It is said that in Korea there is a strange-looking, fantastical creature called a bulgasari, which can dissolve iron and swallow it whole.
— Kim Sokpom, 1972
Fifty miles off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, in the sea passage that connects Korea to Japan, sits a small island of nearly 700,000 people that began to form when an underwater volcano erupted more than a million years ago. Home to the storied female shellfish divers known as haenyeo, as well as three UNESCO World Heritage sites, Jeju is nowadays described as the “Hawaii of the East,” attracting 50 percent more tourists and honeymooners than all of the Hawaiian Islands combined. Legend has it that, long before Jeju was populated by ordinary men, it was inhabited by three demigods: Ko, Yang, and Bu. Above water, gods still greet visitors to Jeju today: gracing the racks of tourist shops are totems of protection known as dol hareubang — stone grandfathers carved from the island’s dark, sponge-like volcanic rock.
Follow that rock underwater, and you might find it hosting a creature with quite a different reputation. The bulgasari (starfish) shares its name with a fantastical beast of Korean folklore: an all-consuming monster with the body of a bear, the nose of an elephant, the paws of a tiger, the tail of an ox, and needle-like hairs. Both the real and imaginary creatures are so named (it is unclear which first) because they appear to be, as the Chinese root of the word implies, “impossible to kill.” Nowadays, it is more fitting than ever that the monster and the marine invertebrate share a moniker: across today’s Pacific, one species of predatory starfish is eating away at the coral reefs that sustain marine life.
The bulgasari is an apt metaphor for the crises that beset Jeju today. Designated by a body of the United Nations as the new leader of “Green Growth,” the island sits at the crosscurrents of ongoing battles over militarization, dispossession, and environmental degradation. In the aftermath of formal Japanese colonization and the American military occupation that followed, locals have been struggling against the proliferation of military bases that the government promises will protect South Korea’s marine sovereignty (and Jeju’s tourism industry). In 2015, the Republic of Korea’s navy confirmed that a $907 million naval base in the village of Gangjeong (unironically dubbed the Civilian-Military Complex Port for Beautiful Tourism) had further damaged Jeju’s soft coral ecosystem. The waters where my mother dived for shellfish alongside her grandmother have already been stressed by years of tourists’ harvesting — but that didn’t stop a local politician from suggesting that protest in Gangjeong be suppressed, lest it discourage tourism to the area. As South Korea faces one of the highest rates of household debt among major economies, tourism is driving up housing prices for islanders in particular, pushing out haenyeo as foreign investments skyrocket. Meanwhile, the conservation of endangered abalone ecosystems has been left to the renowned but aging haenyeo, who in 2016 joined UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. During the depths of the Yemeni civil war, about 500 refugees arrived on the island thanks to a visa system meant to attract foreign tourists, raising concerns about Jeju’s already overburdened infrastructure and triggering what The New York Times called South Korea’s “first organized anti-asylum movement.” But worry not: even the Covid pandemic left tourism numbers untouched. Jeju is a “victim of its own success,” according to a podcast about the island — and that success doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
At first glance, the troubles unfolding in Jeju’s paradise epitomize the account of our global social ills that Nancy Fraser has been developing for years, newly summarized in Cannibal Capitalism: How Our System Is Devouring Democracy, Care, and the Planet — and What We Can Do About It, out from Verso this past fall. What the leading Marxist feminist philosopher sees facing us today is “not ‘only’ a crisis of rampaging inequality and low-waged precarious work; nor ‘merely’ one of care or social reproduction; nor ‘just’ a crisis of migration and racialized violence.” Neither, Fraser cautions, is it “‘simply’ an ecological crisis in which a heating planet disgorges lethal plagues, nor ‘only’ a political crisis featuring hollowed-out infrastructure, ramped-up militarism, and a proliferation of strongmen.” Woe unto us, for what we endure is something even worse: “a general crisis of the societal order in which all those calamities converge, exacerbating one another and threatening to swallow us whole.”
