On the Revolution of Values
[We] built a cotton economy for three hundred years as slaves on which the nation grew powerful. . . . We, too, realize that when human values are subordinated to blind economic forces, human beings can become human scrap.
—Martin Luther King Jr.,
Speech to the United Automobile Workers
Something is wrong with capitalism. . . . We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure.
—Martin Luther King Jr.,
Speech to the SCLC National Advisory Committee
“I am convinced,” King said in 1967, “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”1 This is one of the more resounding lines from King’s corpus, and one of the most frequently cited. It is often taken to capture much of the essence of King’s later radicalism, a sense of the political commitment and moral urgency that he ascribed to a “second” and more “substantive” phase of his life’s work.2 That second phase sought to organize a more penetrating and comprehensive assault on the “evil triplets”: the racism, violence, and cycles of impoverishment that, like a kind of organic compound, had conspired together to give life force to the only American society the world had yet known. It is no secret that King became increasingly outspoken in his dissatisfaction with capitalism and the ways in which racism and violence had been interwoven into the structural workings of the economy and polity of the United States.3 But we still need a better understanding of the nature, and legacy, of his mature critique of political economy. How, we might ask, is King’s call for a “revolution of values” affected by the production and circulation of value in capitalist society?
Though King’s analysis moved beyond, often against, key assumptions and conceptual tools of Marxist thought, Marx’s way of thinking about capital as “value in motion” is integral to the theory of racial capitalism as we employ it here.4 Consider again Marx’s account of the “commodity-form” under capitalism and how the market actor’s singular and largely compulsory focus on the exchange of money can be said to “conceal a social relation.”5 Marx argued that the coordination of human labor and activity, the kinds of human interdependencies that King catalogued under the rubric of an “inescapable network of mutuality,” had become sustained in the modern period by a logic of capital accumulation, by a distinctive pressure put upon capitalists—and into the neoliberal moment, essentially all market actors—to pursue not only profit, but also sustained growth through the creation of viable outlets for reinvestment.6 What we are compelled to value and devalue in capitalist society is largely dependent upon its movement through cycles of accumulation and absorption. This movement, this “value in motion,” is itself dependent upon the reproduction of social inequalities, which have significant temporal and spatial dimensions, as well as discernible racial dimensions, as the theory of racial capitalism helps us to see.
At issue, then, is something more than what Marx called the “commodity-form.” Following Nancy Fraser, we might distinguish between capitalism’s economic “front-story,” which foregrounds the self-expansion of value through the exploitation of commoditized wage-labor, and its social and political “back-story,” which speaks to the semi-or noncommoditized labors and contributions that enable capital accumulation. Capitalism’s structural inequalities are maintained partly through economic exploitation and the class relation, but also partly through social and political projects of racial formation. Such racial projects contribute to status differentials, thereby allowing a population to accept as normal, for example, racial overrepresentation in certain job sectors or income brackets or geographical regions of the world economy. Such projects also underwrite the expropriation of value, what Fraser calls “accumulation by other means.” For a “crisis-prone system” such as capitalism, in which the pursuit of profit meets routinely with obstacles and limits, all extractive measures remain on the table. Beyond labor exploitation, “commandeered capacities get incorporated into the value-expanding process that defines capital,” and political projects of racial formation are a structural pillar of capitalist societies.7
King, for his part, claimed to have read Capital by himself over the Christmas holiday in 1949.8 We have acknowledged his avowal of a dialectical methodology, which in its emphasis on processes and interconnections and the movement of parts within social totalities helps to demystify the social relations sustained by the circulation of capital. By invoking Marx’s way of thinking about capital as “value in motion,” we attempt to allay the spirit of the Marxist “front-story” analysis that King’s economic thinking can be said to parallel or exemplify, while also giving ourselves the latitude to include more of the “back-story,” in particular the political projects of racial formation.
Once again, in terms of organizational strategy, we parse out significant phrases from one of King’s seminal texts in order to broach and work through key themes. For present purposes, the latter portion of the famous 1967 Riverside Church speech is richly suggestive. The imperative, King said from that Morningside Heights pulpit, is to get on the right side of world revolution and to embrace a radical revolution of values. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” he said, for “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”9 This chapter continues to tease out implicit theoretical assumptions that undergird King’s thinking about capitalism, but moves beyond methodological formalism in order to fill in more of the substance. Crucial here is a fuller accounting of King’s humanist commitments, including his ideal of the person and his sense that a spiritual dimension of the human experience must be part of any sustainable confrontation with racial capitalism. Crucial, too, is a more substantive accounting of King’s narrative commitments. King saw in capitalist modernity an unprecedented, world-historical expansion of human productive and social capacity. But he also saw a “glaring contradiction” in the irrational and immoral persistence of material poverty and racial segregation, the unacceptable persistence of “the other America” and an underdeveloped Global South. It is precisely in his attentiveness to the substance of this signal contradiction that the contours of a theory of racial capitalism begin to emerge in his work. Through analysis, in the latter part of the chapter, of King’s speeches and writings on the concentration of Black poverty in the urban North—what King called the “Chicago problem”—as well as a brief consideration of King’s anti-imperialism and the internationalist dimensions of his critical theory, we attempt to sketch a more substantive account of how capitalism reproduces the unequal differentiation of human value, how it does so in racial terms, and how this process complicates the call, King’s call, for a revolution of values.
