These are the first two theses of four from the distinguished international scholar of racial matters, Clarence J. Munford. The next two will be posted tomorrow.
The original (so-called primitive) capital accumulation – the wealth that enabled Western civilization to erect its global domination – was actually an accumulation of enslaved African human beings. Having decimated the indigenous Amerindians in the Caribbean, Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, the white conquerors turned to Africa for the means to establish sway over the Western Hemisphere.
Nowadays the “free world’s” lighthouse sits in Washington, DC, an acknowledged fact internationally. Less avowed is the brute fact that the chief agency by which European civilization appropriated and incorporated the vast territory north of the Rio Grande, and established the United States of America, was the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Modern capitalism in the Western Hemisphere is the child of racialized black enslavement. Centuries of chattel bondage conditioned the formation of the African American race, reinforced by post-slavery discrimination, segregation and second-class citizenship. These are social relations, rules dictated to persons and communities. Social relations, mediated in history, outweighed biological reproduction in creating America’s black “minority race.”
Despite a rather common heritage of material culture, black folks’ enslaved ancestors came from many different ethnic groups and spoke many different tongues. The boundaries of the plantations ignored these ethnic divisions. When the time came for procreation, the will of the slaveholder and the limits of the plantation regulated sexual intercourse. Plantation endogamy smashed pristine ethnicity. Most couplings were within the same plantation or neighboring ones – no matter that Mbundu had to mate with Ewe, Wolof with Ibo, Yoruba with Fon… Meanwhile the sexual rampages of slaveholders and overseers injected a Caucasian strain in all but a fifth of African Americans. For a long time slaveholders were not minded to balance the gender ratio among slaves. Enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619. Not until the 1840s were there as many black women as there were black men in the United States. America’s truest “melting pot” was stirred of transplanted Africans, a unique new people smelted in slavery’s crucible.
The social composition and profile of black America changed radically in the first half of the twentieth century. From the Great Migration (ca. 1915-1919) to the deindustrializing 1970s, the prominent new stratum was urban industrial workers. Black folk became predominately city folk. Nevertheless, the black community remained subservient to the white citizenry. The autoworker as much as the sleeping car porter, the preacher as much as the entertainer, each one of the now ghettoized African Americans was slotted somehow or other in the social hierarchy in a way compatible with the white man’s interests. Transformed by waves of migration and metropolitan overcrowding, black America was prescribed a role to play that was really the same old role in new costume. Its function in the social division of labor was unambiguous. There is nothing equivocal about that black “underclass” which serves as an elastic pool of cheap reserve labor, portions of which are destined for lifelong joblessness.
Over the last thirty years or so, large numbers of African Americans have moved to the suburbs. Decaying city cores have been abandoned to growing concentrations of black and Latino paupers, the “underclass” and the homeless. Many city cores are being gentrified, exiling even these desperate unfortunates. Ironically, even latter-day suburbanization is compelled to fit the national mold of black-white residential apartheid. Black suburbanization proceeds on the basis of black resegregation. Chunks of the inner city ghetto are dispersed as all-black pockets around the wider area. The ghetto does not evaporate; it multiplies with smaller offshoots hiving off. Residential apartheid is alive and well, now also living in the suburbs.
Even more insidious is the bond between the prison industrial system and economic revalorization. In so far as black “underclass” job seekers find no employers, they are excluded from the national market for commodity labor power. This particular phenomenon long predates the current employment crash precipitated by the capitalist recession of 2007-2009, and will long post-date it. Economically, anything that for whatever reason has no purchaser, has no price. Price is the money form of value. Without a price, an object, or in this case a human capacity, becomes in effect valueless. During the last forty years, thousands of black males’ ability to work has been stripped of a price, unsellable on the labor market and thus value-less in a strict economic sense. In the eyes of white supremacist capital, these men, and increasingly some black women too, become revalored (value restored) only when they are put to work in jail. This is revalorization through mass incarceration and the prison economy. What takes place in the prison industrial complex has been termed mystifyingly “intra-systemal commoditization of unfree labor.” The terms mean merely that in our prisons today labor power, which in the outside world appears on the market as a commodity and is sold for a price (wages), is being extracted from inmates – often involuntarily – at or well below the minimum wage standard. From shore to shore America’s cellblock inmates are disproportionately black. This practice is a giant step towards reviving the convict lease-labor system of Jim Crow vintage. The United States sports the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
The British political economist and diplomat John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) invented a handful of concepts as major signposts of his economic growth theory. His favorites were the tendency to consume, the tendency to save, and the inclination to invest. The Obama administration – faced with a severe recession – has embraced these ideas.
