On the Method of Dissatisfaction
I need not remind you that poverty, the gaps in our society, the gulfs between inordinate superfluous wealth and abject deadening poverty have brought about a great deal of despair, a great deal of tension, a great deal of bitterness.
—Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America”
We have a task, and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.
—Martin Luther King Jr.,
Speech at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention
Toward the end of his life, King began to speak of “literally two Americas.” One, he said, was “flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality” and was the “habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits.” The other “has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” King would go on to say that “probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem.”1 As we work up a diagnosis of the economic problem, it will be helpful to establish some methodological context. What does it mean for King to expose “the other America”? How did he bring himself into critical contact with racial capitalism’s underside? In what ways did he court and counsel his sense of dissatisfaction?
King was, of course, a public intellectual and a prominent social critic. The arc of our treatment of this dimension of his life and work begins with an attempt to situate his methodological apparatus within a tradition of modern critical theory, broadly understood. Ultimately, King exceeded the terms of Western critical theory, and in ways that are quite telling for how we might understand and wrestle with the lived realities of racial capitalism into our own time. But we begin with a figure engaged in what James Tully calls “public philosophy as a critical activity” or what a young Karl Marx referred to simply as the “self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.”2 The idea is that meaningful social and political theorizing does not detach itself from the lives and struggles of ordinary people, but is, rather, a kind of “methodological extension and critical clarification” of the practical reasoning that historically situated actors always already engage in.3 Most of us work very hard to make sense of our situation in the world. We try to provide satisfying reasons for why we think and behave as we do. We try, and often struggle greatly, to communicate and coordinate our thoughts and behaviors with others. In a very fundamental sense, this sort of practical reasoning is what public life is all about. King, for his part, worked toward a methodological extension and critical clarification of the struggles and wishes of “the other America.” He sought to model a public intellectualism in service of a Black radical counterpublic.4 And yet, and this is really the overarching claim of this chapter, King cultivated a methodological approach that revealed just how difficult this task can be, a difficulty owing in large measure to the very nature of the economic problem as King was able to apprehend it.
One reason to situate King within a tradition of modern critical theory, at least initially, is that King fashioned himself as a dialectical thinker, and a Hegelian of sorts. As such, King was equipped to home in on the complex interrelationships that sustain the social, political, and economic order. He was able to see clearly the ways in which the “two Americas” are interdependent and condition one another. He was able to vivify societal conflict and tension, the internal contradictions of racial capitalist modernity, and he was able to do so in ways that motivate and sustain not only a critical judgment of a contradictory historical order, but also a collective movement toward historical reconciliation. For us, the signal upshot of recovering King’s indebtedness to the dialectical tradition is that it enriches appreciation of King’s role as a critic of ideology. It enriches a sense for how King exposed the political motivations behind the ideas and values and structural logics that give legitimacy to the established order.
There is no question that King was, as Vincent Lloyd puts it, “suspicious of the wisdom of the world, ideology.” He sought to expose and challenge the dominant ideas and values that obscure unequal social relations—what Lloyd calls the “mystification used by the powerful and wealthy to secure their own interests.”5 But here again King worked toward a broader intellectual radicalism than is often acknowledged. We fill out a more comprehensive picture of King’s critical methodology by showing that his dialectical emphasis on tension and conflict trained focus on social relations that are hidden or secreted away, not only by the “wisdom of the world,” not only by the biased or distorted claims of ideological consciousness, but also by the very nature of commercial society. King’s critical theory pushes beyond the epistemic, to the terrain of the ontological, to a critical confrontation with what Robinson has called the “actual being” of racial capitalism.6
Throughout the chapter we draw on the 1968 iteration of King’s “Other America” speech in order to broach and work through several themes relevant to our discussion. As a pastor and public intellectual, as a figure who traveled widely and delivered sermons and speeches over and over, King often worked from set pieces, he often repeated himself, and he often improvised on common themes. “The Other America” was initially a talk at Stanford University in April 1967, its title phrase clearly a play on Michael Harrington’s monumental 1962 book on American poverty.7 By March of 1968, when King delivered an alternative version to a predominately Black labor audience in New York, the phrase would have been resoundingly consistent with the findings of the Kerner Commission, which famously concluded that the “nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”8 King’s speech to the 1199ers offers but one window to his thinking about poverty, labor, cross-racial political solidarity, and the Poor People’s Campaign (which he had announced in December 1967), among other themes. It also reveals a later King curiously ambivalent about violent protest, or at least the destruction of property. But it is the trope of the “other America,” delivered in conversation with working people rather than the Stanford crowd, that helps us to grapple most generatively with the methodological question. In the face of deep racial inequality and inequity, in the face of racial worlds that appear all too separate and unequal, how did King, and how do we, orient and sustain the critical imagination?
