Slaves, Laborers, and Medical Research on Black Children

Thus, one could say that slavery—the “accumulation” of Black bodies regardless of their utility as laborers through an idiom of despotic power—is closer to capital’s primal desire than is waged oppression—the “exploitation” of unraced bodies (Marx, Lenin, Gramsci) that labor through an idiom of rational/symbolic (the wage) power: A relation of terror as opposed to a relation of hegemony. Frank Wilderson III, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society”

“It is, furthermore, in terms of the potentialities and possibilities of that laboring body (its ‘species being’ as Marx called it in his early work) that the search for an alternative mode of production is initially cast. David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, p. 108.

The recent story in the New York times about the use of poor black children in experimental research on lead poisoning has stayed with me. It’s absolutely horrifying and disgusting and yet, sadly, in a certain sense, merely a kind of sensational opening into the reality of black life in America.

The story about the medical research in Baltimore highlights what Wilderson says and what Harvey, unfortunately, cannot fully articulate. The approach to the lives of the impoverished African-American children was not based on a calculation of their bodies and lives as potential laborers within capitalist production. This is not to say that these kids, or their parents, are excluded from possibly working. It does mean, however, that they are excluded from “the species being” of human existence: their lives are not structured around the exigencies and struggles of labor but under a different kind of accumulation strategy, the accumulation of power over life and the production of black bodies in social death. They exist as slaves, not laborers.

The calloused exploitation of children exposed to lead for the sake of research demonstrates that the lives of these children are seen as owned or possessed by those situated in places of power (the medical researchers). The question is not how to mold these children into productive laborers but how to further the productive capacities–the health–of other (white) bodies through the use and exploitation of children whose lives unfold under the shared possession of a “despotic power.”

Obviously, political economy plays a huge part in this tragic story. But one cannot overlook the fact that these families experienced capitalism (medical-industrial complex) not as “hegemony,” instilling in them the desires to be healthy laborers, but as “terror,” and a bureaucratic, pragmatic, calculated, even a compassionate (done “in their best interest”) terror. Perhaps, with Lowkey, we should remind ourselves of what terrorism, or as he puts it, “who the terror,” is.

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9 Responses to Slaves, Laborers, and Medical Research on Black Children

  1. Micah Donohue says:

    Dear Tim,

    You know I always appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking writing; here, however, I think you may have somewhat misread Harvey in your hurry to subordinate the quality of his analysis to that of Wilderson III. (In the sentence “The story about the medical research in Baltimore highlights what Wilderson says and what Harvey, unfortunately, cannot fully articulate” your choice of the words “unfortunately” and “cannot” are particularly telling, despite the not fully mitigating “fully” inserted like a half-apology to someone who is, significantly, writing about Baltimore.)

    Take for instance what Harvey has written, but you have left unquoted: “part of what the creative history of capitalism has been about is discovering new ways (and potentialities) in which the human body can be put to use as the bearer of the capacity to labor…The development of capitalist production entails a radical transformation in what the working body is about” (Spaces of Hope 104). Harvey’s less than stellar writing style aside, how does this fail to articulate the horror Mr. Williams has captured in his NYT article? What the Kennedy Krieger Institute has done to those poor children (and their families) seems to entail just such a “radical transformation”: completely divorced from their “species being” (à la the “young” Marx in “Alienated Labour”), these children have been transformed at a corporal and hematic level into result-producing machines, with all the attendant economic and scientific complicities of late capitalism. This strikes me as something beyond even slavery (which capitalism has never been fully beholden to), as machines—despite dystopian fantasies to the contrary—lack the slave’s very real ability to consciously rebel and organize revolts, intentionally disrupt production, and wilfully overturn (whatever kind of) inequality. In short, machines can never reclaim that “species being” which capitalism ever threatens to extinguish in its relentless pursuit “of a new kind of laboring body” (Spaces 104).



  2. Tim McGee says:

    I was so excited to see that you wrote. We are well overdue on a conversation about many things, not just Harvey.

    Wilderson’s argument, and I think it is an important one, is that the structural position of black life is as slave not as laborer. I really appreciate Harvey, and so I tried to mitigate the criticism, but his writing on the body as well as his analysis of race I find only take me so far (and if Wilderson is correct, cannot take me further).

    Your invocation of the machine seems to extend or push beyond Harvey’s explicit analysis (though he does reference and draw on Haraway). Wilderson would argue that machines and cyborgs function within a structure of production from which black bodies are excluded. To draw on Hortense Spillers’ distinction between the body and flesh, the machine is calibrated to the order of production, whereas black life exists on the register of flesh, that is, in a sense prior to the logic of the productive body (the laborer). The master can do what he/she wants with this flesh (that “zero degree of social conceptualization”), and slaves who could not be put to work could be and were sold for medical research (so the historical parallel; also, of importance in the parallel is the violation of kinship lines by circumventing “parental consent”).

    Wilderson’s argument is not that we need to jettison all Marxist critiques of political economy but that they must be modified. Slavery exhibits a quest for sovereignty over life that is not consequent on the capitalist desire for “accumulation for accumulation’s sake” through the exploitation of the laborer. That the medical researches found a way to extract use value from this flesh is partially the point but the criticism must move deeper to expose the way these families and children are not first and foremost sites for the extraction of “labor power” as a commodity but are themselves communal property to be disposed of, segregated, isolated, exploited, tested, disregarded, or put to work based on the sovereign decision of the master-community. From whence comes this flesh and what are the (im)possibilities of its life? I’m not sure Harvey can answer (race always seems to be a discourse that is just there, structurally analogous to other articulations of particularity, and thus put to use by capital to divide and discipline labor).

    Thoughts? A literary way to make the point is that the Marxist lawyer, despite how much he can see and say about Bigger, still remains blind to the structural reality and choices Bigger has to make as Bigger seeks to overcome his existence in social death (_Native Son_).

    • Tim McGee says:

      Seriously Micah. We need to talk soon.

      P.S. Have you read Robinson’s _Black Marxism_? I’m going to pick it up as a kind of counterpoint to have with me as I go through David Harvey’s work. I’d love to have some conversation on it.

    • Micah Donohue says:

      Dear Tim,

      You’ll have to forgive me if I seem a little short or frustrated in my reply: I’ve just come from a disastrous class which, naturally, was the one my advisor decided to sit in on. Should you ever be tempted to teach the Popol Vuh to undergraduates, be prepared for their yawns and glassy expressions. But now for your wonderful response.

      “Your invocation of the machine seems to extend beyond Harvey’s explict analysis…”
      Since Harvey writes about “a whole host of sciences” dedicated to “engineering and exploring the limits of the human body as a productive machine” (Spaces 104), I don’t think of my remarks as being anything but within the scope of Harvey’s analysis. (Nor does Harvey seem to be gesturing explicitly to Haraway here, as Gramsci will be mentioned a sentence after what I quoted.) It’s also important to remember how thoroughly the specters of Marx, if you’ll forgive the Derridean expression, haunt Harvey’s work, as virtually nothing he writes escapes Capital’s shadow, and in the volumes of Capital, Marx has quite a few things to say about machines, labor, and the body. Hence the list Harvey draws from said work, “to demonstrate how the exigencies of capitalist production push the limits of the working body” (Spaces 103). That “pushing” culminates in the “radical transformations” I mention above.

      “Slavery exhibits a quest for sovereignty over life that is not consequent on the capitalist desire for “accumulation for accumulation’s sake” through the exploitation of the laborer.”
      Here, I think we are mostly in agreement: slavery is not “consequent” on capital as you say, and so black identity cannot, and should not, be understood solely through exploitation. Nevertheless, capitalism appropriates bodies to itself and “vampire-like” (to borrow an image from Capital vol. 1) and lives on what it can suck from them. This has certainly been true for “black bodies,” and I would argue that it was true for the exploited children in Baltimore, where capital’s vampiric qualities manifested literally in the vials of drawn blood. So instead of the “structural position of black life…as slave and not as laborer,” I find it more productive to think of that position in terms of “both/and”—a translation which might let poor Harvey continue with you a little further.



      PS. In terms of literature, it might also be productive to think about CLR James, Aimé Césaire, and Alejo Carpentier (specifically The Kingdom of This World / El reino de este mundo. Unless you only want to think through these issues in a US context?

      • Tim McGee says:

        Sounds like tons of fun…welcome to your future…..?!!?…..[yikes]

        On “extending,” that wasn’t a criticism but a remark of interest–a way to use some smaller clues in the essay to develop another perspective on the situation in Baltimore, one that I hadn’t seen and interested me.

        Interest aside, I’m still not sure if the “result-producing machine” or “vampire” captures the position of these children, and the families, and black life. Harvey’s analysis, following Marx, rests on the capitalist distinction between the laborer, who cannot be owned, and the labor power, which can be purchased. I’m trying to probe behind this and see how it is that black life is still being constituted as enslaved flesh, prior to the capitalist extraction of use-value from their flesh. In other words, the medical researchers saw these kids as a natural resource to be owned and exploited as commodities, not persons to be exploited in labor. They were positioned with regards to them as masters. I’m not finding that Harvey can help me work through this. Which, obviously, doesn’t mean he can’t help me work through anything at all.

