Low-road Capitalism

When Americans declare that “we live in a capitalist society” – as a real estate mogul told The Miami Herald last year when explaining his feelings about small-business owners being evicted from their Little Haiti storefronts – what they’re often defending is our nation’s peculiarly brutal economy. “Low-road capitalism,” the University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Joel Rogers has called it. In a capitalist society that goes low, wages are depressed as businesses compete over the price, not the quality, of goods; so-called unskilled workers are typically incentivized through punishments, not promotions; inequality reigns and poverty spreads

Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to the gnatty fields of Georgia and Alabama, to the cotton houses and slave auction blocks, as the birthplace of America’s low-road approach to capitalism.

What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.

During slavery, “Americans built a culture of speculation unique in its abandon,” writes the historian Joshua Rothman in his 2012 book, “Flush Times and Fever Dreams.” That culture would drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it has been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism – a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but awarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider – one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.

Source: American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation. – The New York Times

Low-road capitalism. That’s a handy term.

The Prosperity Gospel and meritocracy myths: morally convenient supremacy in 1492 and today.

A third important development was ideological or even theological: amassing wealth and dominating other people came to be positively valued as the key means of winning esteem on earth and salvation in the hereafter. As Columbus put it, “Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.”

A fourth factor affecting Europe’s readiness to embrace a “new” continent was the particular nature of European Christianity. Europeans believed in a transportable, proselytizing religion that rationalized conquest. (Followers of Islam share this characteristic.) Typically, after “discovering” an island and encountering a tribe of American Indians new to them, the Spaniards would read aloud (in Spanish) what came to be called “the Requirement.” Here is one version:

> I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves. . . . The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.

Having thus satisfied their consciences by offering the Native Americans a chance to convert to Christianity, the Spaniards then felt free to do whatever they wanted with the people they had just “discovered.”

Source: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (p. 36-37). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

Why don’t textbooks mention arms as a facilitator of exploration and domination? Why do they omit most of the foregoing factors? If crude factors such as military power or religiously sanctioned greed are perceived as reflecting badly on us, who exactly is “us”? Who are the textbooks written for (and by)? Plainly, descendants of the Europeans.

High school students don’t usually think about the rise of Europe to world domination. It is rarely presented as a question. It seems natural, a given, not something that needs to be explained. Deep down, our culture encourages us to imagine that we are richer and more powerful because we’re smarter. (It’s interesting to speculate as to who, exactly, is this “we.”) Of course, there are no studies showing Americans to be more intelligent than, say, Iraqis. Quite the contrary: Jared Diamond begins his recent bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel by introducing a friend of his, a New Guinea tribesman, who Diamond thinks is at least as smart as Diamond, even though his culture must be considered “primitive.” Still, since textbooks don’t identify or encourage us to think about the real causes, “we’re smarter” festers as a possibility. Also left festering is the notion that “it’s natural” for one group to dominate another. While history brims with examples of national domination, it also is full of counterexamples. The way American history textbooks treat Columbus reinforces the tendency not to think about the process of domination. The traditional picture of Columbus landing on the American shore shows him dominating immediately, and this is based on fact: Columbus claimed everything he saw right off the boat. When textbooks celebrate this process, they imply that taking the land and dominating the natives were inevitable, if not natural. This is unfortunate, because Columbus’s voyages constitute a splendid teachable moment. As official missions of a nation-state, they exemplify the new Europe. Merchants and rulers collaborated to finance and authorize them. The second expedition was heavily armed. Columbus carefully documented the voyages, including directions, currents, shoals, and descriptions of the residents as ripe for subjugation. Thanks to the printing press, detailed news of Haiti and later conquests spread swiftly. Columbus had personal experience of the Atlantic islands recently taken over by Portugal and Spain, as well as with the slave trade in West Africa. Most important, his purpose from the beginning was not mere exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, for which he used religion as a rationale. If textbooks included these facts, they might induce students to think intelligently about why the West dominates the world today.

