How the Left Exploits Antiracism to Attack Capitalism


Ryan McMaken – July 8, 2020

Joseph Schumpeter once observed, “capitalism stands its trial before judges who have the sentence of death in their pockets.” Capitalism is to be condemned no matter what, even if the executioners have yet to settle on the specific reason for its condemnation.

The forces of anticapitalism have long morphed into whatever form best suits them for taking advantage of the zeitgeist. Whatever the latest injustice may be—from a polluted environment to poverty to racism—the solution is always the same: the destruction of markets and market freedom. As Ralph Raico has noted:

In earlier times, they [i.e., the anticapitalists] indicted capitalism for the immiseration of the proletariat, inevitable depressions, and the disappearance of the middle classes. Then, a little later, it was for imperialism and inevitable wars among the imperialist (capitalist) powers….

Capitalism was charged with being unable to compete with socialist societies in technological progress (Sputnik); with promoting automation, leading to catastrophic permanent unemployment; both with creating the consumer society and its piggish affluence and with proving incapable of extending such piggishness to the underclass; with “neo-colonialism”; with oppressing women and racial minorities; with spawning a meretricious popular culture; and with destroying the earth itself.

At the moment, the Left has apparently settled on racism as the justification for the latest round of anticapitalist invective. Indeed, if we delve into the Left’s narrative underpinning of the current Black Lives Matter movement we find a sizable undercurrent of anticapitalism. This isn’t to say antiracism has nothing to do with the controversy. Clearly it is an element of the movement. Moreover, it may certainly be the case that most of the movement’s rank and file—those who demonstrate in the streets—are animated simply by a desire to end mistreatment by government police. But when it comes time to formulate policy responses to the current crises of police abuse, we’re likely to discover that the Left is demanding a “solution” that goes far beyond merely holding abusive cops accountable and will focus instead on further dismantling what’s left of the market economy.

“Neoliberalism” as White Supremacy

While the connection between police abuse and the evils of capitalism may not be readily apparent to some, the indictment of capitalism as the ultimate culprit will flow naturally from the fact that the Left has long attempted to connect racism to market economies. We find the evidence in countless leftist-authored books and articles which claim capitalism and racism are inseparable. The vocabulary used here employs the usual pejorative term for capitalism employed by the Left: neoliberalism.

Although many free market liberals (i.e., “classical” liberals) and conservatives have tried to reassure themselves that attacks on neoliberalism are merely benign attacks on globalist elites, this is a naïve view. The Left has consistently used the term “neoliberal” to describe nearly any ideology or policy agenda that is even moderately procapitalist. In their minds, neoliberalism is simply market capitalism.

For example, in an article titled “Black Politics and the Neoliberal Racial Order” authors Michael C. Dawson and Megan Ming Francis are quite clear that an attack on neoliberalism is no mere limited attack on an international elite of central bankers:

We define neoliberalism as a set of policies and ideological tenets that include the privatization of public assets; the deregulation or elimination of state services; macroeconomic stabilization and the discouragement of Keynesian policies; trade liberalization and financial deregulation.

Neoliberalism is any movement in the direction of less government intervention in the everyday lives of business owners, entrepreneurs, and households. To be a “non-neoliberal”—and thus ideologically correct—is to be in favor of Keynesian policies, trade controls, and more government regulation.

The anticapitalism is apparent when researcher Felicia Rose Asbury concludes: “Black Lives Matter…operates as both a byproduct and site of resistance to the material and ideological manifestations of neoliberal projects.” This, of course, makes perfect sense if neoliberalism is inextricably linked with racism, and thus Asbury goes on to describe neoliberalism as being characterized by “exclusion and erasure” of nonwhite groups, which its “structural manifestations of violence” perpetuate. Consequently, it becomes necessary to “create a black future beyond the neoliberal paradigm.”

Dawson and Francis similarly lament “the intertwined history of white supremacy and capitalist economic structures,” and this is especially alarming to them, because, in the anticapitalist narrative, free market capitalism is the dominant ideology in the world today. The story behind this is a familiar one for anyone well-versed in the Left’s historical narrative around neoliberalism. Specifically, as Dawson and Francis describe it:

Neo-liberalism is a set of policies and an ideology that has led to the transformation of government, starting under President Ronald Reagan, from New Deal – type social policies to policies that not only would be dictated by market principles but also would seek to have market values dominate every sphere of human existence from entertainment to science, from education to the arts. Reagan and his contemporaries Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany were mostly successful in waging war on the Keynesian social contract by attacking the social safety net, labor and its organizations, and any argument or policy that favored, even if ever so slightly, those who were not members of “the 1 percent.”