“I Don’t Consider Myself a Stranger . . .”
On several occasions, King engaged the membership of the United Healthcare Workers East, the predominately African American and Puerto Rican local in New York City, which, at one point, King identified as his favorite labor union. By the time he delivered his remarks on the two Americas, he said that he considered himself a “fellow 1199er.”9 Though King is often recognized for his later solidarity with the labor movement, in particular his fateful work with the Memphis sanitation workers, it is important, as Lewis Baldwin reminds us, to guard against any notion that King was initially, if not always fundamentally, “some child of privilege who had absorbed uncritically the middle-class ethos and values.”10
King was of course born into a prominent church family in Atlanta’s relatively prosperous Sweet Auburn community, but he was also a born critic whose natural skepticism of both church doctrine and bourgeois society was informed by an unyielding alliance with what Houston Baker has called the “working-class black majority.” Foremost in King’s critical consciousness, Baker argues, were always “those populations of African, African American, Negro and colored descent in the United States who inhabit the most wretched states, spaces, and places of our national geography,” those “black men, women, and children who have little hope for bettering their life chances through any simply (perhaps even ‘plausibly’) available means.” This Black majority, this most “inevitably exposed, severely policed, desperately under-resourced contingent of the African-American population,” has become, some fifty years after King’s death, “indubitably the majority of Afro-America.”11 In order to see King as a critic of racial capitalism and, ultimately, a theorist of an indigenous Black radicalism, we must work from the premise that King was in fact no stranger to Black workers, the Black poor—indeed the Black majority—in the United States and worldwide.
It is also important to acknowledge that King would not have considered himself a “thought leader” as that term is popularly invoked today. King never allowed his thinking to be narrowed or subdued by the parameters of investment worthiness. He was very explicitly an early critic of the conditions that have made the neoliberal “ideas industry” possible, including the empowerment of a plutocratic elite that is able—nowadays increasingly surreptitiously, through seemingly innocuous TED Talks and the like—to commission its intellectual spokespersons and more or less segregate itself from oppositional perspective.12 Part of what endears us to the King legacy is that his more “comprehensive, activist public intellectualism” stands in such stark contrast to the model of today’s neoliberal “thought leader.”13 And while some who set out to challenge the neoliberal paradigm today might question the import of any public intellectualism, comprehensive or otherwise—”we need to drive people to do the hard work needed to take control of the reins of power,” insists Lester Spence, and “perhaps we’d do ourselves a service by leaving prophets, even ones like King, and public intellectuals in the past”—we are not convinced that the problems we face today are so glaringly obvious, that the hard work of critical inquiry can be so callously forsaken, or that the “reins of power” as we know them are worthy of immediate pursuit.14 King insisted, in 1954, that we “must forever stand in judgment upon every economic system.”15 More than a half century on, we simply cannot afford to leave in the past the model of a public intellectualism that is genuinely aligned with the Black majority and that is concerned to build up a Black public that stands in collective judgment.
