Black Against Profit: A Primer on Capitalism and Racism (Pt. I of IV)

"The concept of racial important not only for understanding the foundations of colonialism and slavery, that hold up the edifice of modern capitalism, but also for uncovering the sources of Black revolt against that system."

Black Against Profit: A Primer on Capitalism and Racism (Pt. I of IV)

Part One: Maroon Methodology

One key thing that growing up Black and working-class taught me, long before I read Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction or Sakai’s Settlers, was that in this country, only white people can really afford to pretend that history doesn’t matter.

By “afford” I don’t just mean they got it like that, in a material sense. Though it’s clear that the vast racial disparities in property ownership and generational wealth; in education, and therefore representation in the professions; and in policing and carceral practices, that condemn over one million Afro-Americans to languish in prisons, the rest to numbing anger or fear – it’s clear that these disparities arose from policies and laws that carefully reserve the imperial spoils for the white North American. Policies that ask the rest of us to be patient with scraps; laws that are enforced under threat of police and military repression, when by revolt we take back the stolen wealth of centuries.

I won’t put too fine a point on the fact that in the US, white racism runs on a parallel track with white wealth. Because in my experience, poor white folks have also pretended that slavery and Jim Crow, Native genocide and the annexation of Puerto Rican and Mexican territory, are irrelevant for the chances people have to make it today.

To my young mind, it made no sense that poor whites, the main recipients of “government handouts,” were among the loudest voices blaming not just welfare fraud, but nearly every other social problem on the backwardness of non-white people, especially of “the Blacks.”

It wasn’t until I got older, and read Black radical historians and theorists like WEB Du Bois and Claudia Jones, CLR James and Sylvia Wynter, Eric Williams and Walter Rodney, that I gained better perspective on this issue that James Baldwin calls the Rock of Ages: this stumbling-block of economic and social underdevelopment, over which whites can easily leap, but that Black folks are forced to slowly climb – from which so many of us tumble toward despair. The terrible cost of admission into what our oppressors call “civilization,” but that we know better as their record of race terror.

It wasn’t until I equipped myself with the tools of dialectical and historical materialism, that I began to grasp this problem as a totality of interrelated and mutually determining forces. That these are not disconnected, but are closely connected facts – that it is the suppressed roles of the slave trade, of agrarian neo-slavery and industrial discrimination, of colonial banditry and indirect rule, that together account for why “we must run while they walk,” in Nyerere’s memorable phrase.

“Black Against Profit: A Primer on Capitalism and Racism” is not meant as a definitive analysis of the realities that I just described. It’s not an academic essay, and it’s not (strictly speaking) a polemic. Instead it’s an incomplete introduction, in four parts, to Black radical ideas on the connection between racism and capitalism, so far as I’ve come to know them, in my own struggle with these intertwined systems. It’s also a call to revolutionary action, for those now suspended on the cross of the color line and America’s falling profits.

Dialectical philosophy teaches us that it's not enough to understand the facts, though. We must also be clear on the method that assembles those facts into a coherent totality of meaning.

Racism from capitalism, or racial capitalism?: the problem of method

“Colonized people are not only exploited because of economic wealth, but their culture, their values, their language, their entire way of life are stripped from them and they are forced to identify with the oppressor, and that’s very important because it means that as the two groups...move, the exploited [whites] and the colonized, they must move in different paths.” - Kwame Ture, in Stokely Speaks, 132

Generally speaking, there are two major schools of radical thought on the relationship between capitalism and racism.

The first school grows out of an internal Marxist debate on the role that is played by class interest in creating and sustaining racist attitudes among workers of the developed nations.

The second school is compatible with the best insights of Marxist political economy and world-systems analysis. But it departs from the Marxist method on the question of social causation, in order to explain the roots of white racism in pre-capitalist Europe, and to account for the sources of Black revolt against slavery and colonialism.

To clarify this distinction, it would be helpful to discuss the theory of historical materialism, Karl Marx’s great contribution to the study of history and social development.

In classical Marxist theory, the leading ideas of any society, as well as the political and social reflexes of its various classes, belong to a superstructure of beliefs and social practices that reflect continuities and shifts in productive forces and relations, and in resulting patterns of capital accumulation, at the level of the economic base.

For Marx and Engels, how we see the world is shaped by the collective economic practices through which we interact with that world (as members of distinct classes, with unequal ownership of land, raw materials, tools, and other means of production), in order to satisfy human needs – including the needful social and political structures for distributing the fruits of our labor, under the given mode of production (the dominant form of economic production and exchange at any stage of a society's development, e.g. slavery, feudalism, or capitalism).

As a member of the capitalist class, the owner of a clothing company with factories in the Third World needs the police to protect “his” property from the workers who produce it, thus ensuring that he is not operating at a loss of profit. On the other hand, a garment worker, a store clerk, or a local booster, will tend to see the police as a physical and an economic threat when they unionize, strike, or steal clothing for resale – when they reclaim ownership of their labor-power and its products, in order to avoid starvation and eviction.

What is seen as socially necessary from the perspective of one class, is therefore met as a barrier to the survival of another class. Neither viewpoint is shaped by abstract ideas of “right” or “justice,” but by the patterns of production and distribution that decide whether somebody will eat well or starve; whether they will vacation in Florence, or be tossed to the streets of Paris. And the entire superstructure of laws, of police power to back those laws, and of social and political ideas that explain why those laws are valid, is built upon, and shifts according to changes in, this economic base.

Importantly, these ideas within the superstructure are epiphenomenal, meaning that they cannot themselves shape developments at the base. Liberal-democratic ideology, the product of a definite stage in the development of industrial capitalism, is powerless in its turn to reconcile landlord and tenant, factory owner and wage slave, so as to keep the contradictions of industrial society from ripping it apart.

For Marx and Engels, the nature of this base/superstructure relationship explains why the leading philosophers of their time could only look on helplessly while political life slipped out of their reach, while it was drawn into real struggles between the rising camps of proletariat and bourgeoisie. The Young Hegelians, as their counterparts Marx and Engels describe them in The German Ideology (41-42, 46-47), had believed that justice, democracy, and social progress could be achieved peacefully, and mainly by didactic means – by raising the reading public’s consciousness up to their own privileged standpoint, above the fray of contending social classes, to criticize and transform the stagnant institutions of the German states.

In reality, their standpoint was just another incomplete view on the totality of social life. The Young Hegelian camp, like much of German philosophy before them, thought that they were free from the distorting interests of class in their considerations of social reality. In truth, they were merely giving voice to a liberal-radical wing within the German petty-bourgeoisie. Their Enlightenment views were typical for the educator class of a dependent state bureaucracy, whose real function was to channel surplus value from peasants and workers to the princes, the landed nobility, and increasingly to industrialists.

But because of the relative underdevelopment of the German national economy, there was no ripening working class, comparable to the French or English proletariat, that could violently push feudal society toward liberalization and national unity (Lukacs, The Young Hegel, 288-290). Taken as a class, the German intelligentsia's power was borrowed light from the princes, who needed their administrative talents but not their ideas for social reform. Drawn between a succession of autocrats and an unprepared army of labor, they mistook their intermediate position for their chance to mediate.  

All that the liberal intellectuals could do, though, was write about how things ought to be in a just and democratic society, and hope by publicizing their views, under increasing state scrutiny, to “make the world philosophical,” in the belief that their own philosophy sprang from free inquiry into politics and ethics.

Behind their backs, objectivity tailored their thought to the requirements of their class. It limited what they were willing and able to do in order to realize their bright ideas on the good, the just and true in real life – which only develops by way of class struggle, and never by theoretic discourse.

In the early 20th century, which was punctuated by race riots and pastime lynchings, Marxist theories on racial prejudice tended to uncritically apply the base/superstructure framework to the US context, in order to explain the racial chauvinism in organized labor and socialist movements. As the line goes, race belongs in the superstructure, while class affiliation lies at the (monocausal) base. Whatever their color, workers in the United States shared a fundamental class interest that demanded unity in their fight with the bourgeoisie. But that desired unity never came, because of the formal exclusion of Black labor from crucial sectors of the industrial economy, and equally importantly, because of the racism of white workers.

