Sunday 30 July 2017

Racism and Capitalist Exploitation

Consider Marx's theory of exploitation.

The accumulation of capital doesn't magically happen. It has to be advanced to set up the infrastructure of a business to make goods or provide services to a perceived market. And to start the ball rolling, any firm needs people. Trying to make a living from scratch typically begins with the labour of the owner and/or a few others and it spirals from there. Each employee receives a wage or salary in return for the time they spend under the employer's direction producing goods and services, maintaining the operation and so on. On the face of it it presents as a fair and free exchange. The employee freely chooses to rent out their capacity to work for a certain amount of time in return for money. Both parties to the transaction get what they want. Nevertheless this masks an exploitative relationship. The appearance of equivalence hides from view the ultimate source of sustained capital accumulation: surplus labour and surplus value. For illustration's sake, assuming a 22 day month working 9-5 shifts which our worker is paid £1,500 before tax and national insurance. Over that time they generate products or services with the nominal value of £10,500. From the employee's perspective it takes three-and-a-bit days to make enough to cover their monthly wage, and therefore the remaining 18-odd days are entirely superfluous. This labour is surplus labour, and when the goods and services are sold the value in them is realised and accrues to the employer. This is surplus value over and above that paid to the agent (the worker) responsible for the production of that commodity. The firm meets payments due, advance a bit more for investment next time, and whatever is left over is profit (which itself can be entirely reinvested or whatever).

This depends on the disciplining of workers. Despite the hidden character of exploitation, it necessitates constant struggle on the part of both parties to the relationship. To realise the surplus value congealed in their commodities, capitals (businesses) have to compete among themselves. They cannot control the environment they operate in (assuming they're neither a monopoly or part of a cartel), and are compelled on pain of extinction to extract every last sous from production. It can do this by increasing the gap of money advanced to labour power and the (latent) value they generate through speed ups, lengthening the working day, cutting wages, and introducing new technology to boost production. This lowers the cost of production and can, in turn, realise profits by offering better/cheaper goods at prices their competition would find difficult to meet. Labour, because it is a thinking, feeling, fleshy being will resist attempts to make them stay at work for longer, to devalue their wages, and to replace them with automated systems. Workers have a clear interest in ensuring their wage is able to reproduce them as a material and social being, and workers have an interest and a tendency to resist attempts by management to implement hands-on supervision and a thousand and one other petty tyrannies. At base, class struggle at the point of production is a question of power, of between management's right to manage the production of surplus labour and subsequent extraction of surplus value and workers' pushing back against the employers' work time control of their bodies.

Here then is a simplified sketch of exploitation in a capitalist economy. Note that surplus labour and surplus value are dependent on the class struggle, and that it never goes away - even if workers aren't joining trade unions in large numbers, striking, marching, etc. Class struggle therefore is internal to the basic processes of how capitalism works. Bearing that in mind and intervening in an ongoing debate, Richard Seymour asks whether race is constitutive of capital and capitalism in the same way. This looks at work by David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch who argue it is (well, as far as capitalism in the United States is concerned) and David Harvey and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood who say not. As Richard notes, Wood (and Harvey) aren't trying to erase the importance of race and acknowledge the central place it has and continues to have in the division of labour in the US. What is at dispute is a conceptual matter. Wood argues that race makes class exploitation possible by dividing up the workforce along lines of ethnicity and therefore obscuring the class processes at work. Roediger's differences rest on the obvious persistence of race and racism in what is an advanced capitalist country, that race is evidently conducive to capitalism as is, and that racial difference is showing little sign of withering away. Au contraire it is reproduced across firms and sectors, suggesting something more than the historic legacy of slavery is at work.

Richard's reading goes deeper. Set out in its purest form, exploitation and the circuit of capital only has room for class. However, Marx warned us about mistaking the things of logic for the logic of things, and that applies to his own abstractions and concepts. Capitalism just doesn't exist like this in the social world - the persistence of race and, of course, the sexual division of labour in the home are constitutive of the relationship as well. Someone has to produce and raise successive generations of proletarians. Someone has to do the shitty jobs and act as a racialised reserve army to be deployed by employers to discipline wage demands and to undermine the emergence of collective strength (a point well understood by Engels). For Wood, Richard argues that she inadvertently read exploitation here in a flat, economistic manner. She goes further and argues that racial hierarchies are ultimately rooted in civic status, of how the sovereign power (the state) conceives and confers the rights and status of its citizens - and yet despite formal equality in the US following the abolition of slavery and segregation, the racial hierarchies persist. Therefore Richard concludes, "that the capitalist system not only needs hierarchies in the working class, but that it needs them to have the sort of regularity, predictability and ideological legitimacy that comes with ascriptive essentialism. In other words, one could argue that, if not race, then capitalism needs race-like ascriptive hierarchies."

