[Note: I’m re-posting this from Jan 2016 — well, to remind myself what on the whole is my position on the issue of ‘tackling discrimination’ under a capitalist regime.]
Racism, Equal Opportunity, and Capitalism: an intimation of a critique – written by Norm
The social revolution . . . cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped itself of all its superstitions concerning the past. Earlier revolutions relied on memories out of world history in order to drug themselves against their own content. In order to find their own content, the revolutions of the nineteenth century have to let the dead bury the dead. Before, the expression exceeded the content; now, the content exceeds the expression.
–Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire
Both must turn their backs on the inhuman voices which were those of their respective ancestors in order that authentic communication be possible. Before it can adopt a positive voice, freedom requires an effort at dis-alienation. At the beginning of his life a man is always clotted, he is drowned in contingency. The tragedy of the man is that he was once a child.
— Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Racism, xenophobia, intolerance – it is all around us.
The attitude – for we can speak of a singular attitude, of a single attitudinal posture, regardless of its basis, be that of an imagined racial purity, cultural identity, religious outlook, political orientation, historical national ancestry, and so on and on – rests upon the idea that one belongs by virtue of some kind of essential identity to a group and that the world divides into a multitude of such essential and potentially contending identities.
Ordinary people have no difficulty speaking of themselves as being Catholic or French Canadian or German or European or Jewish, as belonging to this or that group, or even to a variety of overlapping inclusive categories of groups, each conceived in terms of its defining folklore, its customs, its aptitudes, its values, its beliefs, that is, in terms of the marks or telltales held dearest and nearest by the group personified as a mode of consciousness in its own right, marks or telltales that, in apparently striking contrast, set it off and apart from all those other groups in the world that do not bear any of these essential marks or telltales, or if they do – quite accidentally, to be sure – they at least do not bear them in the presumed and proper configuration, not according to the prescribed manner of superordinating each discrete value in its overall system of values.
But ordinary people, not usually or always being exacting in their discrimination of what exactly makes them who precisely they are in terms of their particular cultural identity (or even identities), must be helped and have their ideas of who they think they are supplemented by specialists whose jobs it is to keep tabs on exactly what it is that is ‘essential’ about being this or that sort of person, in terms of belonging to this or that nationality, religion, tribe or race. It can be complicated and exacting work to keep all of this business and accounting straight. And so we have specialists – academics and ideologues and priests and propagandists – who make it their business and profession to tell us who we are from the vantage of their authority, whether we like it or not, irrespective of our sloppy personal and anecdotal opinions, because having acquired specialized knowledge in their particular brands of cultural esotericisms, they are more than the rest of us sharply attuned to the characteristics of what they would have us believe are our innate ‘ontological’ and ‘metaphysical’ group origins and differences.
So people are racists, xenophobes, and intolerant, and if they are not, then because we very much do live in a world of ‘cultural-isms,’ in a world made up of elites in competition with each other on the basis of the group allegiances that they can muster and command, in a world that often if not always privileges the notion of the group over the individual, people are at the very least most certainly susceptible to being racists, xenophobes, and intolerant zealots.
So let us not pretend that things are otherwise than what they are.
But could the existing situation be other than it is? Yes, of course, it could be. We know this because we have to actually work at conceptualizing ourselves into being members of this or that group, and among us there are people whose primary social function is to elaborate and inculcate group identities. Group identities are things that are forged in the mind, that are created, invented, learned, overlapped and interlaced – one could argue, “almost at will,” although these inculcated identities are in fact eminently historical formations, and therefore to a high degree cultural products that spontaneously emerge under the constraints of the concrete historical circumstances to which individuals are always having to adapt. Therefore, although there appears to be something arbitrary about all group identities, since they take root in the individual’s mind through a process of enculturation (or what is the same, a process of ‘education’), they are also and primarily the conditioned offspring of material and environmental factors of which they themselves, as extant and totalizing cultural formations, are very much a constitutive part.