At a time when public thinking and criticism have become almost entirely circumscribed by plutocratic private interests, we find inspiration in an alternative model of “leadership [that] simply cannot be understood apart from the notion of a black public,” or what we might identify, again following Baker, as the “life and institutions of the black majority.”16 How should we understand the nature of this Black public sphere, this discursive space of collective reflection and judgment? What did this public sphere mean for King, in both actual and aspirational terms, and what does and can it mean for us? The very history of Black public intellectualism underscores what is at stake in these questions. In his famous polemic against “spokespersons for the race,” Adolph Reed argued that the kind of acquiescent Black public intellectualism favored by the white establishment, the model represented most keenly in the figure of Booker T. Washington, “was a pathological effect of the disfranchisement specific to the segregation era,” a result of “black Americans’ expulsion from civic life.” The absence of a more “vibrant discursive community,” Reed said, was only reinforced by the anointing of such spokespersons for the race, and was certainly “a condition to which Washington contributed.”17 By comparison, the contemporary model of neoliberal “thought leadership,” circumscribed as it is by market principles and neoliberal rationality—or, as we will suggest, by the terms of racial capitalism—appears to represent a throwback of sorts, a return to a kind of intellectualism that both conditions and is conditioned by the evacuation of public life, including, perhaps especially, a Black radical opposition and the “vibrant discursive community” that such opposition both requires and sustains.
“A Great Deal of Tension . . .”
Built into King’s alternative model, giving shape to a public intellectualism that does not consider itself a stranger to the Black masses, is a distinctive methodological and theoretical apparatus, the exposition of which is the focus of the remainder of this chapter. And much of this exposition turns on consideration of King’s status as a dialectical thinker. During his graduate student days at Boston University in the early 1950s, King led a Black student reading group known as the “Dialectical Society.”18 A few years later, at the height of the Montgomery bus boycott, he famously identified Hegel, the preeminent modern theorist of the dialectic, as his favorite philosopher.19 In public statements, and implicitly in many of his most significant writings, King touted his appreciation of dialectical logic and inquiry. We situate King at least partly within the context of what we call the modern dialectical tradition, which, in our analysis, and despite its European lineage, remains a valuable tool with which to expose and critique racial capitalism’s social relations. But, as with his critique of racial capitalism, King’s indebtedness to this dialectical tradition has to be read into his life and work. For his part, King tended to focus only on tension and synthesis, apparently for him the core features of dialectical logic and inquiry.
The first of these, the emphasis on tension, or what we might describe initially as fraught relations between parts within larger totalities, is fundamental for King. Creative tension, what he sometimes referred to in a more political idiom as “creative struggle,” was said to drive movement, becoming, and psychic and material growth. The most prominent expression of this sentiment in King’s corpus is, of course, the 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in which King declared that he was not afraid of a little tension, whether between thoughts in one’s mind or between factions within the larger society. Such tension, he seemed to suggest, was precisely the point.20 This initial emphasis on tension gives way to another idea, likewise central to the modern dialectical tradition, namely, that relations between parts within larger totalities, and the movements born of such relations, are circumscribed by an overarching commitment to rational synthesis.
In 1957, King wrote that Hegel’s “analysis of the dialectical process . . . helped me to see that growth comes through struggle.” He also stated, without explanation, that Hegel’s “contention that ‘truth is the whole’ led me to a philosophical method of rational coherence.”21 Or, as he put it in 1963, “the philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.”22 For the most part, King played fast and loose with this idea of dialectical synthesis, or this notion that what it means to think dialectically is to orient oneself toward the reconciliation of generative tensions. Notably curious here, for our purposes, is King’s public treatment of Marx, whom we might identify alongside Hegel as the other preeminent theorist of the modern dialectical tradition, but whom King fashions, at least in his published writings, as an exponent of “partial truths,” an almost undialectical defender of mere antitheses to traditional capitalism, liberalism, and religion, a figure whose positions themselves stand in search of higher synthesis.23 King’s treatment of Marx was often roughshod, if not disingenuous—a fact owed partly to the pressures put upon him by the Cold War context of the 1950s and early ‘60s. But certainly King was keen to identify tensions—or, in the more technical philosophical language, contradictions—precisely because he was convinced that such tensions would be, and indeed should be, moved to reconciliation. At issue, as King aptly describes, is a “philosophical method” built on the presumption of “rational coherence.” This presumption is key. When we set out to apprehend lived reality by the lights of a dialectical mode of thinking, the tensions that we experience over time are to be “sharpened,” as Hegel used to say, into contradictions and brought to our consciousness as such. And contradictions are said to provoke movement—growth, struggle, our active contestation of the values and norms of lived reality—precisely because, or rather if and only if, contradictions are held to be irrational, and therefore unappealing and unsustainable. It is this overarching rationalism, this commitment to and application of the principle of noncontradiction, that orients the dialectical thinker critically toward the tensions that she experiences and that compels her to put in the hard work necessary to overcome them.
