SOAS University of London

Department of Politics and International Studies

Before the Color Line: Political Economy, civilisation, and the prehistory of race

Onur Ulas Ince (SOAS)

Date: 20 January 2022Time: 4:00 PM

Finishes: 20 January 2022Time: 6:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 4429

Type of Event: Talk

This paper aims to restore the Enlightenment discourses of political economy and civilization/savagery to the analysis of capitalism and race. The concept of the “color line” has become a pervasive heuristic in critically oriented IR and IPE scholarship, one that serves to stress the racialized constitution of the global capitalist order. Often less clear, however, are the precise historical and theoretical coordinates of the nexus between racialization and capitalist expansion. To get a more concrete handle on this nexus, the paper turns to the overlapping discourses of political economy and civilization/savagery circulating in the British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is argued that the perceived social differences between the empire’s subjects, which would eventually sediment into the categories of nineteenth-century scientific racism, were originally elaborated through a theory of “commercial society” and the ethnographic paradigms of “the savage” and “the Oriental” that bookended it. The civilizational gradations themselves drew much of their semantic content from classical political economy’s capital-centric theses on private property, the division of labor, capital accumulation, market formation, and labor productivity. To substantiate this point, the paper engages the uses of political economy by metropolitan commentators, statesmen, and colonial administrators who turned to the new “science of man and society” for ordering the heterogeneous economies and populations of Britain’s empire. The paper concludes that the institutional-ideological complex of “racial capitalism” is more accurately understood as interlocking episodes of “capitalist racialization,” in which one finds ideational precursors — or “prehistory” — of racial categories in the confluence of political economy and civilization/savagery. While not claiming to furnish a decisive, let alone exhaustive, account the paper shines light on a largely neglected yet historically significant discursive formation in the history of race and racism.


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