Group identities can be more or less inclusive, and in a system of group identities crystalized inside one and the same mind of an individual, one group identity can be deemed to be superior or more important than another, that is, elevated or subordinated in relative value, so that if a person has ever to choose between one group membership over another, he or she can choose, however difficult the choice might be. (As a mere example, one can think of what happened during the European wars of the last century. Many Europeans, especially in the early part of the century, then thought of themselves as being one with the working class of the world, which was imagined as a brotherhood oppressed by another brotherhood, that of the ruling transnational class of big money capitalists. Then the wars broke out between various national groupings of the various capitalist factions comprising the transnational class of big money capitalists; the unity within this latter group of ruling elites was broken and the fragments reconstituted themselves at a national level and then into blocs of contending national alliances. Beneath these reconstituted capitalist factions, people who formerly saw themselves as members of the international working class were now confronted with a choice: my working class identity or that of my nation. Most ended up choosing in favor of their nation and thereby became the tools of their very oppressors, helping their ruling class attempt to crush its competitors, but in the end helping the capitalists consolidate the subjugation of the working class everywhere.)
Thus we live in a world where bigotry is a fact of life and many people recognize that this is so. Among those who recognize and deplore it, there is a desire to mitigate the awful effects of this plague upon mankind.
One approach to that mitigation is roughly as follows: a) show people in positions of power and responsibility who are in denial about the fact of intolerance that it does indeed exist; and b) get these deniers in responsible positions of power to enact measures to erase the manifestations of the fact of this intolerance, because the manifestations are themselves the embodiments of the injustice and cruelty of the intolerance.
How can you tell if you live in an intolerant society that may not appear to be so or that denies that it is? Well, there are many ways, but here is one way, and I’ll try to keep my illustration simple for the sake of both clarity and brevity: in any society comprised of a mix of peoples, you can tabulate numbers that can express important aspects about that mix and that can also actually tell you something qualitative about the relations between the peoples or cultural groupings that comprise that mix.
Discrimination against people of color, for example, presumably motivated by prejudice, is something qualitative that can be deduced from comparing, on the one hand, the number of colored people in positions of workplace authority as a percentage of all people in positions of workplace authority with, on the other hand, the number of colored people as a percentage of the overall population.
One might, for example, expect that if Black Americans count for roughly 16% of the overall number of Americans, on the assumption that were America ideologically color neutral, roughly 16% of all those in positions of workplace authority in America would be Black Americans.
Study after study demonstrates, unfortunately, that Black Americans (among far too many others) in positions of workplace authority are but a dismal percentage of what they should be if America were in fact unbiased about race.
The conclusion usually drawn from these studies is that racial discrimination is widespread throughout the workplaces of America and that America is therefore still very much a racist society. (On this particular issue, you can do your own research easily enough, as you obviously have the internet at your fingertips, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.)
But the point I’m driving at is not that we live in racist and bigoted societies (I think we can safely take that as a given) and that many studies prove it, but that these kinds of studies and preoccupations actually hinge on an assumption that is inherently problematic and misleading.
If workplace discrimination is motivated by racist attitudes, will ridding the workplace of discrimination rid the workplace of racism? To some degree, it probably will. It will most probably attenuate or mute the influence of racist attitudes in hiring practices or the promotion of individuals. Not a bad thing and certainly a step in the right direction. Minorities are in a sense thereby accommodated; justice in the workplace is better approximated. A practice that was racist is being changed to one less racist, and the assumption that racism explains unjust hiring practices seems thereby to be confirmed.
But what really is achieved by eliminating discrimination in the workplace? Do we thereby help to create a society wherein equality of opportunity, the chance to get ahead in life, is brought within everyone’s reach? Well, for those destined to occupy the ranks of the managerial class, the prospect definitely comes closer at hand. But if you understand the structure of the kind of society in which we live, a capitalist structure, you realize that this ‘chance to get ahead’ is in this way only being realized for a select few and cannot for the majority really remain but an illusion of the highest order.
Capitalism, by design, must deny ‘equality of opportunity’ for the vast majority of its incorporated citizens, and since it must deny it to the vast majority, even in a capitalist society where racism would be ‘educated’ out of existence, not an impossibility, the vast majority of people belonging to minorities would yet and in effect, like everyone else, continue to be excluded from taking part in a meaningful way in the contest to optimize their life chances.
