The multiple capitalist crises the U.S. faces today are a result both of the inherent contradictions found within a capitalist social order, and from frictions and contradictions arising out of its articulation with two other systems of domination — those of patriarchy and white supremacy. These crises have generated extreme right populist movements (which are part of a global populist revolt of the right), as well as progressive social movements in black communities, among immigrant communities and their allies; and against those corporate and state forces responsible for the deadly acceleration of a devastating climate crisis. What are the institutional and political transformations that are necessary to work our way out of these multiple crises? Many within the left such as theorists Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi have argued that deep structural transformations are the only way to end the injustices and predations of the current financialized capitalist social order — structural transformations that most likely would lead to minimally a new, more robust, social democratic order or perhaps even a fully socialist society. This has also been a stance taken by many within black radical movements since the early 20th century and is once again being seriously debated within the radical black youth movements of this decade.
Many have argued that socialism minimally means the collective and democratic allocation of social and economic surplus. Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi have argued, “Whatever else socialism might mean, it must entail collective democratic determination of the allocation of social surplus.” Yet, there are also substantial frictions and potential conflicts brewing between progressive forces on how a social democratic or socialist regime would address the multiple demands that are emerging out of today’s social movements. A democratic socialist or socialist regime would have to determine how to, for example, adjudicate how to allocate that social surplus — whether between indigenous, black (and other historically racially oppressed populations) demands for example for sovereignty or reparative justice, and the demands of many environmental activists for prioritizing the deadly global phenomenon of extreme climate change including sometimes a demand — particularly in the global North — for zero or severely limited growth.
In the paper I first outline the framework my colleagues and I are theoretically developing for the analysis of what many have called racial capitalism. We have labeled our contribution the “regime of articulation” approach. I will not present that section for sake of time but concentrate on highlighting claims that some have and will argue are in conflict with each other.
For purposes of highlighting potential conflicts that could emerge within a social democratic politics, I discuss the demand for a reparative justice campaign to address the injustices derived from the historical and contemporary oppression and subordination of blacks in the U.S. Then, I show how these demands could come into conflict with other just demands such as the need to reverse the depredations on the environment that were greatly intensified by modern industrial and then financial capitalism. This is an example of a conundrum that a new socialist order would face. I argue that a policy of prioritizing the environment and as some argue concentrating on zero growth makes racial reparative justice projects much more difficult as any redistribution of wealth and other resources would have to come from existing stocks and not necessarily fueled in part by a regime of growth. This conundrum is particularly acute due not only the extraordinary harm that humans and other life is being threatened with — the growing lack of potable water for a staggering segment of the world’s population; the ravages of ever increasingly devastation due to monster storms; and, the near extinction of species vital to global food chains are just a few examples of the devastation we already face with far worse to come. There is the very real possibility that we are reaching or have reached a tipping point where the harm done is essentially irreversible within human time scales. For these reasons many have argued that environmental issues are fundamentally different as climate change has the very real potential of destroying most life on earth.
What is to be done? Reparative Justice and Climate Change
Some of those who came uninvited to these shores came in chains, not beneficiaries like the settler colonists who brutally exploited their labor — but uninvited nevertheless. In addition to the settler colonialists, shippers, foreign traders, and plantation and mining enterprises that benefitted from the original dispossession, genocide, and enslavement, what became the backbone of financial capital such as the large American and British insurance companies also benefitted as they made profits from insuring not only the slave trade but slaves within the U.S. as well. With the continuation of black oppression under Jim Crow, there were benefits that not only accrued to firms, financial institutions and capitalists, but as Du Bois and many, many others pointed out , to white laborers as well. All of us: not just the insurance companies, and universities that were built on stolen land and bodies are responsible for entering a process within which claims of justice derived from dispossession, conquest, genocide, slavery and their aftermath are addressed. Even within a liberal egalitarian framework reparations, or minimally a reparative justice campaign based on the history of black oppression and the current regime of white supremacy is justified. Liberal philosopher Tommie Shelby argues, for example “Principles of rectification should guide attempts to remedy or make amends for injuries and losses victims have suffered as a result of ongoing or past injustice.”
