Curry Malott and Derek R. Ford
Critical education harnesses the present moment, looks to history to grasp the forces determining the present, and links it with social struggles in an effort to push the configuration of the present beyond its breaking point. Given the recent non-indictments of killer cops Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, critical educators across the U.S. and the globe are bringing the pressing topics of police brutality, state violence, and people’s resistance movements into the classroom. In this essay, we contribute to these efforts by arguing that the deadly and unpunished police violence against African Americans requires not only an awareness of slavery, but an analysis of the relationship between capitalism and slavery, and the subsequent subsumption of racism and white supremacy within capitalism. We use the name Ferguson in the title as a symbol of the daily occurrence of police violence that dates back to at least the end of the Civil War and the terrorist policing of newly “freed” slaves.
The purpose of this analysis is to explain and contribute to the anti-capitalist undertones that exist within the current movement against police brutality. These new street movements were generated spontaneously by the state-sanctioned police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but they are expressions of a much more generalized repression in Black, Latino, and working-class communities across the United States. According to “Operation Ghetto Storm,” a 2013 report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person in the U.S. is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards, and vigilantes. [i] Statistical analyses by ProPublica show that Black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white men.[ii] While this rate of murder is alarmingly high, it is also the regular brutality, harassment, and degradation inflicted by police on people of color, people with disabilities, Queers, and other oppressed groups in society that has catapulted the rebellions currently taking place in the U.S. Racism and white supremacy are not surface features of U.S. society, they structural features that are engrained materially and ideologically. Indeed, Joe R. Feagin and Karyn D. MicKinney (2002) has demonstrated that racism “generates major barriers to the full health and well-being of African Americans,” in that it carries “personal, psychological, and physical costs” (p. 8). Feagin demonstrates that “physical reactions to racial discrimination often take the form of all-day headaches, stomach problems, chest pains, stress diabetes, and hypertension” (p. 31).
In this article we focus particularly on the relationship between race and capitalism. What we see below is that a review of the evidence seems to suggest that the social justice movement of the 21st century must take as its center a critique of capital, which provides the larger context that informs the manifestation of bourgeois ideology from white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, to the blatant disregard for the health of the world’s vital eco-systems.
Higher Education and Racialization
Arguing that white supremacy, racism, and the deadly devaluing and criminalization of Black life can be traced back to the long legacy of anti-Blackness propagated to justify slavery is an important, but incomplete, insight. That is, the vicious and dehumanizing racism advanced by European slavers to justify slavery became deadly, outlined below, only when cotton became an international commodity propelling slavery into the process of the self-expansion of capital. Capitalism, this analysis suggests, continues to be the force driving the deadliness of white supremacy in the contemporary context. But before capitalism exerted its deadly influence on slavery, white supremacy and anti-African sentiments were already being advanced as an apology for the actions of the man-stealers of Europe. Institutions of higher education, such as Harvard, were established by the elite for the elite during America’s colonial era to advance this agenda of racialization.
For example, in his widely acclaimed Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Craig Steven Wilder (2013) begins his text noting that, “Harvard’s history was inseparable from the history of slavery and the slave trade” (p. 3). One of the primary purposes of higher education was to continually advance the ideological justifications for slavery and train the elites who would manage the system. Explaining what this most undemocratic purpose of higher education looked like in practice Wilder’s (2013) account is explicit: “The academy…popularized the language of race, providing intellectual cover for the social and political subjugation of non-white peoples” (p. 3). Harvard Anatomy and Surgery professor between 1809 and 1847, John Collins Warren, taught, “that in physical development, cultural accomplishment, and intellectual potential, black people sat at the bottom of humanity” (Wilder, 2013, p. 3). Situating this purpose of education in the larger context of the social and economic order dominated by slavery Wilder (2013) explains how “college initiated” young white male elites:
…into the slave regimes of the Atlantic world. The founding, financing, and development of higher education in the colonies were thoroughly intertwined with the economic and social forces that transformed West and Central Africa through the slave trade and devastated indigenous nations in the Americas. The academy was a beneficiary and defender of these processes. College graduates exploited these links for centuries. They apprenticed under the slave traders of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and Europe. They migrated to the south and to the West Indies for careers as teachers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, merchants and planters…The antebellum south represented a field of opportunity, where the wealth of the cotton planters was funding the expansion of the educational infrastructure. (pp. 1-2)
It is important to note that this purpose of education did not arise spontaneously from faculty, but from the elite investor class responsible for the establishment and ongoing profitability of the colonies themselves. In other words, education was subordinated to the interests of the ruling classes.
