Racial Domination in Advanced Capitalism: A Theory of Nationalism and Divisions in the Labor Market (Harold M. Baron, 1975)

Synopsis by Kurtis Kelley

In the essay Racial Domination in Advanced Capitalism: A Theory of Nationalism and Divisions in the Labor Market, Baron courageously seeks to provide both researchers and activists with a more detailed analysis of the relationship between different forms of nationalism and the capitalist economy. For Baron, Marxist theory had not yet taken up the concept of nationalism with enough depth—certainly not enough depth to sufficiently explain the non-integration of the Black working class into the American mainstream and the enduring influence and solidarity found within Black Nationalism. What role does both Black and White nationalisms play in regards to divisions in the labor market? How have Black and White nationalisms affected the assimilative efforts of the white capitalist superstructure on the Black community? Baron’s theory of racial domination in advanced capitalism helps us in answering these questions.

Three major features of U.S. American society provide “theoretical clarification of the unique position of the Black community”: the capitalist economy, racism within domestic and international spheres, and nationalism as a form of organization for both Black and White communities respectively. Through this analysis, Baron argues that racial nationalism and the relations of production are codependent, and that the Black working class remains a distinctive, non-assimilated national group whose position is largely determined and restricted by the three features of US society mentioned above.

To support his analyses of the racial domination of the Black working class, Baron employs the Marxist concepts of base and superstructure to help constitute the skeleton of his theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between nationalism and economic exploitation within advanced capitalism. Within U.S. society, the base refers to the capitalist economy and the superstructure refers to the culture and the social, political, and intellectual institutions that reinforce and reflect the capitalist economy.   Baron furthers traditional Marxist theory here by showing the inextricable link between base, superstructure, and nationality.

On the relationship between capitalism and nationalism, Baron is direct: “All capitalist societies have had a national form which conditioned, through boundaries, a set of cultural, ideological, social, and territorial elements that regulate the relationship between the base and superstructure.” Nationalism acts as a “regulator” of some of the most important relationships that people and groups form, which in turn often produces mass cohesion, loyalty, and sometimes autonomous, self-sufficient nations in the classic sense.

Thus, for Baron, nationalism refers to the “ideological, cultural, and political movements that agitate for the establishment of a nation or modifications within an established nation,” and not all nationalisms achieve a nation. Baron notes here that he shares the view that nationalism is a potential and demonstrable anti-colonial force with Lenin and Mao, and pushes for a greater appreciation of this within contemporary Marxist theory. The nationalism of colonial, imperialist nations is also under-theorized within traditional Marxism, which instead focuses too heavily on the political structures of the state itself instead of the superstructural elements which nationality as a concept better captures for our comprehension.

Within this discussion of Base-Superstructure-Nation, Baron also defines the concept of “relative congruency” to help readers understand the simultaneous and autonomous operation of major elements within society. While the superstructure of our capitalist society seeks to establish higher levels of “congruency” to aid in the predictability of an increasingly technocratic advanced capitalist system, many ideological/political/intellectual/religious movements will support the mainstream of society, while others will continue to have a conflictual relationship with the dominant society. For Baron, it is vitally important that we pay close attention both to reinforcing movements, such as Reformation Protestantism and early capitalism, and conflictual movements such as many of those that comprised the Black Power movement.

In seeking to contrast the difference between Black and White nationalisms in the United States, Baron notes that he isn’t claiming that either one of these nationalisms have a completely autonomous nation such as other internationally recognized countries, but that their institutional and social relationships “comprise nationalities that exist as significant formations within an overarching American nation.” Baron also resists the trend to downplay the Black and White racial tension, instead saying this conflict is now, “grounded in the nationality conflict between the dominated community and the dominating community, making the antagonism a deeply rooted one.” The concept of U.S. citizenship itself, Baron demonstrates, emerged being closely linked with the control of enslaved Africans. The superstructure these relationships produced helped to ease the class conflict between the white working class and the ruling white elite—all in an effort to maintain domination over Black Americans for economic, political, and social benefit.