Paul Heideman and Jonah Birch remind us that, “when people first begin to move in collective action against the injustices that confront them, they almost always do so with ideological tools fashioned from their society’s dominant ideology. It is only through the course of struggle itself that people begin to discard this ideology in favor of one they fashion themselves, a process epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr.’s radicalization over the course of the 1960s.”10 When King went to Montgomery in 1954, he found a people in movement against injustice, a people who would set out to challenge racial partition by, in part, jamming a wrench into the profitability of a privately owned city bus line.11 In the broader context of what historians now refer to as the “long Civil Rights Movement,” the economic boycott has presented itself as a tried and true strategy.12 It was never difficult for those on the underside to sense a connection between the logic of capital accumulation and the management of the apartheid state. But for King, when he first began to move in collective action in the American South in the 1950s, his sense of this connection was clouded by the dominant ideological tendencies of the day, certainly by popular attitudes toward communism and capitalism, Marxism and liberalism. There is no doubt that, as Heideman and Birch indicate, King’s radicalization over the course of the 1960s, including his sharpened and amplified critique of capitalism, was shaped by his evolving solidarity with the poor, by, as it were, his involvement in the struggle. But intellectually King was never at ease with the dominant ideological tendencies of midcentury American society. From his early days as a seminarian, he found himself drawn to an anti-capitalist humanism, one that shares affinities with both liberalism and Marxism, but that gestures beyond each, or that gives King an intellectual nimbleness that allows him to explore more creative vistas.
In the words of the Rev. J. Pius Barbour, who taught King at Crozer Theological Seminary in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the young King “thought that the capitalist system was predicated on exploitation and prejudice, poverty, and that we wouldn’t solve these problems until we got a new social order.”13 Sylvie Laurent has argued that while “King was influenced by his formal training,” books and classes simply “provided him with an intellectual framework and curiosity which only substantiated his earliest sentiments, feeding his encompassing critique of an American ‘system’ in which the words exploitation and capitalism became inseparable.”14 Still, the academic influences were significant. For our purposes, it will be helpful to highlight his exposure in Boston in the early 1950s to what he called the “personalistic philosophy.”15 On one hand, King’s turn to personalism blunted his then-burgeoning radicalism and undergirded the rights-based liberalism of the “first phase” of his movement work. His personalism had the effect of forestalling his embrace of a holistic structural critique of racial capitalism. Yet, on the other hand, King’s emphasis on the person—on the material and spiritual needs of each human being, on broad societal and institutional recognition of the dignity of the human personality—clearly informed his mature critique of racial capitalism, as evidenced by his persistent call, central to his Riverside speech and so many others, for a “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.”16
This avowedly Christian and decidedly non-Marxist philosophical vernacular gave King, in his words, a “metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God” and “a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.”17 Many postwar Christian personalists were convinced that politically “there had to be a real revolution, consisting in the creation of a new humanism, where the bourgeois ideal of ‘having’ would yield to Christian ‘being,’ a being in communion with others.”18 Every indication is that King, both early and late, was deeply sympathetic to this political vision, and certainly by the time he came to invoke the language of “alienation” in the 1960s, his focus was trained more squarely on a consumerist—or what he referred to somewhat awkwardly as a “materialist”—culture that was thought to warp the human personality and to devalue the reproduction of the beloved community.19 But we refer to personalism here as a vernacular, a language, because while personalism for King was never a philosophical crutch for a narrow liberal individualism—King would stress, repeatedly, that “an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity”—the emphasis on the “person,” on the need to respect the dignity of the individual, lends itself to an antidiscrimination politics, the proximate focus of which is the struggle against a discriminatory rights regime, rather than the structural injustices wrought by practices of capital accumulation.20
It is in this way that King’s Boston personalism fell in line with his conscription into the movement in Montgomery. The dominant ideological tendency of midcentury American society, a rights-based liberalism, shaped the “first phase” of King’s work, which took dead aim at measurable obstacles to individual opportunity. Built into this, clearly, was a challenge to extant regimes of capital accumulation, but such a challenge took the form of the tactical boycott, and was never presented as part of a holistic critique of the logic of private wealth accumulation. It could be argued that the proximate goals of the “first phase”—desegregation of bus lines, chain stores, lunch counters, motels—would, if achieved, have the effect of liberating private wealth accumulation, of greasing the gears of American capitalism by allowing living labor to get to work more easily and consumption dollars to circulate more freely. After Montgomery, the SCLC—girded by Old Left veterans such as Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, and Ella Baker—had dreamt of spreading a “boycott wildfire” across the South, but was compelled rather quickly to pivot to voter registration, in part because the anti-discrimination politics of a rights-based liberalism obscured the connections between racial domination and capitalist predation.21 It was not until the campaigns moved north, to the slums of Chicago, that the constituent interconnections of racial capitalism came into bolder relief in a way that King could more openly acknowledge. The point is just that as King found himself called into movement, in the “first phase” of his work, his vision of a “person-oriented society” found itself conscripted by the dominant ideological tendencies of midcentury American society, by the appeal to market principles of liberty and equal opportunity, rather than to the guaranteed satisfaction of human needs.
In the Riverside speech, King harkened back to the founding of the SCLC, an organization that set out to “save the soul of America,” and he stressed again his longstanding fear of a humanity devoid of spiritual grounding. The personalist theologian Nikolai Berdyaev, with whom King was familiar, wrote in a 1935 essay on Marxism that without the “spiritual element,” there “cannot be talk about the attainment of the totality of life.” This spiritual element again found concrete expression in King’s personalism, and it adds another layer of complexity to King’s developing critique of racial capitalism. Throughout his life, King had to reckon with anticommunist hysteria, including American attitudes toward Marxism, and the spirituality question was central to his maneuvering.22 The pressure he felt to situate his vision vis-à-vis Marxist thought was yet another way in which King was constrained by dominant midcentury ideology. But King’s public disavowal of Marxism underscores not only the difficulties he faced in wresting his thinking from the political-economic conservatism of a rights-based liberalism.23 It also vivifies the ways in which his mature critique of racial capitalism exceeds the terms of European radicalism and exhibits distinctive features of the Black radical tradition.
Berdyaev, for his part, would go on to claim that the “materialist” tradition of Marxist or communist thought “wants to return to the proletariat the means of production alienated from him, but it does not at all want to return the spiritual element of human nature alienated from him, spiritual life.” Berdyaev argued that “man belongs not only to the kingdom of Caesar, but also to the Kingdom of God,” and that “man possesses a higher dignity and totality, a value of life, if he is a person.”24 While King “believed that Marx had analyzed the economic side of capitalism right,” like Berdyaev he worried that, as he said to the SCLC staff in 1966, “Marx didn’t see the spiritual undergirdings of reality.”25 There is a temptation to read King’s emphasis on the spiritual, along with his concern that “materialism” had mushroomed into one of modern society’s great evils, as an expression of an overriding idealism of sorts, a sign that his conceptual and methodological moorings discourage any sustained critique of political economy. It is not clear that King ever really understood materialism in a strict Marxist sense of the term. As his former Morehouse College professor Melvin Watson pointed out to him in a 1953 letter, in an effort to correct his reading of Marx, “Marx’s position was that the culture, thoughts, in fact, the whole life of man is conditioned . . . by the means of production.” This “variety of materialism is very difficult to refute,” Watson said. And it is, especially for a Baptist preacher steeped in Christian idealism, “a very disturbing phenomenon.”26 But King’s point, like Berdyaev’s, was just that a strict methodological materialism does not capture the spiritual dimensions of anti-capitalist protest, nor does it honor the ways in which a more satisfactory or sustainable mode of living would make room for the cultivation of spiritual or other meaning-making human activities. And as King put his “personalistic philosophy” into working relation with the movement, his philosophy began to take on characteristic features of the Black radical tradition.
Part of what makes the Black radical tradition, Robinson says, is “the renunciation of actual being for historical being,” or the preservation of “the integral totality of the people themselves,” a people whose values and principles and ideals exceed the terms of Western modernity. What emerged from indigenous Black struggle in the modern period was a “revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.”27 The spiritual occupies a central place here, not as an opiate, not as evidence of a reactionary ideological consciousness, but as part of the psychology of active and sustained resistance. This is evident in various stages of King’s activism. He went to Albany to join a people “straightening its back,” a people working through the spiritual renewal that it needed to initiate and sustain collective resistance. He went to Chicago to foment something similar, a “spiritual transformation of the ghetto.” He went to Memphis to express his “spiritual connection with labor,” and he found there an audience moved by how his exemplary determination to fight on, his indefatigable courage, was itself reflective of “a good spirit.”28 The spiritual dimension emerges organically from a people in movement and has a sort of autopoietic function, working to persuade the foot soldiers, King included, to stay the course, to keep on the right side of the world revolution, despite the seductiveness of what Robinson called “actual being”—what we might call the inertial allure of white capitalist modernity and its “materialist” trappings of wealth, status, and “all of the other shallow things.”29
King’s worry at Riverside about an approaching “spiritual death” was none other than a concern about the prospective annihilation of a people and its resistance struggles. And it is important to emphasize that this concern is central to the critique of racial capitalism, which trains focus not only on the exploitation of labor and resources, but also on the ways in which logics of capital accumulation render Black people vulnerable to premature death, both corporeally and spiritually. “Accumulation under capitalism is necessarily exploitation of labor, land, and resources,” Jodi Melamed says, but it is also “a system of expropriating violence on collective life itself.”30 At issue is a “technology of antirelationality,” the “production of social separateness—the disjoining or deactivating of relations between human beings (and humans and nature)—needed for capitalist exploitation to work.”31 Melamed goes on to cite Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s seminal definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies.”32 It is remarkable how well this theoretical framework applies to King’s life and work. King was concerned with how Black people had been partitioned and rendered vulnerable, within what he referred to repeatedly as the “inescapable network of mutuality,” and in ways that could both feed capital accumulation and foreclose the development of alternative modes of human relation and valuation. King argued in 1966 that “racism is based on the affirmation that the very being of a people is inferior,” and that “the ultimate logic of racism is genocide.”33 This conception of racism, this concern with the systematic annihilation of a people, undergirds King’s mature critique of how capitalism works as a system of expropriating violence on collective life itself.
