There have been many attempts to put a ‘humane’ face on capitalism, but it is a system built on oppression.
Racism isn’t a glitch, it’s a feature – both of capitalism’s history and its present.
Last summer we saw one of the largest anti-racist mobilisations in decades. In over sixty countries, protesters took to the streets in their thousands to demand transformative, lasting change.
The Black Lives Matter movement calls for a fundamental shift in how our societies are organised: defunding police forces, ending the prison-industrial complex, opposing imperialist projects abroad, and destroying neo-colonial power relations between the Global North and the Global South. Racism and its brutal history are being discussed in a way that is unparalleled in my lifetime.
As happens with every radical movement, the political establishment responded with both condemnation and co-option. Some, like our government, have been eager to dismiss this historic mobilisation and suppress its demands. Other elements of the ruling class opted to misrepresent and appropriate those demands.
In Britain, where Black Lives Matter protests took place in over 150 locations across the country, Boris Johnson claimed that ending the glorification of colonialists and slave traders constituted ‘lying about our history’ — as if racist mass murder, dispossession, and exploitation were fitting subjects to be glorified.
The liberal centre has not fared much better. Brands that were quick to post Instagram stories insisting that ‘Black Lives Matter’ have since seen allegations of selling clothes made by Asian women exploited in UK sweatshops. Their shallow attempts to co-opt the movement with promises of ‘awareness raising’, ‘unconscious bias training’, and ‘diversity hires’ fell flat.
The people who took to the streets know that tweaking the system isn’t enough. The truth is, George Floyd’s brutal murder and racist policing is the sharp end of endemic racism that exists within both the USA and the UK. This racism isn’t incidental. It’s central to capitalism — both its history and in the present day.
Racism in society isn’t a glitch, it’s a feature. It’s functional to the key driver of our economic system: the accumulation of capital. This, rather than meeting human need, is fundamental to capitalism. And it is why racism is embedded in its social relations.
The wealth that enriched the British Empire and established it as a global superpower meant the murder, destruction, and brutalisation of people across the world. Millions died and civilisations were destroyed. The perpetrators of these crimes had to believe that what they were doing was justified.
This justification was supplied by an ideology that said Britain, Europe and whiteness were superior. This found expression in figures such as white supremacist and colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who in 1877 said that ‘we [white Englishmen] are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human right.’ But it wasn’t only arch-conservatives advocating this ideology — similar sentiments were echoed by the nineteenth-century philosopher and liberal hero John Stuart Mill.
India, Mill said, was made up of ‘barbarous people’, ‘not fit to govern itself’ and so Britain was justified in colonising the subcontinent. He argued this shortly after working for the East India Company, a private company effectively acting as an extension of the British state, responsible for extracting billions of pounds of resources from the country. The propagation of racist ideology was always closely tied to colonial expansion.
This ideology hasn’t disappeared. The racist narrative set by the War on Terror casts Muslims as a security threat, in need of discipline, subordination, or suppression. This Islamophobia was the background to the Western imperial war against Iraq, with false links drawn between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks and trumped-up evidence testifying to Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Not mentioned in pro-war arguments was Iraq’s unwillingness to open its vast oil fields to Western companies, but of course when the US toppled Saddam those oil reserves were privatised and sold off.
But racism doesn’t just serve capital accumulation and dispossession at the empire’s periphery. It is key to shaping conditions here in the metropole as well. Britain has just entered the worst recession on record. We’re set to experience an unprecedented jobs crisis and unemployment levels not seen in decades, and we have the highest coronavirus death rate in Europe.
Responsibility for this lies squarely with the Conservative government, yet for weeks we saw a ‘migrant crisis’ dominate the news. The home secretary even threatened to deploy military vessels in the Channel to deter desperate people in dinghies. Fear of these ‘invaders’ was whipped up by a compliant media even as we learned of the death of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, a refugee from Sudan, making the crossing.
This is no coincidence. The Conservatives and their billionaire press allies stir up hatred and fear in order to divide and rule. They use racism to project structural problems onto minority groups, to distract from social crises by demonising vulnerable people, and to make exploitation easier and more palatable. This isn’t unique to any one form of racism. It’s true of them all.
While “gang violence” is racialised as black and is used to justify increased police powers and brutality against black communities, antisemitism is used to blame structural problems on a persecuted minority. It portrays Jewish people as conspiring behind the scenes, imagining that an ‘alien’ presence is the cause of social ills rather than structures of oppression and domination. This is what is happening when antisemites spread conspiracies about the Rothschilds and George Soros. Far from being radical, this ‘socialism of fools’ is another reactionary ideology that scapegoats a vulnerable minority.
So while different racisms may appear distinct, they serve the same function: portraying the integral problems inherent in the system as separate and isolated from it. This is true whether it is Conservative MPs warning of ‘invading migrants’, Muslim communities being blamed for coronavirus, black youths depicted as criminal gangsters, or the Telegraph printing Soros conspiracies on its frontpage.
And this is why all minorities have a shared interest in defeating racism, whatever form it takes. So long as this kind of reactionary thinking exists, none of us are safe from denigration and attack. It’s also why the most powerful answers to racism are radical.
It’s easy to spout platitudes about being anti-racist, but only a socialist analysis explains a system that breeds racism. This analysis tells us that alienation, exploitation, and falling living standards aren’t the fault of any religious or ethnic group, they are the nature of capitalism itself — which is built upon minority rule by the super-rich.
A socialist analysis doesn’t just get to the root of social ills, it also shows us the route to liberation. It reveals that our struggles are linked. My liberation as a Muslim woman is tied to your liberation as a Jewish person and her liberation as a black woman. We’re brought together through shared oppression, united with the global working class. We each have a stake in fighting for the other.
Our opponents seek to divide us, to make us feel alone and without hope. That’s how they win. In the post-Covid world, they will do this with more venom than ever. But we win when we build bonds of solidarity and when we link our struggles.
There is an old socialist slogan, ‘workers of the world, unite!’ It’s not a relic from history, it’s an injunction for today. It calls us to an internationalist approach to socialism, one which can truly tackle racism at its core. It’s a vision worth fighting for.
Zarah Sultana is the Labour party member of parliament for Coventry South.