Following the Civil War, the possibility of an autonomous Black nation in that era was defeated alongside Reconstruction policies that could have protected Black Americans from the quasi-colonial status they have maintained since. As Black Nationalist movements have sought self-determination since that time, most notably with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the state has had to take a less central role as an “organizer of racism”. In the contemporary moment, two strategies of White nationalism remain within US politics—the first being the Conservative view which seeks to maintain the status quo. The second is the liberal viewpoint, which seeks to assimilate certain Black people who will do so into the dominant society. Baron notes that neither has anything to say about the Black people who wish to maintain a level of autonomy and not assimilate into the white American mainstream.

Base and superstructure of society have operated alongside White nationalism to restrict the flourishing of Black nationality in such a way that its major manifestation lay outside of independent economics and national political structures, instead being found within Black social cultural and ideological formations.  To maintain cultural and political control over the Black nation, white institutions “have to promote the prestige of certain Blacks who can perform” as their surrogates. Booker T. Washington stands out as a white-funded surrogate for dominant economic interests that maintained a close relationship with the Black community. In contrasts, Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanist movement promoted a more conflictual relationship with White nationalism and the U.S. state.

Disturbances in the racial balance, a balance that the ruling class relies on for a predictable market, can come from three forces: economic shifts, Black Nationalist calls for self-determination, and White Nationalist backlash and reactionary politics. To support the maintenance of their hegemonic position in times of civil unrest, the ruling elite will deftly utilize temporary concessions to stave off revolution and other disturbances that could affect the predictability of the capitalist market. These concessions can also act to blur racial distinctiveness, which can lead to cultural cooptation by the white community of Black cultural artifacts, a process that is often viewed by white institutions as positive cultural exchange and evidence of integration, thus strengthening calls for gradual, non-revolutionary change.

For Baron, the implications for this theoretical inquiry lie in its ability to guide future action, in part by helping us avoid simple analogies for the situation faced by Black people in the US.  The racial domination of Black people in the United States is not analogous to other, more “classically” colonized nations, but must be considered in the specific context of “all three relevant national frameworks”: “Black and White nationalities and the inclusive nation-state.” Baron ends his essay with a call for white anti-racists to take a sober account of Black Nationalism as more than just a “cultural expression”, and of White nationalism as an “inclusive force” whose dynamics “impose conditions of operation that cannot be willed away through moral condemnation.”

The Demand for Black Labor: Historical Notes on the Political Economy of Racism (Harold M. Baron, 1978)

Synopsis by Kurtis Kelley

In The Demand for Black Labor, Baron expertly guides the reader through a historical narrative of Black Americans’ relationship with the ‘economic base of racism’ to provide insight into their oppression within the modern capitalist system. For Baron, the position of Black workers and trajectory of Black labor is governed by two major forces: ‘the laws of capitalist development, and the laws of national liberation’. While Baron focuses his analysis on capitalist development and its effect on the historical demand for Black labor, his acknowledgment of the saliency of Black Nationalist politics and liberation is a vital thread of Baron’s essay. From slavery into the present, the demands on Black labor by capital have brought about momentous shifts in U.S. culture and policy, the economic power of the US elite, and the autonomy of Black Americans.

To provide the ideological legitimacy needed to sustain such a system, Baron displays how a culture of control fermented within U.S. and beyond. This cultural system was fostered by white elites to both maintain dominance over enslaved Africans and to keep the white population that did not hold slaves from rebelling against a system they could not control. Unique to the United States, compared to other places within the Americas, was the creation of “rationale regarding the degradation of all blacks”, which Baron argues was vital for the continued enslavement of “some” of the US Black population. For Baron, these attributes of Black chattel slavery set it apart from other forms of slavery and indeed constituted a “new type of social formation,” entirely.

