A few thoughts on the question of privilege and the material basis for racism from a Marxist perspective

This question equivocates around the meaning of the word “benefit.”

Yeah, under communism, the average person would be happier than the average white worker is now. In this way, yes, white workers do not benefit(1) from our current system.

However, in our current global system, Euro-descended workers on average have it quite comfortable among workers. They receive much better treatment from the state, as well as from society at large, and in their dealings with the economy in general.

This happens alongside the fact that non-Euro-descended people–especially, in the United States, black and brown people–receive much worse treatment from both the state and society at large and are forced to occupy much worse positions in the relations of production. Under capitalism white people always receive a value that nonwhite people are oppressed into producing. Whether you call that extra value a benefit(2) is up to you. But there is no disputing that fact.

The question that we as Marxists have to confront is, which of these two definitions of benefit (1 or 2) should we consider in analyzing the revolutionary potential of white people. This is obviously not a wholly settled question.

However, we’d be foolish and obstinate to avoid noting that white people, even white workers, have historically been very reactionary and violent against nonwhite workers who challenged their control of jobs that had been made white-only and of historically white-only societal positions.[note 1 below] What’s more, they have also served as the front-line mercenaries of the inhuman violence necessary to incorporate previously unincorporated lands, peoples, and resources (e.g., the settling of north amerika in Manifest Destiny, and the European colonization of the rest of the world generally) into imperialist capitalism–obviously because many of them saw a route into the bourgeoisie in this way because they got to keep some of the spoils.

And now, whatever the specific definition of “benefit” we’re using, the point is that white people, even white workers–in the United States and pretty much everywhere–act like they have something to lose from uniting with nonwhite workers as part of the international proletariat.

That’s why it’s foolishness to deny the existence of “white privilege” regardless of whether we agree “privilege” or “benefit” are correct words for it. The semantic debate is irrelevant. Call it a value transfer if you like. Whatever you want to call it, even broke white workers act like they have something to lose from uniting with nonwhite workers. We as Marxists must, must, must acknowledge that fact. We must inquire into the material reality that underlies it.[note 2 below] What we can’t do is argue semantics as a way of sweeping the material reality under the rug and say “white workers don’t benefit, black and white unite and fight” over and over until the conversation has ended.

note 1:

1. I’d like to make a point that I had included in a post I wrote but never published about the material basis for racism:

The psychological wage of whiteness (and maleness, straightness, and cisness/gender conformity, for that matter) is material. It makes an emotional difference whether or not the average stranger smiles at you and treats you kindly and deferentially. And whether or not someone smiles in a plausibly friendly and agreeable way is a material fact. White men monopolize society’s limited positions of esteem, praise, and admiration; even poor white men get more esteem and respect than almost all black people in any given area. What it means to occupy these positions is to be the recipient of material acts that feel good and sometimes flattering to receive. The other side of the coin is that the oppression of nonmale and nonwhite people includes disallowing them as valid recipients of these gestures of respect while simultaneously driving them into a pool of people who are pressured into performing these gestures for those who control more value–the privileged–providing a stable emotionally laboring workforce that consistently creates this material benefit of esteem and sees little of it.

This fact (the materiality of the psychological wage) should be all the more apparent when we consider how much money many people with disposable incomes spend on buying rare and expensive “status symbols.” People displaying status symbols receive roughly the same sort of value as comes automatically with being a man with a white body: a certain level of respect and esteem from the general population, a valuable type of treatment that feels good.

Last night I was thinking there were two separate aspects of the psychological wage of whiteness: (1) the others-treat-me-well-and-that-feels-good psychological wage and (2) the I-flatter-myself-for-being-white-or-at-least-not-black psychological wage. But it’s now obvious to me that the (1) others-treat-me-well wage is a material prerequisite for the (2) self-regard-for-being-white wage, and that they’re totally inseparable because they’re part of one singular phenomenon.

