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Full equality and liberation

Capitalism thrives on division

“Capitalism divides the working class, based on sexual, gender, racial, national and other distinctions. The specially oppressed groups within the working class suffer the most under capitalism.

“We oppose racism in all its forms. We support the struggle for immigrant rights. We fight for real social, economic and political equality for women, and for an end to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

“We support the fight for Black liberation and all the struggles of the oppressed. The liberation of the oppressed is essential to socialist revolution and impossible without it.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”

“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half,” the 19th century robber baron Jay Gould once bragged.

Why would he say this? The driving force of the capitalist system is profit. As far as capitalists are concerned, nothing else matters so long as the coffers are filling. These profits are the product of the unpaid labor of the working class. Finding ways to guarantee that labor will continue to work, undisturbed, at its job of making profits, is therefore a prime concern to the capitalist.

The whip of economic compulsion accomplishes much of this goal: if you do not work, you do not eat. “Hunger,” argued a British 18th century Protestant parson, “the most natural motive to industry and labor...calls for the most powerful exertions.” Marx put it another way:

“The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the laborer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the laborer can be left to the “natural laws of production,” i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.”

But the collective experience of the working class also leads it to find ways to resist and push back against their exploitation. As Marx writes, “But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.”

The capitalists therefore require other means (short of the use of outright force) to attempt to divide and atomize workers other than just “the dull compulsion of economic relations.” One way they do this is by pitting workers against each other, compelling them to compete with each other for scarce jobs, as we have already discussed.

Laid over this economic competition is the exploitation of differences in race, sex, language, immigration status and so on, which are used to foster deeper divisions among workers. For example, capitalists have often used workers of one race or nationality to scab on native-born white workers in the U.S. in order to stir up enmity between them—something they could not do unless one group was kept in a more oppressed and, therefore, desperate and hungrier state.

Employers were often able to appeal to housewives to rein in their striking husbands, because, to quote Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the women “were expected to stay at home and worry about the empty larder, the hungry kiddies and the growling landlord, easy prey to the agents of the company.”

The IWW, however, had a different approach. “Women can be the most militant or the most conservative element in a strike,” she wrote, “in proportion to their comprehension of its purposes. The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front. The truth is, the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front.”

Understanding oppression

All workers are oppressed under capitalism, facing inferior housing, schooling and medical care, for example, compared to middle-class people (like doctors, lawyers, and managerial functionaries) and wealthy capitalists. But some groups are singled out for “special” oppression that runs even deeper: women, African Americans, Latinos, gays, people who don’t speak the “official” language, people with disabilities, and so on.

These different forms of oppression had an economic function, or were closely tied to the new economic priorities of capitalism. In the early stages of capitalist development, for example, forced labor of various kinds were used to extract wealth from subject peoples, particularly in cases where shortages of wage workers made that form of labor too expensive to be profitable.

As Marx wrote in Capital, “Whilst the cotton industry introduced child slavery in England, it gave in the United States a stimulus to the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.”

Racism—the ideology that observable differences such as skin color marked some people as inferior—was fashioned to justify the forcible enslavement of Africans in the New World. “Slavery could survive,” wrote Winthrop Jordan, “only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery were to exist at all.” In the case of slavery, racial categorization and exploitation were inseparably bound together.

After slavery’s defeat, the Southern white ruling class deliberately fostered race hatred to prevent poor whites from identifying with poor Blacks. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

“The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.”

Racism (as well as xenophobia) also persisted in the North. The main trade unions often refused to organize Blacks (except sometimes in segregated locals) and immigrant workers (in many cases, also women workers), disfiguring the labor movement and rendering it unable to resist the bosses’ attacks.

Divide and conquer

There is an essential point Du Bois makes here that applies to all forms of oppression. And that is that the oppression visited upon one section of society serves the function of keeping down other sections, both economically and socially, and preventing the exploited from seeing that they have common interests with those of their class who face special forms of oppression.

Oppression, and the ideologies that underpin it, objectively weakens the ability of workers to come together and unite against the ruling class. The point was well-expressed by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who wrote, “The encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black man himself.”

Imperialism—the conquest and division of the world by Europe, the U.S. and Japan in the late 19th century—gave renewed lease on the racist ideas developed out of slavery. Racist ideology was used to justify the conquest of “inferior” people who were considered to be at the stage of childhood in terms of human development and therefore needed the tutelage of the mature, “civilized” nations to guide them.

The national chauvinism fostered by the ruling classes of the big powers acted as a powerful weapon against the international solidarity of the working class. The U.S. ruling class today systematically, and insidiously, instills American chauvinism—aided by the compliant mass media.

As a result, most Americans unconsciously accept the right of the U.S. to project its power around the world and to dominate international institutions, and much of the stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims that help justify it. But American chauvinism is even more insidious than others, because it comes with the ideological trappings of the American Revolution. America claims to be a great protector and promoter of world democracy, and a “reluctant” world power uniquely possessed with benign respect for human rights and dignity.

Racism and other forms of oppression persist, quite simply, because without them, capitalism could not survive; though naked exploitation is at the heart of capitalism, without the intervention of material and ideological devices to pit worker against worker, that core relationship of exploitation could not hold for long.

