To Make Our World Anew: May Day special ft. Robin D.G. Kelley

In this holiday segment of Rustbelt Abolition Radio, we speak with acclaimed scholar Robin D.G. Kelley.

May Day, or International Workers Day, is celebrated annually by millions across the world in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Square massacre and the ongoing global struggle for a world without capitalist exploitation and racial domination. We sat down with Robin D.G. Kelley to explore the critique of racial capitalism, the history of class struggle across the color line, and the abolitionist horizon.

Robin D.G. Kelley is Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at UCLA. Kelley’s intellectual work spans the far reaching histories of the black freedom movement, African American history, culture, music, and aesthetics, and the politics of the black radical imagination. His books include Africa Speaks, America Answers!: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, among many others.

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Episode Transcript:

a Maria: In this special May Day segment of Rustbelt Abolition Radio, we speak with acclaimed scholar Robin D.G. Kelley, professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in US History at UCLA. Kelley’s intellectual work spans the far reaching histories of the black freedom movement, African American history, culture, music, and aesthetics, and the politics of the black radical imagination. His books include Africa Speaks; America Answers, Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times, and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, among many others. We released this episode on May Day, or International Worker’s Day celebrated annually by millions across the world, in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Square Massacre and the ongoing struggle for a world without capitalist exploitation and racial domination. We sat down with Robin D.G. Kelley to explore the critique of racial capitalism, the history of class struggle across the color line, and the abolitionist imagination.

Robin D.G. Kelley: I’m Robin D.G. Kelley, I’m a professor of History and African American Studies at UCLA. I don’t make the claim of being one of these scholar activists. I’m an intellectual who does everything I can to support any of struggles for liberation, without any conceit, as far as our role as intellectuals. And also being a scholar, I distinguish from being an intellectual. ‘Cause a scholar is into production, intellectuals are into a sort of deep thinking, not just to solve problems but to reveal them. As James Baldwin would say, bearing witness. And bearing witness for me is about trying to reveal truths that are really uncomfortable. It’s not about inspiration. And I just want to clarify that, because people always say you’re supposed to be inspiring. Movements inspire us, but as Gramsci talks about the pessimism of the intellect, it’s all about revealing the things that are unexpected.

a Maria: In a recent essay entitled What Did Cedric Robinson Mean By Racial Capitalism, you trace the history and theorization of the term racial capitalism. Can you explain to us what it means, as well as the context in which it emerges?

Robin D.G. Kelley: Well that’s a great question. And by the way, that essay was really intended to clarify what Cedric meant, which is a little different from the genesis of the term racial capitalism. So I was trying to situate racial capitalism in his book Black Marxism, where his very basic objective was to argue that racism was not the outcome of capitalism. It wasn’t a product of wily capitalists who were trying to divide the working class, but rather the civilization in which capitalism emerged was already racial, racialized. You had racial difference being produced within Europe itself, the Slavs, who were really the original slaves. The dispossession of the Irish was a colonial move on the part of the English. Anti-Semitism and other forms of difference produced what was essentially within Europe, a working class or a laboring class who was already perceived to be external, other. And that ground of racialization was the ground in which capitalism emerged, already very racial. And the other thing is that capitalism wasn’t necessarily a dramatic, revolutionary break from feudalism, it emerged out of feudalism. In fact what he says is that socialism emerged out of feudalism.

There’s no guarantee that capitalism or socialism would have won, that they both emerged as ways of resolving certain kinds of crises, certain problems that emerge when you actually hold people to the land as semi-slaves. You know, how do you open that up? And so in some ways, his objective was again to reveal the racial foundations of capitalism without playing into the what came first, the chicken or the egg business. And so by the time capitalism takes its merchant and imperial forms, it’s already racial. There’s already a kind of way of thinking about the African as both human, semi-human, subhuman, and or non-human. Or the indigenous peoples constructed as not having any conception of private property, and therefore a fetter to society that can be eliminated easily. That ideology was there.

