Capitalism Always Produces Racism

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A new wave of anti-racist activists are taking to the streets to protest and stand against police violence. This highlights the importance of theoretical perspectives that understand racism as integral to capitalism. These perspectives must go beyond an identity politics that fails to acknowledge the role of class distinctions in perpetuating racism. 

People across the world are rising up to protest the blatant, racist murder of George Floyd by now ex-officer Derek Chauvin. From Minneapolis to New Zealand, thousands upon thousands of people are breaking quarantine to join together and demand change. Many can be seen in the streets with signs that read “The system must change!” or “The entire system is racist!” With so many expressing outrage at “the system,” it’s important to recognize what this system is and the role that it plays in creating, perpetuating, and sustaining racism and police violence against Black and Brown people. This system is capitalism.

Racism has always existed in class society, but not always in the same form. It is integral to the history of capitalism and cannot be separated from its development. Racism has been — and still remains — an ideological justification for colonial war and conquest. Indeed, the institution of slavery was the necessary condition for the development of modern industry. As Marx pointed out in The Poverty of Philosophy: 

Slavery is an economic category like any other … Needless to say we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America. Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.

From Marx’s perspective, the pre-conditions of capitalist development would be unintelligible without the existence of the slave-trade; thus, it is anti-historical to separate the growth of capitalism from slavery and racism. But racism is not merely part of capitalism’s pre-history or past, but part of its present reality. The ruling class depends on racism to ensure its domination and power.

In order for capitalism to work, there must be a ruling class and a working class — the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are those who own the means of production, and they make decisions which impact everyone. The working class produces wealth in society, but capitalism separates them from it. This is what Marx calls alienation, a process which separates the worker from the products of their labor and oppresses them in the very act of producing. The value workers create is not produced for the sake of human need, but for profit.

Capitalism creates divides within the working class — for the greatest threat to ruling class power would be the global unity of the multiracial proletariat. Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto declared that workers have nothing to lose but their chains, and that the workers of the world must unite. However, in order to create artificial division, the ruling class tries to pit white workers against Black and Brown workers. Capitalism also pits white workers against low-wage Asian workers (i.e., in outsourcing for manufacturing). The ruling class tries to convince white workers that it is in their best interest to fear and despise minorities and to align their interests with the bosses. In identifying with the bourgeoisie, the white worker may hope to escape their condition and “move up the corporate ladder” so to speak. Of course, the white working class as a whole cannot join the ranks of the bourgeoisie. But racial privilege allows some — typically the most loyal to elite interests — to ascend more easily than Black and Brown workers. Thus, when it comes to the corporate world, white men predominate in management and executive positions. 

Even for non-management positions, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains that

white men with criminal records are as likely to be hired as Black men with no criminal records … One can only imagine the slim prospects for legitimate work for Black men returning from jail and prison. The entire criminal justice system operates at the expense of African American communities and society as a whole.

It would be rank idealism to think that white workers cannot be racist themselves, or do not benefit materially from racism. Racism is not just a set of bad ideas, taught and communicated abstractly, but has a material reality that conditions white workers to accept it. Hence, compared to Black and Brown workers, many white workers have access to better jobs, better homes, better schools for their children, and live in less polluted neighborhoods. When it comes to living near environmentally toxic areas, race is the biggest indicator as to who will suffer. 

These concrete examples of privilege also include the daily psychological and emotional comfort that white people experience as Black people fear for their lives. White workers are not as heavily targeted by the police or repressive security forces, although poor whites are victimized by the police at a much higher rate than the white middle class. Such material and racial disparities keep workers alienated from each other, preventing them from uniting in a multiracial struggle to overthrow capitalism. 

The working class is not a homogeneous entity. It contains a diversity of ethnic and racial identities, as well as different levels of job security and income. Those differences need to be acknowledged and worked through before unity can be achieved. However, no matter what their race, gender, or sexual orientation, workers never have the same material interests as those exploiting them, namely the bourgeoisie. 

