The myth of white privilege

British capitalism was built on the ruthless exploitation of wage slaves, not black slaves.

Moses Dube

Topics Politics UK

One of the main arguments of the Black Lives Matter movement is that the legacy of slavery continues to inform ‘white privilege’ and structural racism today. It is an argument that is both historically illiterate and wilfully disingenuous.

The truth is that there is no relationship between slavery and white privilege. Slavery benefitted the emerging capitalist class of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries and no one else. Contrary to the BLM narrative, the history of slavery – and its relationship to the emergence of modern capitalist society – provides powerful grounds for overcoming racism, not perpetuating it.

That slavery was barbaric is beyond question. The routine treatment of human beings as little more than cattle to be bought in a market and worked until death was abhorrent. But slavery was a social and economic phenomenon, not a racial one. Indeed, English cotton-mill owners initially introduced not black, but child slavery in England. In fact, as Karl Marx showed, it was American capitalists’ attempt to rival their European competitors that led to the transformation of America’s patriarchal slavery system into a brutal, commercially exploitative one, in which black slaves were quickly worked to death before being rapidly replaced.

This is not to downplay the horror of slavery. It is to draw attention to the relationship, and difference, between a society based on slave-labour and one based on wage-labour, or as Marx called it, ‘the veiled slavery of the wage workers’.

Under a system of wage labour, as opposed to slave labour, the goal and mode in which surplus-labour was being extracted from the actual producer, the labourer, was changing. Under the emerging capitalist system, of which England was in the vanguard, the purpose of surplus-labour was not simply to obtain a greater quantity of useful products (which is what slave-based production aimed to achieve). It was now a question of the production of surplus-labour itself. The expansion of capital was now the dynamic underpinning economics.

Yet this difference in the form of labour, between slave-labour and wage-labour, should not conceal what they both shared. As Marx highlighted, even in the heartland of capitalist England, capitalists’ drive to overwork wage-labourers was as strong as slave-holders’ drive to overwork slaves. Marx drew attention to the rapid death and replacement of workers in the bakeries of London, the potteries of the West Midlands, and the cotton mills of the North West.

The working to death of slaves and emerging ‘wage slaves’ was not sustainable, however. Destroying the labourer was self-defeating. As capitalism industrialised and transformed early production into fully fledged factory production, and labour became more productive, so, too, did the extraction of surplus labour time. Industrialisation meant that the time it took to produce the commodities necessary to maintain the life of the labouring classes decreased. This meant that as capitalism developed into the regulated form with which we are more familiar today, labour became more exploited, not less. Slavery eventually disappeared because it could not compete with the surplus-labour extraction of advancing industrial capitalism.

This may sound counter-intuitive. We tend to associate exploitation with slavery, and with brutalised and dehumanised working conditions. We assume that workers in sweatshops in Bangladesh are the world’s most exploited. And it is true that the conditions in which they work are often horrendous. But workers in the more advanced countries were actually more exploited because they needed less time to reproduce their means of subsistence. This meant that more of the working day was spent producing surplus labour, and therefore the potential wealth that would accrue to the owner of capital, once the commodities were exchanged in the market. The growth of capitalism and the accumulation of wealth in Britain was driven primarily through precisely this process: the extraction of surplus labour drawn from English as well as other labourers around the world.

Again this relationship between actual slaves and wage slaves is important. Under capitalism, the slavery of the labourer is disguised through the wage form. The fact that there is a contract indicates that what is being bought and sold is not the labourer, but the commodity he or she owns – his or her labour-power. The wage contract extinguishes every trace of the division of the working day into necessary labour and surplus labour, into paid and unpaid labour. All labour appears as paid labour. Under slavery, the slave still has to reproduce his own means of existence, his own value, yet all labour here appears as unpaid labour. When English free-traders and anti-slavery campaigners protested this injustice in the US, decrying the fact that slaves ‘worked absolutely for nothing’, Marx wryly pointed out that these champions of freedom should have compared the daily costs of slaves with that of ‘free’ workmen in London’s Eastend. In both slavery and wage-labour, surplus labour is the source of the wealth of the owner of the means of production. It is just that ‘free’ labourers were a greater source of capitalists’ wealth than slaves were.

Yes, slavery also yielded great wealth. It formed the basis for the growth of cities like Bristol and Liverpool. For instance, the South Sea Trading Company, which was set up in 1711, for investment in the slave trade and in plantations, proved to be very popular and rose rapidly in value. This led to the first ‘boom and bust’ in Britain, the South Sea Bubble of 1720. But the beneficiaries of this were not white ‘free’ labourers. The profits, indeed, the privileges, from the South Sea Trading Company, were spread throughout the upper classes.

The wealth generated by, say, the South Sea Trading Company, did fuel conspicuous consumption among the rich. And some of this wealth no doubt also found its way into the factories of England, Wales and Scotland. But the subsequent expansion of British capitalism was driven by the ruthless exploitation of mainly white wage slaves, not black slaves. Wage slavery was a misfortune, not a privilege.

And this is the point. Objectively speaking, black slaves had much more in common with ‘free’ white labourers than their skin colour might have suggested. They had a common enemy, and one who rapidly understood how important race was to the future. The development of independent working-class politics in the US and England was always hamstrung by racism and the legacy of slavery. As Marx said of America: ‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.’ Which is why he was so optimistic when slavery was abolished after the Civil War. A common struggle was now possible that would unite workers across the colour line. Indeed, an early cause for optimism arrived with the general Congress of Labour at Baltimore, on 16 August 1866. Its declared goal was to free workers of all colour from slavery, by launching a fight for an eight-hour day across the whole of the US.

Sadly, racism has long been used to divide the working class. And the beneficiary of such racial division has always been the capitalist class. Even in South Africa, the colour bar in industry under Apartheid, which gave white workers more rights and higher living standards compared to blacks, did not liberate white workers from the yoke of capital. In fact, what South Africa proves is that capital is colour-blind, both in terms of ownership, how it operates and who it exploits. Its only concern is the extraction of surplus labour time – even from nice white middle-class university graduates.

South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, understands this well. At one time, as the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he fought for the rights of black mineworkers against Apartheid oppression. But after the end of Apartheid, Ramaphosa changed sides, and became one of South Africa’s wealthiest capitalists. As a board member and shareholder of Lonmin plc, the platinum-mining division of Lonrho plc, he behaved not unlike a Southern slave-owning plantation boss. He demanded strong police action against black workers who went on strike for a living wage at the Marikana platinum mine in 2012. Everyone knows that Ramaphosa got his wish – the Marikana massacre – where 34, non-armed black strikers were gunned down in cold blood by armed South African police. Despite TV footage and Miners Shot Down, Rehab Desai’s brilliant documentary about the massacre, there were no demonstrations or mass protests around the world. It seemed that in 2012, black lives did not matter, especially in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ crafted by Nelson Mandela. Whose privilege was on display in the Marikana massacre?

None of this is to diminish the horrors of slavery. But it does show that ‘white privilege’ is a myth, and that slavery and wage slavery have their common roots in the drive for surplus-labour and the enrichment of a minority. This suggests that there is a common interest between white and black; a common enemy we should be easily able to identify, provided we stop thinking racially.

Moses Dube is a South African writer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 7:39 am

For those that believe Marx’s Labour Theory of value I suggest you listen to G.P. Manish on the Tom Woods show where it’s pulled apart (in my opinion)

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 7:27 am

Given English “capitalists’ drive to overwork wage-labourers was as strong as slave-holders’ drive to overwork slaves” how do you explain the 20% increase in UK life expectancy during Marx’s lifetime and a 33% increase by 1920?

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 7:18 am

It was all going so well until he introduced Marx and Americans copying European methods of slavery, honestly do you really expect us to believe the Europeans invented working people to death? I no more believe that than there was no slavery before capitalism, another Marxian trope.

Garreth Byrne

18th June 2020 at 12:44 pm

The novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens say so much about the Coketowns of the industrialised world. It speaks of atmospheric pollution, of grinding working conditions and resultant ill health, of Grad-grinding miseducation in the schooling system. Read this novel before trying to wade through any economic tract.

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 8:37 am

Also read how people fled the rural idyll you seem to believe existed to work in the cities you believe were ruinously polluted, they were worked until they dropped and yet their life expectancy rose.

