Differences between human beings such as those designated as ‘racial’ and religious are again being promoted as causing most, if not all, of the problems facing contemporary society. The reason is not too difficult to fathom. The economic aspects of the current crisis have created job insecurity, relative levels of poverty, contraction of welfare provisions and financial instability. In all countries in which the capitalist mode of production dominates, there are severe problems with housing, education, health provision, and employment opportunities. These symptoms have given rise to a percieved need by some to once again fall back upon exagerating differences among working people in order to have someone to blame. The five-fold crisis of the capitalist mode of production has once again provoked increased outbreaks of violence within the ranks of the exploited and oppressed.
The ‘austerity’ driven cutbacks particularly effect those in the low paid working and non-working sections of society. This in turn has produced despair, anxiety, anger and an emerging struggle between the various victims of the present system for access to the increasingly scarce resources. It is a struggle which is to some extent also directed against the state. As usual where there is organised protest against the deteriorating economic and social conditions, those who control the capitalist states defend themselves and their system aggresively. The armed bodies of men employed by the nation states are sent to pepper spray, tear gas, kettle, disperse, arrest, maim and even kill those who pay their wages but who do not accept the conditions they are currently required to endure. The capitalist system once again cannot provide adequate resources for the number of people requiring them. The resurrection of a previously invented scapegoat therefore is now in full swing.
Instead of blaming the capitalist mode of production for its many fundamental failings, the dominant ideological hold over opinion makers ensures they blame one or other of the victims of this global system of oppression and exploitation. The ersatz blame game by one set of petite bourgeois opinion makers has targeted immigrant workers as the problem causing repeated social crisis, whilst another distorted variant of petite bourgeois ideology blames the indigenous workers for being racially prejudiced, unwelcoming and exacerbating the internal crises of nation states. This is despite the fact that both these category of workers are equally the victims of the global capitalist system.
Even some of the traditional left have joined in on one side or another of this dualistic divide of blaming one or other of the working class victims who comprise of different ethnicities, skin colour, or religious denomination. Yet it should be obvious that any economic system based upon inequality needs to invent, construct and perpetuate exagerated differences such as religion, class or ‘race’ in order to justify itself. The capitalist mode of production is no different in this respect. Moreover, for the capitalist system to survive it’s periodic crises its supporters also need to choose periodic scapegoats. As we shall see, they have a long history of creating them.
In contrast to the apologists of capital, the voices and opinions raised against the capitalist system and its defensive and offensive ideology which fuels and rationalises this multifaceted crisis are feeble and few. This itself is a serious indictment of the sectarian fragmentation of the anti-capitalist movement – and the lack of a substantial one – which even fewer of its representatives are prepared to self-critically examine. Be that as it may, there is also the need to understand the economic tap roots of the cultural and ideological phenomena of prejudice in general and racial prejudice in particular. For racism, as with other discriminating prejudices is not an inevitable (or uncurable) disease but a carefully constructed, culturally driven aspect of bourgeois ideology. What follows is a contribution to furthering the understanding of that pernicious and divisive ideological feature driven by the needs of the capitalist mode of production.
The concept of race versus biology.
Dictionary definitions of race are many and they confusingly utilise a mix of environmental, geographical, linguistic and religious terms and characteristics. For example; lineage, blood, issue, people, type, clan, tribe, etc. This jumble of terms itself indicates that that the concept has little agreed social or biological content. This is perhaps not surprising since the concept of race, as has already been mentioned, is a manufactured or socially constructed invention of a previous century. Its biological basis in evolutionary reality has little or no substance.
It is a fact that people group together on the basis of family, location, religion, economic production or shared interest. It is also fact a that a permanent geographical location over extremely long periods, can alter the physical appearance and skills required by human groups to adapt to that environment. Skin pigment, muscle development and motor skills may differ from group to group by permanent residence in one location or by one habitual economic activity or another. So too will the domination of one food source lead to slight differences in health or longevity, as well as skin texture and internal tissue development. In other words humans adapt and evolve. It is also true that procreation and nurture will pass on many of these adapted characteristics, both positive and negative within any closed group of families.