There’s another source of racial capitalism that comes out of South Africa. South Africa has a long history, going really back to the late 60s early 70s, of thinking about how does capitalism function within the apartheid system. How accumulation takes place in a system in which you have legally codified racial hierarchies? Where does a kind of black petty bourgeoisie exist within that? What does it mean for a white working class? And it’s interesting because a lot of that scholarship coming out of South Africa was trying to figure out, what do you do with the white working class? What is the white working class? Are they just benefiting from super exploitation of black labor? So that theorizing is really the origins of racial capitalism from another vantage point. Cedric of course was in England, speaking with all these folks who were doing work on South Africa when he wrote Black Marxism. So he was familiar with that genesis, but he just had a different objective.

a Maria: I was wondering also if you could briefly mention the ways in which racial capitalism has moved into the Movement for Black Lives, and gained circulation recently?

Robin D.G. Kelley: Yeah, the concept. Ok so the Movement for Black Lives, which is a coalition of a bunch of different organizations, Black Lives Matter being one. And so some of the organizers in this massive coalition, who are veterans of the movement, this is cross generational by the way. It cuts across from people doing work from people doing work on prison abolition, people doing work on welfare rights, people doing work around immigration detention, there’s a lot of stuff going on.

The concept of racial capitalism came about as a result of two or three things. One is revisiting Cedric Robinson’s work. I credit Angela Davis in part for that, ‘cause she’s been talking about this for a while in terms of the precise political demand of requirement. It was also a way to hedge those criticisms that say black lives matter, anti police brutality, is not anti capitalism. That’s just a side issue, whereas the real class struggle are those who see race as a diversion. Or identity politics as a kind of diversion from the real struggle. That’s an old argument, it’s so old it predates my birth, and I’m an old person. So it’s been around for a long time, a sort of class first. So racial capitalism was a way to mobilize an understanding that places race not at the margins, not even at the center, but completely intersected. Incorporating racial capitalism in the teaching materials, in the discussion of how to move forward politically, was really about recognizing the indivisibility of racism from capitalism. They’re not different categories. And it’s also about recognizing the South African example.

In South Africa, there was a decision made by the ANC to push towards a two stage theory of revolution. A two stage theory of struggle, which is different from the one stage theory. The one stage theory was we’re going to combat capitalism, and racism, and all forms of hierarchy and oppression immediately. I’m sure your listeners know about the ANC Freedom Charter. The Freedom Charter was really the program for the African National Congress, and that program entailed things like the nationalization of the mines. It entailed the nationalization of industry, as well as the elimination of all forms of racial barriers. So basically what they were arguing for was that we’re going to make a socialist revolution, and tearing down the racial barriers that apartheid erected is what the revolution is about. Then they moved to the two stage theory, they said we’re going to do the racial forms of segregation, racial difference, racial wage differentiation, they said that we’re going to deal with that first, and then we’re going to attack capitalism. Which of course people recognized was a fatal flaw. Because what did you get? You got language rights, you got the end of racial barriers, but you got deeper inequality through neoliberal capital.

And so when we go back and look at the United States, the argument to fight racial capitalism is the argument that even struggles against the police state, against the carceral state, against wars against immigrants and detention, private and public prisons, struggles for fair housing, that these things cannot be separated from the struggle to end capitalism. That capitalism is really our main objective. But you can’t end capitalism and think that racism is going to disappear. So that’s where this discourse comes in, and why strategically it’s really really imperative for movements to move forward. And what the Movement for Black Lives is getting is a lot of pushback from those self proclaimed defenders of the proletariat, who argue that you need to have a class first approach, ‘cause once you can eliminate capitalism racism will wither away. Well to go back to Cedric, he demonstrated that it can’t wither away, because it preceded capitalism. It has to be dismantled.

