Race/Gender/Capitalism

Over the past few days I’ve had several discussions around the same topic: the role of race and gender within capitalism. Even phrasing the question that way reveals an assumption that race and gender are within capitalism and therefore not systems outside of or co-existing with capitalism, and so somehow subservient to the main system: capitalism. This represents a major debate within Marxism, but also outside of it. Many people seem to agree that racism and sexism existed before capitalism, but this is where the agreement ends. While some argue that capitalism merely instrumentalizes race and gender for its own ends and could exist without them, others point out that capitalism would not exist without racism and sexism – the three systems are closely dependent on one another. I tend to lean more towards this second point of view.

Marxist calls for the working class to organize as a class have always made me wonder about specific historical periods during which this was simply not feasible. In one recent discussion there was the example of the Black Panthers, with the statement that they should not have organized around a subjective identity – race – but should have organized around an objective one – class. But taking America in the 1960s and 1970s, how exactly were the Panthers supposed to organize around class when the racism of the white working class was so deeply entrenched? Were they supposed to devote their energy to addressing this racism in order to win the white working class over? Or wait until white workers realize that they had been duped into a false sense of superiority? It seems to me that Black Power was a response to the deeply racialized nature of American society that took class into account (many were Marxists) but that did not privilege class in a way that downplayed race. I don’t think that overthrowing capitalism at that moment would have ended racism. Indeed some have noted that in the US today, respectability politics gets you nowhere: you could be upper-class and Black and still get killed by police brutality – class doesn’t simply trump race, although it does have its effects.

At the same time, we can also see that organizing around race has its problems. How can a Black Power movement today organize around race when there are major class divisions that have led to the emergence of a Black elite who hold white ideals (see: Obama)? Or without acknowledging that American capitalism depends on a Black underclass? What I am getting at is that organizing around one or the other is almost impossible because of the ways in which race and capitalism are interconnected today. And yet there is a clear racial element to the emergence and consolidation of capitalism: slavery as a racialized mode of production almost single-handedly built the American and European economies.

A second example that comes to mind is the idea that the working class around the world should unite, despite imperialism placing workers in a specific hierarchy that privileges workers in Western countries. Marxist work has shown that part of the reason workers in Europe were able to achieve a social democratic bargain is because elites and multinational corporations found masses of exploitable labour in the “Third World.” In other words, Third World workers paid the price for the benefits European workers started receiving. Bearing this in mind, how are “workers of the world” supposed to unite? Should the struggle be a class struggle divorced from an imperialist struggle, as if capitalism is not imperial? And again, who bears the burden of raising the consciousness of European workers to the global division of labour from which they benefit at the expense of other workers?

A third example is that of gender. White feminist calls to organize around gendered oppression have been critiqued endlessly and rightly for assuming a universal woman. But don’t Marxist calls for organizing around class oppression assume a universal woman worker – and more, a universal worker? What about the ways in which women’s reproductive labour is a central means through which capitalism reproduces itself? This alone makes it difficult to speak of a class struggle that does not look at the ways in which class is gendered (and gender is class-based).

I understand the difference between objective and subjective identities. Belonging to a certain class is objective because it directly affects our ability to survive and reproduce ourselves. But aren’t ideologies such as race and gender also material? Don’t they have very material effects, just like class? Are the three even separable?

The idea that even if we had gender and racial equality, capitalism would still oppress us is a tempting theoretical idea, but I somehow doubt that it is that simple. We are at a point today where we cannot get rid of sexism or racism or capitalism individually because of their interconnectedness. Much gender inequality today is capitalist in nature, but capitalism also needs gender inequality to reproduce itself. Racism is often a result of global capitalism, but global capitalism needs racism to maintain itself.

It seems to me, drawing on an idea put forward by Sara Farris, that when we deal with this question theoretically, it seems easy to draw distinctions between race, gender and capitalism and to then assume that the first two are merely instrumental for capitalism. But when we instead look at historical instances, it becomes clear that racism and sexism have indeed been integral to capitalism from the beginning. Starting with slavery as a mode of production – a clearly racialized mode – and moving to the ways in which women’s unpaid reproductive labour is been used for capital accumulation, we see that throughout struggles over the past century, it has not been easy to simply organize around class.

These are difficult questions precisely because capitalism, racism and sexism have managed to create deep divisions among and between groups that are not easily dissolved through action or protest.

I realize there is no simple answer, but just wanted to write down these thoughts in light of the continuing idea within certain Marxist strands that racism and sexism are not integral to capitalism. They have not only been integral to capitalism – capitalism would not be what it is today without them – but they are also deeply intertwined with it and with one another.

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Occupy the World

I was having a conversation with my best friend yesterday about the Occupy protests that have been spreading across the globe, and we talked about how scary it must be for those in power that these protests have gone global. For generations now, humans have been divided (often purposely) by sometimes artificial constructs like race, religion, gender, nationality, ideology, sexual orientation. For generations we have learned to see each other through prisms of identity that don’t say much about a person but are easy and neat. Categories have become the currency of identity and communication, and it is enough for us to know which boxes people fit into for us to judge them and decide whether we want to know more or not.

The last decade has seen an intensification of identity politics, with many countries across the globe becoming more nationalistic and more fanatic. The “Other” is an even stronger enemy today than it was decades ago, and this has divided us even more. Through all of this, it is easy to forget that there is more that unites than divides us, and that most of what divides us has been socially constructed for political ends.

So what is happening now across the globe must be absolutely terrifying for those controlling a system that thrives on divisions. October 15 saw Occupy events all over the world, from Tokyo to New York; Amsterdam to Seoul; Rome to Boston; Madrid to Costa Rica. Millions of people across the globe came together to protest the same issues: capitalism, a global political system that is destroying people, livelihoods, cultures, human relations, just so that the rich 1% can continue to accumulate wealth while everybody else falls deeper and deeper into debt, starvation, hopelessness.

Did the 1% ever expect this movement to come? Did they even think that people could unite, above all divisions, against a brutal economic/political/social system that is literally killing people as we speak?

Did they expect people to KNOW what was happening, to be AWARE of what the system was doing to them? Did they not realize that people were just exhausted from fighting for daily survival, tired from working working working, and so did not have the time or energy to rise up?

But this time they were pushed too far and it happened.

Starting with the revolutions in the Arab world and now with the Occupy movement, people are showing that they KNEW, they were AWARE, and now they are fighting back. The patriarchal, neo-colonial, capitalist system needs to come down. We shouldn’t be afraid of what comes after it – is chaos such a bad thing? We shouldn’t convince ourselves that capitalism and dictatorship are better because they are the enemy we know best. Humans are infinitely creative and capable, and we have seen that first with the revolutions in the Arab world and North Africa, and now with the Occupy protests. The world is changing, and it’s scary. But it’s also very, very exciting.

I had dinner with one of my favourite Dutch people last night, a woman who is one of the most interesting people I’ve met so far. We were discussing the economic crisis and she brought up a really interesting point. She said that people have been working non-stop since WW2, literally round the clock, constant working. People’s lives have become about economics, salaries, wages, and their jobs. But still, in 2011, we find ourselves facing a series of major economic crises. So her question was: why haven’t young people realized that the system just doesn’t work? We are all told that if we work work work non-stop, the economy will perform perfectly and everything will be fine. But people have been working, and yet we’re hitting a major crisis.

I thought this was a really interesting point I hadn’t thought of before. Is working this hard the answer? Aside from the mental and physical strain, and the fact that we are basically all slaves to a capitalist neo-colonial system, does it even work??

But have we realized this? If anything we are MORE worried and stressed about finding jobs, networking, forming a career, being “successful.” The rat-race is even more intense than it was 30 years ago, even though the system isn’t really working for the majority of people.

When people see problems as exceptions rather than structural, we naively accept shallow explanations and solutions. The answer to Europe’s problems is not to bail everyone out (although it is necessary in the short-term). The answer is to critically question the economic system that brought these countries to the brink of collapse. The problems appear to be symptomatic and structural, not random or due to human mistakes.

I can feel myself being pulled into the same system. Once I finish my MA life will be about work, survival, success. It will be about being productive, about cultivating shallow social relationships through networking so I can use people to get ahead, and it will be about making money, saving money, spending money. But do we have a choice?

London & global capitalism

Watching the London “riots” has been an interesting experience.  My first instinct was that capitalism was at the bottom of this: people were sick of austerity measures, lack of opportunities, cuts in social spending, job losses, and a media that is shoving consumerism down their throats 24/7.

What apparently started out with the police shooting a black father of 4 in London has resulted in riots, looting, and protests across the country.  The mainstream media has focused on the damage the looters have caused and on the general illegality and violence of the events, as opposed to addressing the root issues/causes.  Here are excerpts from some articles I’ve read:

Decades of individualism, competition and state-encouraged selfishness – combined with a systematic crushing of unions and the ever-increasing criminalisation of dissent – have made Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world (here).

Britain is becoming an increasingly unequal place. The pay gap is fast approaching Victorian levels and social mobility has been declining since the 1950s. Neoliberalism has only deepened a growing social crisis over the last 30 years. Its legacy was a global financial system which exploded so catastrophically in 2007-8. And the ruling class response to this? Austerity for the people, not for the real culprits – the bankers and big business. The story has been the same across Europe and in the United States, which are plunging into the biggest crisis since the 2008 recession (here).

All governments are kept in power by a combination of coercion and consent. The welfare state, though it only came about because of mass struggle from below, has given capitalist governments a veneer of legitimacy, as well as acting as a counterbalance to the corrosive effects of free market economics. Now that neoliberalism is sacrificing public facilities to save international finance and the banks, governments are resorting to ever more coercive measures (here).

