The current pandemic demolishes the myth that the private sector equals the economy

There has been a steady stream of commentary, and reams of critical analysis written, about the current Covid-19 pandemic and how it has adversely impacted the economy. The pandemic we are now witnessing exposes the inability of the capitalist economy – as it is currently structured – to respond decisively to this burgeoning health and social crisis. The economic breakdown we are experiencing at the moment was certainly precipitated by the pandemic – but not caused by it.

The capitalist economy was already in crisis before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The economic crisis has certainly metastasised into an all-out health and safety issue, affecting every aspect of society. It is not only viruses that mutate. The ongoing crisis reveals that we have been slaves to an enduring myth – that the unhindered operation of the ‘free market’ leads to the best possible outcomes.

Indeed, if this pandemic is to teach us anything – and every crisis is an opportunity to learn – we must readjust our economic and social priorities, because it is those priorities that have led us into our current predicament. If our existing political and economic structures cannot respond adequately in a time of serious crisis, then why continue working with them?

As Abi Wilkinson asks in Jacobin magazine:

If foundational economic principles must be abandoned when things get tough, does capitalism really serve our needs? If rapid, radical change is possible when circumstances demand it, what excuse is there for failing to act with similar urgency to prevent cataclysmic climate change?

Let us tackle one main myth that has sustained free-market fundamentalism since the early 1990s. This is the false claim that the private sector is dynamic, innovative, and quick to adjust to new realities, as opposed to a sclerotic, inert, and unimaginative state sector. If only ‘red tape’ were to be abolished, and government bodies stepped out of the way, the private enterprise sector would rapidly implement decisive innovations and deliver optimal outcomes for the public – so we were told.

The Atlantic consensus – shaped by the Thatcher-Reagan years – was implemented by the former Eastern bloc countries from the early 1990s. The economy – and by that term was meant private enterprise – became the supreme value against which everything else was measured. Why consider the environment, koalas, trees, fresh air – part of the economy?

In Australia, we have a deeply ingrained suspicion of advice from ‘foreigners’, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). Australians are fiercely independent, so we are led to believe, and never allow ‘foreigners’ to tell us what to do. The one ‘foreign’ import that we have implemented unhesitatingly is the doctrine of neoliberalism – the free market will deliver the best outcomes.

Silicon Valley, the ultimate paragon of private enterprise ingenuity and dynamism seeded by venture capital, built itself up with IT technologies developed by government institutions. The US Department of Defence, the National Institute of Health, sectors in the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation – began the research, development and innovation that produced the core technologies of the IT industry. The state sector provided the funding, experts and innovation that characterised the burgeoning tech giants.

The ground-breaking medical innovations that have revolutionised modern medicine were funded by the public sector. The algorithms that make the iPhone and smartphone possible today were researched and developed by state-funded institutions. The state has created and managed markets for the end-products of their research and development. Amazon, Google, Apple – today’s IT behemoths would not be in existence were it not for massive state subsidies, tax breaks and government-implemented labour laws that provide a flexible workforce.

Adam Tooze, writing in the Guardian newspaper, states that the free-market orthodoxy that has prevailed in economic circles needs to be questioned while restructuring our society after the pandemic. The 2008-09 financial breakdown is still fresh in our minds – at least it should be, when examining the way out of the current crisis. Neal Lawson elaborates that the practice of stripping away state structures, and associated legislation, has contributed to our current predicament:

The first priority of the crisis is of course public safety, especially for the groups most at risk from catching the virus. But there are public policy issues, and different futures that might arise as the crisis unfolds. Covid-19 doesn’t exist in a political vacuum.

Removing government legislation and oversight, ostensibly to allow the private sector free rein to innovate, has been the mantra of the free-market ideologues. But does that actually work? In Australia, we have just emerged from a catastrophic 2019-20 bushfire crisis. While that may seem like a purely environmental issue, there were definitive economic and political decisions that contributed to the scale and severity of the bushfire emergency – scaling back environmental protection laws.

