Capitalism = Systemic Racism? (part 2)

Given the criticisms of and interest in my last post on capitalism and systemic racism (notice, as Seattle points out in a comment to that last post, this is systemic racism I am talking about not just individual racism), let me elaborate a bit by condensing some arguments I make in The White Racial Frame book.

Recall the specifics of Karl Marx’s analysis of the world-shattering significance of this European imperialism:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. . . . Capital comes dripping from head to foot from every pore with blood and dirt.

Clearly, the early rise of Western capitalism on the world scene is very rooted in the global seizing of the land, resources, and labor of people of color by violent means. That is, this global oppression was soon systemic and fully racialized in a white racial framing of superior whites and inferior people of color (i.e., in systemic racism). This global theft of Native American and African labor by state-sanctioned capitalistic enterprises did not end after the first century of European wealth generation, but lasted for centuries, to the present.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries the European colonial invaders forced a political-economic and demographic reorganization of a large part of the globe at the expense of many indigenous peoples of color. The Spanish nation state was the first to plunder on a large scale indigenous societies in the Americas for land, mineral, and labor resources, but its growing wealth was soon countered by imperial expansion of English, Dutch, and French nation-states and private companies seeking wealth from overseas exploitation. European nation-states and private companies, such as English firms operating in the Caribbean and North America, discovered huge profits were to be made from overseas agricultural plantations using enslaved African labor on indigenous lands. Researchers have shown (see sources here) that by the end of the 18th century the lion’s share of profits coming into British coffers came from overseas slave plantations producing agricultural products.

In North America, English colonies were often state enterprises created under auspices of the king or state-fostered enterprises developed by entrepreneurs, plantation owners, and merchants. English joint stock companies were formed by merchants under the auspices of James I. Employees of the Southern Company settled Jamestown, the English colony that brought in the first enslaved African laborers. A principal objective of colonization was to secure land and raw materials and develop markets. Once land was taken, the Europeans’ search for labor led to the extensive use of the African slave trade, critical to exploitation of land and other resources of the Americas. The private-sector and state-sector collaborated in global exploitation and enslavement, soon rationalized in a white racial framing. (See the evidence in, for example, Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery.)

Celebrated social scientist Max Weber wrote famously of the “Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism” in assessing the fostering conditions before and around modern capitalism. However, in this European economic expansion one sees what might more accurately be termed the “predatory ethic” of Western capitalism. Central to European colonialism and capitalism was a predatory ethic that asserted the right of Europeans to take the land and labor of others by violence for their own individual and collective gain.

We should underscore a key dimension of this European colonialism, one that critical analysts of capitalism have seldom emphasized: the highly racialized reality of this European colonization and early capitalism. Marxist analysts and numerous other critical analysts have ignored or downplayed the racist architecture of centuries of Western colonialism. Most major groups that were central to both early and later European accumulation of wealth in this global colonizing system were non-European, and each of these groups was soon denigrated (the word literally means “blackened”) in an increasingly developed Eurocentric white framing of colonialism and the colonial societies thereby created.