Source: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (pp. 37-38). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

Now, as a historian of the Nazi era, I am drawn to an even starker contrast, this one between how post-World War II Germany and the post-Civil War United States acknowledge their roles in institutions built upon human suffering. Put simply, in coming to terms with its past, Germany eventually elected to memorialize its victims, while the United States, particularly the South, chose to commemorate not the victims but the institution itself and the society that created it. The one society focuses on the victims, the other the defeated. The United States could learn from Germany’s example.

Source: U.S. put its Silent Sams on pedestals. Germany honored not the defeated but the victims. – The Washington Post

But by obscuring the meaning of the war, the choice of Civil War played a role in perpetuating a division over the war’s meaning and thereby contributed to today’s debates over Confederate symbols.

Before the 1950s, almost no southerners used War of Northern Aggression. It emerged out of white southern resentment of federal intervention in race relations during the civil rights era, and its use grew after that, encouraged by the neo-Confederate movement. As the Southern Focus Poll showed, however, even then relatively few southerners adopted it.

The Daughters’ crusade contributed to its increasing use in the twentieth century, but as shown in the South Atlantic survey, War between the States really took hold between 1940 and 1965 when whites mobilized to fight all challenges to white racial control. As with the use of the War of Northern Aggression and the flying of the Confederate flag, white southerners’ contemporary embrace of Confederate memory owes as much to the confrontations of the 1960s as to that of the 1860s

The choice reflected and facilitated reunion and reconciliation, but at the cost of obscuring the causes and consequences of the war. Civil War also made it all too easy for both sides to continue to believe their actions has been noble and justified, their behavior honorable. Neither side wrestled, as Lincoln’s second inaugural address had urged Americans to do, with their own and the nation’s failings. Reconciliation proved a positive development for the country but came at that high price. It rested on a sense of mutual innocence and contributed to the nation’s failure to understand the meaning and implications of the war.

The choice of the name Civil War, therefore, certainly reflected and may have contributed to the failure to construct a memory of the Civil War that encouraged Americans to address the centrality of slavery to the war and in American history and to ask whether the country had lived up to the war’s achievement of emancipation by promoting racial equality.

Today’s battles over the Confederate flag and monuments emerge, in part, out of that failure. These disputes over Confederate symbols owe more to today’s divisions over the role and treatment of African Americans than they do to sectional divisions of the past or the memory of the Civil War. That the nation never agreed on or came to terms with what the war meant, facilitated by a sanitized memory of the war symbolized by the choice of the generic name Civil War, makes it easy for both sides to claim that history vindicates their position.

Source: What the Name “Civil War” Tells Us-and Why It Matters – The Journal of the Civil War Era

Since ideas and ideologies played an especially important role in the Civil War era, American history textbooks give a singularly inchoate view of that struggle. Just as textbooks treat slavery without racism, they treat abolitionism without much idealism. Consider the most radical white abolitionist of them all, John Brown.

The treatment of Brown, like the treatment of slavery and Reconstruction, has changed in American history textbooks. From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he has slowly been regaining his sanity. Before reviewing six more textbooks in 2006-07, I had imagined that they would maintain this trend, portraying Brown’s actions so as to render them at least intelligible if not intelligent. In their treatment of Brown, however, the new textbooks don’t differ much from those of the 1980s, so I shall discuss them all together. Since Brown himself did not change after his death—except to molder more—his mental health in our textbooks provides an inadvertent index of the level of white racism in our society. Perhaps our new textbooks suggest that race relations circa 2007 are not much better than circa 1987.

Source: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

The neo-feudalist economy caused by unchecked, unregulated capitalism that turned at best a winking nod to social welfare, more often a blind eye, and at worst a joyous ax, has facilitated a nationalist, authoritarian rise in pitch, and an abrupt shift right in federal ideology. Donald Trump is both the drooping wilted leaf of this societal rot, and the root. But why?

Human life in the US has no inherent worth. We are not valued beyond the revenue we can generate for the white men who do not need it. Think of how we talk about our own people in a professional setting: Human resources. Human capital. Taxpayer base. These are ways of talking about people that reduce them to streams of income. Think of all the things life offers beyond revenue: love. progress. art. invention. community. health. knowledge. We do not value these things at the institutional level, in fact, we actively curtail them all. But that’s only one piece of the inextricable puzzle.