I am in complete agreement with Richard's position. Consider how a new mode of exploitation is becoming increasingly central to capitalism: the appropriation of immaterial labour, of the collective knowledge (or common, as Hardt and Negri call it) that is produced and reproduced by the networked brains of the 21st century proletarian: the socialised worker. Rather than providing the tools and knowledge for production at a particular site (the workplace), capital is increasingly dependent on the attributes a worker brings to the job that have been acquired and are reproduced outside the work relation. Production here is social production, or biopolitical production, and the outcomes are knowledge, information, services, social relationships, and modes of being/subjectivity. This applies as much to the provider of professional services as it does the Uber driver. The extraction of surplus labour and surplus value is increasingly visible in all these cases. How then is race constitutive of this emerging model of exploitation? It's there in the hierarchies. What you might call the working class end of immaterial labour finds racialised minorities working in disproportionate numbers. The more privileged the position, however, the whiter the racial composition goes. Therefore cognitive capital in not colour blind and it reproduces and arranges the hierarchies inherited from previous compositions of capital. Despite the neoliberal promise of entrepreneurship and individuality, it remains the case that not all are equal before capital.

It's here I want to complicate matters. While the US is the paradigmatic case, racial hierarchies are packaged up with capital wherever the latter is found. Even in ethnically homogeneous places like Japan, racism can be found toward Koreans, mixed raced citizens, visitors, and directed outwards to foreigners. Indeed, Japanese citizenship is defined in explicitly racial terms by its constitution. In the absence of a racial hierarchy then, Japanese capital makes efforts to construct one. There is considerable variation then between countries owing to their histories and position in the global pecking order, but what I'm interested in is the role race plays in constituting British capital and class relationships.

There are two things that are worth nothing. There is the imperial legacy. The wealth of Britain lies on its being the former global hegemon, slouching atop the global order and spreadeagled across continents to the extent the sun never set on its corpulent form. It is well-established the capital that poured into the factories of the industrial revolution was in large part thanks to the slave trade, and Britain's power post-abolition thanks to being the first among colonial powers. Unlike the US in which slavery was internal and integral to the state, British slavery and imperial plunder organised the division of labour on a global scale. While entirely constituent of capital of the period, its spatial manifestation was largely external to British society. Largely, however, doesn't mean entirely - as the experience of Irish migrant workers in the 19th century testifies. Since the eclipse of colonialism, the racial division of labour has proliferated in Britain as successive waves of migrants have come here. Capital could dump colonialism, but it couldn't lose the utility of racial hierarchies it seems. And it persists: race gaps in education, health, unemployment, pay, and job status are there and have in recent years been augmented by the arrival of workers from Eastern Europe. There is more than just the hangover of empire racism and the scapegoating of the Tory press going on.

The second point of interest is what you might call institutionalised anti-racism. Racial hierarchies are in rude health while the set of ideas and, for want of a better phrase, values that justify them are not. Racial abuse is against the law and the espousal of racist ideas is a passport to cultural purgatory - as Kevin Myers is finding out. They often possess an appearance of an overhang from a different time. Meanwhile the institutions of the state and most medium-to-large businesses have a battery of anti-racist, anti-discriminatory policies that often require staff to undergo diversity awareness and equalities training. Any account of the constituting/intertwining relation of race and capital in Britain has to get to grips with this. This entails meeting and investigating a set of propositions.

1. A thin layer of liberal virtue that has the consequence of misdirecting attention away from the persistent importance of race to British capital.

2. A shift in the dynamics of racism and racial hierarchies from a concern with the capacities of bodies to the qualities of the subject, of the increasing concern with biopolitical production. Hence the shift in racism away from skin colour and racial typing to culturalism. See for example Islamophobia, the racism that dresses itself up as an (often liberal) concern with the supposed incompatibility between Islam and Western culture.

3. A culturalist repositioning of British national identity around a broad range of liberal-ish values. To be anti-British is not to oppose the works of the British state but rather to espouse views that cut against inclusion and tolerance and indulge imperial bigotry. It's how UKIP are largely deemed un-British in establishment circles, for instance. This state of affairs has been partly driven by government policy and its championing of a multiculturalism from above.

4. A multi-racialisation of capital. Post-war migrant communities set up businesses, some of which have become not inconsiderable enterprises. Additionally, the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and the big bang in the City of London not only cemented London as a key nexus in global capital transactions, but was able to attract huge flows of foreign investment to the point where key industrial enterprises and pieces of infrastructure have owners domiciled overseas. While much of this is from other metropolitan countries, capital from former colonies and protectorates has, from the standpoint of workers living in Britain, more or less merged with British capital. This could provide another driver for anti-racism from above.

