Histories of Political Economy and the African Diaspora

Endorsed by the Business History Conference

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Race; Theory and Methodology


This panel brings together scholars from multiple disciplinary perspectives (history, political theory, and sociology) to examine the interconnected histories of the African diaspora and political economy. Engaging with the recent turn toward “racial capitalism” as an analytic for understanding the Atlantic and American political-economic system, this panel explores the multiplicity of roles played by peoples of the African diaspora in histories of political economy. From an analysis of the role of enslaved women’s reproductive labor in the emergence of capitalism to an examination of African Americans’ engagements with the politics of international development to a reconsideration of Third Worldism as a critique of racial capitalism, the papers on this panel all speak to the necessity of linking our histories of political economy and our histories of the African diaspora in the Americas.

Mohammed Elnaiem connects the “new histories of capitalism” with Marxist-feminist texts from the 1970s to highlight the centrality of reproduction in the longue durée history of capitalism. Elnaiem argues that placing regimes of reproduction at the center of histories of capitalism and slavery can shed new light on longstanding debates about the emergence of capitalism. He further claims that such close attention to reproduction under slavery is necessary in order to thoroughly “racialize histories of patriarchy” and “engender histories of slavery.”

Charisse Burden-Stelly and Sam Klug each examine linkages between Third Worldist and black internationalist advocacy and structural transformations in global political economy in the post-1945 period. Klug examines African Americans’ engagements with the politics of international development aid. From debates about U.S. foreign aid policy in the late 1940s to debates about the speed and scope of Ghanaian industrialization in the late 1950s, the possibility of colonized territories—especially those in Africa—gaining political sovereignty while remaining in a state of economic dependency loomed large in black internationalist politics. This anticipatory critique of neocolonialism influenced African Americans on both sides of the Cold War divide, supporting multiple, sometimes conflicting political projects in the sphere of development. Burden-Stelly, meanwhile, argues that Third Worldist movements against militarism, U.S. imperialism, and Cold War geopolitics should be understood as critiques of the particular formation of racial capitalism that arose during the Cold War period. She thus casts Third World internationalism as internal to the political economy of the period, calling into question interpretations of the turn to the Third World as an exogenous shock or foreign importation that distracted from other struggles for justice in the United States.

Papers Presented

Third World Internationalism as Critique of Racial Capitalism During the Cold War

This paper theorizes “Third World Internationalism” as a critique of racial capitalism in the context of the Cold War. I contend that Third World internationalism included all “nonwhite” persons who shared a common struggle, a common vision, and a common enemy: the conjuncture of North Atlantic (especially U.S.) imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and racism. As a theoretical position and discursive formation, Third World internationalism centered on anti-imperialism, anticolonialism, antiracism, and a challenge to capitalist exploitation. As well, it was a cultural and political enunciation of solidarity in opposition to so-called “Western” universalism, historicism, civilization, and developmentalism. I offer a discussion of Third World internationalism as a multifaceted historical formation at the conjuncture of post–World War II demands for economic redistribution, Cold War competition between capitalism and socialism, and the ascendance of the U.S. military and economic hegemony; as an insurgency of racialized, colonized, and oppressed peoples against white supremacist specifications of geopolitics; and as a “structure of feeling” constituted by struggles for decolonization, political independence, and economic self-determination. I pay particular attention the ways that anti-imperialism, decolonization, and black power insurgencies in the United States foregrounded the political economy of racism and oppression not least because structural lack was not ameliorated for the overwhelming majority of people—the revolutionary masses, the superexploited proletariat, militants engaged in urban rebellion and guerilla warfare—by the nominal gains of civil rights and independence movements. Third Worldist critiques of militarism, nuclear proliferation, Cold War geopolitics, and the denial of sovereignty, I argue, inhered in a broader anticapitalist and antiracist framework.

