Book review: Race and America’s Long War by Nikhil Pal Singh

Until recently, US academia maintained a strong division between the analysis of racism and the analysis of capitalism. The former flourished within certain limits while the latter was neglected; each was artificially separated from the other. But that is no longer true. A body of work has emerged in the last few years that draws on Cedric Robinson’s concept of racial capitalism, a term he used to emphasise capitalism’s inability to universalise waged labour and the related racialisation of ‘unfree’ labouring populations. No doubt the term’s recent prominence among scholars and activists is driven by the search for a politics that can align the two most energetic of recent Left movements in the US: the new iteration of the black freedom movement that finds expression in Black Lives Matter and the movement against neoliberalism that runs through Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

Race and America's Long War book cover

Singh’s Race and America’s Long War will be regarded as a major text within this body of work. It attempts to develop an analytical framework that connects US state violence to capitalism, race to class, and what Singh calls the ‘inner wars’ of settler colonialism, slavery and their domestic afterlives with the ‘outer wars’ of US colonialism and imperialism beyond North America. Singh’s argument is organised around the long intertwining of these inner and outer wars and their capacity to constantly renew a racial ordering of capitalism. In this way, he sets out to overcome not only the separation of race analysis from class analysis but also the separation of questions of race from questions of international relations and foreign policy within US academic work. Doing so makes visible the global projection of US racism and the fabrication of racial enemies within by US colonialism and imperialism.

James Baldwin wrote in 1967 that: ‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war – this is the bitter truth. The assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ But, for all the current scholarly attention paid to the history of black struggle, little remains of the movement’s ability, for most of the twentieth century, to organically link the struggle within the urban colonies of the US to the struggles for national liberation in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Singh’s work is exceptional in its willingness to connect the militarised killing of black people on the streets of US cities with the militarised killing of Muslims in the ‘ungoverned spaces’ of Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, and to trace the links between the prison-industrial complex within the US and the ‘black sites’ of War on Terror incarceration without. His work starts from the assumption that the inner and outer wars can still only be understood in terms of each other, even though ‘national liberation’ is no longer an adequate term for empire’s antagonists.

Singh provides us with an elaborate and wide-ranging account of how such connections might be rethought in the context of the Trump presidency. Ranging from the frontier wars of the colonial period to the ‘war on terror’, he traces the ‘affinities between war making and race making’ (p. xii), arguing that racism in the United States is sustained through the constant marking out of enemies along internal and external racial borders. The ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on terror’ are thus episodes in a longer history of racial wars that stretches back to before the founding of the United States. Within this longer history, ‘foreign policy and domestic politics develop in a reciprocal relationship and produce mutually reinforcing approaches to managing social conflict’ (p. 8).

Thus William Casey was not only the architect of the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam war and Reagan’s director of the CIA but also a co-founder of the Manhattan Institute thinktank, a key vector for the introduction of ‘broken windows’ policing in US cities. Over the same period, Daryl Gates, who had studied counter-insurgency and guerilla warfare, transformed the Los Angeles Police Department into a military-style fighting force, stating: ‘The streets of America’s cities had become a foreign territory’ (p. 9). The application of military vocabulary to tackling crime did not begin with Nixon’s ‘war on drugs’; Lyndon Johnson spoke in 1967 of a ‘war within our borders’ (p. 6). The use of the military to quell the uprising in Detroit that year showed that the ‘war on the home front was not a metaphor’ (p. 7) nor an ‘analogy’ but a ‘homology’: ‘a single mode of rule’ (p. 62), informed by theories of counter-insurgency, applied across different contexts. Policing and war-making are merged together in the reproduction of racism.

With the ‘war on terror’, the celebratory photographs of brutalised prisoners at Abu Ghraib were reminiscent of postcards of lynching parties from a century before. And the search for precedents for the use of exceptional violence against ‘savage’ enemies ran the gamut of the history of US colonialism. For Iraq-war advocate Robert Kaplan and Jay Garner, the first administrator of the US occupation, the model for what to do in Iraq in 2003 was what the US did in the Philippines a century earlier. Kaplan adds: ‘The war on terrorism was really about taming the frontier’ (p. 16). Yale University professor of military history John Lewis Gaddis argued that the US’s ‘preventive’ war in Iraq had its origins in the wars that cleansed the US frontier of ‘native Americans, pirates, marauders, and other free agents’ (p. 108). When Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote his 2003 memo seeking to justify torture, he turned to an 1873 case of Modoc Indian prisoners for a legal precedent. Not for nothing was the operation to kill Osama bin Laden known as Geronimo.

Singh argues that the US has never stopped fighting ‘savages’ at its frontiers, even as these racial enemy figures took on new forms with ‘the ebb and flow of animus against migrants, the more recent rise of Islamophobia, or the periodically renewed ambit of antiblackness from slavery and Jim Crow to mass imprisonment’ (p. xvi). In each case, the racial enemy is described as incapable by nature of following ‘civilised’ rules of conflict and therefore can legitimately be denied substantive rights and confronted with exceptional force. ‘Policing makes race when it removes barriers to police violence. War makes race when it relieves legal barriers to war’s limitation’ (p. 68). Fascism in the US is best understood, he suggests, not in terms of neo-Nazis entering the White House but as the permanent state of emergency that abrogates liberal norms within racially defined spaces, such as frontiers, plantations, reservations, borders, internment camps, occupations, prisons and ghettoes – the necessary but disavowed shadow of the official proclamations of liberal rights and freedoms. Indeed, the freedom and property of those deemed capable of rational self-rule are directly tied to ‘a moral and legal right to murder or sequester racial outsiders – designated as savages and slave’ (p. 37).

The components of this story have been told separately elsewhere; Singh’s achievement is to synthesise a broad swathe of scholarship into a singular sweeping argument. But what makes Race and America’s Long War especially significant is its attempt to relate this history of racial violence to the history of class relations and the accumulation of capital. In an elegant and insightful chapter that draws on recent work on primitive accumulation, Singh rereads Marx’s Capital, Volume 1 to challenge accounts, such as Robert Brenner’s, that see the capitalist relations of production born in the English countryside of the 1500s as enabling extra-economic coercion to be dispensed with in a radically new system of class rule. On these accounts, capitalists dominate, for the most part, through what Marx called the ‘silent compulsion of economic relations’ acting upon the ‘free’ waged worker. Slavery under capitalism then appears as an anomaly indicating the survival of pre-capitalist histories rather than as an expression of capitalism itself. Along with other scholars working within the racial capitalism perspective, Singh critiques these accounts, arguing that they imply slavery and racism can only appear as irrational archaisms operating according to a non-capitalist logic, such that questions of race and class become isolated from each other theoretically and practically.

Singh notes that Marx’s own approach to these questions is more ambiguous. On the one hand, Marx repeatedly used slavery as a metaphor for the exploitation of waged workers who, he says, are subjected to a ‘veiled slavery’ that is different in appearance only from the real thing: coercion is not absent from waged work but just takes a more abstract form. And Marx writes straightforwardly of capitalism’s dependence on the plunder of slavery and colonialism. On the other hand, he also describes capitalism and slavery as expressions of separate historical epochs, each following distinct logics. Singh wants to dispense with those strands of Marx’s thought that imply a sequential relationship between slavery and capitalism and instead bring out those that suggest simultaneity: capitalism, on this view, constantly recreates itself through differentiations of waged and unwaged labour (slavery is one example), which in turn are associated with racial ‘divisions between productive humanity and disposable humanity’ (p. 89). The violence of state racism can then be explained in terms of the ‘cutting-edge techniques of control, surveillance, and sanctioned killing’ (p. 90) needed to manage the continuous ‘armed appropriation’ (p. 92) of ‘the enslaved, segregated, undocumented, colonized, and dispossessed’ (p. xi) without which capitalism’s sphere of wage exploitation could not exist.

Coherence is a problem for any work of synthesis such as this and at times there is an element of haziness in the various ways in which Singh characterises race – generally emphasising the discursive, sometimes the socio-economic. And this is exacerbated by the sense that, in Singh’s picture of racial capitalism, the ruling class is not foregrounded as a dynamic force and, hence, the question of how capital and the state are related. The passive voice prevails: we learn more about techniques of domination that are used than about who uses them. How the discursive matrix that produces racial enemies is tethered to the interests of particular groups is unclear. An almost exclusive emphasis on the signifying field of domination tends to mute the agency of groups in political struggle and their opposing interests.

Singh draws on Stuart Hall et al.’s classic Policing the Crisis to support his argument but, in this respect, there is a significant difference. For Hall, the construction of racial enemies involved the displacement of class antagonisms onto the plane of race. The logic is one of fantasy but with a real basis: the fear of the black mugger is actually the displaced fear of the black radical which, in turn, is the displaced fear of insurgency against the ruling class. This is what is meant by saying ‘black crime becomes the signifier of the crisis’ (p. 339). Likewise, the figure of the ‘Muslim terrorist’ was not conjured out of nothing in national security thinktanks, but is a displaced response to actual political movements, most significantly the Palestinian national movement. Lacking this link back to an actual crisis or insurgency, Singh’s account tends towards solipsism. This means he is unable to derive from his broader analysis a meaningful programme of political action; instead there are platitudes, like the call to win over white people to ‘a nonracist politics centered on economic justice’ (p. 176).

Nevertheless, Race and America’s Long War effectively consolidates the existing scholarship on racial capitalism and opens up new avenues of exploration in connecting racism and war. For these reasons, it is a remarkable work.

Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017), 296 pp. $24.95, £20.00.

This review first appeared in the journal Race & Class.

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