Robin D. G. Kelley: What Is Racial Capitalism and Why Does It Matter?

Robin D. G. Kelley: What Is Racial Capitalism and Why Does It Matter?


[APPLAUSE] ROBIN D.G. KELLEY:
OK, can you hear me? See that only
raises the pressure. Although you know,
I want that text because it’s kind
of gone my epitaph. It’s going to be the biggest
epitaph on the continent. Anyway, thank you so much. It’s really amazing to be
here and for so many people to show up. I think the last time
I gave the Katz lecture there weren’t that many people. There were a lot
of people, though. AUDIENCE: There were too. ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: There were? It was a long time ago. And I’m getting old,
so– but this is amazing. And hopefully I make sense. I realized I have a lot to say
and so I’m going to get to it, and I may skip over some stuff. But before I do anything,
before I do anything, I want to acknowledge that this
University of course, as you know, sits on stolen land. And it’s the land of
the Duwamish people, the land of Squamish people, and
others who occupied this area. And I just hope that I can at
least do some kind of justice in acknowledging that
theft and the role that universities all
over the country play, sitting on stolen land. I also want to thank
Megan for, not just for that wonderful
introduction but for all of her brilliant
work over the years and how much I’ve learned
from her, but also for this invitation. When you sent the list of
people who were coming– I know all those people, by
the way, and they are amazing. So I may have to come up to
check out some of those talks. And of course, to
Kathleen Woodward, it’s so great to be
back again, here. Always wonderful to be
connected to the Simpson Center. To Rachel, who I
know is someplace here, who did a lot
of work organizing, and everyone else involved. This is my– oh, and
also one other thing before I sort of talk about
what I’m going to talk about. This is also holy ground
for me because this is where Stephanie Camp, who,
one of the great historians– not the greatest– was
here on the faculty, whose book I teach every
year, Closer To Freedom, who was just an amazing person. And whatever I say tonight,
all the good things I say that make sense
are dedicated to her. All the dumb things
I say are dedicated to my son, who’s giving
me a hard time right now. So we’ll see. OK, so let me get back. Let me get to this. So first of all, it’s great
to be back in Seattle. Some of you may or may not know
that I actually lived here. My brother, Shannon, is
here, who I hardly ever see. And my nephew, Xavier, is here. And so that’s really wonderful. I have some fond
memories of this place and I have some
terrible memories. And Shannon knows about the
terrible and the fond memories. I learned a lot of valuable
lessons about racial capitalism here. In fact, we can learn
some in two minutes. So I arrived in Seattle
beginning in the fourth grade, back in the ’70s, early
’70s I should say. On and was involved
in what on the surface was like a social engineering
experiment called bussing. We lived in Capitol Hill
at the time, an apartment on the corner of
Pine and Madison. But almost all the kids on our
bus were bussed out to Ballard. And for those of you who don’t
know Seattle, Ballard was like, a white community– very
white, very Scandinavian. Well, I don’t know if it
still is but you know, that’s how it was. Central District was
a black community. And let me say a
little bit about that. So we were bussed. I went to Loyal Heights
Elementary School, then Marcus Whitman
Junior High School, and most of the kids
we picked up on the bus were in Central District. It was 23 of us. Now I’m not going to talk
about the psychological price that we paid, being
23 kids being bussed to all white schools,
and the kind of racism that we experienced from
students and teachers, and what that meant, and
the trauma it left on us, the imprint it left on us. I won’t talk about that. I’m going to talk about value. All the kids we
picked up on that bus lived in the Central District,
which was considered a ghetto. The value of their homes
were considerably lower than they are now. The value of the schools
that catered to these kids were considerably lower, which
is the whole idea of being bussed to these other schools. Bussing was never
about integration. It was a concession
to families struggling to educate their kids, and
those who recognized education is a form of cultural capital. If you look at the
Central District now, it’s just not recognizable. I mean a lot of us who played
sports for CAYA, Central Area Youth Association– football, skiing,
you know, only time we had a whole bunch
of black include skiing was through CAYA. It was kind of an amazing thing
because people on the slopes didn’t expect us Friday nights. It was a very different
kind of thing. But that was the whole point. So gentrification and
this transformation is not about integration,
never was about integration. It’s a modern form of
settler colonialism. And with settlers come
new restaurants and shops and rising property values
and improved schools. Garfield, in those days,
was not a good school. Now it’s considered one
of the best schools. And keep in mind that we use to
go swimming in the pool which is called Medgar Evers. We knew Medgar
Evers as the place where all the black
kids go swimming. We didn’t know who
Medgar Evers was. We learned over time. So I mean, you got
to keep that in mind, that what the story illustrates
in some ways is just the beginning what I’m
going to talk about tonight and that is that racial
capitalism, much of it’s about value. What Marx or Ricardo
called exchange value is partly determined
by things like race. We can talk about that
in Q&A if you want to, but exchange value is
not the same as price. But in some respects
race does matter. Before we get into this question
of what is racial capitalism and why it matters,
I want to begin with just a few basic
theses because I think I may run out
of time and I’d rather stop before I’m done. But I just want to
lay out a few things. One, race and gender are
not incidental or accidental features of the global
capitalist order, they are constitutive. Capitalism emerged as a
racial and gendered regime. Or to put it another way, as