Nick Kilvert, a fauna ecologist, wrote that throughout the 2000s, removing environmental protection legislation and enabling developers to override ecological concerns left the ecosystem vulnerable and exposed to serious impacts.

Serious losses of wildlife were occurring well before the 2019-20 bushfire season. Increased land clearing, weaker environmental safeguards, and regarding the economy as distinct from the environment, laid the necessary groundwork for the unusually severe and widespread bushfires in Australia.

It is interesting to note that for all their talk of ‘hating red tape‘, the partisans of free-market fundamentalism have been passing reams of government legislation – whether it be restricting trade unions, anti-terrorism measures, increased powers of surveillance, increased police powers, restrictions on the ability of indigenous groups to sue the government. While ‘red tape’ is presented as a powerful obstacle, it is only so when impeding the operation of big business.

Earlier, we mentioned Unesco. Why is that? The Great Barrier Reef, which falls within the protections offered by Unesco, is dying. Coral bleaching of the reef has been proceeding for many years.

Are we going to wait for the private sector to solve this problem? Should we ignore the recommendations of Unesco, because it is a ‘foreign organisation’? Or should we, as a community, recognise that the economy and the environment are inextricably linked, and refocus our priorities on putting people and community lives before corporate profits?

Racism and class inequalities are closely intertwined – Part Two

Is racism an unfortunate, incidental feature of American capitalism? Or is the class structure of American society racialised and discriminatory to its very core? This question goes to the heart of understanding the relationship between race and class. In the previous article, we examined the beginnings of the new American republic, and the dispute surrounding Project 1619.

The pushback against the Project 1619 takes many forms, but one line of criticism has importance over others. The charge levelled at the authors of Project 1619 that they are ignoring class disparities, and that class not race is the main division in American society, is simplistic and misguided. The detractors of Project 1619 may be questioning this or that historical conclusion – that is all well and good. However, accusing the Project 1619 of dismissing class differences – “it’s class not race” – detracts from the undeniable inclusion of white nationalism in the founding of American capitalism.

At the opposite end of this debate is the charge ‘class reductionist‘. This is another scare term which is meant to convey the impression that by emphasising class distinctions necessarily ignores non-class forms of oppression, such as race and gender. Centrist liberals have long accused socialism of dismissing racial divisions and reducing society to class divisions. The debate then becomes a vituperative ping-pong match of accusations and snarling insults. Accepting the racial disparities of American society does not blind us to the fundamental underlying class divisions that characterise the capitalist system.

Fighting class oppression, and challenging the power of the ultrawealthy billionaire elite, goes hand-in-hand with the struggle to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. Counterposing demands for economic justice to those of antiracist struggle indicates either a wilful misdirection or ignorance of the way the capitalist system operates. As the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King argued, the struggle for racial justice is inseparable from the fight for economic equality. He realised that he was fight a racialised capitalism that put people of colour at the bottom economic rung of the ladder.

Marx, and socialists after him, have been routinely accused of ignoring racial disparities and overemphasising class differentiation. But even a cursory glance of Marx’s writings on the subject exposes the falsity of that accusation. Has not racism always existed, since the dawn of human civilisation? No. The ancient empires of Greece and Rome had slaves, and a slave-owning economy. They regarded outside of their original states as ‘barbarians’. What they did not have was any concept of race, or racial classifications.

Indeed, contact between the Mediterranean empires and the black African civilisations also involved cultural and informational exchanges. There was no upsurge of African slave-trading when Greeks and Romans conquered territories in Africa. As time went on, black Africans began to be assimilated into the hierarchical structures of the Mediterranean empires.

To be sure, there were proto-racial ideas in precapitalist societies. Religious institutions and associated scholars preached the ‘curse of Ham‘ upon the darker-skinned peoples. Muslims who converted to Christianity – particularly the Moors in Spain – were regarded as possible ‘carriers’ of non-Christian doctrines in the blood. But while the Catholic church held primary sway over Europe, that is as far as those ideas got.

