Stroud Radical Reading Group: Geographies of Racial Capitalism, with Ruth Wilson Gilmore

By Jamie O’Dell and James Beecher

In the first of their series of discussions on the Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism, July’s meeting of the Stroud Radical Reading Group was centred upon Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s exploration of Racial Capitalism and Abolition Geography in her 17 minute long Antipode Foundation film ‘Geographies of Racial Capitalism’

Specific questions emerged regarding both the technical definitions of the concepts deployed by Gilmore and several broader questions. These ranged from capitalism’s links to, or foundations in, racism, and what racism in this context actually means, to discussions of academia and the risks of excluding people from debate through unnecessarily ‘academic’ writing. 

Ruth Gilmore Wilson is a leading scholar in areas of prison abolition and racial capitalism, and has written a book called ‘The Golden Gulag’ in which she analyses the causes of prison growth in the US through identifying factors such as the defeat of radical struggles, weakening of labour power and the shifting patterns of capital investment. 

Discussions started with an exploration of what is meant by ‘Racial Capitalism’. In brief, the symbiotic relationship between capitalism as an economic system and racism as hierarchy of power is summarised best by something Gilmore says in the Antipode film: “Capitalism requires inequality, racism enshrines it”. What was most interesting here, however, was not just the understanding of the relationship between capitalism and racism but a discussion around the origins of racism. 

Racism is often understood to be a simple relationship between those racialised as White and as Other than White. However, this perspective often obscures how racism works as a system of power that has been used to justify capitalist exploitation, a structure of power that started within Europe. In the video, Gilmore states: “The foundations of racial capitalism are the foundations of the social organisation of human groupings in Western Europe during the rise of capitalism… It started racial without what people imagine race to mean – which is Black people”. This is a structure that, for Gilmore, would still exist even if you simply removed all the White people or had a world of only White people, demonstrating capitalism’s reliance upon a racial power structure to justify and enable the exploitation necessary for capitalist systems. 

Exploring what Gilmore means by this, the group discussed – among other examples – the racialisation of the Irish during the conquest and colonisation of Ireland, and the example of the 1449 Sentencia-Estatuto. The latter, introduced by Spain, became the first example of racial exclusion laws in modern history. It marked a shift where anti-semitism became not just about religious beliefs, but ‘purity of blood’ (limpieza de sangre), as “conversos” (people who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism) were treated as impure due to their – assumed to be inherited – blood. As Spain expanded its involvement in the slave trade, limpieza began to refer to an absence of black blood as well as an absence of Jewish blood: something that became central to the development of modern racism.  

Gilmore’s work focuses on prisons: predominantly criminalisation and incarceration, specifically in California in the 1980s. Her comments prompted some discussion within the reading group of concepts around ‘surplus’ in capitalism, in terms both of the logic of capital accumulation requiring avenues for the investment of profits made through previous investments. The way unemployment is generated at the mercy of economic cycles or as investments are made in machinery/automation to increase profitability – reducing the need for workers, was also debated.

Considered in this way, the Prison Industrial Complex in America represents a profitable investment opportunity based on artificially cheap labour. Here, mass incarceration becomes a means of maintaining racial and class hierarchies by the physical containment of people who might otherwise collectively resist the social order in which they are deemed to be ‘surplus to requirements’. References were made to the next book in the series – The Many-Headed Hydra – which covers prisons and forced labour in the context of the enclosures, colonisation and social disruption associated with the emergence of capitalism in the 1600s. The group also explored the current UK context, where on the one hand it is cheaper to send a child to Eton than prison, but where education is underfunded and exclusions form part of a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

Gilmore has also actively sought to lift up from specific issues and struggles to also think globally about the development and operation of racial capitalism. This is why, for Gilmore, we need to unpack the ways in which power is distributed through the structure of the global economy today and how this is fundamentally racialised. 

Take the garment sector for instance, where from Leicester to Bangladesh ‘cheap’ labour is essential for profits, bonuses, and a continual stream of cheap clothes. This labour is cheapened along racialised lines, an unequal division which is essential for the garment sector, and by extension capitalism, to remain ‘profitable’. 

Of particular interest to many in the group was the concluding section of the video, on “place based struggle” and the relationship between organising and education. While racism is racism and can be studied as a global power structure, it is understood by Gilmore that you need to use different tools to understand how it works in different areas. This is why Gilmore takes the video to Cova da Moura, a community within Lisbon that began collectively organising and learning as a collective in response to struggles around housing. 

This is particularly relevant for Stroud due to the risk that people may believe that, due to the area’s large White majority, racism can’t really happen here, which requires a specificity to anti-racist action that will differ somewhat from similar work in, for example, Bristol or London. 

The community universities featured in the latter part of Gilmore’s film also resonated strongly with the group, especially the conscious focus upon horizontal knowledge sharing between people. Within these community groups insights are shared and learned from by all present, no matter their formal qualifications, sitting in refreshing contrast with the vertical hierarchies and often inaccessible forms of knowledge found within traditional academia. 

These discussions of place-based struggle and community universities are why, therefore, groups established within communities to enable knowledge sharing and discussion are so important. All liberation struggle is place-based and specific to the needs and struggles of where people live.  

You can watch the 17 minute Antipode Foundation film which was the focus of the discussion: “Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore”. The discussions were also supported a journal article exploring the academic literature around ‘Black geographies’. A New York Times Magazine feature titled ‘Is Prison Necessary?’ provides an intro to Ruth Wilson Gilmore and overview of her work.

Stroud Radical Reading Group’s series of discussions exploring Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism continues on September 30th, with a discussion of “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic” by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. The series of monthly online events runs till November 2020. The Many Headed Hydra explores the foundations of our modern global economy, and shows how ordinary working people led dozens of rebellions on both sides of the North Atlantic. The discussion will focus on a chapter about the March 1741 “New York Conspiracy”, when radicals set fire to Fort George, the then prime military fortification in British America. The chapter places the events of 1741 in context of a cycle of “multiracial conspiracies” and rebellions of the 1730s and 1740s, and notes how repression of these led to the promotion of “a white identity” in order to “produce new discipline and a different solidarity”. Find out more on the Stroud Radical Reading Group website.

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