But these are all minor alterations or adaptations to the basic biological/physical construction of the entire human species. Human beings can interbreed successfully between the mostly widely differently adapted groups on the planet. Thus rendering the term ‘widely different’ in evolutionary and genetic terms a microscopically small one in actual fact. In biological terms there are more genetic differences within groups of humans on the same continents (such as differences in the blood groups O, A and B and height) than between those human groups on different continents. These small differences arise because the human body along with other life forms is capable of adaptation and development which is now classed as evolution. Very few, if any, of these globally diverse changes to the basic (out of Africa) structure of all humans is permanent or irreversible. Most, if not all, physical characteristics developed over millennia of adaptation to one environmental location will alter over further millennia of adaptation if transferred to a new one.
Skill sets, cultural preferences and knowledge will take only a fraction of that time to change and be adopted or adapted. So there is in actual fact biologically and socially only one human species and if by race, biological species continuity is being referenced, there is only one race – the human race. In evolutionary terms, biological continuity is a species issue, not one determined by ethnic, geographical, economical, cultural or ideological factors. Yet despite its despicable invention and spurious justifications, the concept of race – as just one form of deliberately exagerated difference – has served and still serves a very definate purpose.
The ‘creation’ of exagerated difference.
The creation of exaggerated difference certainly has one of its tap roots in the tribal histories of those groups who later founded the Abrahamic religions. This was a period when the competitive differences concerning how and where human beings lived and worked, (pastoralism, herding, agriculture and pillage, and the location in which these modes of production took place) were further and deliberately exaggerated by the construction of separate religions out of the one common concept of a male god. As pastoral and agricultural communities grew in size and complexity, competition for scarce resources ‘begat’ increased conflict for control of them. Utilising the concepts of God’s ‘chosen people’ and God’s ‘will’ to rationalise and justify, killing, territorial conquest and economic enslavement of other human beings, this became an early Abrahamic practice. Just to take one example of many;
“I am the Lord your God who has separated you from the peoples……I have set you apart from the peoples to be mine.” (Leviticus 20 v 24 and 26.) “They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth. And lick the dust of of your feet…..And foreigners will build up your walls…..For the nation and the kingdom which will not serve you will perish. And the nations will be utterly ruined.” (Isaiah 49 v 23; 60 v 12.)
The purpose of this ‘created’ difference is made crystal clear in this extract. The Old Testament (Torah), the foundational text of both Judaism and Christianity, is full of this sort of arrogant assumption of superior difference, intentional separation and belligerent, not to mention wealth appropriating and genocidal attitude, to other peoples. That is to say those peoples standing in the way of their prefered mode of production or not accepting their version of monotheism. The third, Abrahamic religion, Islam is not bereft of the same sectarian arrogance and attitude to resource conquest and killing in the name of God, within its ‘holy’ text, the Qur’an. By the use of these and other ancient ideological forms of patriarchy, belonging to the ‘right’ religion became the ‘fictionally invented’ positive marker for tribally associated human beings.
Not belonging to the ‘right’ religeous denomination consequently became the negative social marker for other human beings. And for 21st century remnants of this religious fundamentalism within all three religions – it still is. Organised religion was and is a mystical means of asserting and exagerating superiority and differences between human beings. However, this ancient tap root of economically motivated and deliberately exagerated difference was given a further intellectual twist during the development of the capitalist era. The deliberate, cobbled together construction of different ‘racial identities’ out of bits from anthropology, biology, economic participation, history and medical pathology, was given a supposedly scientific foundation for a definate purpose. The motivation for this invention became strong during the period between the 18th to 19th centuries with regard to dealing with ‘foreign’ native populations. Why this was so, is not really a mystery when we consider the investment and realisation needs of the dominant mode of production – capitalism!
Manufacturing the concept of race.
The rapid increase in economic productivity due to the industrial revolution phase of capitalism (via extraordinary surplus value extraction) provided the stimulous for two associated developments. First, it provided the necessity and motivation for seeking new sources of raw materials and markets. It was no use being able to mass produce commodities if insufficient raw materials were available to allow continuous production by workers and machinary or if the huge quantity of finished products could not be sold. At an early point in industrial development, the local, national and international markets established by commerce no longer sufficed and according to the capitalist perspective, the rest of the world was economically, socially and politically under-developed. The periods of colonialism and imperialism, were the logical capitalist and bourgeois answer to this problem of ensuring continuous production and continuous export for consumption. The return of capital investment and profit depended upon it.
