One of the on-going ideological disputes during recent US elections has been over the relationship between racism and economics, with some factions claiming racism precedes economic oppression, other factions claiming economic oppression precedes racism, and yet other factions claiming that racism and economic oppression are intertwined. I have spent more than a little time (yet not enough) researching and meditating on this and have the following thoughts.
The Great Depression helped sweep the Nazis into power in Germany, but fascism existed prior to the Great Depression. The original Fascists came to power in Italy in the early 1920s. World War I debt was a factor in the rise of the Italian Fascists, but more important seems to have been nationalism and revanchism, resentment at being shorted at Versailles. A parallel can be drawn with the racist terrorist movement that followed the US Civil War, leading to the establishment of segregation in the USA. So, also in Germany, and throughout Europe. We can also draw a parallel with the suppression of Islam in India and China, both experiencing unprecedented prosperity and yet with reactionary authoritarian governments.
One of the many ironies of fascism is that, while it claims to bring prosperity, it actually impoverishes, even most of the people who support it. One thinks of the US South, dominated by segregation and yet direly poor. To the rulers of the South, maintaining white supremacism was more important than raising the region out of poverty. The elite Southern planters were poor compared to the Northern industrialists of the Gilded Age, and most Southern whites were only marginally better-off than Southern blacks, and it was the effort of maintaining the system of segregation that kept the South poor. This was true in interwar Italy and Germany as well: fascism raised up new ruling elites, but only a little above the mass of society, and left the whole of society far worse off than it could otherwise have been. I doubt matters were better in the other 1930s fascist states or are better in current India and China. Oppression is expensive.
So what is one to think? It is true that the impulse to fascism is pre-existing, and reactionary authoritarianism can break out in prosperity as well as poverty. India and China have never before been so rich, and yet they are dominated by reactionary authoritarians. In interwar Europe, on the other hand, bad economic conditions empowered reactionary authoritarians. So I conclude that racism and economic oppression may be, but are not always, intertwined, and that racism precedes economic oppression. In the current USA, which after all sparked this post, I would say also they are intertwined. The current US reactionary movement saw its rise with the election of Ronald Reagan as President, and both racism and class warfare were the motivations. There was and is a clear desire to reestablish a class system in the USA and at the same time a desire to wipe out the gains women and African-Americans had made in the 1960s and 1970s. The program is on-going, with the Trump administration, the Republican leadership, and the Supreme Court majority continuing to further its goals.
What is to be done? In the USA, no major party or Presidential candidate is addressing racism directly. It is impossible for a politician on the national stage to do so without a cost in credibility. When Hillary Clinton spoke of the matter in her “Two Baskets” speech, she was roundly pilloried. The rise of the Nazis and their racist violence in 1930s Germany informs Bernard Sanders’s speeches, yet he speaks subtly, and he does so because directness is impossible. None of the current crop of Presidential hopefuls have done well at this; perhaps Julián Castro did best. He has dropped out of the race and endorsed Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps he will yet influence her campaign and Presidency.
I am reminded yet again of how slavery could not be mentioned in public political discourse during the antebellum period. To mention the issue on the floor of the House of Representatives was to invite censure, if not a challenge to a duel. In like manner, we now cannot publicly speak of the radical right, white supremacism, racism, or sexism without challenge, harassment, and perhaps even violence. The wealthy and powerful, partly out of racism and partly out of greed, have sown the wind and are now reaping the whirlwind. I think we are in a time similar to the end of the Reconstruction, when the vast gains African-Americans made were largely wiped away by terrorism and the failure of the Federal government to protect their civil rights. Chattel slavery was outlawed, but the brutal class system of segregation replaced it.
The loss is not yet complete. Women, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups are not willingly ceding the civil rights gained in the 1960s and 1970s. People are fighting to preserve the social insurance programs developed in that period, as well as the Affordable Care Act. The outcome remains in doubt, and there is a new factor: the consequences of environmental destruction, especially global warming.
It is important, therefore, to protect ourselves and preserve what we can. If we lose the Federal government, we must claim states rights. If we regain the Federal government, we must work to retake lost ground. I do not believe we will be able to buy off the whirlwind; the racists are not going to be satisfied with better economic conditions. We must fight, for the consequences of loss are too awful to contemplate.