Monday, December 10, 2012

Marxism, Exploitation and Racial Oppression

OK, so here are a couple of half-baked thoughts regarding how best to think about racial oppression within a Marxist theoretical framework. I want to focus in particular on the strengths---and the limits---of the concept of exploitation in explaining the oppression of Black people in the contemporary US. What follows is a bit stream-of-consciousness and for that I apologize. Comments, criticisms, questions, and objections are welcome.

We can begin by noting that all workers under capitalism are exploited. Marxism gives us a technical way of understanding exploitation in terms of surplus value extracted from workers by capitalists. We needn't go through the technical details, however, to the get basic gist of the argument. All we basically need to say is that if you're a worker, what your employer pays you in wages is less than the amount of value you're expected to produce on the job---otherwise your employer wouldn't bother employing you in the first place. As Iris Marion Young puts it (summarizing C.B. MacPherson's account), workers are exploited in the sense that, under capitalism, they "exercise their capacities under the control, according to the purposes, and for the benefit of other people", namely the owners of capital.

On this model both black and white workers in a racist society---such as the US---are exploited. But black people are subjected to racial oppression whereas white workers are not. Does the Marxist concept of exploitation explain the difference?

Only partially. It is clear that colonialism and slavery---both central to understanding the origins of modern racism---were exploitative processes undertaken to enrich colonizers and slaveowners. The contemporary prison-industrial complex exhibits many of the same exploitative arrangements. We might also add that mortgage and banking practices have, for decades, through a number of different processes, ruthlessly exploited Black people by preying on their vulnerable position as a racially oppressed group.

And it is also no doubt true that, in general and as a group, Black workers in the contemporary US are subject to more intense exploitation than their white working-class counterparts---this is what is usually called "super-exploitation." The basic idea is that Black workers are subjected to the "standard" levels of exploitation as are all workers in the US, but because they are Black their employers are able to leverage racism to pay them even less and work them even harder than their white counterparts.

Still, despite the centrality of the concept of exploitation to any adequate understanding of racial oppression, it is not clear that the concept explains oppression without remainder. Although it is necessary to explain the oppression of Black people in a racist society, it is also insufficient. Oppression is a complex phenomenon that includes social processes, structures and ideological formations not captured by the mere concept of exploitation alone.

This fact---the fact that the concept of exploitation alone is insufficient to fully explain racial oppression---has led some to conclude that Marxism is simply incapable of giving a satisfying, robust, comprehensive account of racism. It is this conclusion that I would like to challenge here.

I'll begin by expressing skepticism that Marxists concerned to explain racial oppression have any reason to confine themselves to the use of the concept of exploitation alone. To be sure, exploitation has played a prominent role in the Marxist analysis---as well it should, given the important examples we examined above. But, apart from the concept of exploitation and its role in explaining the accumulation of profit---as well as the "super profits" obtained via extra-economic coercion as in slavery and colonialism---Marxists have also made regular use of concepts like oppression, domination as well as the notion of a "ruling class", all of which carry within them complaints against class societies that exceed the complaint that they are exploitative.

After all, a "ruling class" is a class that not only exploits, but one that stands above and dominates those over whom it rules. To be sure, there is a clear causal connection between the facts that a ruling class both rules and exploits---but it remains true that ruling and exploiting are, materially speaking, distinct activities. Apart from being exploited, workers are also dominated in at least two senses: they are both subject to the arbitrary will of a particular capitalist in the workplace and subject to the coercive institutions of the capitalist state. That is to say, apart from being subject to surplus-value extraction, workers are also subject to an institutional power structure---which includes state as well as non-state institutions---that is neither under their collective control nor designed to further their interests.

