After Ferguson: Labor, competition and the long ugly history of American white working class racist mob violence

by Jehu

As expected, a mostly white Grand Jury declined to indict the murderer of Michael Brown, who was gunned down without provocation on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. This is in keeping with 1599a long history of racist mob violence that has been directed at the black working class by their white counterparts dating back at least to the early 19th century. As Justice Taney argued in his Dred Scott decision nearly 160 years ago, the grand jury decided that African-Americans were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The time for mere political protest is past, we are confronted by the necessity to overthrow the regime of white supremacy and the capitalist mode of production which daily, hourly, constitutes this white supremacy and provides the material basis for its continuing existence. Like any difficult venture, this effort must be undertaken based on a sober examination of how white supremacy is constituted by capitalist relations of production in order to demonstrate why nothing short of the abolition of the capitalist mode of production itself will put an end to white supremacy. I hope to demonstrate this very thing in the essay that follows and thus provide radical activists with material for agitation for the complete overthrow of capitalism and white supremacy.

The material basis for white racist violence within the American working class

A more accurate understanding of the forces behind white working class racist violence and hostility toward their African-American counterparts must begin with a necessary reconceptualization of the social environment within the working class generally. The most important observation Marx and Engels make about classes and class struggle in their writing is to be found in the German Ideology. That observation is that a class only appears as a class when it is engaged in a conflict with another class:

“The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.”

While this observation is not peculiar to the proletariat, it has profound implications for that class, because, as Marx and Engels later argue, the proletariat alone of all classes has no particular class interest to assert against the ruling class. It therefore has no sense of cohesion as a class and does not recognize it is a class. Without a particular class interest to assert against another class, the internal life of the proletariat is uniquely characterized by all out hostility among its members.

The year after writing the German Ideology, Marx examined competition within the working class in a series of lectures to the working class that were published under the title, “Wage Labor and Capital”. In those lectures, Marx investigated competition within the working class and the impact this competition had on its wages. What Marx finds here is far from the “operating fraternity” of the capitalist class.

The workers, Marx explains, do not simply compete against one another by selling their labor power each more cheaply than the next. Owing to the division of labor and the constant improvement in the productivity of labor one worker displaced 5, 10 or 20 more workers out of productive employment altogether: And, as tasks became simplified, the numbers of new competitors who can easily perform his special labor increased still more. The more simplified the work, the lower the expense of its acquisition, “and so much the lower must the wages sink”.

According to Marx, as labor became more repulsive and monotonous, competition among workers increases and wages fall. The worker’s response to this increased competition would be to increase her effort still more, by working more hours or by working more intensively. In this way the worker actually intensifies the forces of competition against herself. In what is probably one of the most chilling statements to be found in Marx’s writing, he graphically describes the result:

“Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, . and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.”

Competition within the class is so absolute that the members of the class compete not just against the rest, but also against themselves as members of the class. The most insightful observation made by Marx, however, is not the nature of the competition — that the worker competes against herself — but that this competition begins with her labor in the factory, not with her attempt to sell her labor power in the market. Radical activists, to the extent they are will acknowledge competition within the working class at all, invariably focus on the competition among the workers seeking to sell their labor power. This, however is not Marx’s starting point; rather he begins by highlighting the role played by labor itself within the division of labor — labor which drives down wages even as it increases competition among workers.

In her act of labor, the worker magnifies the impact of the division of labor and this impact is further magnified by introduction of improved machines. Thus, the worker does not simply create a commodity for sale in the market, she also creates an ever more formidable phalanx of competitors pressing on her from all sides to take her place in production. She does this by displacing other workers from labor: converting them from co-workers into competitors. At the same time, the growing intensity and duration of her labor drives down the value of labor power and becomes the condition for the sale of the labor power of her competitors, who must, because of this, offer themselves ever more cheaply. The development of the productive forces adds to this competitive pressure through the introduction of improved machinery and through the simplification of the labor itself. The numbers of her competitors increases still more.

Thus, the wages, terms and conditions under which labor is offered in the market were not, by any means, determined by supply and demand for labor power, but by the increasingly productive labor of the already employed workers. Labor itself produces both falling wages and intensified competition within the working class. And labor itself constitutes the material basis for racist white violence and white supremacy within the working class.

Should we expect to see the end of racist violence within the working class under capitalism?

Marx’s conception of the competitive environment within the working class can be contrasted to the portrait painted by Michael A. McCarthy’s description in which the racist mob violence that has been a persistent pattern of working class competition can be understood as independent of or even in contradiction to capitalist relation of production.

He introduces what he calls the “traditional socialist perspective” on racism and sexism among the working class. McCarthy cites Erik Olin Wright’s, “Class Counts”, according to which view the development of the productive forces gradually erode racist impediments to capitalism. However, as McCarthy explains, other Marxists suggest race and gender discrimination play a role in reproducing capitalism. McCarthy, in his essay aims to prove that impersonal market forces alone can explain the long history of racist mob violence directed at African-American workers, but do either of these views help us in understanding what happened in Ferguson, Missouri?

