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Does capitalism need oppression?

Faline Bobier

November 11, 2015

Theoretically, at least, it seems like the answer to this question might be no. The driving impetus underlying capitalism as a system is the need to accumulate and to create profits, as in Marx’s famous description of the profit motive in Volume 1 of Capital: “Accumulate, accumulate! This is Moses and the Prophets!”

Exploitation—by which Marx meant the extraction of surplus value from the worker—is the process by which the system lives or dies. Surplus value, simply put, is the amount of money the capitalist makes after the wages paid to the workers for their labour; the profit margin, which the capitalist must then plough back into production or development of technology and means of production, in order to stay competitive with rival companies. Oppression—discrimination based on supposed shared characteristics of the oppressed group—may then seem like an add-on, an unnecessary appendage to the real agenda of the capitalist, which is the creation of profit.

In one sense this is an accurate description of how the system might work in an ideal world, one devoid of real living human beings, where profits could be generated by non-differentiated robots who would simply accomplish their tasks, no questions asked.

But of course capitalism is a system created by human beings moving through history. The workers whom capitalism depends on for its profits also have the potential to be the system’s downfall, as in Marx’s famous phrase where he describes the working class as potentially the gravediggers of capitalism.

Divide and conquer

But this potential threat is not something of which our rulers are unaware. The critical role that oppression plays under capitalism is as a divide and conquer mechanism that makes it difficult for workers to see their common interests—whatever their gender, race, religion, sexual preference, etc.

Of course, many forms of oppression have also been economically important to capitalists at various historical periods. The foundations of North American capitalism were based on two horrific historical episodes: the stealing of land and resources from Indigenous peoples, which continues to this day, and the institution of slavery (initially begun with poor whites and aboriginal people as the plantation slaves) which forcibly took millions of Black Africans from their homes to be sold into slavery in the New World.

The foundations of successful US capitalism were literally built on the backs of African men, women and children and the immense suffering and misery this entail—as was so convincingly portrayed in Steve McQueen’s movie Twelve Years a Slave. It was no exaggeration when Marx described the birth pangs of capitalism and colonialism as follows: “capital comes into the world dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Likewise, women’s oppression—although it predates capitalism and arose with the division of society into classes many thousands of years ago—plays a critical economic role for the system today. The ideology of sexism explains and justifies women’s lower wages, since their primary role is still seen as that of wife and mother, regardless of what the reality may be.

In particular, the role of the atomized nuclear family with mother at the center allows the bosses to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the social conditions in which these families are expected to survive. And as austerity bites with attacks on the necessary supports to families—such as accessible healthcare, decent and affordable daycare, humane elder care—individual family members, and particularly women, are expected to, and often feel humanly obliged to, step in and fill the ever-increasing gap.

This is why it’s not surprising that some feminist writers in the 1970s wrote about the possibility of demanding wages for housework, since all the unpaid labour that women do in the home is critical to the ability of the working class to reproduce and replenish itself and thereby to benefit the ruling class in their pursuit of profits.

Class unity

According to Marx the working class is a class in itself. This means it’s in our objective interests as a class of people who have nothing to sell but our ability to labour to band together and organize society differently, so that all wealth and power aren’t monopolized in the hands of a few. But what needs to happen, Marx says, is that the working class needs to become a class “for” itself—that is, a class that understands its power and the need to organize collectively to overturn the bloody system that exploits and oppresses us all. This can never happen when we are divided from each other along gender, racial, national, religious lines, or when we allow ourselves to be so divided.

When Russian revolutionary Lenin described revolutions as festivals of the oppressed he was speaking to the reality of the liberating power of struggle. Just as the Russian revolution was ignited by groups of working women demanding bread, so revolutionary situations since Lenin’s time have all included powerful currents struggling against various kinds of oppression.

Lenin also argued that the working class movement had to be a tribune of the oppressed. A working class that accepts racist, sexist or homophobic ideas will not be able to achieve its own liberation because it is these poisonous ideas that the ruling class will use to divide and conquer.

In the contemporary context we can see how notions such as “reverse racism” or “men’s rights” serve to trivialize the real historic and continuing oppression of Blacks, Indigenous people and other racial minorities, and the oppression of women—manifested in lower wages, sexist imagery in popular culture and advertising, violence and rape.

It is no surprise that the people pushing these ideas often hold extremely reactionary views on the place of women, Blacks and other minorities in society. These reactionary ideas can be the downfall, not only of the groups targeted by them, but also of the whole working class, if workers buy into these attempts to blame those who are oppressed for the their own bad lot under capitalism.

Marx argued the following about the need for English workers to make common cause with their Irish brothers and sisters, oppressed by the British state: “The English working class...will never be able to do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland definitively from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801. And this must be done not out of sympathy with the Irish, but as a demand on the interests of the English proletariat. If not the English proletariat will forever remain bound to the leading strings of the ruling classes, because they will be forced to make a common front with them against Ireland.”

Fighting against oppression is something that needs to be taken up by all of us, whether we are talking about women and men fighting and opposing sexism, about Blacks and whites fighting racism in movements such as Black Lives Matter, or Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists uniting to stop pipelines and to save the planet we live on. 

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