David McAdam

18th June 2020 at 11:44 am

A visit to Lady Victoria Colliery museum near Dalkeith, Scotland will inform the visitor how miners and their families were treated. A story is told of Mr Drysdale being called to the colliery manager’s office to discuss his 13 year old son who is about to leave school. Mr Drysdale, a miner, wants his son to train as a baker with his uncle in Edinburgh. The manager, on the other hand, wants the son to work in the pit. Not so subtly, he reminded Mr Drysdale that he lives in tied accommodation and that he has done such a lovely job of the garden that it would be a shame to leave all that. Mr Drysdale takes the hint and his son duly starts work in the pit. White privilege? Garbage. My late Father’s white privilege was working down a mine for forty six years less 6 to serve as a gunner during the war then back down the pit again. A cave during the last year in the pit left him medically retired and walking with a stick. Working in such toxic conditions all his life and also being put in a kill or be killed situation took its toll on him mentally and physically. Yup, Dad sure led a ‘white privileged’ life. Me too, but that’s another story.

George Orwell

17th June 2020 at 10:07 pm

Moses offers an interesting perspective.
He is absolutely right to propose that there is little essential difference between a slave who has his basic needs met by the slave owner and an employee who has his basic needs met by a subsistence wage.
Only when one receives an income which finances more than mere subsistence does one cease to be a slave because other options than working the maximum number of hours then become available.
In both cases the slave owner / employer can be benign or malign.
Maybe that explains why the British white working class performs similarly poorly to those of African heritage in our society.
However, many peoples with a dire past history of whatever race colour or creed do manage to overcome the effects of their past family histories.
So, perhaps it is a matter of culture both for blacks of African heritage and white working class youngsters.
They both have an aversion to academic endeavours and/or the need to acquire skills that others will willingly pay for.
That is a learned cultural attitude that needs to be addressed.
Nothing to do with skin colour at all.

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 9:18 am

No, there is another option – Work for yourself
As for educational attainment of the white working class (by which you mean boys I presume) that hasn’t always been the case. Back in the 60s Oxford University used to take 60% of its students from state schools, now it is 58.5% with a far greater intake. Reintroduce the grammar school, keep comprehensives for those who wish to use them for ideological reasons and we’ll see the bright working class kids getting to be PM again rather than the public school kids we currently get.


17th June 2020 at 9:17 pm

Mr. Dube advances too adult an argument for some posters to understand, apparently.

Neil Wilson

17th June 2020 at 6:09 pm

“the level of wages in a market economy is set by the law of supply and demand. ”

That would be the case if there were equal power and an alternative job that everybody could go to. In other words the power to say “no’.

But in a world where a person has to work to eat, but a business only has to hire if there is a change of a profit the law of ‘supply and demand’ ensure the wage trends towards zero.

Those with the power game the system.

Steve Gray

17th June 2020 at 5:49 pm

It is about time we had a bit of by-the-book Marxism on here…

Dominic Straiton

17th June 2020 at 5:12 pm

Who exactly are “white people” . Are we talking about Europeans? Does this include Spanish, Alexandria Ocasia Cortez? Exactly who is “privileged ” Obama?, David Lammy. What exactly are we talking about. My guess its a load of bollox.

David McAdam

18th June 2020 at 11:34 am

I’ve pondered this question too and have gradually come to the conclusion that it’s only us nasty Celt/Anglo-Saxons.

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 9:38 am

Race is, in itself, a racist idea with no scientific basis in fact. We are ALL one race, human. Some of us have different colours of skin, eyes and hair due to genetic mutation, but claiming we are a different race is like claiming dogs have different races.

Joe Soap

17th June 2020 at 4:29 pm

The worst exploiter of slaves in Britain today is the NHS—-nurses are paid so little that many have to use food banks to feed themselves and their families and there is a shortage of 40,000!! There is also a shortage of 10,000 doctors because of rotten pay and long hours being expected, for no extra remuneration—-and government is “surprised” more than 5,000 British trained doctors have been emigrating EVERY YEAR (before Covid arrived, and with its arrival, even more is expected of doctors, again for no more remuneration). Wait until the pandemic is over—-will doctors and nurses be rewarded for their life-saving hard work? No—they’ll continue being exploited—-BUT there will be fewer and fewer prepared to work in the NHS. Only immigrants have kept the NHS going because so many British doctors and nurses have emigrated, and once immigrant NHS employees realise how much better treated and paid they are in other countries, they will go too.. Mark my words—-there will be a mass exodus from the NHS in the next couple of years.

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 9:44 am

Well they could leave the NHS and get another job….


17th June 2020 at 4:03 pm

One group that kept their white privilege well hidden is the Guardian newspaper who benefitted from slavery. There is a petition to close them down.