        On the US context: you ARE being grumpy. The book I mentioned has a chapter on James, and I’ve blogged considerably on Fanon and some on Césaire as well. But you are right to push me on the “Latin American” context.

      • Tim McGee says:

        Not sure if my last comment advanced the conversation further. hastily written after class…I guess the main question I have is whether it is a both/and with Harvey or a more fundamental restructuring. I’m still enjoying Harvey but _Spaces of Hope_ has left me dissatisfied but motivated (for he is correct that one does need to find ways of coordinating these various positional critiques but I think he takes it that “the human” or “species being” is, at the end of the day, a workable position for this coordination, whereas I’m deeply suspicious of this move and thinks it doesn’t capture the logic of death-work (the “death-bound subjectivity”) within the Euro-capitalist project).

  3. dkline says:

    Thanks for this insightful post. I too am wrestling with how Harvey is to be appropriated within the sort of critique that Wilderson gives us. My initial reaction is that Harvey is working with a much ‘softer’ ontology of the worker-subject than, say, Gramsci. This sort of ontological commitment, at this stage in my reading of Harvey, doesn’t seem like it would be a deal breaker for him if he was really pressed on the issue. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be critiqued.

    To press the point a little deeper, I’d be very interested to hear what you think of the comparison between how Wilderson critiques Gramsci et al on what seems to be more of an existential level and the way Fanon critiques Sartre in ch. 5 of BSWM–a critique firmly grounded in Fanon’s phenomenological (non)-method. For Fanon, Sartre makes the fatal error of assimilating the Negritude movement as just one more step in the dialectic, making the ‘lived experience of the black man’ a relative experience meant to eventually dissolve into the absolute. I don’t know enough about Wilderson’s project to comment on it, but do you think that there is a distinction to be made between a critique aimed towards Gramsci (who seems fixated on the ontological absoluteness of the worker) and one aimed towards Sartre (who seems more interested in naming a sort of ontological relativity towards the absolute) and how this might relate to reading Harvey?

    • Tim McGee says:

      I’d love for you to say a bit more about your thoughts. I do agree that the ontological structure in Harvey is softer, as you say (the “Humean” instead of “Kantian” reading of Marx that Surin referred to). This softness, I think, doesn’t lessen Wilderson’s critique but just redirects it, as the result is the same. Harvey includes racial divisions in his analysis but, at least from what I’ve read so far, consistently from the standpoint of the operations of capital: accumulation for accumulations sake through the exploitation of the laborer.

      As far as Fanon, perhaps one could say that Sartre elaborates a “situation” that is simply unlivable (“I needed not to know…” means it cannot be lived) whereas Harvey is ultimately blind to the depth of the situation.

      I’m just working through this too, so thoughts–especially as they relate to this story out of Baltimore–would be much, much appreciated.

  4. dkline says:

    I think that you are probably right about Wilderson’s critique of Gramsci being redirected by Harvey’s less severe ontology as ending in the same place. I’m just trying to figure out how this actually affects a reading of Harvey (and others) in terms of where and how an analysis of political economy needs to adjust itself to the level of (non-productive) formation that Wilderson rightly names. If the operations of capital are to be broken through revealing the deeper problematic of (white induced) black subjectivity outside of the realms of production and inside the death contract, I’m just wondering what this would actually mean for an ontological overhauling of the marxian tools of analysis that undoubtedly get something right in their critique of the oppressive nature of the regime of accumulation for accumulation’s sake.

    I do think Fanon’s reply to Sartre’s dialectical moves provides a fruitful point of critique here, as you imply by naming the ‘unlivable situation’ that Harvey does seem blind to at the deepest levels of its reality (the reality that is vividly revealed in the horrific Baltimore story). The unlivable situation for the black subject within capital’s hegemony is not that of the laborer who is engaged in a class war but that of the slave who must choose between social or actual death in the face of white terror–in this way ‘class war’ ends up merely naming a privileged discourse of white power on both sides of the capitalist struggle. To place the laborer as the ontological base and antagonism of capitalism’s ‘primal desire’, as the *necessity* of a process of universal liberation, is to, from a phenomenology of the lived black experience, make the same mistake as Sartre: “The dialectic that introduces necessity as a support for my freedom expels me from myself. It shatters my impulsive position…black consciousness is immanent in itself. Im am not a potentiality of something; I am fully what I am” (BSWM 114).

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