With the advent of capitalist relations of production, there arose a new political formation – the nation-state. That required doctrines to unite formerly feudal principalities into united entities. Here is where racial ideas began to crystallise – the transatlantic African slave trade brought anti-black racism to the forefront. A new division of labour began to emerge – racial divisions based on perceived skin colour.

The North American road to white supremacy was paved by Europeans, but took on a distinct character. While the first slave labourers in Europe were Eastern European – hence the name ‘Slavs’ – they were white. In North America, the African slaves – and after Emancipation, the black proletariat – formed a distinct racial category which occupied the lowest rung of society, even below that of the white European worker.

Slaves were, and nonwhite minorities today are, the internal enemy from the point of view of the white American ruling class. The new American republic did provide freedom and security – declaring a kind of ceasefire between white Europeans. The religious wars of Christian-dominated Europe had witnessed barbaric results. The American patriots provided sanctuary for Germans, Dutch, French – Protestant or Catholic.

The emergent American capitalist state opened up a new battlefront – that of race. The nonwhite populations were deliberately excluded from the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness guaranteed by the founding fathers. Black oppression – coupled with the exploitation of other nonwhite races – was and is an inbuilt characteristic of American capitalism. Coupled with the rise of pseudoscientific ideas about ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ racial stocks, and the United States became the nation that implemented white nationalism in its very foundations.

The United States was founded, and continues to be, a social experiment in racial capitalism. We have witnessed extreme examples of this in apartheid South Africa, and formerly white Rhodesia. The US, much like Australia, is founded on a transplanted capitalism which built into itself a racialised hierarchy – a white ethnocracy, if you will.

Imperialist powers, such as Britain and the United States, have issued declarations respecting the equality of nations and support for human rights. When these are issued, the nonwhite peoples of the world are left wondering if these declarations apply equally to them. When Dr Martin Luther King denounced racial and economic inequalities, and called for a multiethnic struggle against injustice, he was striking at the very heart of American racial capitalism.

Racism and class inequalities are closely intertwined – Part One

In the previous article, we examined how the FBI director does not understand the close interlinkage between class disparities and racism. There was an American leader who understood perfectly how class and racism work together to immiserate the working class – the late Reverend Dr Martin Luther King. We will get back to Dr King later on. For now, we have an opportunity to examine the relationship between racial discrimination and class-based inequalities.

Racial discrimination and racism, on the one hand, and economic inequities on the other, are usually discussed separately. That is all well and good – however, we must never forget that racial disparities and economic inequalities are inextricably interlinked. In other words, race and class are best understood not by counterposing them, but by understanding how they are reinforce and symbiotically support each other.

I am not raising this subject out of thin air.

The election of Trump in 2016, and his current reelection campaign, have prompted discussions about the role of race and class in his electoral triumph. While examine Trump’s platforming of white nationalism is interesting and relevant, we need to dig deeper. To fully appreciate the interaction of race and capitalism, we need to have a historical perspective. The New York Times began just such an exploration. In what way?

Project 1619

1619 was the year that slaves were first brought to the British colony of Virginia – what if that year, rather than 1776, marked the true beginning of the nascent American republic? Hence, the New York Times magazine collaborative Project 1619, dedicated to examining the impact of racism on American society. Racialised slavery, rather than being a peripheral occurrence, was fundamental in creating the financial wealth and political character of the new republic.

The American Revolution of 1776, presented to the world as the epitome of democratic liberty, did not result in equality for all people. While the American colonists and patriots were united in their opposition to the British monarchy, they were also motivated, at least in part, to preserve the operation of slavery. While the so-called founding fathers of the American constitutional republic privately opposed slavery, they did not publicly oppose it.

