By Doctor Michael Herron
Events over the past few weeks have brought the issue of race to the fore globally. There is a tendency to view race through the prism of white privilege. However, it is a certain kind of privilege. Just as progressives have arrived at the concept of “intersectionality” to find common ground in their different politics of identity one could also identify the structures of society as also having a certain connectedness or their own “intersectionality”. These structures are connected through race, class, imperialism and capitalism.
Racial structures in America and elsewhere are largely the legacy of one empire, the British Empire and taken up by a successor empire, that of the United States. Intrinsic to these two empires was and is capitalism where black Africans were originally regarded as commodities to be bought and sold as slaves, vital inputs of free labour, as means of production, in the colonies of the British Empire and then the southern states of the United States of America.
These Africans were integral to the so called first British Empire on the sugar plantations of the West Indies. They were then brought in to replace white indentured servants on first the tobacco plantations and then cotton plantations of Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolina. These colonies were until 1783 still part of the British Empire. However, even after they had achieved independence the southern states were vital to the trading system of the British Empire as their cotton shipped to the ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow provided the raw materials for the British textile industry.
Capitalism also became pivotal in the racial structure of South Africa. After the Boer War, fought at the turn of the twentieth century, the British imposed a system of racial division that laid the foundations for the stricter system of racial separation known as “apartheid” imposed by a white Afrikaner (Dutch colonist) government. The British imposed their system of racial division largely to appease the Boers (Afrikaners) who they had just defeated. The British did this because they needed to consolidate their hold on South Africa which they had occupied in its entirety to exploit its huge mineral wealth. This might seem to contradict David Cannadine who argues that the British treated members of the empire as individuals rather than collectives. (Ornamentalism p123) Arguably, one could say, the British applied both approaches. When they needed to exploit populations, they treated them as collectives while simultaneously cultivating elites individually.
Martin Luther King himself began to recognise the link between capitalism and American racial oppression largely because of the disproportionate numbers of African Americans fighting and dying in Vietnam in what Doctor King viewed as a war to sustain the American capitalist system. Martin Luther King’s speeches decrying America’s war in Vietnam and criticism of its capitalist system resulted in him losing some of his white supporters who had backed his campaign for civil rights.
Incidentally, it was President Eisenhower, former commander of Allied Forces in Western Europe during the Second World War who warned against the creation of a “military industrial complex”. As the Cold War intensified and became hot during the Vietnam War this “military industrial complex” grew in power and economic might taking over more and more of the American economy.
After the end of the Cold War this “military industrial complex” began to merge with domestic American law enforcement which became more militarised as it adopted some of the tactics of the US army as well as its surplus weaponry. At the same time the incarceration of African Americans became a business opportunity for private American prisons through contracts with federal and state government. Therefore, just as there had been an economic incentive to enslave Africans in their hundreds of thousands, there was a profit motive behind the desire to imprison African Americans on an industrial scale. This situation increased in intensity under both Republican and Democrat presidents.
A toxic situation had thus developed where American police departments were using increasingly aggressive tactics against an African American population who these forces had great economic incentives to arrest and imprison in large numbers.
The issue of class is also integral to these racial structures both during the British Empire and today. David Cannadine described the British Empire as “imperialism as ornamentalism….. For ornamentalism was hierarchy made visible, immanent and actual.” (Ornamentalism p122). In this system according to Cannadine “the British thought of the inhabitants of the empire in individual terms rather then in collective categories they were more likely to be concerned with rank than with race and with the appreciation of status similarities based on perceptions of affinity”. (Ornamentalismp123).
Arguably, a similar situation exists in Britain and the US today. Minorities educated at the same English public schools and Oxbridge as white elites since they share the sameeducational background are accepted into the English elite while minorities educated at the top universities in the United States are similarly accepted into the American elite as long as they endorse and do not challenge the premises of the British and American capitalist system as they have been developed over the last thirty years.
This situation separates these individual minorities accepted into the elite from their brethren outside the elite. The removal of statues and revision of curricula are all very well. However, given that racial structures are embedded in class and the unreformed capitalist system it follows that the capitalist system needs to be reformed, not replaced but comprehensively reformed, to meet the needs of both racial minorities and the deprived of all races.
David Cannadine Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (Penguin Books: London, 2001)
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