A Freeway in Hell

My thoughts on the nature of our late capitalist society. The title should give some clue what I think of that! US 101 or I-80 as metaphor for our imperatives. Besides worrying about what sort of black hole we are speeding into, I like airships. One reason being the almost inescapble desire to have one to get out of a traffic jam!

Location: Sonoma County, California

Grew up a military brat, Californian-in-exile, reactionary libertarian-essentially spent the 70s on Mars, for I am hearing impaired and I did not know what the music was saying. Generally still don't unless I listen to it over and over or find the words captioned on a movie or somewhere on line. Came "back" to California to begin my adult life, have not lived elsewhere since. No regrets there despite our problems here. Have studied physics, more math than most human beings will ever need, worked on spaceship projects (well, one) at JPL. Lived with a wonderful disabled person who lives no more--L Natasha Littletree RIP October 2004. I have a life plan, just kind of vague on some of the short-term stuff.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Theoretical background stuff for Pam's guests and posterity

The estimable Pam Spaulding, co-blogging at Pandagon, has once again asked us to seriously discuss race in the USA. Here is my theoretical abstract background to my response to her questions.

First of all, intellectually I frame the whole issue of race and racial categories and assignments and so on in the context of an oppressive system that is maintaining the myth of race for reasons of its own normal functions. Specifically, people in the USA have the impressions we have because of our social system and its history, and since there isn't any objective basis in inherent human abilities or characteristics for it, of course there is no other framework but this arbitrary history and present practice, and therefore of course it is full of absurdities especially around the edges.

The US racial system was founded in enslaving Africans, and this was done simply because African slaves who fled captivity could be readily identified and re-captured. This was true no matter how culturally comfortable or even identified a particular African or descendent of Africans became, and no matter whether there was any feeling of rejection any group of "white" people night have felt, nor even vice versa protective solidarity with a fellow exploited worker--other fugitive workers like indentured servants from Britain for instance, or the shipmates of an African sailor (of whom there were quite a few in the 18th and 19th century). It was objectively easy to catch escaped Africans, easy to separate them from possible allies, easy to enforce differential treatment. That's the crux of the matter, and that aspect continues relevant to this day.

To be sure the whole task of getting economic benefit out of the investment in slavery was made even easier by the cultivation and encouragement of bigoted attitudes among potential allies of recalcitrant black workers as well as other levels of society, so we have a tremendous cultural investment in bigotry. But we could analyze the whole thing without acknowledging this, though the analysis is much more straightforward if we do.

Many people might wonder why I think that the economic and sociopolitical basis of anti-African bigotry that seems so clear when we look at the era of legal slavery matters today, when slavery has been long abolished. We can and should consider the many ways that we have continued a number of quasi-slavery institutions and practices to this day, but for the moment leave that aside. Even if we didn't selectively and differentially convict people perceived to be African, or had no prejudices about hiring them on a case-by-case basis, or have any concerns about intermarriage, or whatnot, we still live under capitalism.

And capitalism by its nature produces a stratified range of options for people at different economic levels. Not only is there a wide range of income distrubution for wage workers, and a limited opportunity for people to enter the capitalist classes by amassing investment capital sufficient to live off the profits, which is the definition of a capitalist, there is also a tremendous range of working and associated living conditions. In particular, capitalism is characteristically volatile, unstable, and cyclic. Most of the jobs and related opportunities at the bottom of the ladder are particularly vulnerable to these inherent and necessary fluctuations.

But at the same time, capitalist societies, for good and deep reasons, tend to be associated with nominally liberal institutions. In particular, the notion that government, and society in general, derives from the consent and enlightened self-interest of the people, is very important (though not indispensible) in maintaining the moral pre-eminence of a capitalist society. Thus, we see a serious problem--individuals near the bottom of the ladder may well consent, or even be enthusiastic supporters of, a system they think offers them fair opportunities to enjoy greater wealth, and that at any rate offers them a lifestyle they are accustomed to. But when a boom goes bust, when a particular line of work that showed promise half a generation ago is supplanted by the evolution of the market, or indeed anything at all goes wrong, it is these people at the bottom, the last hired, who are first fired; it is they who bear the full brunt of the violent swings characteristic of the system, and these swings last years stretching into decades.
Therefore it is not necessary, but it is very handy, for a capitalist republic, to have a class of people whom the majority do not accept as full members and full equals of themselves. If a big portion of the worst work is offered mainly to them, and these people have impaired opportunities to seek more rewarding and secure positions, then it becomes much easier to cultivate stable sustained support for the cyclic system among the better-off majority. Of course the flip side of this purging of the risks and downsides onto a disfavored minority is that those people will presumably be even more disaffected than they would be as merely poor people, and might develop a group consciousness that all the more systematically works to change or overthrow the domininant system. But if this risk can be managed by a series of social double standards that permit the dominant portion of society to systematically attack and undercut such organization perhaps in ways that would never be accepted by the majority applied to themselves, then actually the threat of the revolt of the stigmatize underclass becomes a reinforcement of the system, as its plausibility justifies the harsh measures taken to a larger majority than might be prepared to stomach them without the clear and present danger.


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