For Fraser, a longtime professor of political and social science at The New School, we owe this multi-tentacled crisis to capitalism. But it’s not the capitalism that traditional Marxists know and love to hate. If one mission unifies Fraser’s expansive career — which spans countless books, articles, and lectures, and includes citations in at least two rulings by the Brazilian Supreme Court, one to recognize same-sex unions and another to uphold land rights for descendants of African slaves — it is to bridge anti-capitalist critique with “other emancipatory currents of critical theorizing” (feminist, environmentalist, anticolonial, anti-racist), and to do so in a way that averts both the solipsism of identity politics and the myopia of Marxian economism. The single-minded focus on gender- or race-based grievances of the former, according to Fraser, too often colludes with free-market inequalities to result in superficial demands for C-suite diversity and Ivy League representation rather than structural efforts to end patriarchy and white supremacy. Marxian economism, meanwhile, engenders narrow struggles over labor (wages, time off) that, at our present juncture of racial reckoning and environmental collapse, also seem to miss the broader point. Wavering between these two tendencies, we “lack conceptions of capitalism and capitalist crisis that are adequate to our time.”
Fraser’s hope, in proposing the concept of “cannibal capitalism,” is to develop a critical theory of society capacious enough to address the many forms of domination that exist today, without losing sight of how these forms of domination are ultimately enabled, expressed, and intensified through the common structure of capitalism. Broadening our field of vision to include capitalism’s “extra-economic ingredients” — including nature, childcare, and the state — Fraser seeks to bring “together in a single frame all the oppressions, contradictions, and conflicts of the present conjuncture.” Capitalism, she argues, should not be understood solely as “an economic system simpliciter,” but as “an institutionalized societal order, on a par with, for example, feudalism.”
Karl Marx’s oft-vulgarized critique of that order, in Fraser’s estimation, was “not so much wrong as incomplete.” Indeed, in order to construct her own account of capitalism, Fraser’s corpus builds on a central move in Marx’s thought: to excavate what is “hidden” below the smooth surface of our capitalist common sense.
The bulk of Marx’s ubiquitous urtext, volume one of Capital, is aimed at exposing what Fraser calls the “dirty secret” that structures capitalism: contrary to the notion that capital operates through the exchange among equals in a free market (I trade my labor for wages), the expansion of capital in fact depends on the exploitation of workers through the non-compensation of their labor time (I trade my labor for wages that amount to less than the value I produce). This is because under capitalism, workers are “bereft of the resources and entitlements that could permit one to abstain from the labor market” (even though I receive fewer wages than I deserve, I have no choice but to work, and thus, to be exploited). Capital, then, exposes the truth that behind the sphere of exchange is what Marx called the “hidden abode” of production: structurally compelled to participate in the labor market, workers are forever vulnerable to capitalism’s predations.
But we must interrogate production’s conditions of possibility “in realms that are more hidden still,” Fraser insists, if we are to understand the crisis that lies before us. Even for Marx, the hidden abode of production did not on its own explain how the capitalist system came to be, or how it continues to sustain itself. Towards the end of volume one, Marx gestures towards an “even dirtier secret” of capitalism, one whose full implications Fraser says he “did not unfold” (partially, I would note, because he died before he had the chance to do so): the original precondition of exploitation was the overt violence and outright theft (enslavement, looting, colonization) that gave capitalism its head start — a process Marx called “primitive accumulation.” In taking up the challenge of looking “behind Marx’s hidden abode,” Fraser joins a long tradition of thinkers (most notably, Rosa Luxemburg) who have explored how exploitation is continually enabled by expropriation: the plunder, enslavement, and dispossession, made most explicit under conditions of war and colonialism, that constitute “an ongoing, albeit unofficial, mechanism of accumulation.”
Yet the search for further “hidden abodes” does not end at the nexus of exploitation and expropriation alone. Less appreciated, Fraser has argued throughout her career, is “unwaged carework, often performed by women, which forms and replenishes the human subjects who constitute ‘labor.’” Deeply dependent on such stewards of “social reproduction,” capital nonetheless fails to compensate them, and makes little or no effort to sustain them. And that’s not all: so too does capital disavow the ecological costs it generates, “assuming that nature can replenish itself autonomously and without end.” Within capitalist society, economic production (by workers in the labor market) is distinguished from social reproduction (which sustains those workers at home); exploitation (of free workers through market wages) proceeds as usual while expropriation (of natural resources, of unpaid carework, of the means of subsistence of the global peasantry) unfolds out of sight; the “economic” is opposed to the “political”; and the realm of human activity is conceptualized as separate from that of non-human nature.