King moved beyond the terms of European radicalism, but he “believed that Marx had analyzed the economic side of capitalism right.” Part of what we take this to mean is that King, ever the dialectician, was generally sympathetic with the grand development narrative, the idea that human history can be understood in terms of an ongoing struggle to expand social and productive capacity and that capitalist modernity reflects both historically unprecedented capaciousness and, contradictorily, the persistence of internal obstacles, what Marx referred to as the “fetters,” to further development.34 “Capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction,” King wrote in 1951. “I am convinced that capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world. It is a well-known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This, capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.”35 And King was always fond of the maxim, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” which he seems to have regarded as a speculative ideal of sorts, a fugitive vision of a more publicly oriented political economy, one in which human needs are prioritized, in which labor is rendered socially valuable—or “socially necessary,” in Marxist terms—only insofar as it is made to serve human needs. The insinuation, again, is that King was worried about how the ideological superstructure of capitalist modernity—established laws and political ideas, shared principles, indeed shared values—prevents further development of productive and social capacity, further development of our very ability to relate to one another in ways that serve human needs, both material and spiritual.36
And yet, King went beyond the critique of ideology as that operation is conventionally understood. Beyond the demystification of epistemic commitments, King sought to expose a mode of domination built into the material reproduction of capitalism’s social form. This aspect of his critique was put on more vivid display as his thinking developed into the mid-to-late 1960s, and as he sought to work through the “glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” The historian Thomas Jackson has shown that by about 1966, King began to argue against not only “lonely islands of poverty in a vast sea of prosperity,” but also against the ways in which white privilege and prosperity were themselves conditioned by racial partitioning and Black underdevelopment, how increased capaciousness for some was bought necessarily at the expense of others.37 Of course King sought to vivify the irrationality of economic inequality and distributive injustice. “Our nation is now so rich, so productive,” he said, “that the continuation of persistent poverty is incendiary because the poor cannot rationalize their deprivation.”38 But more to our point, King argued that, “depressed living conditions for Negroes are a structural part of the economy,” that “certain industries are based upon the supply of low-wage, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor.”39
This line of thinking came alive for King during his time in Chicago, a period that, as David Garrow has shown, “would hasten the expansion of his own critical perspective on American society.”40 In Chicago, King began to speak more openly about the racial dimensions of systemic economic exploitation. A “total pattern of exploitation” is “crystallized in the slum,” he said, and this situation exists simply “because someone profits by its existence.” Following James Bevel and others, King spoke of “a system of internal colonialism,” a “situation [that] is true only for Negroes.”41 Here we begin to garner clues about the spatial or geographical dimensions of King’s critique of racial capitalism. At issue is the way in which white wealth and privilege are maintained through, to quote Gilmore again, “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies.” For King, the spatial concentration of Black poverty engendered vulnerability to premature death, both for individuals and for the group, for what Robinson has referred to as “the integral totality of the people.” And the urban slum, what King referred to in this moment as “the Chicago problem,” was evidence of what Melamed has described as a “technology for reducing collective life to the relations that sustain neoliberal democratic capitalism,” a “dialectic in which forms of humanity are separated (made ‘distinct’) so that they may be ‘interconnected’ in terms that feed capital.”42 It is worth quoting Melamed at length on this point:
Although at first glance, dense interconnections seem antithetical to amputated social relations, it is capitalism’s particular feat to accomplish differentiation as dense networks and nodes of social separateness. Processes of differentiation and dominant comparative logics create “certainties” of discreteness, distinctness, and discontinuity—of discrete identities, distinct territorializations and sovereignties, and discontinuities between the political and the economic, the internal and the external, and the valued and the devalued. In the drawing of the line that constitutes discrete entities and distinguishes between the valued and the devalued, people and situations are made incommensurable to one another as a disavowed condition of possibility for world-systems of profit and governance.43
In his efforts to come to grips with the “Chicago problem,” King emerged as a critic who was deftly attuned to the ways in which Black “antirelationality” was densely interwoven with and made to serve circuits of capital accumulation, often through the production of Black vulnerability. He underscored the point that Black people had been partitioned, isolated, immobilized, stigmatized, in essence devalued, and that this was a “structural part of the economy.”
Consider Marx’s definition of devaluation, which is really quite simple in itself, but is useful for thinking about how the value of Black lives is affected by the social movement of capitalist production and exchange. If we think of capital as “value in motion,” then we can think of devaluation as what happens whenever and wherever its motion is disrupted. Whenever and wherever the “process of reproduction is checked,” Marx says, both “use-value and exchange-value go to the devil.”44 Devaluation must also be seen as “the underside to overaccumulation.”45 Whenever and wherever accumulated surplus is at pains to find viable outlets for reinvestment or absorption, what ensues is the nonproduction of value, or what we might describe more fittingly, highlighting the artificial or manufactured character of the system itself, as the production of nonvalue. As the rate of profit tends to slow system wide, we are confronted with, as Marx put it, “overproduction, speculation crises and surplus capital alongside surplus population.”46 The result is always devaluation. This simple revelation is profoundly significant for how we might understand King’s call for a “revolution of values.”