2. Another thing that I think is worth noting is that, as the murderer Dylan Roof’s white supremacist manifesto reminds us, one of the most significant “historically white-only societal positions” that white men fight to preserve for themselves alone is “sexual and romantic partner for white women.”

note 2:

I guess while I’m at it, I believe the other major material value transfers that underlie racism[note 3 below] are:

1. A significantly better share of the jobs–as well as higher wages for the same work done, faster promotions, and other employment advantages; correspondingly, when white workers go to spend their money, the services they pay for are cheaper than they would be otherwise because nonwhite people are forced to work for less, further stretching the already-larger paycheck of the white worker.

2. The direct cash flow from what could be called the “overseer industry.” That is, well-paying jobs are created in white communities where otherwise there wouldn’t be jobs–and these jobs consist of acting as part of the violent social control of the people of oppressed nations. The most obvious manifestations of this today are the burgeoning prison system and ever-expanding police forces. The “overseer industry” provides hundreds of thousands of lucrative jobs to communities of white workers. This is something that the Maoist Internationalist Ministry of Prisons turned me on to; some relevant articles here, here, here, and here. This especially agrees with an observation that Michelle Alexander makes in The New Jim Crow that

racial attitudes–not crime rates or likelihood of victimization–are an important determinant of white support for “get tough on crime” and antiwelfare measures.[87] Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization.[88] Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims.

3. There is a huge value transfer to U.S. workers from the imperialist exploitation of nations beyond their country’s borders. This imperialism sustains and is sustained by a certain type of racism (e.g., anti-Arab racism) that is sometimes distinct from the sort of racism that sustains and is sustained by white people’s internal imperialism of the internal oppressed nations (e.g., anti-black racism). However, the fundamental similarity of these distinct racisms means they anchor and catalyze each other. That is, being rewarded for being white supremacist at home encourages white people to go try being white supremacist abroad, and vice versa.

As a side note, we can examine the relative importance of this inter-catalyzing effect by comparing the United States to European countries, which do not have large-scale internal imperialism: this effect is obviously not all-important, because Sweden is still internationally racist and imperialist. But it may be one reason why people in the United States act as the world’s foremost mercenaries for imperialist capitalism.

4. As a comrade reminded me recently, there is also a value transfer ongoing in the form of gentrification. During most of the twentieth century, political-economic forces forced racially oppressed people into inner cities while euro-descended people moved to the suburbs. Now this trend is reversing, and the increasingly valuable land in the core of major cities, which has been occupied by people who face racial oppression, is being forcibly transferred primarily to euro-descended people.

note 3:

In case it’s not clear to anyone reading who’s not super-well-versed in Marxism, this is what I mean when I talk about the material basis for racism:

We Marxists believe that, statistically, every demographic groups’s political beliefs and activities are most of the time mostly determined by their position in the relations of production–that is, their political affiliation tends strongly to be determined by their position on the playing board in the grand social-political-economic game. The capitalist class, or the owning class, receives value from owning the means of production, so they fight to preserve the relations of production that provide that value. The working class suffers from being forced to generate value for the owning class, so they fight to overthrow the existing relations of production. So when I talk about “the material basis for racism,” this is what I’m talking about: a value white people receive and want to keep receiving that motivates them to preserve the status quo, the existing social-political-economic arrangement.

That desire to continue to receive the value of being white in a white supremacist world rarely manifests as a naked and violent selfishness that fully sees the exploitative relationship and nevertheless decides to pursue it. Even slave-owners needed a mystifying ideology to justify their directly and violently forcing other people to produce value for free. Rather, when someone is confronted with two possible interpretations of the world–(1) a painful interpretation that says that they, along with most everyone they have ever cared about and even their whole society, have been complicit in a monstrous injustice that has provided them a great deal of value that they have come to take for granted, and (2) a soothing interpretation that explains what would otherwise look like an injustice in a way that allows them to continue to receive that taken-for-granted value while still regarding themselves, along with the people they care about and their society at large, as basically decent people who aren’t doing anything immoral–it would seem most people are inclined to accept the soothing and justifying interpretation and thereafter avoid thinking about it as much as possible. Racism and sexism–beliefs that explain that forcing a group of people to be servants is just and fair because they are in fact inferior, or naturally prefer to serve–are those more soothing explanations.