Capitalism and racial difference

The Production of Difference:

Race and the Management of Labor in US History

David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch’s The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in US History is an impressively researched attempt to bring together two themes in the history of American capitalism that have often remained separate: race and the management of labor.  While the scholarship on both areas separately is immense, little exists in the way of dialogue between them.  By providing a history of the intersections between race and the management of labor for the century between 1830 and 1930, Roediger and Esch seek to establish that this separation hinders the analysis of both.  

The book is organized around distinct episodes in “race management,” beginning with slavery and settlement, moving through colonialism and the construction of the transcontinental railroads, and ending with the immigrant workforce in the factories of the 1930s. In each of these periods, Roediger and Esch highlight the way those engaged in the management of labor turned to ideas about race to buttress their authority and organize their workforce along racial lines.

As this broad historical-geographical range suggests, the category of race management includes a quite diverse set of practices. Under slavery, it meant everything from the assemblage of slave patrols to inventing diseases to explain slaves’ propensity for running away to adjudicating the thorny question of who was better suited for dangerous work: Black slaves or Irish wage-laborers. In the building of the railroads, it meant hiring Chinese workers, whose status as non-citizen contracted labor gave management more power over them than white or Black Americans. In Panama, race management entailed designing a pay scale that rated Black, white American, and European immigrant workers all differently. Finally, in the Taylorist factories of the twentieth century, it meant attempting to construct detailed studies of the advantages and disadvantages of different races for various kinds of work.

This diversity of settings, however, imposes some costs on the book’s argument. In linking so many different practices under the guise of race management, Roediger and Esch risk making the concept so broad as to undermine its ability to explain specific processes. For example, the authors discuss the linking of whiteness with the ability to manage, an association they refer to as “whiteness as management.” Such a linkage surfaced, among other places, in discussions of settlement, when the dispossession of Native Americans was justified on grounds of their supposed inability to properly manage the land on which they lived.  

Here, management refers to the efficient use of natural resources, while in the context of labor management, it refers to the management of human resources, who differ from natural resources primarily in that people often resist being managed. The use of a common term to denote the two phenomena does not seem enough to include both in one conceptual schema.  Even when discussing the management of labor, Roediger and Esch have a tendency to elide the systemic settings in which management took place.  

The slave patrol, for example, concerned with catching and brutalizing escaped slaves, is a tool of an exploiting class confronting a very different situation than the capitalist class does when attempting to maximize the exploitation of wage-laborers. Without specifying how management as a practice had to solve quite different problems as a result of the structural context in which it took place, a too-broad concept of race as management risks imposing homogeneity on dissimilar activities undertaken by the exploiting classes.

If attempting to unite such a broad array of practices under the concept of race management carries risks, it is nonetheless true that Roediger and Esch have reasons for their decision to cover such a large territory. In detailing the ubiquity of race management in the history of American capitalism, Roediger and Esch seek to make a larger intervention into how that history is conceptualized. Too often, they argue, theorists of capitalism have treated its development as a race-blind process, destined to clear away “irrational” social practices like racial stratification through the leveling power of the market.  

For Roediger and Esch, this tendency even afflicts Marxist political economy, where the concept of “abstract labor” works to reinforce the conception of capitalism as reducing all workers to a common position. In the place of this conception of capitalism, which the authors contend can hardly be sustained in light of the pervasiveness of race management, they argue for a theory of capitalist development that sees the production of racial difference as central.

Before assessing this key argument about the centrality of race management, it is worth pointing out that Roediger and Esch’s argument about abstract labor (which is presented in an expanded form in their article in Historical Materialism 17.4 that preceded the book) rests on a mistake in what the concept abstract labor is meant to denote. For Marx, abstract labor is a form of labor that arises in capitalist societies. In all societies people perform concrete labor—the labor that makes things that people use—from the necessities of life to works of art to the latest technologies.  

In a capitalist society, however, labor undergoes a process of abstraction as a result of its products all being placed in the market. Since neither workers nor capitalists have non-market access to the necessities of life, they must sell commodities in the market to be able to buy the things they need to survive. And since workers have nothing to sell but their labor power, they sell it to capitalists, who in turn sell the products they direct workers to make. In this process, capitalists are in competition with one another. If the individual workers employed by a given capitalist aren’t producing as efficiently as the average worker, that capitalist risks being pushed out of the market.  

Thus, capitalists are compelled to abstract away all of the individual differences in productivity among their workers and bring them to the average level. For workers, this abstraction means things like speed-ups, more supervision, and less control over the conditions of their work. This entire process constitutes the production of abstract labor. Note that nothing in this dynamic implies that the conditions of work or the treatment of workers will be homogenized. All that the process requires is that the workers’ output be produced at a similar level of efficiency.  

Conceptualized in this way, the concept of abstract labor encounters no difficulties from the evidence Roediger and Esch present about the racial structuring of workforces. Indeed, much of the book stands as confirmation that the production of difference aided the production of abstract labor throughout American history. Vivek Chibber makes this argument in an expanded form in chapter 6 of his recent book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.

