he metaphysics of race is by now a familiar topic in philosophy. Philosophers of the last two or three decades interested in the subject of race found themselves presented with two main alternatives, traditional (usually racist) old-fashioned biological conceptions of race (racial naturalism/racial realism/racial essentialism/racial biologism) and a nouveau liberal white color-blindness (racial eliminativism) that urged us to drop the concept from our vocabulary altogether. Either race was natural or, like witches, race did not really exist. Most philosophers of race (the important exceptions being Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack) chose to reject both alternatives as unsatisfactory and sought instead to carve out a metaphysical space for race as neither biological nor nonexistent, but sociopolitically constructed and existent (antieliminativist constructionism).1
Indeed—not, alas, primarily because of the work of philosophers, whose cultural influence is quite marginal—the claim that “race is constructed” has long since become an academic cliché. But the consensus in the radical academy on this point conceals deep theoretical disagreements, both because some authors use the language of construction precisely to indicate race’s nonexistence (“race is constructed and so doesn’t exist”: eliminativist constructionism) and because of the divergence even among those who do affirm its existence on what the constituents, the building blocks so to speak, of this “construction” are. Are they discourses, prejudices, culture, performance, legal decisions, social mores? And how might they be related to different theorists’ competing views of the workings of sociopolitical causality, and their different framings of the role of the body?
In this chapter, I want to see whether older, now seemingly outdated (and for some, discredited) categories famously associated with the Marxist tradition, specifically materialism
, can illuminate this debate. Does it make sense to think of race as material? If so how? And what insights might this give us into its dynamics?
“Materialism” in Marxist Theory
Let me begin with a review of the Marxist framework, especially necessary for a readership for whom this is likely to be an obsolete paradigm. In the heyday of Marxist influence in the academy (now long past), materialism was a key term, but with the rise of poststructuralism, it has largely disappeared from sociopolitical theory, except in the work of some feminist writers. Materialism for Marx and Engels has at least two senses, though these are not clearly distinguished, and in fact in the secondary literature on Marx and Engels they are sometimes conflated.
The first sense is the sense familiar to us from introductory courses in metaphysics: materialism as an ontological
position that contrasts with other ontological positions, such as idealism or dualism.2
Materialism in this sense claims that the only things that exist are physical entities: there are no souls, no spirits, no minds outside of the thinking brain, no God. Obviously, Marxism is not unique in affirming such a view, and both Marx and Engels saw themselves as part of an older materialist tradition in philosophy that stretched back to ancient Greece. In their opinion, Ludwig Feuerbach was unique among their theoretical adversaries, the Young Hegelians, in being a materialist, though ultimately a materialist who (in their view) did not follow his premises where they pointed. As they write in The German Ideology
: “As far as Feuerbach is a materialist he does not deal with history, and as far as he considers history he is not a materialist. With him materialism and history diverge completely.”3
The second, somewhat fuzzier sense could be termed sociopolitical
materialism: this is not an ontological view of the traditional kind just demarcated, but rather a claim, or set of claims, about patterns of sociopolitical causality. Sociopolitical materialism is asserting that (1) the sociopolitical system can be differentiated into different elements; (2) some of these elements should be thought of as “material” and others as “ideal”; and (3) overall patterns of sociopolitical causality are determined by the “material” elements. The emphasis is on “overall” because materialism in this sense is not (at least
in nonreductivist versions) denying that “ideal” elements have some
causal efficaciousness. What it denies is that they are equally or more important in shaping the overall sociopolitical dynamic. So materialism in this sense is supposed to be an important general truth about the workings of the social world, just as materialism in the ontological sense is supposed to be an important general truth about the nature of the universe.
What were these “material” elements, and why were they so called? Marx and Engels seem to have been working with the following analogy: Materialism as an ontological position affirms the general independence of the material world from the mental. The universe preexisted humanity, other thinking beings, indeed all forms of life. So the universe does not depend on us (or on anybody else). Moreover, when life and the mental (eventually) come into existence, they do so as functions of physical structures, without which they could not survive. So, the reality is that only material entities exist.
The connection with materialism in the second sense is then the supposed analogy between an ontological asymmetry and a causal asymmetry. Materialism as a sociopolitical thesis affirms the differential causal significance of a particular social sector that is also (though not in the same way, obviously) “independent of us.” We bring society as a whole into existence by our actions, so it is clearly not an independence of this kind. Moreover, if we were all to perish tomorrow through some catastrophe, society would perish also, so it is not an independence of that kind either. And as long as society exists, it obviously requires our collective participation to function, so this kind of independence is ruled out also.