Shifts in the demand for Black labor during slavery brought about a more “self-contained operation” as capitalism matured and the international slave trade slowed. Baron notes that after Independence from Britain, cotton came to dominate the aims of the southern planter class and slave owners in the Upper North were more than willing to sell their slaves southward given their increased value as new imports of Africans were nearly halted. The North supported slavery as well, by sponsoring European immigration despite the presence of Black workers and the enforcement of federal slave laws.

According to Baron, the position of the “quasi-free Negro” provides readers with vital insight for future transformations in the demand for Black labor. Still victims of a vicious anti-black society, non-slave Blacks were subject to many of the same systems of control that the enslaved were, albeit from a different position. These oppressions combined to restrict Black people from securing a stable position within society.   Just before the Civil War, Baron notes that around 89% of Black people were enslaved within the US. Thus, quasi-free Negroes had their position “ascribed from that of the mass of their brothers in bondage.” According to Baron, as economic competition increased in urban areas with the maturation of capitalism, many non-slave Blacks lost what skilled positions they had and left large cities altogether.

Baron concludes the section on the slave period by stating simply that there was not a significant demand for non-slave Black labor. The theft of Black labor within the South that took place outside of the plantation system simply augmented the system of slavery to fit the desired setting. Furthermore, the racist, anti-black logic that produced these oppressions would carry over within American culture and politics long after slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and their gradual federal re-integration that followed.

The Reconstruction era, which heralded massive advances in the lives of formerly enslaved Africans (now US citizens), was short-lived and its conclusion ushered the white Southern elites back into power after their defeat during the Civil War. With this power, they once again sought to maintain control over Black labor through political pressure and outright physical violence. The agrarian system that was established in the post-Reconstruction South created a class of Black workers that had less power and autonomy than any group of white workers, whom they came into increasing competition with during this period.   According to Baron, the “abolition of slavery did not mean substantive freedom to the black worker”, which was demonstrated by the fact in both eras the Black peasantry only received only enough to subsist on. This low position, combined with a viciously anti-black American culture, created conditions in which the Black worker was increasingly tied to the bottom rungs of the white-controlled US agrarian economy.

The increasing competition between Black and White workers during post-Reconstruction era brought about several important shifts for the demand for Black labor. Much of this competition was centered on land rivalries, with emancipated Black families seeking to secure land having to confront an overtly racist system of Southern politics. With the increasing numbers of poor white farmers in the south, the Southern political elite sought to further cement their hegemonic control over both Black and White workers through shoring up gaps within their “color-caste distinctions”. Baron also notes that massive shifts were also taking place within the Southern ruling class, which saw much land trade hands away from former slave masters into the possession of merchants and lawyers. This transformation saw decision-making amongst the Southern elite shift from a more paternalistic approach to “land-owners’ making their decisions more nakedly, on the basis of pure entrepreneurial calculations.” In such a position, Black workers faced oppression from both the Southern elites’ decision making and the competition from landless whites.

During the Reconstruction era, the Black workers desire for land was inseparable from their quest for self-sufficiency and autonomy. With the temporary defeat of this quest by the forces that conspired to end Reconstruction, this momentum faced a massive setback. While movements for Black national liberation wouldn’t renew themselves until more northward migrations brought Black workers into urban centers in higher numbers, the “embryonic nationalism” and quest for racial unity held by these workers were captured in the movements surrounding Booker T. Washington and other smaller “exodus groups” which set up independent Black settlements throughout the lower-Midwest and southwest in particular.

With the oncoming of the World War I, the position of Black workers again faced major transformations. With the precarious relationship between the US and European nations, immigration from Europe was curtailed—opening up sectors of the labor market to Black workers at unprecedented levels. Baron identifies three key developments that arose from these events: First, the outmigration of millions of African Americans from the South to urban centers in the North; Second, the development of a Black proletariat in these urban centers; and third, the shift away from tenancy farming in the South. According to Baron, while World War I started many of these societal shifts, “World War II was to repeat the process in a magnified form and to place the stamp of irreversibility upon it”.

