Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Linking Racism and Capitalism: Robinson and Frederickson [Jesse Goldman]

Linking Racism and Capitalism: Robinson and Frederickson
Jesse Goldman

Robinson’s chapter "Racial Capitalism: the Nonobjective Character of Capitalist Development" complements Frederickson’s text by providing both a broader historical context and deeper theoretical background for understanding the links between capitalism and racism in the particular case of South Africa and the US. Both Robinson, in a broad analysis of European history, and Frederickson, in the specific study of South Africa and the US, argue that racism predates as well as has been central to the development of capitalism.

Robinson argues that the close relationship between racism and capitalism has its roots in European feudal society. He states, "Capitalism was less a catastrophic revolution (negation) of feudalist social orders than the extension of these social relations into the larger tapestry of the modern world’s political and economic relations" (10). Robinson claims that from its beginnings, this social order was based on the bourgeoisie exploiting migratory and/or immigrant labor, frequently through enslavement (23). For instance, what Robinson calls the "first bourgeoisie," in the 13th and 14th centuries, relied heavily on foreign slaves to work as domestic servants, plantation hands, and miners (16). Robinson emphasizes that this system of exploitation was based on racial hierarchies. He claims that at different points in European history different ethnic groups were naturalized as inferior, For instance, the Slavs were considered natural slaves in the early Middle Ages and then the Tartars were also considered natural slaves in the late Middle Ages (26). He claims that the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the peasants, and the slaves all came from particular ethnic and cultural groups. It was therefore in the interest of the bourgeoisie to maintain the racial hierarchy in order to sustain their material well-being. He writes, "The tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate – to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into "racial" ones" (26). In terms of South Africa and the US, Robinson would therefore argue that the intersecting systems of racism and capitalism have allowed the white bourgeoisie to maintain their privileged position over blacks in the US in South Africa just as it allowed the bourgeoisie to control "inferior" ethnic groups within Europe earlier in European history.

Frederickson focuses on many of the same links between racism and capitalism that Robinson emphasizes in his chapter. Like Robinson, Frederickson recognizes that racism or "white supremacy" predates capitalism. While Frederickson does not go all the way back to the formation of European civilization, as Robinson does, he turns to the 17th century when "white-supremacist attitutudes and policies originated in preindustrial settings where masters of European extraction lorded it over dark-skinned slaves or servants" (199). He therefore goes on to claim that the presence of racism within capitalism is not a result of capitalism itself, but rather "the capacity of the old racial order to adapt to changing economic and legal conditions," in which "privileged groups within a capitalistic society could accentuate traditional racial divisions and distinctions for their own advantage"(200). Like Robinson, Frederickson emphasizes that racism has persisted within capitalism because it is economically advantageous to certain powerful actors. He writes, "Economic discrimination along racial lines would not have developed and persisted in the industrial era to the extent that it did if it had not served in some way the material interests of industrial capitalists and skilled white workers" (205). Through connecting the material motives of capitalists and white workers along of "split labor markets" in South Africa and the US.

Robinson’s chapter helps contextualize Frederickson’s particular cases of South Africa and the US in a broader history of European social order and the development of capitalism. Through Robinson’s broader analytic lens the links between racism and capitalism in South African and US cases appear to be consistent with the longue duree of racism and capitalism from the beginnings of European civilization.