Race, Class and Power: an outline for study

Published in RACE 14/4, July 1973, encorporating  ‘Anatomy of racism:the British variant’ in Race Today, July 1972.



Racism, in the sense of an explicit and systematic ideology of racial superiority, exists today only in the Union of South Africa. The phenomenon that obtains in Britain and the United States is not so much a coherent philosophy of racial superiority as a deep-rooted way of life-a cultural trait which, though fostered by an exploitative economic system and maintained by a white power structure, still falls short of being an outright ideology of racism. And yet to call it racialism-which, according to Rex, is the ‘unequal treatment of various racial groups*’ and according to Banton refers not so much to ‘the doctrine [of racial superiority] as to the practice of it’-is to misjudge both the depth and extent of such practice and the qualitatively different inequality of treatment meted out to black groups in comparison to others. Nowhere are these aspects so clearly manifested as in Britain’s non-intervention in Rhodesia and America’s ‘intervention’ in Vietnam.** Underlying both these ‘adventures’ is the unspoken doctrine of racism. Closer home, however, the unequal treatment meted out to black people, however institutionalised, is still to attain the coherence of doctrine and the deliberateness of ideology- though here again the United States is further along the road to the South African model than Great Britain. They are both in any event past the stage of racialism and on the way to racism: in a state of quasi-racism.
*When I was asked by the Editor of this issue of Race to enlarge upon my Anatomy of Racism (a paper delivered at an Institute of Race Relations seminar in February 1972) I had intended to use the opportunity to take a more holistic view of the subject I found, however, that I was not equipped as yet to complete the task to my satisfaction. But rather than pass up the opportunity altogether, I have endeavoured to provide a backdrop to the Anatomy piece-in the hope that even if the sum of the parts fails to add up to a whole, the urgency to analyse the growing racism in Western societies would absolve me of the charge of indifference though not of inadequate study.
** American ‘racialism-to use Rex’s terminology-makes little distinction between ‘niggers’ and ‘gooks’.

The distinctions here drawn between the different systems of racial oppression may seem precious in terms of the overall misery and suffering inflicted on black people, but they are nevertheless essential to an under- standing of the particular strengths and weaknesses of particular systems and the differential strategies and tactics required to overthrow them.

In their origins, however, there is very little to distinguish racism, racialism, or even racial prejudice as we know them today. They all have their roots in the colonial phase of capitalist expansion when the opportunity to amass vast profit from the enslavement and proletarianisation of whole continents of people required a commensurate philosophy of justification. The objective excuse was already there: ‘they’ were different -in colour, in looks, in custom and habit, in religion . .. It was necessary only to render them inferior. Roman Catholicism with its obsession of saving the heathen for God had seen them as a benighted people only requiring conversion to the true faith before they could be accepted as equals. But Protestantism, which after all was the religion of the capitalist era*, regarded them as beyond redemption-a species apart, semihomines – and provided the religious rationale for their denigration. The appearance matched the reality; the rationalisation was complete. Robbery and pillage were justified, enslavement and exploitation explained: the blacks were no more than a commodity to be used and abused at will. (By contrast, the white working class, despite their exploitation, were still regarded as human beings. Hence not they but their labour constituted a commodity.)

But even though racialism was engendered by the economics of early capitalist exploitation, the forms it assumed in South Africa and the West were defined by the social philosophy that obtained in these countries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Britain and the United States, the era of free enterprise had ushered in the philosophy of liberalism. In its concept of political democracy it contradicted the enslavement of peoples, in its ideals of liberty and equality it conflicted with the ideas of racialism. But in its function as the ideology of the rising entrepreneurial class, liberalism was not averse to the profit that accrued from the exploitation of colonised peoples. They had to be governed for their own good. Indeed they too were God’s children, the liberal argument ran, but some of us have to play god; no doubt they were our equals, but some of us are more equal than others; of course they must have freedom, but it is up to us to say when. Thus the contradiction between liberalism and racialism was held in check, contained but not resolved. (And if in the United States the contradiction was more apparent than in Britain, it was because a written constitution and a bill of rights had committed liberalism to paper, so to speak, and because its colony lay within its own boundaries and showed up more immediately the sham of liberal democracy.)

