Capitalism, revolution and racism in the US and the world

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, we would do well to recall Hegel’s maxim that difference-in-sameness moves history. Max Weber used a similar argument to moderate the polarised Methodenstreit (Battle over Methods) between Berlin and Vienna about economics in the late 19th century. We would not be interested in the Greeks if they were the same as us, he wrote, and we couldn’t understand them, if they were completely different.

In this context, I am reminded my reaction to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the movie about two boys who shot up kids in their school. Moore grew up in Flint Michigan, a city that is plagued by the worst racism in the state and maybe for some distance beyond. It goes way back and deep. It was not created by neoliberalism, but probably exacerbated by it. I don’t know about that. It needs a historical perspective anyway. Moore asks, why is it that Canadians have as many guns as Americans (this may have changed lately), but kill people with them hardly at all. He takes a historical perspective, but it is literally a cartoon version. He says that Americans kill so many as a direct result of the racist origins of the country, rooted in slavery and fear of Negro revolts.

Two books were published in 1938 by the Trinidadian writer and revolutionary, C.L.R. James: The Black Jacobins about the Haitian revolution and A History of Negro (now Pan-African) Revolt take the story forward on both sides of the Atlantic via the US in the early 19th century and the civil war up to the imminent prospects for Africans to overthrow colonial empire. James, who had been the most prominent Trotskyist in Britain but later repudiated the idea of the party altogether, told Trotsky in Mexico that he had got the ‘negro question’ all wrong and suggested that he take it over instead. He hated the duplicitous attitude to race and class there of the Stalinists (whose assassins were shooting at him in 30s Paris when he was researching the Haitian revolution). He wrote an unpublished text in the early 1950s, when he was being ejected from the US after 15 years. Anna Grimshaw and I edited it for publication as American Civilization in 1993. We thought it bore comparison with Tocqueville on whom James draws explicitly, as well as Melville and Whitman, but mainly on US popular arts in the mid-20th century. It has been allowed to go out of print, but you can still pick up a copy on Amazon for $15 (US) or £10 (UK) and there is the online bootleg option of course.

I learned more from James than anyone else — I now usually call him my mentor, as he was for lots of others — both from his many books and from the years we spent together (with Anna) before he died in 1989, between Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall. I will never forget watching the first with him on TV as a young man tried to obstruct the tanks. The occasion of the student protest was a meeting attended by Gorbachev. James held that there were only two world revolutions left — the second Russian revolution and the second American revolution (an idea later taken up by his close associate, Grace Lee Boggs). He once wrote a wonderful article comparing the American civil rights movement in 1956 with Nkrumah’s Ghana revolution and the Hungarian revolution in the same year. He exaggerated the significance of Poland’s Solidarity, but he was right about Africa on the eve of WW2 and no-one, Europeans and Africans alike, believed in such a possibility then. James dissented from the radical left in the North who insisted that their revolution must come first and then they would give independence to the Africans.

Anyway, we were watching TV 1989, enthralled in May along with half the world; and CLR said to me “The Chinese communists will put down the students easily, but the Russians won’t hold onto Eastern Europe after this”. He died a fortnight afterwards at the age of 88, so he didn’t see the Berlin Wall come down six months later. Now we know that the collapse of the Soviet bloc was not the second Russian revolution.

My theme is capitalism, racism and revolution in the US and the world now, so back to Bowling for Columbine. I almost wept when I saw that cartoon blaming US violence on racism. The root cause of our ills is private property, its indifference or hostility to the public interest. One of Marx’s first campaigns as a journalist in Westphalia was about the evils of private property, epitomized then by the removal by local landowners of peasants’ right to take fallen wood from the forests. Nowhere has the dominance of private property been more developed than in the US and (perhaps) never so far as in the Gilded Age which ended as WW1 and in the neoliberal era that is now collapsing around our ears.

