On Critique and Tradition
The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses, rising from dungeons of oppression.
—Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here?
The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes.
—Martin Luther King Jr., “A Testament of Hope”
On March 27, 1968, a week before he was killed in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Stanley Levinson, Andrew Young, and several other confidants for an evening gathering at the New York City apartment of the singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte. Earlier that day, King had met with the poet Amiri Baraka in Newark, a city still reeling from the deadly riots of the previous summer. It was a city, King feared, that was poised to erupt all over again. At the time, King was working to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, what was to be a multiracial march on and occupation of Washington, D.C.: a mass demonstration meant to press the American people into a serious confrontation with material poverty. And in New York that evening, King was in a “surly mood.” He confided in Belafonte and others that Newark and his meeting with the militant Baraka had gotten to him, that suffocating conditions there and an increasing willingness among the city’s youth to embrace violent resistance tactics were once again testing his long-haul strategy of nonviolent change. “I wholly embrace everything they feel,” King said of the militant contingent in Newark. “I have more in common with these young people than with anybody else in this movement. I feel their rage. I feel their pain. I feel their frustration. It’s the system that’s the problem, and it’s choking the breath out of our lives.”
As Belafonte recalls of the conversation that evening, it was Andrew Young—the future U. S. Congressman and Ambassador to the United Nations—who unwittingly ratcheted up King’s anger. “I don’t know, Martin,” Young said. “It’s not the entire system. It’s only part of it, and I think we can fix that.” King was having none of it. “I don’t need to hear from you, Andy,” he clapped back. “You’re a capitalist, and I’m not. The trouble is that we live in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”1
It was a striking conversation. Even more striking, perhaps, is that a similar conversation could have taken place among Black activists and organizers a half-century later. It could well have happened, for example, in July of 2014, when the system literally choked the life out of Eric Garner on Staten Island, or in August of that year, when the system cut down Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or in November of that year, when the system murdered 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or in April of the next year, when the system took Freddie Gray for one final “rough ride” through the streets of Baltimore. It could have happened in the spring of 2020, when the system once again choked the life out of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, and deployed militarized police and posse units on Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in King’s home state of Georgia. Fifty years after the system made a martyr of King, his thinking and perspective resonate in chilling ways. King was killed at a time when rage, pain, and frustration were widespread in American life, when the confluence of racial and economic inequity had set urban ghettoes aflame. Today, American cities teeter on the brink, and grassroots activists work to vivify the deadening vulnerability of Black lives. And as with King’s era, as with the “long, hot summer” and its aftermath, today’s unrest extends far beyond police brutality and state-sanctioned killings. “Today’s insurgent black movements against state violence and mass incarceration call for an end to ‘racial capitalism,’” Robin D. G. Kelley points out, and they take direct aim, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Kahn-Cullors says, at the “structural inequities” of a capitalist system that reproduces and enforces Black poverty and that has proven time and again to be incapable of loving, respecting, and honoring Black lives.2
In this moment it is worth revisiting King’s indictment of capitalism. Recent scholarship has done much to recover King’s radicalism, including his socialist commitments.3 At a time when the language of democratic socialism is again moving more squarely into the public discourse in the United States, and in ways that resonate among a diverse cadre of young people, there is something to be said simply for acknowledging that one of America’s revered national heroes espoused socialist and not capitalist ideals. But part of what is needed today is a more careful consideration of the material and intellectual constraints that prevent structural and behavioral change, that foreclose the realization of any socialist or substantively democratic future. Part of what is needed today is a sober and vivid account of the systemic and interconnected factors that contribute to the rage, pain, and frustration that King spoke of and that are still felt among so many. We argue that in this unfolding phase of the Black freedom struggle, an exposition of King’s thinking about the entanglements of racism and capitalism can inspire and broaden the sort of systemic criticism that rarely works its way into the public discourse. The fact is that from his youthful engagement with anti-capitalist Christian theology and his initial reading of Karl Marx in 1949, King put himself into a lifelong “creative tension” with a wide-ranging critical theory of modern capitalism.4 Though he is often cast as a dreamer or an idealist, his socialist aspirations are part of a rich and underappreciated diagnostic critique of capitalism’s racial history and politics. King stressed that before we can know the cure, we first need an “accurate diagnosis of the disease.”5 This book sets out to expose and reconstruct key features of King’s diagnostic critique of racial capitalism and to consider its contemporary applications—both its merits and its shortcomings.
