Speculations on Speculative Realism & Cedric Robinson

.2019. Review of Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism, “Racial Capitalism: The Non-objective Character of Capitalist Development.” Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

In this chapter, Robinson tells a history of the development of Capital in Europe and from Europe to the World. Central to Robinson’s historical genealogy is the objectivity of the non-objective character of capitalist development. What this means is that Robinson’s historical genealogy is certain of one thing and only thing only, namely, that everything is radically contingent, that everything that is did not have to be and that history is an immanent production with transcendental phantasms. Now, although Robinson does not himself discuss the first objectivity it is important to underscore it to understand the force of Robinson’s methodology. Robinson’s genealogical method tends to and produces diffractions within the historical records. It seeks after discord rather than coherence, it looks for the ways that history had been bombarded by possibility and potential, chaos and uncertainty. But in reading for this discord it finds a deeper coherence – a coherence that martials towards a nodal logic. The speculative realist call it, “the absolute necessity of contingency,” Robinson calls it “the non-objective character of capitalist development.”

Robinson’s method starts from the fundamental assumption that everything that is, did not have to be. There is no better way at showing this in Robinson’s work then in the way he details the fragmented beginnings of Europe. In enigmatic fashion, Robinson begins “Europe’s Formation” with the following remark, “The social basis of European civilization was ‘among those whom the Romans called the ‘barbarians,’” (10). In these remarks, Robinson makes allusion to the Franks, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Suevi, Burgundi, Alammani and more who would eventually join into the Myth of Europe which Robinson notes “Interestingly, for several centuries following the deaths of Charlemagne and his immediate heirs (the last being Arnulf, d.899), both the Emperor and Europe were more the stuff of popular legend and clerical rhetoric than manifestations of social reality,” (10). The reason for detailing the “diverse races with widely differing cultures” (10) for Robinson is to show that what just so happen to occur was not what was destined to occur. Additionally, in point and fact, these diverse groups of people who were never destined to engage with each other were, further, never destined to translate a notion of myth and legend into empirical social reality. This fact, however, occurs later but not after these barbarians came to the southern-most European lands bounded by the Western Roman Empire not primarily as conquerors but as immigrants. Many of these barbarians were turned to slaves. Robinson writes, “More importantly, the vast majority of the barbarians ‘came not as conquerors, but exactly as, in our own day, North Africans, Italians, Poles cross into Metropolitan France to look for work.’ In a relatively short time, in the southern-most European lands that were bounded by the Western Roman Empire, these people were entirely assimilated by the indigenous peoples as a primarily slave labor force,” (11). Across, above, under and beside these entangled and enmeshed dynamics are the ‘Romanized’ Germanic Tribes which are beginning to establish the administrative boundaries for Modern Europe. “The kingdoms that they established mainly under the rules of Roman hospitalitas and in accordance with Roman administration, were in large measures the predecessors of France, German, Spain and Italy,” (12). Europe is a contested terrain, an effect of multiple non-necessary yet interconnected events – one which never dispenses from slavery, which keeps slavery as it bedrock. Robinson writes, “Neither feudal serfdom, nor capitalism had as their result the elimination of slavery. At the very most (it is argued by some), their organization served to relocate it,” (12). Robinson does not simply invoke slavery here in order to make the critical gesture towards the originary and ongoing unethicality of Europe’s contingent existence, but rather to underscore the layers of dependability required to get to the Myth of Europe as Real. “Put another way: no slave, no world.” (Frank Wilderson, Red, White and Black, 18). But this is not as a matter of ontological inevitability but ontologically contingency. It is a historical ontology that situates Robinson’s understanding of the ontological totality and our contingent relationship to the sociogenic representations embedded within it. Which is further reason why Robinson ends the section on the formation of Europe with a reminder that Europe did not become the mythical Europe as-we-know-it until the rise of the Bourgeoise, and prior to that:

Medieval Europe, though still agricultural in economy, was a much cruder existence for slave, peasant, farmer, artisan, land-owner, cleric, and nobility alike than had been the circumstance for their predecessors in the Empire. Urban life declined, leaving the old cities in ruins, long-distance trade, especially by sea routes, decayed dramatically. Latouche summarizes:

The balance-sheet of the Merovingian economy is singularly disappointing. The now fashionable, if unpleasant, word ‘rot’ describes it to perfection.


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