April 11, 2024

CRITIQUE Dialogue – Book Forum on Ida Danewid’s Resisting Racial Capitalism

Earlier this year, CRITIQUE, RACE.ED and GENDER.ED came together to host a book discussion of Ida Danewid’s new book Resisting Racial Capitalism: An Antipolitical Theory of Refusal. In this book forum, Hemangini Gupta and Jared Holley engage the book’s main arguments and Danewid offers a response in the final post. (Cross-posted with GENDER.ED Blog.)

Thinking from the South

Comment on Ida Danewid, Resisting Racial Capitalism: an antipolitical theory of refusal (CUP 2023) by Hemangini Gupta.

** I can think of no time more urgent than this one to discuss how entire populations are subjected to ethnic cleansing; how racialized groups are deemed excess and not worthy of life; how land is declared terra nullius and therefore available for settler colonialism, how the brutality of the state is repeatedly enforced through militarized borders, checkpoints and posts that make life unlivable. And no time more urgent than this to reimagine freedom outside of the persistent violence of the state.

So what is a theory of politics that does not repeatedly invest and reinvest in the foundational violence of the state? Ida Danewid reminds us that the state form can never simply be reimagined into a source of freedom and liberation. The fundamental categories through which it governs and distributes rights are built through racialized hierarchies of exclusion and extraction. These are not byproducts of the state or a result of faulty governance that needs to be improved: they are the basis of the state. Reading key political thinkers through recent work in Black Studies, racial geographies, decolonial theory, and queer and feminist theory, Resisting Racial Capitalism is an urgent call to imagine freedom otherwise: not through the governing violence of the state, but through a cacophonous and unruly archive of anticolonial anarchism. In the book’s conclusion she reminds us that and I quote, “rather than a project of detaching from the state or a quest for better forms of governance, antipolitical refusal should be thought of as a creatively destructive project of building the world anew…” I read this in resonance with Wendy Brown’s call to not center ressentiment in our political projects, thus anticolonial world making needs new tools and registers of care and collectivity.

Of course anticolonial thought may emerge from multiple genealogies. As Julietta Singh reminds us in “Unthinking Mastery,” across anticolonial discourse the mastery of the colonizer over the colonies was a practice that was explicitly disavowed, and yet, in their efforts to decolonize, anticolonial thinkers in turn often advocated practices of mastery—corporeal, linguistic, and intellectual—toward their own liberation. She says, In the anticolonial moment, mastery largely assumed a Hegelian form in which anticolonial actors were working through a desire or demand for recognition by another. The mastery at work in this project was one whose political resonance resided in national sovereignty and the legal principle of self-determination, one that approached the dismantling of mastery through an inverted binary that aimed to defeat colonial mastery through other masterful forms.” This is not the anticolonial archive that Danewid so carefully traces.

Instead, in her pages, we meet anticolonial work in its perhaps more decolonial rather than postcolonial form: through the wayward and freedom loving young Black women of Saidiya Hartman’s experiments in critical fabulation for instance. We encounter the murkiness of a decolonial epistemology that joins its lifeworld in Macarena Gomez Barriss’ submerged perspectives. We examine the invisibilized and racialized labor that sustains our cities and economies in Francoise Verges’ Decolonial Feminism and together these and other authors serve to chart new and unknowable paths to a future of collective liberation.

One of the things this book does best is to show us how political thought is radically challenged when brought in conversation with literature on Empire and racial geography. In other words, whose power does the state seek to shore up and who is the other being defended against? The Leviathan, for instance, justifies the state as necessary by imagining the brutish state of nature that it protects us against. But who is the us who is being protected? Danewid shows how indigenous societies in the newly colonized Americas offered the imaginary of the noble savage that the White Man was to be protected from. Litigating violations without addressing their historical and structural source, notes Sylvia Tamale, does little to improve the vulnerability of those who suffer them. Or take the categories of migrant and refugee. Recent calls for a more humanitarian state appeal for benevolence and open borders yet, Danewid points out, they do not interrogate the historical production of the category of migrant itself. As Radhika Mongia writes, the migrant was produced as a category of racialized and indentured labor, strategically moved around the world in the service of Empire’s profits. Even recent calls for human rights regimes provoke the question of how the human itself is a racialized category, produced through, in Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s words, a plasticized Blackness that is experimented with as if it were infinitely malleable lexical and biological matter.

