Tethered Together: A Marxist Look at Racism and Capitalism

Strange and disconcerting threads of racism are woven into the fabric of political conversations these days. Equally troubling is some people's desire to return to the unchecked power of corporations comparable to Industrial-era capitalists. With these thoughts swirling all around, it was nice to come across Lance Selfa's essay, "The Roots of Racism," on socialworker.org, which gives insight into the relationship between racism and capitalism through a Marxist lens.

Selfa begins the journey by looking back to how Roman's perception of slavery was not cut along racial lines. In fact, up through the end of the 17th century, even in North American colonies, much of the slave labor that existed followed suit. It wasn't until the price of an African slave became cheaper than a white indentured servant that slavery took on its now-inextricable association with race. With the "first bourgeois revolution," the American Revolution, an ideology of white supremacy came into being, as the leading thinkers of the time had to delineate who they meant by "all men" when creating equalities.

From there, slavery became a boon to 18th century European economies and launched the Industrial Revolution:

From the start, colonial slavery and capitalism were linked. While it is not correct to say that slavery created capitalism, it is correct to say that slavery provided one of the chief sources for the initial accumulations of wealth that helped to propel capitalism forward in Europe and North America.

The clearest example of the connection between plantation slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism was the connection between the cotton South, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Northern industrial states. Here, we can see the direct link between slavery in the U.S. and the development of the most advanced capitalist production methods in the world. Cotton textiles accounted for 75 percent of British industrial employment in 1840, and, at its height, three-fourths of that cotton came from the slave plantations of the Deep South.

Further on, Selfa talks about how present-day anti-immigration attitudes are spun from the same cloth:

Because racism is woven right into the fabric of capitalism, new forms of racism arose with changes in capitalism. As the U.S. economy expanded and underpinned U.S. imperial expansion, imperialist racism--which asserted that the U.S. had a right to dominate other peoples, such as Mexicans and Filipinos--developed. As the U.S. economy grew and sucked in millions of immigrant laborers, anti-immigrant racism developed. But these are both different forms of the same ideology--of white supremacy and division of the world into "superior" and "inferior" races--that had their origins in slavery.

To read the entire article, click here.
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  1. Thanks for sharing this really interesting and timely piece. Racism and bigotry remain commonplace in the US, and too many people simply ignore it. Worse, many see no problem.

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