These distinctions underline what Fraser sees as a central “contradiction” of capitalism: its “non-economic” background conditions (the coral reef that sustains its marine life, the haenyeo valued for their marine know-how) enable its “economic” activities (tourism) to exist. Yet in its impulse towards accumulation, capitalism also places those background conditions under stress. (The development projects endangering Jeju’s ecosystem, like the foreign real estate investments that push out locals, nevertheless depend on the island’s distinguishing features.) It is this contradiction, Fraser argues, that inclines capitalism not only to economic crises, “but also to crises of care, ecology, and politics.” For Marx, the “boom” and “bust” crises of the economy were not coincidental, but rather intrinsic to capitalism itself. As these crises mounted, he thought, so too would working-class resistance. But if capitalism is not reducible to its “economic” features, Fraser argues, neither are its crises. Capitalism relies upon — while also disavowing, if not devouring — its supposedly non-commodified conditions of possibility (nurture, nature, the state).
If the starfish adapts to threats by shedding or regenerating limbs, so too does capitalism reinvent itself in order to respond to the crises generated by the boundary struggles between its “economic” and “non-economic” conditions. Indeed, Cannibal Capitalism tells the story of how history itself was made by the “unfolding of different forms of capitalism” through such boundary struggles. Not just our current, 21st-century system, Fraser cautions, but all historic forms of capitalism have a tendency towards crisis. Like the ouroboros (the mythic serpent that eats its own tail, Fraser’s metaphor of choice), capitalism is “wired to devour the social, political, and natural bases of its own existence.” And in this “institutionalized feeding frenzy,” we’re the main course. Reversing the colonial image of the indigenous savage as an unhinged cannibal, Fraser argues that it’s capitalism which expands, ever more imaginatively, by cannibalizing us. The bulgasari goes by another name, and that name is “capitalism.”
If capitalism is devouring us, then only an anti-capitalism as comprehensive as capitalism itself — a “socialism for our time” — can “starve the beast.” There is a special place in hell, in Fraser’s telling, for “progressive neoliberals”: those who wave the banners of diversity, inclusivity, and sustainability, yet in failing to target capitalism head-on, merely prolong the ills that beset us. Lean In feminism, “green capitalism,” LGBTQ+ inclusion in the boardroom: “Far from unmasking the powers behind the curtain,” Fraser writes, “dominant currents of ‘the resistance’ have long been entangled with them.” Will we be able to channel the present crisis into building a far-reaching socialism — one that can “overcome not only capital’s exploitation of wage labor, but also its free riding on unwaged carework, public powers, and wealth expropriated from racialized subjects and nonhuman nature”? Or will this crisis resolve, as past ones have, “largely to capital’s benefit”? In other words, will we see capitalism for what it is, and in doing so, finally end it?
For Fraser, the answer will depend in part upon how progressives understand the relationship between the crisis of contemporary capitalism and the specter of right populism. Crises denote times not just of struggle, but of opportunity as well. Exposing the beast for what it is, they serve as “hinge points,” as decisive moments when “the burning question is: Who will succeed in constructing a viable counterhegemony, and on what basis?” And rising populism could be the crisis of a lifetime: opportunities like this one “do not come along every day.” Fraser warns against the tendency of elite progressives to “moralize about the need for civility, bipartisanship, and respect for the truth,” all while “ignoring the deep-structural sources of the trouble.” In her narrative, the “unholy alliance” between progressive social movements and global capital has ensured that when “masses of people rejected the latter, many of them would also reject the former.” The grievances of right populists may be “misdirected,” but their distaste for contemporary capitalism is “legitimate.” Rejecting the right populists, in turn, would be mistaking the symptom for the disease: “Sailing high-mindedly above the concerns of the benighted ‘deplorables,’” Fraser warns us, “we will render ourselves irrelevant in the present struggle to build a counterhegemony.”