To Kelley’s point, many Black activists today, and certainly many in the scholarly community, call for an end to “racial capitalism.” This language, which derives from the pioneering work of the late historian and political theorist Cedric Robinson, provides a generative opening for a renewed appreciation of King’s thinking. In his seminal study of the Black radical tradition, Robinson argued that “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology,” that “as a material force . . . it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.” Robinson used the term “‘racial capitalism’ to refer to this development and to the subsequent structure as a historical agency.”6 Though Robinson did not highlight King’s critique of political economy—he focused primarily on an earlier generation of Black scholars, including W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright—King can be productively situated within this tradition, as a figure who factors the history of the Black liberation struggle into a creolized appropriation of Western intellectual legacies and who comes to regard institutionalized practices of capital accumulation as organically interwoven with racial domination, expropriation, and violence.7
The scholarship on King has not sought to elicit from his writings or speeches a coherent theory of racial capitalism or even a coherent theory of political economy.8 Many of the more holistic biographical and historical accounts of King’s life and work expose elements of a would-be theory: his religious and intellectual influences, his socialist sympathies, his engagement with labor politics, his efforts to mobilize in solidarity with the poor.9 Our book addresses a gap in the theoretical literature. And it pushes beyond King studies to explore parallels with some of the contemporary scholarship on Black radicalism. We set out to reconstruct the critical theory of capitalist society that King’s egalitarian vision requires. In this way, we read King in order to move beyond King. His unfinished work today requires a more critical dialogue about an abiding anti-Black racism and its maddening entanglements with the logic and practice of capital accumulation. This book is both an effort to carry on that unfinished work, however far we can take it, and a humble invitation for others to do the same. As prologue to that effort, we offer a brief exposition of the theory of racial capitalism and the Black radical tradition before turning to provide a prospectus of the study’s four ensuing chapters.
There are both historical and analytical dimensions to the theory of racial capitalism. Our application draws more heavily on the analytical, though it will be helpful to introduce both dimensions here, in part because together they underscore an intensely complicated relationship between Black radicalism and Marxist theory and politics. The latter, of course, has long been the conceptual lingua franca of the international anti-capitalist left, as well a common basis of comparison with King’s economic thinking. Probably the most notorious attempt to draw such a comparison came from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which sought to paint King as a “whole-hearted Marxist.”10 Such an allegation was unfair and misleading, to say the least, but it warrants further exploration, especially for a study of the sort that we undertake here. The very tradition of a conventional or “whole-hearted” Marxism is part of what Robinson set out to complicate in his foundational account of the theory of racial capitalism.
In the Marxist tradition, the critique of capitalism took aim at several distinctive features of the capitalist mode of production, including private ownership of the means of production, the systemic and compulsory orientation toward ongoing capital accumulation and profit, and the institutionalization of a free labor market.11 The historical dimension of the racial capitalism thesis sets out to complicate this latter feature and to conceive of racial expropriation, not as an outmoded relic of precapitalist feudalism, but rather as an integral component of the emergence and sustenance of capitalism itself. For Robinson, as Kelley neatly summarizes, “capitalism was ‘racial’ not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or to justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma or Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe.”12 In Robinson’s account, there were no capitalist societies, in Western Europe or on a more global scale, that were ever fully divorced from practices of racial division and domination. An indigenous European racialism, and the production and accumulation of economic value in and through practices of racial expropriation, was said to develop alongside the commodification of labor-power and the proliferation of contractually mediated labor relations.