In South Africa however, the tenets of liberalism reached no further than the English-speaking settlers who finally lost out to the Afrikaners. The Afrikaners for their part were isolated from liberal thought in Europe and came to be increasingly committed to the Calvinist belief in the distinction between the saved and the damned, the Christian and the heathen, the whites and the blacks. The races were separate and unequal; the whites were deemed superior by divine right. The blacks were there to serve them. At first they were slaves and servants, but with the discovery of gold and diamonds in the middle of the nineteenth century, which set South African industrialisation afoot, a more formalistic doctrine of racial superiority and separation became necessary. Within the white society there would be a pretence at democracy, but as between the whites and the non-whites a system of unabashed tyranny would prevail. When apartheid finally emerged in the twentieth century as a full-fledged ideology of racial superiority (not just a political doctrine of separate development), it was clear that the nuances of contradiction which obtained in the British and American situation were absent in South Africa. There was in fact only one contradiction-the basic one-between a white racist minority and the oppressed masses of blacks*. Any talk of working-class alliances across colour lines and a class strategy to overthrow the system is so much pie in the sky. It assumes that the social relations of capitalist (or semi-capitalist) production have produced or could produce common denominators of exploitation among white workers and black and a common consciousness of class-without regard to the qualitatively different oppression suffered by blacks en masse, whatever their sectional relations to the means of production.** It implies that the time for revolution is not yet, that the objective conditions are not there. The objective conditions, as Gramsci once said in a different context, have been there for fifty years. It is the white working class that is not there-and never could be, in apartheid South Africa-and the committed white intellectuals are not there: they are in prison or in exile. There is only one way out of the impasse, only one way of resolving the contradiction: a relentless race war, however conducted. For in South Africa the race war is the class war (or the closest it will ever get to it.)
*The fine distinctions drawn between the African, the Indian and the Coloured are totally irrelevant in this context.
**In fact what the South African experience indicates is that a total racist ideology could produce the same sort of social relations in colour and not class terms as the capitalist mode of production. For the intents and purposes of overthrowing an exploitative system, Marxist theory must adjust itself to the fact that there is in South Africa only one reified class of proles, and they are all black. To put it differently, the contradiction between black and white is an antagonistic contradiction, and the class contradictions among blacks and whites are non-antagonistic ones.

The situation in the West is different. The major contradiction in both Britain and America is still the classic capitalist one between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, although a form of quasi-racism has served to undermine working class consciousness and confuse class divisions. The creation of a black sub-proletariat in America and the importation of black labour into Britain (resulting in the displacement of white workers at unskilled levels of employment) compounded by automation and the integrationist class politics of trade unionism, has created political and economic advantages for the bourgeoisie. But made within the ethos of a liberal philosophy, these advantages serve to highlight the contradiction between the socio-cultural superstructure and the economic base, between liberal ideology and monopoly capitalism.

The contradiction in liberalism itself is in its history. For as Wright Mills has so cogently argued, ‘liberalism in the nineteenth-century epoch of its triumph never really took into account the changing economic foundations of the political ideals and forms it espoused.’ Founded on the economics of free enterprise, liberalism had reconciled order with liberty ‘by a balance of harmoniously competing groups.’ The unit of government, it held, was the small community, the characteristic of power was its openness and of institutional orders (political, economic, military) their autonomy, and the individual was the seat of rationality. But even as the era of competition ceded to modern capitalism, liberalism became emptied of substance. Giant corporations succeeded small-scale enterprises, the seat of rationality passed from the individual in to the institution, institutional orders became fused with military-industrial complexes and power passed, covertly, into the hands of corporations. The circle was complete.

The content of liberalism had disintegrated, but its forms and rhetoric remained to give cover to the depredations of modern capitalism. On the surface nothing seemed to have changed-except for the better. No-one went hungry, everyone received an education, unemployment was no hazard: there was always ‘welfare’ and, of course, there was ‘social mobility-upwards. Above all, it was a free country, a democracy, with parties and parliaments and representatives and things–and every so often you rotated the crop: the Republicans and the Democrats, the Tories and the ‘Socialists’ Pompidou and Pompidee; and if they all looked alike, and did alike, that was neither here nor there; you still had the vote, yours was the choice, power belonged to . . . . Capitalism had come to wear a liberal face.

But even as capitalism grew greedier and greedier, pillaging whole peoples (if only behind their backs), robbing its own masses, concentrating the wealth of the world in fewer and fewer hands and centralising power over the world in those self-same hands, its liberal mask began to fall away to reveal the grimness beneath. Stagnation and poverty, urban decay and crisis: unemployment, ‘unhousing’ and ‘mis-education’, political and class repression, quasi-racist exploitation and imperialist wars-they all gave the lie to capitalism’s pretensions to liberal values.