Americans have much less social protection (welfare state) than Canada or Western Europe, even though for some decades now the latter’s governments have rushed to follow the US’ example. The BRICS governments (China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa), all in their own distinctive way and mainly just for the sake of political survival, have been trying to expand social protection for the millions recently brought into urban labour markets without it. This echoes the era of developmental states, les trente glorieuses after 1945 in the industrial West, the post-colonial states and the Soviet bloc, based on the drive to increase working people’s purchasing power and public spending, as well as on the regulation of money and markets and international solidarity. That was the last world revolution and it set off the biggest economic boom in world history. The neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan at the end of the 1970s was the counter-revolution.

It is because most American families have had so little to save them from the ravages of capital and markets based on private property that they turned to violence (domestic and public), religion and racism on a scale unmatched in the leading countries, except perhaps in South Africa. The last four decades or so have made this worse in the Anglophone countries, led by the US and Wall St in particular. In 2011, with the Arab Spring and Occupy, I thought that the world was on the move in a good direction. Remember the demonstrations in so many cities around the world when Occupy first happened? Many reacted with enthusiasm to the status quo being challenged at the heart of global empire.

We have since learned, as after WW1 and WW2, that the race is now on to determine what kind of state will rule the world, both in response to the ruin (actual and prospective) of societies and the world economy and to repair the damage brought about by reckless and lawless globalization. The contenders before were welfare state democracy, fascism and communism, then the so-called free market (prosecuted by the largest anti-market collective in world history, the Pentagon) and the ‘socialism’ of the state capitalist Soviet bloc. The world has recently been brought closer together by neoliberal markets, telecommunications and cheap transport — closer, but more divided and unequal at the same time, an explosive recipe.

Federalism and the nation-state are still the main constitutional options as they were 200 years ago. Most of the big countries have their own federal origins, but they have become more like nation-states since WW2. This is especially true of the US and may become more so under Trump. The EU, which I once saw as a beacon for the federal option — that’s one reason I have lived in Paris for the last two decades — has become an undemocratic bullies’ club. It takes something to endow a mess like Brexit with a veneer of justification. I would not put it past the Europeans to launch WW3, as they did the previous two.

What was new about neoliberalism, after all? Politicians have always needed money and moneymen political cover. They have been in bed together for at least 300 or 400 years and probably always were. But they usually kept it under wraps, if they could. The Bank of England, Banque de France and Federal Reserve are all based on private capital, but present themselves as an agency made by and serving the public interest. The difference from this old story today is that neoliberals make a public virtue of this situation. God knows what variant of market and state Trump will come up with.

In the meantime, we worry about what Trump is going to do — and we have every reason to. But protesting in the streets won’t do the job, at least by itself. We need ways of imagining a better future, based on historical perspective and contemporary realism — Hegel’s movement from the actual to the possible (and before him, Rousseau, afterwards Marx and Lenin). The present has deep roots in the past and is global, not just national. My Facebook page is framed by a shot of Tahrir Square at night — all that stirring agitation and animation, with cell-phone cameras flashing all around. It looks like something by Delacroix or Géricault. We all know what happened next in Egypt and its region.

James held that most people just want to keep what they have most of the time — and that is a good thing, he said, since society would be impossible if it were run by a small cadre of professional agitators like him who spend all their time plotting to turn everything upside down. But as Marx pointed out, the revolution (and to a lesser extent, total war) comes like a thief in the night when no-one is expecting it. People now discover that they have lost most of what they had or are about to unless they do something about it; and many of them join in with gusto. He would make up, as an illustrative example (he was also a novelist): You see this guy at the bus-stop every day, with rolled umbrella and bowler hat, buttoned up, never speaks to anyone. When the revolution comes, he can be seen in his shirt sleeves organizing a street committee. (The outbreak of war in modern societies has a similar transformative effect). In the revolution itself, the radical left may assume a position of leadership since they have been dreaming about, planning and experimenting in revolution all their lives. Or not, of course — it depends on who they are. Read Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Mao’s life histories, and learn from that.


Keith Hart is an Economic Anthropologist and the International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money. His recent books include The Human Economy (2010) and Economic Anthropology (2011).


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