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Critical Readings in Political Economy: Apartheid

Andy Clarno, Neoliberal Apartheid (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

In some of the earliest editions of Al-Hadaf, the journal of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, there is explicit mention of the myriad similarities between the “racist, settler colonial regimes” occupying the antipodes of Africa and the crossroads of the Levant. The Popular Front in theory and practice understood their struggle as linked to that of the South African liberation movement. It is against that rich trove of reflection, penned by revolutionaries fighting for their lives, that Andy Clarno deliberately situates his important study of the post-Oslo/post-Apartheid systems in Palestine and South Africa, Neoliberal Apartheid.

Clarno wishes to bridge political economy and modern settler-colonial studies. Such a bridge is necessary because the modern scholarly sub-field has developed basically in isolation from earlier work on South Africa, Algeria, Australia, Tunisia, and elsewhere, which insisted that Western settler-colonialism was part of the political history of imperialism and capitalism. As Clarno points out, “much of the recent scholarship” on settler-colonialism “has emphasized colonization rather than capitalism.” There is another literature concerned with the economics of settler-societies, but little congress between such inquiries and what has come to be broadly known as settler-colonial studies. Of course, in a strict sense, there need not be, since settler-colonialism has existed outside capitalism. But the overwhelming bulk of modern scholarship has dealt with settler-colonialism linked to Western European states and their offshoots, where capitalism has been a central dynamic.

The newly constituted discipline has often taken as its touchstone Patrick Wolfe’s “logic of elimination,” the phenomenon that makes settler-colonies different from other colonies or social formations. Formally – and one might also say pro forma – Wolfe linked this logic to the internal social dynamics of settler-societies and the metropole. Be that as it may, in both his work and those who have applied his framework, such dynamics gradually fell from the analysis. Class, imperialism, and accumulation are rarely found in the journals explicitly treating the topic. It is against this context of scholarly knowledge production that one must understand Clarno’s contribution.

Clarno argues for a new term to account for the victories and limits of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the recharged peace-processed apparatus of domination in Palestine. That is “neoliberal apartheid,” in which there are “social formations marked by: extreme inequality, racialized marginalization, advanced securitization, and constant crises.” He also uses the umbrella neologism (de)colonization to reference “the continuation of colonization in Palestine/Israel and the limits of decolonization in South Africa.”

The stories Clarno tells to substantiate his case are effective and revealing. Crisp and analytically cutting ethnographies stud the study, sweeping geographically from the political economy of counter-insurgency in Palestine to the deployment of carceral technologies in South Africa. Here Clarno places his work clearly in a line of older scholarship, especially that on South Africa and Palestine, which means to “contribute to the constitution of broader movements against global, neoliberal apartheid.” And just as that older work traced the umbilical relation between the United States and South African and Israeli settler-colonialism, Clarno follows the vasculature which connects the US to outlying extremities of control, colonialism, and accumulation.

Some of the very best parts sketch the political economy of Bethlehem. Israeli tour agencies, charging fixed costs, push their guests to stay in cheaper hotels in Bethlehem, enhancing their cut. Tourism is one of Bethlehem’s few industries. Meanwhile, the souvenir stores literally have to purchase customers from Israeli tour operators, cutting into the shops’ margins and thus the portions of capital that can remain in the Palestinian circuit. Furthermore, until the recent past, Clarno notes, small factories made handicrafts for the local market. That is no more. The second intifada and the opening of the market to Chinese imports undercut such industries. Thus tourism and the commerce with which it is tied is pushed entirely to the tertiary circuit, with Israeli capital aggrandizing and reducing the space for Palestinian commerce linked to Palestinian production. The other major Bethlehem industry is stonecutting. Israel has encouraged its companies to open quarries in the West Bank, and refuses new permits for Palestinians, as well as the exports of their products. Israeli settlements are the Palestinian quarries’ major markets, while a surfeit of stones drives down prices and leads to ever-fewer factories as they find themselves unable to secure operating margins. Israeli development leads to Palestinian de-development. This is the dialectic of settler-capitalism.

Clarno is less convincing in discussing racial capitalism and racialization, at least as applied to Palestine. He raises it in part to bring in political economy to settler-colonial analysis of the Zionist project. As he makes clear, modern settler-colonial studies, in stark contrast to an entire earlier generation of dissident scholarship, does not really contend with capitalism or imperialism. In part, this is because the new field has sought out a logic that can explain non-Western colonialisms. Be that as it may, the methodology and theoretical architecture of the field has made it difficult for it to deal with the bread-and-butter of materialist social science – class, production, contradiction, commodity flows, and accumulation. Clarno attempts to use the concept of racial capitalism to bridge the moat surrounding the discipline. I am not sure it carries the weight.

Racial capitalism in the work of the South African radicals who coined the concept was a mid-level term mapping a discrete social formation – South Africa. Cedric Robinson developed his theory in conversations with some of those activists, but broadened it into a theory of white civilization(s), “no matter the structures upon which they were formed.” Clarno’s concept sits between the two formulations: the “recognition that racialization and capital accumulation are mutually constitutive processes that combine in dynamic, context-specific formations.” He also notes that it draws “attention to…colonial conquests,” and works through “Dispossessing people of their land and resources.” But the concept of settler-colonialism already covers these aspects of racial capitalism. If meso-level historical concepts, particularly those crafted in dialogue with social movements, can help chart a social formation in order to identify pressure points and weak links, what work does the concept do here?

For example, if racial capitalism is meant to analogize the structural position of the Black middle class, either before or after apartheid, or the Black elite after the end of political apartheid, with the Palestinian Authority-linked upper class, the concept is stretched to the breaking point – “We don't want two occupations. Leave us with one occupation,” a labor and women's rights organizer says. And how do racialization or racial capitalism shed light on the deployment of PA security forces to block both redistributive and anti-colonial struggle in the West Bank? Clarno also extends racial capitalism to the Jewish Israeli class structure. But the concept ends up loosely descriptive, rather than a map of a social formation that informs political struggle – for as he notes, in Palestine, internal Jewish class conflict is contained by and unfolds within settler-colonial modes of control. And how does racial capitalism address the refugees, the most dispossessed of all – which also raises the limits of limiting parallels to the territorial box of historic Palestine? An excess of theoretical lenses, stacked atop one another, makes history fuzzy rather than focused.

This blurriness is unfortunate, since Clarno’s ethnography beautifully and clarifyingly complicates a tendency in modern settler-colonial studies to sideline capitalism and imperialism. In the process, his case studies rise above his theoretical ambiguities. What he shows is a process of imperial-linked settler-capitalism, relentlessly gorging and accumulating. Colonial-capitalism is a holistic process. Colonialism cannot be decanted from capitalism in the history of Western expansion. Indeed, some of the best indigenous scholars of settler-colonialism like Glen Coulthard and José Carlos Mariátegui have made this clear. Furthermore, there is a long history of work explicitly treating settler-capitalism, from Donald Denoon comparatively, to Nahla Abdo and Riyad Mousa in Palestine. Only some of this work appears in the text’s footnotes, and it makes little appearance in the theoretical architecture, perhaps because it deals with the Mandate period.

Clarno made things difficult by attempting to reinvent a theoretical wheel rather than building on existing approaches. Still, he has made a signal contribution to the very important effort to write accumulation, class, and empire back into settler-colonial studies. This is crucial work for all struggling to interpret and hopefully change the world in front of us. 

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