Beyond the Limits of Labor: Race and Consumption in Modern Society

People, Cotton Industry, pic: circa 1900's, near Memphis, Tennessee, U,S,A, Black labourers on a cotton plantation watch as a white official weighs the cotton (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

People, Cotton Industry, pic: circa 1900’s, near Memphis, Tennessee, U,S,A, Black labourers on a cotton plantation watch as a white official weighs the cotton (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

“I didn’t hire you to think.” An invisible activist is faced with the reality that his revolutionary ‘brotherhood’ passed over his humanity, in favor of him the mascot. Concepts like class struggle and wealth redistribution beckon a sense of action. Yet in the U.S., action and orientation appear to be at odds in the discussion surrounding race and labor.

Race is the portal through which labor is illustrated as a foundation of modern civilization. ‘Blackness’ as a concept came into existence in order to maintain and legitimize the social relationship that created the engine of production in the American South. Slave labor literally transformed raw materials into consumer goods that powered industry, shipping and expansion. While slaves were at the bottom of the racial caste system due to an invented inferiority narrative, their actual status as existential machines that created growth through labor power was defined by their legal status as property.

The intersection of labor and capital defines the social legacy of the United States. Race became the best means for instituting a program that could sustain the regime of free and perpetual labor needed for an economically primitive agrarian nation to become an industrial powerhouse. Blackness was not just a motif of sub-humanness, but was a convenient way to differentiate categories of labor, while ensuring that the bustling population of laborers always remained at odds. In fact, one class of poor laborers, working class ‘whites,’ particularly in the American South, became the extremely violent arm of the economic elite that maintained the social order. In short, ‘white people’, worked to ensure their own highly expendable place as enforcers in an institutionalized system of brutality that shunned the poor.

Black people in America are the living residue of a system predicated on their existence as a source of eternal labor. Race is the conceptual residue of this same development. Slavery, as a formalized institution maintained through unimaginable brutality and the promotion of beliefs that sustained such brutality in the hearts of the masses, does not exist today. Its effects however remain embedded in the United States, and no movement can address the inequality caked in the American system – or the structure America perpetuates globally – without dealing with these ‘leftovers’.

Conditions that ensure competition for employment along ethnic lines, a silent majority of the population that is content with its (imagined) place as the primary beneficiaries of the ‘American Dream,’ and the consistent portrayal of those that work in ‘third world’ markets of raw materials as faceless aberrations that are either non-existent or are existential threats to an ‘enlightened’ way of life demonstrate ways that the legacy of racism, as a tool of social conditioning and as a means of sustaining an oppressive labor regime, has morphed over time.

Developing countries that are cheap providers of natural resources and markets of unregulated production often serve as racialized projections of American fears and insecurities. In the same way that African Americans were often excluded from the labor movement well into the mid-twentieth century and were further seen as competition for working class jobs, people in late developing countries are victims to the same social dynamics that defined labor and class relationships for most of America’s history.

The Firestone rubber company is a cornerstone of American rubber production, and the Firestone rubber concession in Liberia also embodies the way in which citizens of developing countries themselves are viewed as a nameless impoverished mass that consume international resources.  Firestone has been linked to slave-like labor conditions and was even implicated in funding warlord Charles Taylor during the Liberian civil war. Firestone, however, is a major producer of rubber tires in the United States. Yet Liberians themselves occupy a role as people who exist outside the American frame of reference. No one associates a Liberian with a Firestone tire the way Detroit is associated with American made cars. There was no ‘proletariat’ movement anywhere that lionized these workers in our collective imaginations. Yet, the modernized world is the primary market that consumes their labor power. They are sub-human, in that their humanity is totally buried from our consciousness. Just as workers in Bangladesh were killed in 2013 after a crowded factory building collapsed, there was very little coverage that humanized them as people despite the fact that the cheap goods they produce are largely used by people in the United States.

Mexico is a major source for cheap labor and cheap products that Americans consume. Many Mexicans enter the United States and satiate the American appetite for sub-minimum wage labor, while actual workers lack legal protection. Mexicans themselves are often portrayed as interlopers that present a fundamental job threat to all other groups, even in the formal sector. Ironically Mexican Americans are major targets for corporate advertising and consumer products; despite the fact that they are often scapegoats in the media for larger systemic forces that sustain inequality and the inability of workers to unite in the face of such inequality.

Iraq, torn asunder by the American invasion, descended into violent fratricide that was perpetuated by external parties, including U.S coalition forces. The violent instability of Iraq, including the highly sectarian U.S. backed Iraqi government, became a container for groups like the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL)/Daesh. ISIL, like many American or Russian backed governments and proxy groups, perpetuate brutal self-interested politics at the expense of human life. The chief natural resource of Iraq, despite the utter exploitation inherent in its consumption, is still available on the global market and is heavily consumed by the coalition of countries that launched the 2003 invasion. Yet Iraqis and Muslims, in the popular imagination, are viewed as fundamental threats to American society. The same perceptions are projected onto citizens within countries similar to the U.S., such as France, whose backgrounds are deemed proximate to those of ‘foreign threats,’ regardless if such threats are manifestations of foreign aggression and highly racialized fears.

These people are some of the victims of modernity who remain enigmas, yet the historical heritage of ‘black people’ in America unintentionally carries the brand of the anonymous ‘third world.’ In the same way the humanity of workers in developing countries and undocumented workers in the United States is presently unrecognized, the humanity of black people was unrecognized for most of the history of the U.S. – and is still contested today in many ways. Above all, race as a socializing force carries the weight of history, and continues to act as the primary means of maintaining a system wherein Americans compete with each other for the ability to consume products and lifestyles.

The revolutionary dream of becoming powerful and whole by overthrowing the dominant class has been supplanted with desires for commercial possessions that project images or symbols of wealth and power. In a move that cleverly supplanted legitimate calls for rights with feel good expressions of individuality in the hope that self-expression would open the way for fulfillment that could overcome oppressive systems, labels and brands have become representations of personal meaning. The shift from an economy of producers to one of services and technologies necessary champions the equation of consumer goods with social status. Most Americans ultimately are consumers that must spend their way into the American dream by purchasing a lifestyle that is both unsustainable and beyond their means.

As all people come to identify individual fulfillment with the ability to purchase consumer products, it is necessary that Americans – and those that emulate the American lifestyle – continue to link their sense of self-worth with whatever place they can secure for themselves in this perpetual rat race. The masses of people that seek a job to buy things that will make them happy do so as a small number of people and institutions benefit from the collective purchasing power and labor power of the masses. It is crucial for those that seek a place at the table to always regulate the cycle by alienating some groups and maintaining an overall faith in the structure itself. The people can never be allowed to unite, nor lose faith in the whole or the sum of its parts.

The use of race as the primarily social distinguisher serves the purpose of preserving a system that requires people to fight for the limited resources presented to them, while a few institutions absorb the real wealth and resources produced and extracted by the many. All the while, the silent American majority direct their hostilities and their dehumanizing indifference at enigmatic representations of groups while placing their trust in the belief that the latest goods will make them happy and secure.

Race as a force of maintaining a highly divided populace that competes for scraps at the table – even if the table is the most lavish and desirable in the world – at the violent expense of many, cannot be ignored in an attempt to subvert its power. Race can only be addressed by acknowledging its place in the global struggle for rights and freedoms. This means embracing local movements against police brutality, while also ensuring that the many in the developing world have a voice that is represented in the consciousness of those that consume the products they produce.

While the goal of the voiceless is not to simply have a voice among the privileged, recognition of humanity is a primary tool for countering the dehumanization of people that perpetuates the current global system of exploitation. Real mutually asserted recognition of humanity cannot be replaced by marketing and consumerism. Whether such recognition is gained through unionized organization or sustained attempts to challenge the dominant narratives of social mediums, people of good conscious must work to confront attitudes that violently maintain global inequality through the sphere of race relationally.