So what could be left? Marx and Engels’s argument is that because we are material creatures, with objective prerequisites for our existence to continue, economic production is necessary. This is independent of our will in the sense that—unless we are willing to die—society has
to be arranged in a certain way and certain things have
to be done. But production depends on the level of technological development; we cannot bring into existence a system beyond existing social capabilities. And unless we are able to produce individually for ourselves, our access to social goods will be limited by the power of others. These techno-economic constraints—the level of human technological development and the power relations in which economic production is organized—are thus dubbed by Marx and Engels as the material
. They set limits on social and individual possibilities and are independent of our will because (1) without access to the means of production, we would not be able to survive; and (2) because of this “material” necessity, the owners of the means of production have differential power over the lives of others, who
do not own the means of production. This asymmetrical significance is metaphorically signaled by designating technology, raw materials, human laboring capacity, and the power relations within which production takes place (the “forces” and “relations” of production in Marxist jargon) as the “base” of society, by contrast with the “superstructure.” Class, understood as one’s relationship to the means of production, is therefore a more fundamental category than other social group memberships. So within this taxonomy, class is theoretically privileged as material
, causally and explanatorily central, in a way that other social groups are not. Class is material, part of the base, while the state, the legal system, morality, and culture are superstructural, “ideal.”4
Given what has just been said, it is obvious that nature also must be “material” for Marx and Engels. It is, of course, a materiality that (once humans achieve a certain technological level) is increasingly subject to modification by human causality. Marx and Engels are emphatic on seeing humanity as part
of nature, rather than lifted above it, but we are natural creatures whose distinctive natural sociality and capacity for technological advance make us capable of reacting back on nature and modifying, within limits, the determinants that shape us. For this reason Marx rejected theories of naturalistic determination, such as biological and geographical determinism, that represented human beings as products of a natural causality unmediated by, or largely impervious to, the social and the realm of social causality. But as the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro warned decades ago, the architectural metaphor of base and superstructure needs to take into account that this underlying “base” of nature on which the “base” of the forces and relations of production rests does not disappear, even if its causality is generally mediated through the social.5
In Marxists’ political insistence on discrediting naturalistic materialism, the danger is that the natural is denied efficacious causality altogether:
Marxists put themselves in a scientifically and polemically weak position if, after rejecting the idealist arguments which claim to show that the only reality is that of the Spirit and that cultural facts are in no way dependent on economic structures, they then borrow the same arguments to deny the dependence of man on nature. … [M]an as a biological being, endowed with a certain (not unlimited) adaptability to his external environment, and with certain impulses towards activity and the pursuit of happiness, subject to old age and death, is not an abstract construction, nor one of our prehistoric ancestors, a species of pithecanthropus now superseded by historical and
social man, but still exists in each of us and in all probability will still exist in the future. … To maintain that, since the “biological” is always presented to us as mediated by the “social,” the “biological” is nothing and the “social” is everything, would once again be idealist sophistry.6
What is required, then, is a sociopolitical materialism that does not end up subsuming the natural into the sociopolitical, treating the body as if it simply disappears into the body politic. With the apparent demise of Marxism since the 1970s to 1980s, of course, materialism of any kind has long been seen as refuted, displaced by poststructuralism and a radical constructionism. But Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, the editors of a recent book on what they call the “new materialisms,” argue that materialism “is once more on the move after several decades of abeyance.”7
They contend that work across a number of disciplines suggests that “the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society,” and thus, that “it is now timely to reopen the issue of matter and once again to give material factors their due in shaping society and circumscribing human prospects”:
This means returning to the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the place of embodied humans within a material world. … [T]heorists are compelled to rediscover older materialist traditions while pushing them in novel, and sometimes experimental, directions or toward fresh applications.8
In this materialist spirit (!), then, I want to explore how the “older materialist tradition” of Marxism and political economy could possibly be developed, in the light of more recent scholarship, to theorize race and racial embodiment in materialist terms.
Alcoff on Materialism
The work of Linda Martín Alcoff will be a useful reference point here, since in her essay collection Visible Identities
Alcoff stakes out a theoretical position with which I am in fundamental sympathy. Alcoff, too, is trying to recuperate materialism for race and gender identities. Thus, we find her rejecting orthodox Marxism’s dismissal of “identity politics” while simultaneously
(unlike the post-Marxist theory of the 1980s onward) affirming the importance of Marxist class categories and the need to recognize that “capitalism was a racial and gender system from its inception,” so that “The real challenge that identity politics must address in my view is the need to articulate its precise relation to class.”10
She is hostile (as virtually all feminist philosophers are) to a biologistic naturalism about gender while simultaneously warning (as significantly fewer do) that “poststructuralism … threatens to deconstruct the feminist subject as well as the female subject” and rejecting Judith Butler’s view that “all is culture” and performance.11
She repudiates (along with virtually everybody else in the radical academy) a class-reductivist or naturalist materialism while simultaneously (along with a smaller number of us) being emphatic on the need to reconstruct a new materialism that is not theoretically handicapped in these ways, which in the case of gender would be “an analysis that maintains the central importance of the material reality of the sexed body.”12
In sum, “gender is both positional and material.”13
So Alcoff is in agreement with classical Marxism (and contra poststructuralist feminism) on the importance of the material/ideal distinction, while rejecting classical Marxism’s restriction of materiality to class. Unlike those theorists who would say that materialism is either false (since in fact it is discourse that determines everything) or meaningless (since this “binary opposition”—idealism versus materialism—is an artifact of a conceptual framework that needs to be transcended and abandoned), Alcoff wants to insist that materialism is meaningful and true.
The question then is: What about race? Alcoff ’s self-consciously materialist countertheorization of identity politics and identity metaphysics is focused more on gender than on race, but she does say, in her chapter on mixed race, that “any materialist account of the self must take race into account.”14
But what would a distinctively materialist constructionism look like? How do we theorize the social constructedness of race in a theory that prioritizes material determinants as its crucial shaping factors, and, relatedly, how should we understand the materiality of race (if it is indeed material) in relation to these other materialities of class and gender?
Race as Material: Differential Access to Economic Opportunities and Wealth
To start with, of course, it would have to be reemphasized that one would not be arguing for race as material in the naturalistic sense. For contemporary
postmodernism, it is virtually axiomatic that the body is constructed and that our reactions to the body are socially mediated. So, in endorsing a materialist anti-post-modernism, I should underline that I am...