the colonial violence of forced displacements and dispositions that triggered current anti-capitalist decolonizing politics in the Americas, from the problematic racialized origins and genealogy of the modern democracy to the colonial roots of Brazil racial capitalism that continues to inform the current political agenda, these four papers present a common understanding of the racialized nature of capitalism. Following Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy’s definition of racial capitalism, these papers don’t use the term racial capitalism as a variety of capitalism, rather understand that “from the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of the Americas onward, all capitalism, in material profitability and ideological coherence, is constitutive of racial capitalism.” As a whole, this panel seeks to promote a broader understanding of the colonial origins and the dynamics of systems of racial subordination that continue operating in the capitalist social order of the Global South.
The discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa from the 1870s launched a largely pastoral region of the world into industrial modernity. Wars of conquest, the 1889-1902 Anglo-Boer war in particular, brought the country to attention as a zone of conflict in which capitalist imperialism was a major contributing force. This was recognized and described by thinkers like JA Hobson, Rosa Luxembourg, and Lenin. What made South Africa distinctive was the double story of race, seen initially as a struggle between English and Boers, and the endemic conflict between blacks and whites which until well into the 1920s was commonly referred to as the “colour question”. The development of an indigenous marxisant critique, in dialogue with the Comintern, brought new attention to the interplay of race and class as formulated by the idea of colonialism of a special type. Increasingly, racism was seen as an alibi or mask for class exploitation. With the rise of the black consciousness movement in the 1970s, a new wave of radicalism emerged. BC intellectuals argued that, far from being an epiphenomenon, race lay at the heart of the struggle for freedom in South Africa and that apparently, color-blind non-racism concealed the fact that white privilege benefitted liberals as well as apartheid-supporting nationalists and supremacists. By the 1980s rival groupings associated with the ANC and the communist party on the one hand, and black consciousness on the other, contested whether capitalist racism or racial capitalism lay at the heart of South Africa’s problems. My presentation hopes to elucidate such questions and to cast these in local and international contexts.
Saul Dubow: South African-born and educated, Saul Dubow is the Smuts professor of Commonwealth history at Cambridge University. He is the author of several books and articles on South Africa including Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid; The African National Congress; and Apartheid 1948-1994.
Decades ago, in a groundbreaking book, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas investigated the origins of the public sphere. For him, the public sphere made possible public opinion and, consequently, there we can find the foundations of modern democracy. According to Habermas, we can find this public sphere in places like coffee houses in Paris, London, and major Italian cities. What Habermas did not investigate was the origins of that coffee. He did not pay attention to who produced the coffee beans consumed in Europe. Neither did he mention the racial dimensions of this product. The German intellectual did not stop to think about the temporality, spatiality, and the gender dimension behind these kinds of commodities, which are usually hidden by the free market and modern capitalism. Starting from this perspective, we can argue that the very origins of the public sphere and modern democracy are steeped in a consumer experience only made possible by slavery and other kinds of coercive labor formations. Therefore, only by developing a historical analysis that exposes the problematic origin and genealogy of the political economy of the Western world since 1492 can we address the coloniality of modern democracy and the racial dimension of labor, commercial circuits, and commodities of global capitalism. We call that reality and that historical experience racial capitalism.
Juan Carlos Medel: assistant professor at the Department of History at the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago de Chile. He is a scholar whose research focuses on modern Latin American and Caribbean History and the intersections between historiography and critical theory. He has published articles on the history of the Cuban revolution, the history of colonialism, and the history of social revolutions. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory from the University of California, Davis.