Stewart Hall puts it, race, and I would add
gender, are modalities in which class is lived. Now second thesis, race
isn’t simply or primarily about an identity. We confuse sometimes
race with identity. It is a structure of power,
or means of structuring power through difference. So skin color is not an
essential feature of races. I know it’s going
to be like, what? My students don’t believe that. Skin color is not an
essential feature of racism. And I want to say
that ahead of time because I’m going to say some
things that might throw you off in terms of who’s
being racialized. Three, the central story
of race and the making of the capitalist order isn’t
always the most obvious story. What I mean is that
the obvious story is like racial slavery,
dispossession, imperialism. I’m not saying they’re
not really important but it’s not always about
just those things, but rather the story of race in the making
of the global capitalist order is also about the
capacity of capital and the state to capture
the white working class and tie its identity to race. That is, to whiteness
and masculinity. So the secret to
capitalism’s survival is racism, and the racial
and patriarchal state. Now racial capitalism, you
know the genesis of the term, really comes out
of South Africa. South African scholars
were among the first to really start to use that
term and ‘702, mid ’70s. I won’t go into the
whole genesis of it but it emerged as a kind
of analytical framework to understand how the apartheid
state structured relations of race, class,
and accumulation. But it also came out of
a political question. That political question was,
when we dismantle apartheid– and we will– what’s going to be left over? In other words, do we
dismantle the racial state in its [INAUDIBLE]
elements, the law. Or do we have to dismantle
capitalism at the same time? So the question is,
if we do that would a post-apartheid
nation still maintain the various structures that
reproduce deep racial, class, and gender inequality? And that’s still
a question that’s being struggled over right now. So it makes sense that the
concept of racial capitalism would emerge in
South Africa where the racial character of
South African capitalism was so obvious that the
apartheid regime itself called itself a racial
capitalist state. And they didn’t even play. They were saying,
this is what we are. I mean, well before
the ascendance of the national party in 1948
and the formal implementation of apartheid essentially
all prior legislation, state and corporate practice sought
to do various things that are basically foundational
racial capitalism– strip Africans of land, create
a racially segmented and super exploited
working class, manufacture precarity
through population transfer and by destroying black
economic institutions. All the while they’re doing
this, using the surplus that they are able to extract
to create what might be called a whites only welfare state. So much of that surplus
is subsidizing what? Housing subsidies
for white workers and white people, massive
police state to maintain order and to suppress
nonwhite opposition. I can go on and on and on. But today we tend to associate
the term racial capitalism with this man, Cedric Robinson. And I should say, by way of
disclosure, he was my teacher. He was someone who
passed away, sadly, 2016. And he was a person who
was responsible for much of what I know about
anything besides my mother. Brilliant. But we associate
the term with him. He introduced the
term in his book called Black Marxism, The
Making of the Black Radical Tradition published in 1983. And he developed the
concept of racial capitalism from a specific
system, a description of a specific system, that
is like apartheid or settler colonialism, to a
way of understanding the general history
of modern capitalism. So building on the work
of sociologist Oliver Cox, Robinson’s objective
was not to analyze the historical and contemporary
elements of racial capitalism. Instead what he
wanted to show was how European racism,
racialism and nationalism, preceded capitalism– preceded capitalism. In other words, it existed
before capitalism emerged, when it emerged in the 13th
and the 15th centuries, between that period. And in doing so he directly
challenged the Marxist idea that capitalism was
a revolutionary break from feudalism. Now capitalism and
racism, he says, did not break from the old
order but rather evolved from that old order, from
the old feudal order, to produce a modern world system
of racial capitalism dependant on slavery, violence,
imperialism, and genocide. So as he put it, “The tendency
of European civilization to capitalism was thus
not to homogenize, but to differentiate,
to exaggerate regional subcultural and
dialectical differences into racial ones.” And that’s within Europe. That’s to say that capitalism
was racial not because of some conspiracy
to divide workers, or to justify slavery
and dispossession. Didn’t have to work
hard to justify slavery because they had
slavery within Europe. They didn’t have to make it up. I mean, slavery was just
like common sense, right? But most importantly
that wasn’t the purpose, because racialism
had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians
were racial subjects. That’s what he’s saying, the
first European proletarians were racial subjects. They weren’t just Africans. They were Irish. They were Jews. They were Roma, or gypsies. They were Slavs. And they were victims
of dispossession, victims of enclosure,
victims of colonialism and slavery within
Europe itself. And in fact, he argues that
racialization within Europe was very much a colonial
process, one involved in processes of invasion,
settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy. And he reminds us that what
drove German colonization, the German colonization
of central Europe, for example, in the
Slavic territories, was a racial ideology, the
ideology of herrenvolk. Evil And the ideology
of herrenvolk presumed German
racial superiority over the Slavs, so
essentially Europeans. And he argues that modern
European nationalism was bound up with these
kind of racialist myths, whether we’re talking about
herrenvolk or Anglo-Saxonism Celtism, or Aryan
and Nordic myths. You can go on. And that that history
of colonialism begins in Europe itself
and continues in Europe well after the new world
settler colonialism, well after the Berlin
Conference in 1884, ’85. And it is a principal
feature of both world wars. Anyone who studied
World War II knows that when the Nazis were talking
about living room, and taking property, that was about
colonial domination over territories that they
once controlled earlier and they re-took. So Cedric Robinson
illustrates his point by examining the shifting
and increasingly violent character of English
colonization of Ireland in the late 16th and
early 17th centuries. So the dispossessed
Irish who were not killed were ultimately
dispersed and often ended up as indentured
servants on ships to the new world or migrant
labor on the English mainland. And it was those historical
circumstances of subjugation, of colonialism, those
historical experiences that shaped Irish nationalism and
determined their relationship with the English working
class and rendered them an inferior race. This is way beyond
the scope of the talk but if you read the first
section of Black Marxism, it’s about Europe. And my students
are like, we don’t want to read about Europe. It’s like, but you’ve
got to begin there. You’ve got to begin
there because this is where race begins, in Europe. In any case, racial
capitalism then is not merely a type of capitalism. And I know some of
you are undergraduates forced to come here. I know, I can see you. So I’m telling you
what to take notes on. So take notes on this. So racial capitalism is not
merely a type of capitalism, say, as opposed to, like,
non-racist capitalism. We don’t have
non-racist capitalism. It doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as
a non-racial capitalism. It only exists in the minds
of economists who themselves are thinking in racial terms. So the term simply
signals that capitalism developed and operates
within a racist system or a racial regime. Racism is fundamental for the
production and reproduction of violence. And that violence is necessary
for creating and maintaining capitalism. Why is that? Well, first of all capital
didn’t begin with money. That’s not where capital begins. Money is just a
medium of exchange. Capital begins with seizing
control of natural resources– There’s land, water, fuel– and creating cheap labor
to turn these resources into commodities. And when I say violence, that
violence is cutting many ways. Violence is directed at
all life and the land itself, the Earth itself. Also the imperial imagination
envisioned a world of savages. So once you get beyond– I wouldn’t even say
that, because even within Europe there were those
who were identified as savages. Once you get beyond
into the expansion of the Atlantic trade,
the whole world– and the Asian trade– the whole world are deemed
savages whose labor and land was there for the taking,
sanctioned by God. Now since much of the land and
resources were held in common, and I just want to
emphasize this point. This is the world. Most of the world much
of the land and resources are held in common. It meant forcibly dispossessing
people and turning them into cheap labor,
or unfree labor. And that labor was used to
make things and grow things. This is very important
because we’ve grown up in a world
where private property is seen as a natural thing. Private property is
like a natural right, when for centuries it’s
the other way around. Access to the earth and
its abundant resources was a natural right. I mean, look, I got–
someone bought this water. They had to buy it. And I’m drinking it
out of a plastic– you know, water is privatized. Everything, now you have to buy. You can’t walk on property now
because property’s private. So what I’m saying is that
the commons was what’s been natural for centuries. It’s the dispossession
from the commons and the construction of
private property as a concept. Even when I said at the
very beginning of my talk, I said I pay tribute to the
indigenous people on the land. And sometimes we
confuse what it means to be on the land, what
it means to own the land. You don’t have a
concept of ownership. So I’m not saying
they owned the land. It’s a very different way
of thinking about the land. Anyway, I don’t want
to get off topic. So this requirement for
resources and for labor is really behind conquest,
behind colonization, dispossession, slavery, and
environmental destruction. These are the five
processes in the creation of modern capitalism
and white supremacy. This is why we need to think
about racial capitalism, not just in national
terms but in global terms from its inception. It’s no accident that the
global division of labor reflects this history
with the lowest paid and the most precarious workers
in the global economy being descendants of who? Of slaves. Descendants of the
colonized, descendants of the dispossessed. Now capitalism structures
not just the public realm, which we tend to talk
about, but also the private. So any critique of
racial capitalism means that we have to
understand the role of paid and unpaid women’s work
in social reproduction and how this work is racialized. So reproductive labor, for
example, is outsourced. Especially as incomes and
wages decline and precarity rises, both the use
of paid services, but also, we talk about
the globalization of care. There’s immigration,
immigrant domestic workers, these are all racialized labor. And so paid services,
paid domestic services, becomes a real
engine in the economy but also explains in
some ways the fact that we have probably the
largest migratory labor force in history, ever. We also know from
the work of people like Xavier Federici and
others that privatization of the household, under hetero
patriarchy, and the precarity created by neoliberalism
for example, puts women at greater
risk of domestic violence, of slavery and trafficking. And when I say slavery I’m
not talking about the past. I’m talking about
slavery today– about 44 million slaves, unfree
labor, in the world today. And many of those
slaves are sex slaves. We’ve all been bombarded
with interesting stories about the discovery, the
revelations of sexual violence, sexual harassment. And just so you know,
these are revelations of a very massive