Three other economists – R.F. Kahn, Roy Harrod and Paul Samuelson – added an accelerator principle and a multiplier principle to this capitalist ideological potpourri. Despite inconsistency, the Obama cabinet rejects the “supply-side” national economic course steered from 1980 until 2009, beginning with the Ronald Reagan White House. Supply-side dogma decrees that every supply beyond produced income will create a sufficient demand. This reactionary theology consists of four elements: 1) regulation of the money (i.e., currency) supply; 2) elimination of government intervention in corporate business affairs because it allegedly hinders innovation and capitalist investment; 3) profit-stimulating tax reductions, and 4) sharp cuts in all social spending and services, particularly in those that benefit poor black people. The Reagan and the two Bush administrations lusted after tax relief for the rich. They coupled that policy with wide-ranging propaganda against the welfare state.
Supply-side’s theoretical guru was Milton Friedman, point man of the so-called Chicago School of Economics. The first Bush administration opened with soaring currency emission and a burst of long- and short-term private investments. Inflation revived as a household word. Predictably, Friedman monetarists, reversing cause and effect to blame social spending, preached reprivatization of health care systems everywhere on Earth. “Reaganomics” (USA) and “Thatcherism” (UK) were ideological twins. Reaganomics lowered real wages, boosted unemployment and cuddled high inflation – evils which mauled African Americans. The upshot was huge trade deficits, enormous military expenditures and high interest rates – phenomena that impacted negatively on capitalism’s boom-bust periodical cycle. Swift development of space-age weaponry and its rapid deployment ballooned government debt. The military-industrial complex viewed the sale of armaments as a fillip for the process of social reproduction. Much the same occurred in America’s lock-step NATO allies. Government support for culture, health care, scientific research and other social services declined. At federal, state and municipal levels the main hemorrhaging was inflicted on black folk.
In the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill, where the current refrain is Keynesian stimuli, supply-side policy and discourse are now considered toxic. Keynesian acolytes cheer vociferously for regulatory programs and direct government intervention both as a consumer and as an employer. The federal government is prodded to act as an entrepreneur in those branches and sectors of the economy avoided by private capitalists as unprofitable. Once bailed out, “stress-tested,” “chapter-elevened,” remortgaged, SEC-monitored, modernized and rehabilitated, the plan is to reprivatize such enterprises (e.g., auto, banking, insurance, mortgage-lending) for profitable operation by private business. Schemes to soften the depression’s bite short of social revolution are suddenly all the rage.
There is talk in Obama circles of humanizing and stabilizing economic growth by creating skilled jobs with intrinsic economic value. Pending legislation would encourage unionization of superexploited black, Latino and undocumented immigrant workers, especially in the South. It is hoped that organized labor might at long last be gingered to unionize the bulk of African Americans and other minorities on a truly non-segregated basis. Some would use the collective bargaining mechanism for wage settlements and working hours reductions that are not at the cost of the employees nor entail the intensification of labor. There are vocal advocates of public control of employment, effective employment agencies, emergency shelters, affordable housing, and protection against mortgage foreclosure. Others would pressure Congress to shorten the work week and the work day, and set a legal limit to overtime. Although Keynes himself feared such measures would hurt capitalist profits, some of his followers nevertheless now advocate a rise in workers’ real income to enhance consumer demand, speeding recovery from the recession. Senior citizens’ spokespersons favor lower and more flexible retirement ages and iron-clad pension protection. There are calls to increase annual vacation time and to guarantee it to all employee categories.
Vocational education (K-12 and adult) needs a big boost. Suddenly it is also now clear to many that the USA is wealthy enough to fund post-secondary education for all qualified students, with affirmative action for the racially discriminated. And the hedging of the Obama White House notwithstanding, the demand for a universal, single-payer health care system will not recede any time soon. Nor will the appeal for black reparations.