In the event, the cultural revolt of the young signified this disjunction between appearance and reality. In socio-cultural terms, they sought no more than to return to the pristine ideals of liberalism, they wished to put back content into liberal rhetoric. Specifically, they rejected the consumerist philosophy of getting and spending: they wished to be and to become, they wanted real freedom for themselves-personal freedom- they wanted the freedom of love, all sorts of love. And in that aspect of their revolt, they were no more threatening to the system than any other evangelical group. The system moved around a bit, prevaricated, made adjustments and finally bought up ‘counter-culture’ like any other business enterprise and turned it to profit.

But the political ‘wing’ of the cultural revolt was not so easily bought off. For in the contradiction between the rhetoric and the reality, they had seen the total incapacity of monopoly capitalism to afford them or anyone else (other than the bourgeoisie) even a modicum of liberty or equality. And they wanted not just personal freedom, but freedom for all, social freedom-which meant that the economic and political system had to be changed. It meant alliances with the blacks and the workers and across national boundaries. But even as they began to organise and become (partially) effective, the status quo entered on an era of violent repression. Today that repression manifests itself most clearly in the area of ‘race relations’. It is there that modern capitalism remains most significantly unmasked. It is there, therefore, that capitalism today is developing a socio-cultural ideology to match its economic needs. It is there that one witnesses the signs of emerging fascism.*

*The differences in interpretation between Jackson and Angela Davis on the incidence of fascism travelled from the particular to the general, Angela Davis from the general to the particular. A synthesis of thought would doubtless have occurred if Jackson had been allowed to live. 

The black revolt, in other words, comprehends the social, cultural economic and political dimensions all at once. For a time it appeared as though they too would be detoured into a cul-de-sac nationalism. But institutional racism, the emergence of a metropolitan black bourgeoisie and the political ineffectiveness of black nationalism for its own sake have begun to engender a class consciousness among black workers in Britain and France even more than in the United States. At the same time, the white working class, subjected to increasing economic repression and unavailing of militant trade union action, has begun to emerge from a period of lapsed class-consciousness. In Europe, the presence of an underclass of guest-workers had for a time threatened to divide the working-class, but today the portents are for greater unity.

*This section was previously published in Race Today (July, 1972), under the title of The Anatomy of Racism.

‘You discriminate that you may exploit* or, which is the same thing, you exploit by discriminating.’ Nikolinakos.
*I use the term exploitation as meaning taking undue economic advantage by treating members of minority groups as second-class production factors. In Marxist terms this means that the limits of surplus value . . . are pitched higher through discrimination, in the case of foreign workers than in that of national workers’. M. Nikolinakos Germany: the economics of discrimination’, Race Today (November 1971)

It follows that the most effective form of exploitation is also the most effective form of discrimination. But the extent to which discrimination itself is effective is largely governed by the socio-political ethos within which it operates. A society that professes principles of liberal democracy cannot entertain discrimination beyond a certain point, without incurring social and political dislocation in the process (let alone a loss of faith) Discrimination in such a society becomes unprofitable at the point where social cost begins to outweigh economic gain-which is also the point at which institutional racism, having reached its apogee, begins to challenge the liberal framework that houses it. In the short-term, the challenge is met with piecemeal adjustments to the institutional framework and its operations. But in the long-run the alternatives are either a total radicalisation of liberal institutions-which, in effect, is revolution-or their gradual de-liberalisation-which, in effect, is repression. (That technology may, by doing away with the work-force altogether, outmode the economic advantages of racist exploitation and thereby delay either process is an argument that must be taken up elsewhere.)

To put it differently, once discrimination, having created second-class production factors for the purpose of maximising surplus value, has exhausted the possibilities of exploitation within the existing liberal structure, the conflict between them falls away to reveal the basic contradiction between liberalism and monopoly capital. In effect, the ideology of racism serves to conceal the interests of monopoly capitalism until racism, in the very process of infecting the body politic, is revealed as a symptom of a far deeper malaise: the inability of monopoly capitalism to be accommodated within the liberal ethos. (The American dilemma arises precisely out of this conflict and not from the metaphysics of tension—the gap between precept and practice-as Myrdal will have us believe.) In the event, something has to give – and what gives is institutional liberalism itself. And even as monopoly capital becomes more intrusive we enter upon an era of repressive tolerance when governments are governed by corporations and the politics of fascism get under way. (It is no coincidence that the first signs of fascist repression should be evidenced in the most exploited/discriminated sector of the community.)