Historians have used the concept of “racial capitalism” to explain how racism and capitalism are intertwined in long-term historical processes. Violence and dispossession seem to be in the core formation of the transatlantic world, where slavery and the formation of the “dark proletariat (Dubois, 1935) were at the center of the violent construction of primitive accumulation and capital. However, colonialism has also been crucial to processes of land grabbing, forced displacement, and exploitation of natural resources based on racial violence against African-descent populations and indigenous communities in the Americas. In current times, fifty percent of the Americas natural resources that still exist are on lands traditionally owned, occupied, or stewarded by indigenous people (Melamed, 2015). This situation has brought into account indigenous politics and resistance to global capitalism and extractivism. This presentation proposes to discuss indigenous anti-capitalist and decolonization politics on land and natural resources in Latin America as a counterpart of racial capitalism in the region. Recent contributions to critical ethnic studies have used the concept of racial capitalism and the violent processes involved in primitive accumulation and the separation of the social forces, theorized by Marx, to analyze the new indigenous movements in the Americas in the assertion of land and collective rights. I will follow this trend of thoughts from cases from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
Claudio Javier Barrientos: Ph.D. in History, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Associate Professor in History of Latin America and Chile at the Diego Portales University. His research interests are memory, indigenous rights, gender, gay and LGBTQ studies. Among his publications are: “Sangre disidente: represión, violencias de género y Vih/Sida en el Chile dictatorial, 1973-1990, in Rafael Cáceres-Feria y Diego Sempol (Eds.) Disidencias Sexuales y de género en las dictaduras Ibéricas y del Cono Sur. Tirant, Humanidades, Valencia 2023; “Identidades en transición: Prensa, activismo y disidencia sexual en Chile, 1990-2010″, with Juan Carlos Garrido, Revista Psicoperspectivas, Vol 17, N° 1. 15 de Marzo 2018; “Amores clandestinos. Discursos, prácticas y escenarios de la homosexualidad masculina, Chile 1990-2005”, in Fernando Blanco, Mario Pecheny y Joseph Pierce, Derechos Sexuales en el Sur. Políticas de amor y escrituras disidentes. Editorial Cuarto Propio 2018, pp. 21-52; “Memory Policies in Chile, 1973-2010”, in Emilio Crenzel y Eugenia Allier (editors) Struggles for Memory in Latin America: Recent History and Political Violence. Plagrave Macmillan, New York, United States, chapter 3, pp.53-70; Claudio Barrientos (Editor): Aproximaciones a la cuestión mapuche en Chile. Una mirada desde la historia y las ciencias sociales. RIL Editores, Mapuche al reverso del Bicentenario.
This paper argues that a more significant history of global racial subordination lies behind Brazil’s recent political polarization. Historically, race in Brazil has defined power distribution, opportunities, and identity. However, at the same time, race has been denied as a social problem since the proliferation of the myth of Brazilian racial democracy (Quirino, Freyre). The result: a black country dominated by a white elite, and in the background, a majority that defines themselves as non-white but often agrees that it is better to leave things as they are as if structural differences did not exist.
Thus, I argue that the Brazil of Lula and Bolsonaro results from different social processes originating in the racial hierarchy inherited from the country’s colonial roots linked to slavery. A third of the slave trade that crossed the Atlantic reached its shores. For that reason, when we imagine Brazil, we imagine it as a black nation. Its historical racial architecture has sustained its economy and phenotypically divided its population between whites, blacks, mulattoes, browns, or caboclos, to name a few of the racial categories developed by Brazil’s phenotypical construction of race. Slavery – and all the social order that it implied – was a substantial part of their social order, and its importance was such that, just one year after its abolition, there was a change in the political system that ended the monarchy and founded the republic.
A quick analysis of the latest electoral data shows that racialized logic still operates in the Brazilian political scenario, where, for example, the black northeast, historically linked to the colonial sugar slave plantation economy, has become the Marxist reserve army for the left. On the other hand, Sao Paulo, the crystallization of what it means to be modern in Brazil, has become the trench for capital. Thus, focusing on these recent events, I will shed some historical light on the colonial roots of Brazilian Racial Capitalism.
Cristián Castro: Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Davis. His areas of interest include the history of Brazil, the transnational history of the Americas during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of Afro-descendants in the Americas, and cultural history. He is currently the director of the Department of History at Diego Portales University.