In these urban centers, Black workers remained more vulnerable to unemployment and the racist white working class, with help from city and state institutions, carried out violent campaigns of “race riots” throughout urban Black communities in the North. Often, white management would utilize the inclusion of Black workers to divide the work force—causing white workers to draw focus away from inter-class conflicts to confront the Black worker menace they were becoming more confronted with. Furthermore, Black workers were nearly always kept from skilled positions or managements positions. These issues were exacerbated by the tactic of white company owners attracting the subservience of a Black managerial class, made up of Republican anti-union “leaders”, to gain influence in the Black community. In the south, Black workers had little opportunities in southern Industries like mining & lumber, and remain largely restricted to agrarian work throughout the inter-war period.

By the 1970’s, only one-fifth of Black people lived in the South, and the percentage of Black agrarian workers fell to 4% of the Black labor force. The increasing urbanization of Black people brought, among other things, massive changes for the superstructure of racism within the US. For Baron, “it meant the disappearance of the economic foundation on which the elaborate superstructure of legal Jim Crow and segregation had originally been erected.” As monopoly state capitalism matures, economic shifts have caused Black workers in the US, like “non-citizens” from Southern Europe and Northern Africa that fill up the gaps of Western Europe’s labor market, to maintain a marginal status due to their race.

According to Baron, the endemic subordinate status of Black workers amounted to a “system analogous to colonial forms of rule”. Unmoved by the potency of Civil Rights Era protest to alter the demand for Black labor, Baron suggests that the racist institutions of this country can only be altered by a “earthquake in the heartland.” Unable to de-colonize the Black community due to its attachment with major urban centers, the American capitalist relies on the hegemonic control of Black labor to retain its hegemonic position.

Racism Transformed: The Implications of the 1960s (Harold M. Baron, 1982)

Synopsis by Kurtis Kelley

This essay was originally delivered as a paper at the 8th Annual Third World Conference in the March of 1982 in Chicago, Illinois and first appeared in print in the Review of Radical Political Economics, in 1985.

In his essay “Racism Transformed: The Implications of the 1960s,” Harold Baron explores the relationship between transformations occurring within the U.S. political economy, system of racial control, and black people’s quest for self-determination. For Baron, the new racial formation, or “distinctive position of the Black community,”[1] that emerged at the time signaled a shift as pivotal as that which occurred following the emancipation from plantation slavery. Along this path, Baron maintains the central role that Black agency played throughout US history, while also demonstrating the severe restrictions placed on national Black self-determination and the similarly endemic limitations placed on Black integration into the U.S. mainstream by a political economy defined as advanced capitalism, and a system of racial control Baron defines as advanced racism.

For Baron, the history of black/white race relations can be summarized as a “succession of different racial formations.” The first racial transformation, or period of major transition in regards to the U.S. racial formation, was the selection and solidarity around Black chattel slavery by white colonists. Not only did this racial transformation entail many different processes enacted within various institutions, it also was preceded by shifts within the dominant mode of production. In a time of merchant capitalism, these shifts saw the demand for tobacco grow, which created the need for more agricultural laborers and more crops planted. For the white planter class to maintain control, they empowered the non-slaveholding whites to become invested, socially and politically more than economically, in the domination of black people. This interclass pact amongst white Americans acted to dehumanize black people in all aspects of life as a bulwark: for slaveholders to protect their elite status and for white laborers to ensure domestic economic and political stability. This fledgling white solidarity around racial terrorism in the face of potential Black (and poor white) rebellion during the colonial era has provided the skeleton of all successive racial formations.

The next major shifts that occurred within US society was the ascendancy of northern capital over the slaveholding south during the Civil War, the brief national movement for Black civil rights and reparation during the Reconstruction Era, and the viciousness by which black people were forced into the southern-based sharecropping economy and apartheid-like racial system dominated by Jim Crow laws and customs. With the Union’s victory over the confederacy, the pace at which industrial capitalism (already more entrenched in the North) matured into the dominant mode of production increased.