The state enacts its power through racial capitalism and in powerful chapters, Danewid tracks the sites of its violence. In a chapter focused on policing for instance, she draws on the example of extra judicial killings in Brazil to show how policing seeks to produce and eradicate populations through racial, colonial, gendered and ableist forms of disposability and extractability (p 69). As populations deemed unproductive and “surplus” are destroyed by the police, making way for the production of the global entrepreneurial city, urban regeneration projects are justified through racial logics that privilege middle class white bourgeoise life and landscape. I couldn’t help but wonder how the extreme forms of police violence built through racial capitalism that Danewid describes in Brazil might offer us a way to think police violence in India. Increasingly the Indian state has supported or directly inflicted violence on minoritized populations that it has dispossessed and disenfranchised. Its cleaving of the population into those deemed “anti-national” or not worthy of protection needs to be understood within the specific contours of a dominant Hindu majoritarianism and the production of citizenship through a virile Hindu masculinity that renders Muslims and Dalit others as disposable and threats to a nationalist project of a Hindu nation. How might racial capitalism offer us a way to think through these logics of disposability and might we need to situate it alongside a consideration of caste capitalism perhaps or a discussion of religious difference as key to the violence of the postcolonial state?

Second, I wonder how we might read the book if we played a bit with its central categories – take the state and the police for instance. Instead of imagining the police as a highly militarized force with the power to segregate and dispose particular populations what if we encountered it in some postcolonial forms as underfunded, underresourced, and at the mercy of the organizational power of local and national right-wing groups and NGOs? In other words, drawing on work by scholars of policing and the state like Beatrice Jauregui and Poulami Roychaudhury, we might find that the police are desperately trying to shore up their power with few resources in many Indian contexts. Furthermore, in the context of sexual violence, the state and para statal agencies emerge not as consolidations of governmental power but as collectives – often ragged and beleaguered – that women can mobilize and even threaten for access to benefits and recourse to justice from community and kin that have abandoned them. How do we think the violence of the state in the context of this unevenness: its possible decrepitude at times and its sheer brute force at others?

Third, if the state is not always what we imagine it to be, neither should we imagine as static what we think of as home or family. While postcolonial scholars like Michelle Murphy remind us that care is not always joyful and affirmative but also variegated and experienced unevenly, Danewid assembles a more hopeful archive from trans and queer studies to show us how forms of care and “homefulness” can be experienced outside the heterosexual family. Social reproduction then, can unfold through relations of care, friendship, and survival.

To think freedom and utopia in registers not overdetermined by the state is to embrace a radical uncertainty. An anticolonial politics must challenge the certain telos of the mastery narratives that accompany coloniality. To center indigeneous, decolonial visions in our utopic thinking in our visions of freedom might mean embracing the murky fish eye episteme that Macarena Gomez Barriss writes about in her work on epistemologies of submerged perspectives in the colonized Americas. It might mean thinking about abolition as Angela Davis does. In an interview with Dylan Roderiguez, on prison abolition, Davis suggests that calls for freedom otherwise do not necessarily advocate pragmatic or procedural “solutions” to the problems of racial capitalism but they invite a questioning of which lives are considered disposable and how we might envisage freedom outside of carceral structures of state rules. To embrace the unknown is to place our faith in the Ubuntu tradition of belief that “I am because we are” — in other words, as Danewid shows us, we cannot know the future outside of our collective efforts to shape it.

  • Dr. Hemangini Gupta is Associate Director of GENDER.ED and a Lecturer in Gender and Global Politics at the University of Edinburgh.


