Gargi Bhattacharyya
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Imagined maps of racial capitalism

This chapter tells the story of an imaginary map of racial capitalism. The image functions as both mystery and diagram, leading the viewer to trace possible routes of culpability and connection but also illustrating unexpected relations of supplementarity. In a previous imperial era, the pictorial depiction of Britannia sought to visualize a set of global connections with Britannia herself at centre, in a relation of benevolence and/or domination to the massed others of the world. This story and image reflects on this earlier genre of visualizing a particular moment in the history of racial capitalism. In particular, the image raises the following questions: who or what centres systems of racial capitalism today? What does the ‘periphery’ look like in our time? How can we conceptualize the supplementary role of social reproduction and imagine social reproduction beyond the household? What clues can we uncover to trace the spatial pathways inhabited by racial capitalism? What, still now, lives in the shadows and what practices of imagination can help us to touch those spaces?

When I was young, I was transfixed by maps of empire presented as menageries of diverse life and tributaries of commodified abundance. These spectacularized maps served to affirm Britain as the centre of the world, and perhaps the universe. At the same time, this was mapping as display, as catalogue (both in the sense of categorization and also in the later manner of Argos, the UK's ubiquitous catalogue retailer), as we learned to view empire as the infrastructure for a delectable consumer experience. The imperial map with the world bringing its bounty to lay at the feet of Britannia is a melding together of the geographical and the imaginative. We are supposed to understand that it is only the commodity routes of a globe reordered to Britannia's will that can offer up its fruits and pleasures to our ravenous eyes. Although the imagined map that I offer here (Figure 22.1) is less celebratory, there is something of the catalogue of possibilities in this depiction. So, if the imagined map of empire transforms violence into imagined plenty, then perhaps the imagined map of racial capitalism reveals the infrastructure of violence enabling the supposed victories of global capitalism.

Figure 22.1 Imagined maps of racial capitalism

Why imagine, why a map?

My imagined map of racial capitalism learns something from these earlier imperial maps, in particular the blurring of spatial depictions and storytelling. Somewhere between treasure map and hieroglyph, the map of racial capitalism reveals something about the interconnected overlappingness of racial capitalism that seems to get lost in narratives about race and class. The imaginary map tries to circumvent this non-debate, revealing the interdependence of differing modes of value extraction. Instead of pitting wagedness against non- or lesser wagedness, or race against class, we ‘see’ the interpenetration and balancing between modes of capitalist violence.

So this is not a map for navigation. Not a shortcut to avoiding the ugly bottlenecks of dehumanization that, awkwardly, clutter up the landscape of consumerist promise. This is another kind of mapping, one designed to help us orient ourselves and to register our relations to each other.

Some points about racial capitalism

The racial capitalism of the map is one where something called ‘race’ (although sometimes also ‘migration’, ‘religion’ or ‘caste’) serves as an arbitrary marker positioning us all differentially in the landscape of economic life. These differential statuses lead to: varieties of exclusion or partial exclusion from or inclusion in the formal economy or the more protected/regulated forms of waged work; greater and lesser vulnerability to non-waged forms of economic exploitation; more and less likelihood of finding value scraped or squeezed or outright stolen from the realm of social reproduction. The analytic framework of racial capitalism – which I prefer to think of as a question rather than an assertion – helps us to understand the manner in which capitalism has both inhabited and mobilized racialized differentiations in the process allocating populations to realms of economic activity that operate in parallel or in segmented ways that disrupt the possibility of class unity. The point of this critique is not to say, oh look, abracadabra, let us see beyond the false divisions of racial logics to the truth of our essential unity. Instead, this is a question which asks, if we are divided not merely by poor ideas but also through the materiality of racialized divisions embodied in an economic landscape where our differential status is not an aside but is core to the functioning of the exploitative whole, what then? How should we seek to understand our world of injustice and the possibilities of change then? The map is one small contribution to how we might begin to think about this challenge.

Everything is social reproduction

A significant lesson of the imaginary map is the extent of the realm of social reproduction. In fact, the two-dimensional image cannot do justice to the depth and volume of this segment. You, the viewer, see a large amorphous shape in which the majority of the slice is taken up with the highly varied business and resources of social (and other) reproduction. What you cannot see is the three-dimensional bulk in which social reproduction becomes almost the whole object, a lumpy and shifting ball of interdependence with the greatest weight in the segments where human and non-human life meet.

Another clue in the image, for those attentive enough to see it, is the small but important element of the productive economy that bulges out from the larger activities of social reproduction. Except for some parts of the productive economy – which deplete, but return nothing – everything is contained within the virtuous body of social reproduction.

The components of the map

The secret map of racial capitalism tries to indicate what is the larger whole and what is the smaller activity. So one key lesson of the map is to expand our sense of where and what social reproduction might be. Social reproduction in this account is the whole thing. Far, far more than the small but necessary activities undertaken to remake the worker before the next day of grinding toil, or just dull bureaucracy. More than the mundane bodycare of feeding and cleaning. More, even, than the too-often heteronormative accounts of remaking the species.

Instead, the map reminds us that social reproduction is far more than what happens in households; and, of course, as we have increasingly learned to say to each other, social reproduction is far, far more than the merely human. Largely, we have been trained to think of social reproduction as something that happens within species, or at least this has been our habit until recently. However, our world on fire forces us to think about social reproduction as a far greater complex, intertwining species and modes of being and forms of life, and also as the infrastructure that enables life in a way that is so far beyond the capacity of any one species that I blush to think of our former foolishness. The map tries to nudge towards this larger understanding, imaging our awkward attempts to live and order the world as always taking place alongside modes of being where our human endeavours make sense only as modes of coexistence.

I hope that the map reveals that there is something joyous about seeing the image of social reproduction dwarfing our small human ambitions. And also to see some of our most pernicious and damaging human ambitions as the sphere that breaks out of a much longer history of social reproduction through mutuality. The map encourages us to think of this, the so-called ‘real economy’ as the anomaly, an aberration that leeches energy out of a symbiotic system that preceded it and may well come to outlive it.

Of course there are some parts of that productive economy that rest within the sphere of social reproduction; the things that we do to build and make, sustain and invent, rest in this space. The productive economy continues to overlap with what we must do to stay alive. It melds together, still now in places, the business of care and the business of manufacture. However, other parts of the supposedly productive economy seem to increasingly ebb away from what can remake life.

Of course that's an old, old story.

But perhaps we forget it too often, that there is the business of life and there is the business of profit, and although they can and do overlap, they are not at all the same thing. And when we divert too many of the Earth's resources to the carbuncle that has been added to social reproduction, the realm of the productive economy that is increasingly distanced from the remaking of life, perhaps everyone then suffers. Perhaps that cannot be sustained. And perhaps we all need to think of some way of adjusting things a little so that our collective endeavour regains a focus on the remaking of life.

What about the natural world?

I was uncertain when drawing the picture about whether the realm of so-called nature should fall within or outside the realm of social reproduction. Are we within a realm of nature as humans have thought before, in a constant battle to master resources and forces that go far beyond us?

In the end I decided to put the markers of the natural world within the realm of social reproduction. And, in particular, to point out the realms of the natural world which are in symbiosis with other living things, including us human beings. If this was a larger project, I would zoom into the three realms of water, air and land to image and narrate the histories of appropriation and of interdependence that can be understood by thinking of these arenas without which there is no life. For now, the viewer must imagine these unseen worlds.

I realized that the scale here is a little bit confusing and I could not quite get that right. But the clue is to understand how our occasional ability to achieve coexistence with other living things, and with the landscape that the world gives us, has been and will continue to be a major element of what social reproduction can be. These are human and non-human practices that are right at the heart of what sustaining life can be. And they have never gone away.

It is true, we may have got more embarrassed about these habits. Perhaps they are not what is valued. Most of the time, they are seen to be in contradistinction to the productive economy, not something that can be planned for. Not the business of development, and certainly not how life is remade. But the world shakes us, and reminds us that in fact, far more than the world of productivity, these are the activities that might keep us all alive.