This centering of race in an account of the emergence of the capitalist labor regime is, to be sure, an affront to conventional Marxist wisdom. Marx, for his part, was attentive to racism and he took very seriously the horrors and world-historical significance of the transatlantic slave trade.13 “In actual history,” he wrote in Capital, “it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.”14 But Marx built his theory of capitalism largely on the established presuppositions of nineteenth-century European political economists, including what he acknowledged to be their “idyllic” notion of a sort of racially blind capitalism, a stripped-down model of an economy based exclusively on the exploitation of nominally free wage-labor. Marx sought to disclose an exploitative process built into the “silent compulsion” of market relations, and he relegated racial and other allegedly extra-economic modes of expropriation to a phase of what he called, following the bourgeois economists of the period, the “so-called primitive accumulation” of capital. In taking the nineteenth-century political economists to task on their own terms, in trying to show that the institution of a free labor market would lead not to rising tides and the proliferation of democratic freedoms, but rather to unsustainable inequalities between exploited producers and an ownership class, Marx struggled to register the ways in which racism and racial domination had been woven into the workings of mature capitalist societies. Some 150 years after the publication of Capital, Achille Mbembe points out, “capital not only remains fixed in a phase of primitive accumulation but also still leverages racial subsidies in its pursuit of profit.”15 This sobering observation, common to an increasing number of scholars and activists today, is often taken as ample testimony that, when it comes to race, Marx simply missed the mark.
Following the sociologist Oliver C. Cox, who argued that Marx relegated “as subsidiary the very things which should have been the center of his study,” Robinson and subsequent theorists and historians of racial capitalism have sought to foreground the persistence of racial violence and expropriation within the divisions of labor and relations of exchange that capital accumulation requires.16 A centering of the histories of racism and enslavement in the making of the capitalist world system enables fuller appreciation of both “capitalism’s commodification of the human” and the ongoing “reworking of slavery.”17 Concerns about the development of more complicated modes of human commodification and semi-commodification—more complicated ways in which human beings are put into servitude—were absolutely central to King’s critique of postwar capitalist society. “We still have slavery,” he said bluntly in 1962, “slavery covered up with certain niceties of complexity.”18
It is important to keep in mind that Marx, for his part, moved between historical and analytical registers. This slippage is part of what has led to so much ambiguity about the legibility of race and racism within his theory of capitalism as well as the extent to which a sharper and more consistent attentiveness to race can be rendered consistent with it. King’s reference to a modern-day slavery, to a brand of servitude “covered up with certain niceties of complexity,” points toward at least one way in which the analytical dimension of the theory of racial capitalism reflects not a rejection of Marxist thought, but rather an expansion of it.
Part of what distinguished Marx from other critics of his time, and part of what might help to explain Marx’s ambivalence about slavery and “the so-called primitive accumulation” of capital, was his attempt to account for the tendency toward impersonal domination and exploitation. Under conditions of formal slave labor, and especially within regimes of modern racial slavery, it is easier to identify perpetrators and to assign accountability or blame for outwardly unjust relationships between human groups. The task of identifying and assessing responsibility, of gleaning a sense of who does what to whom, is more difficult under the impersonal structure of a society in which human relations, including labor relations, are more fully and regularly mediated by market exchange. Nancy Fraser reminds us that “Marx looked behind the sphere of exchange, into the ‘hidden abode’ of production, in order to discover capitalism’s secrets”—in order to show how exploitation and inequality are themselves reproduced under the capitalist mode of commodity production. This move, surely, has proven to be immensely revelatory, in Marx’s day and well into our own. But, as Fraser goes on to argue, in order to further develop “conceptions of capitalism and capitalist crisis that are adequate to our time,” we need to “seek production’s conditions for possibility behind that sphere, in realms still more hidden.”19 We need, she says, an “expanded conception of capitalism,” one that goes beyond an analysis of capitalist economy to include also an account of “capitalist society,” or the “background conditions” that enable and sustain the production and circulation of value. And as Michael Dawson has argued, one such necessary background condition is precisely the “‘hidden abode of race,’” or “the ontological distinction between superior and inferior humans—codified as race—that was necessary for slavery, colonialism, the theft of lands in the Americas, and genocide,” and that “produced and continues to produce the boundary struggles” characteristic of capitalist expropriation.20
