Until we win: Black Labor and Liberation in capitalism’s disposable era

By Kali Akuno

Read the entire article on the “Black Left Unity Network” blog at tinyurl.com/ovyytvs

black-woman-minimum-wage-placardSince the rebellion in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, Black people throughout the United States have been grappling with a number of critical questions, such as why are Black people being hunted and killed every 28 hours or more by various operatives of the law? Why don’t Black people seem to matter to this society? And what can and must we do to end these attacks and liberate ourselves? There are concrete answers to these questions. Answers that are firmly grounded in the capitalist dynamics that structure the brutal European settler-colonial project we live in and how Afrikan people have historically been positioned within it.

The value of Black life

There was a time in the United States Empire when Afrikan people, aka, Black people, were deemed to be extremely valuable to the “American project,” when our lives as it is said, “mattered.” This “time” was the era of chattel slavery, when the labor provided by Afrikan people was indispensable to the settler-colonial enterprise, accounting for nearly half of the commodified value produced within its holdings and exchanged in “domestic” and international markets. Our ancestors were held and regarded as prize horses or bulls, something to be treated with a degree of “care” (i.e., enough to ensure that they were able to work and reproduce their labor, and produce value for their enslavers) because of their centrality to the processes of material production.

What mattered was Black labor power and how it could be harnessed and controlled, not Afrikan humanity. Afrikan humanity did not matter — it had to be denied in order to create and sustain the social rationale and systemic dynamics that allowed for the commodification of human beings. These “dynamics” included armed militias and slave patrols, iron-clad nonexception social clauses like the “one-drop” rule, the slave codes, vagrancy laws, and a complex mix of laws and social customs all aimed at oppressing, controlling, and scientifically exploiting Black life and labor to the maximum degree. This systemic need served the variants of white supremacy, colonial subjugation and imperialism that capitalism built to govern social relations in the U.S. All of the fundamental systems created to control Afrikan life and labor between the 17th and 19th centuries are still in operation today, despite a few surface moderations, and serve the same basic functions.

The correlation between capital accumulation (earning a profit) and the value of Black life to the overall system has remained consistent throughout the history of the U.S. settler-colonial project, despite shifts in production regimes (from agricultural, to industrial, to service and finance oriented) and how Black labor was deployed. The more value (profits) Black labor produces, the more Black lives are valued. The less value (profits) Black people produce, the less Black lives are valued. When Black lives are valued, they are secured enough to allow for their reproduction (at the very least). When they are not, they can be and have been readily discarded and disposed of. This is the basic equation and the basic social dynamic regarding the value of Black life to U.S. society.

The age of disposability

We are living and struggling through a transformative era of the global capitalist system. Over the past 40 years, the expansionary dynamics of the system have produced a truly coordinated system of resource acquisition and controls, easily exploitable and cheap labor, production, marketing and consumption on a global scale. The increasingly automated and computerized dynamics of this expansion have resulted in millions, if not billions, of people being displaced through two broad processes: one, from “traditional” methods of life sustaining production (mainly farming), and the other from their “traditional” or ancestral homelands and regions (with people being forced to move to large cities and “foreign” territories in order to survive). As the International Labor Organization recently reported in its “World Employment and Social Outlook 2015” paper, this displacement renders millions to structurally regulated surplus or expendable statuses.

Capitalist logic does not allow for surplus populations to be sustained for long. They either have to be reabsorbed into the value producing mechanisms of the system, or disposed of. Events over the past 20 (or more) years, such as the forced separation of Yugoslavia, the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, the never ending civil and international wars in Zaire/Congo and the central Afrikan region, the mass displacement of farmers in Mexico all clearly indicate that the system does not possess the current capacity to absorb the surplus populations and maintain its equilibrium.

The dominant actors in the global economy — multinational corporations, the transnationalist capitalist class and state managers — are in crisis mode trying to figure out how to best manage this massive surplus in a politically justifiable (but expedient) manner.