Thus, racism, women’s oppression and other forms of discrimination are not holdovers from previous societies, but essential features of the capitalist system.

Though many legal forms of racial discrimination have disappeared in the U.S. since the 1960s, African Americans remain second-class citizens, facing substantially higher unemployment, lower wages, worse housing, higher poverty rates and far higher levels of victimization at the hands of the police and judicial system than whites.

Racial profiling and stereotyping, both casual and official, is ubiquitous. To cite a couple of examples: Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, but represent 50 percent of the nation’s prison population; among first-time youth offenders, African Americans are six times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison by juvenile courts for the same offense; and Black youth unemployment hovers at around 30 percent nationwide. Racist attitudes toward African Americans, while considerably diminished since the pre-civil rights era, continue to infect millions of people, including a significant number of working-class whites.

Other groups, such as Latinos, are systematically discriminated against on the basis of language, immigration status and skin color. Undocumented immigrant individuals and families live in constant fear of harassment, detention and deportation, not to mention facing the low wages that their precarious status imposes on them.

The form that women’s oppression takes is different from racism, but it is as rooted in the fabric of capitalism as is racism.

Capitalism depends on the unpaid labor of women in the home to guarantee the reproduction of the current and next generation of workers. This imposes a double burden on women, who most often also work outside the home, as well as do the bulk of the childcare and housework. A whole ideological apparatus exists that enshrines the privatized family as the most acceptable form of childrearing and personal relations.

Capitalism has turned sex into a commodity, a reality whose burden falls chiefly, but not exclusively, on women. Women are denied control of their own sexuality and reproductive decisions—denigrated if they are sexually promiscuous (unlike men, who are congratulated) and denied, to varying degrees, control over whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Women also face sexual harassment and violence in the home as well as outside it.

The result of women’s burden, however, is not that a working-class man’s burden is eased. Though men may benefit from having to do less childcare and housework than women, the privatized form of the family places a burden on both men and women, who are expected to use their meager paychecks to keep their families together, pay for their children’s schooling, healthcare and so on, while the capitalists reap all the benefits.

Women’s wages continue to be below men’s, and this is justified on the archaic grounds that men are the main “breadwinners” in society. Men may think that their own sense of self-worth hinges on this, but Just as the low wages of immigrant workers help the bosses drive down the wages of all workers, so the employers use the low wages of women to keep wages low for men. In addition, it should be kept in mind that working-class couples are sharing less money than if women received equal pay to men.

Sexual stereotyping also pegs women to certain jobs and men to others on the grounds that certain jobs are “women’s work” and others “men’s work.” These attitudes have shifted but still persist.

LGBT oppression—society’s mistreatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people—is linked to the nuclear family just described. These groups are seen as threatening to the traditional family, and are therefore considered to be “abnormal.”

The pigeonholing of people into expected and stereotypical gender roles not only stultifies and crushes the lives of women and people who are not heterosexual, but it also creates a great deal of confusion and pain for boys and men, and for people who do not identify with the gender they are assigned, or who do not identify with any gender at all. Socialists reject these societal straightjackets, and believe that how people define and identify themselves should be their own decision.

Class, oppression, and liberation

Just as capitalism needs oppression, the working class needs to combat it in order to build genuine unity. The old saying of the Industrial Workers of the World, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” is perhaps the most important slogan for the labor and socialist movements in this regard—for unless the working class takes this slogan to heart, it will always be defeated. Martin Luther King, Jr’s statement in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is in the same vein.

The working class consists of men and women, gay and straight, Black, white and brown, speaking many different languages, coming from many different nationalities, and so on. If the working class is to successfully challenge capitalism, it must overcome these divisions. On this basis alone, it is essential to recognize the sources of division and inequality inside the working class if a strategy is to be devised to overcome them; for divisions cannot be overcome by ignoring them any more than it can by stoking them.

The conditions of all workers cannot be raised or improved until the conditions of the most poorly treated and most oppressed sections are raised up.

Immigrant workers must be organized along with native born, as equals with the same rights. Women must have equal pay and access to free childcare and reproductive services, and be treated as equals to men. Blacks must have full equality, including access to good education, training, jobs and fair housing, and be free from police brutality and the injustices of the judicial system, of which they bear the brunt. Workers who speak languages other than English must be able to speak and learn in their own language without discrimination. Oppressed nations must have the right to self-determination. All forms of stigmatization and marginalization of people with disabilities must be abolished, and they should be provided with the means to live independent, self-affirming lives, with equal access to work, public services, schools, and other facilities.

Gay, bisexual and transgender people must be free from violence, harassment, and legal constraints, and be extended the same rights as others, including the right to marry; and all people must have the freedom to choose what kind of social and sexual relations they enter into, provided no one is harmed or injured.

These struggles are not extras, but must be an integral part of the workers’ movement for total liberation. The working class can never achieve emancipation unless it is able to challenge all forms of oppression, without which the class cannot unite. Conversely, because capitalism depends on oppression, the liberation of the oppressed cannot be fully achieved unless the working class is able to win socialism.