Arun Kundnani, What Is Antiracism? And Why It Means Anticapitalism (Verso Books 2023), 298pp. Arun Kundnani, What Is Antiracism? And Why It Means Anticapitalism (Verso Books 2023), 298pp.

Kundnani advances an important critique of liberal antiracism, but the centrality of the working class to a real antiracism can’t be avoided, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Antiracism has rarely had as high a mainstream profile in the US and UK as it has since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Alongside the protests on the streets, the response from ‘the institutions of liberal America’ (and indeed, of liberal Britain as well) have given at least a version of antiracism an unprecedented prominence.

The protestors and liberal antiracists largely agreed that the racism they were trying to combat is structural. ‘Everyone talked about the need to address “structural racism” and “systemic racism”’ (p.2). This surface agreement conceals, however, that there are different definitions of ‘structural’ operating here. The liberal version sees racism as essentially a matter of ideas, with the structural element amounting to nothing more than an account of how individuals develop and retain their racist prejudices. The liberal focus was therefore on individual behaviour: ‘how to challenge unconscious biases, reduce micro-aggressions in interpersonal relationship, better represent diverse identities, educate away individual prejudices, and stop right-wing extremism’ (pp.1-2).

Implicit in this understanding of racism as ‘an individual malady operating through the unconscious’ (p.4) is the idea that it can be targeted primarily through educating individuals. This, one suspects, comes with the unspoken assumption that highly educated liberal professionals are likely to need less education than working-class white people. This understanding also rests on the notion of a ‘normal’ liberal society from which racism is an extremist aberration.

Proponents of this liberal view of antiracism might view the last few years as a resounding success, with diversity, equality and inclusion-training programmes rolling out in workplaces across the country. Indeed, I have heard it argued that such is the success of these programmes, that white antiracists are left exaggerating the seriousness of modern racism and its ubiquity in black people’s lives, so that they would still have something to campaign against. Kundnani argues, on the other hand, that to declare victory for liberal antiracism would be to misunderstand how ‘it has been fully co-opted by neoliberal forces that have used it to help regenerate racial capitalism and establish immense systems of racist macro-aggression. That in turn has meant that progress in challenging individual racist prejudices has been fragile and vulnerable to reversal’ (p.247).

The material role of neoliberal structural racism

A genuinely structural understanding of racism has therefore to go beyond seeing racism as comprised of individual attitudes, however systematically they are seen to be engendered. In assessing the way racism works as part of the capitalist system, it is also important, Kundnani argues, not simply to see it as a relic from past systems. He points out how writers like Ellen Meiksins Wood have wanted to view racism as an ideological legacy of pre-capitalist societies; a legacy which is useful to capitalist elites insofar as it can obscure the reality of class relations in capitalism, but does not otherwise play a current structural role. David Harvey, similarly, has seemed to argue that neoliberalism specifically renders racial differentiation between workers anachronistic.

It is of course important to understand the historical origins of racism and how these continue to shape the nature of racism in the present. This is not the same however as denying the real structural role which racism plays in capitalism. Kundnani points out that the modern history of racism, which includes racist systems like apartheid in South Africa being developed in the twentieth century, shows that it is very far from being only a legacy from less enlightened times. To appreciate the material function of racism in capitalism, Kundnani argues that we have to go beyond seeing it simply as a ruling-class ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy. While it is clearly the case that racism can play that role, to the benefit of the capitalists, systematic racism cannot be viewed simply as ‘an ideological manoeuvre to manipulate white workers’ (p.131).

The analysis here of the South African apartheid system, drawing on South African Marxist analyses, shows how racism served not just to hide the class interests in common between Black and white workers, but to define ‘the ideological and material boundary between two different kinds of relationship to capitalism’ (p.137). Apartheid managed a system in which, in the 1970s, 90% of white workers lived in urban areas, but two-thirds of the Black population lived by subsistence agriculture in the reserves. They provided cheap migrant labour for industries like mining, while much of the cost of reproducing their labour was borne back in the reserves. Kundnani quotes Harold Wolpe, explaining how apartheid was,

‘the attempt to retain, in a modified form, the structure of the “traditional” societies… for the purposes of reproducing and exercising control over a cheap African industrial labour force in or near the “homelands”, not by means of preserving the precapitalist mode of production but by the political, social, economic and ideological enforcement of low levels of subsistence’ (p.136).

This system was of course specific to South Africa, but as Kundnani shows, racism also plays a material role in neoliberalism. Neoliberal ideology is perfectly at home with liberal antiracism. The belief that everyone is a free consumer in a universal market can, in theory, allow for the rejection of racist discrimination and a celebration of diversity. At the same time, however, the neoliberal project requires structural racism to function.

Although the universal market order championed in neoliberal ideology holds that any country should be able to enrich itself as Western countries have done, through the application of free-market economics, in reality, of course, that Western wealth was built and continues to sustain itself on the expropriation of resources from the global south. Kundnani comments that ‘the world the neoliberals wished to create could only be brought into existence and maintained through border, military, and economic violence on a colossal scale’ (p.182). The racist idea that Third World cultures are inherently deficient serves as an important justification for this violence.