On the whole, white workers enjoy a better standard of living than their Black and Brown counterparts, but economically, they have much more in common with them than they do with Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Similarly, at the level of class, Black and Brown workers have more in common with white workers than they do with Black elites. As Taylor points out: “In fact, the gap between rich and poor is even more pronounced among Blacks than among whites. The richest whites have seventy-four times more wealth than the average white family. But among African Americans, the richest families have a staggering two hundred times more wealth than the average Black family.” This commonality in terms of class should be the uniting force between workers of all races to fight against their oppression.

Working class unity is not the message of neoliberal identity politics. This politics argues that social problems can be reduced to race or gender without the dimension of class. Instead, this species of liberalism assumes that capitalism is a permanent reality, and that the best approach to quelling racism is for white people to “check their privilege.” But merely criticizing or checking privilege does nothing to abolish the real conditions that create racial disparities. We do not want to merely “check” privilege, anymore than we want Donald Trump to be more reflective or nicer about how he treats those he oppresses. That does nothing to change the social reality of capitalism or racism.

White workers can and do benefit from racism. Nonetheless, it is in their clear interest to overthrow the capitalist system, as opposed to settling for the scraps that are thrown at them from the table of the ruling class. These scraps get smaller every year. The interconnected threats of austerity, unemployment, and environmental crisis put hard limits on the bribes that the ruling class can offer white workers. 

Contrary to what many liberals say, racism is not a condition assigned at birth. It is not an original sin. Instead, we need an historical materialist understanding of racism as something which emerges at the point of production. The mode of production we live under is capitalism: all aspects of life are bathed in its logic. This is what Marx meant by “social being” conditioning “social consciousness.” Since racism is a necessary product of class society, it is something that reproduces itself everywhere, from home to school to work. It is used to prevent workers from challenging the status quo. Liberalism, with its disavowal of the realities of class society, misses the point (of production); liberals reinforce the class reality that produces racism, either unintentionally, or as the bourgeoisie’s willing accomplices. Those who are vocal about racism cannot afford to be silent about capitalism. As Malcolm X poignantly stated, “you cannot have racism without capitalism.”

As Marxists, we understand that no ruling class in history has ever willingly given up its power. “No devil ever yet voluntarily cut off his own claws.” We must recognize that those at the top will do anything to protect their power, including the complete and utter disregard for Black and Brown lives at the hands of the police. 

All Cops are Bourgeois

There are agents of the ruling class whose goal is to protect private property and to preserve capitalism and thus racism, including the police. In preserving the status quo, the police necessarily preserve racial disparities. Thus, it is no surprise that there is a long history of police brutality against the Black community in the United States. 

Police violence is not new, and to understand its impact one must look to the past. In the nineteenth century, police brutality increased dramatically. This was in response to the efforts of Radical Republicans and Black freedmen. At this time in American history, Radical Republicanism of course meant something quite different than Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. The Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens, were a group of politicians that came together before the American Civil War to fight for the end of slavery and to increase the civil liberties of freed Blacks. After the Civil War, Radical Republicans held a majority in Congress, and fiercely advocated for racial equality. They fought to impeach president Andrew Johnson, but fell short in the Senate vote to convict him in the subsequent trial.

In 1865, President Johnson supported the newly passed Black Codes. These laws heavily governed and policed the conduct of Black people, restricting their freedoms and forcing them to work for low wages. Under these codes, white employers had the right to physically beat and punish Black workers, while making it illegal for Black people to bear arms. In 1872, President Johnson aligned himself with racist white Southerners and ended the Freedmen’s Bureau, an organization that helped Black people acquire economic resources, education, and political freedom. With these measures, Johnson ensured that the right of freed male slaves to vote was rendered moot. Southern police, along with the Ku Klux Klan, used force to prevent former slaves from exercising their rights. True to form, President Johnson refused to step in to protect Blacks and enforce the law.

