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.