by Yao Atunwa
What is capitalism, one may ask? Though many, if not most, view it as an economic system, which it is, its proper or instructive definition would escape most just the same.
Quite frankly, to grapple with the true nature of capitalism requires one to have at their disposable a historical knowledge of such a system. That is the only how, in fact, we will be able to address a more poignant question, as to the function of capitalism as it relates to black people, globally. There is, indeed, a historical relationship, and one that is irreversibly adverse no matter where in the river one places one’s feet or the given moment for that matter. That stream runs in one direction: discord and disunity for a group of people who by and large do not benefit from capitalism’s brand of development for lack of a better term. Certainly, not when it has historically been successful in under-developing African people throughout the globe. In short, capitalism is the tool of European masters. And as poet and activist Audrey Lorde put it, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We are living in the master’s house; we are currently purveyors of the capitalist order.
To begin to give proper definition, capitalism is more than an economic system; capitalism is an ideology that has been institutionalised for the very purpose of governing relationships between groups of people and between individuals. Contrary to popular perception, its focus is not merely to promote “free market” as is often touted by its proponents. In the capitalist enterprise, relationships are specifically and purposely structured based on the principle of hierarchy, to create situations for great exploitation of those made to be “underprivileged”, “superfluous”, or chained in the production chain. One of its chief mechanisms in structuring such skewed power relations or dynamics is its emphasis on a division of labour that does not adhere to the principle of democracy and thus does not benefit workers as a group. Its division of labour serves as the centrepiece to such a system, with those seeking to sell their labour automatically placed at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Workers in general, who are for the most part landless through deprivation, are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy irrespective of race or ethnicity, to be general, but even more so people of African descent. Again, with particular targeting and emphasis, which seeks to displace the cultural understandings and thus orientation to self and others, in social, economic, political, and psychological terms. In other words, a process of alienation which can take several forms, including from land, labour, and culture, is set in motion.
What is interesting is that capitalism was given birth as a bona fide system during the colonial epoch, as the merchants and other investors of European origin gained prominence as investors in commerce largely oriented around enslaved labour in the Americas, and in turn were given pretty much a carte blanche check to give shape to an economic system that distinguishes itself from that of the dominant system of the time, mercantilism – most likely as a reward for their overall effectiveness (after the initial quarrels) in bolstering the commercial life of their respective empires, and ultimately freeing the hands of their respective monarchs from being heavily or directly vested in the creation of wealth, to sustain those empires.
With the mercantilist system, the monarchs vis-à-vis their agents directed commerce through companies chartered to sanction or regulate commercial activities in the colonies insofar as trading routes and taxation, and even waging war. For instance, companies such as the British West India Company was set up by the British monarch to direct commerce between the British colonies in the Americas in relations to the crown, to ensure that trade was strictly maintained between the United Kingdom and its colonies. Such was the structure of the relationship between merchants and the crown in the prevailing economic system; one the American colonies especially despised, in seeking to gain their economic and political independence, having decided to trade with a prominent French colony in the West Indies in that of Haiti for molasses and other commodities, but chiefly molasses, as well as with their neighbour to the north, New France (Canada), for beaver fur among other commodities. Essentially, the American colonists, in so doing, defied the guarded arrangement, to benefit from having open trade with Haiti and other non-British colonies, in a very competitive environment for European monarchs and their principalities, which started the dismantling of that system.
While such was happening in the arena of international trade, another central component of the capitalist system was taking shape between planters and labourers. A marked distinction would be instituted between indentured labourers from Europe and enslaved Africans, to ensure that the two groups do not seek to benefit from an alliance, as the Bacon Rebellion (1676) in the colony of Virginia suggested when negroes and Europeans, and to an extent Native Americans, formed an alliance to disrupt the social order of Jamestown when the Governor had refused to provide redress to the harsh economic situation that stemmed from a number of factors, but primarily the exclusive rights Governor Berkeley had bestowed on native groups in the trade of beaver fur, which was put in place as a mitigating instrument for the settlers.
The European indentured labourers, who were afforded the same rights as freed negroes and natives, at the instance of their end of servitude, were made privileged through the passage of laws that made it unlawful for a person of African descent to testify against a European now called a white person, or own a firearm or gunpowder; as well as outright barring of marriage between whites and persons of African descent or Native Americans for that matter. At this point the division of labour which capitalism would come to be known for had reached its most defining moment: more effective than it has ever been since it had made such more pronounced a feature among villagers than the feudal and mercantilist systems when it successfully removed a great many artisans and peasants from the countryside of Europe to become city dwellers, to work in the textile and other factories throughout England and Western Europe.
