Review by Jessie Luna
(Colorado State University)
Matlon explores the multiple, shifting ways that Black men have sought to achieve both “status and survival” amidst the economic and ideological histories of racial capitalism. In the latter half of the book – the ethnographic exploration of Abidjan – Matlon examines the post-2000s landscape of dramatic unemployment. Urban men are unable to earn wages and thus the status of capitalist manhood. They are perpetually stuck in the status of “youth” – often unable to marry. Matlon focuses on two groups of men who employ different imaginaries of Black masculinity in response to this crisis. The first group (the “orators” who discuss politics in a public space) are educated men who re-fashion the colonial “evolué” (evolved) identity that was predicated on assimilating into French cultural norms. While these men reject ties to France, they continue to assert an evolué masculinity oriented around education, entrepreneurship, finance, and business. The second group of men (“vendors”) are more marginalized; they sell goods on street corners and cobble together both livelihoods and dignity. These men draw on global media tropes emanating from Black culture in the United States.
Matlon’s book thus makes multiple contributions to a diverse range of literatures. Most broadly, she challenges the norm of what sociological theory draws into its orbit. Matlon sees men on the streets of Abidjan as a source of theorizing – not just theorizing Africa and its “particularities,” but for theorizing the interconnected global histories of the core ideas of sociology: modernity, capitalism, labor, racism, and gender. This book thus intervenes in a growing body of scholarship (the Du Boisian revival!) re-working our very notions of sociology and sociological theory.
To racial capitalism literature, Matlon’s work is unusual in focusing on West Africa. As scholars like Jemima Pierre (2012) have argued, racial dynamics are often (strangely) absent in analyses of postcolonial Africa outside of South African contexts. Matlon’s work is a sorely needed contribution to understanding the significance of race and racialization in contexts largely excluded from contemporary race scholarship. Additionally, like Gargi Bhattacharyya’s (2018) recent book, Matlon examines the interplay of racial capitalism’s political-economic structures and imaginaries and desires. Matlon also centers gender, noting wryly that gender is the modality through which race is lived (p. 5). These are all key engagements for a growing scholarship on racial capitalism. Lastly, I will note one question for those of us pondering racial capitalism and the vexing question of what “racial capitalism” is and how to use it (concept? theory? analytical framework?). Matlon often uses “racial capitalism” as a noun that acts in the world. But does “racial capitalism” act? What analytic clarity might we gain by seeking to better specify the actors and mechanisms that produce the relations, outcomes, and imaginaries that are referenced by the term “racial capitalism”?
My own reading of Matlon’s book comes from my perspective as a fellow scholar of Francophone West Africa, yet with a significant difference: whereas Matlon’s work is specifically urban, I study the rural and agrarian. Nonetheless, I have been chewing on similar themes, trying to make sense of a cultural landscape shaped by racialized colonial history and people’s complex and multi-layered efforts to achieve both survival and status (Matlon’s elegant pairing). Matlon’s book has proved immeasurably useful and I hope to convince other scholars of African agrarian change to read it.
The view from the agrarian world also raises important questions about the book’s assumptions about labor and value. A central assumption of the book is that Black men globally have transitioned “from exploitation to exclusion” (p. 17) within racial capitalism. In other words, they have become surplus. While this is certainly true for many Black men globally, and particularly those in urban spaces, this nonetheless overlooks the ongoing role of African rural labor in racial capitalism – and of women’s labor in this system. In Matlon’s centering of the history of employed “wage” labor, we risk forgetting the long and ongoing history of agrarian labor, which has never been and remains informal, yet constitutes not only a vast number of Ivorian men and women, but also the very labor that produced and continues to produce surplus value for the government salaries of the evolué. The cotton fields in the North, the cocoa plantations that produce 40% of the world’s cocoa, the coffee and rubber and palm and pineapple plantations: the workers in these fields to a large extent finance Cote d’Ivoire.
Rural Africans have, since the beginning of colonialism, been the most enduring and pronounced “minor term” (to use Matlon’s phrasing) of the global color line – framed as backward, dirty, traditional, poor, and exploited. As Matlon recognizes, many urban West African men specifically achieve and perform valued social identities in opposition to and by degrading rural African men (Luna 2019; Newell 2012). Nonetheless, much of the flourishing of new scholarship on racial capitalism in Africa centers the city, continuing to frame the urban as a privileged site of modernity, of global interconnection, and of social theorizing. Matlon’s otherwise impressively vast purview seems to end at the city’s edge, and to imagine that the end of the salaried urban wage constituted an end to the role of Black labor in racial capitalism – as if Africans have been rendered surplus to global capital accumulation. I would argue that not all those excluded from breadwinning jobs and the wage labor system are “surplus” to capitalism. Just walk through the chocolate shops in the Brussels airport.
Moreover, what about the role of women’s labor throughout these systems? This question is certainly not the focus of Matlon’s book, but a question raised for future thought and research. Women’s (often unpaid) labor is crucial in the cash crop systems I have just noted. There are also women laboring behind the scenes in urban Abidjan, despite many men’s inability to marry and start “official” families. I wondered about where the men lived and who made their meals and swept their compounds and washed their clothes. Matlon’s brilliant exploration of masculinity in racial capitalism necessarily opens up this question: how are women conceptualizing and negotiating their status and survival amidst this history of racial capitalism? The very invisibility of their labor (to men, to capitalism, to the “formal economy”) is a central piece of that story. I hope some future scholars can pry open this question further.
I assume many of you reading this have not yet read Matlon’s book. I urge a close reading of this rich and thought-provoking text. It will be of great interest to scholars and graduate students in wide-ranging fields, from racial capitalism, colonial history, masculinity, intersectionality, the commodification of Blackness, global media, urban studies, and even – less obviously – to environmental sociologists theorizing racial capitalism in relation to our planetary crisis. Matlon concludes that “if the baseline measure of human worth remains fixed to some manner of having as being, the cycle of disposable humans on a disposable planet will go unchallenged. Blackness would be a tragic ally in a system built on naturalized inequality and concluding in ecological destruction” (p. 240). While Matlon’s book undoubtedly takes on a challenging task of bridging a vast set of scholarships, this bridging work is precisely what we need to understand our interconnected global crises.
Bhattacharyya, Gargi. 2018. Rethinking Racial Capitalism: Questions of Reproduction and Survival. Rowman & Littlefield.
Luna, Jessie K. 2019. “The Chain of Exploitation: Intersectional Inequalities, Capital Accumulation, and Resistance in Burkina Faso’s Cotton Sector.” Journal of Peasant Studies 46(7):1413–34.
Newell, Sasha. 2012. The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d’Ivoire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pierre, Jemima. 2012. The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race. University of Chicago Press.