Three cheers for Fraser. Except: those “deplorables” may not be quite who she thinks they are. Never named outright in Cannibal Capitalism, the so-called white working class is clearly one of Fraser’s antiheroes: like other “majority-ethnic working-class voters” the world over, she writes, this group was successfully courted by promises to “‘take back’ their countries from global capital, ‘invading’ immigrants, and racial or religious minorities.” Yet the post-Trump concern for a beleaguered, if misguided, white working class was motivated by several assumptions that have largely been disproven in the years since the 2016 election: first, that this group comprises the majority of his base; second, that an unusually large number of these voters had supported Obama in 2012; third, that they were uniquely pivotal to Trump’s victory. In fact, the white working class comprised only 30 percent of Trump’s base, their shifts between 2012 and 2016 represent no more than typical rates of Democrat-to-Republican switching, and a number of different demographic groups were large enough to “swing” key states.
Often overlooked in our biopsies of right populism is a different group entirely: the one I knew growing up in South Brooklyn, where my parents immigrated from Jeju in the ’80s. Heavily composed of immigrant families from East Asia and the former Soviet bloc, our neighborhood is part of the most Republican congressional district in New York City; a majority of its residents voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. (White voters in our district, meanwhile, have not shifted appreciably to the right.) Bensonhurst is no outlier: in the majority South Asian, Arab, and Eastern European precincts of Chicago, in Cuban Miami and Vietnamese Orange County, and in Flushing, Queens, it was immigrants — including my own family — who in 2020 came out for the Republican Party in larger numbers than ever.
These immigrants and their families don’t represent the “aggressively ethno-nationalist and alt-right, white-supremacist populism” that Fraser points to. But neither have they uniformly joined the “new generation of militant anti-racist activists” whom Fraser sees as right populism’s foil. What these immigrants share with one another is not class, but historical experience. From the Korean Peninsula to El Salvador, from Bangladesh to Nicaragua, from Thailand to Cuba, and from Lebanon to Vietnam, their homelands were the front lines of the last great struggle between capitalism and anti-capitalist insurgency. Especially along Asia’s southern rim, the historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin tells us, these were “the Cold War’s killing fields,” hosting civil wars that were proxies for the struggle between American capitalism and Soviet or Chinese communism. It might not be a mystery why those who suffered at the hands of direct Soviet or Chinese communism would arrive on America’s shores keen to experience the American Dream. But in many theaters of the Cold War, American counterinsurgency against anti-capitalist rebellion was just as — if not more — deadly.
In Fraser’s imagination, left and right populists have more in common with each other than either realizes. But there’s nothing Fraser would say about the crises exemplified in Jeju that my sister and my mother weren’t already aware of. Today’s problem, as the anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj has remarked, is not so much that people don’t know we’re in a crisis, but that we do very different things with that knowledge. What might the view from Jeju tell us about why?
Jeju’s volcanic archive marks the presence not just of gods, but of ghosts. Enter most any village on the island and, alongside the watchful dol hareubang, you will find simple towers made of the same protective rock. These are not totems, but tombstones — and they mark the sites of a forgotten massacre.
A century before the protests against the naval base at Gangjeong, Jeju had been a reliable site of anti-capitalist struggle. Against the backdrop of Japanese colonial rule, strikes by Jeju’s dockworkers and diving women led to frequent arrests of the island’s Korean Communist Party members. By 1945, when Japanese control over the Peninsula ended and American occupation of the newly formed South Korea began, Jeju had already begun establishing “leftwing people’s committees” to govern the island; by 1946, nearly twenty percent of Jeju’s population (about 60,000 people) had joined the South Korean Labor Party (SKLP). With party cells in every village, it was said, communists could informally count on the support of nearly 80 percent of the population. (It’s no wonder Jeju became known to mainlanders as the “red” island.)
