29 11 06

Does Contemporary Capitalism Need Racism?

Manuela Bojadžijev

Integration, Integration, Integration. Wherever you look at you can find Anti-discrimination programmes, new initiatives for migration legislation, language course programmes, citizenship tests etc. These services represent a mixture of incentives and coercions to deal with the constant recomposition of migration within and to Europe. Integration seems to provide the magic formula, a new chorus line that bans all dissonance and creates a deep-rooted consensus between those who are supposed to belong to and those, who want to give admittance to their participation. How are we to understand racism in a situation where consensus dictates that racism has been eliminated from modern societies? How do we make sense of racism at a moment when integration promises to deal with the residual frictions and contradictions in our immigration societies?

There are voices that do not accept this consensus and that question the paradigm of integration. They doubt that a respective form of society can be conceptualised according to its ability to balance governmental, economic, and social means for managing and regulating processes of immigration on the one hand and, on the other hand, facilitating the step by step integration of migrants. Rightly, these critics point to the asymmetry reproduced time and again by integration as a governmental imperative.

What if we bear this critic in mind but switch the perspective for a moment? What if we understand the current debates around integration as inadequate to speak of exploitation and racism? Let me take that inadequacy as a starting point for discussing the given question on the relation between Capitalism and Racism today.

Let me begin by recalling a couple of crucial objections to and presumptions within the integration question. I will argue that these flaws in the integration debate make problematic a functional relation between Capitalism and Racism – even if I am running the risk of stating the obvious.

a) There is no consistent subject of Capitalism that needs Racism; b) there is not even a consistent subject as 'the State' that needs Racism; c) we cannot speak of Racism as one ideology (but rather of ideological race constructions).

I've always found the book 'The Invention of the White Race' by Theodor W. Allen particularly useful in illuminating the shortcomings of a functionalist explanation of the relation between capitalism and racism. Allen defines two schemas of explanation in the historiography of slavery and racism: the psycho-cultural schema and the socio-economic schema.

Following the explanation of the psycho-cultural schema, the enslavement of blacks was a result of a given psycho-cultural stance of the colonisers. Allen objects that at the beginning of slavery there existed no racist segregation of the work force. Both blacks and Whites had been subordinated by temporary bondage. The psycho-cultural approach presupposes racism prior to slavery. Or more accurately, this schema presupposes an ideological race construction before racism and its historical mode of existence (in this case: slavery). Rather than explaining the conditions for the constitution of racism, the psycho-cultural approach induces and historically deduces its object of analysis. Therewith perpetual race struggles are postulated.

Conversely, the socio-economic approach attempts to explain racism through slavery. Thus, Racism is a result of slavery. But this approach, on the other hand, cannot take into account specific forms of exploitation and racist oppression. According to this explanation, the exploitation of bondslaves gave way to slavery because an African work force was cheaper. But this argumentation implies a tautology: An African work force was cheaper because it was enslaved, and before it was enslaved it was cheaper.

The socio-economic approach leaves the relation between economy and outer-economic forces, that is racism, unsolved and often falls back into psycho-cultural modes of explanation. Additionally, slaves become fixed capital and are no longer perceived as the rebellious work force, that they were. The aspect of social control remains neglected.

If these schemas of explanation remain unsatisfactory then how are we to explain historical conjunctures of racism?

Before I attempt to approach this question, let me take a random sample of what we can observe in current capitalism. If it is not possible to say that capitalism needs racism, perhaps we can at least state that capitalism does not now nor has it ever existed without labour force mobility. Wherein contemporary global capitalism in its new contours allows us to really grasp the sheer scale of migratory movements, we do need new metaphors and concepts. The traditional distinctions between economy, politics and culture have become obsolete. It is simply no longer possible to speak of exploitation, or the realisation of capital, without raising the question of the transformation of borders and concepts of citizenship. Similarly, it is no longer possible to speak of the working class without at the same time understanding the process of dissolution that has affected the whole 'milieu', transforming subjectivity in the very process. It seems that in the context of contemporary capitalism, migration allows us to spot lots of these aspects that intersect here.