Alejo Stark: You’ve been talking about both South Africa and the United States. In that sense, racial capitalism is already racial, as well as already global and globalizing. How does racial capitalism help us make sense of both the creation of racialized disposable populations globally, and our contemporary moment more generally?

Robin D.G. Kelley: This is an essential question. Two things you just said, one that racial capitalism is always already global, and I think that’s absolutely true. When we think about how we use terms like globalization, as if it’s a particular epoch or stage, it in some ways obscures the processes by which capitalism both emerged and expanded. So slavery, dispossession, what Marx calls primitive accumulation, is something that was both foundational capitalism and never disappeared. In fact to call it primitive, and by that he means primary, is kind of a misnomer. It’s not the beginning of the formation of industrial capitalism. In fact, what we could argue is that globalizing processes have always been based on unfree labor. And I think this is important.

Even at the end of slavery, one form of unfree labor was replaced by another. So-called “coolie” labor, as Asian forced migration filling in the role where formerly African slave labor played. Or looking at forms of forced labor, even from the inception of forced labor within Europe. You have forced labor being the product of enclosure, and dispossession, and the workhouse. The modern workhouse was the origins of the modern prison. The workhouse was designed to discipline populations that were considered disposable. Now here is where this question of disposability comes in, because Marx talked about that capitalism creates a reserve army of labor.

Capitalism could never incorporate 100%, they could never have 100% employment. With the 20th century and with Fordism, some of those same workers become the main consumers. So therefore, Fordism is one in which you have the exploitation of a labor force who becomes a consumer force as well. Paid wages, and then through the use of debt and credit, can then buy those commodities that become surplus. And again, continue to keep the cycle of capitalism going. Those are the Western nations, what you call the global north. Ultimately, the super exploited proletariat become the peasants and the workers all over the world outside of the global north, and then they’re not like consumers. They’re like forced labor, I mean like literally forced labor in the 20th century. And ultimately they become consumers.

Through each process, there are two things happening. The use of debt and credit to turn people into consumers and to tie them to a wage system, and then the fact that capitalism’s periodic crises means that they’re always produce too much. They always have too much capital, it has to go someplace. And surplus labor, means you’ve got to do something with surplus labor. At some point you run out of uses, and you’ve got to control that surplus labor. Because the one thing that’s different about surplus labor than say living capital in the forms of animal life, is that I’ve never known pigs, cows, oxes, to make a revolution. And I’m all about animals, I’m all about solidarity, but they’ve never made a revolution. Surplus labor does, even employed labor does. So the point is, is that they’ve got to do something with this disposable. And disposable basically means there’s no particular use for them, and again maybe my definition of disposable is a little different. If labor were inert, and just didn’t move, it wouldn’t have to be disposable.

Disposability is about rendering either invisible or inert. And so the carceral state, which is not new but certainly has expanded, plays a role. What also plays a role, the carceral state is kinda obvious, your listeners know that. What also plays a role is the reconstructing of labor. So that automation is one way to save labor costs, but I don’t believe that automation actually produces massive unemployment, it changes the nature of employment. It changes the nature of work so that it allows for the pressure on wages to go down. It allows for the creation of precarious labor, part time, service oriented work that usually requires cobbling together more than one job with no benefits. The kinds of things that trade unions had fought so hard to defend, that is the social wage, the demand on the state to provide basic means for those who need them, basic services for the people, basic education, basic healthcare, basic housing, as well as basic protections for the right to organize and protect themselves as a community. If you’re involved in precarious labor, there’s no way you can have that, unless you can create new forms of organization.

And again, this is why I’m always hopeful. Precisely because these are human beings with incredible minds, working together to figure out how to get themselves out of this situation. They come up with new forms of organization. New forms of organization require new forms of repression. New forms of repression require new forms of technology that can repress, surveil, and cage people. And so what we’re seeing now is a race on the part of the carceral state to catch up to the struggles of people.

a Maria: In your book Hammer and Hoe, you tell the story of Alabama communists fighting both capitalist exploitation and against police brutality across the color line. Can you tell us more about this struggle and what lessons we can learn from it?

