The Economics of Race Hatred

World Trade Organization protestor

In August 1999, just a few months before the newly invigorated anti-capitalist movement scored a provisional victory in Seattle, an unemployed white supremacist named Buford Furrow shot a group of children at a Jewish preschool in Los Angeles. Furrow went on to kill an Asian-American mail carrier before turning himself in.

This murderous outburst happened a month after a frighteningly similar racist rampage in Chicago. Such atrocities obviously represent the opposite of everything that the movement against global capital stands for. Yet Furrow’s motivations, murky as they may be, reveal a peculiar relationship with the reactionary and racist aspects of vague critiques of “international finance”.

One detail in particular from Furrow’s crime brought home in a striking way its intimate connection with right-wing opposition to “globalization”. In Furrow’s car the police found a copy of a book called War Cycles/Peace Cycles by a prominent far right conspiracy theorist named Richard Hoskins. The book presents itself as a history of usury (lending money at interest) and of the banking industry, with a strong emphasis on the ostensible role of Jews in inter-national finance. An enterprising New York Times reporter reached the author, Mr. Hoskins, by telephone, and asked for his comment on Furrow’s actions. Hoskins replied, “I don’t know what a book of economics has to do with shooting children at a day care center” and hung up the phone.

So what does a “book of economics” have to do with shooting children on a playground? The connections are not as incidental as we might wish. There is a structure and a logic to extreme right analyses of the world economy, which left opponents of capitalism need to confront. But as a number of comrades from Europe, India, and elsewhere have pointed out, many left critics of globalization and corporate control actually share some of the far right’s ideological premises and rhetorical motifs. Right-wing populism’s myopic focus on “international finance” harbors a racist potential which extreme conditions of alienation threaten to unleash at any time. This potential was realized last August when Hoskins’ theory was put into practice by a man who had been ground down by the present economy.

Incidents such as these—which seem to be increasingly frequent—pose a difficult problem for opponents of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other agents of economic neoliberalism. The problem is not simply that we need to protect our movements, whose goals are international justice and liberation, from encroachment by right-wing forces seeking to capitalize on popular discontent. We also need to examine our own arguments and assumptions.

There are different varieties of anti-capitalism, and each comes with its own bundle of underlying values and visions. Several of the more historically potent varieties of anti-capitalism are built on values which we ought to reject just as strongly as we reject capitalism itself. Some of these authoritarian pseudo-alternatives are easily unmasked as merely another form of elite rule, minus private property and market chaos. But other reactionary versions of anti-capitalism are less obviously insidious, appealing to a vision of a “people’s community”. The egalitarian images invoked by such visions typically disguise their true social origins in the economics of race hatred.

In an essay on anti-semitism and National Socialism (the name the original Nazis gave their own doctrine), historian Moishe Postone describes “a form of ‘anticapitalism’ that seeks to overcome the existing social order from a standpoint which actually remains immanent to that order.” In other words, there are ways of attacking the more visible signs of capital’s control over our lives that do not threaten—and may even reinforce—the underlying system itself. It is this sort of unarticulated and unreflected resentment which, in the absence of a coherent and emancipatory critique, becomes easy prey for nationalist and racist worldviews—the ugly terrain where Buford Furrow and Pat Buchanan meet.

When alienation finds expression in xenophobia, when the violence of capitalist exploitation engenders the violence of ethnic exclusion, it is time to take a close look at the forms of anti-capitalism that are most prevalent in our culture. In particular, those that focus centrally on international banking and financial institutions often carry a potent right-wing charge; their vague yet vehement denunciations have a dubious historical pedigree. This is why an inchoate anti-capitalism can be even more dangerous in many ways than simple indifference to capitalist realities. In contrast to these reactionary versions of anti-capitalism, Postone argues that “an approach is required that can distinguish between what modern capitalism is and the way it manifests itself.”

For better or worse, this task will demand of us more “theory”, not less; a greater level of abstraction, not simplicity. The complexity of the contemporary capitalist system requires this, as does its distinctive ability to veil its actual operations behind seemingly self-evident structures. Unravelling the superficial appearance of capitalism is a necessary step in understanding and combating its real roots.

The political traditions of the libertarian left already contain the necessary theoretical tools for drawing such crucial distinctions, as well as the building blocks of an alternative and liberatory approach based on the vision of a world free of domination in any form. One important role that revolutionaries can play within the global movement against the hegemony of capital is to push for a clear and decisive differentiation of our own arguments from those of the right. This will mean simultaneously expanding our analyses and making them more precise, so that partial reactions to global financial institutions are embedded in a broad and well defined critique of the capitalist system as a whole.

Opposition to “international finance” is not the same thing as opposition to capitalism as such, and is in fact a decidedly perilous tactic outside of a principled and informed anti-capitalist approach. By mistaking a symptom for a cause, by confusing an abstract entity with a concrete social relation, by making invidious distinctions between “speculative” and “productive” capital, it fosters the same pseudo-resistance that right-wing groups build on. A radically emancipatory understanding of capitalism has nothing in common with this tradition, and we should consistently disassociate ourselves from those who purvey it or fall prey to it. This may require a thorough reconsideration of the arguments usually advanced in anti-corporate and anti-globalization campaigns. Anything less sets us up for complicity in the misguided and nebulous worldview whose most extreme expression—never far from the surface—is racist violence.

Editorial Comment

Published on the Institute for Social Ecology website (May 2000)