Why American Capitalism
and White Male Supremacy
Go Hand in Hand
By Benjamin Heywood
Dig into any system in the U.S. and you’ll find the same root cause of systemic inequality: profit. It’s nothing new. The founders of our country had a chance to abolish slavery at the country’s inception. Instead they chose to exalt private property and limited government. Their decision reflects a two-fold poison: racist white supremacy and free labor.
Labor atrocities in supposedly democratic societies is nothing new. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx argues the philosophers of societies like democracy-forward Ancient Greece couldn’t accurately create a political economy because their economic model was based on slave labor. In the same way the inventors of democracy were never truly interested in liberty when it came to economics, the founders of the United States sacrificed their own Enlightenment ideal of “all men are created equal” in favor of what noted political economist David Harvey calls “ephemeral” capital: that unsustainable advantage obtained by capitalists, either through innovation or enslavement, fueling a massive rise in economic power.
It’s hard to overstate how valuable a commodity cotton was in the late 18th and 19th century. But propping up that value was the fact virtually no labor costs were incurred in its cultivation. By 1860, the value of slave labor was three times that of the total amount of capital invested in manufacturing in both the North and the South, almost three times the capital invested in railroads and roughly seven times the total value of all U.S. currency in circulation (Steven Doyle Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life). It’s been aptly noted that police institutions were originally created to keep tabs on this valuable asset, a further assertion by the leaders of this country that private property was far more important than personal liberty.
The moral and ethical gymnastics required to allow slavery necessitated a belief system of white supremacy by divine right. Southerners used white supremacy to justify owning another human being. Northerners used it to look the other way. All hid beneath the shroud of their religion, using Christianity as irrefutable dogma to support their bigotry. The argument that whites were superior stems from a belief that God empowered the white race to be the scions of Christ, ignoring the fact Christianity began as a religion of Middle Easterners and East Africans.
It’s an argument still underpinning many denominations of Christianity today. But just as Christianity gave itself over to the Gospel of Prosperity — spawning megachurches with corporate boardroom structures and the belief that faith and hard work are rewarded by God with financial success — so too is the American capitalist corrupted. Make no mistake: the unbridled lust for profit at the expense of labor fuels their racism, misogyny, and religion.
The abolishment of slavery didn’t slake the capitalist’s thirst; it refocused it. Throughout U.S. history, we continue to see the same dynamic play out again and again: the capitalists’ insistence on cheap labor, thus stealing surplus value from the worker and calling it profit, requires the subjugation of women and minorities. In a recent LA Times interview, Gloria Steinem explained what a recent television show got wrong about the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment (which, as of this writing, remains unratified).
“Mrs. America is hopelessly wrong,” Steinem is quoted as saying. “I don’t think it’s necessarily on purpose, but it is just factually, historically wrong, because the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated by the insurance industry and other people who were profiting off women’s cheap labor.” Marx himself predicted this, explaining how the rise of machine manufacturing opened workforce exploitation to women and children, further devaluing labor value in favor of surplus profit for the capitalist.
The outsourcing of labor to other countries where it can be done cheaper and the insourcing of immigrant labor who will work for pennies on the hour are two further examples that have dogged this country for my entire lifetime. The latest scheme is the gig economy, through which conservatives have claimed a victory, pointing to the pre-pandemic unemployment numbers. This historically low unemployment number belies the fact that many of these jobs were low paying, part-time jobs where the workers were designated independent contractors, thus freeing the capitalist from any responsibility to pay or provide adequately for the labor.
It won’t surprise you who makes up this underpaid labor force. From a 2018 Marketplace-Edison Research study of the Gig economy: “Gig workers are more highly concentrated among Hispanic or African-American adults than white adults. Almost one-third (31%) of Hispanic adults 18+ earn money through the gig economy, compared to 27% of African- Americans. White adults are the least likely to earn money through the gig economy at 21%.”
Of course, the capitalist defense remains the same, parroted by conservative pundits inexplicably carrying water for corporations and billionaires. “We are the job-creators,” they say. “Any restriction makes it harder for us to create jobs.” This argument is a smokescreen because it inverts the actual power structure of labor. It is the labor that extracts value from capital, not the other way around. In fact, capitalists pay themselves twice; once to manage the production of commodities (the initial investment of capital) and once when the profit returns to their coffers. The fact that these same thieves can then have the audacity to call unemployment benefits during this pandemic too generous would be laughable if it weren’t so insulting, as they’ve continued to depress wages to suck the excess profit from our necks.
So how is it that in an economic model where labor has so much power, the capitalist can hold the keys of liberty captive?
The answer is that they created an American economic system designed to work in their favor and keep the laborer entrenched first in slavery, then in poverty. This system is proliferated by laws enacted by an overwhelmingly wealthy white male minority who do so to protect their financial interests. The continual push to privatize — which is code for capitalize on — institutions reflects this economic cancer.
For what do we call cells growing unmitigated in the body? In the same way cancer signals death in the organism, so too does unchecked market expansion. It is destroying our environment as corporations continue to avoid paying for the harm inherent to their operation, while simultaneously maintaining a poor, underserved working class, who disproportionately die from preventable disease, mental health issues like addiction and depression and plain existential despair. It’s no wonder the suicide and overdose rate of America’s working poor is largely fueling our declining life expectancy. This system is literally killing us.
