H-Diplo Article Review 1122- “U.S. Empire and Racial Capitalist Modernity”

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H-Diplo Article Review 1122

29 June 2022

Naoko Shibusawa.  “U.S. Empire and Racial Capitalist Modernity.”  Diplomatic History 45:5 (2021):  855–884.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhab058.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Perin E. Gürel, University of Notre Dame

“U.S. Empire and Racial Capitalist Modernity” is a bold title in the tradition of field-defining scholarly speeches and articles, claiming our attention with some of the most heavily debated concepts in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences: empire, racial capitalism, and modernity.  Is there an H-Diplo reader whose work and teaching do not touch upon at least one of these concepts?  At the same time, is there a reader who can confidently define each concept, not to mention trace their genealogies, and their intersections?  In an article of expectational clarity and considerable analytical depth, Naoko Shibusawa distills the meanings of these key terms, offering mini literature reviews that combine classical Marxist theory with postcolonial scholarship, and explains why they matter to diplomatic history.  I have already added “U.S. Empire and Racial Capitalist Modernity” to my syllabi, not just for ‘Transnational America’ but also for ‘Introduction to American Studies,’ where students spend days discussing the question that constitutes Shibusawa’s opening gambit, “Is the United States an empire?”

Shibusawa convincingly argues that answering that question involves not just definitions of empire and imperialism, but also of racism and capitalism, as the United States can best be described as “an empire in the service of racial capitalism” (858).  This thesis is supported by the essay’s three sections: “Imperialism, colonialism, and empire,” “Racial capitalism and empire,” and “Modernity: epistemology and stakes.” The first section clarifies the connections between empire, imperialism, and colonialism, suggesting that imperialism (“when a stronger polity subjects a weaker polity to its own preferences,” 858) can operate as the umbrella term.  Shibusawa then breaks down the differences and notes the overlaps between administrative and settler colonialism, military settler colonialism, and “free trade imperialism” (863).  Her analysis pushes against semi-evolutionary understandings of imperialism that suggest a progression from administrative colonialism to free trade imperialism.  These categories can overlap as they do for the United States, she notes, which is at once a settler colonial state, an administrator of unincorporated territories, and still the strongest force in the world for bending other countries to its economic will.  Here, Shibusawa also considers “internal colonialism” as “a powerful metaphor” that explains how racial capitalism affects minoritized communities within the empire (863).  There is, of course, no doubt that the racialization of internal Others corresponds deeply to foreign policy.  The two concepts are further connected through the axiom, which Shibusawa draws from anticolonial intellectuals including Frantz Fanon, that “political rights are largely empty without economic rights” (863).

The discussion then moves on to “racial capitalism and empire,” with another bold question: “But what exactly is capitalism?” Shibusawa, citing classical scholars of capitalism with emphasis on the thought of Karl Marx, defines capitalism as a “political economic system oriented towards the endless pursuit of profit” (867).  This is a clear-eyed, well-researched, and timely definition at a time when social-justice movements around the world, dissident economists, leftwing politicians, and religious figures all argue for reorienting the global economy with the slogan, “The economy must serve people and not the other way around.”[1] To this we might add, as Shibusawa does, an awareness of the devastation the relentless pursuit of profit has wreaked on the planet.

This section of the essay offers a succinct history of the development of capitalism, with important re-readings of Adam Smith and Marx, marshalled alongside key historical and anthropological evidence.  Capitalism is linked to racism as a system of laws and discourses that make possible specific types of “labor expropriation” (873).  “To invoke racial capitalism,” Shibusawa states with references to W.E.B. DuBois and Cedric Robinson, “is to recognize the primal role of race in development and maintenance of capitalism” (874).  Shibusawa’s thinking on the intersections of racism and capitalism is influenced by the work of Egyptian political economist Samir Amin, whom she cites elsewhere.[2] She is also in the good company of a new generation of scholars and activists of color, such as Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, who demonstrates that repairing the massive harm caused by racial capitalism requires global redistributive justice, Leah Thomas, who has outlined a vision for “intersectional environmentalism,” and Jessica Hernandez, who argues for a shift towards indigenous knowledge making and land stewardship to counter “ecocolonialism.”[3]