King did not always foreground the moment of rational synthesis, and this fact had significant political consequences. In a philosophically rich essay on King and the tradition of dialectical theory, Stephen Ferguson has argued that ultimately King should not be read as a practitioner of a closed Hegelian dialectic. Ferguson argues that King’s thinking was affected significantly by the civil rights movement, and by about 1965, “King’s dialectics [had] become a dialectic of negation rather than synthesis.”24 Ferguson argues that King grew less interested in trying to reconcile opposing perspectives within the framework of a liberal democratic public sphere, and increasingly concerned to build up a sort of Black radical counterpublic, an oppositional movement that, as “an enemy to capitalism,” sought after a “reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”25 This counterpublic movement is integral to the critique of racial capitalism, and it is important to see that an emphasis on dialectical negation is not an abandonment of synthesis. It is rather the indelible mark of a dialectical critical theorist, one for whom suspicion and skepticism, negative judgment of the reconciliatory prospects of the extant world order, are conditioned and borne along by a driving faith in a reconciliatory world to come, what we might characterize simply as the speculative beyond. As C. L. R. James, perhaps the preeminent theorist of the dialectic in the twentieth-century Black radical tradition, once said, “it is the unbearable nature of contradiction that creates negativity,” for “if there is no sharp contradiction, there is no movement to speak of, and there is stagnation.”26 In the moment of negativity, in the moment of critical judgment, the higher rational synthesis may appear impossibly distant. But for the dialectical thinker it is always there, marking the unbearable nature of contradiction.27
James’s work on the Black radical import of dialectical thinking is indeed a fitting comparison. In his midcentury Notes on Dialectics, James invoked Hegel at least in part to highlight the experience of frustration, by which he meant specifically the sense that our lived experience is often at odds with how we think or are encouraged to think about ourselves and our situation in the world. James suggested that dialectical logic can be applied, not as a coping mechanism, but rather as a sort of cognitive tool with which to sharpen critical consciousness. A dialectical mode of thinking could be an intentional way to elevate our experience of frustration consciously to the level of a more pointed contradiction, which can then be judged and made to motivate political action aimed at challenging and relieving that frustration—or, as it were, resolving that contradiction.28 While King and James knew and admired one another, there is no indication that King read James seriously beyond perhaps The Black Jacobins, James’s seminal history of the Haitian Revolution.29 But certainly King spoke of a sense of frustration as if it were an existential affliction endemic to the modern experience, and a condition that could be actively challenged with the aid of a little dialectical sharpening. “I’ve been all over and people are frustrated,” King said, for example, in his speech to the 1199ers. “They’re confused, they’re bewildered, and they’ve said that they want a way out of their dilemma. They are angry and many are on the verge, on the brink of despair.”30 Or, as he put it earlier in the same speech, “I need not remind you that poverty, the gaps in our society, the gulfs between inordinate superfluous wealth and abject deadening poverty have brought about a great deal of despair, a great deal of tension, a great deal of bitterness.”31 This earlier iteration is especially telling. It would seem that for King the way out of this mess, the way to challenge this experience of frustration and bitterness, is not merely through its exposure or the simple revelation of “the other America.” We need not be merely reminded, he said. We must also, as it were, place “the two Americas” into dialectical tension, as contradictory elements that should and must not be allowed to coexist. At issue, in other words, is the sharpening of our critical consciousness, an exercise that requires a distinctive set of methodological and theoretical tools.