In other words, the invention of “whiteness” in Virginia in 1681, when it first appeared in law, cemented such division of labour even more for the capitalist enterprise, in two principal respects: It fueled the industrial revolution in Western European with the steady supply of raw material from the colonies which further shifted those economies from artisan-enterprising/ peasant-driven to factory/employment-based, and it also made permanent a rung on the economic ladder or hierarchy exclusively for a group of non-Europeans, Africans and their descendants in the colonies. I like to say this is the insurance policy that capitalism afforded itself to ensure its prosperity and very survival: racism.
As far as the origin of the social construct of race on American soil, there is a deep history as it relates to it being sanctioned by the US federal government from the very inception of the union, and of course on the state and local levels through policies and the very function of the legal system to promote an oppressive general reality for primarily people of African descent, i.e., the very underwriting of such a system; thus, structuring relationships even before one decides to sell one’s labour in the labour market, or seeks to make purchase of a consumer commodity. An author such as Jacqueline Battalora would have chronicled such masterfully in her seminal work, Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and its Relevance Today (2013), among other researchers who are seeking to unearth and expose structural racism in the American context.
With the advent of capitalism taking the reign of economic and social life in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, before the abolition of chattel slavery, we come to witness the prominence of the merchant class like never before, with their intent on maintaining an obviously imbalanced power dynamic with countless labourers, free, indentured and enslaved, whereby the relationship remains one that is skewed from the outset: no different from that of the monarchs and their gentries in Europe and their respective peasants during the feudal epoch.
Capitalism is no longer relegated to Britain and its colonial sphere; it is now a global system under the watchful eyes of US hegemonic power, particularly so after World War II with the devastation of Western Europe’s economies, and eventually the establishment of the Bretton Woods system. Under such multilateral arrangement, the US plays the role of primary banker and power broker in the international arena. Its currency is the new gold standard, though fiat. Need I state that it is the same US that is active in the oppression of its black population continually with little provision to actually reverse the deeply embedded and structural racism that has come to shape their existence for eons. However, to be most clear, a reversal of structural racism is not possible: racism is strategic and central in keeping the labour force divided within the US as well as across borders.
While the economic standing of blacks in the US continues to reflect the intent of a system that is designed to be oppressive, as it does for black people across the globe, the world would then enter the era of neoliberalism, which is essentially a re-calibration of capitalism to extract even greater wealth and thus exert greater control on populations in different geographical locations in tandem via a hyper socialisation of an ideology of rugged individualism with the efforts of key agents within and outside government, most notably from the Reagan/Thatcher reign (1980s) onwards, though it had been in gestation from the 1930s. It has served as the way to revitalise laissez-faire economic liberalism or free-market enterprising. Basically, the aim in seeking to accomplish such was to weaken the welfare state that was crafted in the US and Britain to counter the “excesses” of the capitalist enterprise. Now that the neoliberal order is set in place, greater emphasis is placed on competition and exchange value; thus, giving the marketplace a greater role in the lives of members of society.
As such, we witness a greater push for the privatisation of industries, including social services or social utilities, austerity measures, deregulation of industries, and free trade pacts such as NAFTA, which consequently only exacerbates the marginalisation of certain segments of the US population (the world’s largest economy), to the point where the wealth of the median black family is merely 2% of the median white family (or $3,500 to $147,000). And three men own as much wealth as the bottom half of Americans. Yes, the same US that is advocating free market and democracy to the rest of the globe, as it seeks to market its popular consumer culture globally. But is the US a democracy? How does democracy produce such gross disparity in income and wealth, not just between racialised groups but among members of the general population?
It may not be a surprise to you, if you are following closely this macro analysis or are abreast of international relations, that the relationship that people of African descent have with the capitalist system within the American polity is the same the global south has with the global north, namely the relationship that countries south of the equator, which by and large are former colonies of European empires, have with the architects of the Bretton Woods system, largely European states.
With the system reaching global proportion and thus firmly in place, neoliberalism through its socialisation effects as well as its overall impact on the material well-being and security of the least suspecting will only assist with further entrenchment of the skewed power relations between the groups within countries and between countries. Moreover, it is much easier to commodify virtually all aspect of life when the emphasis is placed on individual freedom, as though such can exist without group freedom or more practical basic necessities being guaranteed with the promotion of group solidarity and more specifically collectivism as a principle for social development.
