Of all racial and/or ethnic groups in the United States, black people have the worst economic outcomes. A litany of statistics indicate that blacks are the most likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and living below the poverty line.
The diagnosis of these problems often leads to a prescription for black-owned businesses. From this perspective, white people control the wealth necessary for survival. The economic fate of black folks, then, depends upon the objectives of another group. Black people are forced to beg for vanishing jobs with stagnant wages. As Dr. Boyce Watkins declares, black people must “escape the corporate plantation” by going into business themselves.
While I am sympathetic to this argument, it fails to grasp the structure of capitalism. In capitalist societies, businesses are hierarchical arrangements that exploit the labor power of those at the bottom for profit. That stated, the problem is not simply who owns the businesses, but the way those businesses are organized. Capitalism with a black face does not ameliorate or resolve the fact of exploitation – it exacerbates the matter.
The Means of Production, Surplus-Value, and Exploitation
There are at least two preconditions for the survival of a human society: 1). a group of workers, and 2). a means of production. Workers utilize their brains and muscles to transform nature into products that can be used by others. Laborers work, for instance, to transform plants into food and trees into shelter. But this is impossible without a means of production: land, natural resources, and factories.
The problem is: a small group owns the means of production necessary for the survival of everyone. This class of people are known as ‘business-owners’. The masses who do not own the means of production have only their labor power to offer. This class of people are known as ‘workers’. Business-owners want to expand their enterprise and compete with other business-owners in the marketplace. Such a goal is only accomplished through higher profit margins. What is the source of value and profit? Labor. When the owner of a business pays the worker an hourly wage, they are only being paid a small fraction of the wealth they produced. For instance, let’s say a McDonald’s employee can assemble 60 burgers in an hour. The cost of each burger is $1. During that hour, McDonald’s makes $60 in sales off one employee. However, that employee is paid only $9. This means that the employee is compensated for only the first 9 minutes of the hour, the 51 remaining minutes were free. The employee is a wage-slave. The profit margin, or surplus-value (the $51 accrued) is appropriated by the owner and distributed to various sources: shareholders, vendors, CEOs so they can buy bigger yachts, etc.
The issue is not the surplus per se. Every society needs a surplus to offset those who are not in the workforce: the young, the disabled, the elderly, etc. The main question is: who produces, appropriates, and distributes the surplus? When the group of people who produces the surplus is different than the group of people who appropriates and distributes it, there is exploitation. Capitalism is exploitative because workers produce the surplus that is appropriated and distributed by owners. Workers have no say-so in the direction of the corporation, what is invested in, etc. To end exploitation, those who produce, appropriate, and distribute must be the same group of people. Having black owners who hire and exploit their black employees is still exploitation.
There are only two ways to organize an economy: totalitarian or egalitarian (Jackson, 1971). The former is based on competition and exploitation, the latter is based on cooperation and communalism. The fourth principle of Kwanzaa is ujamaa: to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and profit from them together.
“We Finally Got a Piece of the Pie”
A common belief is that the Civil Rights Movement toppled the remaining barriers to racial and economic freedom. This misguided contention became widespread in the early 1970s. The most notable example is the iconic black sitcom The Jefferson’s. The main character of the series is a black man who owns a dry-cleaning business and lives with his wife and maid. Consider the lyrics for the theme song:
“Well, we’re movin’ on up (movin’ on up)
to the east side (movin’ on up)
to a deluxe apartment in the sky
movin’ on up (movin’ on up)
to the east side
we finally got a piece of the pie!
Fish don’t fry in the kitchen
beans don’t burn on the grill
took a whole lotta tryin’
just to get up that hill!
Now we’re up in the big leagues
gettin’ our turn at bat
as long as we live, it’s you and me baby
there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that”
(repeat first stanza one time until fade)
This song is a progress narrative and celebration of black exceptionalism. Of course, the metaphorical pie referenced here is none other than the American Dream – financed through capitalism. Instead of clamoring to be ‘up in the big leagues, gettin’ our turn at bat’ we need to expose the fraudulent ethics of that game and start playing a new one.
Black-owned businesses have a ‘piece of the pie’ – but fail to consider the recipe for that pie. Black slaves were the first form of capital in the world (Marx, 1867; Farley, 2008), and although Africa is the most resourceful continent, centuries of exploitation have rendered its people the poorest on Earth. This means that anti-black violence is the main ingredient for the pie we want. Black-owned businesses follow the same recipe with a different chef. This is not liberation, this is re-packaged oppression. Capitalism has devoured black people with death and destruction since it began – so when we get ‘a piece of the pie’ we are killing and eating ourselves. It’s economic cannibalism.
We do not need pie. We need to bake a cake!
Farley, Anthony. 2008. The Colorline As Capitalist Accumulation
Jackson, George. 1971. Blood in My Eye
Marx, Karl. 1867. Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy