Friday, August 2, 2013

"Conventionally, attempts among progressives to make sense of the relative roles of race and class in American politics have erred by approaching the question from an analytical vantage point that is too abstract and ahistorical. Both those who emphasize the class pole and those who emphasize the race pole tend to proceed from a notion of capitalism as an ideal-typical system defined by generic economic categories. There are two crucial problems with this idealist view. First, there is no generic capitalism, only discrete capitalist systems that evolve within historically specific matrices of social relations. From an historical perspective it is no overstatement to say that capitalism exists not because of willful efforts to create a system that conforms to a set of abstract characteristics; it is the summary product of pragmatic struggles by individuals and groups to pursue concrete material interests and to improvise institutional frameworks that facilitate their pursuits. (These systems, of course, may be imposed willfully from without, as in colonialism, but even under those conditions their specific character is embedded in local patterns of social relations and institutions.) At best, ideal-typical formulations of capitalism abstract away from the historically specific features of the regimes resultant from those struggles to identify formal characteristics that such systems share; at worst, they function as theological postulates that steer debate into scholastic arguments over which systems or patterns of social relations genuinely deserve the capitalist label. Ideal-typical formulations of capitalism's features and logical tendencies can have heuristic value, certainly, but they cannot help to clarify the relation of race and class in a given society. This is so partly because reliance on such reified notions of capitalism yields an interpretive reflex that approaches the social and political dynamics idiosyncratic to the society in question from a Procrustean frame of reference, that gives short shrift to their integrity and significance in defining what capitalism is in that society and how it is reproduced concretely. 

"Thus those who emphasize the class pole of the debate tend to see racial ideology as ephemeral to capitalism's fundamental dynamics and to construe it as an irrational, or exogenous, force cultivated by the ruling class as a device to divide the ruled. Those who stress the race pole also tend to accept the ahistorical, ideal-typical view of capitalism, often because it is rhetorically convenient for prior ideological or interpretive dispositions to see race as an autonomous force that transcends historical and social context and that shapes social relations independently.

"Neither of those formulations can capture effectively the complex ways that racial and class identities and consciousness have been shaped and have evolved mutually.

"The second problem is related to the first. Also because they abstract away from the idiosyncratic features of actual capitalist societies, ideal-typical constructions tend to disregard the role of political institutions and systems of civic hierarchy in defining the terms on which specific capitalist social orders cohere and are reproduced. [...]

"Although the specific forms of class identity and practice that emerge and operate within capitalist social structures may vary in idiosyncratic and unpredictable ways over place and time, they originate from an essential, materially demonstrable foundation that can be generalized across social contexts - the social organization of labor on more or less coercive bases for the production of privately appropriated value.

"This cellular reality is what sustains the tendency to simplistic, economistic interpretation and endows it with a modicum of verisimilitude. Race, on the other hand, like other categories of ascriptive status, has no such essential foundation; its concrete features, characteristics, meanings and significance are entirely bound by the specific social context within which it is deployed. Contrary to flippant, often disingenuous objections to the assertion, this is the insight underlying the constructionist claim, not that race isn't a social reality or has no substantive importance or consequences for the lives of people thus categorized.

"The pertinent implication is that, insofar as they abstract from the discrete, mundane institutional and civic dynamics of specific societies and their histories, general theories of capitalism's race/class relations are overwhelmingly likely to produce accounts that are, from the standpoint of a concern to understand the workings of any particular social order, unhelpful and no better than trivially true." - Adolph Reed, Jr., "Unraveling the Relation of Race and Class in American Politics."

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