This incapacity to manage crises caused by capitalism itself is witnessed by numerous examples of haphazard intervention at managing the rapidly expanding number of displaced peoples such as:

* The ongoing global food crisis (which started in the mid-2000s), where millions are unable to afford basic foodstuffs because of rising prices and climate induced production shortages;

* The corporate driven displacement of hundreds of millions of farmers and workers in the Global South (particularly in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia);

* Military responses (including the building of fortified walls and blockades) to the massive migrant crises confronting the governments of the U.S., Western Europe, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc.;

*The corporate driven attempt to confront climate change almost exclusively by market (commodity) mechanisms;

*The scramble for domination of resources and labor, and the escalating number of imperialist facilitated armed conflicts and attempts at regime change in Africa, Asia (including Central Asia) and Eastern Europe.

The capitalist system is demonstrating, day by day, that it no longer possesses the managerial capacity to absorb newly dislocated and displaced populations into the international working class (proletariat), and it is becoming harder and harder for the international ruling class to sustain the provision of material benefits that have traditionally been awarded to the most loyal subjects of capitalism’s global empire, namely the “native” working classes in Western Europe and settlers in projects like the U.S., Canada and Australia.

When the capitalist system can’t expand and absorb, it must preserve itself by shifting towards “correction and contraction” — excluding and if necessary disposing of all the surpluses that cannot be absorbed or consumed at a profit. We are now clearly in an era of correction and contraction that will have genocidal consequences for the surplus populations of the world if left unaddressed.

This dynamic brings us back to the U.S. and the crisis of jobs, mass incarceration and the escalating number of extrajudicial police killings confronting Black people.

Return to the source

The intersecting, oppressive systems of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy have consistently tried to reduce Afrikan people to objects, tools, chattel and cheap labor. Despite the systemic impositions and constraints these systems have tried to impose, Afrikan people never lost sight of their humanity, never lost sight of their own value and never conceded defeat.

In the age of mounting human surplus, and the devaluation and disposal of life, Afrikan people are going to have to call on the strengths of our ancestors and the lessons learned in over 500 years of struggle against the systems of oppression and exploitation that beset them. Building a self-determining future based on self-respect, self-reliance, social solidarity, cooperative development and internationalism is a way forward that offers us the chance to survive and thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

Kali Akuno is the producer of “An American Nightmare: Black Labor and Liberation,” a joint documentary project of Deep Dish TV and Cooperation Jackson. He is the co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, and a co-writer of “Operation Ghetto Storm,” better known as the “Every 28 Hours” report. Kali can be reached at kaliakuno@gmail.com or on Twitter @KaliAkuno.


Are Capitalists Job Creators?

by Andrew Wagner

Capitalist apologists—particularly those aligned with the Republican Party—have long referred to the 1% as “job creators.” As this popular myth goes, the capitalists alone are responsible for investing in the economy (“taking risks”), thereby creating the jobs that provide everyone else with a living. The legislative conclusions that flow from this idea include the infamous policy of “trickle-down” or “supply side” economics, which opposes progressive taxation and shifts the burden of funding the government away from the 1% and onto the working class. They justify such policies by arguing that taxation takes money away from the private sector, which the capitalists could otherwise use to invest in the economy. This explanation contains a grain of truth, but unfortunately the outcome doesn’t jibe with the way the capitalist system actually works.

With millions unemployed or underemployed, crumbling infrastructure, factories lying idle, and lagging labor productivity, one would think that direct investment into the economy is necessary. However, the capitalists have other ideas. According to Standard and Poor’s, the biggest corporations are currently sitting on $1.82 trillion worth of cash. What’s more curious is that central banks have set interest rates at record lows (in some cases, interest rates are nominally negative), in an effort to coax banks into lending in order to spur investment. On top of this, treasuries around the world have embarked on the uncharted voyage of quantitative easing—in essence, printing money in order to give banks the liquidity necessary to lend so companies can invest. Such measures have achieved nothing; investment in the advanced economies remains historically low.

As a result, productivity growth has come to a near standstill. As the Financial Times points out, “Companies may not be investing enough in new equipment and ideas. Instead they are frittering away cash on share buybacks and dividends that totalled $903bn for S&P 500 companies in 2014 . . . The fall in productivity growth started before the financial crisis, suggesting longer term forces are at work” (FT, 5/25/15). This represents a crisis of the development of society’s productive forces. As Marx pointed out, such a crisis often signals that revolutionary events are on the horizon, as the productive forces rebel against the constraints of their economic shackles.