The regime over migration movements (that is, the mobility of the work force) plays a key role in reconstructing the oppression of living labour under capital as a whole. We cannot begin to understand the transformations in class composition without considering the management and regulation of migration. As we research migration we detect a subjective figure for whom the highest degree of labour flexibility, as expressed by the social attitude of migrant workers, encounters the effects arising from the brutal control of that flexibility. This is not to say that migrants form a potential vanguard in class composition. Rather, - from the perspective of a specific subject position - we can understand the current composition of living labour as a whole articulated within a new interplay of flexibility, mobility and control on different levels. The common sense category of the labour market as characterised by specific segmentations, then shows its perfect fragility, its mere metaphorical value.

If we perceive migration as a social movement, we can start to think about the nature of the "encounter" between labour and capital. Speaking of the attempts to control migration as well as its constitutional force/violence, brings into play the relations of domination and exploitation characterizing that "encounter."

It is true, were I to reduce racism by definition I would be tempted to relate it to the capitalist form of socialisation. But even if we presume the permanency of racism, in the same way that we take for granted the permanency of exploitation, we cannot assume continuities. Rather we would have to acquire an understanding of the concurrency and ubiquitousness of different ideological race formations. The current conjuncture – before all sociological descriptions and even before all descriptions of discrete forms of existence of racisms – would then have to be defined as a form (in the materialist sense), or rather as a new dominating form that defines ideological race constructions on the whole.

Were I to approach the question of the contemporary conjuncture of racism in Europe I would speak of a 'European racism', which Balibar has defined as neo-racism[1]. In his essay 'Es gibt keinen Staat in Europa'[2], published 15 years ago, Balibar argues that this racism is composed of both colonial and anti-Semitic schemas, joining in with anti-Islamism. In my opinion, this argument contains, in addition to its conceptual usefulness, a criticism of two mistakes often made when talking about racism. On the one hand, neo-racism critiques the notion of continuity, which, instead of placing contemporary racism in its conjuncture, sees it solely as a continuation of, respectively, the colonial or national-socialist, heritage. Secondly, the term neo-racism offers a criticism of simplistic analogies that transfer terms from one situation to another. How useful, for example, can it be to explain racism in Germany via terms and traditions borne out of a UK context? In fact, Balibar speaks about 'national situations' in which the particular relations of migration and racism are defined and articulated. At the same time the 'construction of Europe' supplies and accelerates the convergence of these different forms.

Fifteen years since Balibar first introduced the term neo-racism in this very same European context, we have to speak of the emergence of a transnational situation as can be observed, for instance, when one looks at the current formation of anti-Islamism, or neo-racism.[3]

Examining the specific historical conjuncture of neo-racism, social domination, and control in capitalist social formations provides us with a useful foundation. But let me push the argument one step further. The matter of how racism has constituted itself in contemporary Europe requires a separate investigation. To help me draw out some analogies, let me return to Theodor W. Allen's argument. If we refrain from assuming a given stance within European societies towards migrants, and neither assume that the system of labour migration has produced racism, then we need to focus our analysis of the conditions of the constitution of neo-racism within the traces of struggles of migration throughout Europe. We need to develop a relational theory of racism.

Let me take the opportunity to formulate a couple of preliminary thoughts for such a relational theory. A relational understanding of racism takes as its base the struggles against racism, and not the subjects that have been constructed by racism. It is for this reason that I prefer to talk about struggles of migrants, as well as struggles of migration. A historiography of those struggles has to take the form of subjectivisation into account – namely in a twofold sense: first, in the sense of the reconstruction of the persistence of migrants, constituting themselves as subjects in social conflicts. Second, a historiography of migrant struggles must take into account the history of their racist oppression. To be a migrant is to exist exclusively under circumstances that define one as a migrant. While they exist as such, that is as migrants, their struggles remain. Only by understanding this connection we will be able to learn from the powerful effects that emanate from the history of struggles of migration.