Robin D.G. Kelley: Hammer and Hoe is a book about the Communist Party in the most unlikely place of Alabama, in the 1930s. And I say unlikely because we think of American communism in cities like New York, and Chicago, and Los Angeles.We think about these trained Marxists who are organizing people to fight evictions and things like that. But Alabama was a place that was considered a backwater, but if you look at it very carefully it was one of the industrial centers of the United States. It was a major steel producing city, Birmingham, coal and iron ore was produced there. And so you have this industrial proletariat, but you also have in Alabama the black belt, cotton producing areas that had a long history of slavery and post slavery forms of production. And so in some ways it could have been the ideal place for the Communist Party to organize, and they did organize there. And what they were dealing with was A, a system of Jim Crow, and Jim Crow is not about simply segregation.

In fact, Jim Crow is less about segregation than it is about just outright repression. We’re talking about places that allow for the super exploitation of black labor, through state structures that the state subsidizes these forms of repression that keep black wages incredibly low, that police labor irrespective of race. Which is why the South is so hard to organize in. Local police as well as private police surround these working class compounds. It’s very much like South Africa, in that sense that people are working and living in these company towns, under a sort of system of free labor but it’s semi slavery in some respects. And you have that with the rural areas, where conditions were so bad especially in the Depression, that people starved during the winter time. Had to find ways to get food just to make it through the system of sharecropping. So this is where it resonates with police brutality: the level of state violence was very very high in Alabama. And what the Communist Party had to do was to defend themselves from that. That defense didn’t take the form of armed self defense, though there was that, too, in Alabama. It often took the form of fighting in the courts and in the streets, in defense of men and women whom the party called class war prisoners.

And it’s an amazing kind of linguistic sleight of hand, because these were folks, ordinary people, disposable labor, who would often ride the rails or they were itinerant workers who were falsely accused of rape like the Scottsboro boys. Accused of arguing with a white man, which could lead to their lynching. And they stepped in and defended these folks, people who would have no legal representation, and then turn these local stories into international stories. Into international struggles. And what does that mean politically? It meant that they were able to mobilize international support for local struggles, and I mean from Moscow to Cape Town to Tokyo. People were sending in postcards, writing stories about this in multiple languages, and that to me is the real story. We know about the oppression, and we know about their strategies to resist that oppression, but it’s to internationalize these struggles that made the Communist Party different from say the NAACP.

I don’t want to give the impression that somehow the party was the only organization on the planet that was fighting police brutality, economic inequality, class exploitation. But they were the ones that were able to, through their networks, make it international. And so that’s what that book was about. I wrote a new introduction that really linked the lessons from Hammer and Hoe to the lessons for today. And some of those lessons are about strategies to fight police brutality, some of those strategies are about what we don’t want to talk about, like armed self defense and the role it played in the countryside. But some of the lessons are about what we originally began with, and that is you can’t build a truly emancipatory movement if your objective is to reform capitalism. That much of the story of the 1930s, the story that we see today as a victory, is about the creation of the New Deal state. That the New Deal state, that is all the protections, welfare rights, aid to families with dependent children, social security, unemployment benefits, these are things that the Communist Party helped to put into place and fought for. But these were also the things that were meant to be stop gap measures.

Today in our current political moment, the movement on the part of the so called left Democrats, is to restore the New Deal state and that’s like the endgame. What I argue in the book is that that New Deal state was thoroughly racial, that a lot of black workers didn’t benefit from that. I mean imagine what it meant to be a domestic worker in the 1930s, or a farmworker in the 1930s. Jump to 2017, it’s no different. These are categories of precarious workers, the most exploited, who don’t really have state supports. So why do we want to go back to something that was never really working for us anyway? If anything, what the New Deal state did, yes it was a product of struggle, it was a product of a negotiation. But what it ultimately did was keep capitalism alive a little longer, strengthen it through the Keynesian model. And what Ruth E. Gilmore calls the welfare warfare state, the Keynesian state, set the stage for the expansion of the prison industrial complex.