Since they held that the interest of all workers was challenged by the oppressed condition of Black labor, these class-reductive theories asserted that white workers were really the dupes in an elaborate plot to divide the proletarian ranks. The bosses were cynically fueling white workers' racist attitudes, to keep them from forming one fist with Black workers, with which to smash the dictatorship of capital. Once the white worker became conscious of their real class interest, in the course of their struggle for socialism alongside Black workers, they would slough off their inconvenient antiblackness.  

In Divided World/Divided Class, sociologist Zak Cope usefully describes this position as the false class consciousness theory: the reason that oppressor-nation workers hold racist attitudes is because they are not conscious of themselves as a class, having a common interest with the workers of oppressed nations in the overthrow of their capitalist bosses (4).

The alternative position, which might be called the wages of whiteness theory, was pioneered by the preeminent sociologist and historian WEB Du Bois, who provided a social-psychological and a historical explanation for the durability of white racism, not just among the capitalists and middle classes, but among the “class-conscious” workers, too.

In his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction (1935), Du Bois carefully describes how the Black-elected governments of the Reconstruction South – whose radically democratic policies were shaped by the will of Black peasants, yet had also helped white workers – how these governments were finally overthrown by the union of Northern capital with Southern landholders and white labor. Du Bois argues that through a combination of strategies – fear-mongering against Republican carpetbaggers, giving social and economic concessions to lower-class whites, and playing on deeply layered race hatreds – the capitalists of North and South had successfully enrolled white labor in a regional counter-revolution, that left the US South economically and socially behind the North by many decades (596, 605-609, 621).

Perhaps influenced by Max Weber’s ideas on the causality of cultural attitudes in economic life, Du Bois argued that under this new constellation of white power, a “psychological wage of whiteness” was doled out to even the poorest worker –making up for their economic disadvantages through various forms of social recognition, and chances for upward mobility, into the ranks of Southern aristocracy; integrating them into a racial pecking order that placed them very near the top, no matter the depth of their real misery (700).

Later theorists in whiteness studies, such as David Roediger, have since drawn on a wealth of historical material that substantiates Du Bois’s thesis, which holds that so-called “irrational” (subconscious) factors, like the psychological projection of stigmatized pre-industrial traits (like laziness and sensuality) onto Black people, have formed and continue to shape the consciousness of the white proletariat. Roediger’s studies of white ethnic workers show that these mechanisms of racial projection were key for adjusting nineteenth-century Irish and other European immigrants to their newfound whiteness, and to the corresponding rigors of labor discipline in their new industrial setting (Wages of Whiteness, 151-153). It was precisely by distancing themselves from Black people, psychologically and culturally, and through the cathartic release of anti-Black violence, that the workers in Roediger’s study become white.

Far from being held hostage by the capitalist class, then, working-class white identity was forged in the very furnace of racial oppression, as the argument goes. The cultural hegemony of white capitalist over white labor is greatly assisted by their cultural unity over class lines.

And not only cultural and social proximity to the “white masters of the world,” but also very real, material rewards are enjoyed by white workers, who in the main constitute an oppressive, a petty-bourgeois supra-class over the heads of Black workers.

As Du Bois puts it in “Marxism and the Negro Problem” (1933):

“It is no sufficient answer to say that capital encourages this [white-worker oppression of Black people] and uses it for its own ends. This may have excused the ignorant and superstitious Russian peasants in the past and some of the poor whites of the South today. But the bulk of American white labor is neither ignorant nor fanatical. It knows exactly what it is doing and it means to do it. William Green and Mathew Woll of the [American Federation of Labor] have no excuse of illiteracy or religion to veil their deliberate intention to keep Negroes and Mexicans and other elements of common labor, in a lower proletariat as subservient to their interests as theirs are to the interests of capital.” (WEB Du Bois: A Reader, 541)

While he departs from many Marxist dogmas in the critical works of this period, Du Bois maintains a few assumptions that do specify this analysis as Marxist, in particular his historical-materialist account of racism’s emergence.

