* Daniel Younessi, PhD Candidate, New School for Social Research


There is a scepter on the rise here in the United States, one, perhaps that shines a ray of light on the time of monsters that we seem to be situated in. Where once it may have been easy to ignore Bernie Sanders’ definitions of socialism (democratic or otherwise), or to write it off as reformism, I believe it has been difficult to belittle the US socialist moment. Consider elected representatives like Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar attack American imperialism’s actions in Venezuela with an anger unprecedented for a sitting US congressperson, or the increasing demand for recognition of the BDS movement in organizations like the rapidly growing Democratic Socialists of America, or communists, socialists and anarchists of all tendencies seemingly take over everything from Twitter to meme pages: this is not the moribund, barely existent Left America once tolerated. It is an increasingly profound response to global crisis. Youth in North America are embracing socialist ideology with all the out-of-the-gate enthusiasm of those who have been denied something beautiful for decades, but those same decades of denial leave us with some important ontological issues and confusions which need to be addressed. Chief among these issues, I believe, is the lack of a meaningful analysis of race and migration from the perspective of political economy.

Perhaps paradoxically, the new socialist movement in the US has grown and thrived to a point where splits have begun to emerge, and the most damning of these splits seems to stem from a fundamental lack of understanding of the dialectic between race, migration and the industrial reserve army in the context of the economic history of the US. On one hand, a part of the US socialist base is made up of ‘wage-and-jobs’ socialists, more often than not affiliated with the DSA, and more often than not tending toward European descent, middling income brackets and suburban or even rural geography. This wing of the US Left is often tied to more traditional organs of the labor movement and has been crucial in facilitating the recent uptick in union membership and industrial activity in recent years. This wing of the US often engages in polemic with a more radical wing, sometimes affiliated with smaller Leninist parties or anarchist affiliation groups, tending toward non-European descent, lower income brackets and urban geography. This wing, while not denying the importance of economic concerns, tends to focus strongly on issues such as immigration, police brutality and systemic discrimination.

Unfortunately, the polemics between these two groups tend to focus excessively on defending the idea of ‘class-first politics’ against ‘identity-first politics’, and vice versa. In some cases, the class-first approach is defended even by members of minority groups and well-respected commentators on the Left, such as Adolph Reed. The issue is that this dichotomy rings false if we are to correctly situate patterns of migration and race relations within US economic history. Not only does the failure to correctly understand this dialectic inhibit progressive dialogue on the Left, it also greatly hinders the ability to talk meaningfully about the origins of Trumpism.


The Antebellum Period

From the very beginning of US independence, the young nation was beset with intra-class conflict. While post-independence conflicts like Shays’ Rebellion cemented the fact that the North American revolution was unquestionably a bourgeois one, a conflict between Southern slave capitalists and Northern industrial capitalists almost immediately began to shape the political and economic motions of the new state. As such, this analysis subscribes to Samir Amin’s underdeterminist hypothesis, wherein conflicts within political economy can have a non-trivial shaping effect on the form capitalism takes in a certain context. From the failure of the Articles of Confederation as a means of balancing Northern and Southern interests, through the adoption of the stronger federal Constitution and the Three-Fifths compromise, bicameralism – much of what high schoolers here learn as the early history of US independence stems directly from the conflict between a burgeoning industrial capitalism and slave capitalism. The antebellum period, in essence, represented a variety of failed political and institutional attempts to prevent this situation from devolving into civil war. The ferocity and scale of North-South competition in the antebellum era cannot be overstated. The South was the unparalleled source for the raw cotton that was being inputted into the booming textile industries in the United Kingdom – a fact reflected in very cautious diplomatic tightrope the UK walked as the Civil War broke out. Perhaps more tellingly, the almost unanimous support among British elites for the Confederacy made its important to the capitalist world-system very clear. Meanwhile, the antebellum industrial North was fledgling, reliant on steep tariff walls and infant-industry protection for accumulation and development. The battle between the two bourgeoisies was very real.


US Industrialization, Migration and Race

Where the Civil War moved the levers national policy firmly into the hands of Northern industrialists, the mere outlawing of a slave economy was not sufficient to defeat the Southern bourgeoisie definitively. The staggeringly weak response to the treachery of the Confederates on the part of the US allowed much of the South’s white supremacist bourgeoisie to easily fold back into the basic structure of the US political economy. Jim Crow laws in the South greatly reduced the opportunities and mobility of newly freed black workers. The central function of these Jim Crow laws was to create and maintain the sharecropping system, a more or less feudalistic attempt to match the low labor costs of antebellum slave capitalism system. The response was insufficient, and where white supremacy in the South continued on as usual, the economic competitiveness of Southern cotton had been consigned to history. The industrial North, meanwhile, shot out of the Long Depression of the 1870s with a revitalized competitiveness and confidence. By the 1880s, US industrial capitalism was entering into a sustained period of growth and accumulation that would play a definitive role in the geopolitics of the 20th century.

