by Kaveh Yazdani*
Of late, numerous liberal, right-wing and even some leftist journalists, academics and politicians have readily embraced the prism of “leftist identity politics”. More often than not, they have done so under the cloak of liberal universalism by freely exhibiting their ignorance or indifference on matters of institutional discrimination and forms of oppression resulting from social injustice, racism, and patriarchal structures. In defiance of established facts and figures, they disregard or trivialize the existence of structural racism, racist death threats, physical violence against and the murder of people of color (POC), women, LGBTQ+ people, the homeless and antifascists. They also close their eyes to the necessity of both safe spaces and social mobility for discriminated groups and subaltern classes. Instead, they invoke the supposed perils of “woke cancel culture”, “feminist language police” and dangerous “POC mobs”.
But, in recent years, there have also been heated debates in leftist circles regarding the primacy of class versus race and/or gender issues. Orthodox leftists often suggest that the category of class constitutes the primary contradiction as it goes beyond special interests and group identities. Many heterodox leftists, however, regularly speak for the priority of race and gender problems and reject the notion that these categories merely pose secondary contradictions. Nonetheless, things are more complex, complicated and dynamic than these simple juxtapositions are able to disclose and very much depend on the specific spatio-temporal context.
In the following, I will argue that questions of race and class are distinct but intertwined. For that purpose, I will first compare the conditions of enslaved blacks in antebellum America with those of white textile laborers in 19th century England. Secondly, I will look at the role of Euro-American colonialism, imperialism and its non-white beneficiaries and collaborators. Last but not least, I will shortly touch upon some of the prevalent relations and socio-economic conditions of white and non-white, citizen and non-citizen wage laborers within contemporary capitalism.
Now, let us briefly delve into an historical comparison of two of the most exploited groups across the Atlantic during the period from the late 18th– to the mid-19th century: the enslaved black laborers of American plantation economies and the wage laborers of England’s textile factories. To begin with, enslaved captives were reduced to property and when sold to European slave traders, they were converted into commodities. Subsequently, they became integral parts of the productive forces of plantation owners. During periods of high labor demand and low slave supplies, their lives were more precious in monetary terms than many of their poor white counterparts. Whereas black captives were often insured (similar to other valuable assets) and had enough food not to starve, they were yet “legally dead”, that is, without rights, and thus exposed to horrendous physical and psychological violence of the sort from which white laborers were generally spared.
By contrast, it wasn’t uncommon that the so-called wage slaves of early industrializing Britain, especially women and children, had longer working hours than their de facto and de jure enslaved counterparts and frequently died of malnutrition. At the same time, white British men (and to some limited degree also women) were legally free persons who – at least in theory – could sell their labor power to whomever they wanted. Nonetheless, in the 19th century, both American captive slaves and British wage laborers were refused basic rights. Obvious differences notwithstanding, enslaved captives in the US antebellum south and wage laborers in Lancashire cotton mills had more in common with each other than with the indigenous power houses, white masters and capitalists who sold, dominated and suppressed them.
During the very same period – although the vast majority of plantation owners were white – there were also free POC (gens de couleur libres) and black slave owners, as in late 18th century Saint-Domingue (Haiti), for example. West African elites also made considerable profits through selling captives to European slave traders. To be sure, Euro-Americans became the undisputed rulers of the global 19th century and violently exploited large swaths of the world through colonial subjugation. Significant portions of the Euro-American wealth and capital that was accumulated between the 16th and 21th centuries, stemmed from naked force, i.e. the enslavement of 12 million Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the extermination of indigenous peoples, colonial extraction of labor and resources in Asia, Africa and Latin America and neo-colonial wars. Although regime change operations in countries such as Afghanistan (since 2001), Iraq (2003-2011), Libya (2011) and Mali (2013) led to billions in deficits, they simultaneously generated huge profits for the military-industrial complex, especially in the US.
Still, Asian, African and Latin American royal families, nobles, politicians, capitalists and other elite members, including the “comprador bourgeoisies”, simultaneously made huge fortunes through tax collection, commerce, production, the sale of natural resources and the conversion of human beings into property. They lived comfortable and luxurious lives at the expense of their predominantly poor and oppressed subjects. Indeed, we shouldn’t forget that the colonization and imperialist exploitation of India, West Asia, Africa and Latin America were also made possible by the collaboration of local Euro-American allies.
Now, let us move to the present age. Today, a disproportionately large segment of the Euro-American population of “low-skilled” laborers are people of color (POC) and refugees. They work on construction sites, as temporary agricultural wage laborers, in stores and supermarkets, as care workers, transportation, mail processing and delivery agents, nurses, cleaners and in factories, the meat and warehouse industries. These people form the lion’s share of “essential workers”. Though indispensable, they are also disposable, and on top of that, among those most affected by the raging Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these precarious laborers – who can hardly make ends meet despite increasing working hours – are emblematic of the intersection between class and race.
