Pitting one worker against another
Capitalism divides the working class, based on sexual, gender, racial, national and other distinctions. The specially oppressed groups within the working class suffer the most under capitalism.
We oppose racism in all its forms. We support the struggle for immigrant rights. We fight for real social, economic and political equality for women, and for an end to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
-- From the ISO "Where We Stand"
"I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."
--19th century robber baron Jay Gould
THE DRIVING force of the capitalist system is profit. As far as capitalists are concerned, nothing else matters so long as the coffers are filling.
These profits are the product of the unpaid labor of the working class. Finding ways to guarantee that labor will continue to work, undisturbed, at its job of making profits, is therefore a prime concern to the capitalist.
The whip of economic compulsion accomplishes much of this goal: if you do not work, you do not eat. "Hunger," argued a British 18th century Protestant parson, "the most natural motive to industry and labor...calls for the most powerful exertions." Marx put it another way:
The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the laborer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the laborer can be left to the "natural laws of production," i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.
But the collective experience of the working class also leads it to find ways to resist and push back against their exploitation. As Marx writes, "But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more."
The capitalists therefore require other means (short of the use of outright force) to attempt to divide and atomize workers other than just "the dull compulsion of economic relations." One way they do this is by pitting workers against each other, compelling them to compete with each other for scarce jobs.
Laid over this economic competition is the exploitation of differences in race, sex, language, immigration status and so on, which are used to foster deeper divisions among workers. For example, capitalists have often used workers of one race or nationality to scab on native-born white workers in the U.S. in order to stir up enmity between them--something they could not do unless one group was kept in a more oppressed and, therefore, desperate and hungrier state.
Employers are often able to appeal to housewives to rein in their striking husbands, because, to quote Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the women "were expected to stay at home and worry about the empty larder, the hungry kiddies and the growling landlord, easy prey to the agents of the company."
The IWW, however, had a different approach. "Women can be the most militant or the most conservative element in a strike," she wrote, "in proportion to their comprehension of its purposes. The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front. The truth is, the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front."
ALL WORKERS are oppressed under capitalism, facing inferior housing, schooling and medical care, for example, compared to middle-class and wealthy people. But some groups are singled out for "special" oppression that runs even deeper: women, African Americans, Latinos, gays, people who don't speak the "official" language, and so on.
These different forms of oppression had an economic function, or were closely tied to the new economic priorities of capitalism. In the early stages of capitalist development, for example, forced labor of various kinds were used to extract wealth from subject peoples, particularly in cases where shortages of wage workers made that form of labor too expensive to be profitable.
As Marx wrote in Capital, "Whilst the cotton industry introduced child slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world."
Racism--the ideology that observable differences such as skin color marked some people as inferior--was fashioned to justify the forcible enslavement of Africans in the New World. "Slavery could survive," wrote Winthrop Jordan, "only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery were to exist at all."
After slavery's defeat, the Southern white ruling class deliberately fostered race hatred to prevent poor whites from identifying with poor Blacks. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote:
The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.
Racism (as well as xenophobia) also persisted in the North. The main trade unions often refused to organize Blacks (except sometimes in segregated locals) and immigrant workers (in many cases, also women workers), disfiguring the labor movement and rendering it unable to resist the bosses' attacks.
THERE IS an essential point Dubois makes here that applies to all forms of oppression. And that is that the oppression visited upon one section of society serves the function of keeping down other sections, both economically and socially, and preventing the exploited from seeing that they have common interests with those of their class who face special forms of oppression.
Oppression, and the ideologies that underpin it, objectively weakens the ability of workers to come together and unite against the ruling class. The point was well-expressed by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who wrote, "The slaveholders...by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black man himself."
Imperialism--the conquest and division of the world by Europe, the U.S. and Japan in the late 19th century--gave renewed lease on the racist ideas developed out of slavery. Racist ideology was used to justify the conquest of "inferior" people who were considered to be at the stage of childhood in terms of human development and therefore needed the tutelage of the mature, "civilized" nations to guide them.
The national chauvinism fostered by the ruling classes of the big powers acted as a powerful weapon against the international solidarity of the working class. The U.S. ruling class today systematically, and insidiously, instills American chauvinism--aided by the compliant mass media.
As a result, most Americans unconsciously accept the right of the U.S. to project its power around the world and to dominate international institutions, and much of the stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims that help justify it. But American chauvinism is even more insidious than others, because it comes with the ideological trappings of the American Revolution.
America claims to be a great protector and promoter of world democracy, and a "reluctant" world power uniquely possessed with benign respect for human rights and dignity.
This article first appeared in the September 12, 2008, edition of Socialist Worker.