Skip to main content
eScholarship
Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Modern Capitalist State and the Black Challenge: Culturalism and the Elision of Political Economy

  • Author(s): Burden-Stelly, Charisse
  • Advisor(s): Hintzen, Percy C.
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation seeks to comprehensively refocus the analytical frameworks dealing with black modern subjectivity through an in-depth examination of “Culturalism,” or the regime of meaning-making in which Blackness is culturally specified and abstracted from material, political economic, and structural conditions of dispossession through state technologies of antiradicalism. Cold War liberalism institutionalized the hegemony of cultural politics and Culturalism by foregrounding cultural analyses of African retention and syncretism, cultural continuity, and comparative diasporic cultures. As the Cold War instantiated the bifurcation of the world and influenced the direction of decolonization, the African diaspora as an analytical framework became reduced to its cultural aspects. It essentially framed connections among African descendants in terms of culture; asserted Black modernity and claims to equality on cultural grounds; and constructed culture as the domain of struggle. Culturalism divorced Blackness and the African diaspora from the material realties of governmentalized, transnational state projects that sustain racial and class hierarchies.

The hegemony of Culturalism in contemporary theories of the Black condition and the African diaspora diverge significantly from those of the Black radical structure of feeling that conceptualized Diaspora (thought not explicitly named at this time) through a nexus that included political economy, cultural formations, and nationalism. Conditions of Black abjection were seen to permeate both the base and the superstructure such that mobilization on both fronts was necessary to combat white supremacy. The result has been a turn away from the political economy/structural critique that, in the interwar period, provided a theoretical framework to challenge American antiblack statist discourse. The marginalization of Black radicalism and political economy produced the politicization of culture as the dominant mode of organizing for Black equality, and the primary intellectual focus in African diaspora studies.

Anticommunism entrenched this move away from structural critique by criminalizing and disciplining critiques that opposed the racialized social order, the spread of empire, and capitalist accumulation. Instead of challenging their exclusion from the state based on economic dispossession and maldistribution of resources, Black people in the United States began to mobilize around cultural specification, for inclusion based on liberal civil rights discourse, and/or to assert international linkages based on mutually recognized cultural enunciations of blackness. In other words, the Cold War curtailed the possibilities of challenging the state in terms of the political economy of exploitation, thus Blackness came to be understood in nationalist and cultural terms of exclusion. At the same time, decolonizing countries that sought equality in the world-system asserted their willingness and ability to adopt the culture of development, modernization, and anticommunism. This was notwithstanding the fact that their insertion into the global political economy as sovereign nations continued relations of unequal exchange, declining terms of trade, and neocolonialism.

Culturalism is thus a function of antiradical and antiblack statist pedagogy, and after World War II, it became entangled with anticommunism as an instrumentality of surveillance and violence. Culturalism institutionalized the erasure of radical political economic critique in the theorizing of the black global condition, the disciplining of Black radicalism, and the cultural specification of African diaspora studies examined in the dissertation. The cultural specification of blackness and the forms of Culturalism that it takes are integrally related to statist technologies that facilitate the accommodation of black intellectual and practical challenges to the capitalist state while, at the same time, ensuring their cooptation. These are the bases for the surveillance, disciplining, and punishment of black radical critique.

Main Content
Current View