What many people do not recognize is that capitalism, the pursuit and realization of profit, is simply impossible without an expropriated majority, that is, a majority completely under the lash of having to earn a wage to keep body and soul together. If the majority ever managed to create for itself a lifestyle that could break for it the necessity of having to get a job to pay the bills, to eat and house and clothe itself, the system would collapse in on itself. Why do so many people have to earn a wage in order to live? Because conditions have been deliberately created and maintained so that they must. It is not true that bright ideas and hard work beget riches and multiply opportunities. Rather, the violence of expropriation, of separating people from the means of life, from unimpeded access to land and resources and culture that are monopolized by the machinery of corporations owned and controlled through title of ownership by the capitalist class, is what ensures the tiny coteries of the outrageously rich their profits in the exchange of commodities for wages earned in a currency that they issue and control and manipulate in value, and that also helps to ensure that 90% of most everyone who lives under this system of exploitation and oppression will have to slave his whole life through for what comes down to an existence unworthy of being human.
Karl Marx puts it best, in my opinion, in “Chapter 26” of Capital Volume One, titled “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation:”
“This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defence of property. M. Thiers, e.g., had the assurance to repeat it with all the solemnity of a statesman to the French people, once so spirituel. But as soon as the question of property crops up, it becomes a sacred duty to proclaim the intellectual food of the infant as the one thing fit for all ages and for all stages of development. In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part. In the tender annals of Political Economy, the idyllic reigns from time immemorial. Right and “labour” were from all time the sole means of enrichment, the present year of course always excepted. [Norm’s emphasis] As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic.
“In themselves money and commodities are no more capital than are the means of production and of subsistence. They want transforming into capital. But this transformation itself can only take place under certain circumstances that centre in this, viz., that two very different kinds of commodity-possessors must come face to face and into contact; on the one hand, the owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of values they possess, by buying other people’s labour power; on the other hand, free labourers, the sellers of their own labour power, and therefore the sellers of labour. Free labourers, in the double sense that neither they themselves form part and parcel of the means of production, as in the case of slaves, bondsmen, &c., nor do the means of production belong to them, as in the case of peasant proprietors; they are, therefore, free from, unencumbered by, any means of production of their own. With this polarisation of the market for commodities, the fundamental conditions of capitalist production are given. The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labour. [Norm’s emphasis] As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale. The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage labourers. The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it. The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.
“The immediate producer, the labourer, could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached to the soil and ceased to be the slave, serf, or bondsman of another. To become a free seller of labour power, who carries his commodity wherever he finds a market, he must further have escaped from the regime of the guilds, their rules for apprentices and journeymen, and the impediments of their labour regulations. Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.
“The industrial capitalists, these new potentates, had on their part not only to displace the guild masters of handicrafts, but also the feudal lords, the possessors of the sources of wealth. In this respect, their conquest of social power appears as the fruit of a victorious struggle both against feudal lordship and its revolting prerogatives, and against the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man. The chevaliers d’industrie, however, only succeeded in supplanting the chevaliers of the sword by making use of events of which they themselves were wholly innocent. They have risen by means as vile as those by which the Roman freedman once on a time made himself the master of his patronus.
“The starting point of the development that gave rise to the wage labourer as well as to the capitalist, was the servitude of the labourer. The advance consisted in a change of form of this servitude, in the transformation of feudal exploitation into capitalist exploitation. To understand its march, we need not go back very far. Although we come across the first beginnings of capitalist production as early as the 14th or 15th century, sporadically, in certain towns of the Mediterranean, the capitalistic era dates from the 16th century. Wherever it appears, the abolition of serfdom has been long effected, and the highest development of the middle ages, the existence of sovereign towns, has been long on the wane.
“In the history of primitive accumulation, all revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capital class in course of formation; but, above all, those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process. The history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods. In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form.” (Karl Marx, First English edition of 1887, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy / Volume One, Chapter 26, pp.507-508.)
We want a society free of the malady of group intolerance and I think that this is a realistic hope, because if racism and bigotry are learned — and they are — something else more inclusive and tolerant can be learned in their place.
But ridding ourselves of the racial and ethnocentric prejudices that we have inherited from our past is not enough to ensure the creation of a just society. If that is ever to happen, sooner or later, the question of ‘capital’ will have to be raised in the mind of the majority and an answer considered and eventually given. The posing of this question can also be learned as can the recognition of the dispossession underpinning our collective slavery.