How Woke Politics Keeps Class Solidarity Down
Anti-racism as an ideology serves a perfect function for corporations that ultimately take workers for granted.
On April 2, 1865, in the dying days of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln wandered the streets of burnt out Richmond, the former Confederate capital. All of a sudden, Lincoln found himself surrounded by scores of emancipated men and women. Here’s how the historian James McPherson describes the moving episode in his magisterial book Battle Cry of Freedom:
Several freed slaves touched Lincoln to make sure he was real. “I know I am free,” shouted an old woman, “for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.” Overwhelmed by rare emotions, Lincoln said to one black man who fell on his knees in front of him: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.”
Lincoln’s legacy as the Great Emancipator has survived the century and a half since then largely intact. But there have been cracks in this image, mostly caused by questioning academics who decried him as an overt white supremacist. This view eventually entered the mainstream when Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote misleadingly in her lead essay to the “1619 Project” that Lincoln “opposed black equality.”
Today, we find Lincoln statues desecrated. Neither has the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first all-black units in the Civil War, survived the recent protests unscathed. To many on the left, history seems like the succession of one cruelty by the next. And so, justice may only be served if we scrap the past and start from a blank slate. As a result, Lincoln’s appeal that we stand upright and enjoy our liberty gets lost to time.
Ironically, this will only help the cause of Robert E. Lee—and the modern corporations who rely on cheap, inhumane labor to keep themselves going.
The main idea driving the “1619 Project” and so much of recent scholarship is that the United States of America originated in slavery and white supremacy. These were its true founding ideals. Racism, Hannah-Jones writes, is in our DNA.
Such arguments don’t make any sense, as the historian Barbara Fields clairvoyantly argued in a groundbreaking essay from 1990. Why would Virginia planters in the 17th century import black people purely out of hate? No, Fields countered, the planters were driven by a real need for dependable workers who would toil on their cotton, rice, and tobacco fields for little to no pay. Before black slaves did this work, white indentured servants had. (An indentured servant is bound for a number of years to his master, i.e. he can’t pack up and leave to find a new opportunity elsewhere.)
After 1776 everything changed. Suddenly the new republic claimed that “all men are created equal”—and yet there were millions of slaves who still couldn’t enjoy this equality. Racism helped to square our founding ideals with the brute reality of continued chattel slavery: Black people simply weren’t men.
But in the eyes of the Southern slavocracy, the white laboring poor of the North also weren’t truly human. Such unholy antebellum figures as the social theorist George Fitzhugh or South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond urged that the condition of slavery be expanded to include poor whites, too. Their hunger for a cheap, subservient labor source did not stop at black people, after all.
Always remember Barbara Fields’s formula: The need for cheap labor comes first; ideologies like white supremacy only give this bleak reality a spiritual gloss.
The true cause of the Civil War—and it bears constant repeating for all the doubters—was whether slavery would expand its reach or whether “free labor” would reign supreme. The latter was the dominant ideology of the North: Free laborers are independent, self-reliant, and eventually achieve economic security and independence by the sweat of their brow. It’s the American Dream.
But if that is so, then the Civil War ended in a tie—and its underlying conflict was never really settled.
Michael Lind argues in his new book The New Class War that many powerful businesses in America today continue to rely on the work of quasi indentured servants. Hungry for unfree, cheap workers, corporations in Silicon Valley and beyond employ tens of thousands of foreign workers through the H-2B visa program. These workers are bound to the company that provided them with the visa. If they find conditions at their jobs unbearable, they can’t switch employers—they would get deported first. In turn, this source of cheap labor effectively underbids American workers who could do the same job, except that they would ask for higher pay.
America’s wealth rests on this mutual competition between workers—some nominally “free,” others basically indentured—whether it be through unjust visa schemes or other unfair managerial practices.
Remember that the next time you read a public announcement by the Amazons of this world that they remain committed to “black lives matter” and similar identitarian causes.
Fortunately, very few Americans hold the same racial resentments in their hearts as their ancestors did even just half a century ago. Rarely did we agree as much than when the nation near unanimously condemned the death of George Floyd at the hands of a few Minneapolis police officers. This is in keeping with another fortunate trend: Over the last 40 years, the rate of police killings of young black men declined by 79% percent.
But anti-racism as an ideology serves a perfect function for our corporations, even despite the evidence that people in this country have grown much less bigotted than they once were: As a management tool, anti-racism sows constant suspicion among workers who are encouraged to detect white supremacist sentiments in everything that their fellow workers say or do.
We’re getting turned into rats. Naturally, this is no fertile soil for solidarity. And with so many jobs precarious and subcontracted out on a temporary basis, there is preciously little that most workers can do to fight back this insidious managerial control. Free labor looks different.
And so, through a surprising back door, the true cause for which Robert E. Lee chose to betray his country might still be coming out on top, whether we remove his statues or not—namely, the steady supply to our ruling corporations of unfree workers willing to hustle for scraps.
It’s time to follow Abraham Lincoln’s urging and get off our knees again. We should assert our rights as American citizens to live free from economic insecurity and mutual resentment. The vast majority of us harbor no white supremacist views, period. Instead, we have so many more things in common, and we know it.
Another anecdote from the last days of the Civil War, also taken from Battle Cry of Freedom, might prove instructive here: The surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 essentially ended the Civil War. The ceremony was held with solemn respect for Lee, though one of Grant’s adjutants couldn’t help himself but have a subtle dig at Lee’s expense:
After signing the papers, Grant introduced Lee to his staff. As he shook hands with Grant’s military secretary Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, Lee stared a moment at Parker’s dark features and said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker responded, “We are all Americans.”
Gregor Baszak is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a writer. His articles have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Spectator USA, Spiked, and elsewhere. Follow Gregor on Twitter at @gregorbas1.