Racism, the working class and wage labor: A reply to S.C. Hickman

by Jehu

lynchingHere is a post that is critical of my reaction to the Michael Brown grand jury: On Jehu’s recent post on Michael Brown Verdict. (I am not sure the outcome should be called a verdict as that term is commonly understood, since the cold blooded murderer, the killer cop Darren Wilson, never stood a trial for the killing and thus never was acquitted.)

In any case,  the author, S.C. Hickman, makes a statement that caused me some confusion:

“The rhetorical benefit of combining two apparently incompatible narratives— on the one hand, the Marxist discourse of capitalist exploitation, on the other, the victimary discourse of racial persecution— is clear: the outcast and poor of the present day can be represented as the remote victims of inexpiable crimes committed in the past by a slaveholding society.”

The problem I have with the statement is the idea that I was attempting to combine to incompatible narratives — capitalist exploitation and the legacy of slavery. If I understand Hickman, he seems to believed I attempted to combined two different and incompatible narratives for what happened. In the first, the events are discussed through the lens of the class struggle; in the second, events are seen through the lens of victims of American slavery.

I hope I have this right, because it makes it easier to state this was never my intention. My effort was far simpler: I was trying to trace the origins of a nationally specific division within the working class. I do not hold that American racism can be understood outside the particular circumstances of the United States nor do I hold American racism has a history that can be compared to class exploitation or subordination of women. Racism may, in fact, have such a history, but I don’t seek to understand it in this context. Nor do I think that the racist mob violence long inflicted by white workers on African-American workers can be traced to chattel slavery itself. Again, this may be true, but I don’t assert it.

What was my concern?

I am concerned about a very narrow question: why did European immigrant labor climb off the boat; promptly join the party of slavery; and turn on their black counterparts with such unyielding ferocity that, even today, has not diminished. While there are no doubt any number of influences at work, I am concerned to uncover those forces that might be termed historically necessary?

I tried to explain what it is about the working class itself that makes it prone to fratricidal behaviors that appear comprehensible (from the mainstream Marxist point of view) only on the assumption that the working class is under the ideological sway of the dominant class. The long history of racist mob violence in this country is one of the things Marxists tend to explain by arguing white workers are being manipulated by the other class. Another view holds that racism has its own explanation apart from any consideration of class.

I reject both of these views.

And my rejection begins with the idea that there is something called a working class that acts under the sway of bourgeois ideology. I reject this on two counts: first, if there were such a class, it could not act under the ideological sway of the other class. No class in history acts on the basis of the material conditions of another class. If this were not true, there would not be classes — we would all be in one big pot. The most egregious mistake any Marxist can make is assume the material conditions of one class is expressed in the consciousness of another. Second, as Marx and Engels took pains to demonstrate at length, the working class is not a class, but expresses the decomposition of class society; it behaves like no class in society.

If you are going to explain the long history of racist mob violence in the United States, that explanation must accept these premises. If it does not, it is not historical materialism.

The most important conclusion is that the long history of racist mob violence within the working class is possible because empirically there is no working class. There is just a bunch of wage slaves, each dependent on the sale of their labor power for physical survival. No white worker thinks there is anything called a “white worker” or “white people” — they are just people, individual competitors.

For the white worker, there are only “black” people — the others

There are “people” and then there are “black people”. Moreover, there is no affinity among “people” — each is a hostile competitor to the others; a white worker will as readily step over another white worker to get what she wants as anyone else. The very idea that there is in the head of this worker some identity of “whiteness” or “classness” is completely absurd.

And over there are the dangerous population, “the blacks”. “The blacks” have always been dangerous since the immigrants first arrived on these shores. The free workers of Europe first met the black workers while the black workers were property of the slave-owners. When they competed against black labor power, this labor power was the property not of the slave, but of the owner. This labor power as property of the slave-owner had all the advantages: political power, economies of scale, useful skills. No immigrant worker could compete against this labor power economically or politically.

Labor power was never so powerful in this country as when it was the labor power of the slave-owner, who performed no labor himself. Everywhere this labor power appeared it drove free labor to the margins of the market in labor power. When the slave codes were written is was for the advantage of the slave-owner.  Slave labor power was treated better than free labor power precisely because this labor power was the property of the slave-master. You could no more abuse the slave-master’s labor power than you could abuse his horse or wagon.

Effectively, slavery kept the black laborer out of the labor market and reduced competition — confining it to certain jurisdictions. Free laborers were not stupid. They realized what would happen to the labor market if millions of slaves could suddenly sell their labor power. Freeing slaves from bondage overnight would send a flood of competitors into the labor market. Thus, when the escaped slave showed up in a town, he showed up as a competitor to free laborers. The easiest solution was to hunt this slave down and return him to his master.

We don’t have to speculate on this: it is documented in labor history in the words of free laborers; they said it out of their mouths. Now you can trace this unbroken line of fratricidal mob violence against black labor from pre-Civil War period to Jim Crow to the race riots of the 1920s to the end of Jim Crow to the mass incarceration of African-American workers and unpunished killer cops today. There has never been as seamless a line of historical research — not even for the enclosures of England.

Is this hypothesis complete and accurate? Probably not, but I do think it provides a framework to understand the problem. The first thing is that it helps to demystify racist sentiments among white workers. “White people” are not innately racist anymore than they are innately divided into classes.

Second, it brings to the fore the role of labor in constituting racism in society. People want to treat racism apart from labor, as if, somehow, labor is good and racism is bad. In fact, racist mob violence is the offspring of labor and labor alone. Marxists who want to oppose racism but defend labor are fools. Every evil in this society is constituted by labor.

In my view, competition, poverty and racism can all be traced directly to labor — and not just competition. Competition does not lead to the fall in wages nor to racism; rather, labor itself produces racism, competition and falling wages. The activity of the worker — when she is actually at labor — creates her competitors, cuts her own wages and turns her fellow workers into “black” others.

And this is the thing: the more productivity of labor increases, the more wages fall, the more competition increases and the more racism grows. To get rid of racism, we must get rid of labor.