and old process. These are not like new things. And in fact, not only
that, but they’re very central to the reproduction
of the system of capitalism. And although many of
the high profile cases are not women of
color, women of color are usually the ones
who are most affected by these processes. So women are also at the
forefront of resistance. Many of the anti-systemic
struggles of the last century have really been waged
not by industrial workers, but by women who are peasants,
campesinas, by subsistence farmers, many of whom are
women, by urban squatters, many of whom are women,
undocumented migrants, welfare recipients, women. Often women who are in gender
non-conforming families, they’re at the forefront. But we always see that as the
wedge resisting capitalism because we have this
kind of romantic view of the industrial worker
in the shop floor. So what I’m going to
do now with the time I have is very quickly sweep
through certain historical epochs, make a few
points, spend some time in a neoliberal racial order
with one particular story, and then say something
about Trump at the end, if I have some time. Now keep in mind that, don’t
think that we actually started at 7:00 because we did not. Remember, we started much later. I got to hear all these
great things about me. And so don’t blame me for that. OK, so let’s begin
with something simple. I don’t have a lot of slides. I have a few that are coming up. So let me just take a few,
like two minutes on settler colonialism and the emergence
of racial [INAUDIBLE] because I want to say
something slightly different. Now what made North
America really unique as a settler society was
slaves, the vast importation of African slaves. And you also have enslaved
indigenous peoples as well, many of whom
were actually exported, sold to the Caribbean. That’s another story. But the problem of settlers,
the problem that settlers face, was sort of twofold. One, dispossessing indigenous
peoples and two, managing– actually, I it’s threefold–
managing coerced African labor, because remember you can’t
call Africans immigrants or migrants. They were stolen. They were prisoners. They were incarcerated. In fact, we have to
be really careful when we talk about how
racial slavery emerges in North America. It’s just not true. This is way beyond
the scope of my talk but racial slavery begins
at the point of capture. It doesn’t begin
in North America. It’s not like people
were like, oh, I thought I was an indentured servant. What are you doing? How come I can’t leave? No, that’s not how it worked. They were enslaved at
the point of capture. But the third
aspect of management was how to manage an
unruly white working class, the rural poor. Those same people who
were themselves colonized and dispossessed out of
Ireland, who end up on a boat and end up as
indentured servants, because managing the white
poor and the enslaved meant enclosure. In England, enclosure
is a little bit easier than in North America because
they didn’t have the capacity to enclose. You have vast landscapes
whose boundaries can’t be defended easily. So keep in mind as
all this is happening in North America, North
America’s colonies, there’s a pitched battle
taking place in England at the same time
over the commons. And there’s a real fear
among colonial rulers that landless white people
and the indentured servants would start to
escape with Africans. And they started doing that. They started running
away with Africans. They began to join
maroon societies. They joined with Native peoples. And it was dangerous because
suddenly, white folks who didn’t see any future for
themselves, except as bonded labor, suddenly saw a
future with Native peoples and Africans. In other words, an alternative
to the capitalist relations of production and class rule. So the white ruler is like, we
got to do something about this. So, no surprise, when all
this is happening that’s when the discourse
of Indians as idle comes up, at the very onset
of the colonial period. And it was a capital
crime, in fact, for English to
live with Indians. Yet by the late 18th century,
according to one observer, there were thousands
of colonists– that is, former indentured
servants or indentured servants who ran away and had
become what they called new made Indians, living as hunters,
fishers, fishing, gathering, that sort of thing. So they got around the problem
by extending land grants to white people, effectively
ending forms of white bondage. White bondage would have
probably continued had it not been for this pressure. And so the freeing– so what we are
seeing is not so much the consolidation
of racial slavery, but the freeing of
forms of white bondage, the creation of a settler
class, turning them into citizens and
property owners. That was key. It made them white. It made them free. It made them settlers. And that identification
allowed them to identify with with the ruling regimes. Now this didn’t mean that they
saw themselves as capitalists, or that there was no
antagonism between them and the owners of capital. Rather it meant at least
two or three things. One, it meant that they came
to see nonwhite labor as subordinate, as inferior,
and whose interests and fate are not linked to theirs. And some of the more quote,
unquote “radical elements” saw nonwhite labor as an
obstacle to their revolution as a proletariat. Secondly, and probably
more significantly, by identifying as settlers
they saw themselves as future capitalists,
as future slave holders, as future captains of industry. So with emancipation
on a global scale colonial officers and free
market liberals in this case– John Stewart Mill
is both, by the way. He’s a colonial officer and
a free market ideologue. So these figures turned
to what we might call, and I have to say it with
apologies to my friend Moon over here, the three Cs. The three Cs, coolie labor, the
continuation of convict labor, and in the colonies,
corvee labor– unfree labor. And I’m not the
first to say this but I just want to
say, I’m just repeating what other people have
said, unfree labor is almost like more the
norm than free labor. Now a couple of
things about this. who is coolie labor? Who is convict labor? Who constitutes corvee
labor as forced labor? These are men and
women, I should say– and I want to say