Deindustrialization, offshoring, and other forms of capital flight have decimated Black communities in the United States, most proximately in the urban North and the so-called Rust Belt. And though such decimation came into more widespread public consciousness in the decades after King’s death—that is, in the wake of the accumulation crises of the 1970s and during the subsequent neoliberal reforms of the 1980s—King appears to have seen the writing on the wall, as his reflections on the “Chicago problem” and his antiwar arguments indicate.47 In various ways, King found himself pushing back against efforts to resolve the internal contradictions of capital accumulation, efforts by capitalist actors, working in concert with the state, to invest in various ways overseas, to resume circulatory processes that had slowed on the domestic front by creating overseas markets for the absorption of surplus. Throughout the postwar period, such efforts introduced new modes of racial exploitation. It was a “new jungle,” King said to a group of packinghouse workers in 1962, made possible by “the shining glittering face of science,” by “automation and the runaway shop.”48 The point to emphasize is that what King referred to as a deadening sense of “nobodiness,” a sense of neglect and societal worthlessness that he began to read into the material and psychic life of the Black ghetto of the 1960s, was wrought by devaluation—of labor, of education, of infrastructure, indeed of Black lives as such.49 This kind of racially marked devaluation, to underscore the driving theoretical point, must be seen as an effect of the spatial flight of the circulation of capital.
Michael Denning has pointed out that, “under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited.”50 Today we might well refer to “wageless life,” to a new manifestation of “surplus population” that, in the words of the Endnotes collective, “need not find itself completely ‘outside’ capitalist social relations. Capital may not need these workers, but they still need to work. They are thus forced to offer themselves up for the most abject forms of wage slavery in the form of petty production and services—identified with informal and often illegal markets of direct exchange arising alongside failures of capitalist production.”51 Wagelessness presents itself, of course, as a major problem for the reproduction of an economy built on the continuous circulation of consumption dollars. And though King knew that “no matter how dynamically the [capitalist] economy develops and expands it does not eliminate poverty,” he argued in 1967 that, “we have come to a point where we must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods.” He argued that “we must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other.”52 It is tempting to read this emphasis on the expansion of consumption power as a sort of temporal fix to systemic accumulation crises, an approach that might buy a little time for the continued circulation of capital and does nothing to challenge underlying structural contradictions, or indeed the reproduction of racial capitalism’s social relations. King was ambivalent on this matter, to be sure. But we wager that in his effort to foment a “revolution of values,” in his effort to rethink “this value system,” King sought to imagine an economy for which consumption would be driven not by the reproduction of capitalism, not by the reproduction of the unequal and obscured social relations that make accumulation possible, but by the service of human needs. His emphasis on propping up consumption power must be understood in the context of this broader critique.
And indeed this broader critique of the reproduction of capitalism, of an economic structure marked by “value in motion,” is evident in King’s articulation of a strategy of urban “dislocation,” which began to emerge in earnest in the summer of 1967. King knew that capital accumulates by “producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups—capitalists with the means of production/workers without the means of subsistence, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land made property/the dispossessed and removed.”53 And he sought to galvanize an active countermovement that could challenge the reproduction of racial capitalism on the people’s terms. He began to call on Black activists and their allies “to dislocate the functioning of a city,” to, as it were, throw sand into the gears of the circulation of capital.54 Beyond Chicago, King sought to take a poor people’s campaign to Washington, to foment a sort of occupy movement that could, in effect, shut it down. If folks could “just camp . . . and stay,” he said, “the city will not function.” Such a movement, he imagined, could be “as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying life or property.”55 The crucial point is just that King’s call for “dislocation,” a call born of an evolving attentiveness to the racially marked relations and processes that feed capital accumulation, can be understood as part of a movement to reconstruct how human beings relate to and value one another, a strategy that, we are now beginning to see more clearly, is deeply resonant with the Black radical tradition.
The property question adds another layer of complexity. In some settings, in some of his religious sermons for example, King appeared to hold that private wealth accumulation and its legal protection could be justified insofar as it could be made to serve the public good. Christians might be called to do this through moral self-discipline and voluntary acts of redistributive charity, but if this could not be done on a massive scale, then, King was convinced, the dispossessed had to compel a publicly enforced redistribution, and by nearly any means necessary.56 In other settings, even on those more heated occasions on which he outwardly lamented that “American industry and business, as part of the broader power structure, is in large part responsible for the economic malady which grips and crushes down people in the ghetto,” King still appeared to suggest that capital could be hemmed in by a web of regulatory constraints and made to “set aside profit for the greater good.”57 These kinds of suggestions and insinuations cannot be easily squared with King’s gestures toward a more comprehensive structural critique of capitalist production, circulation, and exchange.
