Removing the flag isn’t enough

July 16, 2015

Charlie Post, an author, long-time socialist and supporter of Solidarity, describes why taking down the Confederate flag is only one step toward ending racism.

I MUST admit that I am deeply ambivalent about the recent discussions on the Confederate flag in the wake of the racist murders in Charleston.

On the one hand, like any good radical or revolutionary, I am elated. First, because a symbol of the explicit racism that continues to inspire white supremacist and fascist gangs in the U.S. is being removed from several state Capitols and state flags in the U.S. South. The recognition that the Confederate battle flag--which was revived in the 1950s as part of the last-ditch defense of segregation--is not some symbol of "regional pride," but a banner of racism is most welcome.

Second, the recent discussion of the Confederate flag helps undermine those who could be called the "slavery deniers." These are the people, including historians, who claim that the U.S. Civil War was not caused by slavery, but instead was a battle between "states' rights" and "federal authority" or over issues like tariffs and banking policy.

The Civil War was clearly a battle about which class relations--those of capitalism or those of plantation slavery--would dominate the expansion of the U.S. social formation across the North American continent. In 1860-61, nearly everyone in the U.S.--from the Republican manufacturers and farmers to the Democratic planters--understood that a federal ban on the geographic expansion of slavery would put this social property relation on "the road to eventual extinction." The planters who formed their own republic--the Confederacy--were quite explicit that this desperate move was necessary to the defense of their "peculiar institution." Hopefully, the current discussion of the Confederate flag will undermine any evasions about the place of slavery in the origins of the U.S. Civil War.

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ON THE other hand, I find much of the left's (and not just the soft-liberal left) enthusiasm for the removal of the Confederate battle flag--and the related trope of "finishing the Civil War"--disturbing.

First, the removal of the flag is completely symbolic. It will not change the substantive reality that African Americans and other people of color face in the U.S. today. It will not bring about minor reforms like greater federal monitoring of police shootings of and violence against people of color, no less substantial gains like true universal health care, massive construction and maintenance of high quality public housing, equality in public education, massive public workers programs, or real affirmative action in hiring and higher education.

In fact, the removal of the flag is a pretty low barrier for the U.S. capitalist class. The Confederate flag is of important symbolic value to white supremacists in segments of the middle classes (small business, professionals and managers) and the working class. However, today, the Confederate flag is an embarrassment to the capitalist class in the U.S. This is especially true as large corporations, from Microsoft to Walmart, are attempting to "diversify" their managerial and supervisory corps to better manage their increasingly non-white workforce.

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The "finish the Civil War" trope is both historically politically problematic. Historically, the U.S. Civil War was one of the most "complete" capitalist revolutions. Not only did productive capitalists--manufacturers and small capitalist farmers--lead the revolution, but the war concluded with the elimination of all obstacles to capitalist development. Slavery, and its geographic expansionist dynamic, was destroyed. Sharecropping, which replaced slavery in the South, had a very different dynamic of territorial expansion, provided greater markets for consumer and capital goods than slavery, while maintaining the production of cotton. The capitalist state was radically centralized, with the development of the first national currency and banking system and national citizenship, and policies (tariffs, railroad construction and land grants, etc.) that promoted the transcontinental expansion of capitalist social property relations during the "Gilded Age."

Clearly, the postwar struggles of the Reconstruction period produced neither a radical redistribution of land to the freed people ("40 acres and a mule), nor secured the most basic democratic rights of African Americans. The victory of such a radical democratic, plebian revolution in the South would have created a serious obstacle to the development of capitalism. Such a revolution would have created a politically empowered peasantry whose ownership of land would not have been dependent on successful market competition. Free from "market compulsion," these producers--like former slaves in the Caribbean--would have abandoned staple production and prioritized their own subsistence.

Even more importantly, the notion that the fight against racism is a continuation of the "bourgeois revolution"/U.S. Civil War obscured the roots of racism. Racism is not some atavistic holdover of pre-capitalist social property relations whose elimination depends upon "completing" the "unfinished tasks" of the U.S. Civil War. Instead, capitalist accumulation--by constantly reproducing a reserve army of labor--and capitalist competition--by constantly differentiating profit rates, wages and working conditions--creates and recreates competition among workers. The competition among workers is the matrix in which race and racism is constantly reproduced by both workers and capitalists. Only effective class organization, rooted in the workplace, can provide a counter-weight to the "war of all against all" amongst workers.

Ultimately, the elimination of racism will not require "finishing the U.S. Civil War" or any other capitalist revolution, but a very different revolution--a workers' revolution that will abolish capitalism.

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