something about women. Women of color recruited for
domestic service, recruited as nurses, and of course
reproductive labor for male wage earners,
but they’re also included in all three Cs. Victorian gender
norms don’t apply to African and Asian women. They still perform the
bulk of agricultural labor. They may not make up significant
proportions of Asian migrant labor, especially as more
limits are placed on migration. But they were left behind
to care for children, to work in agriculture,
or in emerging industries. For black women, African
women, besides domestic worker, domestic labor,
they were consigned to what would be considered
quote unquote “men’s work.” They built roads. They worked on plantations. They collected
rubber in the Congo. In other words,
they were considered what my friend and
colleague Sarah Haley calls ungendered labor. They’re ungendered. Their gender is
stripped in some ways. It’s not just
being masculinized. It’s basically being
recognized as having no gender limits in terms of their labor. At the same time,
women were often in positions of being
independent producers in the realm of the
colonies, whether it means making cloth
or growing vegetables on small plots of land. But then mass production
undermined their autonomy. And this [INAUDIBLE]
of mass production. So over time,
especially as we move into the 20th century and
forms of industrial capitalism as what we know as Fordism,
workers are not just producers under Fordism. Workers are increasingly
becoming consumers. What this means is
something like finance. Finance is so essential to
backing colonial projects, and backing the slave trade– in fact Lloyd’s of London,
much of its capital, and much of its business, was
actually insuring slave ships. But finance is very,
very important. And early manufacturing
enterprises also depended on finance. So by time you get
to the 20th century, financial institutions begin
to extend credit to workers. And that enables
them to consume more. And they can afford more
although their existing wages are not going up significantly. Under Fordism, as more and more
commodities become available, cheaper than they
were before, it’s not just survival that’s
keeping them working. It is debt. Debt becomes the driver. In other words, we think
so much before this moment of working as a way to
just reproduce your labor power for the next day. Now it’s about commodity. It’s about accumulation. It’s about having things. And debt keeps you
continuing to work and work. And they pay that debt
back with interest. Capitalists, on the other hand,
can park their surplus in banks and they can profit
from financial ventures. So investments and
stocks, in loans to workers, and to businesses
at high interest rates. Credit cards come into
being by the middle to late 20th century. Prime and subprime
mortgages, which we’ll talk about in a second. And as we know from Peter
Hudson’s really great book, Bankers And Empire,
which is out now. You should check it out. We know that that colonial
and racial regimes allowed US banks to
use the Caribbean and to use sovereign
debt as a way to invent new global
financial instruments to pry open new markets, and to
accumulate huge sums of wealth while evading US
regulatory regimes. And that’s another way racial
capitalism is functioning. So immediately we begin to
see how the system is racial. Race, and gender, and
citizenship status, determines wages. It determines employment
opportunities. It determines the
kind of labor you do, whether it’s skilled,
unskilled, unprotected, unpaid, paid, access to credit, to
loans, to interest rates charged, that sort of thing. All this is shaped by value,
racial value, in some ways. So differential
access is determined by race, gender, and class. Now let me just jump now
to more present stuff, and that is financialization
and racial neoliberalism. So I want to turn to the
reconstruction in capitalism or racial neoliberalism,
which itself is a response to capitalism’s
crisis in the ’70s. And I’m going to illustrate
this shift to neoliberalization of racial capitalism
through a story that I want to tell
about Flint, Michigan. But the story of Flint is a
story of financializations. It’s a story of
security regimes. It’s a story of the
assault on democracy. And it’s a story
that many of us know but I want to say
a little bit more than what we probably know. So many of you know
about, beginning about four years,
three, four years ago, you know the Flint water
supply was poisoned. And you may know that in 2013,
the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, appointed an
emergency manager, a man named Darnell Earley, to take
over Flint’s government in order to impose austerity
measures to reduce the city’s debt. By the way, the story
I’m about to tell is very similar to
Puerto Rico right now. You can see a lot
of similarities. We could talk about that
in Q&A if you want to. So to save money, Earley decided
to switch the public water supply from the Detroit
River to the Flint River. The problem, the Flint
River was polluted. Everyone knew it. It was highly toxic. And to save money,
the new regime– that is un-elected regime,
unelected emergency manager– stopped chemically treating the
city’s lead pipes, which made matters worse. So the results were
that, you know, residents were getting sick. And that’s what their
water looked like. So residents continued
to receive water bills for that water. So of course they organized. So let’s look at
the larger picture to understand the
neoliberalization of racial capitalism. First of all, over half of
Flint’s population is black and they make up the largest
proportion of residents living below the poverty line. And Flint is the second
most impoverished city in the nation, next
to Youngstown, Ohio. Secondly, black communities are
especially subject to this kind of corporate state dictatorship,
the idea that emergency manager system, which imposes
authoritarian governance in the name of austerity. In Michigan, for example,
49% of the African-American population, at
least two years ago, had no locally
elected government and were under
emergency managers. Black people make up about
14% the state’s population. In Detroit and Highland Park– and by the way, my
wife’s late uncle was mayor of Highland
