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Class & Otherness: A Peculiar Dialectic

Nothing captures the contradictions of American social life more than then the recent announcement by Jeff Bezos in support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The founder of Amazon, the owner of the Washington Post and the richest person in the world issued a tweet calling for an end to “the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people.”

Bezos failed to extend his support for Black Lives Matter to Christian Smalls, an Amazon worker at a Staten Island fulfillment center fired in April for leading a public protest over the company’s insufficient health practices. Publicly, the company claimed: “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite … further putting the teams at risk.” Privately, David Zapolsky, the company’s general counsel, put forth a different story: “He’s [Smalls] not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.” Bezos also failed to acknowledge other U.S. Amazon employs dismissed, nor the strikes at Amazon warehouses that have taken place in France, Italy and Spain.

 

Not surprising, Amazon offers a wide selection of “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, caps, coffee cups and buttons. More revealing, the racial make-up of its employees bespeaks the composition of “essential” workers in a Covid-19 America. Amazon reports the following per its U.S. workforce: 34.7% identify as White; 26.5% as Black/African American; 18.5% as Hispanic/Latinx; 15.4% as Asian; 1.3% as Native American; and 3.6% as two or more races. However, nearly three out of five (59.3%) of management are white compared to 8.3% as Black/African American and 8.1% as Hispanic/Latinx.

Amazon is not alone in its new-found support for African Americans; other companies backing the new racial consciousness include Apple, Microsoft, Google, Taco Bell and Starbucks (it has a Starbucks Black Partner Network) and Nike that backed ex-NFL player Colin Kaepernick in his protest against racial injustice and police brutality.

Will any of this make a difference in terms of the structural tension inherent to American social relations? It’s unlikely given the particular dialectics of class and “otherness” that’s have defined the nation since its founding four centuries ago.

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“Otherness” is a provocative concept intended to suggest the various ways by which economic or class relations are mediated in society. Otherness includes race, gender, national origins and religion, among other categories of social relations and hierarchy. Each category is defined by two intimately linked features: (i) each denotes or identifyies a specific feature or characteristic of a person or people; and (ii) the meaning or significance of each is socially determined.

Otherness plays out differently in different countries and at difference historical moments. For example, in the U.S., race plays the gravest role in shaping or determining the character of social or class relations. How it functions over time and in different locations says much as to how it resonates in people’s lives, both “whites” and “people of color.” Nevertheless, as evident with the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic riots that characterized the

Know Nothing movement of 1850s, racial politics can be augmented by other factors perceived as those who feel threatened.

In the U.S., gender has periodically emerged to challenge the dominant hierarchical male social structure. In the late-19th century, a forceful women’s movement promoted a contradictory social agenda — one tendency championed temperance and led to the establishment of Prohibition; another tendency promoted the “new woman” and led to women securing the vote. Subsequent struggles by “second wave” feminists during the 1970s and “third wave” feminists during the 1990s followed.

Religion has long been a great divider. In Europe, especially pre-WW-II Germany, people identified as Jewish were long identified as the threatening “other.” They – along with homosexuals, radicals, Roma and others — were rounded up, forced into concentration camps and millions were exterminated. Nazi “racial purity” laws were based on what were known in the U.S. South as “one drop” and “blood fraction” laws. Hitler compared his campaign against Jew with the triumph of racial slavery in the U.S.

Perhaps the greatest otherness is class itself. The antagonism between the “aristocracy” (e.g., nobility, royalty) and “peasants” (e.g., serfs, workers) has defined history for millennia. How class antagonism plays out defines a critical feature of social “progress,” especially with in the post-WW-II world of consumer capitalism and the rise of the “middle class.”

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Marx anchors his analysis of capitalism in the commodity, noting, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Reflecting on Marx’s analysis, Stephanie Smallwood offers a following insight:

But we need to replace the bolt of linen Marx used as the iconic object of that analysis—not with the slave-cultivated cotton that was more central to nineteenth-century industrial manufacturing; or even the slave-grown sugar that fueled the colonial wealth Marx erroneously identified as part of capitalism’s prehistory. … we will have to instead put the enslaved human herself at the center of our analysis of the commodity form.

By replacing the commodity-as-thing with the commodity-as-person, the true horror of capitalism begins to become clear. The person, the subject of history, is reduced to a thing, an object of experience and exchange.

Marx linked the development of “primitive capital accumulation” to slavery, noting:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.

The 1970s radical, Harry Chang, drew a critical link between Marx’s analysis of the fetishistic nature of money and race. For Marx, money was “the officiating object (or subject as an object) in the reification of a relation called value” and as a “function-turned-into-an-object.” Race is similarly a function—a relation of hierarchy rooted in the capitalist division of labor—turned into an object.” It forges, in the words of Adolph Reed, Jr., an “ascriptive hierarchy that stabilize capitalist social reproduction.”

For Marx, race can play the same role social role as nationality or ethnicity in the effort to divide those with a common or shared class interest. He identifies this tendency in relation of the Irish and the English:

The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.3

***

In 2006, the Kirwan Institute published an illuminating study, “Progressive Politics: The Strategic Importance of Race,” that offers insight into the dialectic relation between race and class in the transformation of American society. Amidst a careful historical analysis, the authors offer the following insight:

Many assume in the United States that race and class are largely distinct or that race can be reduced to class. Under this view, race disparities should more appropriately be addressed by class. This is both an analytical position as well as a strategic position.

Going further, they argue: “These set of assumptions are almost articles of faith in much of the white progressive movement.”

The authors make clear that “as late as the early 1770s” – the time of the Revolution – “nearly half the immigrants who arrived in America from England and Scotland had entered contracts for a fixed period of labor in exchange for passage”; they were indentured servants who “often worked in the fields alongside slaves. Like slaves, servants could be bought and sold, were subject to corporal punishment, and their obligation to fulfill their duties was enforced by courts.”

Under the new republic, servitude was ended but slavery was institutionalized. The authors stress what in retrospect has become a truism of American history: “Whiteness was not simply about color or historical root but was defined in opposition to blackness and the conditions of servitude that came to be associated with blacks.” The ideology of black inferiority and white superiority was intensified as indentured whites were transformed into free laborers and African Americans were reduced to chattel slaves.

The authors detail how the social framework of racism persisted over the subsequent three centuries – through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Populism, the New Deal and the post-WW-II formation of the middle class. The authors warn: “As a consequence, the middle class is understood in individualistic terms rather than group position. With its arrival, working-class consciousness evaporated from American society.” Going further, they stress: “Race is part of the construction of class-as-merit, and this individualistic ideology is part of what defeats the development of solidaristic consciousness.” Nevertheless, they stress a critical point: “In the co-development of racial and class consciousness in the United States, class tensions have consistently been relieved through racial baiting.”

The popular protest movement – including riots! – that have swept the country in the wake of the rash of police killings of innocent African Americans have raised the issue of race to a level not seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The corporate response, exemplified by Bezos outreach to the Black Lives Matter movement, is an effort to neute

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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