So there are literally protests all over the globe, many of them economic in nature. What does this mean? Is capitalism finally crumbling down on itself? But then what?

Today’s youth have fewer opportunities & chances than our parents had, despite the crap we are fed that with time we have developed.  We will face a huge economic downturn, increased consumerism, increased influence of the media, and hundreds of social problems.  Xenophobia is increasing GLOBALLY, and governments & states have more power than ever before. Oh, and the earth is disintegrating.

Protests in Chile, Israel, England, Egypt, Tunisia – everywhere people are beginning to stand up to capitalism. It’s about time.

Brown skin, white masks

I just began reading Hamid Dabashi’s book Brown Skin, White Masks, which is a fascinating analysis of the role of native informers in the imperial project of the US and Europe.

The best way to extend Fanon’s revolutionary legacy into the contingencies of our own time is to remain awake to the way the ideological machinery of beleaguered capital keeps reinventing itself.

Today, in the age of multi-culturalism, capital needs newer forms of domination, facilitated by homeless, soulless native informers who have taken over the work that the racist Orientalists once performed.

What we are witnessing today is simply a more advanced stage of colonialism, reflecting a more advanced condition of capitalism in its globalized stage, with newer forms of domination in need of a renewed ideological language. It is thus absolutely imperative that we do not counter-fetishize any particular colour-coded mode of ideological domination – black or brown, Jew or Muslim – as a target of moral assassination.

Capital, in the end, is colour-blind and gender-neutral. It wants to produce cheaply and sell massively to the widest possible market, and it could not care less who buys, who sells, who profits, and who suffers the consequences of this treacherous cycle. The service that the native informers provide to the imperialist project is just another disposable commodity in that cycle, like a roll of toilet paper – use it, discard it, and leave.

Brilliant!

The financial crisis

I just went to a fascinating talk about the current financial crisis by one of my professors, Howard Nicholas. I think he is one of the most influential professors I’ve had, especially in terms of understanding economics and the global financial system. Some of his main points:

  • We will see a major shift in global power relations in our lifetimes. This will be due to a massive shift of wealth from the advanced countries to the developing ones. Multi-nationals have already started this shift: they are laying off thousands of people in western countries and moving more and more offices and plants to developing ones. In 20 years it is predicted that there will be unemployment rates of 30% in European countries. Phillips, for example, has shifted major parts of its Research & Design sector to Singapore.
  • The power shift is already happening. The US accounts much less of global trade than it did 30 years ago, and its GDP has reduced dramatically in comparison to other countries. Now they comprise 33% of world GDP.
  • One major reason that the west will decline is the fact that it is cutting education budgets. ALL western countries except Germany have made cuts in education, including the Netherlands. The Netherlands didn’t even have to make big cuts, but it chose to do so in education. This means that in 30 years, there will be lower levels of education in the west, as compared to the developing world where there is MASSIVE investment in education now, especially in the private sector. Thus we may see an imbalance in the future, with westerners having to occupy low-level jobs and people from developing countries filling the skilled jobs (I can’t believe I might live to see this day!)
  • Yet another problem for the west is its aging infrastructure. The infrastructure in many western countries is old and thus in need of repair/upgrading. In the US, a proposed budget of $3 trillion would only fix 5% of roads and bridges in the country! The developing world, on the other hand, has relatively new infrastructure.
  • A major problem for the advanced countries today is the amount of debt they have. The US debt, for example, is 1500% of its GDP – that’s the highest it has ever been. Developing countries, on the other hand, have extremely low levels of debt. China is 20%, India is 70%.
  • The roots of the crisis in the US have not been properly addressed. The government has given money to the banks (who are responsible for the crisis), and the banks have started lending again. Consumer debt is startin to rise again, suggesting that many Americans haven’t learnt their lesson or are forced to continue borrowing to survive/pay off previous debt.
  • Before the crisis, banks were making 40% of ALL profit made in the US market. This shows how much power and control they had. Today, AFTER the crisis, they continue to make over 40%!
  • Much of US debt is in the hands of China, and this is significant in terms of global power relations. Although China is also vulnerable and tied to the US, it is in no way as vulnerable as the US is right now.
  • Pure capitalism is only being practiced by countries in East Asia. This comprises of a strong state which controls capitalism, that stifles the financials sector (especially the banks), and that builds infrastructure. Re-distribution (as in Taiwan for example) is also an aspect. The IMF, which has always been against capitalism for developing countries (don’t want any competition for the west) managed to ensure that most developing countries did not apply pure capitalism. This destroyed many of these countries, but they are coming back now (Brazil, Argentina) and they’re pissed (hahaha).
So basically we may see something monumental happening in our lifetimes: the decline of the west and the rise of the developing world. I have to say, this would be simply amazing. Not that the west will decline (after all I doubt they would reach levels that the developing world reached due to colonialism), but that the developing world will rise. After centuries of brutal colonialism and exploitation (usually by the west), the people in the Global South deserve a break.