Apart from subminimum wages, a great number of essential workers are heavily monitored and humiliated. Amazon employees, for example, risk losing their jobs if they take breaks to go to the bathroom while temporary migrant laborers, working in agriculture or the meat industry, live in particularly miserable and crowded housing conditions. Thus, it hardly comes as a surprise that, in December 2020, Amazon induced a county in Alabama to change traffic light timing outside the warehouse so that pro-union workers would not be able to canvass workers while stopped at the light.
Even in a wealthy country such as Germany, over 20% of the employees work in low-wage sectors out of which about 40% are immigrants and POC. “High-skilled” workers are also hit by austerity policies that have continuously increased in the past 40 years. It is not uncommon that, after six years of study, a prospective psychotherapist earns about €240 per month, while non-tenured university lecturers draw wages of about €20 – often even €3 per hour (without getting allowances for pre- and postprocessing courses taught). In the US too, adjuncts are on the rise and make up about 75% of the academic workforce. They receive between $20,000 and $25,000 per year and have to supplement their income with other jobs in order to survive.
Concurrently, there are proportionately small but, nonetheless, substantial numbers of well-to-do middle- and upper class POC both in the “Global North” and “Global South”. They are economically better off than significant segments of the white working classes in Euro-America who have increasingly become unemployed, especially since a good portion of industrial production has been outsourced to Asia. Furthermore, the economic ascendancy and capital investments of Japan, South Korea, China, India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in the US, Europe, Latin America and Africa demonstrate that the antagonisms between the “developed” and “developing” world only explain part of the story. In this very specific context, the statement that the historian C.L.R. James made in 1938 is instructive – though he probably underestimated the significance of processes of racialization: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism [exclusively] in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.” (James, 2001)
To some extent, “white-passing” non-citizens from the peripheries (e.g. from Eastern Europe and Latin America) are more discriminated against than non-white citizens, including black and brown people with passports from the US or European states. These white-passing immigrants are more or less part of the predominantly non-white and markedly rising global reserve army of non-citizens and refugees. In 2020, forcibly displaced persons constituted more than 80 million people worldwide. They are bereft of civic rights, live in abject poverty and work for starvation wages – if they are able to find jobs at all and are not denied their due wages altogether. In the West, it isn’t unusual that these refugees toil on construction sites or as forced laborers (e.g. in prostitution). To give another example, in France, a number of bike couriers, who are affected by wage cuts and work for multinational food supply chains such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo, rent out their mobile work apps to “illegal” refugees, who are often underaged teenagers. In return, they get 30-50% of the refugees’ delivery service wages which are based on piece rates.
On the other hand, those non-white Euro-American minorities who possess permanent rights of residence – even when being well-off and highly skilled – are currently more and more exposed to fascist mobs and racist violence and terrorism. For centuries and decades, they have also suffered from fierce police brutality, systematic racial profiling and structural discrimination in the job and housing markets; a normality that white Euro-American populations hardly experience today. As a matter of fact, many black people in the US are permanently at risk of being arrested or killed by the police, more or less irrespective of status and income (even though money and power certainly help to diminish these hazards).
Arguably, the different national bourgeoisies the world over often share similar interests. The “labor aristocracies” aside, the same could also be said about segments of the global working classes. Therefore, solidarity amongst POC is not a value by itself but very much depends on the particular context. Indeed, white working-class people are, could and should be considered as potential allies for all types of emancipatory movements, provided that they are not racist, misogynist, etc. and also willing to cooperate. By contrast, it goes without saying that non-white war criminals, dictators, authoritarian rulers and capitalist billionaires – who empower and enrich themselves at the cost of their oppressed and exploited subjects and laborers – can never be part of a genuinely progressive alliance.
In short, capturing the in-depth relationship between race, class and gender is an intricate affair. Although these categories are interwoven in a web of intersectional relations, they equally have to be understood independently and on their own terms. On the one hand, it seems improbable that racialization and structural discrimination of black and brown people will significantly diminish as long as current capitalist socio-economic structures and power relations remain in place. On the other hand, empowerment and the improvement of the living conditions of people of color do not automatically lead to less racism as racist ideologies cannot be understood on purely materialist bases. That said, the underprivileged classes in the “developed word” cannot move closer towards emancipation if the majority of people remain in fetters. As Karl Marx succinctly expounded the dialectical relationship between class and race in 1866: “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.”
* Kaveh Yazdani is assistant professor at the Department of History, University of Connecticut (USA). He previously taught at the Universities of Osnabrueck, Bielefeld (Germany) and Vienna (Austria), and was a postdoctoral fellow in Amsterdam and Johannesburg. His recent publications include the monograph India, Modernity and the Great Divergence (2017) and the edited volume Capitalisms: Towards a Global History (2020).