Linda Payne

17th June 2020 at 2:55 pm

My daughter is looking for work; she was going to apply for one job but it was only taking applicants from BMAE people; ‘it must be my white privilege’ she laughed, I admire the fact that she can brush this kind of thing off and move on. Me? I’m sick of this pathetic country

Ad Dam

17th June 2020 at 2:25 pm

Only got so far before I was just plain offended by the constant quoting of Marx, yes MARX ffs. Can we not?

Stephen J

17th June 2020 at 3:02 pm

I don’t think we should forget though that Marx is the common enemy of both the wealthy and the poor. Indeed his ideas are the common enemy of all mankind, whether they be female, male, black, white, yellow or brown. Whether they have a god, or whether they are secular.

Marx has been responsible for hundreds of millions since his death.

Don’t talk to me about “BLM” until you (Mr. Dube) can work that out for yourself, and put him and all his works in the dustbin of history and moooov on.

But the principle issue with the bloke was that he was historically illiterate, he did not understand that life is not just about the current generation, but so much more. One might be a wage/actual slave in the current generation, but what you build, either by way of knowledge or capital, could help your next generation move to that of a wealth creator rather than remain as a wage consumer.

Either way, if you consume your past, you condemn your children’s future.

Claire D

18th June 2020 at 11:35 am

I am not a Marxist, but as a form of analysis it has it’s uses at times, providing it is recognised for what it is, ie, one person’s way of analysing the world in front of him.
Blaming Marx the man for the murderous, totalitarian regimes of the 20th century is like blaming the Bible for the Inquisition or the religious wars in France in the 16th century.
It’s human’s tendency to hate ‘the other’ that’s to blame, they’ll always find an excuse to absolve themselves of personal responsibility.

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 9:35 am

Not only that his theories on economics have been disproved to the point that many Marxists don’t believe the Labour theory of Value.

Peter King

17th June 2020 at 9:38 pm

Well it is a marxist web site so he will be getting quoted

Dave Patterson

17th June 2020 at 2:24 pm

common enemy indeed – what we really need a movement about is ‘wealth privilege’ – surprised noone has thought of it yet. I guess the people running the media want to avoid the guillotines.

nick hunt

17th June 2020 at 4:10 pm

Who’ll operate the guillotines?

John Lewis

17th June 2020 at 2:23 pm

Yet another article which obtusely ignores such obvious questions as “who actually captured and supplied the slaves to the traders”.

You really should know the answer Moses but just in case here’s a hint:-
Nancy Pelosi, Kente cloth, Ashanti.

Does that help?

Gareth Roberts

17th June 2020 at 11:22 am

I have rarely seen such blatant ignorance of history or economics.
“Wage slaves” sell their time to an employer; the level of wages in a market economy is set by the law of supply and demand. Wages remained at poverty level for most of history because whenever people were above the poverty line, the population increased.
Mankind has always consisted of clans, tribes and nations. When they went to war, sometimes the losing side was wiped out. Sometimes their bodies would be cooked and eaten by the winners. Then somebody got the bright idea of taking prisoners and making them work. Slavery is a by-product of war; when it first appeared, it was a sign of progress (unless you prefer genocide and cannibalism).

Neil McCaughan

17th June 2020 at 1:04 pm

Since ‘market economies’ for labour scarcely existed before the twentieth century, it’s you that betrays your ignorance of history.

nick hunt

17th June 2020 at 4:11 pm

does slavery predate homo sapiens, would you say?

Linda Payne

17th June 2020 at 4:16 pm

In the early industrial revolution the population increased massively; this is because wages were so low that the families needed more children to work in the factories to bring in money, they lived in slums and infant mortality was high, of course in those days people barely lived beyond 30 but overall population doubled in 50 years in most major cities


17th June 2020 at 7:59 pm

I believe the population increase was mainly due to improvements in agriculture and the ability to produce more food thereby making it cheaper.

Claire D

18th June 2020 at 11:15 am

JuliusB, I think you are right, factory workers had little or no control over their fertility. However during the second half of the 19th century a large family was considered a sign of success and virility amongst the middle classes. It could not have happened without better food and conditions. My great grandfather, an agricultural worker, lost his first wife and all four children to some disease, probably TB, in the 1850s.
Yet again though, there are times in history when the poor have sold their own children into slavery, as some of the Anglo-Saxon peasants did, along the North Sea coast, to the Vikings in the 11th century.