The Marriage of Capitalism and Racism
As if the devastating and long-lasting effects of biological racism were not enough, the internal drive and spirit of capital propelled the atrocities of slavery in America into the truly horrific and genocidal. Making this point, Marx (1867/1967) notes that before the invention of the cotton-gin, a piece of labor-saving technology that dramatically increased the efficiency of the tedious work of processing cotton, which involves separating the seeds from the fibers, southern slavery was directed at “immediate local consumption” (p. 226). The cotton gin is credited to Eli Whitney, but Herbert Aptheker (1974) suggests that a skilled slave constructed original schematics for the gin. Prior to the cotton gin, however, there was no incentive or gain to be accrued by working slaves to death. However, as the cotton gin dramatically reduced the value of labor with the notable decrease in the amount of slave labor hours needed to process a given quantity of cotton, the productivity of slavery skyrocketed, leading to an intensified engagement with the international market (which was initially established by the slave-trade itself). For example, the world’s primary productive consumer of raw cotton at the time, England, saw an increase in the consumption of this material from 13 thousand to about 3 ½ million bales from 1781 to 1860 (DuBois, 1896/2007). British capitalists accumulated slave-labor cotton from the American south, combined it with British labor power and forced the subsequent cotton goods on India and China chiefly through military force. North American merchants began amassing fortunes as slave vendors before 1800, and built an industrial superpower off of slave cotton after 1820. The surge in wealth and potential for even more returns had the corrupting effect of further barbarizing a practice already deeply entrenched in dehumanization.
However, the labor saving technology and the forced-open international market were not the only conditions necessary for the manifestation of these developments. The ability to not only replace, but to expand his human means of production, that is, his access to new slave labor, required ever new supplies of captives. This tendency, largely unique to capitalist accumulation, is no different under wage labor as Marx (1867/1967) consistently documents: “we heard how over-work thinned the ranks of the bakers in London. Nevertheless, the London labor-market is always overstocked with German and other candidates for death in the bakeries” (p. 267). Explaining how this principle operated within slave-labor Marx (1867/1967) is instructive:
…When his [the enslaved] place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts. It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of excertion it is capable of putting forth. (p. 266)
Again, this development represents the barbaric and deadly shift that always accompanies unfettered capitalism: “it was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It was now a question of the production of surplus-labor itself” (Marx, 1867/1967, p. 236). As a result, the whole of the south was transformed into a vast region of cotton fields, and it became more profitable to work slaves to death than to take care of them into old age.
Yet according to bourgeois ideology, which always presents itself as a non-perspective, or as “just the way it is,” capitalism is the path to freedom and equality. Given this normalized idea, which informs the view that before 1865 slavery was the only barrier to freedom in the U.S., it is not intuitive that the introduction of capitalism would lead to the escalation of atrocities within slavery. Dominant historical narratives teach us just the opposite. That is, the historical narrative American students tend to be uncritically reared on is that once slavery was abolished, capitalism could begin spreading its freedom and equality southward, gradually chipping away at the white supremacist ideological residue of a bygone era standing as a fading barrier to meritocracy. Challenging the core of this ideology Marx’s (1867/1967) discussion of the internal logic of capital makes it absolutely clear that the spirit and intent of capital is a dangerous force, which continues to inform the deadliness of white supremacy.
For example, throughout volume 1 of Capital Marx takes great pains to highlight the true spirit and intent of capital, which is to accumulate as much value (and, specifically, surplus-value) as possible. Marx meticulously demonstrates that human labor power is the only commodity that has the ability toproduce value. Marx therefore divides the working-day into two parts, a necessary part and a surplus part. The necessary portion of the workday is the amount of time it takes for the worker to reproduce the value of her or his own labor-power (which is determined by such elements as geography, technology, and the state of class struggle). If this takes six hours of labor, then the remainder of the day is surplus (although Marx went demonstrated that necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time “glide one into the other”). From capital’s perspective then, the ideal length of the working-day would be its physical limit, 24 hours. Marx (1867/1967) showed, with example after example, the results of this deadly impulse to accumulate surplus labor hours, and thus surplus value, from England and beyond. This murderous drive, Marx consistently argues, is the true spirit and intent of capital, which always appears when capital goes unregulated. For this reason Marx (1867/1967) often compares this omnipresent instinct innate to the capitalist mode of production to the mythical werewolf whose terror will always emerge given the correct conditions, that is, where production is not regulated. Today, we see this “terrorist energy” (Marx, 1867/1967, p. 286) manifesting itself throughout much of the world, especially in so-called free trade zones, in South America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and in the most oppressed and criminalized areas within the U.S., especially African American working-class communities. Again, Marx (1867/1967) provides many examples of this tendency. In one instance Marx (1867/1967) notes the result of the British public, in the mid-nineteenth century, having been turned against the working-class:
The manufactures had no need any longer to restrain themselves. They broke out in open revolt not only against the Ten Hours’ Act, but against the whole legislation that since 1833 had aimed at restricting in some measure the “free” exploitation of labor-power. It was a pro-slavery rebellion in miniature, carried on for over two years with a cynical recklessness, a terrorist energy all the cheaper because the rebel capitalist risked nothing except the skin of his “hands.” (p. 286).