Comment on Ida Danewid, Resisting Racial Capitalism: an antipolitical theory of refusal (CUP 2023) by Jared Holley

** These (undelivered) comments were prepared with the aim of contributing to and facilitating an in-person group dialogue. They have been slightly edited for clarity **

I approach Ida Danewid’s excellent and timely book as an historian of political thought. This means that I am a member of a subfield of a subfield that is often seen as being particularly interested in (or: obsessed with) questions about two things: Thomas Hobbes and method. While the first view is better founded than the second, I will nevertheless present my comments in relation to these two stereotypical concerns.

First, method. Of the many ‘refusals’ we encounter in Resisting Racial Capitalism, one of them might be seen as a sort of methodological one. One of the things that I appreciated most in this book is precisely the absence of any heavy-handed methodological statement. And yet I’d still like to like to invite Ida to say just a little bit more about her approach to – if not “political theory” – then, more prosaically, to thinking about politics. How does one best think about politics (i) first, with and alongside contemporary practices, in this case practices of “refusal”; while also, (ii) committing to placing these practices in a perspective that is both (a) global and (b) historical?

To say that there is a productive absence of method in the book is not to say that it fails to describe what it takes the idea of an “antipolitical theory” to be – this is put clearly enough. It’s just to say that we come to learn what such an antipolitical theory consists in by the force of example, by its being performed for us, on the page. Here at CRITIQUE, we’ve been thinking about the possibilities and limits of exemplarity as a mode of political theorizing. And Resisting Racial Capitalism is an exciting exemplary model for political theorists – but really for anyone thinking about politics today: whether what you want to do is to understand the phenomenon of global racial capitalism or, indeed, to resist – or think about how to resist – it.

This is a wonderfully written book. But what’s so exciting is that it is a beautiful book that is still full of difficult concepts, brilliantly elucidated. It blends rhetorical force with analytical rigor, and deploys this conceptual work to excavate an archive – or “an/archive” – by which it is, in turn, reciprocally supported. Which is to say that its approach is deeply attuned to its subject matter, in a way that reveals much of what is so interesting about it.

The archive it excavates is a contemporary one – of practices of resistance, the vibrant social movements that flourish today but that are, in various ways, occluded by our ordinary ways of thinking about global politics. It is also an historical archive – of the long global history of (a) these resistant practices and (b) the mechanisms of control and domination that emerge to contain some – and, thereby, give rise to yet others.

In methodological terms, this is a tour de force critique of methodological whiteness, methodological nationalism, statism, individualism – the list could go on. What links these targets is that they all are ways of seeing the world that prevent us from seeing the world as it, in many ways“actually” is. In their place, Resisting Racial Capitalismdemonstrates how thinking globally helps us to see relationally – that is, to see the reciprocal interrelations between concepts and practices that are customarily opposed. And how thinking historically – about these concepts, practices, and interrelations – helps us to see continuities and differences in them across time… and, thereby, reveals to us hidden sites for both thinking and acting for a world that is “otherwise”.

All of this is to say that Resisting Racial Capitalism, to me, makes a very strong case for the importance of thinking about politics globally and historically. But I’m curious to know how strong a case you, Ida, would want to make. Does thinking “antipolitically” about politics *require* us to think globally and historically. And does it require us to think globally and historically “otherwise”? There are many models of global and historical “political theory”. But it seems clear enough that many of our predominant (or: hegemonic) ways of thinking “politically” about politics are structured by conventional spatio-temporal oppositions (“local-global”, “past-present”). Does antipolitical theory refuse these oppositions, too?

My second question is related to Thomas Hobbes – at least tangentially. The clearest way of putting it might be to ask: to what do we turn – or, perhaps, return – when we “refuse” the state? What different answers to this question emerge among the different practices of “refusal” canvassed in the book?