Additionally, this country was founded with two original sins baked in: Genocidal concentration of its indigenous people, and mass enslavement of the African race. These sins were never reckoned, and they continue to manifest themselves in a litany of ugly and tragic ways. You’ve no doubt read about them by now, but in case you’d like a tweet-length summary, we’ll call it: systemic dehumanization and oppression of all people who are not white.

So that’s how we got here: People can’t afford to live. We’re jailing babies in cages. Kids are being shot up in schools. We’re deporting people seeking asylum. Flint doesn’t have clean water. Puerto Rico is a mess. We’re attacking women online and assaulting them in the streets. All given the tacit, or even enthusiastic, approval by a fascist authoritarian apex predator who has free reign to indulge his darkest impulses. Yet make no mistake: Authoritarianism is not the cause … it is a symptom of a deeper, underlying sickness. Civilization is a thin veneer. As civilization crumbles (as it is assuredly doing now), it emboldens and empowers monsters like these.

When a nation fails, the out-groups are often the first to hear its roar, and the first to feel its rage. So you can see it now. The only way out is through.

Source: The Republic Has Fallen – John Gorman – Medium

What bearing does this have on institutional racism and its causes? The neo-colonial economic model is about coercing labor apart from whatever racial and / or national animosity might exist. American industries could have offered market wages to the Mexican peasants that NAFTA targeted until they agreed to work for them- this is the way that labor ‘markets’ work. But instead they chose to ‘free’ several million people from subsistence economies to compete with previously displaced Mexican labor and American industrial workers with the result that wages were lowered all around.

As uncompensated labor, slavery reduces employment and wages for the non-chattel working class. Without slavery, plantations and factories hire labor and pay it the prevailing wage. But doing so reduces profits. Then consider: this dynamic places the working class in direct competition with more deeply exploited classes, be they slaves, descendants of slaves or displaced peasants. This economic relationship of competition is (1) imposed from above and (2) socially divisive by being economically divisive.

From slavery through convict leasing, Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow, the economic lots of American blacks were never left to market forces. Each of these institutions were used to expropriate the product of black labor outside of market forces. And this racialized economic ‘management’ impacted labor markets more broadly through controlling the supply of labor. What this means is that ‘management’ of black labor was to manage the supply, and with it the price, of the entire working class, not just blacks.

In human terms, unless the source of this systematic exploitation is made visible, the class dynamic that it establishes is to make the most deeply exploited the most blameworthy. Slaves, descendants of slaves and displaced immigrants were never the creators of the circumstances of their exploitation. The fallacy of ‘takers’ that unites white racist chatter confuses state strategies to maintain relative class positions for employers with the power to expropriate social resources. The class that largely controls economic outcomes remains well-hidden in this ruse.

Source: Why Capitalism Creates Racism | naked capitalism 

Starting in the 1830s and 1840s, some American abolitionists advocated for a tactic called moral suasion, arguing that surely white Americans who truly knew about the full horrors of slavery would change their minds and fight for its abolition. They tried to promote fellow feeling, telling stories of separation and sexual abuse to play upon Victorian idealization of family togetherness and womanly virtue. This worked for some listeners, but not for others, whose racism and complicity in the system deadened any natural empathy they might have had. Ending slavery took a war.

But no extremely moving information about John Kelly’s or Mike Pence’s families from decades ago will make immigration hawks rethink the way they perceive a story like the one about ICE taking an 18-month-old child from his Honduran mother-telling her to strap him into a car seat, and then driving away without allowing her to say goodbye. From an immigration hawk’s point of view, that’s not anyone like their mother, not anyone like their family.

The chasm between the life and experiences of a white American, even one who’s descended from desperate immigrants of decades past, and the life of this Honduran mother is the entire point of racist anti-immigration thought. Diminishment of the human qualities of entering immigrants (“unskilled” and “unmodern” immigrants coming from “shithole” countries) reinforces the distance between the two. People who support the Trump administration’s immigration policies want fewer Honduran mothers and their 18-month-olds to enter the country. If you start from this position, nothing you hear about illiterate Germans coming to the United States in the 19 century will change your mind.

