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Context: OnCapitalism

Quora Answer : Why do some people claim that capitalism is racist?

Oct 21, 2018

Good question.

This is one of those areas where historical contingency has kind of muddied our understanding of principle.

So it's very obvious that the economies of Europe and both North and south America completely were racist. In the sense that they were based on slavery. Black people were kidnapped in Africa and they and their descendants were forced to work for centuries to create free wealth for white Europeans and Americans.

These slave economies were undeniably racist. It was race which determined whether someone could be enslaved or not. Or had the right to freedom.

So, behind this question is a major distinction between how different people use the word "capitalism". For right-wing fans of capitalism, the emphasis has always been that "capitalism" represents a general principle of voluntary exchange in markets. While for the left-wing critics of capitalism, the emphasis has always been that "capitalism" is a historical event, it's the specific economy and social system and bunch of institutions that grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries and which we are still living in.

So, "capitalism" seen as a description of the times we are living in, clearly still has racism going on in it.

And the economy we have today is completely shaped by the racist economies of the past. For example, much of the money which was the investment that allowed the industrial revolution to take off in Britain in the 19th century, was "earned" by Britain's participation in the slave trade in the 18th century. Had the British not run that trade of taking African slaves to the Americas and then bringing American sugar (from slave-worked plantations) back to Europe, then Britain wouldn't have had either the rich investors to fund those early factories with their huge water and steam driven engines, nor the emerging middle-class consumer base who could afford to buy their products.

To their credit, some of those early British industrialists, became vocal opponents of slavery and worked to try to end Britain's part in it. But the industrial revolution would never have happened where and when it did, without slavery in the first place.

Many injustices we face today are basically the ongoing results of that officialized injustice of slavery. You don't wash hundreds of years of cultural conditioning and massive economic disparity out of human populations with a few equal opportunities laws that have only been grudgingly given over the last 50 years. You'd have to do serious financial and social engineering, by which I mean significant financial reparations, positive discrimination, and mass education to get anywhere near a restoration for that enormous injustice. That doesn't look likely, so we're almost certainly stuck with an economy that has been shaped by racism from hereon out.

Now ... does this imply that the capitalist system as it has now developed continues to need racism in the future. Or could it effectively become "colourblind". Capitalism's defenders will argue that employers simply need to get the best value they can from employees. It doesn't make sense to ignore a potentially good worker because of the colour of his or her skin. Nor to promote a worse person to management. And that the market will, in the long run, judge an entrepreneur by the value / he she brings.

I think the defenders of capitalism have a point here. Most of the arguments I've heard for why capitalism is "essentially" racist, ie. would need to perpetuate the existence of multiple castes in society, don't make that convincing a case as to why capital should care if these castes are divided on race lines.

In practice, they are. There's no question about that. Black people find it harder to get jobs. Black entrepreneurs find it harder to get funding. Etc.

But this might be simple human prejudice amplified by capital's tendency to exaggerate social differences. If we humans organized our prejudices and castes along lines of, say, astrological sign, then I'm sure capital would end up turning those into massive inequalities and injustices too : with Virgos denigrating and oppressing Cancers and the prisons being disproportionately full of Scorpios.

We don't. Our social prejudices ARE organized by race. And that is the social inheritance of those centuries of basing our economies on slavery.

And as capitalism always amplifies and exaggerates our social inequalities with greater economic inequalities, it makes those racial prejudices worst. But perhaps it doesn't actually force them on us in the first place.

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