Colonization and surplus: The origins of race and class

white civilisation

“Oppression follows logically from exploitation so as to guarantee the latter.”
Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

In Ceremonies of Possession Patricia Seed describes how the various colonizer nations introduced themselves to Indigenous peoples. The Spanish declared war by literally reading aloud a formal declaration. The French held elaborate processions with settlers dressed ornately in loudly dyed bejeweled clothing. Walking in order of rank, they carried a large wooden cross, which they planted before asking the Indigenous to swear fealty to god and king.

The British built houses, cultivated gardens, and constructed physical barriers like walls, fences, and hedges. They also heavily populated the land, often through force and coercion. Most early British settlers were indentured servants and convicts who were not given much of a choice. They lived in villages not unlike the ones in their native land, some of which had been standing for a thousand years or more. British elites successfully reproduced their society on North American shores by establishing cultural hegemony through social life in the form of communal agrarian societies.

Planting a stone pillar as other Europeans did was primarily an indicator to other colonizers and to a lesser extent the Indigenous that legally speaking the land had been “discovered” by this or that monarchy. But Britain was the first to truly colonize the continent. Others sought to establish trade or go to war, but Britain put down roots on stolen land. For that reason, they became the dominant imperial power not only in North America but globally for centuries.

Religion alone was not enough to gain cultural hegemony as France and Spain learned, although they did find converts for example among the Tupi people of Brazil. Britain, however, seized and held land. They became the first masters of the agricultural means of production. Just as the last vestiges of the old slave society were dying off in Europe, held over through feudalism, a new form was emerging, driven by the rising market value of agricultural output in the colonies.

Early Portuguese voyages to Africa were for trade and diplomacy, seeking to form alliances against rival monarchies, but as colonies produced more for joint-stock companies, the drive for profit increased, and the need for labor along with it. Portugal first told the white supremacist lie to justify African enslavement. Being a slave among African societies usually meant having been captured in war and was not hereditary. Europeans introduced the human hunting method and raised it to an industrial scale. Sugar, tobacco, and cotton were behind the voracious European appetite for enslavement known as the Atlantic trade. Land and labor were the sources of more wealth than had ever existed in human history, just as they had been in all previous modes of production.

Theft of land and exploitation of labor have also been the source of human oppression since the advent of surplus production around 10,000 years ago, when many human societies became sedentary farming communities. The elevation of spiritual leaders and warriors along with the denigration of slaves and women hailed the near simultaneous emergence of class and patriarchy. Race dawned around 1500 as a justification for the subjugation of enslaved Africans and was legally codified after Bacon’s Rebellion 1676-1677.

Walter Rodney writes that Europeans enslaved Africans not for racist but for economic reasons — “so that their labor power could be exploited.” Given the extermination of Indigenous peoples, colonizers needed a source of cheap labor to make conquered land productive. Race and white supremacy are historically synonymous with capitalism. There would be no capitalism without white supremacy upholding the racial order of chattel slavery, which drove both initial industrialization and financialization.

Saying class predates race bears clarifying that for the vast majority of humanity’s existence, we have had neither. Nor does putting race relative to class on a timeline at all measure the historical significance of either. Class existed before race the way fire did before the sun.

Manning Marable explains that race, like class “is not an abstraction but an unequal relationship between social aggregates, which is also historically specific.” Race is not natural, inherent, or inevitable as we see from all the effort needed to enforce it. It is not timeless. In this dimension, anything with a beginning has an end.

Class is the spectrum of a person’s proximity to either surplus or production. Proximity to one or the other measures one’s relative class position. Elites own the surplus end of the spectrum and relegate workers to the production end. Race is a social division of labor, setting Black people further from the surplus end, and white people closer, while most of both are on the production end.

Legal, political, and social advantage decreases moving from the surplus end to the production end, but for whites it persists regardless to a degree, i.e. privilege. Meanwhile, being placed closer to the surplus end still does not protect middle strata Black people from manifold social disadvantage and discrimination. Working class whites still get privilege rooted in the surplus end. Upper and middle class Blacks still get oppression rooted in the production end. While Black people joining the ranks of the economic elite does not necessarily indicate racial progress, the fact there are only 8 Black billionaires is a reflection of white supremacy.

A person’s proximity to either surplus or production juxtaposes racially. Centuries of enslavement carried over degradation to present US conditions. Chattel slavery was an extreme devaluation of labor that, even as many have defended it, white workers continue to suffer from. The source of exploitation for Black and white workers is the same, only for white workers, it is also conversely, and deceptively, the source of their privilege.

Race is defined socially, enforced politically, and implemented economically. Black Americans and other racialized groups are “divorced from the levers of power” as Marable says, so their “ability to produce commodities” can be “systematically exploited, chiefly through abnormally low wages.” Importantly, Black people are also “denied ownership of the major means of production”. The racial wealth gap is an historic disparity in resource access.

As Marable continues, “To be ‘white’ in racial terms essentially means that one’s life chances improve dramatically over those of nonwhites, in terms of access to credit, capital, quality housing, health care, political influence, and equitable treatment in the criminal justice system”.