A full reparative racial justice campaign would not be limited to black oppression or to the U.S., but would within the U.S. and globally have to address questions of dispossession, expulsion, conquest, and genocide as well as the slave trade, slavery and the subsequent regimes of racial oppression. A regime of articulation approach would encourage us to think about not just the dismantling of white supremacy, but how the economy and basic institutions such as the family would have to be reorganized to eliminate the expropriation and oppression generated with capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy and that is generated by their articulation with each other. The point is that a reparative justice campaign would not rule in or out any specific remedies. It would insist on a discussion and acknowledgement of the harms done in the past, their current legacy, and the continuing harms that these articulated systems of domination produce in the present. The foundation of such a discussion would be a shared debate about the type of society that we all would want for ourselves and our descendants and this would involve attending to claims of injustice made by multiple groups that experience(d) contemporary and historical injustice.
Competing Claims for a Socially Allocated Surplus and Economic Growth
Complicating a claim for reparative justice is that some of those who are justly concerned with the catastrophic effects of climate change not only on human populations, but the entire planet, are demanding that taking on the environment become the absolute priority, including for some a policy of zero or severely limited growth — especially within the global North. Polities such as the U.S. have historically and in this period been both the main source and beneficiaries of the devastating human assault on our planet.
Why is there such a singular focus on the environment? There are several reasons. For example the United Nations 2019 Report on Climate Change makes an extremely strong set of scientific claims for restructuring our priorities. The following passage is from the UN website: “Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment.”
This justifiable view is the basis for advocating severe limits on economic growth and a fundamental reordering not only of our global, domestic and local priorities — but a transformation in the economy, society and our lives that completely reshapes our relationship to the planet — both to life and land. A central question is whether the necessary transformations can be achieved within any capitalist social order.
Many argue that the human emphasis, especially under capitalism, on domination of the planet is a massive part of problem that has led to the current environmental catastrophe. For example, Nancy Fraser argues that the “hidden abode” of the expropriation of the environment is a fundamental aspect of a capitalist social order one that leads to the depredation of the land as surely as it does the exploitation of workers and the expropriation of racially subordinate populations. Consequently, some scholars and activists argue against a preoccupation with emphasizing growth even as a mechanism for addressing social problems.
Zero growth demands, however, make the possibility of reparative justice campaigns even under social democratic and socialist regimes more difficult both pragmatically and politically due to the intensification of the fight over resources during a zero growth regime. Redressing the environmental predations of capitalism has to be a priority. Balancing these priorities politically, morally and pragmatically will be a daunting challenge to future social democratic or socialist regimes.
How should we think about these conflicts? First, we need to remember that processes of dispossession, genocide, slave trade/slavery, and environmental degradation and spoilage are all tied together historically and to some degree theoretically. Foster and Clark argue “the extreme expropriation of the earth, in combination with the slave system and imperialism, provided the wealth and raw materials spurring the development and expansion of industrial capitalism.”
Indigenous scholar and activist Nick Estes makes the following argument about the role of empire, the environment and racial capitalism:
It used “race” as a form of rule — to subordinate, to kill, and to enslave others — and used that difference for profit-making. Racial capitalism was exported globally as imperialism, including to North America in the form of settler colonialism. As a result, the colonized and racialized poor are still burdened with the most harmful effects of capitalism and climate change, and this is why they are at the forefront of resistance.
What are some of the possibilities for addressing the claims of oppressed peoples such as the black population in the U.S. while also pursuing aggressive policies to combat the expropriation and ravages of the environment? Indigenous activists and communities have taken a lead in fighting the environmental disasters that are the result of unchecked corporate greed, but also in restoring not only the original occupants to the land (ownership has a radically different meaning for many of these communities than it does within a capitalist social order), but also rebalancing the relationships between humans, the land and all living beings. Environmental justice movements, often urban-based, have also taken a lead in simultaneously fighting white supremacy and the environmental disasters that are the result of the articulation of white supremacy and the capitalist social order. To fight environmental depredations, one must take on white supremacy both globally and within the U.S. Areas populated by those once labeled “inferior” and/or “uncivilized” are most often the recipients of toxic waste whether through as literally the dumping grounds for toxic garbage or through the racist siting of industrial enterprises that produce poisonous byproducts. We would also need to consider other forms of growth in a world not driven by mindless accumulation and quest for profits, but instead tailor sustainable growth so that humans and the planet as a whole have the greatest possibility for flourishing.
The basic point is that we need to begin to think about how to address multiple sets of demands that flow from the expropriation and degradation of human populations and nature, understanding that historically the assault on populations considered inferior and on nature were tied together in a capitalist social order that thrived in its articulation with the transformation of patriarchy under capitalism and the emergence of white supremacy. Addressing injustice — historical and current — and saving the planet both require the dismantling of the articulation of these systems of domination and of the systems themselves.
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.