Park for many years– the financial crisis
was used to justify gutting public workers
of their pensions and privatizing and
raising the costs of water. So you have organizations like
the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and Blue Planet
Project, that went to New York, went to the United
Nations, to make the case that water is a human right. And they actually got
support for this position. And that shutting
off water because you can’t afford to pay their bills,
is a human rights violation. Now we know this
part of the story. This part of the story
we don’t always know is like, how come so
many residents couldn’t pay their bills? Or better, how did cities
like Flint and Detroit once having the highest
paid workers in the country, thriving industrial workforce,
become so poor and so unequal? And that’s a story I want
to tell a little bit about. So in 1960, Flint had one of
the highest per capita incomes in the United States. General Motors was
the main employer and workers earned strong wages
and job protections because of intense union struggles. It wasn’t a giveaway. And also the post-war
growth of the US economy. During the 1970s, as
manufacturing processes became more mobile companies
like GM, Ford, left Michigan– not entirely, but money,
their manufacturing processes went for cheaper labor. They moved to the US south. They moved to Mexico. They opened up shop
in South Africa, they’ve been there
for a while, Brazil. And through free
trade agreements they paid even less
in taxes and duties and set up shop in places with
few environmental or labor regulations. So these shifts both
produced and were responses to the global economic crisis
of the 1970s, the global slump of ’74 in particular. And also the oil embargo, the
competition from automakers like Japan and Germany. In order to keep GM in
Flint, because they didn’t want GM to leave,
the city government agreed to give the company huge
tax cuts and promised immunity. And write this down,
for those of you going who are going to write
about it in your class, promised immunity from legal
consequences for polluting the river. So you know, you can
pollute the river. We’re not going to fine you. Go ahead and do it. And so the Flint River,
that’s how the Flint river becomes massively polluted. So GM made billions
of dollars in profits. And where did the money go? Did it go back into Flint? No, it went to the shareholders
rather than the city, because that’s
what capital does. It’s not interested in the city. They’re interested in
shareholders, and accumulation, and trying to do something
with that surplus. But jobs still disappeared. And it disappeared to
outsourcing, to reduced shifts, to automation. And so by 19– between 1979 and
2010, Flint still lost 87.5% of its
manufacturing jobs, which is so interesting
because again, think about all the giveaways
that the city and state’s giving them not to leave. And they’re still losing jobs. So with GM, with the
shares losing value like many US manufacturing
firms, they turned to finance. Namely GM entered the
consumer finance market. They sold insurance packages. They went into banking services. And they sold mortgages,
home equity loans, to members of the public. And by 1999, GM
was deeply involved in selling subprime
mortgages to people who were unlikely to pay them back. And the result was
predatory lending. Working people, overwhelmingly
black working people, lost their homes as
well as their jobs. And when the variable
rate on the mortgages ballooned and the housing
market collapsed, and that’s what we talk about
2008 crisis, this had a domino effect
on the economy. The domino effect
left cities like Flint with, really, a fraction of the
tax revenue because, of course, tax revenue is generated
by property taxes. And people are not
in their house, and the property
values decline, you’re not generating much revenue. So what’s worse is
those tax breaks, given to the very corporations that
fleeced the city and ultimately the city fell deeper into debt. And they couldn’t get back
those tax revenues from GM. So in order to try to come
out of debt, what did they do? The city does what a lot
of neoliberal cities do. They turned to privatizing
public assets in order to attract investment capital. So public lands are
sold off to developers, water rates
increase, and there’s a push to privatize water. Downtown redevelopment
schemes are encouraged using public
funding, public debt, and substantial tax breaks, more
tax breaks, to private firms to finance new buildings,
skyscrapers, parking lots. And so the thing is, if they
can’t pay back that debt then it’s a loss. None of these ventures
revitalized downtown. None of these ventures
revitalized the economy. It left the city of Flint
responsible for a massive debt. And that massive debt
became justification for moving the city council
aside and putting an emergency manager in place
to manage the debt. You see? Like Puerto Rico. So continue our story,
very quickly back in 2014, ’51, where it was clear
that the water wasn’t fit for human or animal
consumption the city council tried to reverse the decision. The people opposed it. But the emergency
manager refused. What we know now is that
Darnell Earley was actually part of a plan. And that plan was to push
Detroit into bankruptcy to completely privatize
the water supply. So what do I mean by that? So Detroit Water and
Sewage department was operating with massive
huge budget deficits, so their bondholders were faced
with potential loss of Flint as a customer. They didn’t want to
lose Flint as a customer so they place greater pressure
on delinquent customers to pay off, to pay their bills. So they would cut off
services to people, raise the rates on Detroiters. And Detroit’s water
agency then offered to cut its rates in
half to Flint residents, but Darnell Earley was like, no. No, don’t cut the rates. So he had a chance to cut
the rates but then he said, we’re going to continue
to use Flint River supply. And then Jerry Ambrose, who
replaced Darnell Earley did the same thing. So instead what they did was,
and you could write this down, they signed an agreement
with a private firm called Veolia, to
handle water management. So it’s no coincidence that when
Detroit’s emergency manager– this is Detroit, Kevin Orr, was