This is the true spirit and intent of capital that will always work laborers to death unless restricted by working-class resistance or state-enforced regulations. It is for these reasons that laborers have organized unions and struggled to restrict capital’s insatiable appetite from extracting the maximum amount of surplus value out of each individual laborer for at least the past 200 years. Capital is therefore always seeking ways to reduce the value and thus the cost to capital of a laborer’s capacity to labor. For example, restrictions placed upon the length of the working day in the nineteenth century were met with almost immediate increases in the intensity of labor by speeding up machines and watching ever more diligently the efficiency of operations. Another example is increasing the productivity of labor-power through the invention of machines, which reduces the value of labor-power by shortening the amount of labor time it takes to reproduce the value of labor-power. This necessarily increases surplus labor-time. Because the use of any given commodity belongs to the buyer rather than to the seller, the value of these products belongs to the capitalist, not to the laborer. If the laborer’s labor did not produce more value than it cost to use, then the capitalist would not buy it.
Ideologically, this drive to lower the value of labor-power results in the social value of the laborer’s subjective social being is devalued. This can result in low self-esteem, self-hatred, and even the worship of the ruling class by the working class. This can happen despite the fact that many of the labor-saving technologies that drive down the value of labor-power are actually produced by workers through the production process (i.e., forms of cooperation). However-and this is where education can play a pivotal role-the result among workers conscious of the capitalist system is deep resentment and either cynicism and despair, or organization and revolution. The most exaggerated example of the tendency to culturally devalue the working class are the ways anti-Black racism has been employed to justify dramatically increasing the rate of exploitation of and unemployment in Black communities. In times of crisis and recession the Black worker, consequently, is always the first to be laid off. As a result, today, generally speaking, the Black family is 22 times more likely to be in poverty than the white family. The white worker’s greater access to jobs includes access to police jobs. White workers therefore tend to hold the police jobs in not only white working class neighborhoods, but in Black ones as well. With the exaggerated devaluing and demonization of the young Black male, it is not surprising that white cops kill Black youth at alarming rates with near impunity. This is a legacy that can be traced back to the era when slavery became lethal. But, serving the purpose of the necessary ideological mechanisms described above is the very process of capitalist circulation itself and the use of the money-relation. Making this point, and using slavery as a contrasting example strengthening the impact of his argument, Marx (1867/1967) explains with biting precision:
In slave-labor, even that part of the working-day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of existence, in which, therefore, in fact, he works for himself alone, appears as labor for his master. All the slave’s labor appears as unpaid labor. In wage-labor, on the contrary, even surplus-labor, or unpaid labor, appears as paid. There the property relation conceals the labor of the slave for himself; here the money-relation conceals the unrequited labor of the wage-laborer. (pp. 539-540)
It is no wonder why there was so much push back against a conception of freedom after the abolition of slavery in the U.S. in 1865 based upon an agrarian land reform that might be thought of as a mild form of reverse-primitive accumulation. The transition from chattel slavery to wage slavery was therefore assisted by a form of capitalist education. This was in many ways a relatively easy transition even though there was significant push back from former slaves who knew all too well that being compelled to sell their labor to their former masters represented anything but freedom. Mandatory ignorance laws, part of the Black Codes, enforced after a series of slave revolts in its deadly era of value augmentation, resulted in a deep sense amongst former slaves that education possessed some liberatory potential. The role Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have played in the post-Civil War struggle for liberation should therefore not be surprising. Consider:
Public HBCUs became epicenters in the struggle for human rights…shaping the destiny of America. Driven by a tenaciously segregated society, the students and faculty joined hands with religious and civic leaders and moved the entire nation toward a new level of social consciousness. The story of public HBCUs is a story of a people liberated through education [and] empowered through political action…They serve as laboratories where solutions to issues facing the Black community are addressed. (Payne, 2013, pp. 15-16)
With the official end of slavery in the U.S. in 1865 the material wealth generated by slave labor in the cotton kingdom had already been amassed and used to develop and expand the machine factory throughout the North. Former slaves were at the forefront of Reconstruction and the rise of the HBCU. Of course, the changing needs of capital as the industrial era of capital emerged, led to the Morrill Acts and Land Grant Universities charged with advancing mechanical arts, military science, and agricultural technologies, provided the incentive for the expansion of systems of higher education from the perspective of capital. However, in the hands of former slaves, it is not surprising that HBCUs came to play a central role in the Civil Rights movement. In the neoliberal era, it is equally not surprising that in the attack on public higher education HBCU’s have suffered the most and the first, as a general rule. The logic moving these developments is an insatiable appetite for the accumulation of surplus value. The murder of Black youth at the hands of white cops only mirrors the ways in which the werewolf within capital has been unleashed with a savage barbarity on Black communities. The larger context, of course, is a declining capitalist economy increasingly desperate for opportunities to augment new values.