As Jodi Melamed reminds us, “capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups.” Such accumulation, she says, “requires loss, disposability, and the unequal differentiation of human value,” and “racism enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires.”21 Throughout the book, in our reading of King, we are mindful of how racial differentiations and inequities are presupposed by and reproduced systematically in and through processes of capital accumulation. We show how, in his later years especially, as he pressed harder on the capitalist “structure of society,” on a “total pattern of economic exploitation,” on a “capitalistic system predicated on exploitation, prejudice, [and] poverty,” King moved toward precisely the expanded conception of capitalist society that Fraser and Dawson explicate: a capitalist society enabled by the “hidden abode of race.”22
To recover these aspects of King’s critical theory is to expand appreciation of his critique of racism. At his best, we argue, King helps to debunk what Adolph Reed has decried as “arresting but uninformative and strategically useless metaphors, such as the characterization of racism as a ‘national disease’ or the chestnut that racism ‘takes on a life of its own’ or other such mystifications.” And here, to be sure, our study cuts against conventional readings of King. He is often remembered principally as a soaring orator and an accessible public communicator, the mass mobilizer of the mainstream civil rights movement. In this way, he is often caricatured as precisely the sort of figure who trafficked in the very mystifications that Reed warns about. As Reed goes on to point out, “racism is not an affliction; it is a pattern of social relations. Nor is it a thing that can act on its own; it exists only as it is reproduced in specific social arrangements in specific societies under historically specific conditions of law, state, and class power.”23 Part of our effort to recover from King’s work a critical theory of racial capitalism is to show that King—the frequently “sanitized” civil rights icon—provides a far more generative way of thinking about sources of persistent racial injustice and what it will take to really challenge the system.
It is important to emphasize, too, what we might call the “necropolitical” aspect of the theory of racial capitalism, or the ways in which capitalist societies rely upon and reproduce not only economic exploitation, but also “logics of elimination or genocide,” or what Jackie Wang refers to as a “logic of disposability.”24 And here again, the Marxist tradition provides a useful foil. The key point is that the projects of racial formation that enshrine the unequal differentiation of human value and normalize background conditions are at once independent of capitalism but service capital accumulation. Dawson has suggested that a “colonial logic” operates alongside an accumulative economic logic. And, he points out, “the process of expropriation marked by colonial logics is different from that described in traditional Marxist analyses due to its racialization. The colonial logic of superior/inferior human includes not only ongoing expropriation and exploitation, but disposability, and an attenuated extension of citizenship or subject ‘rights,’ if they are extended at all. Racially expropriated labor never becomes ‘free labor’ in the classic Marxist sense.”25 One of King’s persistent concerns was that the capitalist drive for technological innovation, and principally the automation of labor and the displacement of jobs, had and would continue to have devastating effects on Black lives and livelihoods. In this King clearly anticipated what have become grave contemporary concerns about capitalist production of a Black surplus population and the disposability of Black lives, which today’s prison abolitionists and the activists involved in the Movement for Black Lives, among others, continue to work so courageously to disclose and confront. Today, Kali Akuno says, “Black life is a commodity rapidly depreciating in value” and is “becoming increasingly more disposable.” As the capitalist system struggles to “absorb dislocated and displaced populations into productive endeavors,” we find ourselves staring down an “era of correction and contraction that will have genocidal consequences for the surplus populations of the world if left unaddressed. The Black working class is now confronting this genocidal threat.”26 King said in 1966 that the “ultimate logic of racism is genocide,” and there is no question that a colonial logic of racial exploitation, expropriation, and disposability undergirds his mature critique of the capitalist world system.27
One upshot of this theoretical approach is that it suggests a way around the race-versus-class impasse that has historically hampered coalitional movement building. If capitalism relies upon the maintenance of a racial order, if racialized background conditions normalize and routinize the unequal differentiations of human value that capital accumulation requires, then it would follow that when the racial order crumbles, the logic of capital accumulation will be undermined. The conditions that enable the production and circulation of value will be compromised. To fight racism and structures of racial domination and expropriation, then, is not to deflect attention away from the class struggle, or to prioritize cultural or superstructural concerns over material ones. It is to attack a structural pillar of distributive injustice. It is to act on the sobering recognition that, as Malcolm X put it in 1964, “you can’t have capitalism without racism.”28
This is a striking line from Malcolm X. King never made the connection in quite so stark a way, at least not publicly, which raises questions about whether or not more avowedly radical strands of twentieth-century Black thought—the ideas and perspectives behind the postwar Black nationalist or Black Power movements, for instance—might provide a more apt basis for a study of this sort.29 If one looks, for example, at the cooperative movement unfolding today in Jackson, Mississippi, the “most radical city in America,” one sees the critique of racial capitalism on full display, and one sees not the civil rights legacy of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but rather the more militant nationalist legacy of Chokwe Lumumba and the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika, the work of the New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.30 It would be a scandal to suggest that King is somehow a more fitting intellectual forebear to the struggles unfolding today in a place such as Jackson, or to suggest that King occupies some sort of privileged mantle in the long and complex history of the critique of racial capitalism. But that critique is there in King, surely, and to provide a fuller exposition of it is to expose a more radical King, one who perhaps ought to be recast in the popular and scholarly imagination as part of a broader coalition of Black radicalism. Here again Robinson’s work—in particular, his expansive conception of a Black radical tradition—provides a useful frame of reference.
Robinson described the Black radical tradition as “an accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle.” It began in slavery, he said, “in the daily encounters and petty resistances to domination—”struggles through which “slaves had acquired a sense of the calculus of oppression as well as its overt organization and instrumentalization.” Over generations, “the rationale and cultural mechanisms of domination became more transparent. Race was its epistemology, its ordering principle, its organizational structure, its moral authority, its economy of justice, commerce, and power.” Gradually the “tradition was transformed into a radical force, and in its most militant manifestation, no longer accustomed to the resolution that flight and withdrawal were sufficient, the purpose of the struggles informed by the tradition became the overthrow of the whole race-based structure.”31
Again, for Robinson, the whole race-based structure was and is racial capitalism. And to document a tradition oriented toward its overthrow, indeed to consider that tradition’s self-activity, is to expose and work from the racial myopia of conventional European radicalism. As Avery Gordon has argued, “the Black radical tradition stands not simply as a colossal example of a blind-spot in the Marxist point of view. Rather, the Black radical tradition stands, living and breathing, in the place blinded from view; it is, in the deepest sense of the term, a theoretical standpoint and not merely a set of particular data.”32 At issue, in other words, are not merely factors of analysis or data points, not only the question of how many Black lives are taken by the police—as desperately important as that question is—but also, crucially, a theoretical standpoint born of Black lives. And again, the kneejerk reaction to dismiss this theoretical standpoint as a distraction from or even a threat to the class struggle remains a real problem.
David Roediger has pointed out that nowadays, several decades into the devastating neoliberal assault on both labor and antiracism struggles, it makes sense to return to King’s era, to the 1950s and 1960s, for this was an instructive time, “a period in which the permeability of race and class emerged in sharp relief.” It was a period in which “the expanding horizons created by the movements against racial oppression made all workers think more sharply about new tactics, new possibilities, and new freedoms. The spread of wildcat strikes across color lines is one example. The high hopes Martin Luther King Jr. invested in both the Poor People’s Campaign and the strike of Black sanitation workers in Memphis remind us of a period that could test ideas in practice and could experience, if not always appreciate, the tendency for self-activity among people of color to generate possibilities for broader working-class mobilization.”33
So, Robinson’s idea of the Black radical tradition—which, it must be said, is not an uncontested category—provides a broadly generative framework for thinking about King’s critique of racial capitalism.34 Three aspects of this tradition, in particular, shape our reading. The first is precisely this abiding emphasis on indigenous Black struggle, the self-activity of a people. Though King is frequently held up as an exemplary leader of the masses, a “great-man” hero par excellence, we follow recent civil rights historiography that has sought to complicate, if not correct, this common simplification. We explore some of the ways in which King’s thinking and activism, like those of other recognized personalities of the movement, were shaped by the self-activity of the people. This is not to diminish King’s stature or genius as a mobilizer. Nor is it to imply that King was exemplary in his responsiveness to a more implicit leadership carried out by the rank and file. His thinking about patriarchy and heteronormativity, to cite two glaring examples, certainly should have—and had he lived, perhaps would have—taken cues from Black feminist and queer perspectives, from the lived expressions of how these structures of power and domination, among still others, shape the background conditions that enable capital accumulation.35 Still, as this chapter’s opening reference to King’s response to the youth in Newark attests, King’s thinking about race and capitalism would have been nothing without direction from below.
A second aspect involves an orientation toward violence, including an antipathy toward property ownership as a form of structural violence. In his account of the “character,” or “the ideological, philosophical, and epistemological natures of the Black movement,” Robinson highlights a distinctive attribute that “was always there, always indicated, in the histories of the tradition. Again and again,” he says, “in the reports, casual memoirs, official accounts, eye-witness observations, and histories of the tradition’s episodes, from the sixteenth century to the events recounted in last week’s or last month’s journals, one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” Often to the amazement of Western observers, “Blacks have seldom employed the level of violence that they (the Westerners) understood the situation required.”36 This is a sweeping historical assessment, certainly, and a complicated philosophical matter. “There was violence of course,” Robinson is keen to emphasize. But his key points, which resonate deeply with King’s practice and philosophy of nonviolence, and also help to expand our appreciation for how King’s orientation toward violence interweaves with his economic critique, are that the violence of the resistance has always paled in comparison to the preemptive and reactionary violence used to established and maintain “capitalist slavery and imperialism” past and present, and that there is a profound philosophical significance to this. For Robinson, this history reflects “a renunciation of actual being for historical being,” a negation of the lived realities of racial capitalism and an affirmation—or what he calls the “preservation,” however imagined or conjectural—of an Africana sensibility that “had never allowed for property in either the physical, philosophical, temporal, legal, social, or psychic senses.”37 At issue is an indictment, in racial and civilizational terms, not only of an economic system predicated on commodification of the human and private ownership of the means of production, but also of a broader cultural liberalism, a long-established Western social and political rationality for which claims to ownership, an instinct to demarcate between what belongs to one individual or party and not to another, reflect a violent foreclosure of the very possibility of sociality, of being and living together, indeed of the “beloved community” that King imagined.
This points toward a third aspect that informs our study, which is perhaps an amalgamation and extension of the first two. It has to do with how we think about politics and the political. From his earliest work, Robinson sought to trouble the prevailing rationality of Western authority, its very “terms of order.”38 He took issue with the ways in which a mythos of leadership, and the normalization of rigid hierarchies and an intellectual and material elitism, had been reinforced by industrialization and the consolidation of capitalist society. What became for Robinson the Black radical tradition, in particular its gesturing toward a “whole other way of being,” was conceived more narrowly in his earlier political science work as “an antipolitical tradition.” He spoke of a contrast between “political and nonpolitical societies, that is those societies in which there was an attempt to contain power by routinizing or institutionalizing it and those societies in which this question did not arise.”39 This contrast is helpful. It helps to trouble both the racial capitalist world that we occupy, political as it most surely is, and the very status of the political in King’s work. To many, as we have noted already, King was and remains an embodiment of a Western conception of leadership. And in his public pronouncements anyway, he never gave up on the idea that the Western model of the territorial nation-state could be salvaged as a vehicle for righting the wrongs, racial and otherwise, that it had been set up to propagate and institutionalize. But King was also a deeply imaginative thinker, one whose dreamy, even utopian visions for new ways of working, living, and loving together require real sacrifice, if they stand any chance of coming into being. And such sacrifice includes, surely, the abandonment of familiar conceptions of politics and the political, of leadership and authority, of the very terms of the racial capitalist order.