As Chamberlin writes, the Korean Peninsula was the “central theater in America’s war against communism in Asia,” one that ensured that thereafter “the Cold War would be fought on Third World battlefields.” And if the Cold War was “an age of systematic civilian atrocities,” the Jeju massacre was its opening act. On April 3, 1948 — in the wake of earlier protests against the American military occupation, and an ongoing boycott of the U.N.-backed election — insurgent communist guerrillas killed dozens of officers, targeting those who had once collaborated with the Japanese occupation. (Rather than being purged, Koreans who had worked for the Japanese were merely reassigned to the U.S. military.) In response, South Korean authorities launched a brutal, multiyear retaliation under the approving watch of the American military. Following rumors that communist teachers were hiding in the volcanic Mount Halla, the state ordered all residents of the island’s mountain villages to descend to the coast. Anyone found in the mountains, including women, children, and the elderly, was considered a rebel and roundly executed.
American outlets reported in 1949 that 20,000 islanders may have died, but the governor of Jeju told U.S. intelligence that the number was upwards of 60,000. (This figure is not implausible: if even a single person joined the insurgents or went missing, her entire village could be wiped out.) Of the surviving islanders, about 40,000 fled to Japan, some establishing a town of refugees in Osaka, where my mother was born prior to being raised in Jeju. The confinement of the mountain islanders to the coastal perimeter, as well as the state-sanctioned killings, did not end until 1954; as I heard from my paternal grandfather, a history teacher from the mountain village of Nabeup, “Everybody lost somebody.”
During the decades of authoritarian rule that followed the massacre, its memory was suppressed in South Korean public discourse. The silence complemented the Republic’s broader efforts, under continued American occupation, at counterinsurgency: in 1948, it passed the National Security Act, which outlawed the SKLP and effectively rendered communism illegal, and by 1950 it had jailed tens of thousands following widespread rebellion by mainlanders against the American occupation and Syngman Rhee’s authoritarianism.
Amidst all the memory struggles that have proliferated in South Korea’s transition from an authoritarian to a neoliberal state, one thing has remained constant: for many, reconciliation has been less about recognizing the brutality of anti-communist counterinsurgency qua anti-communism — let alone appreciating Jeju’s longer tradition of anti-capitalist rebellion — and more about protecting the legacies of their ancestors against the charge of communism. During decades of anti-communist containment in South Korea, even sharing blood relations with someone who was considered sympathetic to North Korean communism could render one a political enemy. Those who could not shed the label of “communist” became, to borrow anthropologist Heonik Kwon’s formulation, “political ghosts,” whose rebelliousness justified the Republic’s human rights abuses and, later, its amnesia.
Fraser’s agenda — what she calls the very “heart and soul” of her book — is to “envision new configurations, not ‘merely’ of economy, but also of the relation of economy to society, nature, and polity.” For Fraser, the moment we look behind Marx’s hidden abode — that is, behind the “front story” of the economic conditions of capitalism to the “backstory” of capitalism’s non-economic conditions of possibility — then “all the indispensable background conditions for the exploitation of labor become foci of conflict in capitalist society.” In other words, it’s “not just struggles between labor and capital at the point of production” that count as anti-capitalist struggle. So too, according to Fraser, are “boundary struggles over gender domination, ecology, racism, imperialism, and democracy” also “struggles in, around, and (in some cases) against capitalism itself.”
Surveying capitalism’s “boundary struggles,” Cannibal Capitalism’s narrative echoes stories that Fraser has told before: about social reproduction, about non-human nature, about the state. Yet the book departs from Fraser’s oeuvre in one striking way: its attempt to systematically address race. Fraser mourns that, after the dual waning of the Soviet Union and New Left critique, “questions of race and racism were effectively ceded to thinkers working in the liberal and poststructuralist” — that is to say, non-Marxist — “paradigms.” The task, for Fraser, is to return capitalism to our understanding of race. And to do so, in her account, entails examining capitalism’s reliance on “exploitation and expropriation” across its lifetime. This story is one of diminishing boundaries: at first, in the liberal-colonial phase of capitalism, expropriation was reserved for slaves and the colonial subjects of the periphery; under state-managed capitalism, the distinction between those who were expropriated and those who were exploited was “softened” without being fully abolished: the onset of Jim Crow led to “dualized pay scales.” It is in today’s neoliberal finance capitalism that exploitation and expropriation are “no longer assign[ed] to two sharply demarcated populations”: now more than ever, the white working class and people of color share conditions of “both exes.”