The necropolis

One part of the map to note, a part that is smaller and less detailed but nevertheless highly significant, is the location of the necropolis in the metropolis. When I started this drawing it was before COVID, before we understood that the landscape of death could remake every sense of the economy that we ever had.

Now, of course, we understand, all too clearly, that being made additionally vulnerable to avoidable death is precisely the logic that distributes us differentially across the economic landscape. The necropolis is more literally that than we may have realized before.

And equally, it continues to embed itself within the most shiny and forward-looking of urban landscapes. In this emergent map I include the small nod to the double location of the necropolis to remind us all that the excessive dehumanizing and bloodthirsty exploitation at the heart of racial capitalism is not elsewhere, nor far away. Quite the contrary. This violence resides within the heartland of capitalist progress. And also ripples across the globe, within every commodity chain, and also within every extractive process. The death is all around and the necropolis, also, is one of the hidden truths of racial capitalism. The manner in which the business of staying alive is enmeshed in the too-early and avoidable death of others.

The pleasures of staying alive

Some other parts of the map are more cheerful, or try to be. I try to point to some of the activity, which seems less registered in accounts that remain over-focused on the production. If the more established account of social reproduction is the work that surrounds and supplements the productive economy, but which is still recognizable as something like work, albeit work that does not merit a wage, social reproduction as depicted on the map extends far further into all manner of activity and coexistence.

Social reproduction as it appears in this map contains those elements of the natural world where we have practised forms of life where we are able to cohabit, utilize and sustain but not corrupt and destroy. But it also includes all of that other stuff that could never really be characterized as work of any kind, waged or unwaged. The work of social reproduction which is not work at all. The myriad of things that we do that are the business of life, and which also sustain life. This is the section of the map that reminds us of the pleasure and necessity of sleep. And the very many varied forms in which sleep can happen. A section that tries to indicate the importance of play, not play as an educative function or play as a training for adult life, but play as the thing in itself that makes it possible for us all to live the lives that we were supposed to have.

Perhaps most importantly, the quite open section, which was so hard to draw in any way that made sense, that points to the excess that belongs to us and to us alone. The eight hours for what we will, not the eight hours in which we labour. Or the eight hours in which we rest, which is a recuperation for some other force when we rest our bodies not for ourselves, but to prepare us for the production of work to come. Not those two sections of eight, but the third, unmarked section where our will and our desire and our imagination and the excess of what we wish from our lives, whether or not we ever reach it, can take place.

Racial capitalism, sadly, also describes the processes by which that other segment of our lives can be recuperated into productive circles. Racial capitalism describes the manner in which, beyond the wage relation, other aspects of the remaking of life can be squeezed for value, where the activity that we undertake for no other master somehow can be used against us.

The imagined map reminds us, so sadly, that all of that stuff – the stuff we choose, the stuff we find, the stuff we do together, and the stuff we choose to do when we're most alone – all of it might in the end be squeezed back into a world which sees most human endeavours as no more than a source of wealth for someone else. Most of the map reminds us of this unhappy possibility. More than possibility, an unhappy reality for far too many. But it also reminds us that this utopian wish for the time and the space and the resources to do as we will ripples along, despite the violence that we all suffer today. And that ripple of a utopian undercurrent is also part of what links us in the unhappy present of racial capitalism.

Instead of trying to teach us how to navigate around the obstacles of a world scarred and broken by racial capitalism, the map is a way of appreciating our role in an interdependent complex. Of course, as with all these snapshots, the attempt to visualize something that is always in movement – of people moving in and out of different components, different segments, different modes of activity – doesn't quite work. The lived map of racial capitalism is nothing like as clean and tidy as the picture before you. However, I do hope there's something in its strange, amoeba-like interconnection that reveals some of the secrets of racial capitalism.

And, more than that, reveals them in a way that lets us relearn our connections to each other. Because at heart that is the real promise and contribution of accounts of racial capitalism, not only how we are divided but how, despite the violence, the exploitation, the arbitrary allocation of differential status, despite all of that, we are in this ugly, ugly thing together. Which means that we are each other's best hope.

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