The Uselessness of Bodies: Race and Economy Intertwined

About a year ago I wrote a post on the logic of use-value as applied to race, pointing out that in the logic of capital, use value is the only value that matters–except when it comes to white bodies. White bodies are inherently valuable, while bodies of color are not. In the wake of two more murders of black men (about 130 in 2016 so far) it seemed like a good time to revisit this, particularly because so many of the white responses that I’ve seen on social media have drawn attention to the fact that Sterling sold CDs outside the convenience store where he was murdered. Those same people have also struggled to find a “good reason” for Philando Castile’s murder since they can’t appeal to how he made a living. The shootings in Dallas have also drawn some equivocation between the death of police officers and the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The main point of the post is this: How people respond to these deaths is a matter of whether or not they see the lives taken as having inherent value, and the difference between use value and inherent value is vital for seeing the difference between these deaths.

The difference between use value and inherent value is important for understanding the effects of capital on how we see race in this country, in particular how white people who fully embrace that logic see race. It is not that the logic of capital created racism in the strict sense or vice versa. Rather, we need to see how these two ways of thinking are intertwined so that we can take steps forward. In short, use value is a red herring in thinking about why these murders happen, and the insistence that it be primary under the logic of capital prevents us from seeing the way we see inherent value in some lives but not others. The back to back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile make this blindingly obvious.

Under capitalism, the value of something is determined strictly by conversion into capital, including human beings. For most people, this means their labor-power is indicative of how much they are worth as people. It’s the old “Protestant work ethic” put into more concrete monetary terms, and it’s a logic that is likely readily familiar to anyone who has been told that “laziness” is a vice while people who work hard for the money they earn are virtuous. If all that were in play in this logic were strictly mathematical conversions from labor-power to salary to size-of-house and type-of-car, understanding it would be a lot simpler, because we could say that in all situations, a person simply is what he or she is worth in terms of labor power under the logic of capital.

But it isn’t that simple because we want to believe that there is a “human” element within us that regulates this “pure” version of capitalism, preventing anyone from truly becoming just a robot. This “human” element is the identification of a value in human beings that extends beyond use value–an inherent value of human life. And it is at this precise point that race and economy become importantly intertwined. White people see themselves as having inherent value in addition to use value–and no one else–but must claim that they see all life as having inherent value because they know to not do so would just be seen as openly racist. This is why movements like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” really mean “White Lives Matter.” With the claim of inherent value of all life in place, proponents of these movements must find some other reason a person like Alton Sterling had to die. These two strands of thought go hand in hand. All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are appeals to the inherent value of white bodies, constructed precisely because any counter movement that tries to claim that other bodies also share any modicum of inherent value is a threat.

We can see this logic play out in the responses to Alton Sterling, but also Eric Garner and scores of other black men who have been murdered by the police. The defense among those (predominately white people) who side with the police is that these men were thugs, hustlers, shady, because they were engaged in what is deemed useless economic activity. This article from The Washington Post identifies the difference well. The “side hustle” (in the form of ride sharing or AirBnB) is acceptable if it has been sanctioned by whiteness. It is made inherently valuable by its connection to whiteness. Other shadow economies are unacceptable precisely because they lack this connection and thus the validity of inherent value. This lack of inherent value is easily disguised, however, through an appeal to use value by asking questions about criminal records, why these men couldn’t get a “real job,” etc.

The juxtaposition of Philando Castile’s murder throws this logic into complete disarray. Castile, by all accounts, worked hard at his job serving children. An appeal to use value can’t defend his murder. He was a law-abiding citizen through and through. The only recourse that defenders of law enforcement have is to focus on the individual officers and try and show that they themselves didn’t have a racist bone in their bodies and therefore Castile must have done something. The false narrative that all lives are inherently valuable must be upheld.

The deaths of five police officers in Dallas also brings this problem to our attention. It has provided an out for supporters of law enforcement in the immediate wake of Castile’s murder. The police are the paramount example of what it means for a person to have inherent value. The lives of police officers are always taken as inherently valuable precisely because they safeguard the proper operation of economy. They are, in fact, only inherent value. The police don’t “produce” anything in the normal sense of economic production; they ensure that production continues uninterrupted.

I think that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to be against the death of another human being. I am against killing people. But it’s also a mistake to conflate the deaths of these officers with the deaths of black people at the hands of the police. To do so continues to ignore the fact that black lives are seen as both useless and inherently valueless in this country, while the lives of police officers are the very definition of inherent value under capitalism.

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