Second, the same increase in industrial productivity and surplus value on the backs of working people massed in factories, also created the means for a greater production and accumulation of educated persons in the intellectual spheres of bourgeois life. A boom time for industry and commerce led to a boon time for the developing middle classes. New universities were formed, courses were extended, academic subjects added and mainly male students from the middle-classes were recruited. These students carried their middle class prejudices and bourgeois assumptions along with their books and clothes into their halls of residence when they went down to Oxford, Cambridge (or whichever university,) to begin their studies. Advances in the breadth and depth of bourgeois scientific understanding springing from and carried into industry, commerce, state bureaucracy and the armed forces, seemed on the surface to doubly enrich capitalist culture and on the surface it did. Nevertheless it’s primary purpose was to serve the economic interests of those supported by and engaged in the capitalist mode of production.
This early globalised ambition for profit brought the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie into closer contact and conflict with native inhabitants of the foreign lands they coveted for the raw materials and labour they could extract from them. However, the ruthless and relentless appropriation and exploitation of ‘other’ human beings needed more than just guns and steel, to maintain it. It needed both justification and rationalisation. The new sciences wielded by the newly educated middle class (ie bourgeois) intelligentia provided both. From the mid 1800’s on, Francis Galton in the UK, Charles Davenport in the USA and Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz in Europe, were outstanding advocates of ideas which ultimately led to concepts of racial identity. By the turn of the 20th century their ideas were widely accepted among the scientific community and had filtered down into popular culture. The era of a so-called scientific basis for exagerated difference had begun.
Race as a tool of capital – 1 (colonialism and genocide).
The ideological tool of race was partly, if not wholely constructed in the intellectual workshops of a late 19th century discipline which was called Eugenics. Among other things, the eugenics movement studied supposed congenital traits and inborn character whilst selectively borrowing concepts and data from anthropology and cultural studies. The political purpose of racial eugenics was to rank global human communities on a sliding scale from advanced to backward. The advanced were considered to be the white European colonists, the so-called backward were those who did not measure up to the accepted European norms in economic activity, cultural levels and religious preferences. Skulls were measured, noses profiled, heights were measured along with many other physical characteristics, such as skin colour and hair texture, as well as alleged social attributes and character traits. For a time such eugenic classification of ‘other’ human beings became a bourgeois obsession of almost global proportions. For example;
“The first ever international meeting of eugenicists, in Dresden in 1911, brought together scholars from eight different countries: Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. By the end of the 1930’s the eugenics network had expanded to include five times as many countries and dominions: France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, Mexico, Cuba, Columbia, Guatemala, Venezuela, San Salvador, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Panama, Peru, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Siam, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and India.” (Racial Science in Hitler’s New Europe, 1938 – 1945. Introduction.)
In addition to the dates (1911 and the 1930’s) the keen observer will quickly note that the countries developing these proto racist ideas were those countries which had been colonised and those which had sponsored colonialism and imperialism. For, as noted above, when the ‘advanced’ nation states of Europe became the organisational vehicles for the dispossesion of native peoples, during the colonialist and imperialist periods of capitalist expansion, their elites needed a set of rationalising theories to justify this expansion into what became 19th century Empire building. The so-called science of eugenics supported by scientists, physicians, lawyers and academics – all drawn from the educated middle-classes – provided an important part of these theories. Popularising racist ideology for the lower classes was also not neglected as the following extract from a 19th century poem by Rudyard Kippling illustrates;
“Take up the White Man’s burden
send forth the best you breed
Go bind your son’s to exile,
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild,
Your new caught, sullen peoples
Half devil and half child.”
It’s amazing how much can be compressed into such a short extract, isn’t it? Racial stereotyping and imperial justification condensed into a few populist stanzas. Yes it is all in there – except the systematic genocide perpetrated against these global indigenous communities. And of course also missing is the recognition that there was an urgent economic need to exagerate difference in order to rapidly exploit the human and natural resources of the world. Racism was (and is) merely an intellectual appendage to bourgeois ideology.
Race as a tool of capital – 2 (sterilisation/euthanasia/slave labour).
