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<nettime> notes on race and capitalism
Keith Hart on Thu, 12 Dec 2002 20:06:03 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> notes on race and capitalism

Notes on race and capitalism

Race is the belief that humanity is divided by physical characteristics
into local groups of natural, even independent origin, at one extreme into
two -- white and black. Capitalism is the belief, in a strong Marxist
version, that the world economy is increasingly divided between two
opposed classes, capital and labour. Both beliefs have surfaced on the
nettime list recently. So we are back to race and class as rival Manichean
dualisms. It brings back memories of an encounter I had with some old
white communists in Montreal who privately blamed the failure of the
revolution in North America on the blacks. After a childhood formed by a
weak version of the protestant/catholic divide in Britain, I have spent my
professional life substantially with Africans and the African diaspora.
What follows are some unsystematic thoughts reflecting the bias of this

I asked my grandmother one day, "What's it like to have black neighbours,
Grandma?" I knew that, like all the English working class, after
generations of recruitment into the imperial army and whatever, she was
intuitively racist. But she replied, "Oh, he's a lovely man. He's a
medical orderly from Barbados, so quiet and respectful. And you should see
his two little girls dressed to the nines for Sunday school at St. John's"
(the local Church of England establishment). She went on, unasked, "Not
like them bloody Poles before him who made so much noise, getting drunk on
a Saturday night, then going to the priest the next day for absolution."
So, Caribbean protestantism trumped race. I then asked her about the
Indians. She was perplexed, they weren't catholic or protestant. "I like
them dresses the women wear, but the food smells funny, don't you think?"

I have long been fascinated by Europe's religious wars as a crucible for
modern racism. The idea of race as binary is distinctively British. The
French, Spanish and Portuguese prefer a triad with a mixed category in the
middle. It leads to the contrast between a United States where the
faintest trace of Africa makes one 'black' and Brazil where there is a
large intermediary class. Where did that come from? I don't know enough
about Dutch colonial practice. It may be a protestant thing to separate
the saved from the others and catholic to be more inclusive. But racism
certainly has a varied cultural history. It isn't always us vs. them;
sometimes three can play or even many, as in the Indian caste system.

In Britain a strong dualism was projected by Victorians onto their own
island history. Thomas Huxley believed that the British were originally
composed of two races, one dark-skinned of Mediterranean origin and one
fair-skinned from the Northern European plain, who occupied different
parts of the country. Be that as it may, Ireland was the testing ground.
Around 800, the Vikings ran a maritime empire in the Irish Sea and Dublin
was their main slaving port. The Anglo-Normans then took it over. 'Beyond
the pale' meant the area suitable for slave-raiding outside the fence of
the port city. In general, this sharp division allowed the others to be
treated as less than human. Later, Cromwell had the notion of deporting
all the Irish as slaves to the Caribbean, so that the country could be
given over to cattle and horses. Quite a number went to Barbados before
their death rate encouraged replacement with African slaves.

And English colonialism was rarely so brutal abroad as it was in the first
industrial heartlands of the northern periphery, where so many of the
workers were, of course, Irish. An 1860 House of Lords inquiry into the
legal use of physical punishment in England and Wales came up with three
kinds of county. In two-thirds, there was no longer any such punishment
(flogging and the like). In the rest but one, it was minor. But in
Lancashire physical abuse by the law was off the map. Their lordships were
shocked to hear of one eight-year-old boy in a Manchester workhouse who
was given 48 strokes of the cat o' nine tails for talking back to a
supervisor. When I taught in Jamaica, I was sometimes told by students
'You English got rich by exploiting us'. My usual reply was, 'I'm not
English, I'm from Manchester.'

I have studied the Atlantic slave trade and the movement for abolition.
For a while I worked with C.L.R. James whose The Black Jacobins (1938)
vividly describes the depravity of the slave-owners as it reveals the
enormous impact of the Haitian revolution on western history. It would be
hard to overstate the importance of this history as a source for
contemporary racism. But I am exploring here some of the blurred edges
that link this to other histories, not least that of capitalism itself.

All the principal agrarian civilizations kept money and markets in a
separate compartment away from where the real power was -- in the control
of people on the land. Awareness that capitalism was a threat to their
power led the elites of the old regime to curb its potential by several
methods: Islamic cultures prohibited the investment of trading capital in
artisan production; the Chinese only allowed junior sons to enter
commerce. But the most common strategy was to restrict trade and banking
to ethnic minorities who could not be citizens or own land. The legacy of
this practice in Europe was the Holocaust. It is tragic that Africans and
Jews should sometimes seem to be competing for recognition as the greatest
victims of western racism. Nor were they alone. The Spanish took the
tripartite classification of Christians, Jews and Moors with them to the
New World, where it helped to organize the genocide of Amerindians. Let us
not forget the horrors of Europe's religious wars of the 17th century. And
no-one needs reminding of the recent revival of the spirit of the crusades
on both sides. The plight of strangers, especially people of colour,
throughout Asia is evidence enough that racism is not a western monopoly.

All of this adds up to a deep-seated cultural premise to treat people
inhumanely on racial and religious grounds. But a case can also be made
for a specific history of western racism in the modern era. The growing
power of Europe that stemmed in part from its machine revolution led to a
movement from the 1830s to draw a line between the imperial powers and
their neighbours in the circum-Mediterranean and further afield. Martin
Bernal's Black Athena (1987) documents how the idea of Western uniqueness
was traced to ancient Greece from that time. By the end of the century,
the world economy was being organized into two separate streams of
low-skill migrant labour, with Europeans being paid nine times the wages
of non-whites, mainly Asian. The USA and South Africa share a 20th century
history of virulent urban racism partly because the two streams came into
direct competition there. Arthur Lewis in The Evolution of the
International Economic Order (1978) argues that this division of the world
into high- and low-wage economies underlies the gap between rich and poor
countries today. (There has been some movement, of course -- Korea and
Argentina, for example, in opposite directions.) Largely as a result of
this, West Europe and North America now find themselves with declining
indigenous populations desperately trying to ward off economic migrants
whom they conceive of as the racial other. Anyone who doubts that racism
still underpins our unequal world economy has not been in an airport

Africa is clearly a special case. Mesopotamia's urban revolution of 5,000
years ago made few inroads south of the Sahara. The result was that
agriculture remained at a low level of intensity and institutions were
developed, including endemic slave-raiding, in the face of scarce
population. After centuries of rough equality in the Atlantic slave trade,
Europeans were emboldened by mechanization to form colonial empires there
in the late 19th century. There is some debate about when the transition
to post-colonial society began. Cathérine Coquery-Vidrovitch has suggested
that it was the 1930s in French West Africa, the war years in the Belgian
Congo and the late 40s for the Gold Coast. At the time, the political
contract of independence was seen as being decisive. Now, after four
decades of economic and political failure, African underdevelopment is
being attributed to a longer-term history of racism. In my book, The
Political Economy of West African Agriculture (1982), I argued that
Africans erected modern states on the basis of small agriculture; without
significant mechanization in some sectors, these states were unviable. And
such has turned out to be the case in many areas. African underdevelopment
reinforces racist stereotypes, which is why it matters that Africans
should join the present phase of the machine revolution on effective

In A History of Negro Revolt (1938), James excavated the modern history of
black resistance in the Atlantic world. He claimed that its protagonists
-- from the San Domingo plantations to the Ghanaian docks and South
African mines -- were moved by a double determination. They worked at the
cutting edge of capitalism and they experienced racism while they did so.
This, he believed, made them revolutionary in character and he forecast
the anti-colonial revolution of the post-war period on this basis.
Panafricanism in the first half of the 20th century brought together one
of the largest and most diverse movements in the world through the
experience of racism in general and of Africa's colonial subjugation in
particular. As soon as independence was won, the African governments
embraced what Fanon (Les Damnés de la Terre, 1959) disparaged as "national
consciousness" and that was more or less the end of that.

With this potted summary in mind, I now turn to the other question I
raised concerning the economic history of capitalism. In previous posts I
have suggested that capitalism was an instrument of class struggle between
owners of money (claiming also to represent their workers) and owners of
land (ditto) until the two formed an alliance to keep down urban workers
in the second half of the 19th century. Marx saw both the revolutionary
and the conservative aspects of capitalism. In making surplus value the
crux of the conflict between capital and wage labour, he emphasized the
continuities with feudalism But he was also the first economist to
identify the centrality of machine production in the accumulation process.
His discussion of absolute and relative surplus value in Capital Volume 1
captures this duality. Absolute surplus value describes that tendency of
capitalism to squeeze the most from workers for as little as possible. It
is similar to extraction from peasant and slaves and benefits from
pigeonholing the vulnerable into inferior social classes. Relative surplus
value, however, occurs when labour productivity is improved, most often by
machines. Traditional systems of classification are a hindrance to this,
the revolutionary path for capitalism.

It can be seen from this brief sketch that capitalism is not just one
thing and its relationship to racism is complex. There is also the issue
of whether today's world economy may usefully be reduced to an idealized
conflict between capital and labour. This was indeed Marx's aim in
Capital. He goes to great lengths in demonstrating that rent and interest
-- landlords and the banks -- have been subordinated to capitalist profit
as the driving force in the economy. This paves the way for the claim that
any idea of an alliance of capitalists and workers against the landlords
should be replaced by a struggle between the first two, the only classes
left in the game with a historical role to play. The synthesis I have
called state capitalism (not the just the old Trotskyist name for
Stalinism) has revived some of the cultural features of old civilizations
(ethnicity, for example), maintained others (including racism as a
principle of world society) and introduced new class configurations. We
all have our takes on the last century and a half of national economy, but
I have indicated elsewhere that Marx's picture of capitalism cannot simply
be asserted as true today. Putting race into the picture is only one of
our tasks.

Keith Hart

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