Du Bois and Racial Capitalism: Symposium on Andrew J. Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2019

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterSymposium
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(3) 483 –507
© The Author(s) 2020
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Du Bois and Racial
Capitalism: Symposium
on Andrew J. Douglas,
W. E. B. Du Bois and the
Critique of the Competitive
Society, Athens, GA:
University of Georgia
Press, 2019
Ella Myers, James Ford III, and Aldon Morris
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720973166
Brutal Competition
Ella Myers
Political Science and Gender Studies, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
In this slim, powerful book, Andrew J. Douglas presents an energetic “cri-
tique of the competitive society,” derived from the later work of W. E. B. Du
Bois. Although Douglas’s engagement with Du Bois’s work is central to the
project, the book’s most significant achievement, to my mind, is how effec-
tively it “prompt[s] serious thinking about our competitive culture and the
racial politics of a society set up to produce winners and losers” (4). Turning
to a neglected strand of Du Bois’s thought—his growing opposition to the
“competitive form”—and drawing on overlapping analyses of other thinkers,
including Karl Marx, Abram Harris, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Douglas
presents a provocative appraisal of our contemporary moment. He argues
forcefully that today’s neoliberal regime is one in which the norm of competi-
tiveness, a long-standing and integral feature of American capitalist society,
has intensified to the point that we are expected to “do battle with one
another” in nearly every part of our lives (100). Douglas urges readers to
consider how this way of life, animated by the “spirit of privatization and
973166PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720973166Political TheoryReview Symposium
484 Political Theory 49(3)
ethic of competitive individualism,” sanctions widespread suffering and
reproduces “racially marked cycles of loss and defeat” (17, 58). The competi-
tive society, Douglas persuasively argues, is “ethically irredeemable” (97).
I approach the book from two angles here—first, reflecting on Douglas’s
thoughtful but somewhat broad interpretation of Du Bois as a “diagnostic
critic of the competitive society,” and then asking about the role that Du Bois
plays in the project as a whole.
Douglas contends that Du Bois’s work, beginning in the 1930s, enunci-
ates a “sustained critical theory of the competitive society,” about which his
readers have been mostly “quiet” (17, 47). To elaborate this claim, he
emphasizes Du Bois’s “liberal disillusionment”: that Du Bois’s turn toward
Black radicalism grew out of the realization that the governing philosophy
of the white world—“liberalism” or “competitive liberalism”—enabled and
validated unjustifiable inequalities, often along racialized lines. “Liberalism,”
however, seems unduly ambiguous for understanding the “critique of com-
petitive society” at the core of the book. Liberalism, of course, regularly
refers to both political and economic ideologies, which are often intertwined
but also distinguishable. When Douglas uses the term, it is usually with an
economic meaning—for example, “laissez faire liberalism” (26). Moreover,
in the course of Douglas’s argument—including his tracking Du Bois’s rela-
tionship to “liberalism”—it becomes clear that Du Bois’s “critique of the
competitive society” is a critique of capitalism. For example, when Douglas
attempts to identify the underlying sources of the American “competitive
way of life,” he cites “the logic of accumulation” (11, 19, 34); “practices of
capital accumulation” (20, 34); “capitalism’s value form” (11, 53); and
“capital as a sovereign force” (14, 22). When arguing that “basic features of
the competitive society” link Du Bois’s context to ours, Douglas focuses on
categories of “labor” and “property” to demonstrate continuity across
Fordist, post-Fordist, and neoliberal eras. Douglas maintains that Du Bois,
like Marx, believed a competitive ethos is “built into” societies “oriented
toward private capital accumulation” (54).
Douglas’s account of Du Bois’s “critique of the competitive society”
would be sharpened if the specifically anticapitalist character of Du Bois’s
critique were foregrounded. It seems undeniable that for Du Bois (and for
Douglas) the competitive society is capitalist society. This point deserves to
be amplified in order to render Du Bois’s intervention in more precise terms.
Stressing Du Bois’s critique of capitalist society might also open up reflec-
tion on how his work prefigures recent efforts to theorize capitalism as a
comprehensive mode of existence rather than merely an economic system.
Douglas presents “the competitive society,” via Du Bois, as a vast cultural
formation endowed with a distinctive ethos and characteristic institutions that

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