This is not a by-product of American Capitalism, it’s a function of its design. It’s easier for the capitalist to take advantage of a disillusioned class of minorities and poor people than to pay laborers what their socially necessary labor time is actually worth or share some of the gobsmackingly gargantuan profit American labor generates for the superrich. It’s not all their fault; their unrealistic quest for infinite profit expansion requires it. Their argument is markets in their purest state are amoral, and therefore unconcerned with matters like liberty and equality. If just left alone, they plead, markets would produce a capitalist utopia where wealth showers down on all races and classes. Long a conservative talking point, trickle-down economics ignores the simple fact their perfect market is fundamentally based on the exploitation of a cheap labor class.
In order to secure this status quo of a poor and minority working class, the capitalist system has expanded to include new arenas designed to exert control upon this labor force. Operating education, health care, social welfare programs and incarceration for profit only makes sense for the capitalist if you keep your labor force uneducated, sick, and overpoliced. It is no surprise the communities suffering the greatest mortality rates from our current pandemic are overwhelmingly poor minority communities. They have little access to preventative health measures, like a healthy diet, unpolluted neighborhoods, and exercise. We are further crushed by the desperation of working so hard, but having so little we too often turn to cheap pleasures: a bottle of pills, a drive-thru cheeseburger, a pack of smokes.
Compounding this is the criminalization of poverty, used disproportionately to fund municipality police forces. The War on Drugs, begun by Nixon and doubled down upon by the Regan and Clinton administrations, is the primary offender. It has the two-fold effect of propping up the prison industrial complex and includes insidious programs like cash bail—which literally keeps the poor incarcerated based on their bank account, not their guilt or innocence—and subjecting a disproportionate amount of minorities to the loss of their rights as American citizens under the 13th amendment. A felon convicted of a non-violent drug crime not only subjects themselves to slave labor while in prison, they also face a loss of voting rights in many states and the difficulty finding gainful employment once released, further increasing the rate of recidivism. This one “war” has perpetuated a system which demands the existence of cheap labor with little to no actual representative voice.
American Capitalism criminalizes the poor in a second way: by fining and ticketing minority and poor communities, for traffic offenses and trumped-up misdemeanors. Their motto: even If you don’t do a crime, you can still pay a fine. To make matters worse, the fine is often doled out by a person with a gun. How often do we hear of a routine traffic stop ending with another Black, Brown, or poor person shot? These extrajudicial assassinations only fuel the distrust between communities and those paid by the capitalist to police them. It’s not only a cowardly method of funding municipalities, it’s wildly inefficient. Instead of making large corporations pay their fair share in taxes, the bill is passed to the laborers often working for the very same corporations that slide by relatively scot-free.
Despite all these obstacles, communities of color have succeeded throughout our post-civil war history. This is bad for American capitalism and, in turn, the system rectifies the anomaly, either through violence or policy. It happened in Tulsa in 1921, where the entire Black majority community of Greenwood was raided and razed by a white supremacist army. It happened in Miami, when Miami moved the entire thriving majority-Black community of Overtown to make way for I-95. It happened right here in Los Angeles when we allowed freeways to gut the prosperous, multi-cultural community of Boyle Heights. Even if infrastructure projects and the underfunding of social services in poor neighborhoods doesn’t work in keeping them tied to low-wage, dead end labor, real estate blockbusting and prejudicial lending steps in, ensuring advancement is nearly impossible. Lest we forget, NIMBY-ism has been around forever.
Which leads us to our current moment of protest, where we can clearly see how deeply entrenched the American capitalist system is in the American consciousness. When someone argues looting does more harm than good, they’re essentially arguing the value of capital is worth more than the lives of those who produce it. This is an argument without merit and void of any human compassion or empathy. Very few would loot if they didn’t already have enough. Very few would steal if they didn’t already have enough. George Floyd died over a $20 counterfeit bill. How many more will we sentence to death, or at best, a life on the financial margins because of our insistence on profit over people?
The saddest fact is we are the richest nation in the history of the world and yet we seem incapable of taking the necessary steps to care for those unlucky enough to have been born into poverty, or born with the “wrong” skin color, or the “wrong” gender identity. These are distinctions forced upon us. While we debate our differences, the capitalist smiles as the profit keeps rolling in. To wit, the 400 richest Americans could give up a small fraction of their fortune and lift every one of the 38 million Americans living below the federal poverty line. But why would they when they can keep the status quo, one that lionizes them as heroes and demonizes the poor as “lazy” and “ungrateful”?
Many of the 400 richest Americans deny their wealth is propped up on their own good fortune. This is a grave misclassification. These 400 people profited from birth, born into a system rigged in their favor. It’s no coincidence that the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 is more than that of all Black families plus a quarter of Latinx families combined. So why not eat the rich? 38 million to 400 seems like pretty good odds.
Yet, even if the superrich finally start paying attention to this disparity, it would only be the beginning. We need to de-profit institutions meant to serve the public good. We need to demand the demilitarization of our police forces, funded in part by misdemeanor tickets and fees. We need to end economic models built exclusively on the backs of the poor, like cash bail and check cashing services. We need corporations to factor in the price of carbon and other environmental harms into their profit models. The American capitalist utopia of a free market may never exist, but by reimagining our economic system, we can de-couple our economics from racism and misogyny and at least, for once, finally claim we are on the road to truly being the land of liberty.
Or, in the words of our founders, who capitalists love to quote: “That to secure these rights (Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness), Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”