Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The Racial Division of Labor: On Sylvie Laurent's Capital et Race


In Kathi Weeks' The Problem with Work she makes an argument about the way in which work produces and reproduces gender. As Weeks writes:

"To say that work is organized by gender is to observe that it is a site where, at a minimum, we can find gender enforced, performed, and recreated. Workplaces are often structured in relation to gendered norms and expectations. Waged work and unwaged work alike continue to be structured by the productivity of gender-differentiated labor, including the gender division of both household roles and waged occupations...Gender is put to work when, for example, workers draw upon gendered codes and scripts as a way to negotiate relationships with bosses and co-workers, to personalize impersonal interactions, or to communicate courtesy, care, professionalism, or authority to clients, students, patients or customers."

Lately I have been thinking about the way in which we could also think about the way in which work is also organized by, and organizing of, other social hierarchies including race. How is work organized by race, or how are racialized codes and scripts put to work in the workplace?

This is to some extent the question of racial capitalism. It is possible to say, following Weeks, that there is an emerging awareness that capitalism was not just about the creation of the working class, a creation of a class of people with nothing but their labor to sell, but also the creation of the housewife, of unwaged labor in the home, and all of this was made possible in part by slavery, by the unwaged labor of people who were themselves commodities. Capital was born in the bloody intersections of gender, race, and class. Understanding these overlapping intersections is a matter not just of understanding the past, but of understanding the present This question is also in some sense the central question of Sylvie Laurent's Capital et Race: Histoire d'une Hydre Moderne.

One way to think about the intersection of race and wage worker is to argue that the former affects the latter only in and through the racist ideas and conceptions of employers. In this conception, which is developed by Lordon, the general tendency of dependency on the wage relation is the general condition through which the specific hierarchies of race are lived. In other words, it is because one needs to sell their labor power that one is then subject to the various racist attitudes of employers. Such a dual systems account of race and capital makes the former individual, even psychological, and the latter structural. 

Part of the merit of Laurent's book is that she focuses on the structures of racial capitalism, seeing it not as the attitudes of individuals but as something materialized in practices and institutions. Her book is am investigation of the hydra of race and capitalism considered according to its "heads," the institutions (plantation, academy, multinational, colonial contract), stories (most notably Robinson Crusoe, but also the story of progress through the development of commercial society told by Adam Smith), and practices (primitive accumulation, colonialism, neoliberalism) that intertwine capitalism with racism. Race is not an idea, not just an idea that would reside in the heads of individuals, it is also institutionalized in different practices, or, more to the point, it is the intersection of practices and ideas. 

There is a lot to think comment about in Laurent's book, but I am less interested in thinking about the role that race played in the formation of capitalism. I know that a great deal has been written, and continues to be written about the intersection of slavery and the formation of modern capitalism. In a similar way there has been a lot written about the continuation of racial logics of division and hierarchy in and through the age of Jim Crow. The challenge it seems to me is to continue to think about the intersection of race and capital into the age of Charles Mills calls "de facto racism" (as opposed to de jure racism) without lapsing into seeing it as a purely individual attitude or prejudice. 

The contrast with gender is useful. Even after the destruction of the housewife as the personification and naturalization of unwaged work, gendered scripts continued to exist in the commodification of care work, emotional labor, and sexualized work, in the school teacher, waitress, and sex-worker. The gendered division of labor continues even within generalized wage labor. One could make an analogy of sorts with race on this point. There is a racial division of labor that we see everyday in restaurants, with a predominantly white waitstaff and largely latino and black staff bussing tables, and other industries from hotels to hospitals, in which the hierarchy of jobs often overlaps with a racial hierarchy. However, this is just an analogy, an anecdotal one at that; it is hard to say that these jobs are performing racialized scripts even if they are sometimes perceived that way for the people who consume it. I have been thinking a lot one what one could call the "mediated immediacy" of race, as a hierarchy produced and sustained by a long history that includes slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, is perceived as a natural way of the world by a person who passes through a hotel or restaurant. One does not see the history of this production, just the hierarchy and exclusion it has made possible, and since that hierarchy corresponds with the physical appearance of race that appearance is taken as its cause and condition. 

Laurent draws on Moishe Postone, Hylton White, and Harry Chang, to draw a connection not between race and the everyday experience but between race and the structural conditions of capitalism. These structural conditions are the two defining abstractions, that of capital, of surplus value, and of its opposite and condition, that of the laboring body. As Laurent writes:

"The black body is thus the perfect projection of an organism without capitalist labor, what Fanon rightly identified when speaking of the fetish of blackness as the embodiment of “the untamed biological.”If the Jew of antisemitism is the human body of money, the Black of anti-black racism is the human representative of brute biological bodilyness. The Negro represents essentialized biological and chaotic power, demanding its domestication. Its incapacity to discipline itself by labor condemns it to be an energy without object. Objectified, it is itself reduced to exchange value, incorporated into the commodity to become one with it, just as the Jew becomes one with capital." 

Laurent connects race not with the apparent hierarchies of capitalism, the racial division of labor in workplaces, but with its mysteries and metaphysics, the abstraction of value and the potential of labor. Or, more to the point, race, the race that structures contemporary racism, is always both immediately apparent, and unnervingly hidden, and it is formed at the intersection of these two aspects. 

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