Racism cannot be explained solely by reference to a type of economy. People have been racist (and sexist) under different economic systems and in diverse cultural settings. However, at this time and place in America, it should be obvious that capitalism has played a significant role in generating and sustaining modern forms of racism. Although there are numerous ways in which racism has been accepted and used by capitalism—for example, to support the prison-industrial complex—I want to focus on a particular ethical failing of capitalism and how it relates to racism. While the systemic defects of capitalism can not be explained by turning to ethics, taking this turn can yield insights into the motivations of those who oppose the current system. When viewed in terms of morality, democratic socialism is not only reconcilable with anti-racist activism, one of its ethical underpinnings demands and helps motivate this activism. In order to set the stage for addressing this motivation, let’s briefly turn to one of the ways in which the relationship between capitalism and racism has been sidestepped.
Why aren’t the connections between capitalism and racism obvious to more people in America? One noteworthy reason is the fact that even our “liberal” party must continually reaffirm its fidelity to capitalism. Although Democrats appear to be moving left on economic issues, when Nancy Pelosi declared that “we’re capitalists” last year, she wasn’t just describing the views of members of her party. Pelosi was drawing a line in the sand for Democrats. You don’t criticize capitalism directly. You only criticize what you deem to be its excesses or deficiencies, which ebb and flow with the times, while capitalism itself remains unimpeachable, the proverbial sacred cow. Here is how NYULOCAL reported on Nanci Pelosi’s comments in their piece, “We’re Capitalists, Deal With It.”
After apologizing for going off-script, [NYU Sophomore Trevor] Hill presented Pelosi with a Harvard University poll showing millennials’ distaste for capitalism. Hill, who supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and voted for Jill Stein in November, then asked the former Speaker of the House whether she saw an opportunity for the Democratic Party to move left. He suggested “a more stark contrast to right-wing economics,” might be the best route for the Democrats to attract millennial voters, similar to how the Republican party moved to the ideological right after the 2008 presidential election to court large turnout among their base.
“I have to say, we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is,” Pelosi responded with a chuckle. “However, we do think that capitalism is not necessarily meeting the needs with the income inequality that we have in our country.”
If we are to believe Pelosi, questioning capitalism, or basic features of capitalism as it is currently practiced, is not where the Democratic Party should go. Sure, as liberals we can smooth capitalism’s edges a bit, address some of the income inequality, make capitalism less grossly unfair. But the mothership is off limits.* How then do you link something considered as odious as racism to the sacred cow of capitalism? Answer: you don’t—or only do so in ways that won’t undermine the system. Hence, a common tactic is to foster a rift between identity politics and issues of economic justice in order to keep in-depth criticisms of capitalism at bay, or as we saw in 2016, to make it seem as if those raising issues of economic injustice (Sanders’ supporters) were insensitive to racism. However, others have had an alternate take on how deeply entwined capitalism and economic exploitation is with racism. Martin Luther King, for instance.
You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. “King to Staff,” 1966
We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order. “Report to SCLC Staff,” May 1967. (Emphasis added.)
We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. “Beyond Vietnam,” NYC, April 1967.
Is there a specific ethical failing that links racism and capitalism? In the spirit of the last quotation from King, the young Marx provides a clue when he addresses the manner in which capitalism dehumanizes.
The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
Here you have the ethical blindness of capitalism a nutshell. For democratic socialists, people are dehumanized under capitalism. How so? Individuals are routinely seen as only a means to an end, and not as ends in themselves (as Kant might put it), that is, not as persons worthy of respect by the virtue of their basic humanity. A person becomes identified with his or her labor, which is sold as a commodity, so that people become marketable tools. As marketable tools, they serve as a means to an end, and this end is rather straightforward: the accumulation of capital. Democratic socialists would argue that it is morally unacceptable to treat people in this manner, as merely a means someone’s ends.**
Of course we all use others as tools, as means to our ends, in various ways—the barber cuts my hair, and in doing so I am using him or her as a means to an end. However, we should never see others solely as tools, solely as means to our ends. The barber is not just a tool for cutting hair, but a human being worthy of respect. The difference here hinges on whether the person continues to be viewed as a human being worthy of respect or becomes merely a tool. The most extreme ongoing form of this type of degradation is slavery, in which a human being is nothing more than a living tool, and one that can be bought and sold. In America, of course, we had a racialized form of slavery, so that racism and economic exploitation were linked from the get-go, even before we became a fully capitalist society. How then does an ethical failing of contemporary capitalism help sustain and breed racism?