There is more to this methodological and theoretical toolkit. In his account of the political struggles that gave movement to the Montgomery story, King described the activist Rosa Parks in world-historical terms. Parks was “anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn,” King said. “She was a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny. She had been tracked down by the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the time.”32 One must be careful in reading dialectical narratives into human history. There is always a danger, consistent with the legacies of European cultural imperialism, that the preemptory application of a sort of reconciliatory plot structure reduces individual human lives to mere roles in a predetermined drama.33 This, of course, has been the basis of a common criticism of the Marxist tradition—as King himself, perhaps not coincidentally, pointed out—and it thus presents a danger to secular theorists no less than it does to theistic ones. Given the gravity of this concern, and given King’s commitment to both dialectical philosophy and Christian theism, it will be helpful to consider further what Fredric Jameson has called the “diachronic” site of dialectical thinking and criticism, or that which “has to do with telos, narrative, and history.”34
Consider King’s oft-repeated claim, which appears quite prominently in his 1968 speech to the 1199ers, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If we come at this in abstract moral terms, in the language of good and evil, we might conclude that there is nothing especially dialectical about King’s conception of telos, narrative, and history. Good versus evil, while taken by King to reflect a kind of thesis and antithesis embedded in historical process, gives way ultimately to a simple victory of one over the other, the triumph of good over evil. And to be sure, King frequently spoke in these terms. For King, as Rufus Burrow puts it, “no matter how much injustice exists in the world; no matter how badly one group is treated by another, there is a benevolent power that is the beating heart of the universe, one which sides with good, justice, and righteousness.”35 But if we dig a bit more deeply, down to the lived realities and embodied struggles of participants in the historical narrative, then we begin to see that something like a dialectical struggle for reconciliation can be said to actively inform the movement toward what King called the “beloved community.”
“The beloved community ideal for King,” Lewis Baldwin says, speaks to the “means by which human beings are reconciled to each other and restored to fellowship with God.”36 “The essential end King has in mind,” says Vincent Lloyd, “is a world where humans are treated in a way that accords with their infinite value.” Lloyd goes on to stress that King is quite clear on the “communal nature” of this beloved community. What King had in mind was not some liberal utopia wherein atomistic individuals voluntarily engage or contract with one another. “Individuals are formed through our relations with each other even if we exceed these relations,” Lloyd points out, “and a rich network of such relations must be part of any account of the world we are to desire. It involves not only ‘absence of contradiction’ but also ‘presence of coherence.’”37 This telos or end really is a kind of speculative ideal that, to say it again, has the distinctive effect of training critical scrutiny on the ways in which historical human beings are and are not made to be reconciled with each other, in and through their historically embedded social relations. The very structure of this dialectical narrative, of King’s effort to apprehend and make sense of lived reality through the application of a reconciliatory mode of narrative emplotment, might be said to prefigure an orientation toward the social relations that comprise what we are calling racial capitalism.
This notion of the beloved community underscores, yet again—this time in theistic terms—the enduring value of King’s legacy as a critical theorist of negation. As Lloyd has argued, King developed a sort of “negative theology” of the beloved community. While he was “comfortable saying specifically what love is not; we can point to examples of these in the world, the love he commends is ultimately missing, indescribable in worldly terms except in its effects.” As such, Lloyd says, “perhaps King does not want us to envision what a beloved community would look like at all. Perhaps that phrase is simply rhetoric that encourages us to interrogate worldly laws that deface the infinite worth of the human being and struggle together to change them.”38 Lloyd’s reading captures what we have described as the speculative dimension of the reconciliatory narrative—and, we might note, it does so in quite Hegelian terms, as if the owl of Minerva does indeed take flight only at dusk, only as the Absolute begins to manifest itself in our consciousness, our lived reality. But this reading is also telling because it points toward the possibility that the very narrative structure that King employs, the mode of historical emplotment engendered by his “philosophical method of rational coherence,” is intended not necessarily as a human application of God’s truth, but perhaps, or perhaps also, as a sort of rhetorical tool, part of a methodological and theoretical apparatus that is meant to help historically situated actors take a stand in negative judgment of the world as they experience it.
