*Note: Much of the information used in this piece had been aggregated throughout my class with Vivek Chibber, Capitalism and Democracy, on his lectures specifically on racial domination.
Karl Marx in 1875 made an apt observation of the way history changes and re-arranges itself economically, stating when new societies are born, they are “stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. This astute observation, not only useful with understanding the “transition debate” of feudalism to capitalism in Europe, but as well as the transition from the slave relations of the Southern part of the U.S. economy into capitalism still bears its racist institutional marks of white supremacy. This white supremacy, not created out of just bad ideas, but reflected in the economic incentives of the ruling elites of the American colonies prior to independence. Racism was a consequence of this labor extraction effort including slavery, as one of it’s many components to ensure a docile labor force that is deterred from solidarity and rebellion with the majority of the working population. This racism, a legacy that the United States has been unable to shake, is actually a structural part of how capitalism functions today within the workplace.
Historically, in the United States, there has been three time periods that have marked racial domination and the incentive to maximize full labor extraction from the black population of the United States. The first complex, servitude (1600-1700), was complicated for it included the experience as well as colonial servants working along a fledgling and monopolized slave economy. During the beginning of the colonization of the America, specifically British colonies dealt with the issue of 60% of its colonists on average during the 1600’s were dying. These colonists, a majority of imported labor of contractual servants from Europe, had to rely on Indigenous trade and support due to the inability to enslave the population due to unfamiliarity of the terrain. Prior to ethnically cleansing the North East of the Indigenous, indentured servants were given the economic incentive of a plot of land (50 acres), housing, and work after “seven years of hard labor”. This incentive, bringing a fair amount of laborers to provide the unruly labor the elites were not prepared to do themselves, was one that dealt with social domination of them being treated as lesser due to class distinctions. This class distinction during this time period was much more prevalent and socially present then the distinction of race. This brings the second form of labor under the servitude period that would later be expanded upon during the second period of U.S. History, the height of slavery as an institution.
Slavery (height during 1700-1865) had existed in the colonies in small numbers prior to the 1700’s along with black servants and European indentured servants whom all worked in similar conditions. Up until the 1700’s, the black community in the United States was much more fluid, where there were much more frequent instances of black slaves buying themselves out of slavery or indentured servitude, and there being free black communities not subject to legalized racial discrimination. However, during the pre-1700 time period, labor in the colonies for both slaves and servants was incredibly grueling where 2/3 of servants usually perished while attempting to work themselves to freedom either from starvation, sickness, or being dealt similar draconian punishments that slaves had to endure. This grueling work environment, not uncommon in the colonies or capitalism in Europe, had however been revolted to by the working masses in England at the time for more workers rights and protection. These revolts, demanding more rights for the average man resulted in turmoil being felt throughout the American colonies as well, with examples such as Bacon’s Rebellion.
Bacon’s Rebellion was led by George Bacon, whom led this rebellion specifically against the planters aristocracy in Jamestown, Virginia. This rebellion, although resulting in reactionary pogroms against the indigenous to colonize more land for the common man, it had a theme that deeply troubled the ruling class of Virginia: solidarity between the indentured servants and the slaves in the largest slave colony. This coinciding with legal measures to break of the slave traders monopoly where slaves costs were descending compared to indentured servants, the ruling class begun to make a “cost-benefit analysis” of the situation as a whole in the face of the failed yet very costly rebellion in the biggest slave state in the Americas. This resulted in the ruling elites to begin passing laws to prevent the rapidly outnumbering yeomen to have solidarity with the enslaved black population. This accompanied as well the first racialized laws within the nation where slavery was changed from an institution that was sometimes temporary to one that was passed down by birth. After this moment, the planting class had a higher population of slaves that only increased as slavery begun to be outlawed abroad, making the United States the lead country relying on slavery to extract surplus value from their labor.
After the revolutionary moment of the Civil Wars victory of the formerly enslaved population emancipating itself through a highly complex struggle in between Northern capitalism and Southern slave-aristocracy, the tragedy of radical reconstruction begun with its failure in the face of Southern terror being turned a blind eye to for the former Southern elites to re-capture their racialized labor force. This time period after radical reconstruction (1865 – 1950) is known as the Plantation Complex. During the Plantation Complex, the Democratic Party, with its paramilitary wing of the rendition of the Ku Klux Klan, instilled terror and destruction to the rights of the newly emancipated black population. As well, with Southern elites owning land still, the compulsions of capital still forced the recently displaced black population towards sharecropping to reproduce themselves. Under the Plantation Complex, to ensure labor extraction to the fullest, the southern elites enacted vagrancy laws, emigration laws, and well-defined racial codes where it would remove the prerogatives and privileges that white workers have. These rights given to the white workers compared to black workers intertwined with very public and orchestrated lynching of black men under the supervision of authority, was aimed to keep labor in the south in place. This violence was used to save costs of putting down rebellions or resistance by enacting savage violence very publically but with significant controls by elites. This continued with suppression of populist movements in 1896, when elites continued to extend further rights to whites in attempt to off put aggregated efforts of the both working in solidarity in a third party to rid racial caste and class dominating systems. This, however, in the face of the New Deal being enacted intertwined with WWII putting the majority of sharecropping blacks into the workforce, this gave the leverage blacks needed to begin to enact coordinated collective action to enact costs on the ruling class upholding white supremacist hiring and social policies.
The Civil Rights movement, appearing during the mid 1950’s and early 1960’s, came about more like a trade union movement rather than a non-violent protest movement. The Civil Rights movement, focusing on making it cost the economic structures their profit for them to concede disruptions, were able to disrupt public life to such a point that both the response and the actions were able to push the ruling class to consider making concessions of ridding formal white supremacy.
In The Civil Rights Movement and the Logic of Social Change, Joseph E. Luders breaks down several patterns of resistance the Civil Rights movement enacted to bring about compromise. “First, economic interests independent upon local consumption are especially vulnerable as consumers shy away from the sites of contention” including areas where either direct action or mass protest were associated with publically. “Second, certain interests that depend heavily upon continuous growth and infusions of external investment for their profits may be indirectly exposed to disruption costs by protests and general disorder.” This disorder left more immobile, and locally oriented, consumption dependent sectors of the economy much more vulnerable to these direct actions, where this brought about an equal reaction from the white ruling class that was insulated from these costs. This reaction, usually composed of the much more zealous racists for political gain, enacted up “thirteen hundred movement initiated actions across the South from 1955 to 1965.” This reaction, composed of organizations such as the Citizens Councils and the KKK, also included economic sanctions by white segregationist elites. As stated by a citizens council activist,
“The white population in this country controls the money, and this is an advantage that the council will use in a fight to legally maintain complete segregation of the races. We intend to make it difficult, if not impossible, for any Negro who advocates desegregation to find and hold a job, get credit or renew a mortgage.”
Although the organizations of two to five thousand were sporadic amongst the south, the civil rights movement was able to target capital with having very little costs on the white working population of the South. Although many whites preferred segregation in the South, it also did not economically hamper them immediately if the black community was integrated equally in the market. Other then competition privileges, whether blacks could vote or eat at dining counters made no difference to the average white worker. As well “civil rights organizers found, and self-consciously exploited, critical weaknesses within the urban business community.” This exploitation of the business communities vulnerability intermixed with the newly acquired resources and political organizations of the black population, concessions could be won through consistent coordinated mass actions. This locations within U.S. capitalist relations during the post-WWII job boom was able to give the black population the tools and the position to enact severe costs on those whom had power in society.
The tragedy of these gains won during the civil rights movement was, although massive radicalization was occurring amongst portions of the American population that were oppressed or open to more democratic ideas, that much of the gains won during the civil rights movement were rolled back in the post-73 crisis era. After inflation, de-industrialization of key black communities, state destruction or cooptation of black organization, and neoliberal policies being enacted saw the rise of much more “tough on crime” policies giving what Michelle Alexander has deemed the “New Jim Crow”. With this re-organization of capitalist social property relations, and the American ruling elite changing the rhetoric with criminalizing the population that had been de-industrialized in key black communities, this has resulted with mass destitution, drug abuse, poverty, and mass incarceration. As the black population is continued to be deemed unwanted in the United States with increased incarceration not only for the black population, but as well as the poor population, putting the incarceration rate the highest it has been in the United States with more than 3 million behind bars, one has to ask how the racial supremacist rule of capitalist America can sustain itself without more rebellions.