Racism, capitalism and contradictions

November 25, 2013

Gary Lapon contributes to the ongoing discussion of the theory of white skin privilege.

IN AN interview at Northstar ("Is there a precariat?"), Charlie Post makes the following point:

Workers under capitalism have a dual existence: both as collective producers struggling against capital for control of the workplace, for hours and wages, but also workers compete as each other. They're sellers of labor-power, which gives rise to what the early 20th century Marxists used to call "sectional interests"; divisions along the lines of race, citizenship, nationality, gender, sexuality, etc.

These dual existences depend on one another. Under capitalism, in order to be a collective producer able to struggle, the worker must sell their labor power successfully. On the other hand, collective struggle is often about winning key demands that increase the value of labor power or improve the conditions of its sale. However, there are also contradictions within each of these.

Racism, which must be combatted if white and Black workers are to unite in struggle--and unity among collective producers is essential for victory in struggle--can also work to the benefit of white workers as sellers of labor power in competition with workers of color. Of course, there are countervailing dynamics as well, since the fact that Black workers are paid less drives down wages for white workers, too, but being white clearly has its advantages--if only relative, but isn't relative the key when it comes to individual competition?--as a seller of labor power.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the analysis of white skin privilege and how to organize the anti-racist struggle in a series of contributions. The article that sparked the discussion is:

Bill Mullen
Is there a white skin privilege?

Further contributions include:

Haley Swenson and John Green
What we get from privilege theory?

Aaron Petcoff and David Camfield
Privilege and anti-racist solidarity

Alan Maass, Alan Peck and Alex Schmaus
Examining the idea of privilege

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Making sense of society in order to change it

Jeffrey B. Perry, Bill Mullen and David Camfield
Roots of the white skin privilege analysis

Héctor Agredano Rivera and Ethan Young
The contribution of the concept of privilege

Jesse Phillippe
A dialectical approach to privilege theory

Dennis K.
What privilege theory doesn't provide

Gary Lapon
Racism, capitalism and contradictions

Sofia Arias
Contributing to a constructive debate

Tad Tietze
What privilege theory doesn't explain

Similarly, white workers gain relative advantage on the job--they're more likely to get promotions, less likely to be fired, etc. I believe that white workers have more to gain by opposing racism and engaging in collective struggle with their Black coworkers (and other people of color), but better treatment on the job is a countervailing force there, too, which encourages white workers to accept racism and even embrace it.

WHITE WORKERS both benefit from racism, as whites who receive relative advantages or "privileges" if you will, and are harmed by it, as collective producers for whom racism is an impediment to the unity needed to win gains through struggle. The idea that we must argue that white workers do not benefit from racism in order for interracial working-class unity to be possible, and the idea that such unity is impossible because white workers benefit from racism, are both mechanical and one-sided.

Which tendencies prevail, which are dominant, depends on a number of factors. In periods of heightened class struggle, the identity of collective producers in struggle can overshadow the identity of sellers of labor power. This is where there is the greatest opportunity to combat racism, and even see things like unemployed workers rally to support strikers en masse (as in Toledo, Ohio in 1934) instead of taking their jobs.

In periods of defeat, workers are more likely to take on the identity of an individual seller of labor power, as collective struggle ceases to be seen as a realistic option. This is compounded by the pressures of day-to-day survival. Racism takes root more easily.

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

Of course, consciousness is always mixed, but in different ways and to different degrees: there are racist workers in times of mass interracial struggle, and there are anti-racist workers in times of defeat. There are workers who in practice unite across the lines of race while holding racist ideas, and there are those who hold anti-racist ideas yet do little or nothing to combat it.

Standing over all of this is the long-term, historic mission of the working class, which is to liberate itself. This requires doing away with all oppression and exploitation. But except in revolutionary times, this mission is only recognized by a minority of the working class.

It is up to us to promote the tendencies noted above that move us in the direction of unity in struggle and combat those that move us in the direction of embracing oppression and division.
Gary Lapon, New York City

Further Reading

From the archives