pushing to raise water rates and cutting off services to poor
families behind on payments, he had begun
negotiations with who? With Veolia. And in fact it was under
Orr’s leadership that by 19– by 2014, rather, the
city had shut off water to over 150,000 residents
who were behind on their bills and began making plans to
eliminate hundreds of jobs. So the shut offs and
the layoffs were really a strategy, as I
suggested before, to make the Detroit water
and sewage department more attractive for
private investors, like PREPA in Puerto Rico
which is the power grid. Obviously, there’s a
lot more to this story and I’m going to go
much more into this. But we know that Darnell
Earley’s decision was pushing Detroit
into bankruptcy and the complete
privatization of water supply. What we see with
Flint, therefore, are not only the consequences
of neoliberalization of racial capitalism, which
includes the dismantling of democracy, but we also see– and don’t be mad
at me for saying this, but the rise of a
black political class that serves as junior
partners in these forms of authoritarian governance. So you’ve got the black
face of authoritarianism all in the name of
multiculturalism and diversity. See diversity can jack
you up, I’m telling you. You’ve got to be careful. So I want to close with
some words on Trump but I want to make
a transition here. So the story of
Flint, of course, is being replicated
in Puerto Rico. It should remind us
I think, above all, that the authoritarian turn that
we thought began in November, 2016 was already in process. It didn’t begin with Trump. We have at least four
decades of globalization, neoliberal attacks
on the welfare state, on public institutions
on the poor, covert wars, political and cultural
backlash against movements for racial and gender
justice, rampant xenophobia, open misogyny, attacks
on reproductive rights, a backlash against diversity
and multiculturalism– all that way before
Trump was elected. So what ends up
happening is the image of Obama as kind of, like, the
last gasp of liberal democracy ends up obscuring, or
masking, a global shift toward authoritarianism. And this is what [INAUDIBLE]
was saying, actually– Professor Frances, I’m
sorry, in her introduction. This is a shift that
emerged in response– in response to
capitalists’ latest crisis. And the mass global
resistance movement that emerged in the
wake of the crisis. So some of you
may remember this. Some of you are old
enough to remember 2008. Some of you may remember 2009. But 2010 was this explosion. You remember that? And 2011, so that
whole period you have. You have Occupy, you
have Athens and Madrid and Sao Paulo, and
London, and the West Bank, and all these uprisings
that are challenging the crisis of global capital. So I’m convinced that–
you could write this down– that the massive
opposition to globalization and to the policies
of austerity, those policies designed to
solve capitalism’s crisis on the backs of workers,
on the backs of the poor– both exposed and hastened the
crisis that produced Trump. So Trumpism wasn’t just sort of
like, bad democratic planning. It was so much more than that. In other words, we
could have predicted it. And some people did,
had we paid attention. Although I’m very
proud to say that– also sad to say– I was giving a talk
at Columbia the week before the elections I said,
you know, Trump’s going to win. And people were like, boo! I said, watch. People still talk about that. It’s on film if you
don’t believe me. Someone filmed it. So to understand,
this is what I want to sort of close with this. So to understand
this current moment that we’re in I think it’s
worth revisiting– actually, I’ll put that picture
up there like this. This is the picture
I meant to talk about with respect to the last
gasp of liberal democracy. The Obama years, we
get nostalgic for them because what we’re
dealing with is so stupid. But there’s some terrible things
that happened in those days that we kind of forget about. But they look good. But then again, I
mean, people think George W. Bush is looking good. That’s what’s amazing to me. Let’s just say
Reagan’s looking good. But anyway, to go
back to the story, so to understand this
current moment I think it’s worth revisiting Stuart Hall,
who also left us not long ago. But Stewart Hall wrote
this book in 1988 called The Hard Road To Renewal,
Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. It’s a very, very important
collection of essays. And in this
collection he was sort of arguing with British
Marxists in the labor party. And they took him
to task for failing to grasp the way in
which popular consent can be mobilized by incorporating
popular disconsent– discontent, rather, and
then neutralizing it. So according to
Hall, Thatcherism forged a relationship between
free market liberalism and traditional
conservative themes like family, nation,
patriarchy, respectability, much like Reagan. Themes that emerged in the
context of what Hall calls a crisis of national
identity and culture precipitated by the
unresolved psychic trauma of the end of empire. So in other words, to
make Britain great again really meant to restore the
old order of Anglo-Saxonism, this racialized patriotism and
hetero patriarchal authority. And that’s still with us. There’s a sort of
interesting tension in England right now
that’s still there. Hall was writing against a
group of labor party Marxists who really were unable to
see how the working class had actually been recomposed
in the 20th century, didn’t look the same
way as they imagined it. And in fact, it was not unified. It couldn’t be unified so easy
because it wasn’t homogeneous. It was divided. It was divided by race. It was divided by gender. It was fractured. So a lot of the Marxists
did not acknowledge this, but they see the divides of
identity of race and gender, for example, and
sexuality, as chimera– it’s a false consciousness. And Stuart Hall was
like, no, they’re not. He said that if
we don’t actually see the historical trajectory
in the formation of identity it makes it impossible to see
class rule as a single class. Not as a single class, rather,
but as an historic bloc. Let me just say that again. So he’s saying that we make
the mistake of thinking of class rule as one