I think not.

First, is it possible to assert that the wages paid for the labor power of a man and that paid for the labor power of a woman will equalize? Does labor theory suggest that wages of an African-American and a “white” worker should tend to converge over time? This can’t be true, because, as seen above, according to Marx, the improving productivity of labor itself gives rise to ever more intensified competition within the working class. The value of labor power, like the value of any commodity, is only the value of the average sample of its class. Just as we would not expect any particular price to reflect the actual value of a commodity, we should not expect any homogeneity of wages. The wage paid in any particular case, like the price of any commodity, would be the outcome of an uncountable number of purely accidental factors.

Second, while it is true capital’s deployment and redeployment of labor power overturns all barriers, an increasingly intensified competitive struggle within the working class determines who can sell her labor power and who will be forced into the reserve army of labor. There is nothing about this process that implies equality of opportunity among wage slaves, nor any tendency toward homogenization of their wages. With the improvement in the productivity of labor, wages fall and competition between workers becomes increasingly fierce precisely because this struggle is a matter of life and death for each of them. It only makes sense to assume that those workers who enjoy special advantages arising from purely historical causes, will employ these advantages with the utmost ruthless urgency as conditions of the class as a whole deteriorate. To lose in this competition means hunger and homelessness for the worker and for her family.

It does not take the constant barrage of bourgeois propaganda to reinforce the thinking among native-born white male workers that a woman, black, or migrant worker is a threat to his job security and wages. He already knows the competitive conditions of his class and the means by which his job and his wages are to be secured. He is King Rat, the guy who is going to survive in the middle of an all-sided struggle no matter how conditions deteriorate for the class as a whole in the open-air concentration camp of class society. His measure of success is not how he is doing in absolute terms, but how he is doing relative to other wage slaves. As even a bourgeois ideologue like Keynes noted “the struggle about money-wages primarily affects the distribution of the aggregate real wage between different labour-groups”:

“Though the struggle over money-wages between individuals and groups is often believed to determine the general level of real wages, it is, in fact, concerned with a different object. Since there is imperfect mobility of labour, and wages do not tend to an exact equality of net advantage in different occupations, any individual or group of individuals, who consent to a reduction of money-wages relatively to others, will suffer a relative reduction in real wages, which is a sufficient justification for them to resist it.”

Although the average conditions of life of the class as a whole are deteriorating, competition is also intensifying and each worker is only concerned that her own wages and position is secured. Thus, there is nothing in labor theory of value that even vaguely hints black and white labor power will sell for the same price in the labor market.

The long history of racist mob violence within the American working class

When the actual historical record is examined, the operation of racism within the working class has been anything but the impersonal outcome of market forces. Almost from the first moments of contact between the two groups of workers, European migrant labor sought specifically to forcibly eject African-American workers out of the market in labor power and to monopolize jobs and wages. The first riot recorded, took place in 1824 in the Hardscrabble neighborhood of Providence Rhode Island. It began when, according to Wikipedia, a white mob attacked the community, “after a black man refused to get off the sidewalk when approached by some whites.” This was followed in 1831 by a riot in the Snow Town neighborhood, when a mob for no reason destroyed black homes following the murder of a sailor.

In his book, Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Dubois shows that, with immigration from Europe to the U.S. in the early 1800s came a definite pattern of racist white working class mob violence directed at both free African-Americans and slaves:

“[Riots] took place which were at first simply the flaming hostility of groups of laborers fighting for bread and butter; then they turned into race riots. For three days in Cincinnati in 1829, a mob of whites wounded and killed free Negroes and fugitive slaves and destroyed property. Most of the black population, numbering over two thousand, left the city and trekked to Canada. In Philadelphia, 1828-1840, a series of riots took place which thereafter extended until after the Civil War. The riot of 1834 took the dimensions of a pitched battle and lasted for three days. Thirty-one houses and two churches were destroyed. Other riots took place in 1835 and 1838 and a two days’ riot in 1842 caused the calling out of the militia with artillery.”

That this racist mob violence was directly inspired not just by impersonal labor market forces, but by the very definite aim on the part of white workers to gain exclusive control of the market in labor power is shown in the fact it extended beyond the free black workers themselves to include slaves and even those who agitated for the abolition of slavery. W.E.B. Dubois shows how even communists emigrating from Germany arrived in the US and promptly began agitating in support of slavery. And the reason for this clear historical pattern of racist mob violence directed at African-American workers by their white counterparts is clear in the historical record: competition over work.

According to Dubois, one communist union leader, Hermann Kriege, in the 1850s explicitly argued for the continued enslavement of blacks as a social policy necessary to insulate ‘white’ workers from falling wages. The argument of labor activists like Kriege (who was well known and condemned by Marx and Engels) was that abolition of slavery would drive down the wages of free laborers.