Martin Luther King claimed “that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.” Why should he have joined these three at the hip? In each there is a transformation of human beings into the subhuman, which is most explicit in war, when one’s adversary is dehumanized sufficiently to make killing acceptable. In a less dramatic fashion, by fostering the notion that others can be used solely as a means to an end, capitalism makes dehumanization so pervasive that it becomes second nature. A psychology develops that simply accepts as normal the treatment of others as tools, as things, as not fully human. This mindset is an important feature of the psychology of racism. And this is arguably one of the insights that led King to speak of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism in the same breath. (There is also the obvious connection that war and militarism wastes resources that the disenfranchised need to lead decent lives.)
The capitalist would say in response: people are more than workers under capitalism. They have time outside of work to pursue different activities, for example. This response doesn’t undermine the criticism, because so much of our lives centers around our work and work relationships. The repercussions of our working lives are felt long after the working day is over, and extend into how we see and treat others. And even those who personally escape the worst abuses, who have comfortable careers, etc., still have to live in a society in which treating others as commodities is commonplace. It’s also important to bear in mind here that unless you make your money as financiers do, through investments, or are fortunate enough to own a (small) business, you are a worker, that is, you work for a wage. The vast majority of Americans in the labor force are workers.
Liberals would have us believe that the most effective answer to racism is to work within the system in order to pass laws and enforce them, while avoiding legislation and activism that might change the system in a fundamental way. The lives of people of color may be improved through new laws, as they may for women and the LBGTQ community. Yet if the system as a whole is allowed to treat people as commodities, and people routinely experience this day in and day out, not only at work but in how the health care system treats them, and in a myriad of other ways in which profits are put ahead of people (and the health of our planet), we will have failed to remove arguably the most ubiquitous source of dehumanization in our society, and this will in turn have repercussions for how readily racism can be undermined.
To be clear: this is not magical thinking. I am not suggesting that racism would automatically disappear if economic exploitation suddenly ended. I am not saying that one is reducible to the other. I am saying that if we could alter the way that capitalism functions, if people were treated less like commodities and tools, if people weren’t impoverished by the system, if instead they were treated with more respect and dignity, we would diminish the amount of pathological objectification of other human beings in our society.
When democratic socialists highlight the plight of workers, it is not because they are putting the concerns of workers ahead of people of color. Speaking of workers is part of a much larger package, one that criticizes the dehumanization of contemporary capitalism and of all forms of dehumanization. In justifying a callous attitude toward others, in its willingness to see and use people as merely a means to an end, contemporary capitalism lends itself to a mindset that also degrades human beings through racism. The ethical blindness of capitalism and the ethical blindness of racism reinforce each other, and this insight helps motivate action against both.
* It’s striking in this regard that Elizabeth Warren, who is seen in many circles as a liberal or progressive firebrand, and close to Sanders politically, is actually an unabashed supporter of capitalism. See, “Elizabeth Warren’s Theory of Capitalism.” in The Atlantic from August 2018.
** That individual capitalists and some companies have been relatively beneficent toward their workers does not undercut these claims. It is a systemic problem. And as capitalism, once again, breeds ever larger corporate entities, the Amazons and Walmarts, it will become increasingly difficult to find situations in which workers are treated with respect, as opposed to being seen as merely tools to increase profits (unless, of course, the course of contemporary capitalism is altered).