Presented By
Charisse Burden-Stelly, Carleton College

Facing the Neocolonial Future: Black Internationalism and Development Politics from Point Four to Volta

This paper argues that development thought and policy represent important sites through which we can understand the transformation of African Americans’ involvement with global politics from the late 1940s through the end of the 1950s. Black Americans’ engagements with the politics of international development were characterized by what I call an anticipatory critique of neocolonialism. On issues ranging from the Point Four Program in the late 1940s to Kwame Nkrumah’s Volta River dam project in the late 1950s, the possibility of colonized territories—especially those in Africa—gaining political sovereignty while remaining in a state of economic dependency loomed large in black political thought. The anticipatory critique of neocolonialism led in multiple, sometimes conflicting directions in development debates. On one hand, the fear that the United States and European powers would continue to exploit the decolonizing world in the aftermath of formal independence was a prime reason to be suspicious of development projects that called for an influx of Western capital. On the other hand, recognition of the economic weakness of newly independent states could also point toward a desire for development aid, on the grounds that it would help build the state capacity necessary for newly independent nation-states to hold power in the international system. I argue that examining African American engagements with development thought and policy in the years following the Second World War reveals subtle but important shifts in the way African American internationalists conceived of the relationship between economic development and political self-determination.

Presented By
Sam Klug, Harvard University

Capitalism, Slavery, and Patriarchy

Are capitalism, slavery, and patriarchy separate systems or different facets of the same system? In 1944 Eric Williams published Capitalism and Slavery, aiming to analytically tease out the structural relationship between capitalism and slavery, and how the latter was a precondition for the emergence of the former. Even today there is still a tendency among many historians to caricature his arguments and insist that the “Williams thesis,” which many claim to discredit, can be reduced to his argument concerning the causes of abolition. Regardless, as Greg Grandin himself has insisted, “each generation seems condemned to have to prove the obvious anew: Slavery created the modern world.” This seems to be a growing consensus: New histories of capitalism—award winning publications—and the various center’s for the study of capitalism across the United States attest to the enduring strength of Williams’s argument. Yet, the task at hand is to engender these histories, to find the structural relationship between capitalism, slavery, and patriarchy. In this paper, I argue that the new histories of capitalism should be brought into conversation with Marxist feminist texts that emerged in the 1970s. Furthermore, these should be supplemented with gender histories of slavery. These texts have all challenged the assumption held by many scholars to pay more attention to the evolution of the means and forces of production than to the process of reproduction. Looking at regimes of reproduction over the longue durée, with a particular focus on how black women were expected not only to reproduce a future slave force but often also to reproduce their future overlords, tells us a different story about how capitalism came to emerge. It opens up the avenue to racialize histories of patriarchy and engender histories of slavery. By doing both, and centering black women, it helps us more accurately uncover the human story.

Presented By
Mohammed Elnaiem, University of Cambridge

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jessica Ann Levy, University of Virginia
Jessica Ann Levy is a historian of American politics, business, and racism. Combining methods from the history of capitalism, urban history, transnational history, and global black studies, her work contributes to scholarly and public debates about American corporate power, governing regimes, and black entrepreneurship, locally and globally.

Levy received her Ph.D. in History from Johns Hopkins University. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Her first project, “Black Power, Inc.: Corporatizing Anti-Racist Struggles in the U.S. and Sub-Saharan Africa,” charts the corporatization of the global black freedom struggle starting with Black Power in the 1960s and ending with the international anti-apartheid movement. Whereas other historians have focused on the developments wrought by black activists in the public sphere—public education, and voting, just to name a few—Levy argues for the importance of multinational corporate executives and black entrepreneurs in shaping the post-Jim Crow/post-apartheid world. Drawing on corporate and “movement” archives from the United States and South Africa, Black Power, Inc. reveals the financial and intellectual investments made by multinational corporate executives, black entrepreneurs, and government officials in black empowerment. Defined as private and government programs promoting job-training, community development, and black entrepreneurship, black empowerment increasingly supplanted more radical demands for economic justice in black communities from North Philadelphia to Soweto. As it spread, black empowerment politics intersected and appropriated aspects of black nationalisms, Christian uplift politics, and African “traditionalism.” By centering private capital alongside state power, Black Power, Inc. explains how American business profited from the seeds of political conservatism that blossomed within the global black freedom struggle.
Her work has been featured in the Journal of Urban History (May 2015), the Business History Review (May 2018), as well as the Washington Post, Black Perspectives, and Public Seminar. She is the recipient of the Jefferson Scholars (formerly Miller Center)/Hagley Library Fellowship in Business and Politics, the Doctoral Fellowowship in International Business History from the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., and the George and Sylvia Kagan Fellowship. In addition, her work has been supported with funding from the Atlanta University Center, the Walter E. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, the Johns Hopkins’ Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library at Emory University, and the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library.