Questions of immigration, the focus of much state racism, arise similarly from the nature of the neoliberal system. The ’vast border infrastructure’ (p.238) across Western countries keeps people in the global south, where they can provide cheap labour for multinationals, while allowing criminalised migrant labour into the West, where they can be exploited under constant threat of removal. As Kundnani argues, ‘the boundaries between super-exploited workers in the global South, unfree migrant workers, and “free” citizen-workers are essential to the neoliberal form of capitalism’ (p.240).

The infrastructure created to manage these boundaries also allow states to police all of their inhabitants with increased intensity and violence. Kundnani notes the way in which ‘racism has enabled state violence in general: by associating poverty, deviancy, and radicalism with Blackness, for example, the neoliberal order has more easily managed the poverty, deviancy, and radicalism of all surplus populations, including whites’ (p.243).

Class, revolution and racism

The question this analysis raises is, of course, how to fight back against the systemic racism we face. Kundnani is clear that such a fight is neither a culture war nor a distraction from the more fundamental business of economic struggle. It also follows that a position which amounts to support for left social democracy at home but for imperialism abroad is untenable. Those who, for example, were prepared to oppose austerity, but would have nothing to do with Stop the War, were guilty of failing to grasp the deep connections between domestic and foreign policy.

Kundnani argues that nostalgia for social democracy as an alternative to neoliberalism does not provide a basis for solidarity between white and Black workers, or workers in the West and the Global south. This is because, in this view, the better deal for working-class people in the West in the heyday of the welfare state was only available on the back of neocolonial exploitation. However, this comes close to the argument that the proletariat in imperialist countries has a share in the exploitation of workers in the Global South, rather than having class interests in common with them. This is highly disputable: workers in the West forced concessions from the ruling class in spite of imperialism, not because of it, and welfare states were immediately limited by imperialist commitments. The extent to which Kundnani seems to be pointing towards agreement with the former view does however connect to a wider argument which problematises the proletariat as the source of effective resistance to capitalism.

Kundnani raises this issue largely through his discussion of Frantz Fanon and others, who argued that the proletariat in colonised countries was too small and of too limited an economic significance to play the role of the revolutionary class. For Fanon, the proletariat in colonised countries was ‘pampered’ by the colonial regime and ‘comparatively privileged’. In his view, the proletarian, urban workers ‘constitute the most faithful followers of the nationalist parties, and who, because of the privileged place which they hold in the colonial system, constitute also the “bourgeois” fraction of the colonized people.’i Instead, Fanon looked to the peasantry, who he believed retained their pre-capitalist social structures, as the source of potential revolution.

It has been argued that Fanon here was guilty of underestimating the role of the proletariat in various liberation struggles, such as the fight for Nigerian independence.ii If this was the case for the 1950s and 1960s, it is even more so now. Perhaps because Kundnani chose to structure his argument around a historical account of the development of various strands of thought about capitalism and racism, he does not appear here to take into full account the profound changes in the various societies under discussion in the last fifty years and more. Whatever the situation during the independence struggles of the mid-twentieth century, it is abundantly clear that in the twenty-first century, there are large, organised and radical proletariats in many countries in the Global South which are playing a world historical role. Just look, for example, at Egypt.

It is similarly difficult to adopt Fanon and others’ view of the peasantry. There is, of course, a debate about whether the pre-capitalist peasantry would ever have been able to play a revolutionary role, and about Marx’s views throughout his life on the question. Even leaving that aside, however, it would in any case be much harder now to find peasant communities where pre-capitalist forms of social solidarity were able to provide the basis of effective resistance. As Jairus Banaji has argued effectively for India, modern peasants are not living outside the capitalist mode of production, but are paid a hidden wage and are ultimately subject to the formal domination of capital. The idea that pockets of an older mode of production can survive within capitalism is difficult to sustain for any period, but it is certainly harder to argue for the continued existence of such pockets after decades of neoliberalism.

Kundnani is at some pains to distance his argument from Marx and Lenin, at times on the basis of what appears to be a rather crude caricature of their views, such as for example in the relationship of base and superstructure in society, or the description of a Leninist view of the overthrow of colonial rule as ‘calm handovers of power from erstwhile colonizers to Indigenous elites’ (p.84). Given that his main argument is effectively a demonstration of the importance of a Marxist analysis, this feels unnecessary and is rather a distraction from the important points he makes.

Kundnani’s powerful portrayal of the structural role of racism under neoliberalism is a clear demonstration that white and Black workers do indeed have interests in common in overthrowing the capitalism system, and of the importance of a Marxist analysis for understanding this. His call for ‘a socialism that does not believe multiple struggles can only be united if they conform to a narrow definition of the working class’ (p.250) has something of the straw man in it, but is nevertheless a call that socialists can get behind.

i Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Books 2001), p.86.

ii Peter Hudis, Franz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto Press 2015), p.125.

Before you go

If you liked this article, please consider getting involved. Counterfire is a revolutionary socialist organisation working to build the movements of resistance and socialist ideas. Please join us and help make change happen.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

Tagged under: