Cooper: I’d like to begin first by asking you to elaborate just a little bit more on your notion of Foucault and his thesis about repression and how it applies in your own work.
Manjapra: Foucault was observing that in the 19th century there was a moment of discussion and talk around sex that previously had not happened. People were increasingly speaking about sex, especially to let’s say priests in confession, or to various kinds of surveillance institutions that emerged in civil society or in the state. So sex talk is a kind of talk that people were increasingly engaged in during the 19th century. There is a way in which we might read that as a story of sexual liberation — that people are talking about sex finally after a long period in which it always had been something repressed. But Foucault observes something different. People are speaking into existence this thing called sexuality or sex, which involves new ways of disciplining the body, of categorizing intimacy in social relations, as well as creating ways in which the state and various other civic institutions can surveil and control bodies. Something ‘unsaid’ is taking place. So, where we see talk about sex in the 19th century, we actually see repression taking place in a more amplified way than it had previously.
I’m taking that analytic insight from Foucault and applying it to abolition as a discourse of the 19th century. If we look at it on first pass, we would say ‘oh look, people are talking about freedom, people are talking about the end of slavery, that must mean that the end of slavery has come, that must mean that slavery is being reduced in different parts of the world.’ Historians have written about how there are various ideological changes that are taking place that make abolition and the end of slavery and freedom into a new kind of common sense for Western societies. But if we apply Foucault’s insight from the repression thesis to what’s taking place with the talk around anti-slavery and abolition, we would be more skeptical and we would look to see whether it’s actually the case. Actually, in fact we witness the arrival and expansion of new ways of controlling bodies, subjecting different kinds of bodies to coercive force, and limiting the freedom of various communities — but in a way that is hidden or that is shrouded by a discussion around freedom or the end of slavery.
So, that’s what I think one of Foucault’s most powerful insights was – is — the cunning of discourse. Discourse doesn’t tell us, in fact, what’s happening. It provides us a kind of alibi in order to legitimate or to justify the way that power operates — that’s what discourse is. Discourse is a set of techniques — or alibis — to legitimate the operation of power, and to make the operation of power seem common sense, or mundane, or without question. And that’s what we’re observing. In the 19th century, racialized forms of coercing and contracting labor — to use something that came up in our discussion — are expanding worldwide and more and more people are actually being subjected to the force economy; being whipped, being coerced, being punished, being imprisoned, being put in asylums. All done in order to compel them to work. But, this expansion is shrouded from view. The reason why it’s shrouded from view is not by accident, but it’s because everybody is talking about abolition, even if in effect what’s happening is the expansion of coercion, right? This fascinating 19th century dynamic is also the dynamic of liberalism. So my research proceeds from Foucault’s insight about the historical emergence of liberalism as a subterfuge, as a set of alibis, that shroud the operation of power.
Cooper: Do you think that that applies in every respect? When speaking about something, are we, in fact, making note that something else needs to be spoken about?
Manjapra: It is inherently part of the discourse of the powerful. So it’s about positionality, that when there is a discourse that belongs to a dominant community that discourse is not innocent, that discourse is serving the role of perpetuating — of normalizing a certain kind of power. That’s what I think Foucault was observing, but also more generally that’s a way of thinking about discourse. It’s not discourse in general, it’s discourse from a position of power.
Cooper: Once freedom was put within the realm of a powerful discourse — that’s when it should be noted that it is being actually repressed?
Manjapra: Yes, when freedom is being touted and celebrated by the powerful. When touted and celebrated by the powerless — well, those are two different sets of gestures.
Cooper: Robinson and Du Bois led me to ask: can you conceive of a capitalist structure not rooted in racial barriers and hierarchy? And if so, how — if it even exists?
Manjapra: I think of capitalism as inherently tangled up with racialization, gendering, and colonial power. And I can’t envision a capitalism that is not deeply informed and constructed out of those operations. The historical emergence of modern capitalism — certainly there have been many kinds of capitalist enterprise and commerce and trade — but as a mode of accumulating wealth and as a mode of production that has global aspirations and pursues accumulation into the infinite — emerges in and through processes of racial dispossession, the racialization of communities, forcible dispossession of communities based on racializing difference (as well as gendered, patriarchal drives to extract life). So, I don’t think there is a capitalism that is not also a racial, gendered, colonial capitalism. I think those three terms — racial, gendered, colonial — are not specifications of this general thing called capitalism, but are actually intrinsic qualities. That’s my sense.
There is this, I think, a misunderstanding that people like Cedric Robinson say “capitalism is always racial capitalism” and then you have historians who will say “but, what is racial capitalism? Isn’t all capitalism always inherently racial?” and I think that is actually the case. But we still have to speak of a racial, gendered, colonial capitalism because if we don’t do that, then it’s so easy for us to either overlook or push into our peripheral vision the fact that it’s really on the backs of racialized bodies, and gendered bodies, that modern wealth was constructed. That is always being hidden from view because that’s one of the very most important, central things that economics ignores. It imposes these isometric, standardized categories of labor and of subject and of property and all of these concepts render racialization and gendering invisible.
Cooper: And so what do you make of the Malthusian notion of a ‘crescendo’ to capital accumulation? Thomas Malthus believed there had to be a limit. Do you agree with that notion? Or do you think that modern capitalism still has yet to reach its crescendo?
Manjapra: I’m probably too much of a historian to agree with that notion, because I think that presumes a kind of a linearity as opposed to a process that’s much more dispersed and open and emerging — emergent as some would say. I do think that capitalist accumulation is inherently contradictory and it is continuously informed by new and emerging contradictions, so those contradictions are the result of the inherent irrationality, in fact, of capitalist accumulation. Capitalism relies upon asymmetrical ways of creating relations in which there are groups that are systematically disadvantaged and dispossessed. You cannot systematically disadvantage and dispossess people or resistance—when we think of life more generally, ecologies—without reaction and resistance, right? Contradiction within the system of capitalism means that there is always the seed of the undoing within the system itself, but the undoing is not necessarily something that happens at once and for all times and it’s over. Capitalism is an ongoing process that is marked by moments of undoing and of disintegration and then reorganization and reconfiguration, right?
Cooper: I think that’s a great definition — especially relevant for today.
Manjapra: Especially today — Jason Moore’s notion of ‘negative accumulation’ which maybe does have this Malthusian bend to it, but he does seem to see a direction in the life of capital and he sees it as tending towards its own death and its own self-destruction.
Cooper: Yes, especially with his notions of ecological degradation.
Manjapra: Right. That for him provides a kind of hard limit, but you know I think that’s where a historian would say ‘the new is always in the old.’ A historian, I think, is less convinced that there is ever an end. Rather, there is always the unexpected that somehow emerges. I am very interested in the unexpected and in the unanticipated and how it continually pops up.
Cooper: Definitely. Well I think that’s all that we have time for, thank you so much.
Manjapra: You’re very welcome — good questions!