Racism did not always subjugate the same group of people in the same way. To focus on struggles allows us to work towards an understanding of migration that resents representations of migrants as mere victims of racism or objects of immigration policies. Conversely, insisting on migration as a social movement compels us to refrain from converting individuals into heroes of social struggle. A relational theory of racism aims at providing evidence that it is the struggles that force racism to reorganise itself. To be clear, what I am suggesting here is nothing less than a reorientation in how we conduct our research into racism: that we must understand shifts in the organisation and development of racism by way of a focus on the perspective of resistance and struggles of migration.

It is plausible that we cannot explain the cause of racism by its victims, as the considerations of critical theory on anti-Semitism have rightly taught us. Like anti-Semitism, neo-racism is an ideological practice, in which its specific object is constituted and constructed. This presumption implies a crucial challenge: something that does not exist, such as race, is coming into being through different forms of praxis by individuals, groups, institutions, or states and therefore a reality, a social relation and a policy. The fiction of race is produced by a vast number of narrations: gestures, rituals, images, texts. The fictional narration creates something as a race, particular racisms then seem as an application, while reversely it is exactly racism and its fictional object, race, that is the effect of a multitude of racist techniques of narrations: ethnicity and race – to take up a metaphor of Adorno – is a rumour, once the rumour about the Jews, the other time the rumour about the migrant or the refugee.

In many cases theories of racism and migration suggest and imply in one way or the other that its object of cognition, that is racism, relates however  naturalistically to something 'in the matter' – after all to the ethnic, that is the biological-cultural heritage or the colour of the skin.

We can observe this sort of explanation within approaches popular amongst cultural theories that reduce racism to questions of identity and representation politics. Here, racism appears as a lack of representation. Conceptualised as such, racism is being isolated from other forms of domination. It is assumed that racist power is in the hand of dominant groups and that it can be exercised, as it were, technically. The relations of power in which racism is entangled remain uninvestigated. In the end the abstract discussion of pros and cons of identity gets often caught up in the racist discourse. Migrant's forms of resistance as observed in our histories are taking place in a multitude of forms and practices. They neither assume an identity of a collective of common heritage nor can we presuppose that migrants have an explicit antiracist consciousness.

A relational theory of racism puts the relation between migration and racism differently: migration is entangled in a struggle against racism and forces racism to reorganise itself in historically specific forms and on account of those struggles. Thus, racism is no static ideological pattern, but changes its character: its arguments, its objects, its appearance, its aims, its forms of organisation. Therefore we can only investigate conjunctures of racism throughout history. The occurrence of migration can already be interpreted as an activity as a form and practice of social critique. The same applies to the practices of migrants once they settle. It provokes governmental policies and changes social relations.

In order to avoid the pitfall to talk about given migrant identities and to construct a migrant heroism, we need to understand that many of these processes happen, as it were, 'behind migrant's backs'. Migrants often take up subject positions that make them victims in fact, that make them identify or counter-identify with the overwhelming racist identifications and make them understand themselves and others in collective stereotypes. Analysing racist patterns and practices has to avoid to state that there is such a thing as race or ethnicity that as such and only afterwards becomes the object of aggression, violence, exotisation etc. The point is the analysis of those processes, in which migrants are being oppressed by racism, and which they at the same time oppose and which they therefore change.

The praxis of racist ascriptions can be characterised as a distinctive mark of capitalist states, which creates – in relation to particular conjunctures of racism – specific regimes of migration. Thus we can understand the conflictory encounter of migrants – via a regime of migration with its legal forms – and the state. Racism itself is a form of social conflict, in which it is renewed and in which it contributes to a complex form of capitalist development. Racism is a praxis, which arises in conflicts between the state and struggles of migration, which at the same time should not be reduced to resistance to racism. If we were to focus on the struggles against racism we need to detect both the borders and the possibilities in those social conflicts and make them accessible to a future history.

