What is the role of race in capitalism? In a recent exchange, Michael Dawson and Nancy Fraser tackle this complex question.  Click on the links or images below for the articles. Just looking for a quick introduction? See a short description of the main issues at stake below.

Dawson (2016) Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order

N. Fraser (2016) Expropriation and Exploitation – A Reply to Michael Dawson

In 2014, Nancy Fraser published Behind the Hidden Abode, in which she argued for an expansion of traditional Marxist bild-dawson-2016-hidden-in-plain-sightconceptions of capitalism (Fraser 2014, cf. 2015). Fraser argues that instead of focusing solely on capitalism’s “economic front story”—i.e. private property in the means of production, a free labor market, self-expanding value and the allocative and directive role of markets—we should pay careful attention to its “background conditions of possibility”. Fraser argues that social reproduction, ecology and political power are three background conditions that are structurally necessary in order to sustain capitalism’s “economic front story”. In his reply to Fraser, entitled Hidden in Plain Sight, Michael Dawson welcomes this expanded conception of capitalism as a potentially fruitful avenue for thinking about the role of race in capitalist societies. He wholeheartedly agrees that a systematic conceptualization of capitalism that accounts for differentiating and oppressive logics other than those of class is needed (Dawson 2016: 148). However, Dawson notes that race—“the ontological distinction between superior and inferior human beings”—is conspicuously absent from Nancy Fraser’s account. As he puts it, “Fraser decisively demonstrates that inclusion of gender and reproduction as foundational phenomena, far from occluding our understanding of capitalism, makes it more precise. I argue that the same is true of the study of race and expropriation.” (Dawson 2016: 148) In other words, Dawson maintains that race, in its various instantiations as the distinction between human/subhuman, full citizen/second class citizen and civilized/uncivilized marks a “racialized group whose labor, property and bodies could be subject to expropriation, exploitation and violation without recourse to particularly civil/political resources available to those classified as fully human” (Dawson 2016: 149).

In her reply to Dawson’s critique, Fraser takes up Dawson’s conception of race and expropriation as foundational aspects of bild-for-real-expropriation-and-exploitation-in-racia-capitalism-a-reply-to-michael-dawsoncapitalist society. She argues that the Marxist focus on the exploitation of wage labor at the point production needs to be supplemented by an account of two processes that are crucial to the “racial dynamics in capitalist society”, namely, the “crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent and unwaged labor” and the role of political orders in “conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on workers, while constituting others as lesser beings” (Fraser 2016: 165). Expropriation, she argues, is a foundational and ongoing aspect of capitalist economy that has an intrinsic, non-accidental relation to race. For Fraser, expropriation is an alternative mode of accumulation in capitalist society that is necessary in order to counter the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and a precondition for the existence of free labor (Fraser 2016: 163, 68). Both Fraser and Dawson, then, agree that an expanded conception of capitalism—Fraser’s capitalist society—is one of the most promising avenues for thinking about the role of race in capitalism and that expropriation is a crucial and ongoing mode of accumulation that it is intrinsically linked to race.



Dawson, M. C. (2016), ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order’, Critical Historical Studies, 3 (1), 143-61.

Fraser, Nancy (2014), ‘Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism’, New Left Review, (86), 55-72.

—, (2015), ‘Legitimation Crisis? On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism Introduced by Moishe Postone’. Chicago Centre For Contemporary Theory; University of Chicago

— (2016), ‘Expropriation and Exploitation in Racialized Capitalism: A Reply to Michael Dawson’, Critical Historical Studies, 3 (1), 163-78.

Want to know more? Please see the links to Fraser and Dawson’s articles above or click on the images to access the articles.


Expropriation as Racialization in Capitalist Society:
An Interview with Nancy Fraser by George Yancy


In this interview with George Yancy, Nancy Fraser shares how race informed her thinking, and addresses the intricacies of the relationship between racial oppression and capitalist society.

This interview is part of a larger collection of interviews to be published in “35 Interviews of Philosophers on Race” (forthcoming with Oxford University Press). All of the interviews are conducted by George Yancy. We thank George and Nancy for permission to publish the interview here.