Racial Capitalism and the Middle Ages (MLA Sponsored Session)
Coined by Cedric J. Robinson in his magnum opus Black Marxism (1983), the term “racial capitalism” refers to the simultaneous and interdependent rise of global capitalism and racial classification and stratification. Robinson’s principal goal is to identify a tradition of radical thought and practice among Black intellectuals and activists in sites of colonial exploitation. He therefore decenters Marxist history by shifting our attention away from metropolitan Europe as a site of political radicalization. Black Marxism begins, however, in the European Middle Ages, which in Robinson’s view gave rise both to modern myths of whiteness and to the racialization of the proletariat. He thus views racial capitalism not as a revolutionary overturning of feudalism but instead as a development of feudal ideology. In a subsequent study, An Anthropology of Marxism (2001), he further argues that the socialist critique of property is not the invention of bourgeois society but instead “an irrepressible response to social injustice,” one that is endemic to medieval dissent movements of all kinds, notably religious ones. To read Robinson’s work is thus to recognize the special responsibility medievalists possess to reckon with the legacy of medieval racialism, to recover liberation movements from the medieval past, and to build solidarity with liberation movements in the present.
The proposed panel (which is subject to review by the MLA’s Program Committee) invites literary medievalists in all fields to engage critically with scholarship on racial capitalism and to identify (a) what we might have to contribute to that scholarship and its struggle against racism; and (b) how that scholarship might be used to advance an analysis and critique of racialization in medieval societies and medievalist scholarship.