It is interesting and revealing to note that this crude ‘bioligist’ ideology of the eugenics movement developed two distinct strands, negative eugenics and positive eugenics. Positive eugenics were seen as promoting policies and procedures which enhanced the health, strength and general well being of the favoured people (now posited as a superior ‘race’) whilst negative eugenics was meant to activate policies and practices which eliminated those defective among the favoured population. Elimination was a fate, along with slavery, which also awaited any unfavoured people, now designated as a inferior (or more offensively as ‘mongrel’) races.
In other words, healthy, foods, exercise and good living conditions for the favoured people, forced sterilisation and euthanasia for the deformed or mentally handicapped, and, slavery, internment or extermination for the ‘inferior’ categories or the socially deviant. The manufactured concept of race became so widely accepted that the elite in many nations, attempted to assert, their own version of racial superiority with regard to other people’s. The search for some mythical (non existent) pure blood continuity became widespread. So in many places and particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, the ideas developed in the eugenics movement quickly morphed into ideas of racial improvement by means of so-called Racial Hygiene. For example;
“The German Society for Racial Hygiene (Deutsch Gesellschaft fur Ras senhygiene) was replicated in the years leading to and immediately after the First World War across East Central Europe. Thus, similar institutions were established in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Estonia, and Bulgaria, although the specific national context and social and medical practices in those countries did not differ significantly.” (Racial Science in Hitler’s New Europe, 1938 – 1945. Introduction.)
So the pseudo-scientific ideology of race was already common place throughout Central Europe, North and South America as well as Eastern Europe around the time of the First World War (1914 – 1918). After that particular war, the Nazi elite and their followers merely took the internationalised ideas of the eugenics and racial hygiene movement to their logical distorted extreme. The Nazi intelligentia and their supporters had a particular need to exagerate difference for additional political as well as economic reasons. They merely included those classed as Jews and Slavs in their list of so-called ‘mongrel races’ and applied this type of racial categorisation to the continent of Europe as well as to the colonies of Africa, America, Asia and Oceana. These newly classified unworthy and unwanted Europeans (which also included communists) were eventually forced to work as slave labour, to emigrate or were simply eliminated. And again from the standpoint of the capitalist class and their state supporters, there was a compelling economic reason for them to do so.
The European states in which capital dominated not only created a new dominant mode of production but as noted expanded the means of production into larger and larger and more efficient units. This fact together with the industrial use of machinery created not only a surplus of commodities needing foreign outlets, but soon a surplus working population, who where no longer regularly needed. These dispossessed indigenous people were a potential and actual problem for they were prone to disatisfaction, disruption and rebellion. One solution was to provide them with newly sequestered land, farms, offices and buildings obtained by invading a foreign territory. And of course this type of capitalist inspired conquest required a disciplined, healthy fighting force of loyal citizens to seize and secure the confiscated factories, shops, offices and farms.
Prior to the development of Germanic lebensraum, advanced capitalist countries, such as Holland, France and England, had already done the same resource expansion and annexation in Africa and elsewhere. Spain and Portugal had done so in the Americas etc. It was only a matter of time before others tried the same. These loyal citizens of the state, in the case of Nazi controlled Germany where classed as the ‘true Germans’ of mythical ancient Aryan stock. Hence positive eugenics was practiced for those classified as such. That left the question of what to do with those – who for whatever reason – opposed such development? The answer was concentration camps, work camps, assassinations and ghettos. What to do with the unreliable, unhealthy or handicapped elements of Germany? The answer lay in negative eugenics – assassination, sterilisation or forced euthanasia.
So to sum up so far: The accelerated invention, manufacture and distribution of ‘race’ coincided with the accelerated invention, manufacture and distribution of commodities in general and of sugar, tobacco, tea, cotton, spices and fruits in particular. It was these latter commodities that required vast areas of foreign lands to farm and large numbers of slaves or other forms of compulsory labour, to plant, grow, pick, pack and deliver as cargo to the commercial wing of the capitalist mode of production. Such ruthless subjugation, exploitation and oppression, in pursuit of a profitable return on capital required an extention and promotion of bourgeois ideology in the form of supposed European superiority, allied to Eugenics and Racism. As we have seen, the invention of race was an aspect of pro-capitalist ideology that developed in the universities and state departments of the countries most advanced capitalistically. The 20th century Fascist version of state-capitalism in Germany merely came up with the ultimate eugenicist/racist (final) solution to the problem of people who got in the way.
The legacy of exaggerated difference.