Through the bourgeoisie’s doctrinal system, laborers are socialized to believe that capitalism is the true path to freedom and equality. The laws of exchange are supposed to guarantee this. That is, unlike the prejudice and bias driving aristocratic feudalism and slavery, buyers and sellers, under capitalism, meet on the market as equals. From this perspective the exchange between labor, the seller of labor power, and capital, the purchaser of labor power, is fair. Labor, after all, willingly sells her product on the market, and the capitalist purchases it for its market value. The products that are created from the commodity the laborer sells, labor power, do not belong to the seller, but to the purchaser, the capitalist. No coercion or exploitation therefore exists within this exchange, as far as the buyer is concerned. But the price of labor power is based on the value it takes to reproduce her existence for another day, as discussed above. If this value is reproduced through six hours of labor, for example, then the rest of the workday is surplus, and thus represents surplus value. From the perspective of the class conscious laborer the productive consumption of her labor power is fundamentally based on a hidden process of accumulation or exploitation. Capitalism is in fact based exclusively on this drive to augment as much surplus value as possible, and when unfettered, or unregulated, inevitably leads to the premature exhaustion and death of the laborer himself and herself. Rather than freedom and equality, outside of the freedom of the capitalist to exploit and the laborer to be exploited or excluded, what capitalism offers is social misery and degradation fueled by a slew of unmet needs and a deadly white supremacy informed by the same “cynical recklessness” and “terrorist energy” Marx (1867/1967) witnessed in the nineteenth century. The fight against the murderous white supremacy at the heart of America’s bourgeois society is therefore at the same time the fight against the terrorist process of value augmentation unique to capitalism.
National Oppression and Resistance
Capital, as Marx constantly reminds us, is not a thing but a social relation. Resistance is thus internalto capital. One of the primary tasks of the critical educator is to foster this resistance, in terms of consciousness, subjectivity, and organization. What we have been witnessing in streets across the country over the past few weeks has been a tremendous display of this spontaneous resistance to oppression and exploitation. Perhaps history will show that the non-indictments of Warren and Pantaleo were small sparks that lit the prairie ablaze. There are many factors that will determine this potentiality, however. We believe that one of these factors is the way in which we understand police brutality, racism, and capitalism. If we see police brutality as accidental to the system, and if we see racism as merely a left-over from slavery, then the burgeoning resistance movement will undoubtedly exhaust itself, collapsing under the weight of ideological mystifications. If police brutality and racism are seen as endemic to the capitalist production and augmentation of value, however, then the street rebellions we are witnessing could translate into a broad-based, national mass movement striking at capital itself. In this closing section, we want to offer one final connection between capitalism and racism, one that has important implications for organizing: the concept of national oppression.
Just like every worker in the U.S. is taught that the overthrow of the slaveocracy in the south gave way to capitalism’s attendant equalities and freedoms, so too every worker learns that the U.S. is a nation. Schools have students recite that the U.S. is “one nation” on a daily basis. This assertion, however, is as false as it is commonplace. The U.S. is instead a country that contains within it many oppressed nations, including the Black nation.