These considerations, very much grounded in Robinson’s work, course through this book and inform our reading of King. In chapter two, we set out to reconstruct King’s critical methodology and to consider how theory as such helps people make sense of and evaluate their world, how theoretical and historical narratives help to contour and structure lived experiences. Through an exploration of King’s Christian theological influences and his embrace of the dialectical legacy of Hegel and Marx, we show that King’s critical imagination was shaped early on by what we call a redemptive narrative structure. This narrative structure gives King a prefigured confidence in the need to reconcile tensions or contradictions that can be exposed in the world, and this structure is central to his later critique of the internal contradictions of racial capitalism. The chapter also considers King’s status as a critic of ideology—that is, the false or illusory perceptions that give legitimacy to the established order. King was a formidable critic of established wisdom, certainly, but his criticism of ideology went beyond this. We try to fill out a more comprehensive picture by showing that his dialectical emphasis on tension and conflict trains focus on social relations that are hidden or secreted away not only by the biased or distorted claims of ideological consciousness, but also by the very nature of commercial society. King’s critical theory can be said to push beyond the epistemic, out to the terrain of the ontological, to a critical confrontation with what Cedric Robinson has called the “actual being” of racial capitalism. By exposing this more radical dimension of King’s methodological apparatus, we are better able to see how King put himself into critical contact with racial capitalism’s underside—what he called “the other America”—and we are able to grapple more seriously with his diagnostic critique of the “structure of the economy” as well as his political movement toward a radical “restructuring of the whole of American society.”
In chapter three—which is a more ambitious and exploratory chapter, and in many ways the heart of the book—we consider how King’s well-known call for a “revolution of values” is complicated by the production and circulation of value in capitalist society. Here we are concerned principally with how the coordination of human labor and activity, the kinds of human interdependencies that King referred to as the “inescapable network of mutuality,” have become sustained in the modern world by the logic of capital accumulation—that is, a distinctive pressure put upon market actors to pursue not only profit, but also sustained growth through the creation of viable outlets for reinvestment. What we are compelled to value and devalue in capitalist society is largely dependent upon its movement through cycles of accumulation and reinvestment. And this movement is itself dependent upon the reproduction of social inequalities, which have significant temporal and spatial dimensions, as well as discernible racial dimensions. We show how King’s attunement to these dynamics was shaped by his conscription into the movement in Montgomery in the mid-1950s and by his exposure to a burgeoning Black internationalism into the mid-1960s. King’s readers frequently underappreciate the extent to which his mature antiwar arguments were interwoven with and bolstered by a sophisticated analysis of capitalist imperialism—that is, by the production and circulation of value in the capitalist world system.