What are the capitalists doing with all of their accumulated wealth? Just about anything other than “creating jobs.” According to the Wall Street Journal (5/26/15), corporations are now spending more money paying out massive dividends to “activist investors” than they are on investment in physical capital. Essentially, they are putting more money into the pockets of the super wealthy than they are into actual production. In fact, for some companies, this development comes at the same time as they are actually laying people off and closing down their plants. Some businesses are even taking advantage of the low interest rates mentioned above to borrow—not to invest in productive capacity—but to pay out dividends to their rich investors! Other companies are borrowing in order to buy back their own stock (which drives their value up on the stock market). In essence, they are borrowing in order to speculate on the stock market (which is not a new practice!) while laying people off, adding to the already swollen ranks of the unemployed. This is the practice of turning money into more money directly, neglecting the step of creating real use values for the rest of society.

job creators

Other capitalists have found even more egregious ways to spend their money. Hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made a fortune betting that the subprime mortgage bubble would burst in 2007–8 while millions of workers lost their homes, recently made a $400 million gift to Harvard University, adding to its $36 billion endowment. Apparently, giving to an already rich institution and its largely wealthy students was a more worthy investment than putting people to work at a decent wage. Examples of the 1% speculating on real estate in places like Manhattan, Vancouver, and San Francisco (driving working class people out of the areas in question) are legion, as are examples of the ultrarich speculating on pieces of modern “art,” creating what many have called an “art bubble.”

Inherently parasitic

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the term “job creators” is little more than Orwellian doublespeak, crafted to justify the existence of a tiny minority of people which rules over the majority. We must tear down this myth to expose the true nature of the capitalist class, which represents a parasitic growth on human society.

The process of production under capitalism is exploitative. Workers only find work—and therefore, are only able to live—at the whim of those who own all of the productive property in society: the capitalists. Knowing this, the capitalists exploit the weak position of the workers to pay them less than the actual value of the commodities they produce. The difference between the sale price of these commodities and the wages paid by the capitalists to the workers who actually produced them is “surplus value,” which the capitalists take and use as they see fit.

The capitalists publicly justify their existence by arguing that they play a key role in the economy: reinvesting this surplus value into the economy, thereby providing more paid jobs, which begins the cycle again. Marxists recognize that early in capitalism’s history this was the case. As capitalism was in its ascendant phase, capitalists tended to devote most of the surplus wealth back into the economy through investment, in order to outcompete their rivals.

Evidence (such as that above) shows that this is not the case today, as capitalism has entered an organic crisis of the system. Due to the exploitative nature of capitalist production, and the fact that the workers never receive the full value of their labor in the form of wages, they are consequently unable to spend enough to purchase their collective product from the capitalists. This represents a massive contradiction in the system, which is the ultimate root of capitalist crises like the 2007–8 Great Recession. The capitalists tried to postpone this crisis by extending massive amounts of credit throughout the system, but now this debt acts as a tremendous drag on the economy.

Workers are struggling under these conditions to pay their consumer, student, mortgage, auto, medical, and other forms of debt, and are therefore buying even less than they once could. If the capitalists can’t sell their commodities because consumers—the bulk of whom are workers—can’t afford them, what incentive do they have to invest in order to produce them? The capitalists are in the business of making money, not in the business of producing for need, so they will naturally find other ways to do it. Hence all of the speculation on unproductive property, stock buybacks, and demands for higher and higher dividend payouts. Unfortunately, for those investors demanding payouts, the same economic conditions apply to them as well as the companies they’re invested in. Ultimately, the capitalists will be saddled with huge reserves of cash, restrained by the limits of their own decrepit system from investing in actual production. This is an absurd situation.

Humanity deserves better. People need jobs, the sick and elderly need care, the youth need opportunities and environments to learn, clean sustainable energy sources need development, we must fix our crumbling infrastructure. The resources exist to accomplish all of these things and more, yet those who own the bulk of society’s wealth see no reason to utilize them. The capitalists will continue their parasitic existence for as long as the working class permits them to remain. It’s high time we excised them from our economy.

Andrew is an organizer with the Workers International League and the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor

This article first appeared in Socialist Appeal and can be found at http://socialistappeal.org/news-analysis/the-economy/1653-are-capitalists-job-creators.html