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101

Morbid Capitalism

1
terms
3
notes

journalistic piece on garment manufacturing in the American south & why it's been declining

Pal Singh, N. and Linh Nguyen Tu, T. (2018). Morbid Capitalism. n+1, 30, pp. 101-116

(noun) a falling off or away; deterioration / (noun) descent slope

103

Embedded in Case and Deaton’s “narrative of deterioration,” then, is a narrative of racial declension. Poorer, non-college-educated black and Hispanics have suffered the same economic weakness without experiencing rising mortality and morbidity

—p.103 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu
notable
11 months ago

Embedded in Case and Deaton’s “narrative of deterioration,” then, is a narrative of racial declension. Poorer, non-college-educated black and Hispanics have suffered the same economic weakness without experiencing rising mortality and morbidity

—p.103 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu
notable
11 months ago
104

But to fixate on racial disparities—whether still open or rapidly closing—misses the point. Writing about white political dispositions in an earlier period, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that postbellum working-class and poorer white Americans received “a public and psychological wage,” withheld from African Americans and other stigmatized racial groups. He meant that whiteness secured certain expectations and assurances of material and social gains, including access to stable wages and a monopoly on public goods. What we are seeing in this moment is not a literal diminishment of white bodies, but the stagnation of these wages of whiteness.White Americans remain political, economic, and psychic beneficiaries of these wages. (Look at most corporate boards, newsrooms, academic departments, and congressional delegations.) But for whites at the bottom, the decline in the standard of living—and even the conditions of livability—is hard to ignore. For them, not only jobs and affordable housing have disappeared; education and clean water can’t be counted on, as they used to be. The sudden reversal in midlife white mortality is just another sign of how deeply the latest phase of capitalism reaches into the lives of the majority of Americans, eroding the pretense and protective covering that whiteness once promised some of them.

The wages of whiteness were generated through black enslavement, expropriation of indigenous land, migration of low-wage laborers from Asia and Latin America, and, following the abolition of slavery, segregated housing, segmented labor markets, and unequal education. Today, these legacies of black subordination produce diminishing returns. Law-and-order policies, and the mass incarceration of black bodies, paid dividends to municipal bondholders, public prosecutors, and prison-guard unions (often the only source of jobs in the towns where prisons dominate). But the same policies also locked up and disenfranchised millions of poor Americans, across the board. Predatory lenders who targeted black home-buyers fueled a housing bubble that, once popped, wiped out the savings of millions of homeowners indiscriminately. More and more poor and working-class people across the color line are being overwhelmed.

—p.104 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu 11 months ago

But to fixate on racial disparities—whether still open or rapidly closing—misses the point. Writing about white political dispositions in an earlier period, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that postbellum working-class and poorer white Americans received “a public and psychological wage,” withheld from African Americans and other stigmatized racial groups. He meant that whiteness secured certain expectations and assurances of material and social gains, including access to stable wages and a monopoly on public goods. What we are seeing in this moment is not a literal diminishment of white bodies, but the stagnation of these wages of whiteness.White Americans remain political, economic, and psychic beneficiaries of these wages. (Look at most corporate boards, newsrooms, academic departments, and congressional delegations.) But for whites at the bottom, the decline in the standard of living—and even the conditions of livability—is hard to ignore. For them, not only jobs and affordable housing have disappeared; education and clean water can’t be counted on, as they used to be. The sudden reversal in midlife white mortality is just another sign of how deeply the latest phase of capitalism reaches into the lives of the majority of Americans, eroding the pretense and protective covering that whiteness once promised some of them.

The wages of whiteness were generated through black enslavement, expropriation of indigenous land, migration of low-wage laborers from Asia and Latin America, and, following the abolition of slavery, segregated housing, segmented labor markets, and unequal education. Today, these legacies of black subordination produce diminishing returns. Law-and-order policies, and the mass incarceration of black bodies, paid dividends to municipal bondholders, public prosecutors, and prison-guard unions (often the only source of jobs in the towns where prisons dominate). But the same policies also locked up and disenfranchised millions of poor Americans, across the board. Predatory lenders who targeted black home-buyers fueled a housing bubble that, once popped, wiped out the savings of millions of homeowners indiscriminately. More and more poor and working-class people across the color line are being overwhelmed.

—p.104 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu 11 months ago
112

[...] Working under the auspices of Alabama Correctional Industries (ACI), men and women are paid anywhere from 25 cents to 75 cents an hour for their labors. The humming of the textile looms in these prisons is a point of pride for state business boosters: “Alabama’s state prison system faces a wide range of problems, from overcrowding to rampant violence,” reported AL.com. “But one thing its administrators do not have trouble with is coming up with things for inmates to manufacture. From cleaning solutions and clothing to couches and barbecue grills, the list of items made by prisoners who participate in the Alabama Correctional Industries prison work program is long and varied.” In the first eight months of 2017, ACI reported more than $15 million in revenues, including almost $2 million in profits, approximately half of which came from textiles.