The property question invites further reflection on King’s political-theoretical commitments, in particular his evolving relationship with midcentury liberal ideology. Consider, first, a 1962 speech at the New York convention of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Featured here are typical refrains about the “great gulf between superfluous, inordinate wealth, and abject, deadening poverty,” about how “there is something wrong with a situation that will take necessities from the masses and give luxuries to the [ruling] classes.” King acknowledged again, as he so frequently did, that “we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” but he suggested that “we can work within the framework of our democracy to make for a better distribution of wealth.” Speaking to a labor audience, King never broached the question of how the formal protection of private property rights, and thus the protection of a division between the propertied and the dispossessed, is and has been central to “the framework of our democracy.”58 Later on, as he began to differentiate between the first and second phases of the movement, he worried more openly about how first-phase civil rights gains “didn’t cost the nation anything.” He worried about how a “progress that has been limited mainly to the Negro middle class” did not cut into the distribution and protection of private wealth and power. To “restructure the architecture of American society,” to “really mess with folks,” King said to his SCLC staff in 1966, you have got to “take profit out of the slums” and begin “messing with the captains of industry.”59
Two years later, in 1968, speaking to another labor audience in New York, King again committed to working within the framework of American democracy, adhering to liberal protections and representative government, but it was clear that, in the last year of his life especially, King was not altogether convinced that a reformist approach would or could halt the reproduction of systemic political-economic violence. The political scientist Michael Dawson has described King in this moment as a “disillusioned liberal,” a figure who had lost hope in the American creed but who was still unsure of where else to turn ideologically.60 While King had committed to a “massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government in Washington, D.C.,” he appeared resigned to the very real possibility that such a movement would not significantly impact policy outcomes. And by way of that very sense of resignation he stressed yet again the importance of a kind of spiritual renewal among the soldiers in struggle. “We, as poor people, going to struggle for justice, can’t fail,” he said. “If there is no response from the federal government, from the Congress, that’s the failure, not those who are struggling for justice.”61 In this moment of profound disillusionment with liberal theory and practice, King had declared, in effect, that liberal government was little more than a “committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie,” that a liberal rights-based legal and political superstructure is by its nature biased toward the protection and service of propertied interests.62
But it is worth noting that King stressed, for example at an SCLC staff retreat in 1966, that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. I don’t think it belongs to Mr. Rockefeller. I don’t think it belongs to Mr. Ford. I think the earth is the Lord’s, and since we didn’t make these things by ourselves, we must share them with each other.”63 This sentiment leads into another point on the property question, and perhaps also the profit motive. The drive for profit and the protection of property as the so-called fruits of labor were once thought to reinforce “initiative and responsibility.” But, King argued, “We’ve come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system.” We now “realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them to constant or frequent unemployment against their will.”64 The long history of white wealth acquisition—including what Marx referred to infamously as the “so-called primitive accumulation,” what contemporary theorists of racial capitalism might refer to simply as the ongoing expropriation of the Black world—is a haunting testament to the ideological character of classical liberal ideas about property ownership, as King documented in so many words.
Where the beneficiaries of classical liberal doctrine had sought disingenuously to legitimize the protection of private ownership as a way to honor labor and productivity, King sought a “radical redefinition of work” as well as a new way of thinking about how to value and tax property in support of public finance.65 In this he sought to inspire a radical unsettling of existing common sense and a wholesale rejection of liberal economic and political practice. We know that King praised the dignity of labor in his efforts to uplift the working class and galvanize a potential ally to the Black freedom struggle, indeed a potential army in the fight for the beloved community. But King never romanticized labor as humankind’s essential activity. His call for a comprehensive jobs program, and ultimately for a guaranteed annual income, was part of a broader effort to rethink how work and its public appreciation, how “socially necessary” labor, could be transformed to serve human needs, public use-values.66 Indeed, in the movement from a “thing-oriented” to a “person-oriented” society, King sought to imagine how public service and personality fulfillment could be measured and rewarded as socially necessary human labor, work that in itself would disrupt the reproduction of capitalism’s social form. Imagining how an unemployed man might be put to work and compensated, King said that, “if he had a whole year to do nothing but read sometimes, and then go around meeting people, and shaking hands, and talking with them about their problems, that is work. He ought to be paid to do that.”67 Though it is tempting to read King here as a Proudhonist of sorts—a reformer concerned to manipulate compensation structures without necessarily challenging the systemic reproduction of capitalist social relations—King’s economic imaginary portends a whole new mode of human relation, a range of new possibilities that he knew had been discouraged, if not altogether forbidden, by the “actual being” of racial capitalism.
“Our problem,” King said repeatedly during his last years, “is that we all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor.”68 This problem, our problem, has grown worse over time.69 And today’s socialism for the rich is financed primarily through the taxation of labor and production, which has had the effect of suppressing employment and offshoring profit. True to his conviction that “the earth is the Lord’s, and since we didn’t make these things by ourselves, we must share them with each other,” King sought to shift the tax burden toward land ownership and real estate, in an effort to help arrest cycles of unemployment and expropriation. King never furnished a concrete tax proposal, but his overtures toward tax reform, in particular his fondness for the so-called land-value tax, underscore a driving concern that land acquisition had long been one of the central mechanisms through which, to quote Robinson again, racialism came to permeate the “social structures emergent from capitalism.”70 Glaring are the racial disparities in land ownership and the intergenerational wealth reproduced through its institutional protection, and King’s point was simply that the dispossessed had to confront legal protections and ideas about ownership and obligation in order to challenge those unequal human relationships through which capital accumulates. As Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith note in a recent essay on King’s legacy, “no human created the land, and so no one—not an absentee slumlord, not Goldman Sachs—should be extracting its value from the people who live on it.”71 In his challenge to land ownership, what King sought, in this “second phase” of the movement, was nothing other than a struggle to finally make white America pay.
“Social Stability for Our Investments . . .”
Land concerns were also a consistent pillar of King’s global vision, as evidenced by, for example, his early interest in the Indian Bhoodan Movement and, of course, his mature defense of the Northern Vietnamese struggles for land reform.72 By 1967, and to the consternation of so many in and outside of the movement, King offered an apology of sorts for a Northern Vietnamese “revolutionary government seeking self-determination,” a “government that had been established not by China—for whom the Vietnamese have no great love—but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists.” For the peasants of the Vietnamese countryside, King said, “this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.”73 The Riverside speech was a grand culmination of King’s vision in so many ways, though many of the themes we have addressed so far in the chapter receive only passing mention. More central to the speech is King’s call for a revolution of values within the racial violence of the capitalist world system, though even this is often obscured on account of the dominant ideological framework of American neo-imperialism.