Here Baron asks readers to consider the implications that the rhetoric of “civil rights” had for not only political action but also for the popular understanding of black national politics and notions of freedom. Because of the structure of oppression faced by black people in the years following emancipation, the quest for “civil rights” included notions of protections against “unwarranted encroachment” by individuals or the state.[2] For Baron, these differ from “political rights” which involves “claims to be involved in governmental decision making or to receive benefits from government action”.[3] Following the end of Reconstruction, these two forms of rights were often condensed into “civil rights.” With the Northern retreat from involvement in southern states’ racial policies, black politics turned towards protecting the civil rights legally won with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, expanding them, and also organizing for survival in spite of restricted rights. As Baron points out later, however, political arguments “relying on the doctrine of equal protection under the law framed the discourse on race more in terms of the formal aspects of civil rights than in terms of power and capacity.”[4]

The agrarian ascendancy, the term Baron uses to define the racial formation typified by white southern dominance over the black community, did not undergo transformation until nearly a century after its emergence following plantation slavery. Baron outlines several historical developments which brought about shifts in the dominant modes of production and contributed to another racial transformation, such as: technological innovations related to agricultural production, the tradition of African American northern migration, the shifting labor market as a result of mass war mobilization during World War II, and anti-communist hysteria resulting in the repression of popular democratic sentiments. By the 1950s, these developments resulted in “a number of profound contradictions” within the racial control system. The effort of both elite whites and the black community in the following decade would decide the parameters of the resulting racial formation.[5]

The Supreme Court victories of the NAACP during the 1950s, and the massive resistance of white society against those federal policies, conditioned the emergence of Black mass mobilization. As integrationist civil rights politics waned midway through the 1960’s as it met this massive resistance, the “cultural-denial implication of integration became clear,” and black nationalist politics, with their focus on independent institution building to protect black culture and sustain black survival, came back to the forefront and remained until the mid 1970s. According to Baron, Black Nationalism’s relationship with civil rights is a strained one: “Since nationalism is about the sources and boundaries of political power and civil authority, the concept is by its nature not comprehensible under the categories of civil rights, which assume a unified and over-arching structure of legitimacy,” within the rights-granting U.S. state.[6]

For Baron, an implication of the Civil Rights Movement for Black Nationalist politics was a recognition that, for black communities, civil rights “was necessary but not sufficient for their survival and viability.” In reaction, white elites gave concessions such as War on Poverty programs and a degree of institutional desegregation. The dominant mode of production matured into advanced capitalism, defined as dominance through large global corporations, the larger role of the state in everyday life, and the growing influence of consumer culture. Advanced racism, the new racial formation that emerged following the civil rights era, defined so-called post-racial hidden forms of institutional racism, restrictive labor markets that keep black people in marginal jobs, and a paternalistic state that keeps black people dependent on a “bureaucratically-ordered system of supervision.”[7]

Due to the failure of the civil rights movement to bring about the realization of equalitarian treatment, Baron writes that in the early 1980’s Black politics must move beyond the notion of an “unfinished agenda” towards a larger focus on Black institutional survival and a greater recognition of the changing implications of “racism within advanced capitalism.”[8] He also warns activists against a wishful expectation of a return to the explosive and fertile political moments of the 60’s bearing similar changes, and to expect an extended “war of position” rather than a “war of maneuver.”[9]

With the turn of advanced capitalism towards widespread long-term planning, Baron urges activists to pay closer attention to the “implicit investment and planning policies” of the elite. The future of Black political mobilization must counter the “steering away from situations or strategies that involved the mobilization of the black community, especially those outside the newly-negotiated channels of legitimacy.” Only by engaging in long-term organizing of the black working class can a sustainable attack on advanced racism be mounted.

[1]Baron, Harold. Racism Transformed pg. 4

[2] pg. 14

[3] Ibid.

[4] pg. 20

[5] Ibid. 19

[6] pg. 23

[7] .pg. 30

[8] pg. 34

[9] pg. 35