In “The African Roots of the War” and in other places, Du Bois holds that the origin of anti-black racism lies with the imperatives of global capitalism, dating from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Race prejudices are the effluvia of capitalism unleashed in Africa, where it has justified first slavery, then colonialism, by constructing “the Negro” as an inferior species, unworthy of self-determination, of honest diplomacy, or of humane treatment (Reader, 643; Black Reconstruction, 632).

By demoting the Negro from historical equal to inveterate slave, by drawing the limits of civilized conduct along the color line, the capitalist West could plunder our homelands with a clean conscience. First profit, then prejudice, is the formula that Du Bois follows. Writers that we will discuss in the next section, like Eric Williams and Walter Rodney, would largely share his position on the relative newness of racism on a world stage increasingly dominated by Western finance capitalism.

Meanwhile the “racial capitalism” school, pioneered by Cedric Robinson, and developed in various ways by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Nikhil Pal Singh, retains the Marxist stress upon the world-systemic nature of capitalism, and its antagonistic and under-developing relationship to peoples of the Third World. But in contrast with the first school, Robinson and his successors would argue that racial prejudice is a necessary precondition for the emergence of capitalism, rather than its comparatively late by-product.

Marx and Engels had held that capitalism was itself a revolutionary system that tended to clear pre-capitalist ideas and social relations from the stage of history, in preparation for the big showdown between capital and labor. Hence the curious claim of the Manifesto, that the “working-man has no country”: capitalism apparently dissolves the prejudice that stands between workers of different races, as it plunges them into common conditions of work.

But Robinson’s account in Black Marxism tries to show how the everyday racist attitudes of medieval Europe were actually incorporated at every stage of modern capitalist development.

From the adventures of twelfth-century mercantilists; to the expulsion of the Moors by the Reconquista of the late-fifteenth century, and the elaboration of Euro-Christian identity through contrast with Muslim Africa; to the founding of the modern capitalist system with the dispossession of indigenous Americans, the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the division of the global working class on the color line – racial difference underlies and shapes the history of the capitalist system across its many permutations (9-10, 24-28).

Because of his attention to the causative role that culture plays in re/producing the world system, Robinson is sometimes read as a philosophical idealist, by Marxist critics like Asad Haider and Alex Callinicos. But dialectics, even in its bloodiest form, can never be satisfied with a simple either/or. It has to account for what is true, if only partially so, in the opposing viewpoints.

There is no reason that the systemic and social regularities captured by historical materialist analysis should be ignored, simply because of the limits of its theory of causation. The racial capitalism school is compatible with the best insights of Marxist political economy and world-systems analysis, as Robinson’s and Gilmore’s own writings show. Far better than false class consciousness, it also explains the intractability of working-class white racism – with its great inertial pull on the labor movement. Here is one case where the superstructure clearly affects developments in the substructure.

Or rather, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, in the Wretched of the Earth: under colonial conditions, the superstructure is the substructure. You are rich because you are white, and you are white because you are rich. We might add: if you’re not rich, at least you are white. There is nothing in Marx to explain this. Du Bois could recognize the problem, but he appears not to have made it an explicit problem of method.

This somewhat laborious discussion of method was needed, so that we can sidestep conceptual traps in our following sections – on racism and primitive accumulation, on racialized labor in the imperialist age, and on racism and settler-leftism.

Considered together with Sylvia Wynter’s analysis of the “invention of Man” by Renaissance humanism, as a primordial differentiation within our species that sets Blackness in the “bottommost place” of the global hierarchy (“Unsettling the Coloniality of Being,” 261); and with Fanon’s sociogenic account of anti-Black racism in Black Skin, White Masks, the concept of racial capitalism helps us avoid overly mechanical accounts of the emergence of the global division of labor.

As we will see in the next section, this theoretical need is important not just for understanding the foundations of colonialism and slavery, that hold up the edifice of modern capitalism; but also for uncovering sources of Black revolt against that system.