Putting Materialism back into Race Theory:
Toward a Transformative Theory of Race

Robert Young

This essay advances a materialist theory of race. In my view, race oppression dialectically intersects with the exploitative logic of advanced capitalism, a regime which deploys race in the interest of surplus accumulation. Thus, race operates at the (economic) base and therefore produces cultural and ideological effects at the superstructure; in turn, these effects—in very historically specific way—interact with and ideologically justify the operations at the economic base [1]. In a sense then, race encodes the totality of contemporary capitalist social relations, which is why race cuts across a range of seemingly disparate social sites in contemporary US society. For instance, one can mark race difference and its discriminatory effects in such diverse sites as health care, housing/real estate, education, law, job market, and many other social sites. However, unlike many commentators who engage race matters, I do not isolate these social sites and view race as a local problem, which would lead to reformist measures along the lines of either legal reform or a cultural-ideological battle to win the hearts and minds of people and thus keep the existing socio-economic arrangements intact; instead, I foreground the relationality of these sites within the exchange mechanism of multinational capitalism.

Consequently, I believe, the eradication of race oppression also requires a totalizing political project: the transformation of existing capitalism—a system which produces difference (the racial/gender division of labor) and accompanying ideological narratives that justify the resulting social inequality. Hence, my project articulates a transformative theory of race—a theory that reclaims revolutionary class politics in the interests of contributing toward a post-racist society. In other words, the transformation from actually existing capitalism into socialism constitutes the condition of possibility for a post-racist society—a society free from racial and all other forms of oppression. By freedom, I do not simply mean a legal or cultural articulation of individual rights as proposed by bourgeois race theorists. Instead, I theorize freedom as a material effect of emancipated economic forms. 

I foreground my (materialist) understanding of race as a way to contest contemporary accounts of race, which erase any determinate connection to economics. For instance, humanism and poststructuralism represent two dominant views on race in the contemporary academy. Even though they articulate very different theoretical positions, they produce similar ideological effects: the suppression of economics. They collude in redirecting attention away from the logic of capitalist exploitation and point us to the cultural questions of sameness (humanism) or difference (poststructuralism). In developing my project, I critique the ideological assumptions of some exemplary instances of humanist and poststructuralist accounts of race, especially those accounts that also attempt to displace Marxism, and, in doing so, I foreground the historically determinate link between race and exploitation. It is this link that forms the core of what I am calling a transformative theory of race. The transformation of race from a sign of exploitation to one of democratic multiculturalism, ultimately, requires the transformation of capitalism.

Within contemporary Black humanist discourses the focus remains on the subject. Hence, diverse intellectual inquiries such as Afrocentricism (Molefi Kete Asante), Black feminism (Patricia Hill Collins), and neo-conservative culturalism (Shelby Steele), share a philosophical-ideological commitment to the subject. What is ultimately at stake in this commitment is, I argue, a class matter. The philosophico-cultural move—as Asante once put it in a representative formulation, Afrocentricism presents "the African as subject rather than object" ("Multiculturalism" 270)—is in fact part of the positing of a Black "essence" that can form the basis for a cross-class alliance between black workers and black business, between, that is, exploited and exploiters.

The logic of this act of cultural translation of the economic is powerfully foregrounded in Asante's writings. The preoccupation with the subject highlights Asante's rather conservative humanist philosophical position, a position powerfully critiqued by Louis Althusser [2]. In reifying the subject, Asante abstracts the (African) subject from history and posits an "essentialized" identity within an "essentialized" historical period that is unproblematically recuperable through an Afrocentric paradigm. Asante takes the essence of the subject for a universal quality and, as Althusser argues, this means that concrete subjects must exist as an absolute given, which implies an empiricism of the subject (228). Furthermore, Althusser continues, if the concrete subject is to be a subject, then each must carry the entire essence in him/herself, and this implies an idealism of the essence (228). Thus, Asante's philosophical location provides the basis for the transcendental subject: the always already (self) present black subject, from ancient Egypt to the modern black American. What one needs, quite simply, is an Afrocentric methodology, and this Asante grounds in an idealist metaphysic.

Similar to Eurocentric practices, Asante's project occludes the historical contradictions constitutive of any social formation and so far from advancing a distinctive Afrocentric epistemology, Asante's humanism puts him squarely within the dominant bourgeois philosophical tradition and his discourse produces similar effects. Under the guise of the transcendental subject, the class divisions within the black community are suppressed and this, in turn, advances the class interests of the elites, whose interests are silently imbedded in the project. Similar to Eurocentric historical narratives, Afrocentricism reclaims the history of the (African) elites. In this way, Afrocentric discourse is knowledge for middle and upper class blacks, as it naturalizes their class privilege; for which other class could afford to see "symbol imperialism" (Asante 56) as the major problem confronting multicultural societies?

Bourgeois philosophical assumptions haunt the Afrocentric project and, in the domain of black feminist theory, Patricia Hill Collins provides an instructive example of this intersection. In Black Feminist Thought, Collins posits the "special angle of vision" that black women bring to knowledge production process (21), and this "unique angle" (22) provides the "standpoint" for Afrocentric feminism, a feminism that she equates with humanism (37). Similar to the experiential metaphysics of Black women's standpoint theory, Collins also situates Afrocentric feminist epistemology "in the everyday experiences of African-American women" (207). Consequently, Collins suggests that "concrete experience" constitutes a criterion of meaning (208).

However, the experiential, the "real", does not adequate the "truth", as Collins implies. Collins rejects the "Eurocentric Masculinist Knowlege Validation Process" for its positivism but, in turn, she offers empiricism as the grounds for validating experience. Hence, the validity of experiential claims is adjudicated by reference to the experience. Not only is her argument circular, but it also undermines one of her key claims. If race, class, gender, and the accompanying ideological apparatuses are interlocking systems of oppression, as Collins suggest, then the experiential is not the site for the "true" but rather the site for the articulation of dominant ideology. On what basis then, could the experiential provide grounds for an historical understanding of the structures that make experience itself possible as experience?

Asante and Collins assume that experience is self-intelligible and in their discourse it functions as the limit text of the real. However, I believe experience is a highly mediated frame of understanding. Though it is true that a person of color experiences oppression, this experience is not self-explanatory and, therefore, it needs to be situated in relation to other social practices. Experience seems local but it is, like all cultural and political practices, interrelated to other practices and experiences. Thus its explanation come from its "outside". Theory, specifically Marxist theory, provides an explanation of this outside by reading the meaning of all experiences as determined by the economic realities of class. While Asante's and Collins' humanism reads the experience of race as a site of "self-presence", the history of race in the United States—from slavery to Jim Crow to Katrina—is written in the fundamental difference of class. In other words, experience does not speak the real, but rather it is the site of contradictions and, hence, in need of conceptual elaboration to break from cultural common sense, a conduit for dominant ideology. It is this outside that has come under attack by black (humanist) scholars through the invocation of the black (transcendental) subject.

Indeed, the discourse of the subject operates as an ideological strategy for fetishizing the black experience and, consequently, it positions black subjectivity beyond the reach of Marxism. For example, in the Afrocentric Idea, Asante dismisses Marxism because it is Eurocentric (8), but are the core concepts of Marxism, such as class and mode of production, only relevant for European social formations? Are African and African-American social histories/relations unshaped by class structures? Asante assumes that class hierarchies do not structure African or the African-American social experiences, and this reveals the class politics of Afrocentricity: it makes class invisible. Asante's assumption, which erases materialism, enables him to offer the idealist formulation that the "word creates reality" (70). The political translation of such idealism is not surprisingly very conservative. Asante directs us away from critiquing capitalist institutions, in a manner similar to the ideological protocol of the Million Man March, and calls for vigilance against symbolic oppression. As Asante tellingly puts it, "symbol imperialism, rather than institutional racism, is the major social problem facing multicultural societies" (56).

In the realm of African-American philosophy, Howard McGary Jr. also deploys the discourse of the (black) subject to mark the limits of Marxism. For instance, in a recent interview, McGary offers this humanist rejection of Marxism: "I don't think that the levels of alienation experienced by Black people are rooted primarily in economic relations" (Interview 90). For McGary, black alienation exceeds the logic of Marxist theory and thus McGary's idealist assertion that "the sense of alienation experienced by Black people in the US is also rooted in the whole idea of what it means to be a human being and how that has been understood" (Interview 90). McGary confuses causes and effects and then misreads Marxism as a descriptive modality. Marxism is not concerned as much with descriptive accounts, the effects, as much as it is with explanatory accounts. That is, it is concerned with the cause of social alienation because such an explanatory account acts as a guide for praxis. Social alienation is an historical effect and its explanation does not reside in the experience itself; therefore, it needs explanation and such an explanation emerges from the transpersonal space of concepts.

In theorizing the specificity of black alienation, McGary reveals his contradictory ideological coordinates. First, he argues that black alienation results from cultural "beliefs".  Then, he suggests that these cultural "norms" and "practices" develop from slavery and Jim Crow, which are fundamentally economic relations for the historically specific exploitation of black people. If these cultural norms endogenously emerge from the economic systems of slavery and Jim Crow, as McGary correctly suggests, then and contrary to McGary's expressed position, black alienation is very much rooted in economic relations.

McGary's desire to place black subjectivity beyond Marxism creates contradictions in his text. McGary asserts that the economic structures of slavery and Jim Crow shape cultural norms. Thus in a post-slavery, post-Jim Crow era, there would still be an economic structure maintaining contemporary oppressive norms—from McGary's logic this must be the case. However, McGary remains silent on the contemporary economic system structuring black alienation: capitalism. Apparently, it is legitimate to foreground and critique the historical connection between economics and alienation but any inquiry into the present day connection between economics and alienation is off limits. This other economic structure—capitalism—remains the unsaid in McGary's discourse, and consequently he provides ideological support for capitalism—the exploitative infrastructure which produces and maintains alienation for blacks as well as for all working people. In a very revealing moment, a moment that confirms my reading of McGary's pro-capitalist position, he asserts that "it is possible for African-Americans to combat or overcome this form of alienation described by recent writers without overthrowing capitalism" (20). Here, in a most lucid way, we see the ideological connection between the superstructure (philosophy) and the base (capitalism). Philosophy provides ideological support for capitalism, and, in this instance, we can also see how philosophy carries out class politics at the level of theory (Althusser Lenin 18).

McGary points out "that Black people have been used in ways that white people have not" (91). His observation may be true, but it does not mean that whites have not also been "used"; yes, whites may be "used" differently, but they are still "used" because that is the logic of exploitative regimes—people are "used", that is to say, their labor is commodified and exchanged for profit. McGary's interview signals what I call an "isolationist" view. This view disconnects black alienation from other social relations; hence, it ultimately reifies race, and, in doing so, suppresses materialist inquiries into the class logic of race. That is to say, the meaning of race is not to be found within its own internal dynamics but rather in dialectical relation to and as an ideological justification of the exploitative wage-labor economy.

This isolationist position finds a fuller and, no less problematic, articulation in Charles W. Mills' The Racial Contract, a text which undermines the possibility for a transracial transformative political project. Mills evinces the ideological assumptions and consequent politics of the isolationist view in a long endnote to chapter 1. Mills privileges race oppression, but, in doing so, he must suppress other forms of oppression, such as gender and class. Mills acknowledges that there are gender and class relations within the white population, but he still privileges race, as if the black community is not similarly divided along gender and class lines. Hence, the ideological necessity for Mills to execute a double move: he must marginalize class difference within the white community and suppress it within the black community. Consequently, Mills removes the possibility of connecting white supremacy, a political-cultural structure, to its underlying economic base.

Mills empiricist framework mystifies our understanding of race. If "white racial solidarity has overridden class and gender solidarity" (138), as he proposes, then what is needed is an explanation of this racial formation. If race is the "identity around which whites have usually closed ranks" (138), then why is the case? Without an explanation, it seems as if white solidarity reflects some kind of metaphysical alliance. White racial solidarity is an historical articulation that operates to defuse class antagonism within white society, and it is maintained and reproduced through discourses of ideology. The race contract provides whites with an imaginary resolution of actual social contradictions, which are not caused by blacks, but by an exploitative economic structure. The race contract enables whites to scapegoat blacks and such an ideological operation displaces any understanding of the exploitative machinery. Hence, the race contract provides a political cover which ensures the ideological reproduction of the conditions of exploitation, and this reproduction further deepens the social contradictions—the economic position of whites becomes more and more depressed by the very same economic system that they help to ideologically reproduce.

Mills points out that the Racial Contract aims at economic exploitation of black people, and this is certainly the case, but it also exploits all working people—a notion suppressed within Mills' black nationalist problematic. From Mills' logic, it seems that all whites (materially) benefit from the Racial Contract, but, if this true, then how does he account for the class structure within the white community? His argument rests upon glossing over class divisions within American and European communities, and I believe this signals the theoretical and political limits of his position. The vast majority of white/Europeans are workers and therefore are subjected to capitalist exploitation through the extraction of surplus value, and this structural relationship operates irrespective of race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality. In other words, neither whiteness nor the race contract places whites outside the logic of exploitation. Indeed, the possibility for transracial collective praxis emerges in the contradiction between the (ideological) promise of whiteness and the actual oppressed material conditions of most whites.

The class blindness in Mills is surprising because he situates his discourse within "the best tradition of oppositional materialist critique" (129), but that tradition foregrounds political economy. Mills undermines his materialism through the silent reinscription of idealism. For example, he argues that "[t]he Racial Contract is an exploitation contract that creates global European economic domination and national white privilege" (31). Indeed for Mills, "the globally-coded distribution of wealth and poverty has been produced by the Racial Contract" (37). However, the "Racial Contract" does not create global European economic domination—this results from control of capital by the international ruling class—but it ideologically legitimates the "color-coded distribution of wealth and poverty". Thus the race contract effectively naturalizes a racial division of labor, and, of course, this operation fractures (multi-racial) class solidarity.

As Cheryl I. Harris insightfully puts it, "[i]t is through the concept of whiteness that class-consciousness among white workers is subordinated and attention is diverted from class oppression" (286). Therefore, if whites organize around race, as Mills asserts, then this is only because of an always already ideological interpellation (to "whiteness") and not a divine (racial) mandate, even though it has the appearance of obviousness. Indeed, the very aim of ideology is to produce cultural obviousnesses; hence, the project of materialist analysis involves a critique of ideology and not the reification of common sense. Contrary to Mills, I believe a more effective materialist class analysis foregrounds exploitative social-economic structures and the consequent class struggle between the international ruling class and the international proletariat.

My project situates race in relation to the international division of labor. Race emerges historically and within specific political-economic coordinates. These coordinates link the logic of race to the logic of capitalist exploitation. In other words, race is implicated in the historic and ongoing (class) struggle to determine the ratio of surplus value. For me then, race signals a marking for exploitation, and this economic assignment, in turn, generates an accompanying ideological machinery to justify and increase that exploitation. Any understanding of this economic assignment, which represents an historically objective positionality, has been removed from the contemporary intellectual scene. Race represents not just a cultural or political category as many critics attest to, but it represents an historic apparatus for the production, maintenance, and legitimation of the inequalities of wage-labor. Similar to other modes of social difference, like gender and sexuality, race participates in naturalizing asymmetrical social relations.

The materialist view outlined above has been systematically erased from contemporary cultural intelligibility. I have already critically engaged some exemplary instances of black humanist discourses and specifically, their invocation of the transcendental subject to dismiss Marxism. If the humanists deploy the problematics of (black) subjectivity to suppress materialist notions of race, the postmodernists draw upon the problematics of signification to deconstruct materialism. At this point, I shift to probe into the politics of poststructuralist accounts of race.

One can trace the shift in African-American cultural theory from the subject to semiotics as early as the 1980's. Houston Baker announces this paradigm shift in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. In this text, Baker "envision[s] language (the code) 'speaking' the subject" and consequently, "[t]he subject is 'decentered'" (1). Throughout the 1980's and 1990's, Baker and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in particular, have been principal architects in advancing a tropological theory of race. The textualization of race represents one of the hegemonic views of race, and it is evident in the writings of theorists like Lawrence Hogue, Claudia Tate, Anthony Appiah, Barbara Johnson, David Theo Goldberg, Paul Gilroy, Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, Tommy L. Lott, Valerie Smith, Mason Stokes, Siobhan B. Somerville, Cornel West, and Howard Winant, among others.

The linguistic turn in social theory enables the recent anti-reductionist views on race. Concepts like Winant's "racial formation" ("Racial Formation Theory" 130), Paul Gilroy's "multi-modal" (There Ain't 28) and David Theo Goldberg's "grammatical" reading of race ("Racist Discourse" 95) reflect the current anti-reductionist logic that currently dominates contemporary theorizing on race. All three theorists vigorously oppose reducing race to class, but apparently, it is acceptable to "reduce" race to a "hybridity" of factors (Goldberg 93), which once again establishes liberal pluralism as the limit of politics. Indeed, at the moment, it is fairly commonplace to "reduce" race to culture, or politics, or desire. Hence, these theorists are not so much opposed to reductionist theories, they simply are opposed to class understandings of race and, in this way, they articulate a conceptual displacement of materialism (in the name of epistemological skepticism) and, consequently, they reclaim the autonomy of race (in the name of liberalism).

The logic of autonomy moves away from transcendental subject, but it gives way to reification of discourse. For instance, Goldberg theorizes race and class as autonomous "fields of discourse" ("Racist Discourse" 87). After de-totalizing the social, Goldberg introduces a very problematic split between racism, which deals with the issue of "exclusion", and class theory, which deals with the issue of "exploitation" (97). Goldberg's text raises an important question concerning the relationship between exclusion and exploitation. However, he is unable to provide an effective response because of his commitment to a non-reductive analysis of race and this leaves him without an historical explanation of the constitution of (racist) discourse. Goldberg examines racist discourse "in own terms", but he has very difficult time accounting for the "persuasiveness" of racist discourse. In its own terms, racist discourse is very compelling for racists, but this begs the questions: why is racist discourse so persuasive in the first place? Why does the social formation make available such a subject position? This is an urgent question because of the nature of Goldberg's project, which attempts to identify "racists on the basis of the kinds of beliefs they hold" (87). The identification of racists based on their beliefs does not explain the origin of such beliefs in the first place. Thus, the question remains: why do racists hold such (racist) beliefs? For Goldberg, it appears that racists hold racist beliefs because of Racist discourse! Goldberg can not offer an explanation of these beliefs because this would take him outside of the formal grammar of racist discourse.

In Goldberg, the obsession with autonomy engenders a reification of discourse and the political implications of this are quite revealing. For Goldberg, discourse—not class struggle—becomes the motor of history: "it is in virtue of racist discourse and not merely rationalized by it that such forced manipulations of individual subjects and whole populations could have been affected" (95). He continues: "[i]nstruments of exclusion—legal, cultural, political, or economic—are forged by subjects as they mould criteria for establishing racial otherness" (95). Racial alterity makes sense not on its own terms but in relation to "instruments of exclusion". However, to move beyond Goldberg, I suggest that these instruments, in turn, must be related to existing property relationships. In short, the logic of alterity justifies and hence assists in the maintenance of class generated social inequality. The preoccupation with "autonomy" and "racial discourse formation" makes it seem as if social life is a matter of "contingency". This view blocks our understanding of the one constant feature of daily life under capitalism: exploitation. Under capitalism, exploitation is a not a discursive contingency but a structural articulation, and this structure of exploitation underpins (post)modern social life.

At the moment then, the discourse of autonomy displaces the structure of exploitation and, in this regard, I believe one can map out the ideological collusion taking place in race theory. As I pointed out earlier, the humanists posit the "uniqueness" of black subjectivity and now we can see the postmodern corollary which posits the "uniqueness" of racial discourse. I refer to these positions as the "pedagogy of autonomy" because both instruct subjects to value the local. In both instances, the discourse of autonomy provides an ideological framework for protecting the "unique" against its conceptual other—knowledge of the social totality. The pedagogues of autonomy assume that the "unique", in its immediacy to the concrete, provides access to the real and therefore grounds knowledge. These (anti-reductionist) pedagogues reduce knowledge to the concrete and, consequently, mystify our understanding of race because they disconnect it from larger social structures like class and ideology.

By downplaying the determinate structures of class and ideology, it seems as if one could merely dispense with race because of a crisis in raciology, as Gilroy suggests in his recent book, Against Race. Gilroy's notion of "post-race" offers a cultural cosmopolitanism to resolve the crisis in racial representation, but he has very little to say about economics. In fact, he is explicitly anti-Marxist (336) and in this regard, his text continues his long standing and unrelenting attacks against Marxism. His notion of "cosmopolitanism" provides the most recent concept for displacing class theory. According to Gilroy, by locating those moments when race is dispersed into singularities that resist conceptualization, "cosmopolitanism" will take us beyond the positivistic faith of Marxism and usher in a post-race dispensation. Of course, his caricature of Marxism runs counter to one of the core concepts of Marxism—class struggle. Recall the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (9). What is significant about this reading of history is that, in contrast to the "cosmopolitan" embrace of the local and the singular, for Marx and Engels the localities of "history" are never meaningful in themselves—they are not auto-intelligible—because the meaning of the local always refers back to the broader global relations (totality) from which it emerges. In other words, if Marxism highlights the historicity of class antagonism, then, contrary to Gilroy, there is very little room for transhistorical positivistic pieties. But Gilroy is not as interested in seriously engaging Marxism as much as he is in constructing an ideological alibi for dismissing Marxism.

Gilroy idealist understanding of post-race emerges from his post-Marxism, which he launched in an earlier work. Indeed, it is his earlier work that clearly shows the link between the discourse of (racial) autonomy and the politics of reformism. Specifically, in There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, Gilroy "supplements" class analytics with new urban social movements. However, with Gilroy the "supplement" operates as a code for recuperating liberal pluralism (what Gilroy calls "multi-modality" 28). Consequently, we do not get a sustained theorizing of the dialectical relationship between class and race; rather, we get what ultimately amounts to an abandonment of class theory (245). Here is why he must abandon class theory: the trajectory of class theory calls for revolutionary transformation of existing capitalist society. However, this is not Gilroy's project, nor the project of the new urban movements.

Gilroy endorses the new social movements precisely because "the new movements are not primarily oriented towards instrumental objectives, such as the conquest of political power or state apparatuses" (226). Instead, the new social movements desire autonomy within the existing system (226) and therefore foreground the "sphere of autonomous self-realization" (233). In other words, they do want to change an exploitative system, they merely want a little more (discursive) freedom within it, and this (reformist) project signals agency for Gilroy. For Gilroy, the new social movements represent agency, and in this regard, they replace the proletariat—the historic vehicle for social transformation—but their agency, to repeat, is directed toward reforming specific local sites, such as race or gender, within the existing system. In short, they have abandoned the goal of transforming existing capitalism—a totalizing system which connects seemingly disparate elements of the social through the logic of exploitation—for a new goal: creating more humane spaces for new movements within capitalism.

So, then, what is so new in the new social movements? It is certainly very "old" in the way it rehabilitates liberal notions of the autonomous subject. Its newness is a sign of the contemporary crisis-ridden conjuncture in capitalist social relations. This crisis of capital and the ensuing rupture in its ideological narrative provides the historical condition for articulating resistance along the axes of race, class, gender, ecology, etc. Even though resistance may take place in very specific domains, such as race, gender, ecological, or sexuality, among others, this does not mean that the crisis is local. It simply indexes how capitalist exploitation brings every social sphere under its totalizing logic. However, rather then point up the systematicity of the crisis, the theorists of the new social movements turn to the local, as if it is unrelated to questions of globality.

With Gilroy and the new social movements, we are returned, once again, to the local and the experiential sets the limits of understanding. Gilroy asserts that people "unable to control the social relations in which they find themselves…have shrunk the world to the size of their communities and begun to act politically on that basis" (245). If this is true, then Gilroy, at the level of theory, mirrors this as he "shrinks" his theory to the dictates of crude empiricism. Rather than opening the possibility of collective control over social relations, which points in an emancipatory direction, Gilroy brackets the question of "social relation" and consequently, he limits politics to the cultural (re)negotiations of identity.

If Gilroy deploys the post-colonial racialized agent for displacing class, then Homi Bhabha's postcolonial theory detaches race from political economy by reinscribing race within the problematics of signification. In The Location of Culture, Bhabha's last chapter, "Race', time and the revision of modernity", situates the question of race within the "ambivalent temporality of modernity" (239). In this way, Bhabha foregrounds the "time-lag" between "event" and "enunciation" and, for Bhabha, this produces space for postcolonial agency. Political agency revolves around deconstructing signs from totalities and thereby delaying the connection between signifier and signified and resistance is the effect of this ambivalence. Hence, for Bhabha, "the intervention of postcolonial or black critique is aimed at transforming the conditions of enunciation at the level of the sign" (247). This idealist reading of the social reduces politics to a struggle over the sign rather than the relations of production.

Indeed, Bhabha re-understands the political not as an ideological practice aimed at social transformation—the project of transformative race theory. Instead, he theorizes "politics as a performativity" (15). But what is the social effect of this understanding of politics? Toward what end might this notion point us? It seems as if the political now calls for (cosmopolitan) witnesses to the always already permanent slippage of signification and this (formal) process of repetition and reinscription outlines a space for "other forms of enunciation" (254). But will these "other forms of enunciation" naturally articulate resistance to the dominant political and ideological interests? For Bhabha, of course, we "need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences" (1). However, cultural differences, in themselves, do not necessarily mean opposition. Indeed, at the moment, cultural difference represents one of the latest zones for commodification and, in this regard, it ideologically legitimates capitalism. Bhabha homogenizes (cultural) difference and, consequently, he covers over ideological struggles within the space of cultural difference. In short, this other historical site is not the site for pure difference, which naturally resists the hegemonic; for it, too, is the site for political contestation.

Bhabha's formalism makes it seem as if ambivalence essentially inheres in discourse. Ambivalence results from opposed political interests that inflect discourses and so the ambivalence registers social conflict. In Marxism and the Philosophy and Language, Vološinov offers this materialist understanding of the sign:

Class does not coincide with the sign community, i.e. with the community which is the totality of users of the same set of signs for ideological communication. Thus various different classes will use one and the same language. As a result, differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes an arena of class struggle. (22)

The very concept—ideology—that could delineate the political character and therefore class interests involved in structuring the content of discourses, Bhabha excludes from his discourse.

In the end, Bhabha's discourse advocates what amounts to discursive freedom and he substitutes this for material freedom. Like Gilroy, Bhabha's discursive freedom takes place within the existing system. In contrast to Bhabha, Marx theorizes the material presupposition of freedom. In the German Ideology, Marx argues that "people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity" (61). Thus for Marx "[l]iberation" is an historical and not a mental act" (61). In suppressing the issue of need, Bhabha's text reveals his own class interests. The studied preoccupation with "ambivalence" reflects a class privilege, and it speaks to the crisis for (postcolonial) subjects torn between national affiliation and their privileged (and objective) class position within the international division of labor. The ambivalence is a symptom of social antagonism, but in Bhabha's hands, it becomes a transhistorical code for erasing the trace of class.

Here, then, is one of the primary effects of the postmodern knowledge practices: class is deconstructed as a metaphysical dinosaur. In this regard, postmodernists collude with the humanists in legitimating the sanctity of the local. Both participate in narrowing cultural intelligibility to questions of (racial) discourse or the (black) subject and, in doing so, they provide ideological immunity for capitalism. It is now very difficult to even raise the issue of class, particularly if you raise the issue outside of the logic of supplementarity—today's ruling intellectual logic which provides a theoretical analog to contemporary neo-liberal political structures.

In one of the few recent texts to explore the centrality of class, bell hooks' Where We Stand, we are, once again, still left with a reaffirmation of capitalism. For instance, hooks argues for changes within capitalism: "I identify with democratic socialism, with a vision of participatory economics within capitalism that aims to challenge and change class hierarchy" (156). Capitalism produces class hierarchy and, therefore, as long as capitalism remains, class hierarchy and antagonism will remain. Hence, the solution requires a transformation of class society. However, hooks mystifies capitalism as a transhistorical system and thus she can assert that the "poor may be with us always" (129). Under this view, politics becomes a matter of "bearing witness" to the crimes of capitalism, but rather than struggle for its replacement, hooks call for strategies of "self-actualization" and redistributing resources to the poor. She calls for the very same thing—collectivity—that capitalism cannot provide because social resources are privatized under capitalism. Consequently, Hooks' program for "self-esteem" is an attempt to put a human face on capitalism.

Whether one considers the recent work by African-American humanists, or discourse theorists, or even left-liberal intellectuals, these various groups—despite their intellectual differences—form a ruling coalition and one thing is clear: capitalism set the limit for political change, as there is no alternative to the rule of capital. In contrast to much of contemporary race theory, a transformative theory of race highlights the political economy of race in the interests of an emancipatory political project. Wahneema Lubiano once wrote that "the idea of race and the operation of racism are the best friends that the economic and political elite have in the United States" (vii). Race mystifies the structure of exploitation and masks the severe inequalities within global capitalism. I am afraid that, at this point, many contemporary race theorists, in their systematic erasure of materialism, have become close (ideological) allies with the economic and political elites, who deny even the existence of classes. A transformative race theory pulls back into focus the struggle against exploitation and sets a new social priority "in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (Marx 31).

[1] For the classic theorization of the base and superstructure problematic, I point the reader to Marx's preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and a more specific elaboration of the dialectical relation is found in Friedrich Engels' letter to Joseph Bloch. Both of these texts are readily available in Robert Tucker's The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978). A more recent theorization is available in Louis Althusser's Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review, 1971) and For Marx (London: Verso, 1990). In terms of race, an Althusserian account is presented in  Stuart Hall's "Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance" (Black British Cultural Studies Reader, eds. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeberg, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Hall's essay was originally published in 1980; however, by the 1990s, Hall shifts to a semiotic notion of race, and sees race as a "floating signifier".  In many ways, Hall's intellectual trajectory on race mirrors the larger shift from the "material" to the "semiotic" in social theory.

[2] For a sustained Marxist critique of humanism, see Louis Althusser's "Marxism and Humanism" in his For Marx.

Works Cited

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THE RED CRITIQUE 11 (Winter/Spring 2006)