The evidence Roediger and Esch present to make their case for the ubiquity of racial management is truly impressive. Drawing on a rich archival base and a formidable trawl through the secondary literature, Roediger and Esch persuasively document the way managers of labor have drawn on ideas about race to inform their decision-making in the range of the periods they study.  

At places, they mobilize this evidence in the service of quite interesting arguments, such as the contention in a later chapter that the extensive reliance on race knowledge in factory management helped prolong the life of absolute foreman power. Under assault in the early twentieth century by scientific management, which sought to take decision-making power off the factory floor entirely and relocate it into planning departments, foremen advanced arguments about their irreplaceability in managing different races on the shop floor. Though presented only briefly, this is an intriguing argument for race management’s effects on the development of American capitalism.

More broadly, the authors present compelling evidence on the way race has structured aspects of American life that have heretofore been largely unconsidered. As they comment, while a great deal of literature exists on the way race shapes and is produced by labor markets, there is little concerning how the internal organization of firms (or plantations) has been shaped by ideas about race.  In doing so, the authors pose a firm historical challenge to neoclassical nostrums about competitive markets reducing racial inequality. Similarly, they note that the predilection of management for racially stratified workforces leaves little alternative to the view that struggle from below is the only real route for eliminating such inequalities.

Important as these arguments are, however, Roediger and Esch at times overextend them to contentions that are harder to support with their evidence. While they have a great deal to say about how planters or foremen thought about race, and based managerial decisions on ideas about race, they move far too quickly from this kind of evidence to quite large claims about racial management’s importance in the development of American capitalism. In introducing their discussion of the American West, for example, the authors argue “managerial patterns learned [there] were vital to US national development. Varied forms of race management set important patterns.”

Now, while the meaning of “vital” is up for some interpretation here, there is clearly a claim that race management techniques pioneered during the building of the railroads made an important contribution to American economic development more broadly. While Roediger and Esch provide a lot of evidence, often keenly interpreted, concerning the ubiquity of race management in the construction of the railroads, this is hardly enough to demonstrate its vital importance. After all, any number of practices might be widespread in contemporary American corporate culture, yet demonstrating this doesn’t constitute a good reason to believe that these practices are making crucial contributions to American economic development.

Indeed, to show that race management really was crucial to the construction of the national economy, something more is necessary. Consider, for example, how Harry Braverman argues for the importance of Taylorism in Labor and Monopoly Capital.  Braverman argues that around the turn of the century, American capitalists faced real limits on their ability to squeeze more productivity from their workers. Because much manufacturing labor was performed by skilled workers who planned and executed the productive process themselves, relying on their employers mainly for raw materials and large-scale machinery, they were able to frustrate management’s efforts to compel from them more output per hour.  

Frederick Tayor identified a way to break labor’s control of the shop floor by separating workers from their knowledge of production and separating the planning and execution of the labor process, making it far more difficult for workers to restrict output and resist speed-ups. Turning back to establishing the importance of race management, Roediger and Esch provide no comparable argument for race management’s ability to resolve otherwise insoluble problems for capital. Without such an argument, it is difficult to say the authors succeed in their claims for race management’s necessity for the development of American capitalism.

To argue that race management may not have played a vital role in that development does not necessitate denying that race was and is a central feature of American capitalism. The practices Roediger and Esch document, such as the setting of Irish, Black, and Chinese workers against each other in the building of the transcontinental railroad, resulted in real advantages for capital by weakening the working class’s ability to mobilize collectively to defend its interests. As such, capitalists had good reasons to pursue forms of race management at various points.  

To put the point more abstractly, we might distinguish between two ways of theorizing racial oppression’s role in capitalism. One view, to which Roediger and Esch seem to subscribe (and is quite common more broadly on the left), is that racism is necessary for capitalist development, and that capitalism could not exist without it. Another view is that structures of racial oppression result in important advantages for capitalists, and thus we should expect to see capitalism continue to generate such structures as long as racism exists.  

The evidence presented in The Production of Difference tends to fit the second view better than the first—that capitalism gave rise to structures of racial domination at moments throughout its history (and continues to do so today), but capital accumulation itself was not dependent on these structures existing.

This review has concentrated attention on the theoretical shortcomings in the arguments put forward in The Production of Difference. It must be said, however, that these theoretical arguments make up a fairly small portion of the book. Indeed, as I have tried to indicate, the bulk of the book is concerned with an exemplary excavation of the way race has been manipulated on the factory floor (or in the plantation field, or along the path of the railways) throughout American history.  

Yet there are good reasons to focus on Roediger and Esch’s theoretical arguments. The politics of any history or account of contemporary society inevitably reside in the theory, in the explanation that is given for why our society has developed as it has. This is not to suggest that grievous political errors lie hidden beneath Roediger and Esch’s theoretical missteps. Rather, it is to underline the premium socialists must place on developing a proper theory in the first place. The task is to change the world, but to do so we must understand it.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story