When he spoke of tension in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” King said that he was concerned “merely [to] bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive” in American society. “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”39 King’s program of exposing America’s underside, of bringing to light what had not been adequately seen or heard, is typically, and rightly, understood as a consciousness-raising enterprise, essentially a program of ideology critique. It is telling that in his speeches and writings, and indeed throughout the secondary literature, enlightenment metaphors abound. King often set out to identify false claims, to right perception, to disclose a more adequate body of knowledge, indeed a more adequate way of knowing. Scholars rightly point out that, “King fought to bring the immiseration of black folks into the light.”40 They have argued that he was “suspicious of the wisdom of the world,” and that he set out to show “that the world is not what it seems,” indeed that “the wisdom of the world is a mystification used by the powerful and the wealthy to secure their own interests.”41
By ideology, we refer to a phenomenon in which ideas or values or commitments have become widely held and widely or even universally appealing within a given society, but in such a way that obscures the particular political interests that have fought historically to establish such ideas and that can be said to benefit from their sustained currency. Useful here is Marx’s memorable formulation that the “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”42 The point is just that some people, some group or part of the larger society, can be said to benefit materially from the implementation and maintenance of a particular set of ideas or values. But consider also Raymond Geuss’s formulation, which is perhaps more helpful for our efforts to expose a broader sort of ideology critique in King’s work. “The existence of specific power relations in society will produce an appearance of a particular kind,” Geuss says. “Certain features of the society that are merely local and contingent, and maintained in existence only by the continual exercise of power, will come to seem as if they were universal, necessary, invariant, or natural features of all forms of human social life, or as if they arose spontaneously and uncoercedly by free human action.”43 The critic of ideology, broadly understood, is thus one who sets out to unsettle or problematize widely held ideas and values and commitments, one who sets out to expose the ways in which such ideas and values and commitments have been implemented historically, and in ways that benefit some more than others, or even some at the expense of others.
Consider as an example, and one that speaks quite directly to his broader thinking about political economy, King’s critique of the “bootstrapping” ideology that has been, and continues to be, so central to the tradition of American liberalism. This set piece figures prominently in his speech to the 1199ers. The idea is that any one of us can make it in American society, this apparent land of opportunity, if only we put in some hard work. “It is a cruel jest,” King countered, “to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell a man to lift himself up by his own bootstraps when somebody is standing on his foot.” For Black people in the United States, for the “only ethnic group that has been a slave on American soil,” for a people whose idea of self has been stigmatized, whose “blackness” has been rendered synonymous with “something evil and degrading—smut, dirt,” for whom “linguistics, semantics [has] conspired against” a requisite sense of dignity and self-confidence, this bootstrapping nonsense is a cruel joke indeed. This joke is only worsened by the underlying historical reality that “nobody . . . in this country has lifted themselves up by their bootstraps.”44 White people have been, and continue to be, disproportionate beneficiaries of practices and policies that have yielded what we might call unearned income and status, from the great material fortunes built on the backs of African slave labor to what David Roediger has referred to, following Du Bois, as the “psychological wages of whiteness.”45
Typically the critique of ideology is taken to be an epistemic exercise, an effort to debunk illusory perceptions of reality. “The distortions of the world are so great,” Lloyd says, “that righting perception is an enormous task.” Indeed it is, and certainly this epistemic aspect of ideology critique is an enormous, and enormously important, aspect of King’s legacy as a social critic. But one upshot of foregrounding King’s dialectical mode of analysis is that it helps to vivify another aspect of King’s critical theory, a dimension that in itself is somewhat hidden in his work, and is most definitely missing from the secondary literature, but that is perhaps more befitting of the material challenges wrought by a racial capitalist order. King’s dialectical emphasis on tension trains focus on social relations that are hidden or secreted away, not only by the “wisdom of the world,” not only by the false or distorted claims of ideological consciousness, but also by the very nature of commercial society. It is in this sense that, in addition to his efforts to cut through false-consciousness and right perception, King can be said to counsel something like the critique of fetishism.