Most of Alabama’s prisons were built during the 1970s and saw rapidly rising populations, due in part to stricter drug laws. In the late ’70s, when Tee Jays first opened, Alabama’s state prison population was approximately six thousand; now it hovers at around thirty thousand, 42 percent higher than the national average. African Americans make up less than a third of the state population but more than 54 percent of those incarcerated.

As the textile factories were shuttering, emptying out, or sold off to foreign buyers, Alabama’s prisons were steadily filled to overcapacity. [...]

—p.112 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu 11 months ago

[...] Working under the auspices of Alabama Correctional Industries (ACI), men and women are paid anywhere from 25 cents to 75 cents an hour for their labors. The humming of the textile looms in these prisons is a point of pride for state business boosters: “Alabama’s state prison system faces a wide range of problems, from overcrowding to rampant violence,” reported AL.com. “But one thing its administrators do not have trouble with is coming up with things for inmates to manufacture. From cleaning solutions and clothing to couches and barbecue grills, the list of items made by prisoners who participate in the Alabama Correctional Industries prison work program is long and varied.” In the first eight months of 2017, ACI reported more than $15 million in revenues, including almost $2 million in profits, approximately half of which came from textiles.

Most of Alabama’s prisons were built during the 1970s and saw rapidly rising populations, due in part to stricter drug laws. In the late ’70s, when Tee Jays first opened, Alabama’s state prison population was approximately six thousand; now it hovers at around thirty thousand, 42 percent higher than the national average. African Americans make up less than a third of the state population but more than 54 percent of those incarcerated.

As the textile factories were shuttering, emptying out, or sold off to foreign buyers, Alabama’s prisons were steadily filled to overcapacity. [...]

—p.112 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu 11 months ago
114

SINCE THE 2016 ELECTION, there has been a continuous, perhaps unresolvable, debate about whether deepening economic distress or ingrained racism led many whites to back Trump. Seen from the former empire of cotton in the US South, where surplus was extracted from black bodies, and industrial progress and good wages were allocated to whites who had only their own labor to sell, the notion that there would only be two opposed readings is impossibly simple.

We reap what we sew. Cotton made industrial capitalism possible by feeding the bodies of workers, enslaved and free, into its machine, and by voracious clearing of indigenous lands. At the back end of its historical arc, vulnerabilities that have long sundered workers along racial and national lines ensure that the race to the bottom continues. Sherry wants to fight against this by hanging on to the vestiges of her wages of whiteness, dependent on the subjugation of workers in Central America, prison labor, and the distinction that she posits between herself and other lazy whites.

[...]

If the economic struggles of white Americans like Sherry are now more visible, it doesn’t mean she is specially or inexplicably vulnerable. Her challenges do not make her unique; they make her more like everyone else. To be a working person in America today is increasingly to join the ranks of workers everywhere. Such a realization is perhaps the first step toward generating the forms of collective political will and solidarity to chart a different course. Sherry herself understands that there is little to exempt her from the crisis that has engulfed her town and region. She knows that the ground continues to shift beneath her. “I hope it works out,” she says about Mill Store. But hedging her bets, she adds, “I don’t rule it out that I would go back to sewing, if I had to.”

—p.114 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu 11 months ago

SINCE THE 2016 ELECTION, there has been a continuous, perhaps unresolvable, debate about whether deepening economic distress or ingrained racism led many whites to back Trump. Seen from the former empire of cotton in the US South, where surplus was extracted from black bodies, and industrial progress and good wages were allocated to whites who had only their own labor to sell, the notion that there would only be two opposed readings is impossibly simple.

We reap what we sew. Cotton made industrial capitalism possible by feeding the bodies of workers, enslaved and free, into its machine, and by voracious clearing of indigenous lands. At the back end of its historical arc, vulnerabilities that have long sundered workers along racial and national lines ensure that the race to the bottom continues. Sherry wants to fight against this by hanging on to the vestiges of her wages of whiteness, dependent on the subjugation of workers in Central America, prison labor, and the distinction that she posits between herself and other lazy whites.

[...]

If the economic struggles of white Americans like Sherry are now more visible, it doesn’t mean she is specially or inexplicably vulnerable. Her challenges do not make her unique; they make her more like everyone else. To be a working person in America today is increasingly to join the ranks of workers everywhere. Such a realization is perhaps the first step toward generating the forms of collective political will and solidarity to chart a different course. Sherry herself understands that there is little to exempt her from the crisis that has engulfed her town and region. She knows that the ground continues to shift beneath her. “I hope it works out,” she says about Mill Store. But hedging her bets, she adds, “I don’t rule it out that I would go back to sewing, if I had to.”

—p.114 by Nikhil Pal Singh, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu 11 months ago