On the Stability of Racial Capitalism

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Submission Summary
What is the connection between capitalism and racial hierarchy? In line with the theoretical tradition known as “the theory of racial capitalism” we show that the latter can functionally support the former. As a social construction, race has just those features which allow it to facilitate stable, inequitable distributions of resources. We support this claim using techniques from evolutionary game theory and the theory of cultural evolution.
The theory of racial capitalism proposes an origin story for how the global economy came to be racially stratified and (in the main) organized along capitalist lines. The proposal is that the very same events led to both - Europe was already organizing its workforces along proto-racial lines at about the time it was spreading its economic form through colonialism. As such, European expansion ended up simultaneously bringing capitalism and racial organization in its wake.
However, many scholars make a stronger claim than noting the mere historical contingency that racism and capitalism co-occurred. Many argue that this coincidence is functional: the development of racial hierarchy helped the capitalist social form survive and perpetuate itself. This is because capitalism will inevitably generate an unequal distribution of control over factors of production and division of the resulting social surplus. Some means of explaining, justifying, and continuing this rampant and easily observed inequality is required, and, in particular, one that allows elites to retain their place. Race and racialism, by being easily observable, hard to change, and passed down across generations, worked nicely.
But why do these features of race work to stabilize capitalist systems? Using modelling techniques from evolutionary game theory, and drawing on some previous results, we show how oppressive schemes employing race are especially well-suited for underpinning stable and highly unequal systems of dividing labor and reward. We argue that these models provide a functional explanation for the co-occurrence of race and capitalism that vindicates arguments from racial capitalist theory.
We describe in detail several different models intended to illuminate the functional role that various aspects of race play in capitalist systems. We start with the fact that race is hard to change or imitate. I.e., it is fairly inflexible. We then discuss the fact that race is often fairly easy to identify compared to alternative tags or markers. And last we discuss the heritability of race. In each case we show how these features underpin systems of inequality. In models without these features, inequitable systems are unlikely to emerge. In models with them, inequality is stabilized. We also show that if powerful groups were to select some categorical system to ground inequality, they benefit themselves by picking race for this reason. We conclude by discussing the normative political consequences of this relationship.
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London School of Economics
Non-presenting co-author
University of California Irvine
UC Irvine
Non-presenting co-author
Georgetown University

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