Too often appreciation of King’s internationalism is hemmed in by a narrow reading of his opposition to the Vietnam War. A 1967 New York Times editorial set the tone for subsequent reception when it framed “Dr. King’s error” in terms of a “facile connection between the speeding up of the war in Vietnam and the slowing down of the war on poverty.”74 Such a reading, supported to be sure by King’s own insistence that “our government is more concerned about winning an unjust war in Vietnam than winning the war against poverty here at home,” reduces the economic dimension of King’s antimilitarism to a matter of opportunity costs, as if the only relevant question has to do with domestic budgetary priority, how best to allocate federal expenditure.75 But at Riverside King was clear that “the need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala” and explains why “American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.” The systemic need for the continuous circulation of capital and the ongoing expansion of its spatial boundaries—the dynamic structural imperative of the global market economy—accounts for “our alliance with the landed gentry of South America” and explains why we see “individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.” King described postwar U.S. imperialism in terms of a stubborn global class politics, an elite refusal “to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.”76 The implication, on a deeper theoretical plane, is that warfare had become a crucial resource in the capitalist struggle to resolve escalating accumulation crises. What King sought to confront, in essence, was a proactive government movement seeking to establish and maintain overseas markets for the absorption of economic surplus. King’s antiwar arguments ought to be seen as part of a long tradition of left criticism of military surplus spending, what he might have described as “military Keynesianism.”77
The key forebear of that long tradition of left criticism once said that “an industrial army of workmen, under the command of a capitalist, requires, like a real army, officers [managers], and sergeants [foremen overlookers], who, while the work is being done, command in the name of the capitalist.”78 For so long, within that left tradition, it was presumed that the “silent compulsion” of market relations would come to supplant more violent dispossession and expropriation of land and labor, that the naked violence that Marx read into capitalism’s “prehistory” would over time take on a more covert modus operandi. It was presumed that market rationalization would obscure the ways in which “free” living labor would continue to be thrust into impoverishment and expendability, that the work of ideology critique would thus become an increasingly salient weapon in the ongoing class struggle. Fair enough. Ideology critique is crucial work, as we have seen. But it is important to invoke the theory of racial capitalism here, as the privileged vantage of European radicalism has not always registered the real violence, racial and otherwise, that King and other twentieth-century Black radicals have borne prophetic witness to. From the vantage of Black labor and wageless life worldwide, there is and has been nothing analogous about the role of military discipline and management in the production and circulation of value. Capital accumulation requires real armies, commanding and supervising market relations on a global scale. And in this, racial domination plays an essential role.
Recent historical work has documented the ways in which early capitalism specialized in, as Nikhil Pal Singh puts it, a “form of commercial privateering backed but unimpeded by sovereign power and most fully realized in slavery, settler colonialism, and imperialism.”79 Certainly the “conscription, criminalization, and disposability of poor, idle, or surplus labor—the historical process of forcibly ‘divorcing the producers from the means of production’ that for Marx is capitalism’s precondition,” has always relied upon “racial differentiation as a directly violent yet also flexible and fungible mode of ascription.” But, as Singh goes on to point out, “there has been no period in which racial domination has not been woven into the management of capitalist society.”80 The “state-sanctioned force and violence originally required to crate wage labor” has not disappeared into the era of mature, consolidated global capitalism. Indeed into our own time, force and violence is “retained in the forms of hierarchy and competition between workers, in the social requirements of policing unwaged labor that has migrated to poverty and the informal economy, and in imperial and nationalist interpellations of the urban and metropolitan working classes.”81 King spoke of expanded social and productive capacity under capitalism, population increase and improved living conditions, but he also underscored as the precondition their dialectical underside: the production of human scrap, the disposability of living labor, and the omnipresent threat of systematic annihilation of a people. Here we would do well to recall, to quote Singh again, that the “constant, violent dislocation of these two processes requires constant management in the form of police and military solutions—that is, directly coercive interventions.” Capital accumulation “spurs forms of moral, temporal, and spatial sequestration that become part of the framework of crisis management, through which the simultaneous production of growth and death can be viewed less as a contradiction than as a necessary dimension of historical progress.”82 It cannot be denied that in this, racial ascription and domination play an essential role.
These sobering considerations can be read back into King’s suspicions of global capitalism in richly generative ways. The imperial expansion of the capitalist value-form has put more and more human beings in relation to one another in ways that feed the production and circulation of capital. As Samir Amin reminds us, “far from progressively ‘homogenizing’ economic conditions on a planetary scale,” this historical process has produced racial inequality and uneven geographical development, a “permanent asymmetry” in which is “affirmed, with violence still greater than that contemplated by Marx, the law of pauperization that is indissolubly linked to the logic of capital accumulation.”83 This is precisely what has become of the “inescapable network of mutuality,” what will remain of it, King feared, unless enough conscientious objectors step up to confront—actively and politically, and not merely through the cultivation of moral conscience or right perception—the war-making and imperial offensives that reproduce the conditions for the production and circulation of value worldwide.