To dominate and control or even defy the policies of the World Trade Organisation, and the United Nations’ bodies, it makes perfect sense for the US and the capitalist enterprise on a whole to stress “free market” as the way forward or how the less developed nations of the world should approach development, notwithstanding their long history of protectionism (to strategically protect key industries, in pretty much the same manner its farmers are being subsidised while it seeks to dictate through the IMF and World Bank the opposite stance for the developing world). The system is very much a locked system, producing pretty much the same results for workers wherever it is adhered to: the alienation and displacement of a great number of people. Substance abuse and homelessness, which have reached alarming proportions in the US and England, are two of the more obvious symptoms of this anti-people system. Perhaps a less discernible symptom would be the vicious cycle of black-on-black violence, which is delineated comprehensively by the late black psychologist Amos Wilson in his treatise on the subject, Black-on-Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation in the Service of White Denomination, 1990.
The most devastating impact of capitalism for people of African descent is the internalisation of an inferiority complex that people of African descent have carried with them as a result of the brutalisation done to their physical bodies and of course the intentional overall dehumanisation facilitated through the falsification of their history and social treatment received by the dominant group. This grave condition would obviously be reinforced from generation to generation with the persistence of an economic order that continues to maintain their general victimisation/marginalisation as a group in spite of colour-blinded policies, supposedly. The inferiority complex historically has been given chief support from the Christian denomination, in its depiction of “the saviour.” But without this obvious example, the notion of adopting another people’s belief system puts one in a disadvantageous position, for the very fact that one is now adhering to a value system that is alien and thus intently seeks to reorient one to his/her understanding of self and ultimately ways of relating to self and others: the loss of an identity.
We see this represented in the growing dependency on skin-whitening and hair products to alter physical appearances, generating billions of dollars for those positioned to take advantage of this lingering sense of inferiority. The inferiority complex, in effect, represents a market onto itself, irrespective of the day-to-day abuses heaped on the victims, such as being targeted with subprime mortgages by the financial sector, which became the primary trigger for the 2007/08 meltdown of the US economy that reverberated across the globe, causing great damage to countless lives. The victims of such a barbaric order, in which people are eaten alive quite literally because profits are valued more than human lives, are hardly suspecting of the role of not just the government but the church, in the upkeep of the capitalist order.
I wish to add, the paternalistic basis of Christianity undoubtedly gives support to capitalism, with its reliance on the individual to seek personal salvation or personal relationship with “god”, while for the most part the leaders of the church refrain from providing critical analysis of the governing institutions and the prevailing economic system, and are generally obstructed from developing a capacity to do so quite frankly, as cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s sought to shed light on in his book, Moral Politics (2008), explaining why so-called conservatives employ the frames that they do when it comes to social and ethical issues, which has to do with their predominant worldview, what he terms strict-father family worldview (as compared to a nurturing-parent family worldview), where personal responsibility is emphasised and credence is given to a market economy. Thus, individuals are responsible for what happens to them in the marketplace. In short, morality, which is not static by any means, is viewed in narrow terms, unapologetically.
Interestingly, the case study of the paradox of Africa’s richest economy, Nigeria, with social ills to the tee, is the absolute epitome of the paradox of seeking to use the master’s tool(s) to liberate a people: Christianity included. Wealth disparity, with its many accompanying social ills, did not escape Nigeria as phenotypically black as it is or as naturally rich as it is in resources. There is no discernible difference in the relationship between wealthy West Africans (and their governments) in their respective economies as compared to wealthy Americans, in how they relate to the vast majorities in those locations, who by the way are the ones generating the vast wealth in those respective economies. Even if Nigeria were to create a welfare state, as the US did after the Great Depression of the 1930s to stem the bleeding, the trajectory would be no different from that of the US, once its overriding principles for governing its economy and thus social relations are capitalist in design.
Only the practice of collectivism can liberate a people who have suffered the ploys of division and outright thievery and exploitation. The sooner we realise such, the better off we will be as nations and as individuals. Capitalism is inherently a class system based on gross exploitation of those purposely made to pay the highest price. Black people have been made to pay its highest price, in historical and real terms. It is absolutely an ineffective and inefficient way to organise a society, for it is antithetical to democratic ideals and values. In the wake of the Great Recession, the world is witnessing Western governments stoking the flame of racial division with their anti-immigrant posturing that targets non-Europeans, many of whom have suffered the impact of economic globalisation and regime overthrow by the US for decades, in its effort to maintain economic hegemony by seeking to relegate and eventually defeat social democracies and any alternative to the capitalist order.
Still, it is hard to tell for many who is friend from enemy. The enemy is an ideology that pits people against each other, in a general race to the bottom, whether it is within or across societies: preying upon their insecurities, when it purposely creates precarious conditions for the vast majority of people on the planet.
Yao Atunwa is the founder and director of The Butler Group, and currently serves as the editor-in-chief of its quarterly magazine, VISION. Visit www.thebutlerplanproject.org to learn about the Butler Plan and Project, as they seek to bring transformative change to Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique.