After diving into the history of the USA and the historical role of the Democratic Party we can understand why racialism is becoming a state ideology in the USA… and why it is not taking hold in Europe while feminism is. And above all, what these movements mean historically for the ideology of the ruling class.
Why is racialism so powerful in the U.S.
1 Mass strikes in the South in the 1890s terrified capitalists and threatened to break the disciplinary control by which they had avoided the consequences of the formation of a modern working class. Segregation was then implemented and justified by the Democrats as a necessary measure to preserve social peace…that is, to ensure the subordination of the needs of the working class to the demands of capital.
It worked. And from then on and for almost a century, the acculturation of racism and the generalization of segregation came to be considered one of the foundations of social peace. And therefore of the American national identity. The Democratic Party was essential in the extension of segregation and the institutionalization of racism. Its patronage structure, its links with the mafias, the organized lumpen and the police, its logic of neighborhood control are at the origin of racist police violence.
2 When F.D. Roosevelt discovered that he could appeal to black voters with his New Deal, he was at the same time attempting to build the foundations of a working-class framing within the state through the unions, linked through the Democratic party to the imposition of segregation in the workplace. The contradiction between the recruitment for the war of the working class as a whole -which is at the origin of the New Deal– and racial segregation, meant that one could only preserve the division in the workplace if one opted to give voice to the black petty bourgeoisie while integrating it into the patronage structure of neighborhood control erected by the Democratic party from its origins… to ensure segregation itself.
The evolution of strikes during World War II and the immediate postwar period, however, led US state capitalism to do without trade unions and deviate from the model being consolidated in Europe. The need to avoid the emergence of the working class as a political subject while framing it in the state drove the Democratic tendency to preserve segregation in a new way… which is also consistent with the old racist national identity.
The Kennedy presidency, a Democrat of Irish descent, a minority that was the last to be considered part of White America, just swayed the party to support the Civil Rights Movement, an expression of the black petty bourgeoisie and to replicate the identitarian model with feminism… against the South’s own Democratic governors.
The way Democrats attempted to overcome racism without giving up the division of workers in the workplace and in neighborhoods was to bet on identitarianism.
In practice it meant handing over clientelistic management and representation of black workers and women workers to specialized segments of the petty bourgeoisie. These factions are the ones most interested in ensuring that reactions against racism and machismo never go beyond the framework of their own promotion as a class in the marketplace and political and corporate apparatus.
3 From there America’s soul becomes conflicted. That is to say, the conception of the nation within the ruling class itself is put up for debate. Or in other words, the ruling class is divided over what is the definition of society allowing it to manage it in an effective way, imposing the needs of capital over the particular needs of its factions and, above all, of the universal needs latent in every workers’ struggle.
A part of the Democratic party – especially the so-called Southern Democrats – then become determined to uphold the old racist myths and divisions in order to separate the white majority from any universalist temptation and will migrate to the Republican party for that purpose.
The main core of the Democratic party nevertheless bets on a multicultural identity i.e. on presenting itself and representing society as a conglomerate of identity groups with their own, characteristic and contradictory interests to which only the nation (=the leadership of the bourgeoisie) can give a common destiny.
Each group would be represented and controlled by a specialized segment of the petty bourgeoisie which should in turn be represented within the state administration, big business and enjoy a small captive market segment for its own business.
The incentives and orientation of these movements would be able to prevent the emergence of unified class movements much more effectively than the unions… which on the other hand are reformed by the party to suit its new identity.
4 The shift in orientation imposed by the Trump presidency on the strategic development of U.S. imperialist interests reflected a deep split in U.S. capital. Its center, of course, did not lie in identity. Beneath Trumpism lay the interests of that part of the domestically oriented industrial bourgeoisie that had seen how the offshoring and erosion of US global imperialist power had undermined its consumer base and its potential for capitalization.
Trump was instrumental in building the alliance between those sectors – from a part of textiles to coal to fracking – with the impoverished agrarian petty bourgeoisie, the unions linked to them and a resentful and nostalgic part of the corporate and commercial petty bourgeoisie. Its program prioritized strengthening the domestic market. The trade war against China and the breakdown of multilateral institutions in favor of one-on-one negotiations to increase exports promised these sectors of capital a share in U.S. imperialist hegemony as well.
When the pandemic hit and the ruling class as a whole moved to force workers to risk their lives to maintain corporate profitability, the horizon of an electoral triumph began to get further and further away from the Democrats. Workers began to resist, in defiance of unions and in direct confrontation not only with Trumpist politicians but with Democratic governors.
The resurgence of Black Lives Matter in March was no accident; it came just as the coronavirus began to spread massively in the United States and the Democratic apparatus was pinning its last electoral hopes on black vote. Immediately, when the protests against police brutality began, the media took full advantage and saturated the entire press with reports on the protests and op-eds on the need to hold a nationwide conversation on the problem of racism. Major companies immediately began announcing their support for Black Lives Matter and their willingness to donate money to the organization. Unions were also quick to join the movement. The petty bourgeoisie was concerned about the accelerating effect the pandemic was having on its profits. The change of news focus gave them a golden opportunity to claim their right to be protected from this loss of profits. The Democratic identitarianist strategy was exacerbated and also resumed its feminist axis, which had fallen short electorally. For the Democrats putting black- and women-owned businesses first, was the – modest – price of recovering electoral expectations and taking the focus off the pandemic and the anti-human response of the ruling class to which they belong. And, once again, it worked.
Why racialism does not take hold in Europe, yet feminism does
Not all national bourgeoisies share the same history. Not only in relation to slavery and the invention of the white race – or any other similar construct – as a way of dividing workers, but in relation to the basis of their own legitimization as a ruling class and the role of the latter vis-à-vis neighborhood patronage networks. The clearest example is France, where the state and the core of the political apparatus has responded against the possibility of the revolt of the petty bourgeoisie taking a racial identitarian form, be it the xenophobic one – which calls itself communitarianism – or the Islamist one – self-styled as indigenism. Among other things because it immediately recognized that it weakened the state’s capacity for internal cohesion and undermined its global imperialist position.
The situation is similar in many European countries. Even in Germany, the origin of the essentialist and romantic conception of the nation, questioning the claim of universality – in bourgeois terms – of the state and its political apparatus is dangerous on both levels. The nationalist identitarianism of the regional petty bourgeoisies creates enough problems for the European bourgeoisies for them to give way to segregationism, or as they call it in France, the separatism of petty bourgeoisies – such as that articulated by the Muslim Brotherhood – which, well funded from abroad, no longer contest regions but neighborhoods.
This is the main difference in the reception of feminism and racialism outside the US: the relationship between paronage networks, state and territory in each place. The same thing that makes feminism not enough for the Democratic party – its inability to generate neighborhood framing – and that leads it to turn racialism into state ideology, leads European states to turn feminism into state ideology and to distance themselves from racialism.
That is why the ideological machinery of most European states merely understands Democratic racialism as a US national phenomenon and redirects the share of ideological bombardment that falls on it from the US toward Democratic anti-racism: defending equal rights and turning the Anglo-Saxon idea of diversity – the quotas for a petty bourgeoisie representing minorities – into an aesthetic of the plurality of physical aspects that can be accommodated within a national identity.
Feminism, on the other hand, demonstrates its potential utility in dividing workers in the workplace, sexualizing the meaning attributed to conflicts in a manner similar to racialism in the US. That some unions deal with dismissals of women workers in a feminism section as if these dismissals were of a different nature than the dismissal of a male co-worker is just one symptom of a trend toward sex-segregated agreements. The state and the ruling class are happy. Moreover, feminism far from feeding the loss of territorial control of the state, redirects the aspirations of more than half of the petty bourgeoisie –starting with the Spanish Minister of Labor – towards the renewal of cadres in the ruling class, labeled now as the feminization of the enterprises. The switching of male directors for female directors in the IBEX (stock-listed Spanish companies) and the increase of women in management positions are unashamedly presented as the key to reducing the gender wage gap. A cause to which they intend to redirect attention by abandoning or moderating the wage claims of the most precarious workers -among whom there are already more women than men.
