The past few days have seen much hand-wringing about the so-called “Brexit“: the referendum, held in the UK on June 24, on whether the UK should leave the European Union. Somewhat surprisingly, the “leave” vote ended up receiving a majority. Most media commentators have presented this as an absolute disaster, for two main reasons. First, many have pointed to the likely economic and monetary downsides–be it the implementation of tariffs between the UK and other European states, the slide in the value of the Pound Sterling against other currencies, etc. The second claim is that the vote to leave the EU is both a manifestation of, and will strengthen, racist and xenophobic sentiment in the UK.
Now, both of these claims rest on a wide range of complex economic and sociological theories. I am not particularly well-qualified to enter the fray on, for example, European tariff policy. My goal here is rather to focus on the assumptions and rhetoric involved, because the discussion of Brexit reveals the way in which how we talk about something ends up shaping what we can think about it.
Comparing the pro-Brexit camp to US supporters of Trump–a comparison that has been frequently made over the last four days–really strengthens the deeper point I want to make here. Many commentators, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, have bemoaned the xenophobia and racism that rests, either implicitly or explicitly, in many of Trump’s speeches, and have themselves implied that this proves that most of the support for him is really just the racism of poorer white Americans become manifest in a demagogic presidential candidate who would otherwise have basically no support.
This is obviously an over-generalization, but I have no issue with this claim on its surface. I basically agree. What troubles me is that no one seems to think this situation needs further analysis. The racism of poor whites is simply taken for granted, rather than as a social situation that needs an explanation. And it is this reality about our mass media that I think points to the more important discussion. Because so long as racism is seen as the natural attitude of poor whites, those in positions of political and economic power can deflect criticism from themselves. If voters respond angrily to globalization, the message we hear is that a bunch of racists are xenophobic, and that’s why Brexit or Trump have support. The idea that there could be other concerns motivating these voters isn’t even discussed, much less taken seriously. In this way, people are given only two options: either admit that you are a backward, xenophobic racist resistant to progress, or you have to get in line with whatever social, political, and economic structures global elites have endorsed. So long as those are our options, of course, many people feel pressured to join the latter group.
Once we ask the question of why poor whites should be racist in the first place, though, we can begin to unravel this simplistic and dichotomous presentation of human societies. It is crucial to see that the very idea that poor whites just are racist is itself a claim meant to limit critiques of global capitalism. And here the word “ignorance” is thrown around a lot: the claim is that uneducated people are ignorant of other cultures, and that people who are ignorant in this way simply respond to the unknown with an automatic hatred. The solution, then, is both more (expensive) education or, considering the lack of universal access to higher education, to simply trust those with the advanced degrees from famous schools. If one questions the claims of this group, one is immediately dismissed as ignorant and therefore necessarily a manifestation of xenophobia and racism.
To be branded as ignorant is to be excluded from being taken seriously in policy discussions, and this is a way of cutting off whole dialogues, whole topics of discussion. No one seems interesting in asking why poor whites might be racist and xenophobic. Though I won’t pretend to have the expertise in general nor the space in this post to try and answer a question that would take a team of sociologists and economics multiple volumes to even begin to answer, I think there are two broad points that need to be made–and repeated in public.
First, the historical dimension: north-west Europeans have not always hated darker-skinned people. White supremacism is not some ethnically ingrained attitude of fair-skinned peoples. White supremacy has a history, and it was invented, at least in the English-speaking world, in the 17th century to justify a new and horrendous form of labor relations: chattel slavery. Two facts about the early North American colonies need to be made clear: first off, up until the 1670’s, English and African workers sometimes banded together to attack land-owners. They recognized what later Euro-Americans (who at that later point identified as “white”) frequently have and do not: that their interests aligned with other un-landed working people. The fact that other agricultural workers had different colors of skin didn’t matter to them, because they had not been taught to divide people according to this physical feature. But they definitely recognized the divisions of property ownership and class.
Second, the initial groups of enslaved Africans brought to colonies like Virginia were not treated as chattel slaves, because the legal and cultural categories of chattel slavery had not yet been invented. Some Africans were even freed and given land after a period of service, like European indentured servants. This is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that even the elites did not think of Africans as anything other than dark-skinned fellow human beings. They were treated more or less the same as white servants (whose rate of survival, it should be pointed out, was only about 50% while in indentured service).
Secondly, though, and more ominously, this fact also shows the reason that the social structure of chattel slavery was developed. English land-owners had a lot of (stolen) land, but not nearly enough labor to really profit off of it. The big cash crops like cotton and tobacco required a vast amount of labor. Too few Europeans were motivated to sign on as indentured servants, and the flow of forced African labor was too slow to provide enough labor to be profitable on a large scale, precisely because those Africans were eventually freed (or died early) and even sometimes given land of their own. From the standpoint of Capital, a new form of labor relations had to be asserted that would guarantee more access to cheaper labor.
