Race Matters By William Bowles

21 March 2006

These days, writing about ‘race’ is like walking on soft boiled eggs, especially if you’re a whitey but there’s no getting away from the fact that the issue of race is central to virtually all of the major issues of our times and indeed it can be argued that ever since imperialism was no more than a gleam in the eye of some merchant bankers back in the 16th century, it has defined the way the world has ‘developed’.

‘Race Matters’ is the title of a quite influential book written by ‘liberation theologist’ Cornel West back in the 1980s. West’s title was deliberately double-barrelled, for not only does race matter but it is a matter that has defined the nature of the current situation, as the issue of race has driven a wedge between the two worlds, that of the haves and the have-nots. I contend that without uniting these two worlds we are doomed, for the issue of race enables the imperialist states to divide and rule, much as it has done for centuries.

For some this is obvious, so obvious in fact that divide and rule has become somewhat of a mantra for the Left, yet it still leaves unanswered the question of how we should best deal with it, for the issue of race is so sensitive that many simply refuse to confront it, so powerful are the demons the word conjures up.

For some, it is guilt and for others it is bound up with misconceptions about the nature of racism, a situation that the ruling elites have understood all too well and exploited up to the hilt, playing on peoples’s fears on the one hand and on the other, their feelings of guilt about being ‘white’ and the subjective notion that being white incurs some elusive advantage over those who are not.

Thus we have become mired in confusion not only about who we are but what it really means to be white or black. I have long argued that the concept of white or black is an entirely subjective idea, bound up not with the colour of one’s skin but if you like, the ‘colour’ of your mind, a state perhaps best illustrated with the concept of ‘coloured’ that exists in South Africa. Not surprisingly, Black Americans have a difficult time dealing with the South African notion of ‘coloured’ coming as they do from a culture where you are either white or black (setting aside the issue of Latino, Asian etc).

Perhaps a better way of approaching the issue is to include gender in the struggle that confronts us for true liberation from the rule of capital, for in both cases, race and gender are not only fluid concepts defined by context and history but are also central to the means whereby capital has been able to maintain its grip on the planet and rip it off for the past 500 years.

Male and female are, like black and white both immediately obvious (and convenient) divisions between people but also fluid concepts that when looked at historically and culturally, not the either/or states that many suppose (and would like) them to be. In addition, questions about gender, just like race, go to the heart of questions about identity. Not surprisingly, those who cross the ‘gender line’ find themselves in similar states to those who cross the ‘race line’.

Both trigger deep-felt states of insecurity and fear engendered by a society that has built its fortunes on precisely three fundamental conditions of existence, that of race, gender and class. Taken separately, there can be no solution, but taking them on collectively is an immense task, thus the challenge for us ‘revos’ is to expose the underlying historical roots of all three.

But in both cases, it has been the means whereby vast surpluses of wealth have been accrued through slavery and colonial exploitation on the one hand and through the ruthless exploitation of women’s labour on the other. Without these, neither the economic takeoff of Europe nor the scientific revolution that led to the birth of industrial capitalism would have been possible.

In both instances a rationale was needed to justify firstly the existence of colonialism and slavery and secondly the disempowerment of women as integral to the economic life of post-feudal society and in both instances, the rise of science during what is called the Age of Enlightenment provided the means.

Over the next four centuries, scientific ‘inquiry’ provided the means whereby a basis was made for the alleged superiority of the ‘white race’ and that of men over women, that was to find its apogee in the 19th century with the emergence of an entire range of pseudo-scientific ideas, ideas which in one form or another, are still with us to this day.

That these phony ideas are now masked with even more potent discoveries, especially in the field of genetics, doesn’t alter the fundamental fiction, it just makes them more acceptable, as they can now be given the gloss of an allegedly objective and neutral science and even more difficult to penetrate for most people without some broad understanding of genetics and the history of life on this planet.

Yet apparently paradoxically, the rise of modern genetics has also been accompanied by a retreat into virtually medieval, fundamentalist ideas about for example, the origins of life. On closer examination however, the two apparently mutually exclusive views are in fact united by the ideologies of racism and sexism, for underpinning them is the fundamental ideology of capitalism based upon a bastardisation of Darwin’s ideas on evolution, most prominently, the ‘survival of the fittest’ and equally spurious ideas about ‘human nature’.

How is it that such archaic and reactionary ideas have managed to resurface with such vehemence? Firstly of course, they never really went away, for they constitute the heart of capitalist ideology and secondly the failure of the socialist alternative has breathed new life into these old and one thought, thoroughly discredited ideas.

Just how powerful these ideas are is most apparent in the mass media and especially in advertising. In addition the changing nature of the ‘advanced’ capitalist economies has also unleashed the fears and insecurities of men and of white men in particular. With women now constituting at least half and in some instances, the majority of the workforce, mostly un-unionised, and often temporary labour, they have undermined the power of the old, male industrial working class.

Just as the rise of industrial capitalism destroyed the existing networks of solidarity based on the land and craft labour, so too, the revolutions in production that have destroyed the old industrial working class has also destroyed the networks of solidarity built around trade unions and political parties of the working class.

Accompanying this transformation of the workforce has been the impact of cheap, unskilled immigrant labour, yet another result of the effect of colonialism and in its latest manifestation, ‘globalisation’ and of course the export of manufacturing to the former colonies, again with the use of mostly cheap, female and un-unionised labour.

What should be apparent is that the current situation is the result of a continuum of capitalist exploitation stretching back for five centuries and that the failure of socialism to provide a viable alternative has unleashed forces that depend first and foremost on the acceptance by the majority of the working people of the ideology of race and gender promulgated by the capitalist state, albeit dressed up in new clothes.

It should also be apparent that shorn of our networks of solidarity and protection leaves us prey to reactionary ideas that the rise of socialist philosophy in the 20th century in theory at least, consigned to history.

It should be apparent then that unless we confront these twin evils, racism and sexism as central to the struggle for human emancipation, dealing with the over-arching evil of imperialism is nigh on impossible, for it is only because we in the so-called developed world fail to see that we are all victims of such a pervasive and destructive ideology that makes the current onslaught possible.

The issue of how best to confront this fundamental problem is however, not an easy one to solve, so much of the nature of the ideology of racism depends on subjective forces based on fear and insecurity that are locked inside the minds of people. Even speaking about it is fraught with dangers both real and imagined.

But make no mistake, our concepts about race, gender and class are the products of historical processes, they are by no means ‘hard-wired’ into us, in spite of all the propaganda and brain-washing to the contrary. This is not say that overcoming centuries of ingrained prejudice and assumptions about what it is to be human is easy to do, but then nothing worth achieving comes easy.

Further Reading

Can’t see the wood for the trees’? A Review of ‘Caliban and the Witch – Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation’ by Silvia Federici


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