The national question was first broached by Marx in relation to Ireland and the struggle of Irish workers. Initially, Marx believed that Ireland would be liberated by the struggle of workers in the colonial power, England. Marx changed his position, however, after taking into account the anti-Irish racism that was deep-seated in the English working-class. Instead of relying on workers in the colonizing country to liberate the colony, Marx called on English workers to support Ireland’s right to self-determination. Lenin took up and advanced this line in relation to Czarist Russia which, at the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, was referred to as a “prison house of nations,” in that Russia contained hundreds of nationalities and languages. These oppressed nations within Russia suffered a higher rate of exploitation as well as cultural oppression. By viewing these entities as oppressed nations, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to move beyond the mere calls to “unite the working class,” and were able to pay particular attention to particular forms of oppression. It is no coincidence, then, that racial and national relations within the Soviet Union were greatly advanced, especially when compared to the U.S. This is never mentioned in U.S. schools, of course, because it disrupts the capitalist narrative of the Soviet Union as an “authoritarian” or “totalitarian” state. While there were definitely authoritarian elements within the Soviet Union’s complex history (and within any country’s history, for that matter), it is crucial to acknowledge the important gains made for the majority of workers and oppressed people(See Malott and Ford, 2014).
The Marxist and Leninist conception of national oppression has visceral resonances with the situation in the U.S. today. There is, additionally, a lineage of the left that has viewed the U.S. as a multinational state-as a state, that is, that contains within it oppressed nations, including the Black nation. Black communist militant Harry Haywood was one of the most prominent figures in articulating the position of a Black nation inside the U.S. Working in collaboration with Bolsheviks, Haywood formulated the “Black Belt” thesis, which held that Blacks constituted an oppression nation within the U.S. Black people constituted a nation because they were “set apart by a common ethnic origin, economically interrelated in various classes, united by a common historical experience, reflected in a special culture and psychological makeup” (Haywood, 1978, p. 232), in addition to holding a contiguous territory stretching across the south. As such, Black people in the U.S. had a right to national self-determination. This position was eventually adopted by the entire communist movement at the 6thCongress of the Third International in 1928.
As a matter of historical record, it is quite remarkable that as far back as 1928, communists and communist parties across the world were fighting for the right of Black people in the U.S. to self-determination. Yet they were not doing so out of a desire for separatism. Ultimately, they wanted all races and nations to unite on a class-basis. By emphasizing national oppression and the rights of oppressed nations to self-determination, however, communists were able to pay particular attention to the ways in which some people are super-oppressed and exploited, and to how the bourgeoisie were able to extract even more surplus labor-time from these populations. This position was also intended to combat the racism and national chauvinism engrained in white U.S. workers. And, in addition to serving as a means to agitate against calls for integration into U.S. capitalist society, it allowed Haywood to think more precisely through the relationship between reform and revolution. In For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question, written in 1958, four years after the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision, Haywood reminded the Communist Party USA of its position and railed against the CPUSA for following the NAACP’s “bourgeois assimilationist” position. Haywood wrote:
While we Communists fight for every possible democratic demand of the Negro people, and welcome all advances made, we have pointed out that the Negro question is at bottom the question of an oppressed nation in the South and a national minority in the North.
Here, Haywood is saying that reform and revolution are not mutually exclusive. Yes, we should fight for judicial reforms, but we must have no illusions as to their ultimate effectiveness. Haywood went on to rail against the leadership of the CPUSA:
With the outlawing of the segregation of schools by the Supreme Court in May of 1954, the right-revisionist trend in our Party unreservedly embraced the pro-imperialist swindle of imminent, peaceful, democratic “integration” of the Negro people into all aspects of American life.
This was two years after Kruschev’s “secret speech,” in which he denounced the entirety of Stalin’s leadership, and which marked a definitive rightward turn for the international communist movement. What is most notable, however, is the way in which Haywood is able to support calls for reform while at the same time insisting upon revolution on a class basis.
As we approach 2015, the U.S. is still highly racially segregated socially, economically, and geographically. With the framework of national oppression, the images of white cops and reserve troops repressing the rebellions in Ferguson and elsewhere begin to make more sense. The ways in which the struggles against police brutality, racism, and capitalism can join together also becomes clearer in this framework. It is the duty of working-class whites not to be mere “allies,” but to be comrades fighting for socialism and supporting the right to self-determination for Black people and all oppressed nations within the U.S. Only in this way can multinational class unity against capitalism be built, a unity that takes seriously the differences within the working class.
Curry Malott is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations in the Department of Professional and Secondary Education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Malott works in the interrelated areas of critical pedagogy, historiography and Marxism.
Derek R. Ford is a PhD candidate in Cultural Foundations of Education at Syracuse University, where he studies philosophy of education. His research is located around the intersection of space, political economy, and critical pedagogy, and currently examines the air conditions of education. He teaches in the Social Justice Studies Program at Hobart & William Smith Colleges.
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