Here we need to lean more heavily on Marx. By itself, fetishism denotes simply the “worship of an inanimate object for its supposed magical powers.”46 But in the tradition of modern critical theory, the fetishism concept is typically invoked as part of an effort to explain the power of commercial society to obscure the complex human relationships that sustain it. Marx said famously that in a market system “a definite social relation between men” assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” He was concerned to show that, under conditions of market exchange, our human capacity to engage with one another is almost always mediated by what he called the “commodity-form,” or what we might describe as the need to coordinate our human behaviors and preferences exclusively through the exchange of money and according only to the information available to us through price signals. In a commercial society, what appears before us is largely “a world of commodities,” a world marked by “material relations between persons and social relations between things.” And though Marx referred here to the way the world “appears” to our consciousness, he stressed—and this is really the essence of the critique of fetishism—that the distinctive social relations we experience “appear as what they are.”47 That our human relationships are mediated by commercial society is no mere illusion. Our failure to see, to respect, and to make decisions based upon genuinely human interactions is not “a made-up construction that can be dismantled if only we care to try.”48 In a consolidated market society, our failure to treat other people as human beings is less a failure than a structured impossibility. What Marx called the “fetishism of the world of commodities” thus reflects our apprehension of a condition that is all very real and true, and that exerts a tremendous hold over each and every one of us.
It is in this sense that, as William Clare Roberts puts it, “fetishism ought to be understood as a form of domination, rather than a form of false-consciousness.” We are dealing here with “a political problem first and foremost, and an epistemic problem only derivatively.”49 The exposure of fetishism, then, turns out to be a slightly different operation than the sort of ideology critique that commentators tend to read into King. And yet surely this concern about fetishism, about what becomes of social relations under conditions of market exchange, is strikingly consistent with King’s insistence that we need to initiate a “shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society.”50 This insistence is fundamental to King’s critique of capitalist society. The point we wish to make here, in this discussion of methodology, is that the former, the “‘thing’-oriented society,” is the very reality that we confront. It is ontology as well as epistemology.51 And to identify it as such, to cultivate a critical theoretical apparatus appropriate to the analysis of racial capitalism’s form of domination, is also to prefigure a distinctive sense of the requisite political work in front of us.
“Too often,” Lloyd says, “ideology critique is detached from the complexities of social movement organizing, to the detriment of both.”52 King’s legacy, he says, provides an important corrective here. But it is important to emphasize, in ways that Lloyd and other readers of King do not, that capitalism itself, a consolidated market society, is a massively powerful and self-sustaining social movement, a system that reproduces itself through the circulation of commodities. As market actors, we necessarily participate in this movement. As Marx put it, “[our] own social movement has for [us] the form of a movement of things, and instead of controlling it, [we] are under its control.”53 Where readers of King’s economic views often point out that he was concerned that “mass production and consumerism dominate society,” that “people are focused on buying goods and acquiring wealth in order to buy even more goods,” that “our employers, government, and social institutions treat us as numbers, as objects interchangeable with other objects,” his readers also tend to conclude that what this means for King is simply that the “world has . . . forgotten its soul,” that “in a world where people are objects, morality is forgotten.”54 But what we need to see here—and the emphasis on commodity fetishism helps, as does the fuller theoretical account of racial capitalism—is that the task in front of us is not merely to remember morality, not merely to will ourselves to treat human beings as human beings rather than things. In order even to put ourselves in a position to cultivate this sort of collective memory and will, we first need a wholesale transformation of the social form of domination, what King clearly recognized as the “restructuring [of] the whole of American society.”55
When social relations are mediated by market exchange, Roberts says, we “find ourselves trapped in a giant collective-action-problem-generating machine.”56 It “is not that individuals cannot do exactly what they each want to do, but that they cannot get together and talk about what sorts of things should and should not be done, and what sorts of reasons should and should not count as good reasons.”57 The deliberative space of the democratic public sphere is hamstrung by the fact that we are compelled to reduce ourselves and others to things, to commodities measured by exchange value, and by the fact that we cannot really communicate or learn anything about one another outside of this reductionist apparatus of exchange. This problem is all the more consequential for the cultivation of Black radical counterpublics, for the struggle, King’s struggle, to cultivate the desires and wishes of “Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”58 We often perceive King as a methodological idealist and a moralist, one for whom the “economic problem” can be remedied with a dose of good, old-fashioned moral willpower. “When it comes to the needs of the ‘least of these,’” Lewis Baldwin says in a typical reading of King, “the deficit existed not in human and material resources, but in the human will.”59 But we are beginning to see that weakness of will, what the philosophers call akrasia, is affected greatly by the consolidation of the form of racial capitalist social relations. And we are beginning to see that there is a materialist streak to King’s critical theoretical apparatus.