The Northern industrial boom needed a reserve army, and the Americans best suited to provide that labor – black Southern agricultural workers – were prevented from moving North by the restrictive and racialist laws of Southern bourgeoisie. An influx of workers from Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia, had to move in to fill the gap. Ellis Island and the Port of San Francisco served as clearinghouses for a massive influx of labor power, used to fuel the sustained growth of industry in the Northern US. Most of these immigrants came from Europe’s poorer and more peripheral nations – southern Italy, Ireland, rural Germany, Scandinavia, the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. Many suffered religious and ethnic persecution in their homelands; almost all suffered chronic poverty. Arriving in the US, they tended to settle in the most peripheral areas of US cities. The geographical patterns of immigrant settlement in New York speak to this phenomenon – Irish, Spanish and German immigrants settled in Harlem, Morningside Heights, and further north in the Bronx, separated from Midtown Manhattan by the world’s largest urban park. Southern Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in the Lower East Side, which at the time was made up of land reclaimed from the East River. Methods of land reclamation at the time were crude – reclaimed land was often made up of sludge drained from the river, organic and non-organic waste, and even the corpses of humans and animals. Polish immigrants settled across the river and behind a row of heavy industry in Greenpoint, similarly Greek populations in Astoria. As such, patterns of urban geography and settlement – a diffuse and often physically separate migrant periphery surrounding a commercial core – broadly resembled those currently seen in the present day developing world – the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and its disproportionate population of workers from the Northeast, the urban slums of Cairo with its disproportionately Southern Sa’idi population, and the Afghan immigrant ghettos of South Tehran. The reserve army looks more similar than different, wherever and whenever accumulation happens.

As the tide of immigration rose, so too did the hostility of old-stock US residents to the immigrants. By the 1910s, many began to question whether the idea of a melting-pot was tenable, or if the US had merely become a ‘dumping-ground.’ The wave of immigrants, once tolerated, began to be seen as a statistical and demographic threat as the tide turned. The precedent for this backlash had begun shortly after the wave itself began, in 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, to be renewed in 1892 and 1902. In the North, however, here immigrant labor was more vital and industrial capitalists more politically dominant, anti-immigrant sentiment was kept at bay in the political arena until a good three decades of industrialization had passed. As industry began to approach the doorstep of the South through the industrialization of cities like Louisville and Cincinnati, the nativist Southern bourgeoisie soon joined old-stock Americans in the North in their opposition to further immigration. Crucial in this shift was the role of the revitalized (“Second”) Ku Klux Klan. Where the First Klan was in effect a localized social club for ex-Confederates (albeit racist and violent), the Second Klan was much broader in terms of its scope, ideology and membership. Chapters were no longer confined to the South, and huge gains were made among old-stock Americans in the industrialized North. In the South, lip-service to the Confederate legacy was maintained, and the violent harassment and lynchings of black workers and families, the legacy of the First Klan, entered into fever pitch. In the North, however, the Second Klan turned its focus toward anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment wherever it won them support – and it won them support. By 1913 an open Klan sympathizer, Woodrow Wilson, was voted into the Presidency, and Birth of a Nation, a sympathetic film history of the Klan broke all box-office records, and wormed its way into Hollywood lore. The backlash against immigration reached its peak when the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, limiting immigration to the US to no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stock, and limited in area to Europe alone.

This curtailment of European immigration, combined with the growth of the nativist Ku Klux Klan across the US (but particularly in the South), served in combination as pull/push factors hastening the Great Migration of black workers to industrial centers in the North and emergent West beginning in the 1920s. Once again, the same conflicts over displacement of agrarian capitalism and the increasing economic importance of industrialism manifests itself as nativist attacks on migration, as well as racist attacks on black agricultural workers – attacks which would, en masse, push those workers north in the coming decades.


