Ultrapredators: The demonisation of the working class and the new Jim Crow

I have previously compared class hierarchy to slave systems of times gone by. Indeed, the master/slave dialectic of many societies is the archetypical class division. It denotes a complete asymmetry of power between two classes of people: the rulers, and the ruled. It is no surprise that the ancient concept of tyranny is adapted in the modern world into Marx’s concept of exploitation: where one class is tyrannised by another, which monopolises the means of production. But in the modern world, the collective will of the people is ideally expressed in the sovereign state, which monopolises the means of coercion. The state can therefore reign in the masters of modern industry: capital. But capital can also influence the state to pass policies that disadvantage labour, just as it cajoled the state into allowing the enclosure of common land in sixteenth-century England to forcibly move peasants into cities to work as wage labourers. The abolition of transatlantic slavery increased the number of wage labourers available for working in factories and, in time, offices and mobile professions. But the distinction between capital and labour remains. And this distinction underpins novel forms of racism after the abolition of slavery.

The new racism of class, as depicted in a piece for the New York Times.

For example, the antisemitic (as well as anti-black, anti-gypsy, and anti-autistic) racism expounded by Nazi Germany was made possible by the close-knit ties between the state and capital, which saw increased returns on investments through the 1930s, with high employment serving to dampen the power of labour, which was assimilated into the bureaucratic structure of monopolistic economics. ‘Totalitarian-monopoly capitalism’, as Franz Neumann termed the economic system of ‘National Socialism’ (one of the severest misnomers of all time), thus anticipates the contemporary system of neoliberalism — an alliance between the state, monopolies, and diverse market interests. Deunionisation has eviscerated the western working class, while rates on return on capital have skyrocketed even as wage growth has flattened since the inflationary oil crises of the 1970s. While the old totalitarianism followed a recession deeper than any other, the new totalitarianism followed a crisis of inflation that continues to haunt the managerial elites of neoliberal capitalism.

This led Marxist writers like Barbara Ehrenreich to invent a name for a new class, ‘between capital and labor’: the Professional-Managerial Class, or PMC for short. This class is occupied with ‘mental labor’, distinguishing it from the material occupations of the traditional working class, and from the passive income received by capital from investments in a market which thinks for itself (as Hayek strenuously argued). The class accompanied a new spirit of capitalism, where the old ‘social critique’ of capitalism as a class system, just like feudalism or slave systems of old, was replaced with an ‘aesthetic critique’ of capitalism as a symbolic arena of competing commodities. ‘Race’ itself became a potent commodity to be bought and sold, and a distraction from more fundamental political issues of class. What is worse, the emphasis on race masks the real persistence of racism towards black people in America, a form of racism which requires black people wear the ‘white masks’ of polite society (to echo Frantz Fanon’s magisterial Black Skin, White Masks) to ‘earn’ their place at the table of post-Civil Rights Movement America. Indeed, Dr. King was shot before he could complete phase two of the movement: expanding the political basis of civil rights, freeing black people from political exclusion, to include an economic dimension, freeing poor people from economic exploitation. The ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ remains but a footnote to King’s elusive ‘Dream’.

But we have come full circle. Now the class hierarchy is buttressed beyond opposition, the result is a society crystallising into something akin to the post-slavery system of Jim Crow, where regulations kept black people from full equality with their white working-class counterparts. Now, the entire traditional working class faces opposition from the new managers of the modern economy: the professional-managerial class, subservient to capital and yet keen to use idioms like ‘race’ to call their working-class ‘inferiors’ racist and yet themselves practise a sinister form of racism in the process.

For this reason, Professors Adolph Reed Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels have argued that antiracism is the new racism. Antiracism, Reed notes, fulfils the same function for capitalism that racism did a century ago: dividing the rump working class between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ elements. In slavery the divide was between ‘house slaves’ and ‘field slaves’. In Jim Crow the divide was between white workers and black workers. Today the divide is between professionals on top and workers on bottom. But through the whole epoch, the mastery of a ruling class has endured — once based on land, and now based on capital, but each time leaching of the human powers of the worker, or labour.

Sometimes, the disdain towards working class people manifests in straightforward relics of old racist tropes, but inverted to mask the continuation of form despite the change in content. In a New York Times piece, an at-surface caring grandmother mourns that her granddaughter walks to the bus station every mourning. Perhaps there’s crime in the area — perhaps this really is an act of care? But no, she fears not that her granddaughter will be abducted by criminals, but something much more banal and bizarre: ‘My concern is the constant traffic of gardeners, painters and delivery people through the neighbourhood who could harm her.’ How, exactly, is this different from Hillary Clinton’s labelling of young black men as ‘superpredators’ to justify inflating incarceration in the 1990s? It’s not. It’s the same thing.

See, it is common today to see analogies to the past, but we take these analogies literally, rather than metaphorically — or, better, structurally. The New York Times’ 1619 project tries to draw parallels between police brutality today and slavery then. This parallel does exist (remember the Clintons’ ‘superpredators’-based incarceration drive), but the motivation behind the woke opposition to evil seems to be to equate slavery with racism towards a particular group of people. But this is, in fact, racist: it naturalises racism by supposing it has a transhistorical existence it does not, in fact, have. Racism arises from a context. Similarities in form do not mean sameness in content. Indeed, racism is the same precisely in the respect that it is different. This nuance is lost in contemporary narratives of ‘antiracism’ — narratives which are, themselves, racist. The demonisation of working class people in the age of ultracapitalism constitutes, then, a novel form of racism, which also echoes the old forms. This new slavery, this new Jim Crow, must end. It will. For the real ultrapredator is not labour, but capital. And the real evil is not individuals, or groups, but structures and institutions that involve exploitation that ultimately harms us all.

As Frantz Fanon, Hannah Arendt, and Steve Biko argued concerning colonialism, antisemitism, and apartheid, racism — in whatever form it takes — ends up hurting everyone. Even the master lives in a fantasy which fails to relate to the reality in which everyone in a slave society lives. As ancient philosophers argued, the tyrant is not really free, so cannot be truly blamed for their actions. They are enslaves to passion — precisely the allegation the master raises to their slaves. For that reason, it is in the interests of individual capitalists, if not capital as a class, to see this system burn to the ground: because institutions of exploitation, and the racist legitimation stories which claim to justify it, hurt us all. The PMC is confused because it is stuck in the middle — but as J. Cole’s ‘G. O. M. D.’ music video suggests, those who are stuck in the middle have a tantalising freedom to choose which side they stand on: freedom, or domination. Let us hope the middle children of ultracapitalism make the right choice.

It may be that you don’t have to be a direct descendant of slavery or genocide to suffer from the consequences of the new forms of slavery or genocide. The class war today is not the class war then. But exploitation is exploitation. And the new Jim Crow must fall. So did the old. So must the new. Because if there is one thing capitalism can never change, it is this: Everything ends.

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