No such dilemma, however, presents itself to a society in which economic exploitation is sanctioned by a socio-political philosophy and granted by divine ordinance. One has only to reify the black man-in accordance with God’s word as handed down, say, to the Dutch Reformed Church-to be able to render him as neutral a production factor as land or capital, and as ‘ownable’. If, in addition, he can be cordoned off from the rest of society and stored somewhere for future need-stockpiled, as it were-he could be used to fill in the labour gap in boom conditions and be disposed of in times of recession-which Bingemer terms the ‘buffer-function.” Such a system would not only enable the white man to have total ownership over the means of production but allow him the use of a permanent second-class production factor which also serves the buffer function. And if, further, the white man constitutes the minority . . .

Apartheid fulfils all these requirements precisely because there is in it no inherent contradiction between the ideology of exploitation and the ideology of discrimination*. It is, frighteningly, a holist philosophy, a total credo-and it allows the South African economy to pitch its surplus value far higher than any other economy in the world.**
* It is needless here to examine how ‘international liberalism’ may undermine apartheid or, equally, how the interests of international capitalism serve to buttress it.

**Here again, I have ignored the potential thrown up by technology for achieving the same economic ends as apartheid.

Germany, on the other hand, is able to entertain within its liberal democratic ethos an entirely different, yet successful, form of discrimination through the device of contract labour. The ‘Gastarbeiter’ has no rights of citizenship, is only temporarily in the country-at the behest of the Germany economy-and he would be sent back ‘home’ to the labour reserves of Southern Europe when the economy has done with him. He is no danger to the establishment: the native trade unions feel themselves threatened by his presence and would side, rather, with the employers than with him. He is in effect the ‘white nigger’ of Germany and accorded his rightful place as a second-class production factor. He is also disposable -contractually-and performs, therefore, the buffer-function described above.

Britain, hitherto, has combined the worst features of both systems. Like Germany, she was able to draw on a reserve pool of labour from outside her national boundaries; but, unlike Germany, she could not, in deference to the Commonwealth concept, return the workers home when she had done with them. Like South Africa, Britain was familiar with the economic advantages derived from racial discrimination, but, unlike South Africa, her liberal democratic ethos kept her from stock-piling the black work force on reservations. Neither send them back nor store them up-nor, as yet, like America, slum them in: a labour reserve which served as a second-class production factor but not the equally vital buffer function, a system of exploitation which lost on the swings what it gained on the roundabouts. The need to rationalise was clear. And to this task successive British governments, differentiated only by style, have addressed themselves for the past ten years.

But, basically, the history of post-war race relations in Britain is the history of second-class production factors. At first impoverished by war and forced to resort to labour-intensive modes of production, Britain turned to her colonies to provide the manpower she required. Labour was cheap and plentiful there-that she had already seen to, and she knew how to handle them so as to maximise their yield. If they then had to be afforded citizenship, it was a small price to pay. She was, after all, the mother country and it behoved her to do no less. (Ideas alas, often outlive the histories that give rise to them to create their own problems.)

By the end of the fifties, however, the haze of empire had receded, the boom was well-nigh over and the economy was turning away from labour-intensive production-and Notting Hill had happened. The system of laissez-faire discrimination, which had hitherto helped to regulate the inflow of cheap labour, was no longer adequate. And the social problems created by an increasingly racialist society were laid at the door of ‘the alien wedge-(to mix a metaphor). If ‘they’ could not be sent back, ‘they’ must at least be kept out: the State would take a hand. Hence the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 which, in addition to stemming ‘the immigrant tide’, also inaugurated the era of institutional racism. Racial exploitation may continue in the hands of free market forces, but the State had given its imprimatur.

The middle sixties saw Britain in deeper economic trouble. Recession had set in and a reserve pool of black labour was building up for which the country could find no use. Further cuts in the labour intake were an obvious first step. And if it was a Labour government that had to take it it would refute the allegation of racism by simultaneously setting up a National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants.

Or so it would have appeared. But in point of fact Labour was addressing itself to the second problem of what to do with the pool of reserve labour already in the country. If they could not be sent back, they could at least be de-fused. What better body than Lady Reading’s Committee* to undertake the task of absorbing ‘immigrant discontent’? All that Labour had to do was to blow it up a bit larger, give it money and a fancy name and-to lend it an aura of piety-head it with the first prelate of the land. For the purpose of credibility, a few ‘blacks’ would be brought in, for the purpose of efficiency a proliferation of branches and, for earnestness, a clutch of learned seminars.
*The Commonwealth Immigrants Advisory Council of which Lady Reading was chairman.