She received her M.A. in Social Science from The University of Chicago (2011) and her B.A. in History from Emory University (2008). Before attending Hopkins, she worked at The HistoryMakers, the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection.

Presenter: Charisse Burden-Stelly, Carleton College
Charisse Burden-Stelly is an Assistant Professor and Mellon Faculty Fellow of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. She is a scholar of Africana philosophy, radical Black political theory, political economy, and intellectual history. She has just completed a co-authored book project with Gerald Horne titled W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History. It revises and updates Dr. Horne’s 2009 biography of Du Bois with a new chapter on his continuing significance; sidebars that offer connections to larger social, political, and intellectual phenomena; and an appendix that analyzes key primary documents from Du Bois’s archives. She is currently working on a single-authored manuscript, The Radical Horizon of Black Betrayal: Antiradicalism, Antiblackness, and the U.S. Capitalist State, which develops a political theory, grounded in historical research, of the relationship between Antiblackness and Antiradicalism, two technologies of repression and discipline employed by the U.S. racial capitalist imperialist state. It focuses on four conjunctures: the first Red Scare and the race riots immediately following World War I; the period from 1930-1937, which entailed the formation of the Fish and McCormick-Dickenstein Committees that simultaneously targeted communists and persons agitating for racial equality; the Survey of Racial Conditions in the United States (RACON), FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s World War II covert investigation to uncover Black subversive forces; and the era of McCarthyism (1947-1958), one of the most repressive regimes in U.S. history. She received the National Conference of Black Political Scientists’ Alex Willingham Best Political Theory Paper in 2017, and in 2018, Dr. Burden-Stelly became a regular contributor to Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society. Her forthcoming and published work appears in journals including Souls: A Critical Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, The CLR James Journal, The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, and Socialism & Democracy.

Presenter: Mohammed Elnaiem, University of Cambridge
Mohammed Elnaiem is a sociology PhD student at the University of Cambridge studying the relationship between capitalism, slavery and patriarchy. He is also doing a case study on the CARICOM reparations commission, studying the Carribean case on why Europe needs to pay for slavery. Mohammed Elnaiem is also Foreign and Domestic Affairs Minister for 400+1, a black liberation organization based in the United States.

Presenter: Sam Klug, Harvard University
Sam Klug is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Harvard University, where he studies the intellectual, cultural, and political history of the United States in a global context. His primary interests are in the history of race and imperialism in the twentieth century, African American history, and intellectual history. His dissertation, “Making the Internal Colony: Black Internationalism, Development, and the Politics of Colonial Comparison in the United States, 1940–1975,” examines how the global process of decolonization shaped Americans’ understandings of racial formation, economic development, and citizenship in the twentieth-century United States. This project explores how policymakers and social scientists on the one hand, and black activists and intellectuals involved with anticolonial movements on the other, drew parallels between the U.S. and the decolonizing world between the Second World War and the middle of the 1970s. He has written on the idea of internal colonialism and on the politics of the Moynihan Report for Dissent and on black internationalism for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History blog.

Commentator: Tejasvi Nagaraja, Cornell University
Tejasvi Nagaraja is Postdoctoral Fellow in Global American Studies, at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. He is an interdisciplinary historian with specializations in foreign relations, African American and labor history. He received his PhD in History from New York University. His manuscript is currently titled Soldiers of the American Dream: War Work, Jim Crow and Freedom Movements in the Shadow of U.S. Power. It examines U.S. militarization and globalism, as they were interlinked with economic and racial politics between the New Deal and the Vietnam War. The book explores how U.S. foreign policy’s statecraft from the Second World War into the Korean War and Cold War, was deeply entangled and embattled in relation to domestic social movements.