The blurring between expropriation and exploitation presents, for Fraser, an “analytic puzzle.” On the one hand, today’s financialized capitalism seems to dissolve the distinctions that had underpinned racial oppression in previous regimes. (“At the center sits a new figure, formally free, but acutely vulnerable: the expropriated-and-exploited citizen-worker. No longer restricted to peripheral populations and racial minorities, this new figure is becoming the norm.”) On the other hand, racial antagonisms persist: “Why,” she asks, “does racism outlive the disappearance of the sharp separation of the two exes? Why do those who now share the objective condition of exploitation-cum-expropriation not see themselves as fellow travelers in the same… boat? Why do they not join together to oppose financialized capitalism’s fuzzier nexus of expropriation and exploitation, which harms them all?”
Fraser’s account of race is not so much incorrect as incomplete. In the course of Cannibal Capitalism, she does briefly mention the “anticolonial rebellions” that fueled the crises of both liberal-colonial capitalism and the state-managed capitalism that succeeded it; twice, she acknowledges in passing the imperative for public powers to “quell anti-capitalist rebellions” in order to sustain the capitalist order. But this story of rebellion and repression is considered only in the context of the crises of the past, not as a legacy that continues to inform the way racialized communities understand their relationship to capitalism in the present.
Race doesn’t just modulate who gets expropriated and who gets exploited under capitalism. It also shapes the consequences communities face for resisting capitalism. These consequences, and their uneven distribution, continue to haunt the American racial fabric. Indeed the link between race and counterinsurgency — and the concomitant surveillance of subjects abroad and at home — did not end with the Cold War: as historian Doug Rossinow traces, counterinsurgent methods taken up by non-state agents and transferred from imperial wars in Algeria to anti-communist efforts in South Vietnam, between authoritarian regimes from Korea to Colombia to Taiwan, “saw a revival in U.S. national security policy… following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.” If there is to be, again, a counterhegemony of the kind Fraser is calling for, its counterinsurgent consequences will not be equal. Race is not just a matter of pay scales. (Put differently, race is race — not class.) It is also the trace of violent counterinsurgency against the very kind of resistance that Fraser calls for.
Jeju’s massacre may have heralded a beginning for the Cold War, but it also punctuated a broader history of American-backed counterinsurgency — one that began long before the Cold War, and would come back to haunt America in novel ways. As the historian Moon-Ho Jung notes, the longstanding “vilification of Asia and Asians as the ‘yellow peril’” took on a distinctly counterinsurgent character during the Philippine-American War. As Filipinos “struggled against the U.S. empire,” what emerged across the Pacific was the calcification of a U.S. security state, one that linked race to rebellion: in an attempt to neutralize the threat of Asian revolutionaries both at home and abroad, the U.S. enacted a “barrage of laws,” Jung argues, that braided together “the yellow peril and the red scare.”
Fixating on “Asians and radicals” in the decades preceding the Cold War, such laws, Jung recounts, used immigration interrogations, bans on sedition, and limits on naturalization to “contain waves of seditious subjects who” — like the Jeju rebels massacred on America’s watch years later — “seemingly incited and warranted state violence.” As Korean immigrants in Hawaii and California organized against Japanese colonialism back in their homelands, U.S. immigration authorities closely monitored the revolutionary activities of Asian migrants. Immigration restrictions based on radical politics were “an ongoing instrument of the U.S. national security state,” and they were clearly racialized, as Jung observes: “a means to silence and arrest unruly subjects from articulating and circulating revolutionary ideas and organizing revolutionary movements across the Pacific.”
