Until we win: Black Labor and Liberation in capitalism’s disposable era

By Kali Akuno

Read the entire article on the “Black Left Unity Network” blog at tinyurl.com/ovyytvs

black-woman-minimum-wage-placardSince the rebellion in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, Black people throughout the United States have been grappling with a number of critical questions, such as why are Black people being hunted and killed every 28 hours or more by various operatives of the law? Why don’t Black people seem to matter to this society? And what can and must we do to end these attacks and liberate ourselves? There are concrete answers to these questions. Answers that are firmly grounded in the capitalist dynamics that structure the brutal European settler-colonial project we live in and how Afrikan people have historically been positioned within it.

The value of Black life

There was a time in the United States Empire when Afrikan people, aka, Black people, were deemed to be extremely valuable to the “American project,” when our lives as it is said, “mattered.” This “time” was the era of chattel slavery, when the labor provided by Afrikan people was indispensable to the settler-colonial enterprise, accounting for nearly half of the commodified value produced within its holdings and exchanged in “domestic” and international markets. Our ancestors were held and regarded as prize horses or bulls, something to be treated with a degree of “care” (i.e., enough to ensure that they were able to work and reproduce their labor, and produce value for their enslavers) because of their centrality to the processes of material production.

What mattered was Black labor power and how it could be harnessed and controlled, not Afrikan humanity. Afrikan humanity did not matter — it had to be denied in order to create and sustain the social rationale and systemic dynamics that allowed for the commodification of human beings. These “dynamics” included armed militias and slave patrols, iron-clad nonexception social clauses like the “one-drop” rule, the slave codes, vagrancy laws, and a complex mix of laws and social customs all aimed at oppressing, controlling, and scientifically exploiting Black life and labor to the maximum degree. This systemic need served the variants of white supremacy, colonial subjugation and imperialism that capitalism built to govern social relations in the U.S. All of the fundamental systems created to control Afrikan life and labor between the 17th and 19th centuries are still in operation today, despite a few surface moderations, and serve the same basic functions.

The correlation between capital accumulation (earning a profit) and the value of Black life to the overall system has remained consistent throughout the history of the U.S. settler-colonial project, despite shifts in production regimes (from agricultural, to industrial, to service and finance oriented) and how Black labor was deployed. The more value (profits) Black labor produces, the more Black lives are valued. The less value (profits) Black people produce, the less Black lives are valued. When Black lives are valued, they are secured enough to allow for their reproduction (at the very least). When they are not, they can be and have been readily discarded and disposed of. This is the basic equation and the basic social dynamic regarding the value of Black life to U.S. society.

The age of disposability

We are living and struggling through a transformative era of the global capitalist system. Over the past 40 years, the expansionary dynamics of the system have produced a truly coordinated system of resource acquisition and controls, easily exploitable and cheap labor, production, marketing and consumption on a global scale. The increasingly automated and computerized dynamics of this expansion have resulted in millions, if not billions, of people being displaced through two broad processes: one, from “traditional” methods of life sustaining production (mainly farming), and the other from their “traditional” or ancestral homelands and regions (with people being forced to move to large cities and “foreign” territories in order to survive). As the International Labor Organization recently reported in its “World Employment and Social Outlook 2015” paper, this displacement renders millions to structurally regulated surplus or expendable statuses.

Capitalist logic does not allow for surplus populations to be sustained for long. They either have to be reabsorbed into the value producing mechanisms of the system, or disposed of. Events over the past 20 (or more) years, such as the forced separation of Yugoslavia, the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, the never ending civil and international wars in Zaire/Congo and the central Afrikan region, the mass displacement of farmers in Mexico all clearly indicate that the system does not possess the current capacity to absorb the surplus populations and maintain its equilibrium.

The dominant actors in the global economy — multinational corporations, the transnationalist capitalist class and state managers — are in crisis mode trying to figure out how to best manage this massive surplus in a politically justifiable (but expedient) manner.

This incapacity to manage crises caused by capitalism itself is witnessed by numerous examples of haphazard intervention at managing the rapidly expanding number of displaced peoples such as:

* The ongoing global food crisis (which started in the mid-2000s), where millions are unable to afford basic foodstuffs because of rising prices and climate induced production shortages;

* The corporate driven displacement of hundreds of millions of farmers and workers in the Global South (particularly in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia);

* Military responses (including the building of fortified walls and blockades) to the massive migrant crises confronting the governments of the U.S., Western Europe, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc.;

*The corporate driven attempt to confront climate change almost exclusively by market (commodity) mechanisms;

*The scramble for domination of resources and labor, and the escalating number of imperialist facilitated armed conflicts and attempts at regime change in Africa, Asia (including Central Asia) and Eastern Europe.

The capitalist system is demonstrating, day by day, that it no longer possesses the managerial capacity to absorb newly dislocated and displaced populations into the international working class (proletariat), and it is becoming harder and harder for the international ruling class to sustain the provision of material benefits that have traditionally been awarded to the most loyal subjects of capitalism’s global empire, namely the “native” working classes in Western Europe and settlers in projects like the U.S., Canada and Australia.

When the capitalist system can’t expand and absorb, it must preserve itself by shifting towards “correction and contraction” — excluding and if necessary disposing of all the surpluses that cannot be absorbed or consumed at a profit. We are now clearly in an era of correction and contraction that will have genocidal consequences for the surplus populations of the world if left unaddressed.

This dynamic brings us back to the U.S. and the crisis of jobs, mass incarceration and the escalating number of extrajudicial police killings confronting Black people.

Return to the source

The intersecting, oppressive systems of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy have consistently tried to reduce Afrikan people to objects, tools, chattel and cheap labor. Despite the systemic impositions and constraints these systems have tried to impose, Afrikan people never lost sight of their humanity, never lost sight of their own value and never conceded defeat.

In the age of mounting human surplus, and the devaluation and disposal of life, Afrikan people are going to have to call on the strengths of our ancestors and the lessons learned in over 500 years of struggle against the systems of oppression and exploitation that beset them. Building a self-determining future based on self-respect, self-reliance, social solidarity, cooperative development and internationalism is a way forward that offers us the chance to survive and thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

Kali Akuno is the producer of “An American Nightmare: Black Labor and Liberation,” a joint documentary project of Deep Dish TV and Cooperation Jackson. He is the co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, and a co-writer of “Operation Ghetto Storm,” better known as the “Every 28 Hours” report. Kali can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @KaliAkuno.