Moreover, in the mind of the typical anticapitalist intellectual, the story of the 1980s and 1990s is one in which capitalists moved from victory to victory in overturning the old paradigm of the New Deal, which valued egalitarianism and social justice. An almost laissez-faire economic order has been the rule ever since.

Yet to anyone who has been paying attention, this narrative is clearly absurd. Whether we look at tax receipts, government spending, government employment, or the regulatory burden, state control of the economy—at least in the United States—is far larger today than at any time in the past. The economy has not been “deregulated” and the Keynesian paradigm has not been scaled back. Yet the narrative remains immensely powerful. Both leftists and conservatives believe it, which is why even conservatives will claim that “market fundamentalists” dominate the entire government apparatus.

“Racial Capitalism”

The centrality of racism to capitalism is further reinforced by the relatively recent term “racial capitalism.” The term is employed by Dawson and Francis, who define racial capitalism as “the system that is produced by the mutually constitutive hierarchical structures of capitalism and race in the United States.” This sentence may be difficult to understand for those unfamiliar with the Left’s view of capitalism: capitalism is inherently hierarchical and characterized by top-down and bottom-up conflict between the social classes. In this view, capitalism is fundamentally inseparable from state coercion, which must be employed by capitalists to keep workers in their place. Capitalists then employ racial divisions to reinforce this hierarchy.

Numerous examples of this theory are fleshed out in Walter Johnson’s new book The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. Although Johnson focuses on the city of Saint Louis, the book is really his history of how capitalists nationwide have used racism to exploit the middle and working classes over the past two centuries. It is a history of how “racial capitalism has been one in which white supremacy justified the terms of…capitalist exploitation.” Johnson makes it clear he views the promotion of racism as a necessary tactic in perpetuating capitalism at the expense of the workers. For Johnson, it is possible to control racial and ethnic minorities with shows of physical force. But the numerically superior white workers require a different strategy: specifically, “white supremacy is necessary to control the white people.”1  

Consequently, in Johnson’s view, we find that capitalism rests on a shaky foundation in which racism is not just part of the capitalist framework. Racism must be perpetuated by capitalists in order to maintain the capitalist status quo. The conclusion becomes obvious: destroy capitalism and we destroy racism.

It’s easy to see, then, how a well-meaning opponent of bigotry might conclude that the cause of decency must necessarily demand the destruction of capitalism. According to the Left’s intellectuals, not only is neoliberalism (i.e., capitalism) inextricably linked with racism, but the neoliberal order is the dominant one. We might then conclude that the injustices we see around us—presumably a product of the status quo—can only be fixed by overturning that dominant ideology. Moreover, the current ruling class—the ascendant capitalists—employ racism to prop themselves up at the expense of everyone else.

Who wouldn’t want to strike at the capitalists after accepting this narrative?

The problem with all this, of course, is that capitalism is certainly not the dominant ideology of the status quo. If it were, Paul Krugman would not be a media darling, and the US would not be running trillion-dollar deficits each year, funded with government-printed money. Moreover, capitalism has long been the enemy of caste systems, which tend to find the most support in noncapitalist traditionalist systems of privilege and protectionism. It’s no coincidence, of course, that the slave drivers of old vehemently slandered capitalism at every opportunity.

But even if we were to win that argument, the anticapitalist narrative would simply switch to environmentalism or the moral turpitude of consumerism. This year, the popular anticapitalist narrative is about race. Next year, it may be something else entirely. The evidence presented at capitalism’s trial will change. But the presumed death sentence will remain. 

Originally published at Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.  

Image source: Neil Cummings via Flickr

  1. It should be noted that Johnson did not invent this theory, although he employs it extensively. Martin Luther King, Jr., hinted at a similar theory in 1965 when he claimed: “The segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.” The “Bourbon interests” were the Bourbon Democrats of the late nineteenth century, who were notable for their support of hard money, decentralization, and market capitalism in general. The most famous Bourbon Democrat was Grover Cleveland of New York, probably the last true economic liberal in the White House. []

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