The American colonists fought for revolutionary reasons, uniting against the feudal British monarchy. They created, if not a slavocracy, then a mercantile racial capitalism, where everyone could pursue their individual liberty and happiness – as long as they were white. General George Washington, in 1775, officially decreed that black persons would not be permitted to join the Continental Army.

The British authorities cynically exploited the prospect of freeing and arming the slaves as a tactical manoeuvre against the rebellious patriots. While promising to free the slaves, Britain benefited from the Atlantic slave traffic. There had been numerous slave uprisings in the Caribbean colonies throughout the 1700s, and the spectre of organised slave revolt terrified the insurgent colonists in mainland America.

The contention that some of the American patriots were motivated in part to preserve slavery has provoked a firestorm of debate among various academics and historians. The claim that the preservation of slavery was a main motivation for the American revolutionary patriots is controversial, but nothing new, nor confined to the political Left. Adam Serwer, examining the dispute between Project 1619 and historians critical of the project, explains that this is not merely a disagreement about historical accuracy:

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles?

After the British forces were defeated, the American republic continued to allow slavery to operate as normal. In fact, American capitalism became wealthy and powerful because they tapped into slavery and slave-produced products, not in spite of it.

Slavery has been portrayed as a uniquely Southern institution, separate and distinct from the industrial North. However, the mercantile and industrial North profited handsomely from the slave-owning industries, and were linked with the transatlantic slave trade in myriad financial ways.

It may be comforting to us to think of American capitalism as unblemished by the stain of racialised slavery – but the mercantile North was just as culpable as the South in profiting from the proceeds of slaves. Though the African slave trade was officially outlawed in 1807, Northern capitalists continued to invest heavily in the Southern slavocracy, and Northern wealth was directly tied to products originating in the materials provided by the South.

Slavery was not only an economically dynamic core of the US economy for the first half of the 1800s, the slaveowners and their bankers received significant federal government subsidies and loans in support of their business. Through various financial instruments and derivatives, using slaves as collateral, the wealth of the North became inextricably linked with the sugar, cotton, tobacco and textiles of the South. Federal government intervention, rather than being a hindrance, was actually a crucial supporting factor in the operation of this private enterprise.

Project 1619 compels us to reexamine the consensus view that the United States is a beacon of freedom and equal opportunity for all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. The founding fathers certainly fought for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as long as the people rallying under that banner were white Europeans. Slavery was left unchallenged by the American revolution; that barbaric heart of American capitalism was only shattered decades later by the civil war.

Martin Luther King, among other black American scholars and activists, understood the connection between economic power and racial disparities. We will elaborate on this subject in the next article. Stay tuned.

The FBI director does not understand the interlinking of white supremacy and American capitalism

Early last month – February 2020 – the FBI director, Christopher Wray, elevated the threat of white nationalist right wing terrorism to the same national priority allocated to Islamist terrorist groups such as ISIS. Explaining the reasons for making this decision, Wray stated that the threat from neo-nazi terrorism was unrelenting and formidable.

Wray elaborated the measures the FBI is taking to combat white supremacist terrorism, and detailed the arrests that his organisation made in clamping down on organised white racist groups. Later in February, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, also elevated the threat of racially-motivated terrorism to a national priority.

While right wing terrorism has a long and persistent history in Australia – like most resilient pests – this is the first time that a senior Australian official has highlighted right wing extremism as a threat requiring an increased national focus alongside foreign extremism. Burgess went on to say that:

Intolerance based on race, gender and identity, and the extreme political views that intolerance inspires, is on the rise across the Western world in particular. Right-wing extremism has been in ASIO’s sights for some time, but obviously this threat came into sharp, terrible focus last year in New Zealand.

It is interesting that Burgess, and his counterpart in the United States, focused on the increase in ultrarightist terrorism across the Western nations. Let’s remember that point, because we will return to it later. In response to the Asio chief’s assessment, the current Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, demonstrated his appalling ignorance by mixing up Islamist terrorism with left wing extremism.