What the above shows is Marxists also see class relations as power relations whereby one class dominates the others and forces them to submit to social structures that are alien to their interests and beyond their control. This makes clear that Marxists have, in addition to their interest in exploitation, always had interrelated interests in questions of power, domination and political rule as well. So, the dynamics of racial oppression that have to do with the dialectics of power and powerlessness are hardly unintelligible from the Marxist point of view. They can be fruitfully analyzed in terms of social domination, understood as a materially structured relation of power in which one group subjects another to its will. Exploitation, though important, has never been the only tune in the Marxist repertoire.

Let us return more explicitly to racial oppression. Although oppression clearly involves exploitation as well as social domination, we might think that these two concepts still leave us with some unexplained remainders. Take the problem of marginalization, which is in a way the opposite of exploitation. Marginalization is, after all, precisely the condition of being excluded from---among other things---the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. As Iris Young describes it, "increasingly in the US racial oppression occurs in the form of marginalization rather than exploitation. Marginals are people the system of labor cannot or will not use... there is a growing class of people permanently confined to lives of social marginality, most of whom are racially marked." As she describes it, "marginalization... involves a whole category of people who are expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination." Marginalization is in many ways the central theme of Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow---and it is also the best concept available to explain the geographical dimensions of oppression that confine many Black people to urban ghettos and shut them out of the formal economy and mainsream social institutions.

Now, Young doesn't dispute the claim that workers are exploited or that many Black workers are super-exploited. The point, rather, is that, almost by definition, to be marginalized is to suffer a form of oppression that cannot be explained by the bare concept of exploitation.

Fortunately, as we've already seen, Marxists have never tried to understand societies in terms of the bare concept of exploitation alone. Though it is central to their analysis, they have always---at least when they're at their best---thought of capitalist social formations as totalities, marked by internal contradictions, structured around the dynamics of capital accumulation, ideological formations and social struggle. Exploitation is one central part of that analysis, but the capitalist system itself is much more complicated than the antagonism between capital and wage labor at the site of production. The Marxist analysis draws the whole web of relations and social processes within its scope and systematically looks at how they function within the material structure of the system. So, there is no reason to assume that Marxism can't make sense of marginalization.

In fact, I highly doubt that we can genuinely understand the political-economic and geographical processes that produce marginalization---of a particularly racist kind---without the tools of contemporary Marxism, which give us an angle on the dynamics of profit, the balance of social forces, the function of the state, and so on. I would think that the sort of political-economic analysis of housing, suburbanization and urban deindustrialization of the sort put forward by David Harvey would need to be part of any fruitful analysis of racial marginalization in the contemporary US. This analysis gives us a critical angle on the scaffolding or, if you like, the racist infrastructure within which abandonment, social/economic exclusion, disenfranchisement, criminalization and so on flourish. I would also think that Marx's analysis of the "industrial reserve army" would be a part of the story as well, although I for one think contemporary Marxists should simply discard his notion of the "lumpenproletariat".

Still, we might think that exploitation, domination and marginalization still don't fully explain racial oppression as it exists today. We might think that there is yet more to be explained---for example, we might think that the problems of cultural imperialism, on the one hand, and violence, on the other, are features of oppression that are not themselves exhausted by an examination of exploitation, domination or marginalization. Cultural imperialism and violence are surely related to those other processes, but they aren't therefore identical with them, so there's still something left to be explained. Is it true that Marxists cannot make sense of these two dynamics without giving up their overall theoretical and practical framework?

I don't think so. Before I say why I think Marxism gives us (arguably) the best critical angle on these dimensions of oppression, let me say a little bit about what they are first. Cultural imperialism has to do with oppressed groups who are, in a one-sided way, subjected to representations, ideas and so on which are alien---and usually hostile to---that group's own self-image, culture, and so on. In Europe, this might take the form of designating as "civilized" and "universal" certain traditional European practices and branding everything else---especially non-European practices---as "other", beyond the pale, "deviant", dangerous, savage, pre-modern, barbaric, particularistic, and so on. A contemporary US example of cultural imperialism that involves anti-Black racism might include any of the various ways in which "Blackness" is devalued and coded as "deviant", inferior, dangerous, criminal, delinquent, ugly, animalistic, "other", low, and so on. "Black is beautiful" was (and in many ways still is) a radical slogan precisely because of the forms of oppression in involved in cultural imperialism. One result is that groups deemed "deviant", inferior, and so on---such as Black people in the contemporary US---are under, among other things, strong pressure to assimilate and renounce their own background as a condition of "success". Groups that are systematically subjected to these interpretations, representations, and meanings are clearly oppressed.