This is related to Hobbes insofar as he is the most important critic of the idea that we are capable of sustaining durable social relations prior to or outside the state. What we turn to when we turn from the state is, for Hobbes and anyone else following him, our fundamental incapacity to get along with each other, about anything of real (human) significance, for any significant amount of time. Hobbes claimed to have founded modern political theory when he “refused” simply to assume that we have such a capacity and that it could undergird our social relations. This debate about “sociability” remains the key issue for modern (Western) political thought. In this sense, Resisting Racial Capitalism really is an “antipolitical” theory of refusal because it wants to refuse the Hobbesian refusal at the heart of modern “political” theory.

There are two types of refusal canvassed in the book’s conclusion. The first, thinking with Fred Moten – a frequent reference throughout – is presented as a flight “away from” politics, one that rejects projects of “reform and repair” in favour of the sociality of “existing social life” – in this case, especially, “black sociality”. The second mode of refusal, presented with reference to Bonnie Honig – is a “return to” politics – one that starts with an exit from and ends with a re-entry into the political world, understood as an “agonistic” ‘contest over the [very] meaning’ of politics. Ida suggests that we must not think of these refusals in binary terms, for such a framing constrains us into making a false choice. The choice and its falsity stem from our customary blindness to alternative modes of (anti)political agency that these binaries and our theories reinforce. What we need, instead, is a refusal that is “antipolitical” in the sense of neither (a) remaining bound to the state and its grammars of justice nor (b) simply hoping that the state goes away; but is, rather, a “creatively destructive project of building the world anew”.

This is an important lesson to be learned by anyone reared in the traditions of modern Western political theory and practice – whether reformist liberals who want a better state, self-styled radical Leninists who want to capture it, or anarchists who want simply to leave it behind. The theoretical basis of the lesson is principally Cedric Robinson, with important contributions from José Esteban Muñoz and (an anarcho-sympathetic reconstruction of) C.L.R. James. But in keeping with its exemplary mode, its real foundation is a set of fascinating case studies: police violence in Rio de Janeiro (Chapter 3); migration control in Europe (Chapter 4); extractivism on Turtle Island (Chapter 5); reproductive (un)freedom in the US (Chapter 6). While this separation of theory from practice is my own stylized one, it reflects the book’s organizing logic. And there is room, I think, to ask how far this theory is able to track (at least some of) these practices.

Take the politics of “refusal” in contemporary indigenous resurgence movements. Ida roots her analysis of the latter in the work of indigenous activist-intellectuals based in what is now called Canada. Their often-subtle differences notwithstanding, Taiaiake AlfredLeanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Glen Coulthard all present resurgence as something other than a refusal-as-return – other than refusing to engage with the state (or any other dominant institution) on its own hegemonic terms but, ultimately, oriented to its reform. Resurgence is also other than a refusal-as-(mere)escape: it is a radical refusal and disengagement, which is oriented to reconstituting a form of life threatened with extermination. For Simpson, resurgence is a continuous refusal of the system and indigenous peoples’ presence within it – resurgent nations do not simply hope that the state goes away because they simply cannot; they have a deep historical memory and clear-eyed view of the state as an agent of occupation and erasure. But resurgence is also, crucially, a continuous expansion of and rooting in indigenous ways of life and intelligence systems – it is, on Simpson’s terms, a “generative refusal” to which Ida relates her refusal-as “generative project of moving towards” a world otherwise.

But is it “antipolitics”? Robinson refuses politics and the state in order to turn to what he calls “a sacred universe of disorder”. For Simpson, on the other hand, resurgence refuses the state in order to return to what she, with Coulthard, calls grounded normativities: “modalities of Indigenous land-connected practices and longstanding experiential knowledge that inform and structure our ethical engagements with the world and our relationships with human and non-human others over time”. It seems important here that grounded normativities are presented not as a kind of disorder but, rather, a kind of living in alignment with “the implicate order”. Moreover, indigenous political systems (in Simpson’s case, Nishaabeg political systems) are presented as being grounded in individuals’ relationships to the implicate order. Resurgence is anti-Hobbesian because it returns to the implicate order and grounded normativity, an ethical framework on which politics can be built. But (on my reading at least) it is not so much anti-political as it is a politics of indigenous sovereignty and self-determination: not ‘not being governed’ (at all) but (real) ‘self-governance’.

Perhaps I’m overreading (Ida’s reconstruction of) Robinson here and the distinction between his sacred universe of disorder and the “implicate order” doesn’t amount to a substantive difference. But if that’s the case, then does an antipolitical refusal refuse to be governed, or does it refuse to be governed this way so that we might be governed that way?

  • Dr. Jared Holley is Co-Director of CRITIQUE and a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh


Lifting the mat: a response to Hemangini Gupta and Jared Holley, by Ida Danewid

Let me start by thanking Hemangini and Jared for their generous and insightful engagement with my book. I have learnt a lot from their close reading of the text and I’m grateful for the opportunity to revisit its arguments with them as my companions. I’ve chosen to organise my response to their comments around four broad themes, related to: the global dynamics of racial capitalism; the limits of state-based visions of freedom; the question of method; and finally, the relation between antipolitics and indigenous notions of grounded normativity.

First, some context: Resisting Racial Capitalism began as a PhD dissertation and grew in unruly ways over several years to finally emerge as an antipolitical manifesto calling for life and freedom beyond the racial capitalist state and its terms of order. My starting point was never an anarchist one, yet this is where the text eventually brought me: not to the classical anarchism of Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Goldman, but to the subterranean archive of refusal and ungovernability that emanates from the anticolonial and black radical traditions. This is an alternative genre of anarchism which finds inspiration—not so much in the European Enlightenment and its associated ideas around rationalism, science, and universal history—but in the dreamworlds, jazz grooves, anvestral visions, and otherworldly poetics of the antipolitical margins.

In her comments, Hemangini wonders how some of the book’s main arguments—about state violence, capital, and antipolitical freedom struggles—travel and translate to different geographies, especially so in the global South. One of my motivations in writing the book was precisely to break away from the North American focus which often has tended to frame the literature on racial capitalism. By bringing together local critiques of state violence from four different continents—police violence in Rio de Janeiro, bordering in the Mediterranean, extractivism in Nigeria, and sexual governance in India—I wanted to move towards a global theory of racial capitalism. In making this conceptual leap, my argument is not that all places are the same, nor that there are no local variations: the Indian police does obviously not exactly resemble the Brazilian one, and the European border regime is not identical to the US one.  And yet, what stands out—across these and other geographies—is the way in which capital relies upon state power to render populations available for capitalist dispossession, exploitation, and abandonment. The exact form that this takes unavoidably varies from context to context but, as I show in the book, the underlying logic remains the same: around the world, capitalist political economy depends on a particular model of politics associated with governance, hierarchy, and state power.

Does this mean that the state and its institutions can never be used for progressive purposes? Hemangini raises this question, noting that in India some women have mobilised the police to seek recourse to justice and gain access to a public sphere from which they have long been barred. My argument is not that appeals to the state can never be useful: organisers fighting to stop deportations frequently make use of the law, and in Sweden the Sámi community successfully sued the state to secure fishing and hunting rights. Rather than deny the strategic role that such action can play, my main concern is about its limits. Appeals to the state (through rights, recognition, and so on) may go some way towards alleviating the violence that is unleashed on minoritised and marginalised communities, but they are incapable of uprooting the underlying structures that produce disposability, dispossession, and super-exploitation. Resisting racial capitalism ultimately requires more.