class ruling another– the lower class and upper
class, the bourgeoisie and proletariat. And he’s saying no, class
rule is an historic bloc that can incorporate both
elements of finance capital and industrial capital and
elements of the working class. In other words, elements
of the working class could participate in
class rule, could actually support the ruling class
and have a stake in it. And he’s saying that
there’s for that. Some of that stake has to do
with things that are considered nonobjective, like race. So in the US in the 1990s,
we see similar attacks taking place from the left on
how identity politics undermine class politics. I was involved in some of
those debates in those days. Some of the young
professors here were like in elementary
school at a time when I was fighting
those battles with Todd Gitlin and people like that,
but that’s way back in the past. I could say that
some of the people I argued with and debated
with in the early ’90s, they’re dead now and I’m still
here which makes me right. My grandfather used to
say that all the time. He’d say, you’re dead and
I’m here, so I’m right. In any case, to
go back, so we see similar attacks and in
some ways this attack from the left on how identity
politics undermine class politics, or its
liberal variant which is that identity politics
undermine a unified American identity based on
Enlightenment principles of individualism,
liberty, and secularism. And lately we’ve seen
a resurrection of this. We’ve seen the resurrection
of Richard Rorty’s 1998 book, Achieving Our
Country, which the New York Times had a whole thing about. And in a recent
publication of Mark Lilla’s The Once
and Future Liberal. Now these and similar
critiques, I’m not going to go into
details about that. I argue mistake or
confused ideology, that is a categorical opposition
to racism, sexism, homophobia, and institutional oppression
and marginalization based on difference
for identity politics. They confuse the two. They think that
when you actually have a categorical opposition
to these forms of oppression that is equal to
identity politics. And they presume that the
white working class operated purely out of a kind
of race and gender neutral economic interests,
but all the other people are driven by their
race and their gender and their sexuality. So most pundits, of
course, repeat this error. They insist that Trump
appealed not to white racism but to legitimate working class
populism driven by class anger. But if this were true, then
you would think logically that all working people
would be attracted to Trump, unless they’re just smarter. So you would think,
well, Trump would win over all black
and brown voters because they’re the lowest
rungs of the working class, and they suffer
disproportionately from some of the policies
that he claimed– claimed– to stand up
against, more than whites, during the financial
crisis of 2008. Instead Trump’s victory inspired
a wave of racist attacks and emboldened the
white nationalist to flaunt their allegiance
to the President-elect. So for the liberal critics
of identity politics, the real culprits are people
of color, the queer people, the feminists, liberal Democrats
who alienated the white working class driving them into
the arms Donald Trump. Now there are
liberal Democrats who alienated all kinds of people
just because they’re bankrupt, but that’s different. That’s a different story. And I said it. The democratic party’s bankrupt
and has been for some time. I didn’t mean, I didn’t realize
that literally bankrupt, but we found out that
they’re literally bankrupt. And I wrote that a year ago. It’s going to
actually be reprinted in Boston Review I think
tomorrow or the next day, so check it out. I wrote this piece
right after Trump. Stayed up all night,
wrote it, my response. And apparently a
lot of stuff that I said, including about Puerto
Rico, all turn out to be true. So it turns out I’m right again. What can I say? I’m still living. So they’re going
to reprint that. But again, instead,
these are the people who are seen as the
kind of culprits. So the argument, this argument
that identity politics and all these people of
color and queer people and feminists and stuff,
are the real problem, is an old argument. It’s inept, it’s confused,
and it’s very, very old. The movements associated
with identity liberalism, as Mark Lilla would
have us believe, have actually not been obsessed
with narrow group identities but with forms of oppression. They’ve been concerned
about exclusion. They’ve been fighting
marginalization. And none of these movements
today have been exclusionary. Black Lives Matter is not an
exclusionary organization. They are wide open. Prison abolitionists,
it’s not exclusionary. Movement for LGBTQ
rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, struggles
against Islamophobia, these are not
exclusive movements. They are serious
attempts, serious efforts, to interrogate sources
of persistent inequality, the barriers to
equal opportunity, and the structures
and policies that do harm to some groups
at the expense of others. The irony, of course,
is that the most exclusive organizations
are like the Nazis, the alt right, and the Klan. I’ve been trying to get
in the Klan for years. They will not take
my application. But all those
other organizations I could be a part of. So just in closing– actually, no, I didn’t want
to put that side up there. That’s my last slide. So just to close, to quote
Cedric Robinson’s friend and colleague, the late
Otis Madison, he said– and you could write this down– the purpose of
racism is to control the behavior of white
people, not black people. And you can extend that,
say, black, brown– for blacks guns and
tanks are sufficient. OK, so the purpose of
racism is to control the behavior of white
people, not black people. For blacks, guns and
tanks are sufficient. In other words, racism– not anti-racism– constitutes
the identity politics that helps fuel Trump’s victory. The alt-right raises
a Nazi salute. Clansmen shoot
black demonstrators in front of the
police and walk away. And for the people of Ferguson
and Baltimore and elsewhere, guns and tanks are sufficient. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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