“That we see in the slavery question a property question which cannot be settled by itself alone. That we should declare ourselves in favor of the abolitionist movement if it were our intention to throw the Republic into a state of anarchy, to extend the competition of ‘free workingmen’ beyond all measure, and to depress labor itself to the last extremity. That we could not improve the lot of our ‘black brothers’ by abolition under the conditions prevailing in modern society, but make infinitely worse the lot of our ‘white brothers.’ That we believe in the peaceable development of society in the United States and do not, therefore, here at least see our only hope in condition of the extremest degradation. That we feel constrained, therefore, to oppose Abolition with all our might, despite all the importunities of sentimental philistines and despite all the poetical effusions of liberty-intoxicated ladies.”

White workers before the Civil War were not even a little bit circumspect in their opinion that slaves represented a threat to their jobs and wages, which, of course, the slaves were — since as labor power, they were the property of the slave owner who employed them to drive out free labor. But it being the case that slavery represented a mortal threat to free labor, the American labor movement made no effort to figure out how this threat could be met except by ignoring or even supporting the continuation of the enslavement of its black counterparts and ruthless mob violence even toward free black workers.  According to Dubois, this is a pattern of opportunistic behavior among white workers — even to the point of associating themselves with the most virulent anti-black political forces — that continues right down to today:

“The wisest of the [labor] leaders could not clearly envisage just how slave labor in conjunction and competition with free labor tended to reduce all labor toward slavery. For this reason, the union and labor leaders gravitated toward the political party which opposed tariff bounties and welcomed immigrants, quite forgetting that this same Democratic party had as its backbone the planter oligarchy of the South with its slave labor.

“The new immigrants in their competition with this group reflected not simply the general attitude of America toward colored people, but particularly they felt a threat of slave competition which these Negroes foreshadowed. The Negroes worked cheaply, partly from custom, partly as their only defense against competition. The white laborers realized that Negroes were part of a group of millions of workers who were slaves by law, and whose competition kept white labor out of the work of the South and threatened its wages and stability in the North.”

Already before the beginning of the Civil War, the labor movement had acquired all the characteristics of a crippled social force: in the next 160 years the American working class movement would never advance beyond this point. The labor movement, and in particular white workers, from its very first moments, openly accepted that labor in its black skin would absorb the shock of capitalistic development. There is no accident at all in the history of the class struggle in the US: white labor has from the first used black labor as sacrificial pawns to absorb the impact of capitalist development. The white worker has done this knowing full well the consequence of his action for the black worker and with no guilt.

Thus, in the consciousness of the American white worker, the black worker is not human nor entitled to be treated as human. Ferguson is not a historical accident, but the result of a long history of development of the American working class: Even today, if you want an issue to be ignored, all you have to show is that it mainly affects the black working class. Thus, while the “white” unemployment rate in October 2014 sits at 4.6%, the black unemployment rate sits at 10.7%. And even this figure is misleading, because it does not include vast numbers of African-American workers who are in prison and thus no longer counted as unemployed. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, black working class men were more than six times as likely as white working class men to be incarcerated in 2010 and black workers, who make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, constitute 38 percent of the prison population.

Racist violence directed at African-American workers intensifies along with the productivity of labor

I want to be clear that I do not recount these facts with any sense of anger or outrage. I say it because clearly some naive souls on the radical Left have no idea what manner of horrific phenomenon we are dealing with here. Racism is a persistent attribute of ‘white’ workers and requires vigorous direct material efforts if any progress is to be made in uniting the working class and putting an end to wage slavery. This much is understood by a large majority of radical activists today.

What is missing in their thinking is a recognition that labor itself, not racist attitudes, determines and continuously reconstitutes the violent racist behavior of ‘white’ workers. As we have seen above, some radical activists falsely asserts historical materialism can be interpreted to suggest racism can be eroded with the development of the capitalist mode of production. In fact, there is no such argument in Marx’s writings. Rather, Marx makes clear that as capital becomes more productive, it extends the division of labour and the application of machinery; competition increases among the workers; and their wages fall together. There is nothing in this passage that suggests the competition within the working class that initially produced racist violence among ‘white’ workers and their intense hostility toward black workers gives way to an impersonal “free flow of labor”. Instead, we should expect that, along with both competition and falling wages, racism should intensify as labor itself becomes ever more productive.

This means our aim must be to abolish wage labor itself and this cannot be put off to the distant future. Whatever the extent to which this can be realized now, our effort must begin immediately with the conversion of every possible hour of superfluous labor time into free, disposable time for all, which alone can break the monopoly hold white workers enjoy over employment. This effort alone can challenge and break the pretensions of the white workers that they can insulate themselves from the impact of capitalistic development by shifting the burden of this development onto the backs of their African-American counterparts. The battle against the long American history of white racist mob violence begins, and must, of necessity, begin, with a drastic and unrelenting reduction of hours of labor!

Radical activists ignore this issue only at the peril of an onrushing catastrophe.