This brings me to Jared’s question: Do we, as political theorists, have to think globally and historically? The book contains no methodological statement, as Jared notes, but that does not mean that there is no underlying ethos that guides its approach. It is one that finds inspiration in an eclectic mix of writers and thinkers who together underscore the importance of becoming undisciplined and thinking beyond the conventions of political theory; including, among others,Ellen Meiksins Wood’s materialist approach to social and political theory; Saidiya Hartman’s critical fabulations; Jack Halberstam’s musings on wildness and anarchitecture; and Cedric Robinson’s historicisation of the dominant terms of order. From this perspective, the question is not so much “do we, as theorists, have to think historically and globally?” but, rather, “with what (and whose) history and understanding of the global is it that we need to think?” As I show in the book, most if not all Western political theory rests on an (unspoken) understanding of history and globality, but it is one that i) naturalises the racial capitalist state and its governing logics by ii) writing out the global history of colonialism, enslavement, and dispossession. In this regard, Resisting Racial Capitalism is as much a critique of the state as it is of political theory itself.

What is it, then, that we (re)turn to when we refuse the state? Jared asks this question with a nod to both Hobbes and indigenous resurgence, wondering how they differ from my Robinsonian “ode to disorder.” To be clear, life without the state is “chaotic” and “disorderly” only in so far as that is how it is understood within the dominant terms of order. From Hobbes and the other social contract theorists, we have inherited the assumption that the state is a pre-condition for rights, justice, and non-violence: in its absence, life is necessarily “nasty, brutish, and short.” The history of colonialism casts a long shadow over these ideas, not least because indigenous modes of life—which European colonisers regarded as savage, primitive, and in need of tutelage—served as inspiration for the concept of the state of nature. The idea of the state, including what exists before and beyond it, is therefore tied to a racial and colonial view of the world.

For Robinson, what we (re)turn to when we refuse the state is not a war of all against all—as it is for Hobbes—but the promise of antipolitics: that is, of genres of life and worldmaking that exist on different terms than those secured by capital and the state. Across his books and other pieces of writing, he traces this possibility of organising society otherwise through a broad archive ranging from the stateless life of the Ila-Tonga (in today’s Zambia) to the maroon communities scattered across the Americas and the millenarianism of Europe’s midieval radical poverty movements.

As Jared notes, the concept of antipolitics thus resonates with ideas of grounded normativity and arguments put forward by indigenous thinkers such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Glen Coulthard. But are these not cosmologies that—rather than reject governance—strive for true self-governance? It will probably not surprise you, Jared, that I think that the answer to this question hinges on what we mean by governance. As Simpson herself explains, “I use terms like ‘self-determination’ and ‘nation’ as a way of pushing back against the state and forces of dispossession—as a refusal of state definitions and Western political definitions and an assertion and remaking of those terms based in Indigenous thought.” Indigenous self-determination here emerges as a form of openness and radical abundance rather than enclosure. If this is still “governance”, then it is one whose terms are radically different from those laid out by capital and the state: one rooted in communality, relationality, and care rather than hierarchy, rulership, and authoritarian power.

Perhaps there is something useful about holding on to and reclaiming the concept of governance? I for one worry that the risks are too high: governance is too closely associated with the state and might re-introduce the very logics (of policing, hierarchy, dispossession, and abandonment) that we want to break away from. Still, what matters most—beyond these terminological quibbles—is that we hold on to the idea that there is something more, beyond the current order of politics. As Simpson and Maynard put it, we “must hold tightly to our insistence that there are, always, one hundred otherwises to the violence of contemporary governance.”

In TIKAR/MEJA, a series of colourful woven mats that each portray a table, Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann offers a vivid depiction of this idea. The table (meja—from the Spanish mesa) was introduced in Southeast Asia by European colonisers and in I-Lann’s work becomes a symbol for the violence of administrative power: racial, patriarchal, and state-based. She contrasts this with the traditional tikar (mat), which signifies egalitarian, communal, and ancestral modes of life: what I have chosen to call antipolitics. I-Lann writes:

“Flip the table, lift the mat.

I see the table, therefore I mat.”

These are dreams of freedom that cannot be contained by the state.

  • Ida Danewid is a social and political theorist based in the Department of International Relations at the University of Sussex.

TIKAR/MEJA. Yee I-Lann, 2018.TIKAR/MEJA. Yee I-Lann, 2018.