If cultural imperialism is a somewhat complex phenomenon, however, then violence as a form of oppression is relatively straightforward. Black people in the US are systematically liable to be violently harassed, attacked, imprisoned or killed---just because they're Black. The systemic problem of police brutality is only the tip of the iceberg. This is as clear a case of oppression as there is. But does Marxism overlook this dimension of racial oppression? And can Marxism give us a convincing analysis of cultural imperialism?

Let us begin with the problem of racist violence. Marxism seems to me to give us a powerful structural analysis of racial violence inasmuch as it offers us an internationalist approach---which makes clear the role that imperialism plays---as well as a compelling theory of the State. The racist violence and physical abuse meted out by the state---whether by police, prison guards or other officials---is best explained, it seems to me, by the Marxist theory of the state. And I would argue that the international violence against non-white peoples abroad is best understood in terms of the dynamics of imperialism and global political economy. What about vigilante violence? Although technically non-State, I think it should still understood in relation to the forms of State violence we just mentioned. The State has always played a role---whether de jure or de facto, direct or indirect---in lynchings and other forms of violent racist terrorism. Racist violence is never simply a matter of individual hatred or evil persons---it is a social pathology that, like rape, must be understood politically in relation to the material structure of society.

But what about cultural imperialism? On the face of it, this is the aspect of racial oppression least amenable to a Marxist critique. But this conclusion would be hasty. There is, after all, a rich tradition of cultural criticism associated with the Marxist tradition---including figures such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Lukacs, Gramsci, among many others---which begins from the fact that culture is always embedded in material structures that are, at once, political, economic and social. To make sense of cultural imperialism in particular, however, I would use the Marxist concept of ideology, much in the way radical philosopher Tommie Shelby has done. Shelby sees racist images, symbols, ideas and so on as ideologies which stabilize and legitimate racial oppression. This is a big topic, but one thing to say here is that the major means of interpretation, communication and cultural production are under the control of dominant groups, so it's unsurprising, then, that the dominant ideas, cultural products, images, and so on tend to reflect the interests of those groups, rather than the interests of the oppressed. Moreover, oppressed groups---inasmuch as they're oppressed---usually have a hard time changing dominant ideas and images, which can make oppression self-reinforcing in certain respects. That doesn't mean that oppressed groups don't resist these ideas and images---on the contrary, the Black cultural tradition in the US is thoroughly political and, almost without exception, involves a wealth of different modes of resistance against the injuries of racism. But it does mean that dominant representations tend to be imposed on them from above rather than organically produced from below.

Also, I want to point out that---and this is surely a strength of the dialectical structure of Marxism as a theory---all of the features of oppression we've been discussing---violence, cultural imperialism, powerlessness, exploitation and marginalization---are hardly autonomous, separate and fully independent of one another. These "five faces" of oppression, as Iris Young describes them, are all, materially speaking, interwoven and interrelated in real social life. So, any assessment of the strength of Marxism as a means of making sense of cultural imperialism has to take into account that, in addition to drawing on the tradition of Ideologiekritik, it will also draw on the salience of other processes---exploitation, domination, marginalization, etc.---that play a role in the production and reproduction of cultural imperialism.

This is probably as good a place as any to stop for now. I hope I've shown that the Marxist analysis is far more sophisticated and richer than is usually supposed. As I say, this is all very provisional and I'm open to comments, criticism, objections and so on.