Monday, November 28, 2005

Big Business as a supporter of anti-racism

Noam Chomsky

This is one of the most insightful passages on the issue of race. How ironic that a left-anarchist is far more honest about the question than self-styled "conservatives" in this country.

It also sheds light on the fact of why establishment conservatives are "anti-racists" who say that "race doesn't matter." To the plutocracy, a human being is not a creature with a mind, a culture, or any kind of identity, but simply a unit of production and consumption. Therefore race naturally "doesn't matter" to those who think in strictly economic terms.

Because of that, Multinational corporations are usually amongst the biggest supporters of anti-racism you will find anywhere. Its important to understand the link between late capitalism and antiracism, how we went from being producer to consumer societies. Late capitalism is a grossly inefficient economic system. It produces far more junk than anyone can possible consume. So it sets out in search of new markets. In fact, the advertising industry is constantly creating new markets from scratch, simply by creating needs where they previously did not exist before. And this is another one of the big reasons there is so much emphasis on 'diversity' and 'tolerance' these days. Business likes to create all sorts of fetishes and lifestyles in order to create new markets. Also, the vast majority of potential consumers in this world are non-Europeans. Western markets are typically highly saturated as well. Businesses are targeting and appealing to this demographic.

Incidentally, this is what unites the capitalist and the marxist mindset. Far from being polar opposites, both rely on the same simplistic model of "economic man" divorced for culture and history. As such, both capitalism and Communism are united not so much by being inhumane, but by being inhuman.


Question: Professor Chomsky, one issue where I've noticed that activists get kind of a good press in the United States -- and it seems out of sync with what we usually see -- is coverage of people protesting South African apartheid (official system of racial segregation and white supremacy, the legal basis for which was largely repealed in 1990-91). I'm wondering if you have any ideas why coverage of that might be a bit more positive.

"I think you're right: anti-apartheid movements in the United States do get a pretty good press -- so when some mayor or something demonstrates against South Africa, there's usually kind of a favorable report on it. And I think the main reason is that Western corporations themselves are basically anti-apartheid by this point, so that's going to tend to be reflected in the media coverage.

See, South Africa had been going through an internal economic transformation, from a society based on extractive industry to one based on industrial production -- and that transformation has changed the nature of international interests in South Africa. As long as South Africa was primarily a society whose wealth was based on extracting diamonds, gold, uranium and so on, what you needed were large numbers of slaves, basically -- people who would go down into the mines and work for a couple years, then die and be replaced by others. So you needed an illiterate, subdued population of workers, with families getting just enough income to produce more slaves, but not much more than that -- then either you sent them down in to the minds, or you turned them into mercenaries in the army and so on to help them control others. That was traditional South Africa. But as South Africa changes to an industrial society, those needs also are beginning to change: now you don't need slaves primarily, what you need is a docile, partially educated workforce.

Something similar happened in the United States during our industrial revolution, actually. Mass public education was introduced in the United States in the nineteenth century as a way of training the largely rural workforce here for industry -- in fact, the general population in the United States largely was opposed to public education, because it meant taking kids off the farms where they belonged and where they worked with their families, and forcing them into this setting in whcih they were basically trained to become industrial workers. That was a part of the whole transformation of American society in the nineteenth century, and that transformation is now taking place for the black population in South Africa -- which means for about 85 percent of the people there. So the white South African elites, and international investors generally, now need a workforce that is trained for industry, not just slaves for the mines. And that means they need people who can follow instructions, and read diagrams, and be managers and foremen, things like that -- so slavery is just not the right system for the country anymore, they need to move towards something more like what we have in the United States. And it's pretty much for that reason that the West has become anti-apartheid, and that the media will therefore tend to give anti-apartheid movements a decent press.

I mean, usually political demonstrations get very negative reporting in the United States, not matter what they're for, because they show that people can do things, that they don't just have to be passive and isolated -- and you're not supposed to have that lesson, you're supposed to think that you're powerless and can't do anything. So any kind of public protest typically won't be covered here, except maybe locally, and usually it will get very negative reporting; when it's protest agaisnt the policies of a favored U.S. ally, it always will. But in the case of South Africa, the reporting is quite supportive: so if people go into corporate shareholder meetings and make a fuss about disinvestment [withdrawing investments from South Africa to pressure its government], generally they'll get a favorable press these days.

Of course, its not that what they're doing is wrong -- what they're doing is right. But they should understand that the reason they're getting a reasonably favorable press right now is that, by this point, business regards them as its troops -- corporate executives don't really want apartheid in South Africa anymore. It's like the reason that business was willing to support the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. American business had no use for Southern apartheid, in fact it was bad for business.

See, capitalism is not fundamentally racist -- it can exploit racism for its purposes, but racism isn't built into it. Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional. I mean, they may be functional for a period, like if you want a super exploited workforce or something, but those situations are kind of anomalous. Over the long term, you can expect capitalism to be anti-racist -- just because its anti-human. And race is in fact a human characterstic -- there's no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic. So therefore identifications based on race interfere with the basic ideal that people should be available just as consumers and producers, interchangable cogs who will purchase all the junk that's produced -- that's their ultimate function, and any other properties they might have are kind of irrelevent, and usually a nuisance."

[Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: The New York Press, 2002), pp.88-89]


Thinking outside the square said...

Chomsky makes some very interesting points. Especially his views on Capitalism

B.P. Hodges said...

"Far from being polar opposites, both rely on the same simplistic model of "economic man" divorced for culture and history."

Communist/Socialist/Marxist rely very much on historical and cultural analysis. Historical examination comprised the bulk of the Communist Manifesto.