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Racial Order and Capitalist Order: From the Same Matrix to the Same Disaster

Updated: May 6, 2023

Ⓒ Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

Discourses on racism and discrimination do not sufficiently recall how the racial order that prevails in the world today was constructed at the same time as the capitalist order, at a particular period of history that Europeans called the 'century of great discoveries'. A century of conquest which, for others, ended in the extermination of the inhabitants of the 'New World' and the enslavement of the peoples of the African continent, the cradle of humanity.

Liberalism, an economic theory that sanctifies individual freedoms, was paradoxically developed during the reign of slavery, which was characterised by the total deprivation of freedom of a large part of the world's population. The first so-called "liberal" revolutions in Europe and America all corresponded to periods of intensified slave trade and colonial expansion. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" therefore needed chains, whips and muzzles to install the free market.

In his book Counter-History of Liberalism, the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo points out that the liberal doctrine that triumphed over absolutism in Europe gave rise to two twin phenomena: the celebration of freedom (but only for a few) and the generalisation of slavery (for many others). One would have to reread the great thinkers of liberalism such as John Locke, Hugo Grotius, Montesquieu, Alexis Tocqueville, who are taught in all the universities of the world, to understand the monstrous explanations they gave to justify slavery and the need to set up the socio-economic system that we now call capitalism. Some of them considered, for example, that the abolition of slavery would be an unacceptable infringement of the private property of the colonists, a right which, in their view, weighed more heavily than the lives of enslaved human beings.

The racial order that was established from the eighteenth century onwards took different forms and names in different regions and countries: Pigmentocracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, Racial segregation in the United States, Code of indigeneity in the French colonies, Apartheid in South Africa.

In order to legitimise this racial and economic order, a range of theories in the social and human sciences - but also in the natural sciences - has been developed on the basis of three main presuppositions:

  • The hierarchy of men, races and cultures that put the White man above all others

  • The natural selection of species dictating that only the strongest could survive

  • The right of the strongest over the weak who lost the competition.

Propagated through science, literature, the media and education, the belief in these principles justified by natural selection became deeply implanted in people's minds as a philosophy of life.

This racial order has survived all revolutions - including the American, French, Russian and Cuban revolutions - and all the movements of independence in the Americas that have failed to dismantle it. The Haitian Revolution was the only one to attempt to challenge it by rejecting the theory of racial hierarchy and apply the universality of human rights. It had a considerable echo in the Atlantic world, whose economy was based on the enslavement of Africans. In the United States, songs were sung in honour of the first victory of enslaved peoples over their oppressors in human history, and names of Haitian heroes were given to new-borns. Thousands of deported Africans left their American nightmare to emigrate to Haiti after 1820 and regain the dignity and freedom that had been denied them. In the Americas and the Caribbean, the fear of an extension of the Haitian revolution terrorized the owners of plantations, the first laboratories of capitalism. In a decree dated 17 April 1825, the French king Charles X finally "conceded" independence to the young Haitian state in return for an indemnity of 150 million gold francs to compensate the former slavers. Haiti bled until 1952 to pay this heavy debt, which, combined with the economic blockade imposed by the United States and European countries, weakened the first black Republic in the Americas.

The racial order has also survived all the social transformations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the feminist, cultural and technological revolutions. What we are seeing today in the United States with the Black Lives Matter movement, but also in other countries around the world, is a further challenge to this historical legacy that continues to feed structural racism and discrimination on the one hand, and to maintain the capitalist system on the other. It is easy to understand why white youth have joined this protest movement, and why statues and monuments that glorify historical figures who built this racial order have been targeted.

The excessive financialization of capitalism has thrown a section of the white population that had previously enjoyed certain racial privileges into precariousness. And this development has created a paradoxical situation, to say the least. On the one hand, we see that sections of the white population affected by the ravages of the neoliberal system cling to the defence of the racial order that benefited them, hoping to preserve their interests and one day regain their lost privileges. On the other hand, we see a more educated white middle class population joining movements like Black Lives Matter to challenge the racial order that supports and reinforces the capitalist order.

To better understand this development, it is useful to look back at the history and process of constructing the very notion of White Race or Whiteness. Until recently, most studies of race relations have focused on the characteristics and particularities of Blacks, Aboriginals or Asians to explain their marginalisation or integration into society. Whites were implicitly seen as representatives of normality against which the “othernesss” and the marginality of other peoples were generally measured. Very little analysis has attempted to understand how Whiteness and its sense of belonging to the 'normative group' has been constructed throughout history.

In her book The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter, an African-American historian, explains how the concept of Whiteness has evolved throughout history and how it has gradually determined the racial identity of Europe and the American nations. Nell Irvin Painter reminds us that, for some time, the Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics were not considered fully 'white' and that it was the gradual expansion of American whiteness that allowed them to become part of the white group. The perfect model of this race was embodied by the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) in England and especially in the USA. The 'Celts' (Irish) and especially the 'Mediterraneans' (Italians, Greeks) were considered inferior races by the proponents of this racist anthropology, which prepared the ground for Nazism.

Based on a critical analysis of the writings of major European and American thinkers, she dismantles the discursive, socio-economic and cultural process that led to the designation of white skin as the embodiment of power, intelligence and beauty. She demonstrates, for example, how the 'Caucasian Race' that is still used to refer to whites in America today was invented by a German practitioner of 'craniometry' by the name of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), following his analysis of the skull of a young Georgian woman who had been taken prisoner by Russian forces and who died of a venereal disease. The ‘craniologist’ found the skull of the Georgian girl to be of great perfection and decided to call ‘Caucasian' the white race that he believed corresponds to this ideal of beauty. Nell Irvan Painter notes the irony of the story: "The woman whose skull was used to designate the white race may have been a sex slave in Moscow, like thousands of her compatriots in Russia and the Ottoman Empire”.

In an article published in April 2021 in the British newspaper "The Guardian" entitled "The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea", the author, Robert P. Baird, also addresses the origins of whiteness in North America He analyses how the invention of a white racial identity was motivated from the beginning by the need to justify the enslavement of Africans: “The plantation owners understood very well that their cruel treatment of indentured Europeans, and their even crueller treatment of enslaved Africans, might lead to thoughts – or worse – of vengeance. Significantly outnumbered, they lived in constant fear of uprisings. They were particularly afraid of incidents such as Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676, which saw indentured Europeans fighting side-by-side with free and enslaved Africans against Virginia’s colonial government. To ward off such events, the plantation owners initially sought to protect themselves by giving their “Christian” servants legal privileges not available to their enslaved “Negroes”. The idea was to buy off the allegiance of indentured Europeans with a set of entitlements that, however meagre, set them above enslaved Africans. Toward the end of the 17th century, this scheme witnessed a significant shift: many of the laws that regulated slave and servant behaviour – the 1681 Servant Act in Jamaica, for example, which was later copied for use in South Carolina – began to describe the privileged class as “whites” and not as “Christians”

Thus, as the conversion of the enslaved to Christianity became a major obstacle to the perpetuation of slavery, the designation of race intervened. Whites were therefore those who could not be enslaved, and the one drop of black blood rule allowed to throw someone into the category of those who could be enslaved.

Today, all these racial theories have been dismantled by serious scientific research. But the question of race and all the semantics that went with it survived the abolition of slavery and continues to haunt post-slavery societies.

The black/white duality still shapes epistemology and worldviews in many countries, even if the categories of whiteness - and blackness - have become broader and more complex. Today in Brazil and other South American countries, more and more individuals who had assimilated into the category of whiteness are now claiming their blackness, troubling demographic statistics.

The genetic revolution has also shaken the last certainties about racial or ethnic affiliations by revealing that our genetic heritages are often at odds with categorisations and claims about our racial affiliations. The variations between our phenotypes (our physical appearance) and our genotypes (our genetic make-up), and the startling revelations of genetic analyses of certain populations in America and Europe, have discredited beliefs in the myth of racial purity, the toxicity of which was already demonstrated by Nazism. This development offers us a new opportunity to emancipate ourselves from the racial order that continues to colonise our minds and to fight racism and racial discrimination more effectively by combating its twin: the capitalist order that supports it. Would it not be time to consider this system and its damage as a crime against humanity?

[1] Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, 2011.

[2] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People, 2011.

[3] Robert P. Baird, "The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea", The Guardian, April 20, 2021.

Ali Moussa Iye

Founder Afrospectives | Political anthropologist


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