What is antiracism? And why it means anticapitalism by Arun Kundnani (Verso, 2023)
I try to be hopeful. So, allow me to hope that Arun Kundnani’s new book, What is antiracism?And why it means anticapitalism, will be the final nail in the coffin of a counter-productive debate between race-blind anti-capitalism and class-blind anti-racism. The book warrants such a hope, on the condition that it gets widely read.
What Kundnani offers in What is antiracism? is at once a defence of revolutionary anti-imperialist national liberation struggles and a critique of liberal anti-racist politics. Revolutionary national liberation movements have as their horizon the abolition of racial capitalism. Conversely, liberal antiracism, which fails to grasp the political economic underpinnings of racial inequality, bolsters the very system whose racial hierarchies it ostensibly rejects.
Uprooting racial capitalism requires revolutionary anti-racism
Why is this the case? The “liberal theory of racism,” writes Kundnani, regards racism as, “at root, a problem of racial beliefs, attitudes, and feelings among ordinary individuals,” or as only “a disposition of the mind, a psychological flaw.”
Understanding racism this way casts anti-racism as a narrow pedagogical project. “[The] history of liberal antiracism is the history of the various techniques deployed to carry out this moralistic, top-down program of unmasking false ideas and rooting out improper attitudes,” says Kundnani.
Such a politics does not just neglect the political economic structures underlying racial inequality; it exonerates these structures. “By relocating racism to the unconscious mind, to the use of inappropriate words, and to the extremist fringes, liberal antiracism ends up absolving the institutions most responsible for racist practices,” observes Kundnani. That is to say, liberal anti-racism abets structural racism.
It is in contrast to this liberal politics of ethical purification that Kundnani advocates a revolutionary anti-racism aimed at uprooting racial capitalism through collective struggle. This is necessary because the “system made the racist, not the other way around.” Abolishing racial hierarchies requires abolishing their political economic infrastructure, both globally and domestically.
But what, specifically, is racial capitalism? Kundnani glosses the term as “the mutual dependence of capitalism and racism.” This means, in practice, that capitalism “constantly recreates itself through differentiation of labor.” This differentiation—this hierarchical segmentation—serves as the political economic foundation for racialization and racism.
Consider, in the Canadian context, the restrictive conditions under which toil migrant agricultural labourers from Mexico and the Caribbean, whose depressed wages subsidize produce for Canadian consumers. Or consider government concessions for mining and pipeline development imposed unilaterally on Indigenous lands, from the Wet’suwet’en territory to Grassy Narrows. Or consider the extraction by Canadian mining companies of resources across the global South—an imperialist relation backed by the Canadian government and Southern comprador elites.
The need for an assertively antiracist class struggle
Taking seriously political economic unevenness and working-class segmentation challenges a certain Marxist orthodoxy that presumes capitalist development will progressively dissolve differences among labouring populations. Under capitalism’s fragmentary dynamics, racism is not mere ideological mystification dividing an otherwise unitary working class; it is a mediated expression of racialized political economic segmentation, both at a global level and within particular countries. The proletariat is internally stratified, and this stratification has a material basis.
Ultimately, it will be through the collective, anti-imperialist struggles of colonized, neo-colonized, and internally colonized peoples that racial capitalism will be abolished. But white or otherwise privileged segments of the working class can play a role in supporting the autonomous national liberation movements of others. This is, in fact, imperative, and not just for moral reasons, but as a necessary step in a revolutionary process whose emancipatory implications are universal. In other words, struggles against racial capitalism point “to a socialism that would benefit white workers too.” Such is the thesis that Kundnani advances.
To elaborate these arguments, Kundnani lays out in his book an intellectual history of revolutionary anti-racism. Across thirteen body chapters and an introduction, readers follow a red thread that Kundnani weaves through an historical narrative of the anti-colonial left. Over some 250 pages, we read of the lives and ideas of Anton De Kom, W.E.B. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, M.N. Roy, Claudia Jones, Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Jamil Abdullah al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), Cora Scott King, Cedric Robinson, Stuart Hall, A. Sivanandan, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and others.
To be sure, Kundnani is not advancing a novel argument here. His elaboration of the political economy of race, of racism, and of racial inequality will be familiar to readers versed in writings on racial capitalism. What Kundnani adds is instead a lucid summary of these ideas, a damning polemic against liberal attempts to monopolize antiracist politics, and a strident call for an assertively antiracist class struggle. If only for these reasons, Kundnani’s book deserves a wide audience.
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