Claire D

18th June 2020 at 11:53 am

I meant to add at the end of the first paragraph, that his son, my grandfather had 9 children between 1890 and 1915, illustrating better health.

Tony Benn

19th June 2020 at 9:33 am

The early industrial revolution being 1760s? Where did you get these figures from? A quick scan of available literature provides the following :

“According to estimates by economist N. F. R. Crafts, British income per person (in 1970 U.S. dollars) rose from about $400 in 1760 to $430 in 1800, to $500 in 1830, and then jumped to $800 in 1860. (For many centuries before the industrial revolution, in contrast, periods of falling income offset periods of rising income.)”

fret slider

17th June 2020 at 11:10 am

Take your pick:

World to end tomorrow

Women affected worst

LGBT etc etc etc affected worst

BAMEs affected worst

Ad nauseam.

Puddy Cat

17th June 2020 at 11:05 am

Throughout history slaving has been the element of power production that today parlays down to the production of electricity. Using a commodity to provide energy has its parallels with injecting slavery into an economy, an expendable and plentiful resource.

From the Athenians by way of the Romans to the usage of slaves by Caliphates and on to the Turks, slavery was a major component of many different offshoots of civilisation. Perhaps the major change in the use of humans to work on your behalf, the trading of people for profit, was when it ceased to be a solely national function, emerged as a commercial proposition for private entrepreneurs. Slavery was being used in the Sahel, Sahara up to 1975. The majority of us are wage slaves assuring our survival by the subservience to the diktats of others.

The normality of this trade can be depicted in the way that many of the founding fathers of the U.S., liberals writing a constitution which spoke about the equality of men and their standing before the law. The counter balance to such an odd juxtaposition was the deaths of 620,000 men, mostly white, in the American Civil War. In all conflicts it is estimated that 1,264,000 Americans have died in conflicts, truly astounding that that their own war was such a significant proportion of that total. The iconisation of that war is depicted in the National Cemetery of the U.S. being sighted on the state of Robert E. Lee at Arlington, a slave estate.

The creation of Liberia as a home for freed slaves from the U.S. has had a chequered history. in the early 1930’s there was an investigation into the use of slavery in that country in the production of natural rubber and iron ore.

Slaves transported from Africa’s west coast were sent to Brazil, the Caribbian and the southern U.S. The process, started by indigenous Africans raiding tribal Africans in the interior, taking them to the coast for slave markets from whence they were spirited away.

Slavery cannot be condoned nor can it be truly exemplified. In drama the oppressed are personified as being of a type and the cruelty dispensed towards the whole uniform. One can hardly imagine Thomas Jefferson condoning such treatment. Surely, the whole issue of slavery today is one of the general inhumanity of mankind without checks and balances. From the Norman intervention in Britain to the use of capture to deploy people in state ventures by the Nazis there are despicable recorded events regarding the treatment of such people; this is not a solely racial concept.

Modern mores have changed the complexion of previous bad acts. Representation is easy to contrive and outcomes made to be uniform. One can hardly believe that the deployment of exception is going to put anything to rights. To try and equalise the distribution of a pieces of cake by nibbling one and then the other usually ends up with the dispenser of the cake consuming all to no one’s satisfaction.

People cannot be legislated into liking, getting on with, anyone else. Preferential treatment becomes a round of dispensations creating other tensions. To identify as a component of a sect or diaspora relies on the uniform conduct of the whole, leaves one susceptible to the ways of others. In an un-moderated society you are the master of yourself and your singular experience defines you in a world of uniqueness, where to be individual leaves you only susceptible to your own conduct and not some proxy.

Jerry Owen

17th June 2020 at 8:28 am

Fascinating article!
Today the Daily Mail tells us that BAME’s suffer from covid more than whites due to ‘historic racism’ … I give up!

Linda Payne

17th June 2020 at 4:18 pm

in my opinion they are more family orientated, extended families live close by or even in the same house, if one gets covid others will too


17th June 2020 at 8:04 pm

A ludicrous reason, I doubt if they are offering any medical proof to support it. A more likely contributing factor is Vitamin D deficiency. All the groups likely to have D deficit are prone to Covid, elderly people, men who need mor of the vitamin than women and darker people who cannot absorb enough in this climate.

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