Identitarianism and the (anti)historical moment of the bourgeoisie
The important point is not which identitarianism or which basket of identitarianisms each bourgeoisie is resorting to these days. The important thing is that they are all doing so because identitarianism has proven to be a useful tool for dividing and silencing workers at critical moments.
Historically, when exploiting classes play a progressive role, like the one played by the bourgeoisie during the 19th century, are able to express their interests as universal interests… because in the broad stroke they are. Their ideology becomes humanist and universalist in these phases: it worships the transformative capacity of human work and knowledge, discovers in Nature an ally to dream of eternal growth and identifies with collective subjects that present their own goals as objectives common to all of society.
In contrast, when its hold on society turns, by the unfolding of its own internal contradictions, into a hindrance to human development, the ideologies of the time change: labor begins to be seen as a problem to be managed, Nature as an enemy to Humanity and society as a set of unsolvable contradictory interests to be tamed in order to maintain a fragile equilibrium from which it no longer expects indefinite growth but stability.
We are in one of those historical phases which ideologically are always indebted to the ideas and themes of the reactionary classes of the past. The institutionalization of racism was in the USA the price paid by a triumphant bourgeoisie, but weakened by the civil war, to the oligarchies of the South to avoid the constant danger of a counterrevolution. When a couple of decades later it itself began to fear the labor movement, that is, when it began to display the elements that would later make it a reactionary class, it greenlighted racial segregation.
We can say pretty much the same thing about sexism as an ideological reflection of the systematic discrimination against women. The original openness of the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary moment towards universal citizenship turned to prudery and caution as soon as the workers’ movement appeared. The Paris Commune reinforced its resistance against allowing universal suffrage. And only when the socialist movement made it explicit in its program that it did not conceive of universal suffrage without the vote of working-class women, did the bourgeoisie begin to consider feminism… because it limited its suffragist aspiration to property-owning women and hoped to attract part of the class movement’s base. And in fact, the United Kingdom extended the right to vote to the women of the petty bourgeoisie during the war -when anything goes in order to drive the workers into the imperialist slaughterhouse. Germany is the first developed country to impose universal mixed suffrage, and it does so immediately afterwards the German revolution and only as part of the renovation of the political apparatus it is forced to make in order to try to entrench the counterrevolution.
Between oligarchic-colonial racism and racialism, between the sexism that tied the bourgeoisie to the last moral remnants of the Ancien Régime, voicing its own fear of the world it was itself creating, and feminism, there are more than just a few symmetries.
The historical contradictions of the system have turned the bourgeoisie into a class as reactionary as those who resisted the introduction of capitalism. Like them, it is incapable of maintaining its hegemony by uniting society as a whole and bringing it to a better place. Capitalism no longer has anything better to offer us. So, like the feudalizing aristocracies and oligarchies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the only way and the only discourses that serve to enforce the needs of the system are divisive, fracture society while hieghtening and disfiguring contradictions and conflicts under a halo of black pessimism about our species and its nature.
This is what makes racialism and feminism significant as epochal ideologies: the bourgeoisie can no longer raise an egalitarian ideal, even on its terms. It can no longer sell a better future for the whole of society, it can no longer better meet universal needs but rather confronts them directly with ever more cruelty. It needs to divide the workers into identities and place them under the tutelage of the petty bourgeoisie in order to divert the channels of their discontent.
The adoption as state ideologies of different identitarianisms -racialism, feminism, ethnicism, religious utopias…- reminds us that the historical time of capitalism and of the class that leads it is over. There is no ideology, morality or discourse capable of giving line to a true human development within the system, simply because there is no future within the system. The only possible future for Humanity as a whole will not come from the hand of the bourgeoisie, but from the workers’ own struggle.