In the 1870s, the Democratic Party, right-wing Republicans, along with racist police forces and the Klu Klux Klan, laid the foundations for the Jim Crow laws. These laws institutionalized segregation, subjecting Black people to excessive violence and brutality, including lynchings. It stripped Black people of their most basic human rights. Police brutality today is merely an extension of racist, violent policies that have existed for hundreds of years.

To this day, the ruling class relies on the police to maintain the status quo of class society and to further dehumanize Black and Brown people. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre summed up the essence of the police as follows: “Cops are never sent to protect lives. Their job is to protect property and defend the status quo, hence are violent in their very nature.” 

This assessment has nothing to do with the attitudes or intentions of particular police officers, or the fact that some police officers happen to be racial minorities. In the early 1930s, German social democrats argued that because workers joined the police, the police were part of the working class. Trotsky was quick to point out the contrary:

The fact that the police [were] originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.

Towards Interracial Class Unity

Only under socialism will Black and Brown people — and all minorities — achieve full liberation. A socialist society would be run democratically by the great majority of people, and not for the profit and power of the few. Without the existence of the bourgeoisie, workers of all races would collectively operate industries, farms, and offices. Instead of gearing labor towards the maximization of profit, labor would be directed towards the prosperity and well-being of everyone.

Hundreds of years of racism will not immediately disappear overnight, even after a socialist revolution. Marx said that in the first phase of the new society workers will still bear the birthmarks of the old one. These birthmarks refer to internalized prejudices inherited from capitalism. However, the material conditions for racism would be eliminated. Economic inequality, disparities in education, lack of job opportunities, lack of adequate medical care, and poor living conditions would be reduced and eventually done away with, thus removing the foundations for racism. 

It is worth mentioning that George Floyd was originally arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy groceries during a pandemic  — and then brutally executed for it. Without the material conditions that fuel racism, such an act of injustice would not occur. 

No one will deny that racism exists among white workers in everyday life. Macro and microaggressions against Black and Brown people are real, and they need to be consciously fought. White workers are afflicted by what Gramsci called “mixed consciousness”: this consciousness contains progressive and reactionary elements. On the one hand, a white worker can support progressive ideas like debt-cancellation and better healthcare. On the other hand, that same worker may harbor and act on racist sentiments, identify with reactionary politicians like Donald Trump, and scapegoat minorities for social problems. Gramsci grasped that one can only overcome such mixed consciousness through education and political struggle. The best remedy for white workers to overcome their mixed consciousness and prejudice is not only to be aware of their racist attitudes and actions, but also to join their fellow non-white workers in class struggle. 

As Marxists, there are two kinds of idealism we need to avoid: the first is class reductionism. This does not acknowledge the ways in which white workers do materially benefit more than others. It treats the working class as a homogenous entity without internal differences. The second kind of idealism is that of liberal identity politics. It commits the opposite error in focusing solely on racial disparities at the expense of class, pretending that the former is not caused (ultimately) by the latter. 

If liberal identity politics is right, then Marx is wrong. If racism can never be overcome through a recognition of our shared, material interests, then there is no reason for workers to ever unite. But, perversely, this is the logic of an inevitable race war. Ironically, through their own pessimism, the white liberal falls into a reactionary trap and reifies racial antagonism. Here, their discourse has eerie similarities to the alt-right, who describe race as a real biological or metaphysical force. Against both liberal and reactionary claims, race privilege costs white workers more than it benefits them. Being exploited and stuck under the rock of capitalism costs more to their lives and their well-being than identifying with a racist class system. 

While not all workers are oppressed to the same degree, the entire international working class has the same relationship to the means of production, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or language they speak. Class is the real material basis of working class unity, including interracial unity. Without interracial unity, we will not liberate the oppressed. 

What we see in the streets now is interracial unity in action against injustice. It is only the beginning of a new phase of class struggle in the U.S. and beyond. Let the ruling classes watch on in fear. The proletarians of all races have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

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Sam Miller

Sam lives and teaches in New York City.