While American counterinsurgency was inscribed in restrictive immigration policy at home, the government also developed a significant security state abroad to quell the same anxieties about the “yellow peril.” As historian Simeon Man tells us, by late 1949 the victory of communists in the Chinese Civil War stoked the anxieties of American officials, who worried that their hold on the Pacific might be endangered if communist revolution spread to Southeast Asia and Korea (of course, in Jeju, it had already arrived). In search of a way to “secure the region through communist containment and economic integration,” Congress passed the Mutual Defense Assistance Act, which, by the time the Korean War was underway, had already put $5.5 billion towards the Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP). MDAP created “a ‘hub-and-spokes’ security system in Asia, in which bilateral treaties between the United States and particular nation-states,” Man writes, built a “transnational security state.” Through these treaties, the U.S. furnished ally states across the Pacific with military equipment, economic aid, and training to combat communism. The result was the growing presence of U.S. military staff who trained tens of thousands of citizens in countries like the Philippines and South Korea — the homes of some of the American empire’s most tenacious critics. But MDAP did so under the pretense of an “anticolonial” ethos of “self-help” and “mutual aid,” in the name of “promoting freedom.” Dependent on racism to justify its domination of anti-capitalism, the U.S. empire nevertheless disavowed that very racism in order to sustain the myth of a free, indiscriminate market. In other words, American capitalism didn’t cannibalize the racialized; it cannibalized racism itself.
That Cold War colorblindness had its domestic counterpart. While MDAP’s training of “good” Asians across the Pacific “regenerated the U.S. empire under the banner of decolonization,” Jung writes, so too did the invention of “loyal” Asian Americans help to legitimate the racial capitalist regime at home. Reeling from the Japanese internment that had resulted from Second World War hostilities, second-generation Japanese Americans, led by the Japanese American Citizens League, promoted an assimilationist agenda emphasizing the loyalty of the almost exclusively Japanese 442nd Infantry Regiment during the war. Meanwhile, Chinese Americans similarly emphasized their fealty to the U.S.’s anti-communist ally in China, Chiang Kai-shek, over Mao Zedong. Crucially, the idea that Asian Americans were a “model minority” gained purchase by the 1960s because it made immigrants from East Asia into a foil not only for black Americans, as historian Ellen Wu elucidates, but also for Asian radicals abroad. Rather than resisting capitalism and imperialism, these new immigrants supposedly applied themselves, focused on education, and did not protest. Race was not only, as Fraser would have it, a basis for oppression. It was also a basis for complicity.
In Fraser’s calculation, right populists might have been ripe for a turn to the left — if only the dominant currents of the “resistance” had not sold the left out to CEOs. But for those who survived the Cold War’s killing fields, counterinsurgent violence rendered revolutionary socialism an object of disavowal long before Lean In and greenwashing made the left unappealing.
It’s not just, as pundits would have it and as Fraser herself concedes, that the “actually existing socialism” of Russia or China turned off an older and more jaded generation to revolutionary leftism. (Let’s accept that the actually existing socialism of tomorrow doesn’t have to look like the actually existing socialism of yesteryear.) More concerning is how we will make meaning out of the Cold War’s backstage, where revolutionary socialism faced the wrath of counterinsurgency. That anti-capitalist resistance could constitute enough of a threat to American empire to precipitate such efforts is, in one sense, cause for our greatest inspiration. Yet the transnational and domestic states of security that followed deliver us to a world in which the kind of resistance Fraser calls for is harder than ever.
Our most pressing challenge, then, is not one of theory, but of organizing. This is not to resurrect the old adage that social theory as a whole has outrun its usefulness to the revolutionary struggle. (That idea reveals more about the classism of those who hold it than it does about the desires of working people; Jeju, which remains the poorest province in South Korea, was also home to one of the Korean Peninsula’s first Marxist reading groups, in the ’20s.) To the contrary, it is to say that critique, like capitalism itself, will have to evolve to meet the demands of the world that capitalist counterinsurgency made. The history of the suppression of anti-capitalist resistance not only troubles our understanding of how we got to today’s globalized capitalism; it also troubles our understanding of the role of critique in resisting it. Capitalism is not just a monster, but a ghost. Confronting the many interlinked crises of contemporary society will entail looking not just behind Marx’s abode, but behind Fraser’s — not just at the boundary struggles over where the economic meets the non-economic, but at the memory struggles over where capitalism meets critique: over which past resistances we remember, and what we make them mean when we do.
Nancy Ko is an emerging historian of capitalism pursuing her PhD at Columbia University. A member of GWC-UAW 2110, she is based in New York and the Eastern Mediterranean.