Alejo Stark: Invoking both the politics and the poetic knowledge of Aimé Césaire and many others of the black radical tradition, you write in your book Freedom Dreams that the best social movements quote, “do what great poetry always does, transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors, and more importantly enable us to imagine a new society.” In what ways do you think the political imaginary of abolition, as formulated by Angela Davis and others, allow us to imagine other ways of being in the world and perhaps even, to make our world anew?

Robin D.G. Kelley: This has been our tradition. And when I say our tradition, I mean all of our tradition. From the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, to Chile under Allende, to the struggles of indigenous peoples all over the planet, has been to restore either a way of life that kept us whole, or to try and create a way of life that keeps us whole. And that has been human aspiration, and forms of oppression can never take that. And that said, we can date the beginnings of a system where the powers that be believe that you should put people in cages. That’s not that old in human history, human history is actually cage free.

The mass human history is cage free, the cages are new. And the fact that we can date it, and the fact that it was never intended to fix a problem, it was intended to protect a class. It was intended to punish people who actually did not commit crimes. What do I mean by that? In most cases what we’re talking about is people who are caged for taking actions that at one point was not a crime. I’m not talking about murder, I’m talking about the fact that the vast majority of people throughout history have been caged for property crimes. If you actually made a ledger of how many people killed by the state everywhere all over the globe, versus how many people actually kill through interpersonal violence or organized crime, it’s like the ledger on the other side of the state is huge.

So we’re talking about a history of caging people for property crimes when that property was not necessarily private. When property wasn’t really something that was owned by one person. It’s about trespass, when the world of enclosure, the world of the power of capital has created fences around places that were available to you. That’s fundamentally what it means, so abolition is about the restoration of the commons. It is about ending the forms of denial of human life that has caused people to trespass into realms that were theirs, I mean literally. And to imagine a world without cages is to imagine a different relationship between the commons and justice. And again, I learned from my friend Peter Linebaugh, he links the right of habeas corpus that is the right to a trial, the right to a form of restorative justice, to the commons. The right to actually have this land common to work, to live, to sustain oneself, was linked to the same document that said “you know what, no one should go to prison, or to jail, or be punished, or have their head chopped off, without a trial.” Now what does a trial mean? A trial basically means we’ve gotta come to account and figure out what you might have done in violation not of the law, but of humanity. And to do that, it’s going to true restorative justice, the objective is how do we turn you back to the commons? How do we turn you back to the common people? How to create the conditions so that we can embrace you again, and forgive and love?

That is abolition, abolition is not just about the elimination of the cages. It’s about developing a system of restorative justice in which we take back the commons, and the commons is a place where the struggle to make community is our objective. And that no one’s outside, and when I say no one’s outside, I mean no one’s outside. It’s not about one class winning over another class and crushing that class and putting them in prison, it’s about making the commons whole again. So everybody’s inside, there’s no outside. And that means that there will be no one who will be excluded. It’s important to say this because I’m also struggling with people who will say things like, well we just need to put the police in jail. I don’t want to do that, even somebody who took a life, I don’t want to do that. If we’re really abolitionists, then we don’t want to put anyone in jail. You want even those police officers, to no longer be police.

Alejo Stark: Thank you so much Dr. Kelley, thank you much for your time.

Robin D.G. Kelley: Oh, for sure. Thank you.

Alejo Stark: Thank you for tuning in to this bonus content. Stay tuned for Episode 5: Abolition and the Commons, in which we feature an interview with historian and activist Peter Linebaugh. Check out our website at w-w-w-dot-rustbeltradio-dot-o-r-g. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio Team: Andrés, a Maria, Kaif Syed, David Langstaff, and Alejo Stark. Music by Bad Infinity.