It is rare and often uncomfortable to discuss the relationship between race and capitalism. Attributing certain economic systems to race relations and even discrimination are generally seen as reductive and even racist.
Yet it is important to recognise that capitalism has a racial origin in the West – which knowingly placed white populations, and in particular Anglo Saxons, on top of the economic pyramid. This is evident through an examination of one of its core tenets: private property rights.
Neoliberal Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto helped to legitimise the idea in the West and around the world that property rights are the fundamental enabler of private enterprise, social mobility and even economic equality. To de Soto, the reason why developing countries have not achieved high-income status and have not been able to enact capitalism ‘properly’ has little to do with cultural differences or the effects of centuries of exploitation, repression and inappropriate governance systems foisted on them. Instead, he believes, it has everything to do with the legal structure of property and property rights, most of which would be alien to centuries-old local systems, customs and traditions.
Indeed, the primacy of private property is now enshrined in national laws around the world – aided by Western-led multilateral international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization – and is seen as an unquestionable part of how human societies must be organised and allowed to prosper. But the truth is property rights are not universal: they are a social construct and cannot be viewed without historical nor socio-cultural context.
It is crucial to remember that modern conceptions of private property rights were constructed by white colonisers and settler communities during their conquest of the world, from the Americas to India and Australia. In order to legitimise the immoral (and now, illegal) act of land-grabbing, white Western colonisers and settlers instituted property rights in local and international laws and through the world’s first corporations (the infamous East India Trading Company, for example) to protect in perpetuity the ‘ill-gotten gains’ of plunder.
Yet they never respected the property rights of others in this process. In India, the British enforced taxes on the population and reserved a portion of those taxes to buy land (and goods) cheaply from Indian peasants not familiar with – let alone educated in – British law or trade values. One scholar calculated that between 1765 and 1938, the UK stole $45trn from India in this way, among other crimes.
In the US, since 1776, around 1.5 billion acres of land has been seized from native populations – an area around 25 times the size of the United Kingdom. The entire island of Manhattan was purchased for just $24 (equivalent to around $950 in 2012, adjusted for inflation). Once land was conquered, stolen, or purchased unfairly, very small proportions were then partitioned off to native Americans – for example, the Chehalis people had their five-million-acre territory reduced to just four thousand acres in 1864 by President Lincoln. The native American civilisation, which believed in the notion of sharing public goods and common ownership, were made tenants of their own land.
As Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfeet said in 1885:
“Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. It will not even perish by the flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore we cannot sell this land.”
Needless to say, in both the US and India (among many others, including Australia, many African nations, South America and Southeast Asia), this has had lasting impacts, with entire populations being disenfranchised and suffering from intergenerational poverty to this day.
Yet to white Western setters, the immense wealth-generating capability of colonial land-grabbing, and the seizing of public and common goods, was so attractive it became enshrined in the general mode of doing business – for both tangible and intangible property. In this way, wealth has been created, magnified and passed down across generations, reinforcing the white economic powers and privileges we see today.
This has now evolved into a system of privatising everything using patents and other legal instruments, thereby allowing even collective knowledge and creativity to be converted into private ownership. Multinational companies have even sought to patent indigenous knowledge and products.
In this manner, human creativity and endeavour are deemed ‘intellectual property’, with the primary goal of creating wealth for the owners irrespective of the legitimacy of that claim to ownership. One current example is Western companies’ refusal to share COVID-19 vaccination formulas with developing nations, overriding the health and welfare of billions of people during a global crisis for the sake of profit.
We need to reorganise our economies
Given our existential crises, these systems must be replaced if we are to create more just and equal societies. We need to dismantle white privilege because it perpetuates archaic notions of prosperity premised on private wealth creation – predicated on systems that are unfair and increasingly visible to a growing number of people in the post-Western world. This does not mean that capitalism – or the ways we organise our economies – must also be dismantled or abandoned, but it does imply that it is past due to reshape capitalism (particularly its approach to property) to be more just, equitable and sustainable. We need a contemporary way of organising our economies that is not reliant on ideas formulated out of exceptionalism, entitlement and exclusivity.
Take the Hong Kong property market, a product of the British colonial empire, as an example. The private property interests of fictitious persons – corporations who control a significant proportion of high-end property in the city – has created an extreme housing bubble. Locals are being priced out of their districts and are struggling to achieve home ownership – which is at a rate of just 49.8%. Meanwhile in Singapore, the government has implemented a model of high-quality, low-cost public housing that has resulted in one of the highest levels of home-ownership in the world, at 91%, where 80% of the population live in public housing.
To face the complexities of the 21st century, we must be open to discussing how core elements of modern capitalism were founded upon and created to uphold white Western economic privilege, and still do. We must also begin to design and implement fairer and more sustainable models that value common goods and common prosperity.
Teaser photo credit: A residential building in Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. By Sakaori (talk) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43023528