It is important to note that King’s antiwar arguments were carved against a burgeoning midcentury Black internationalism, at a time when he found himself immersed in what Brandon Terry has called the “problem-space of black power.”84 This was a context in which a “resurgence of Marxist thought in black political life helped enable a shift away from the discourse of inclusion and citizenship rights, toward emphases on oppression and domination,” but also a context in which Pan-Africanist commitments augured a renewed sense of global anti-capitalist solidarity.85 King’s “second phase” marked his reorientation toward criticism of structures of oppression and domination, and it could be argued that this context enabled his Pan-Africanism in compelling ways, too. As Terry goes on to point out, “King often invoked African Americans’ connection to Africa, and suggested modes of transnational solidarity,” though “his formulations placed less emphasis on the idiom of ‘racial’ ancestry than resonant and shared features of racial oppression between colonialism and Jim Crow.”86 And in this way, King’s internationalism hewed closer to the spirit of Bandung, the spirit of an anti-capitalist, nonaligned movement born of a global Southern alliance, a resonant and shared experience of racial and colonial oppression. It is telling that for King, the landmark 1955 gathering in Bandung, Indonesia, spearheaded by twenty-nine Asian and African delegations caught in the throes of anti-imperialist struggle, was better understood as a popular movement than a national or bourgeois one. “More than one billion three hundred million of the colored peoples of the world have broken aloose from colonialism and imperialism,” King said to a crowd in St. Louis in 1957. “They have broken aloose from the Egypt of colonialism. . . . They assembled in Bandung some months ago.”87
At Riverside Church a decade later, King spoke again of politics and of where the future might go. He urged solidarity with grassroots struggles of various kinds. “All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression,” he said, “and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” It is incumbent upon all of us, he said, to “support these revolutions.”88 Within the U.S. context, King was drawn to a burgeoning Black youth movement that had begun its own revolution of values through indigenous confrontation with “actual being.” It was “precisely when young Negroes threw off their middle-class values that they made an historic social contribution,” he said.89 And it is perhaps worth noting that, in the last year of his life especially, King was tempted to move out of his nonviolent comfort zone in an effort to grapple with modes of indigenous protest against the coming of the new phase of the capitalist economy, what critics refer to today as the neoliberal world order.
It is remarkable how well King’s mature reflections on political economy transcend their historical genesis. As the historian Thomas Holt has documented, into the 1970s and 1980s, into the accumulation crises of the early neoliberal era, “blacks found themselves the late-arriving guests as the feast for an expanding middle class was ending.” In the throes of deindustrialization, as the “post-production” domestic economy came to resemble “a zero-sum game rather than an expanding pie, policies of racial preference became the scapegoat for a tightening labor market and concentration of educational opportunities.”90 Joshua Clover has argued that the riot, rather than the traditional labor strike, is the mode of anti-capitalist protest that follows organically from the lived realities of a “post-production” phase, a moment marked by a glaring coupling of surplus capital and surplus population. Where the industrial labor strike is a “form of collective action that struggles to set the price of labor power, is unified by worker identity, and unfolds in the context of production, riot struggles to set prices in the market, is unified by shared dispossession, and unfolds in the context of consumption.” The riot, Clover says, “is a circulation struggle because both capital and its dispossessed have been driven to seek reproduction there.”91 It is worth noting that King, in the last year of his life, became far more ambivalent about riotous protest than his sanitized legacy has been made to lead on. Though King never outwardly condoned the riot, he sought to understand and explain riotous protest as an indigenous reaction to circulation crises and the dispossession wrought by the racial-capitalist edifice. Indeed for King, the riot was an indigenous reaction on the part of a “surplus population confronted by the old problem of consumption without direct access to the wage.”92 Whereas the “American economy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries . . . had room for—even a great need for—unskilled manual labor,” whereas once “jobs were available for willing workers,” in 1968, King said, “there are fewer and fewer jobs for the culturally and educationally deprived; thus does present-day poverty feed upon itself. The Negro today cannot escape his ghetto.”93 King drew a distinction, consistent with his personalism, between violence against people and violence against property; the latter, he said, is always the object of riotous violence and makes a degree of moral sense insofar as property, the symbol of bourgeois values, is structurally prevented from serving the needs of vulnerable human beings, the needs of living persons.94 The relevant point, in any case, is that toward the end of his life King appeared to have anticipated the expansion of the racialized surplus population as well as the inevitability of its modes of resistance, the people’s “methods of escape.”95
Today scholars argue that the rapid economic growth of the mid-twentieth century is beginning to look more and more like the great historical exception and that the zero-sum tendencies of the neoliberal era indicate a likelihood that no type or degree of government intervention can do much to build out prosperity or even sustain an existing middle class.96 But as we discuss more fully in the next chapter, King’s arguments for the recovery of a more robust, state-sponsored social welfare contract are not anachronistic, nor are his gestures toward more informal and thus more creative political responses. For many conventional economists, concerns about neoliberal growth crises are circumscribed by an academic commitment to liberal principles, by a desire to protect private sector freedoms and expand markets, rather than to foment politically driven redistribution.97 King knew as well as any trained economist that markets coordinate human preferences, but by the time he called for the mass mobilization of poor people, he must have concluded that markets simply do not see the poor because the poor have nothing to offer and cannot be fitted into their mode of valuation. If the new economy is fraught with accumulation crises and is moving toward a zero-sum relation between winners and losers, then we ought to expect a new era of politicization. We ought to expect that future resistance, disillusioned as was the later King, will set out to work both within and beyond conventional channels of liberal democracy. The mature King knew all too well that “some Americans would need to give up privileges and resources for others to live in decency.” And he knew all too well that “that took politics.”98 We turn now to consider more fully the complicated status of the political in King’s critique.