Coming back to the contemporary conjuncture of racism, how can we perceive it in Europe today? Far from working purely on culturalist grounds, neo-racism shifts between biological and cultural patterns of explanation, ascriptions, and stigmatizations. Superiority and inferiority, inclusion and exclusion are being correlated with cultural norms and are then being biologically essentialized – and vice versa. In this sense, any configuration of racism in history is a projective conception that attempts to explain social differences, social hierarchies, and domination. These 'explanations' are inscribed in everyday practices or in state regulations on populations. In the case of anti-Islamism, the colonial and the anti-Semitic scheme are perfectly combined: here, notions of racist superiority are superimposed on cultural and religious rivalries. Of course, anti-Islamism is not a new phenomenon. For many decades, even centuries, it has had its base in Europe. Cultural ascriptions are central here, since they aim at making racist-defined differences immediately visible. Since 9/11, the veil has become the visible sign in discussions about immigration, discussions about terrorism, and discussions that fuse the two together. One might add that whilst Islam has historically been Europe's external enemy, Jews have represented its internal foe. In both cases, the conjunction of religion and citizenship helped to draw the line between inclusion and exclusion.

But as I have stated, racism does not exist without its counterpart – struggles against racism. This is not to downplay racism's dreadful impact, but to understand both the way racism changes over the course of history and the way it constitutes the subjects of the struggles against racism. Migrants and their descendants have always resisted discrimination and disenfranchisement. They still do, whether this happened within the housing and labour struggles of the 1960s and 1970s in Britain, Germany, and France, or the struggles, ever since the 1990s, in struggles for wages of undocumented migrants, against deportation and for legalization. Often, new forms of oppression against migrants can be seen as reactions to these struggles, like the administrative regulations in Germany in the 1970s that sought to ban migrants from moving to certain neighbourhoods solely because these neighbourhoods were considered to be uncontrollable due to their large migrant communities. When, after the end of the guest-worker recruitment of the 1970s, legal entry to Europe seemed impossible, migrants nonetheless managed to organize immigration through marriage and family reunification.

This concept of struggles implies a certain concept of autonomy, although not in the traditional, overt sense. The autonomy of migration is not intended to imply the sovereignty of migrants, but rather that migrants are not simply objects of state control – that migrants can defy controls and resist racist discrimination. The autonomy of migration represents the rather complicated fact that migration struggles constitute a specific level of the political. Autonomy is thus not a narrative about a new revolutionary subject called the migrant, but instead tries to manage all the contradictions related to racism and migration.

Let's consider some examples. One of the problems we face when fighting racism is the issue of our own communities and identity politics. Since the reunification of the two Germany's in 1990, the surge in nationalism and racist attacks – 73 migrants were killed, hundreds were injured – led to a traumatic situation within migrant's communities. The attacks also provoked nationalist attitudes within these communities. More recently, the effects of anti-Islamism on our communities and struggles are remarkable. How should we deal with Turkish flags if they are part of the struggle against discrimination? In our struggles against racism, we have to aim the criticism at both sides: at the racist regime of those in power and at the ethnic-identity politics of those who are ruled over. Since racism and ethnification have always had the function of supporting the authoritarian, homogenizing formation of migrant's collectives, would it not be possible to find a link between the autonomous tactics and struggles I have mentioned and an extended social, individual and collective autonomy? This cannot be an abstract critique from behind a desk as to how people may or may not conduct their lives. The identity politics of those ruled over is also always a strategy of self-authorization under the conditions of racism and exploitation. When we refer to migrant communities, we must be well aware that they provide migrants with protection under the conditions of the racist regime, and that this improves their conditions of survival.