“Modernity: epistemology and stakes” constitutes the concluding section of the essay.  Here Shibusawa offers a short history of the developments and characteristics associated with modernity, demonstrating, with reference to postcolonial thinkers such as Walter Rodney and Walter D. Mignolo, that modernity has been coeval with imperialist exploitation.[4] Rejecting the comfort offered by the term “alternative modernities,” Shibusawa utilizes “Euromodernity” as an organizing concept (881). This choice is both historically-informed and power-conscious, intended to highlight the role that racial capitalist imperialism has played in the structural and ideological formations we identify as ‘modern.’ Of course, people who have borne the brunt of these developments know these connections all too well. As my own work on Turkish views of the United States in the twentieth century demonstrates, local debates about modernization were yoked not just to ideas about ‘the West,’ but also to material, economic, and cultural realities of Western power and exploitation.[5] Shibusawa insists that scholars not sanitize the fact that “the global spread of modernity has come hand in hand with the global spread of an exploitative political economic system” (881). Offering a correction to misreadings of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s call for “provincializing Europe,” she argues that rejecting Eurocentrism cannot mean ignoring the realities of past and continuing injustice.[6] The same is true for countering American exceptionalism.  In her discussion of these epistemological stakes, as elsewhere, Shibusawa’s argument remains strongly anchored in the postcolonial Marxist tradition, advocating for ideological and structural change.[7] “There is a profound danger in continuing misrecognition, in continued confidence in capitalist modernity,” she warns (884).

“U.S. Empire and Racial Capitalist Modernity” is part of Shibusawa’s forthcoming book Ideologies of US Empire (University of North Carolina Press)The monograph is modeled on Michael H. Hunt’s 1987 classic Ideology and US Foreign Policy, a work that is canonical for those of us who are interested in the operations of culture and power.[8] Building on Hunt, Ideologies of US Empire offers a synthesis of key concepts such as empire, capitalism, and liberalism, doing justice to both structure and superstructure. As a project reconciling poststructuralism and Marxism through the study of U.S. empire, the book is also informed by Shibusawa’s own research into Cold War cultural politics, including work on ideologies of gender, sexuality, and maturity.  More than three decades stand between the publications of Ideology and US Foreign Policy and Ideologies of US Empire.  During this time, three editions of the edited collection Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations have worked to fill important conceptual gaps.[9] However, the prioritization of archives has admittedly meant a dearth in substantial, critical theory-focused syntheses for historians of U.S. foreign relations to consult.  At the same time, normative assumptions about causation, epistemology, and ‘truth’ continue to saturate all history writing and have roots in the historical processes Shibusawa outlines.  Her work demonstrates that not only do we need theory, but we also need a specific type of praxis: postcolonial, Marxist, and feminist.  “With lives and livelihoods and the planet at stake,” clear-eyed definitions are necessary tools (884).


Perin E. Gürel is associate professor of American Studies and concurrent associate professor of Gender Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Her first book, The Limits of Westernization: A Cultural History of America in Turkey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), explores how debates on “westernization” in Turkey intersected with US-Turkish relations in the twentieth century.  Her articles have appeared in American Quarterly, American Literary History, Diplomatic History, Journal of Transnational American Studies, Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, Journal of Turkish Literature, and elsewhere.  Her 2019 American Quarterly article, “Amerikan Jokes: The Transnational Politics of Unlaughter in Turkey,” won the 2020 Jack Rosenbalm Prize for American Humor Studies, given by the American Humor Studies Association.  Her second book project, "America's Wife, America's Concubine: Turkey, Iran, and the Politics of Comparison," examines the transnational history of comparisons made between Turkey and Iran.


[1] “The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,” United States Conference of Religious Bishops, https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/the-dignity-of-work-and-the-rights-of-workers.

[2] Naoko Shibusawa, “A Different Pandemic,” Diplomatic History 45, no. 3 (2021): 613.

[3] Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Reconsidering Reparations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022); Leah Thomas, The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet (New York: Voracious, 2022); Jessica Hernandez, Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2022).

[4] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (New York: Verso, 2008 ([1972]); Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[5] Perin E. Gürel, The Limits of Westernization: A Cultural History of America in Turkey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[6] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[7] Naoko Shibusawa, “Ideology, Culture, and the Cold War,” in Richard H. Immerman and Petra Goedde eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press 2013), 33-34.

[8] Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and US Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

[9] The latest is Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).