The White Paper of August 1965 was not, as race relations ‘experts’ would have us believe, a dichotomous instrument: barring ‘coloured’ immigration on the one hand and improving race relations on the other. Nor was it a synthesis of the two: barring further immigration in order to improve race relations. It was of a piece, all right. But what it tried to reconcile was the economics of discrimination with the sociology of dislocation, while hanging on to the ethos of liberal democracy.

The Race Relations Act of 1965 was a variation of the same exercise-by default, it gave government sanction to discrimination in all areas of social activity save ‘places of public resort’, and not even all of them. And  the Race Relations Board which was set up to operate the Act was no less a buffering institution than the National Committee for Common – wealth Immigrants*. That both the scope of the Act and the powers of the Board were extended in 1968 in no way alters the basic argument. It points, instead, to the rising social cost of discrimination in relation to the surplus value derived from second-class production factors that cannot be disposed of in times of recession. In other words, the inability of the ‘immigrant’ reserves to perform the buffer function (whether as in Germany or as in South Africa) was driving Britain rapidly towards the American solution of institutional racism. Her colonial history had already prepared her for it both psychologically and economically-why white working-class consciousness should be thought to have escaped this incubus has always surprised black people–and all that was needed was a touch of sophistication.

The next piece of ‘heavy’ legislation one can pass quickly over. For the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 in no way altered the momentum of institutional racism. It showed instead the government’s* increasing terror of being landed with a labour force it could not get rid of. And neither the specious arguments of the race relations ‘pundits**’ who tried to show that the ‘Kenyan Asians’ were a different kettle of fish (so to speak) and who, by implication, would not threaten the status quo, nor the wailings of the humanitarian left could assuage the government’s fears.
*It must by now be clear that whether the government was Labour or Conservative Tories col de the point. Labour had to have more liberal sops to throw out, the Tories could be ‘honest.’
**E.g., Professor Rex: “virtue of being able to speak Asian languages as well as English they play a valuable mediating role between the host community and other migrants”. “ (Guardian 28 February 1968).

It was becoming increasingly clear, on the contrary, that the existing provisions for repatriation and deportation, the needling acts of harassment, known to the trade as Instructions to Immigration Officers and the larger harassment by the police were totally inadequate – although the Judiciary had begun to play its part in institutionalising racism. But even as the government girded itself for the next piece of legislative racism, it went out.

Meanwhile, the ‘second generation’ had begun to rear its head. The ‘first generation’ could have been rationalised away on all sorts of grounds: cultural barriers, linguistic difficulties, incompatible qualifications, lack of skills, rural background and, by the cognoscenti, the stranger hypothesis. And even the ‘second generation’ for a while could be fobbed off with ‘unrealistic aspirations’. But in the end Britain had to face up to the presence of an indigenous labour force which could only be exploited as a second-class production factor on the frank basis of colour. Institutional racism, in other words, comes to maturity with the ‘second generation. 

And so to the Act of 1971. Again what was significant here was not the much-arraigned grandfather clause or the reporting-to-the-police procedure (subsequently altered) or even the repatriation clauses. Those were the concerns of liberalism in extremis – for, after all, they had been intimated in the very first Act of 1962. What was important, though, was that the Act belatedly sent Britain the way of Germany even as she improved on the ways of America. The contract labour system inaugurated by the Act now made certain that the reserves of labour in the black Commonwealth countries would serve the buffer function Britain had for so long required. Entry into Europe in opening up the reserves of southern European countries would be an alternative attraction or even an added bonus. Additionally, the Act, along with its fellow the Industrial Relations Act, would make provision for scab labour and further divide the working class.

Meanwhile, the Mangrove trial and the trials of Prescott and Purdie. Not only had institutional racism come unashamedly home to the Judiciary (black people had known it had resided there all along), but the Courts were prepared more brazenly to back the status quo as against the (white) working class.

And it is at this point when the Judiciary is seen to have abnegated its function of holding the scales of justice and succumbed to State power that the basic conflict between the liberal ideology and the interests of monopoly capitalism stand revealed. Nor can institutional racism conceal the conflict much longer – unless it can move rapidly from institutionalised ghetto to black reservation.