When I focus on the forms of migrant's resistance and autonomous organising, I am doing so without claiming that there is a symmetry, or balance between the practices of the dominant and those dominated. Rather I have a strategic reason: Up until then, or even now, the struggles of migrants have been largely unknown. But there is also a far more important reason: We need to shift the perspective. Only if we understand the process of recuperation we can elaborate on the ruptures and continuities and show that dominant practices, even where they succeed in interrupting struggles, they can not liquidate them without re-establishing certain aspects in a new reorganised way. This also implies that the results of conflicts are not determined. The processes of subjectivisation are taking place in struggles. Migrants are being constituted by both immigration laws and struggles of migration, which are directed against these circumstances. By racism and the resistance against it – to put it into a simplifying typology – a collective of Europeans and a collective of Migrants is being constituted. Of course, these collectives are fragmented - as a result of racism and antiracist struggles and of migratory movements, which result in a steady recomposition of migration. Here we can state the obvious: there is no homogenous subject of migration. When I concentrate on struggles against racism and exploitation in order to avoid identitarian positions, it still happens in a language ('migrants') which – by doing so - has to loose its meaning. Autonomy is created in social conflicts, in which new forms of cooperation and communication, new forms of life, are being constituted. Migration escapes existing forms of socialisation. But there is a dialectic in every aspect of autonomy. Thus, while mobility is the source of exploitation, insofar as capitalism relies on labour force mobility, mobility is at the same time the source of escape from relations of exploitation and dominance. Neither is migration free of existing forms of socialisation nor can it be perceived in totally channelled and regulated forms. Processes of migration install new forms of socialisation. They can lead to new household structures, new political organisation and new economic modes of production, reaching from precarious forms of labour to capitalist businesses. Social networks of migration can establish regulated communities with tight pattern of identity. Not rarely autonomy is being asserted in situations that in the end lead to the destruction of autonomy. Autonomy and heteronomy are never isolated.

What is migration then? The composition of migration varies historically and from nation to nation, or region. Migration - although obviously being a movement, and which by now could be considered the biggest social movement ever – challenges a couple of presumptions on what a movement is about. Migration can neither be conceptualised as a matter of homogenising a population (like a nation), nor can it be about a politically stabilised form like the working class. It is a new type of social movement, which occupies and opens up a new social space and new fields of conflict. Migration is excessive and points to the borders of a certain understanding of social integration. Such an understanding allows us a perspective, in which migrants are not an exception to the historically extending forms of democratic participation via attainment of full citizenship. For one, the struggles of migration show that it is not about becoming fully recognised citizens – they insist on being citizens already. They challenge the borders of nations and supranational structures like the EU. And by investigating these struggles we can try to determine a couple of criteria and problems of the composition and constitution within social struggles in general. Maybe it is the lack of political steadiness and continuation, maybe it is the temporary aspects of migrant's organising which helps us towards a different understanding of social struggles, of their history and their future history.

In his article 'On The Jewish Question' Marx noted in 1843 that he is not so much interested in the question of integration, in who is to emancipate and who is to be emancipated, but that 'Criticism had to investigate a third point. It had to inquire: What kind of emancipation is in question? What conditions follow from the very nature of the emancipation that is demanded?' Maybe we should pick up again on these questions.


Thomas Atzert, Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right… Über Immaterielle Arbeit und Biomacht, in Kurwechsel, Heft 3/2003, pp 111-116.

Manuela Bojadžijev, "Die windige Internationale": Rassismus und Kämpfe der Migration. Inauguraldissertation, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, 2005.

Sandro Mezzadra, Kapitalismus, Migrationen, soziale Kämpfe. Vorbemerkungen zu einer Theorie der Auotonomie der Migration, in Pieper, Marianne/Atzert, Thomas/Karakayalı, Serhat/Tsianos, Vassilis (Hg.): Empire und die biopolitische Wende. Frankfurt am Main/New York. Im Erscheinen.

The paper was originally presented at the Centre for Research on Racism, Ethnicity and Nationalism (CRREN, Department of Sociology at the University of Glasgow on September 7th and 8th 2006.

[1] Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, Ambiguous Identities, London, Verso, 1991.

[2] Etienne Balibar: “Es gibt keinen Staat in Europa“, Racism and Politics in Europe today, in: New Left Review I/186, March-April 1991; originally: Rassismus und Politik im heutigen Europa, in: Rassismus und Migration in Europa, ARGUMENT-Sonderband, Göttingen 1992

[3] Etienne Balibar and Sandro Mezzadra, Borders, Citizenship, War, Class. A talk with Manuela Bojadzijev and Isabelle Saint-Saens, new formations 58, 2006, pp 10-30.

Does Contemporary Capitalism Need Racism?