Others have responded to Dutton’s woeful comments – for instance, Bernard Keane has written a thoughtful post here. Islamist extremism has ideological correspondence with ultrarightist groups, thus falling into the purview of right wing extremism. Other commentators have the patience and inclination to explain Introduction to Sociology 101 to the Antipodean Himmler-minister – let us move on to more important things.

White nationalism is transnational violence writ large

In approaching the question of white nationalist terrorism, perhaps the FBI director should examine the ideology that fuels such violence on a national and transnational scale. It is no secret that the US President – the FBI director’s ultimate boss – has provided a platform to propagate white nationalist talking points. Trump has consistently embraced and promoted ideas of white victimhood, portrayed immigration as a ‘national security’ threat, and encourages vigilante violence against his political opponents.

White nationalist doctrines, while not confined to the United States, have reached their ultimate development and application in that nation. Steve Bannon, former advisor to the Trump campaign, may have left US politics, but he has not ceased being a political operator. A US citizen who despises immigrants, he has been enthusiastically embracing and promoting anti-immigrant and racist parties in Europe. White nationalism has a transnational appeal.

Perhaps the FBI director should consider what actions he will take to stop American white supremacists, such as Bannon, from building an international coalition of the xenophobic. Wherever white nationalist views gain a foothold, there is a causative and corresponding increase in hate crimes and racist attacks. The FBI’s own experts have documented a dramatic increase in hate crimes in 2019, continuing an upward trend in racist attacks over the previous four years.

W E B Du Bois understood how capitalism and racism are interlinked

Perhaps the FBI director should consult the writings of African American sociologist, and the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard University, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963). An activist and scholar, William E B Du Bois was one of the earliest sociologists to discuss the interlinking of white supremacy with the development of American capitalism. He wrote about the intertwining of race and class in the United States.

Race and class can and should be discussed separately. It is easy and proper to focus on issues of racism. However, we also need to highlight how class and racism interact to perpetuate a system of socioeconomic and racial oppression. Du Bois noted that the problem of the colour line – the racial divisions of the US – was the main axis of contention throughout the 20th century.

Du Bois located the racial divide in the country within its economic system of capitalism. Mutually reinforcing, white nationalism and capitalism have coexisted and undergirded each other for the entire duration of the United States. Speaking out against racial segregation and discrimination was always the main priority for Du Bois. His famous remark that the black person has a ‘second sight’ captured the experience of racism in the US.

Second sight for Du Bois meant the ability of black Americans to see themselves in the way that white America regarded them. The African American is not blinded by the privilege and relative wealth of ‘whiteness’. The outcast within the racial-capitalist system is compelled to perceive themselves as they are seen by white nationalism. A racially-exclusive capitalist structure operates to immiserate the African American not only as a labourer, but also as an African American.

The 2017 white nationalist rally at Charlottesville – more accurately described as a race riot – was but a symptom of a nation founded as a project in white-minority rule. There have always been ethnic minorities in the United States, notwithstanding the specific foundational ethnic and cultural genocide of the indigenous nations. The organising principle of the newly emergent United States was white supremacy, built up on a capitalistic structure. Du Bois articulated the capitalist and colonialist underpinnings of white nationalism.

The working class has always been multiracial. Ethnic minorities are not recent additions to the ranks of workers, but have been working away in the industries and factories of American capitalism for decades. Of course there are white working class people – that is not in dispute.

The ultrarightist parties – taking their cue from the mainstream conservatives – deploy the concept ‘white working class‘ as an exclusionary political weapon, to exclude racial minorities and pivot white workers towards a collective notion of white racial resentment. Trump and his American co-thinkers encourage the same resentments in the US.

When the late Enoch Powell, and his current Tory counterparts such as Boris Johnson, use the term ‘white working class’, they are setting up an anti-immigrant platform with which the working class can be divided. White nationalism thrives in a climate of attacks on the poor, the deindustrialisation and immiseration of communities, and the promotion of xenophobia by mainstream politicians.