Monday, October 26, 2009

a question for capitalists who care about racism

I mentioned this to a capitalist anti-racist recently: "For years, I wrestled with whether Malcolm X was right when he said you can't have capitalism without racism. Clearly, liberals and conservatives are working desperately to create capitalism without racism. But I've finally come to see that Malcolm X was right: if you don't redistribute wealth, the distribution of wealth will be racially disproportionate. If you do redistribute wealth, capitalism ends. It's a Catch-22 that anti-racists ignore. Do you have an answer?"

She didn't.

So I'm wondering if anyone does. Remember two things:

1. The distribution of wealth in many countries is racially disproportionate. (In the US, though there are twice as many whites in poverty as blacks or Hispanics, less than 10% of whites are officially in poverty, but 25% of blacks and 22% of Hispanics are.)

2. Most people stay in their economic class or in the class nearest to them. (From the New York Times' "How Class Works": "The United States, with a more egalitarian political tradition than many European nations, does not have significantly more mobility. In fact, it has less than Scandinavian countries like Denmark and roughly the same as Britain.")

Is there an answer? And, if not, does this mean anyone who is not a communist is a racist? Malcolm X would seem to agree; he said that when you find a white person who has "a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.”

ETA: Bonus link for people interested in the state of racism in England today: Racism and the tabloids


  1. Why would the redistribution of wealth mean the end of capitalism? The concept of capital investment through sale of stock, etc., is not dependent upon multi-generational wealth- as witness to the fact that the majority of the country owns stock through retirement funds, 401k's, or even Etrade. Indeed, super-wealth is kind of a recent phenomenon in the history of capitalism- from Standard Oil through Walmart to Microsoft, they are all of just the last century.

  2. By the way, that article about class mobility is misleading. There may be the same number of people in those classes, but they aren't necessarily the same people- for example, what about the 40 million-odd immigrants, legal and otherwise, who have come here the last 30 years? They skew that stats downward because there are so many who all begin at the bottom, and there has only been time for two generations at most. On the other hand, did you know that there are more than a million millionaires now? Most of whom are first-generation wealthy?

  3. I'm not sure if I qualify... but I want to ask a question: how equal does distribution need to be before it's fair?

    I think that this asks the larger (murkier) question about what lies between (pseudo)free-market-gone-wild capitalism and utopian fantasy communism. Stuff that might be practically applicable and workable....

    Income range.

    The need to re-distribute wealth--on a permanent, ongoing basis (thus a good stiff inheritance tax, getting stiffer as one goes up the economic pyramid) absolutely makes sense. But it's not just wealth, but income too, that makes for the system we have being abominable.

  4. Joel, you seem to be forgetting about the US's robber barons, and Europe's mercantile princes, and well, a whole lot of rich capitalists.

    As for the number of millionaires today, yes, the rich are getter richer. The problem is the gap between them and us.

    ogre, very true that it's both--the reason for the growing gap has a lot to do with the growing income, especially for corporate princes in the US, but also in Russia, China, etc.

    "Fair" can't be regulated. Some people think giving everyone exactly the same amount is what socialists want, but that's not what "from each according to ability, to each according to need" means. I don't expect there to be a happy time when no one quibbles over the distribution of resources. I just expect a lot more compromising than we currently get.

  5. "As for the number of millionaires today, yes, the rich are getter richer. The problem is the gap between them and us."

    I don't agree to the first half of that- over a million millionaires in the US, mostly first generation? That's not the rich getting richer, that's the upper middle class or lower getting rich. Almost all of them earned their money, not inherited it.

    As to the second half, that's always been something I've always been uncomfortable with- either way. If I have a car, how am I harmed by Jay Leno owning hundreds of cars? If I have plenty to eat, wear, and have a roof over my head, does it matter if Gates earns 100,000 times as much a year? Isn't envy the lust that cannot be sated?

  6. How much of those millions of millions is real money as opposed to ponzi scheme money?

  7. Joel, I think the list of sins needs at least one more: complacency. Yes, many Americans are doing just fine. Millions aren't.

    I wish Christians paid more attention to John the Baptist's commie advice: If you have two, give one to someone who has none.

  8. The reason there are more millionaires now is inflation. Someone who had $80,000 in assets before the Great Depression would be a millionaire before this latest downturn. (Not so much afterward.) If they retired right now at age 65 with that much wealth, they'd probably be able to continue living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for the rest of their lives...assuming they didn't become centenarians or have very expensive health problems.

    "Millionaire" isn't a magic word that makes someone rich. It just involves a bunch of zeroes. It's also a very convenient word for the rich to use to make people feel part of their club.

    If you want to look at the effects of hereditary wealth, you've got to look much higher.

  9. Stephanie, well said. I wish there wasn't so much stigma attached to Marx's terms, because they're very useful. The problem isn't the petit bourgeoisie, it's the bourgeoisie itself. And these days, a millionaire is only petit bourgeoisie.

  10. Psst, Brent...Hate to play the Etymology Cop here, but "envy" would be someone saying "Jay Leno has a 100 cars, so I want a hundred cars.", not "Why should Jay Leno have a hundred cars, when millions more have none?" After all, you can only drive one at a time.

    But yeah, look at the New Testament again. If you can find Jesus forgiving sins for money, or saying "Blessed are the wealthy.", then you deserve 100 cars.

    Now, I REALLY have to get back to dragging Harry. ;-)

  11. Dan, total agreement that greed and hierarchy are a problem under all systems. I'm making the mental note about your recommendation now.