This materialist streak has the effect of sobering the critical imagination. “We have a task,” King said, “and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.” The phrase “let us be dissatisfied,” a distinctive cry that King leveled time and again, is perhaps more telling than we know. It would seem to imply that our active discontent with the world is somehow constrained, that something threatens to foreclose even our capacity to challenge the workings of a world in which morality has been forgotten. If, to paraphrase King’s Ghanaian comrade Kwame Nkrumah, practice without theory is empty, then perhaps we need to do some theoretical groundwork before we can enjoy the freedom to cultivate and express our discontent.60 Or, to put it another way, if we share Michael Dawson’s interest in rebuilding the Black counterpublic, “quickly and from the bottom up,” as King surely did, then perhaps we must set out, as we argue that King did indeed, to expose the “social processes going on behind the backs” of market actors, for “what goes on behind [our] back cannot be contested.”61
“We Will Bring into Being That Day . . .”
King gestured toward a model of social criticism that was both negative and generative. It was concerned, as Cedric Robinson might put it, with both the “renunciation of actual being” and the disclosure of a “whole other way of being.” As we build upon the observations set forth in this chapter and work from an exposition of King’s methodological apparatus to reconstruct a critique of racial capitalism, we consider the extent to which King can be understood to exhibit, or at least to work in dialogue with, what Robinson has called the Black radical tradition. Erica Edwards, one of Robinson’s most thoughtful contemporary readers, has argued that Robinson set out to “carefully excavate the mechanisms of power,” to “detail the radical epistemologies and ontologies that those mechanisms have been erected to restrain,” to explore the “ways that people of color, particularly those with African ancestry, pose an imminent threat . . . and generate alternative worldviews and ways of being.”62 The Black radical tradition, she says, “is not simply the dialectical antithesis of capitalism or the blind spot of those movements that have posed a challenge to capitalism, such as Marxism,” but is, also, “the ‘living and breathing’ entity that stands ‘in the place blinded from view.’”63 To pursue this “whole other way of being” is to make a decisive break with the very concept of the political, with presumptions and notions of leadership and authority that have been central to this essentially and distinctively Western paradigm. If this is a crucial part of what the Black radical tradition entails, then to what extent can we draw a comparison with King’s model of leadership, with his struggles to rebuild a Black counterpublic, with his efforts to court dissatisfaction and discontent and to “bring into being that day when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream?”64 Was King really such a Black radical? And does it really matter? What is at stake?
In the moment of negation, certainly, King was a decidedly political thinker. What we mean by this is that in his effort to uncover and empower “the other America,” in his effort to expose the living and breathing human beings most dominated by the social movement of commercial society, King did indeed “pose an imminent threat” to the established order. King’s vision of that “whole other way of being,” his vision of that “day when justice will roll down,” indeed his speculative gesture toward the “beloved community,” may well signal, all told, something like the movement toward a postpolitical mode of being. “Justice between man and man [is] one of the divine foundations of society,” he said, and he described this not as a political ideal but very explicitly as a “high ethical notion,” the “root of all true religion.”65 The implication is that to reflect on ethical relations within capitalist society, or indeed within the “actual being” of racial capitalist modernity, is to foreclose the very possibility of realizing such a “high ethical notion,” simply because capitalist relations between things stand in the way of just and ethical relations between human beings. It has been said that “ethics is usually dead politics: the hand of a victor in some past conflict reaching out to try to extend its grip to the present and the future.”66 King had no interest in letting politics die out. It was not yet time. The victor in the past conflict, extending its grip on the present and gravely threatening the future, still had to be reckoned with.