Source: Against #ResistanceGenealogy: Digging up information about the immigrant ancestors of Trumpsters is doing more harm than good.

I’ve been digging around in an idea that pervades Evangelicalism. The Evangelical belief that we merely live in our bodies. American Christianity (which consists in large part of evangelicalism) has minimized the theology and, if you will, sacredness of the body, saying that the physical body was irrelevant except to house the soul.

When framed in the evangelical American context, this twisted argument has a lot of value. It was probably the easiest theological justification for America’s beloved human rights abuses: enslavement and genocide.

By necessity of white America’s devotion to these practices, the black body didn’t matter to God.

The black experience didn’t matter to God.

Black suffering didn’t matter to God.

Evangelical theology has a functional disregard for both the body and mind, minimizing very real mental health disorders and often attributing them to personal sin or spiritual attack. It requires you to cut off parts of yourself in order to be a true believer.

In order to be a Christian, you have to engage in a form of self-colonization. You have to amputate your blackness, Latinness, Nativeness. You have to amputate your sexuality, your queerness, your masculinity if you’re female, your femininity if you’re male, your passions, your dreams, your intelligence, your critical thinking. No form of otherness is accepted within their narrow interpretation of Christianity.

Evangelicals will tell you that the resulting emotional and mental anguish and suffering are just holiness working in your life. Somehow they never have to answer for the fact that permanent pain is not positive growth.

When you are in pain, you are less able to think clearly and therefore easier to manipulate and control.

Do not mangle yourself for some White Jesus who expects your marginalization to continue as proof of your piety, while those with power, privilege, and supremacy do nothing to ease your burden. Jesus did not come to oppress the marginalized and put heavy loads on their backs. In fact, he condemned powerful people who were doing exactly that.

Source: We Get To Be Free — Tori Williams Douglass

It is often said that slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. It was responsible for the growth of the American colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was a driving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a powerful force in the Americas and beyond.

Slavery was also our country’s Achilles heel, responsible for its near undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did so expressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were white Southerners on the institution that they took up arms against their own to keep African Americans in bondage. They simply could not allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority to control black labor—and to regulate black behavior.

The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. And yet, we the people do not like to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much less teach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us. If the cornerstone of the Confederacy was slavery, then what does that say about those who revere the people who took up arms to keep African Americans in chains? If James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, could hold people in bondage his entire life, refusing to free a single soul even upon his death, then what does that say about our nation’s founders? About our nation itself?

Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.

We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.

We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We enjoy thinking about Thomas Jefferson proclaiming, “All men are created equal.” But we are deeply troubled by the prospect of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, declaring, “Me too.”

Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson had the truth of it when he said, “Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.”

American slavery is the key to understanding the complexity of our past. How can we fully comprehend the original intent of the Bill of Rights without acknowledging that its author, James Madison, enslaved other people? How can we understand that foundational document without understanding that its author was well versed not only in the writings of Greek philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers, but also in Virginia’s slave code? How can we ignore the influence of that code, that “bill of rights denied,” which withheld from African Americans the very same civil liberties Madison sought to safeguard for white people?

The intractable nature of racial inequality is a part of the tragedy that is American slavery. But the saga of slavery is not exclusively a story of despair; hard history is not hopeless history. Finding the promise and possibility within this history requires us to consider the lives of the enslaved on their own terms.

Trapped in an unimaginable hell, enslaved people forged unbreakable bonds with one another. Indeed, no one knew better the meaning and importance of family and community than the enslaved. They fought back too, in the field and in the house, pushing back against enslavers in ways that ranged from feigned ignorance to flight and armed rebellion. There is no greater hope to be found in American history than in African Americans’ resistance to slavery.

The Founding Fathers were visionaries, but their vision was limited. Slavery blinded them, preventing them from seeing black people as equals. We the people have the opportunity to broaden the founders’ vision, to make racial equality real. But we can no longer avoid the most troubling aspects of our past. We have to have the courage to teach hard history, beginning with slavery. And here’s how.

Source: Teaching Hard History: American Slavery