5. A consequence of anti-racist struggles and class struggle. As the post-war settlement with its welfare state, NHS and social wage was conditioned by the then strengthening of the labour movement, can't the progress of anti-racism through the institutions and wider culture be an outcome of the weight of action from below by black and minority ethnicities and their allies? Of course they can be and are, but as with all movements that push up from below victories are institutionalised and assimilated into the apparatus of population management.

6. The effects of official anti-racism with its diversity quotas and recognition of difference allows for a certain degree of social mobility. Nevertheless it leaves the hierarchy of race untouched. Racism and anti-racism is officially conceived as less than structural, never mind anything to do with the processes basic to capitalist exploitation. By remaining silent, anti-racism de-problematises issues of racial justice, providing succour to the view that injustice itself is an outcome of individual choices made over anything systematic. And this brings us back to 1.

It seems to me that an analysis of race and capitalist exploitation, of understanding how the former is interior to the latter is a question not just of history but how capital as a social relation shapes and is shaped by anti-racist struggle and how it incorporates it, the changing composition of capital, the reconfiguration of how it goes about securing surplus labour and generating surplus value, and shifts in strategies of control. One thing however is clear. While capitalism without race and racism is theoretically possible, conceiving such an entity means treating capitalism entirely as an abstract construct. In reality its existence is confined to liberal dreams and on-paper schemes.


Boffy said...

There are a few minor errors in relation to the description of the formation of profit, but only minor so I won't waste space on them.

Let me deal with other points.

1. Engels, in Anti-Duhring, sets out that the ability of any ruling class to extract surplus labour is not based upon force. No amount of force can extract a surplus where the level of economic development/productivity does not make such a surplus possible. It is the development of the material conditions of production, and productive relations that create the conditions for those same relations to be reproduced. Force is used to keep a ruling class in power, when those underlying relations, including the dominant ideas that flow from them, break down.

2. The daily struggle of labour and capital over the level of wages, does not represent class struggle, as Marx sets out in Value, Price and Profit, and as Lenin also sets out. Such struggles are merely industrial, sectional struggles. In fact, as they set out by means of such struggles over wages, the workers are socialised into bourgeois ideas, the basic idea being of the need to sell their labour-power as a commodity at the highest price, like any other commodity-owner. The slogan should rather be abolition of the wages system.

3. The black US Marxist sociologist, Oliver Cromwell Cox, I think has it right in his book "Race, Class and Caste." He argues that modes of production prior to capitalism had no need of racism, because they were built on ideologies that accepted that inequality was the natural order of things, and that society was organised in ranks down from God, to the Sovereign and ultimately the serf or slave. Capitalism needed racism, because it unlike these previous modes of production is based upon the bourgeois notion of "Egalite, Fraternite, Liberte". So, how then explain the lack of those things for millions of colonial slaves other than by a claim that they are in some way sub-human?

4. However, those colonial empires were actually as Meikins-Wood suggests actually developed not by industrial capital but by Mercantilism, i.e. the symbiotic relation that existed for some time between feudalism and merchant/financial capital. Merchant capital and interest-bearing capital are based upon unequal exchange, Buy Low/Sell High. That was the principle that colonialism was based on.

5. Industrial capital, which became dominant only in the 19th century, stands in opposition to these early forms of capital, as well as feudalism. It does not extract profit on the basis of unequal exchange, and indeed itself suffers from it at the hands of the merchant, money lender and landlord who bite into its profits. Industrial capital creates its profit in the production process itself, and increasingly it does so, via the creation of relative surplus value, by driving up the level of social productivity.

Racism and other forms of bigotry actually stand in the way of industrial capital achieving its aims of maximising the production of surplus value, and capital accumulation. It inherits them from these past modes of production.

Its no wonder, then that the vast reservoirs of bigotry in today's society, whether in the shape of Trump's supporters, or with Brexit in the US, comes not from the bourgeoisie, but from sections of the working-class, and of the small capitalist, as well as the declassed layers who still look backwards to the glory days of Empire.

James Semple said...

Reading this material requires a lot of knowledge of difficult material. Any chance of a series of primers for ill-educated Carbynistas?

Phil said...

Hi James, I recommend checking out Boffy's blog. He has written very extensively on Marx's Capital and has a greater familiarity with the material than I do.

As for primers, you're more than welcome to have a flick through the pages at the top of this blog - there's stuff on Marxism in there you might find useful. I'd also recommend Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right, which remains the best introduction to Marx I've come across.

Boffy said...

Phil, Thanks for the plug. I will be publishing the third Volume of my 21st Century Translation of Marx's Capital, hopefully by the end of this month. I will shortly after be publishing the three volumes in one book.

Next year I will be publishing Theories of Surplus Value, and I am currently in the planning stage of a five book work on Imperialism, starting with the development of commodity production and exchange, unequal exchange, and colonialism.