Thus chattel slavery, at least in its incarnation in the English-speaking world, was invented. But it had to be justified. Christian churches had been inveighing against slavery for centuries, and absolutely forbade the enslavement of other Christians. So political and economic elites needed to find a way to provide sufficient moral and legal justification for chattel slavery–especially one that would justify slavery for certain groups even if they converted to Christianity. And the answer, of course, was to regard some (indeed, most) humans as not fully persons–some humans, it was argued, were not intellectually and culturally capable of the kinds of sophisticated patterns of behavior necessary to own property in an efficient manner.
Of course, this argument is empirically ridiculous, but it didn’t matter. Not only did it provide a legal justification for slavery-in-perpetuity (that is, slaves were never to be freed and their children were to be regarded as property of their parents’ owners) but it also provided a crucial wedge between poor English people and African slaves, because no matter how poor or oppressed English colonists might find themselves, they were still regarded as better than Africans, as legally-recognized persons (even if often only in theory, considering the low rates of real property ownership among most colonists). This meant that such English colonists–now referred to as “white” people (and it is important to note that not all fair-skinned Europeans were yet regarded as “white”) would no longer be likely to make common cause with African agricultural workers, because they would risk their own privileged status, even if this privilege was often rather superficial in material terms. White supremacy was–and is–a double-edged sword. It provides the justification for objectifying a whole continent of people and simultaneously infects working-class European-Americans with a virus that prevents them from often acting in their own economic interests. From the standpoint of the landowners, perhaps no technology was more important than this cultural and legal innovation. White supremacy was a tool used to craft a new, profoundly racist, culture in North America.
Again, the above is only the barest possible sketch of this history. But we now need to swing centuries forward into the present, and ask the question: why might whites today still feel animus against foreigners and non-whites? Of course, part of the answer is historical–the culture that was invented in the 17th century very much continues today, despite major victories by people of color in their struggles for recognition, independence, and equality. But the modern global economy provides a new form of the same basic set of labor relations that underpinned white supremacism in the 17th century. Although throughout most of the world, slavery is of course illegal, the economic gains that land- and business-owners can realize through maintaining labor mobility are still massive. If English planters needed hundreds of thousands and then millions of laborers to make cash crops from the American South profitable, likewise today, corporations need to find the cheapest possible source of labor to maximize profits. And maintaining the ability of workers to move freely is part-and-parcel of the modern system for achieving this.
This is for two main reasons: first, labor and wage laws differ massively between different nations. Where wages, benefits, and labor standards are higher, of course, the price of labor will be higher, and so goods will be more expensive. Of course, from the workers’ point of view, so long as the gains in wages and benefits outstrip this increase in cost, this is completely worth it (thus it is crucial to distinguish between real and nominal wages). But for Capital, if a product or service can be produced by labor outside of that nation, but then sold back in that market where the prices reflect the generally higher cost of labor, then the marginal profit rate will skyrocket.
This is the reasoning behind outsourcing, of course, and most people recognize that this is happening, and most, even those who defend global neoliberalism, will generally admit that it has downsides. But contemporary labor relations are more complex still. To see how, I think we need a specific example: NAFTA.
The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. It eliminated tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions of trade between the US, Canada, and Mexico. In theory, of course, “free trade” should mean that the country which is most efficient and effective at producing each kind of good should produce that good and then trade it for other goods which it is not efficient or effective at producing. This is just boilerplate Ricardo. And, actually, this is more or less true. Trade certainly isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.
But NAFTA didn’t actually institute truly free trade. For one thing, there was no way to ensure equal labor protections between workers in each country, which of course meant that business was going to flock to wherever labor was cheapest–that is, where labor was treated the worst. But NAFTA also did not address the issue of subsidies, and it it this issue, which perhaps seems equal parts arcane and boring, that we really need to pay attention to.
The US subsidizes the production of corn (maize), wheat, rice, cotton, and soy, among other agricultural goods. The reasons behind these subsidies is actually pretty compelling: first, to ensure that the US has the means to produce enough food to feed its own population, so that it is not dependent on other nations for this obviously vital supply. And second, to try and combat poverty among the rural population, to ensure that farmers can make enough money from their work and land to support their families (this is important due to the peculiar nature of agricultural markets, which is crucial in understanding the problems in developmental economics, but I can’t get into that here).
But once NAFTA was enacted, these subsidies had a new and wildly problematic effect: all of the sudden, US corn sold in Mexico was cheaper than Mexican corn. Importantly, this was not because US corn was cheaper to produce–in fact, just the opposite was true–but because of the subsidies. So long as US farmers knew that their government was going to pay them a set fee for each pound of corn produced, they could afford to sell that corn at under cost and still make a handsome profit. Once NAFTA went into effect, the Mexican government could no longer impose tariffs or quotas on American corn, and this meant Mexican farmers had to compete with US farmers, who had the financial assistance of the US federal government.
The results were predictable (and that’s important to remember). Millions of Mexican farmers, many of whom were working land that their families had owned for generations, went bankrupt. Of course, in the short-term, Mexican consumers benefited–the cost of corn, a staple of the Mexican diet, went down. But once the Mexican domestic corn market collapsed, the price of course increased dramatically, since US farmers no longer had to sell cheap in order to out-compete Mexican farmers, many of whom were now basically absent from the market (of course, corn is still produced in Mexico, but not nearly at the levels of the past). So in the medium- and long-term, working-class Mexicans lost in two ways: first, millions lost their land and their jobs and became unemployed; second, the price of a basic food staple ultimately went up, and Mexican national security was also endangered as the country could no longer provide its own food base.
Now we can see the source of the labor mobility mentioned above. With millions of Mexican farmers and agricultural workers suddenly out of work, two things happen: first, maquiladoras–factories built on the Mexican side of the Mexican-US border which produced goods cheaply with Mexican labor but then imported those goods into the US (an arrangement only possible, of course, because of NAFTA)–are able to depress wages even further due to the huge influx of these recently unemployed Mexicans. When workers know that there are hundreds of thousands of people desperate for work, they have no leverage to push for better wages, benefits, or working conditions. (Maintaining a certain minimum level of unemployment is actually a good thing from the standpoint of Capital. And this is crucial to remember, despite all the rhetoric from both parties in the US about wanting to fight unemployment.)
Second, of course, many of these displaced workers crossed the border to work in the US, for while the Mexican economy was in a tumult, the US economy was booming in the mid- and late-90’s. And the agricultural sector was doing particularly well, especially as it now had new markets in which it had a massive competitive advantage in the form of federal subsidies. So millions of Mexicans (among others) crossed the border in the years following NAFTA; although undocumented immigration is nothing new, the number of people crossing the border in those years was particularly high.
Now, just as the increase in unemployed workers depressed wages and labor’s power in Mexico, so too did the influx of labor have negative effects on US workers. Mexicans and Central Americans coming into the US took jobs not only in the agricultural sector, but also in the service industry and in certain other industries (especially meat-packing). This negatively impacted US workers in at least two ways: first, through directly displacing such workers (since undocumented workers are almost always willing to work for less than US citizens) and by simply increasing pressure on employed workers–again, if you know that there are a lot of unemployed people in your area, you are not going to have the leverage to push for better wages, benefits, etc. A higher rate of unemployment in general will lead to lower wages, all other things being equal, even if the actual number of Americans displaced is relatively small. The “reserve army” of unemployed workers has this effect regardless.
And this, of course, is at least one source of poor whites’ animosity towards foreigners and undocumented immigrants. Simply referring to this attitude as racist or xenophobic does not capture anywhere near the complexity of the situation. This is not to say that many poor whites are not, indeed, racist and xenophobic apart from economic conditions–although, again, as our short historical summary above pointed out, even this racism and xenophobia did not arrive out of a vacuum. But to simply dismiss workers’ concerns about jobs and wages as nothing more than an incoherent manifestation of latent racism, itself the product of nothing more than ignorance, is itself a wildly ignorant position.
The reality is that, paradoxical as it may sound, the reason that political and economic elites today are so happy to endorse multiculturalism and antiracism is the same reason that, in centuries past, they endorsed white supremacy and nativism. Those who own land and capital endorse cultural, political, and economic systems that suit their interests, especially that of keeping the cost of labor down. CEOs, entrepreneurs, and politicians aren’t mad about Brexit because they are kept awake at night worrying about the realities of structural racism. They are upset and scared because of the effect Brexit will have on their bottom line.
None of this, of course, means that Brexit was necessarily good. I know far too little about the intricacies of the EU to give any kind of opinion on that matter. My point is just this: if many white Britons were motivated to leave the EU because they were worried about the influx of workers willing to work for less money and security than British citizens, this is a completely legitimate concern. Of course, many of these people may also hold repugnant attitudes towards foreigners. I’m not arguing that Brexiters are morally perfect people, but I am arguing that one of the root reasons many people are upset about immigration is the economic insecurity that immigration really does help to generate.
And of course, it must be said that my critique here is not against immigrants themselves. They are just looking to find work wherever they can, the best wages they can, to try and support themselves and their families. Indeed, my point is that both workers who stay in their home country and immigrants who leave theirs to look for better options are both the victims of these economic policies. And so long as this narrative about working-class whites–that they oppose things like the EU or NAFTA purely due to racist and xenophobic attitudes–is not questioned, we will not be able to have a serious discussion about what it would look like to create local, regional, and global economic structures that can actually generate prosperity for all working people. So long as we only have the conventional conversation, we won’t be able to present or talk about options beyond neoliberalism. Racism is a tool invented to keep working people at war with each other. Liberal hand-wringing about the ignorant masses and their xenophobia is not meant to actually combat racism, but rather to profit off of it, by scaring middle-class people into supporting economic and political structures that are actually at the root of so many of our problems.
So whether you supported Brexit or not, whether you plan to vote for Clinton or not, whether you regard yourself as a ‘liberal’ or as a ‘conservative’, I implore you to think through the assumptions of the arguments that are made over the coming months. Instead of rushing to announce on social media that you support the ‘correct’ side, ask questions about the framing of the discussion itself. I think you will find that often, the most important questions are the ones media commentators are desperately trying to get you to never ask.