Religeous differences are still being kept alive in the 21st century and are particularly emphasised by the fundamentalists of all religious persuasions. Reaching or harking back to the fundamental tenets of religions, as Jewish, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists do, means reviving ancient texts and renewing the myths and exagerated/distorted differences contained within them. Backward ideas based upon tribal rivalries of 1,500 to 2,000 years ago have now been reintroduced as relevant to the 21st century. Killing and land appropriation in the name of God after going out of fashion for a lengthy period, returned in the 20th century and sadly continues in the 21st.
The actual textual justification and recommendation of conquest and killing in the name of God contained within the Bible and Qur’an, which the extreme fundamentalists, utilise may have been neglected by the majority of those who still subscribe to these religions, but they have not been openly rejected by them. It is perhaps revealing why this might be so. Could it be that to reject them openly would be to admit that God is not good or alternatively admit that these words were not a God’s at all, but based upon the original, tribally inspired words of some dangerous, devious, and ancient patriarchal men?
The legecy of ‘scientific’ Racism lies partly in the way in which non-white people have been and still are being treated. The cobbled together psuedo-science of racial classification, so permiated the advanced capitalist (ex colonialist) countries in the 20th century, that its residue still exists in the form of discrimination against certain peoples – usually, but not exclusively, of colour. This racism has never completely disappeared and in many cases has been institutionalised. In this regard people rarely bother to consider why racism is predominantly, if not exclusively, a white problem and prejudice. Yet it is obvious why. The domination of the capitalist mode of production, first occurred in Europe, where nations of people of light skin existed in large numbers. The continuing domination of elite white people in all aspects of European and North American life, is a direct result of the global domination of capital as a mode of production.
Since capitalism is based upon minority control of wealth and competition for scarce resources, then that minority – as a dominant economic class – will tend to be white. But also since under the class divisions of capitalism, there is competition for jobs, housing and education, then this relative scarcity for the vast majority of citizens has engendered a need to gain (or prevent loss of) economic and social advantage. In an attempt to gain an advantage, it has become useful for some people to focus on small human differences such as skin colour or nationality and to continue to exagerate them. This relative scarcity of jobs has been made even worse by the capitalist inspired recruitment of low wage workers, of different ethnicities and religions who have been encouraged to become official economic immigrants. Imigrants, themselves victims of dispossession and displacement, particularly those of colour, are being conveniently being used as scapegoats for the present economic and social ills. However, it is the capitalist mode of production which is at fault. It creates wealth for some and relative scarecity for the majority. All this evidence suggests that as long as the bourgeois system of capitalism exists bourgeois inspired practices and prejudices such as racism will continue to surface. Yet the new crisis situation in the 21st century, points to more than one possible outcome.
The first outcome is, as we now witness developing in Europe and North America in particular, the taking up of previously sanctioned exagerated differences to claim priority in jobs, housing and education, among other things and to deny them to others. In this way the concept of ‘race’ along with ‘nationality’ and ‘religion’ will remain something of a socio – economic tool of capital for it hinders and obscures the second possible response to scarcity for the non – capitalist majority of the worlds populations. Since the present system of production could be and would be capable of ensuring a high standard of existence for everyone if a minority were not disproportionally benefiting from it whilst controlling it, then the second possibility is as follows.
It would be for the oppressed majority to refuse to sanction these previously manufactured exagerated differences and unite to challenge and change the mode of production. As we have seen it is the needs of those controlling this mode of production which has created the modern concepts of race (and nationality) as well as the relative economic scarcity for those not in the top ten percent. However, the very real danger is that those who are not provided with such a practical understanding along with a coherent humanist alternative, will always be subject to bourgeois prejudices such as sectarianism, racism and nationalism.
Once again I suggest that only a revolutionary – humanist understanding can offer a non-sectarian theoretical and practical alternative to the contemporary bourgeois and petite – bourgeois ideological hegemony. This is because sectarianism (political or religious) is just another form of petite bourgeois exagerated difference manufactured for very definite purposes of discrimination, exploitation and control. A revolutionary humanist understanding also contains the intellectual tools to deconstruct the economic base of the continuing racist and nationalist narratives and thus to challenge the practice of blaming and dividing the victims. Once again I suggest a critical-mass of revolutionary – humanists urgently needs to be created.
Roy Ratcliffe (July 2016)