Oppressive political, social, and economic conditions of race are also those of class, corresponding in a power imbalance to the socioeconomic basis of the ruling class — white capital. Yet depending on race, a person’s access to resources reflects one end or the other of the surplus-production spectrum. Having whiteness means access to the owners’ hoarded surplus whereas Blackness marks a person for deprivation and servitude.

Racialization is a hegemonic process taking place at the heart of capitalism. European elites conceptualized cultural superiority while dispossessing their continental neighbors long before the invasion of Africa. Anti-Jewish pogroms, crusades against Muslims, and Britain’s subjugation of the Irish all contributed to building capitalism's racial core.

The thirteenth century pan-European burglary known as the Spanish Reconquista targeted mainly Muslims and Jews for expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula. This arguably partly laid the groundwork for the political construction of race, but the social and economic components would not fully consolidate for another couple hundred years. That said, anti-Jewish violence in Europe precedes the Reconquista by centuries and was often economically motivated. Like earlier crusades, the Reconquista was a quest for property. Crusaders asserted their right to claim land based on white Christian supremacy.

With Portugal’s invasion of Africa immediately followed by Spain’s bloody introduction to the western hemisphere, race became a dominant global force. European notions of property, class, and gender were heaped onto the conquered. European colonizers invented whiteness as a marker of proprietary superiority over colonized labor.

Similar to how owning a business today elevates a person’s class status, owning land then, a productive asset, elevated a person’s colonial economic status toward whiteness. Mixed race people born of European and African parents in what is now Haiti could reach whitened social prestige if they bought land. Owning property after being property, or having parents who were enslaved, moved a person from Black servitude toward white proprietorship. The colonial exploiter-exploited relationship was permanent in pigment, but periodically it could be circumvented through capital.

International plunder markets controlled by Europeans got more competitive, profitable, and labor intensive. When Europeans found mineral and agricultural wealth beyond prior measure on conquered land, kidnapped Africans became the imperial labor base for its extraction. Chattel slavery was a colonial venture, exploiting a foreign resource for domestic profit.

A specialized labor market developed where bosses could buy not only labor-power, but laborers themselves, enabling vastly accelerated exploitation. Sugar, cotton, and tobacco became the most profitable commodities in the world except one — enslaved labor. Making labor captive, without regard for wages, rest, or free motion, ensured the full value produced with each day’s work went directly to enslavers.

Plantations made export-scale production possible in conditions too brutal for free labor. If an enslaved African dropped dead from heat exhaustion it was no real concern for the master. Financial loss from purchasing a new slave could be recouped in a single day’s work.

In supposed attempts to maximize output, planters brutalized the enslaved, physically and psychologically, using poor and middle whites for the bloodiest work. Overseers maintained hyper-exploitative relations at the point of production. Slave patrols policed the master’s empire, enforcing white rule for planter profit.

The enslaved had no right to the fruits of their labor. No right to bargain over working conditions. No right to be treated fairly or with respect by the boss. No right to choose their workplace. No right to quality housing, nourishing food, or clean water. No right to free expression or a voice in public affairs. No right to decide. No right to exist, except on the master’s terms.

Black people in the United States sweated and bled under a one-hundred percent rate of exploitation governed through legal dehumanization for over three hundred years. Black Americans now are twice as likely to fall below the federal poverty line than whites, thirty percent less likely to own a home, and on average earn thirty percent less in yearly income.

Colonialism was a global exploitation system based on racial labor hierarchies with Europeans at the top. The colonial mode of production developed on that basis into the capitalist mode. Colonialism cohered the elements of a socially constructed division of labor which capitalism solidified. Capitalism’s white supremacist roots run as deep as its colonial origins.

Since the colonial period, race has co-defined labor stratification along with gender. The colonial racialization of labor was a vehicle for transitioning feudalism to capitalism. Colonialism’s racial labor hierarchy now serves capitalist accumulation.

Social control systems grew throughout imperial expansion, while private sector elites seized the land and raw material needed for increasing production to a capitalist scale. Centuries old processes of primitive accumulation gathered the initial wealth of capitalists today.

Settler-colonialism is the primitive accumulation founding the United States. Through genocide, Europeans dispossessed Indigenous peoples of land, denied them self-determination, and robbed them of resources.

That bloody opening made space for slave-based agriculture. Industry followed extermination west with mining, infrastructure, and commercial markets. Mechanized and agrarian production cultivated sick symbiosis between industrial exploitation and feudal-like enslavement. Theft of land and labor supplied the bricks with which the ruling class built its twisted US kingdom.

Slavery found permanent soil in the American south. Southern servitude conditions set in the country’s seedbed stunting progress for four hundred years and counting. The incongruous state of American labor in Black captivity but white freedom foreclosed the collective exercise of power as a multi-racial majority essentially up until 1965 with brief interruptions and constant backsliding.

Enslaved labor fed factory-ready goods north for mass production. Robber barons invested the profits to become the masters not just of industry, but also finance, fueling new imperial expansion. American capitalists positioned themselves as rulers of the country before setting eyes on the world.

Growing into oligarchs beyond anything old monarchy ever dreamed of, they became a new type of ruling class, granting themselves royalty by capital decree. Today, they constitute an authoritarian clique of private sector despots. Electoral democracy is their concession, but absolutism is their preference. Kings bow to them because they hold the reins of corporate power.