King’s critique was a product of its era. But in many ways its explanatory power transcends its historical genesis and speaks quite productively to Black resistance struggles into the neoliberal age. We pick up with this theme in chapter four, where we reckon with the layered nature of King’s political theory and situate King’s critique of capitalism more squarely within an ongoing Black radical tradition. In one sense, King’s critique of capitalism, both its diagnostic and more prescriptive aspects, remained wedded to a rather conventional, state-centered conception of the political. His calls for capital controls, expanded welfare programs, and other government provisions and regulations were befitting of an era of state-managed capitalism. But King was never interested in empowering the state, which he understood to be an apparatus of repression and control. The idea was always to empower communities, the publics that states could be made to serve. We argue that his speculative pursuit of the “beloved community,” a concept born of the communal nature of the Black freedom struggle, reflects a movement to fashion more imaginative ways of living, more democratic ways of being together that are not circumscribed by the dominion of racial capitalism and its apparatuses of governance and control. Insofar as capitalism’s state-managed phase has, since King’s death, given way to a neoliberal era—one in which the private power of global capital has more thoroughly captured territorial state power worldwide and dramatically undermined the welfare state contract—King’s emphasis on community organization, the cultivation of what we call the Black counterpublic, speaks to the realities of our time.
This claim warrants further discussion, which we undertake in chapter five, of the afterlives of King’s critique. The King Memorial Center (later the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change), established shortly after King’s death, has been the most prominent institutional steward of the King legacy. But in 1970, Vincent Harding and several other prominent Black scholar-activists broke from the King Center and established the Institute of the Black World (IBW), an international think tank that, in many ways, was meant to carry on the more radical aspects of King’s intellectual and scholarly work, including its anti-capitalist and Pan-African dimensions. Building on the work of the historian Derrick White, we offer a case study of the IBW.40 While it was relatively short lived, shuttered by the early 1980s, the IBW provides some indication of the kind of institutional space that could facilitate the critique of racial capitalism into the twenty-first century. In contrast to other Black civil society institutions of the post–civil rights era—such as the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES), which was more keen to work within liberal democratic institutions and promote the interests of a burgeoning Black political class—the IBW focused on a form of Black studies and global scholar-activism that was not reducible to what Robinson calls the Western “terms of order.” Today there is a call to renew and expand Black studies, and very deliberately as an enterprise to be carried out independently of the strictures of established institutions, including traditional colleges and universities. By reconstructing the critical theory of capitalist society that King’s vision requires, by exploring the institutional spaces that have facilitated and might again be made to nurture this kind of work, we hope to amplify and enrich that call.
Throughout these chapters, we employ a presentation strategy that allows us to survey aspects of King’s critique in a way that is deliberately inexhaustive and that, we hope, will be conducive to further study. Each chapter is loosely anchored by reference to one of King’s theoretically significant texts—or, in the case of the final chapter on the afterlives of King’s critique, an essay by Vincent Harding. In each chapter, we identify and parse out significant phrases or passages as a means of organizing the discussions. This approach reveals that certain themes, concerns, principles, and phrasings course through King’s writings and speeches and lend themselves to the reconstructive efforts we undertake. But like Robinson, who in his study of the Black radical tradition said that his “purpose was never to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there,” we recognize that there is so much more to be discovered, reconstructed, and debated about King and the critique of racial capitalism.41 Surely there are additional stories to be told about King’s anticapitalism, perhaps ones that build on our work but that foreground his Christianity and religious commitments, for example, or that mine his business sense or personal financial affairs, much more than we do.
All told, this book attempts to complicate King’s legacy and elevate his struggle for a better world. In 1967, in his famous antiwar speech in New York City, King said that “there is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”42 But surely the obstacles, from ideological and fetishistic obfuscation to the emboldened interests of counterrevolution, are far more formidable, far more complex, than King let on from that Morningside Heights pulpit. This, of course, King knew all too well. In the last years of his life especially, King battled through fits of depression, a recurring sense that in trying to organize the poor, in trying to restructure the edifice of a world economy that churns out beggars, he was chasing something of a fool’s errand. Many in his inner circle, including veteran anti-capitalist soldiers such as Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson, sought to persuade King that the United States was just not yet ready for radical political-economic restructuring. And yet King soldiered on. Part of what he gave us, in the last years especially, was a compelling critical theory, a diagnostic account of racial capitalism. This was no fool’s errand. Perhaps now more than ever, King’s critique can help to motivate incisive thinking about the obstacles that foreclose realization of a more just world.