The Great Migration

With immigration from Europe and Asia slowing to an effective trickle, black workers from the South became the chief source of labor for the American transformation, obviously necessitating a resettlement of black workers in Northern (and, to a lesser extent, Western) cities. Many Northern cities experienced explosive growth of their black population over a relatively short period of time. Notably, 1.5 million black workers migrated out of the South between 1915 and 1930, followed by a further 5 million by 1970. Where in 1900, 91% of all black people in the US lived in rural areas of the South, only 53% remained by 1970. Demographic changes to specific cities were especially staggering: where black people consistently made up just less than 2% of New York City’s population before 1900, this figure had risen to 4.73% by 1930, and to 21.13% by 1970 (Census Bureau 2000). Chicago showed a broadly similar pattern while Detroit, the center of the US automotive industry, showed an increase from a 1.44% in 1900 to 43.69% black population in the same period. The Great Migration transformed both the demographic and geographic landscape of the American city.

The combination of poverty and exclusion forced these migrants to settle either in urban outskirts, established immigrant neighborhoods, or both. Harlem and the Bronx transform from European and Latin American immigrant neighborhoods to overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. Like the immigrant communities that arrived before them, the presence of these black Southern workers in the outskirts of Northern cities speaks to the fact that, due to various political and economic determinations, black workers had now finally entered the ranks of the industrial reserve army. As with any other ethnic group that has been subsumed into the reserve army, many of these new arrivals were beset with precarious, dangerous or insufficient work, which quickly and predictably created a situation of deprivation and crimes of despair in these areas. In most cases, the new areas in which migrant black workers had settled remained at a level of development comparable with the rural areas of the South that these black workers had left. In addition, where black people had always been a target of nativist and racist anger in the US (bolstered by the pseudo-scientific ideas of 19th-century race science), the by-products of the Great Migration created a new stereotype of “the Face of Urban Decay and Deprivation”, a stereotype that has persisted to an extent where Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur and author of the 2017 study on poverty in the United States “Statement on a Visit to the US” still comments upon its centrality to current American political discourse. These prejudices were exacerbated by an internecine conflict within the working class whereby older waves of European workers came into conflict with the newer wave of workers arriving from the South – these conflicts also spilled over into labor unions and working class political organization – many less radical labor unions – notably the AFL-CIO – were largely unwilling to represent black workers, often under pressure from their own rank-and-file.


Urban Geography and Industry

While the economic pressures of poverty and lack of connections forces recent migrants into outlying or marginal areas, the equally economic pressures of finding gainful employment through linguistic and ethnic support networks serves as an added pressure on maintaining urban segregation. What little hope for an established transplantation exists among recent migrants often rests on the ability of previous waves of migration to provide aid to newer migrants. As such, a negative economic pressure initiates issues of urban segregation, while positive economic pressure can help sustain it.

However, as would be consistent with our framework, urban segregation can also be maintained through legal and institutional means. For example, redlining was a common practice throughout the 20th century in the US, whereby borders were established around existing ethnic and racial enclaves, borders beyond which loans, credit and often even social services were systematically excluded. Government policy also frequently served to maintain and exacerbate urban segregation – Robert Moses’ tenure as an urban planner in New York famously revealed a plethora of racially-biased projects, including the large-scale bulldozing of entire ethnic neighborhoods for the purposes of urban renewal and the planning of highways and parkways so as to create physical lines of segregation – for example, building highway overpasses low enough so as to exclude busses of black and Puerto Rican residents from access to New York’s beaches. Smaller cities were not immune to such legal and institutional practices, and indeed often saw more dramatic versions of the same process unfold. In Hartford, Connecticut, the construction of Interstate 84 physically separated the largely black, Caribbean and Latino North End (fully one-fourth of the city) from the rest of the city. This separation, combined with sectoral shift and the slow decline of manufacturing centers like Hartford have lead to the North End of Hartford becoming one of the most deprived areas of the US over recent decades. These diverse pressures have led to a persistent and cumulative segregation in US urban areas – a segregation which was initiated by both positive and negative economic pressures and sustained through legal and institutional means. Gentrification has and will continue to play a non-trivial role as well – traditionally black neighborhoods are currently under the process of being “re-segregated”, that is, their traditional populations are being displaced and the areas themselves are being subsumed into the urban core. The medium-term effects of gentrification are becoming palpably visible in regions such as the Bay Area, where slum camps are rapidly developing on the outskirts of the metropolitan area.

Similarly, the decline suffered by cities like Hartford – victims of sectoral shifts and the slow but steady flight of the manufacturing industry from the US – also have interesting demographic implications. Many of such former industrial cities, particularly in the North – Gary, Indiana; Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut; Flint, Michigan, among others. The permanent departure of the heavy industry and auto manufacturing, respectively, in these cities has not lead to any discernible recovery. In the best case scenario, a handful of large employers stay behind (e.g. Yale University, in the case of New Haven), but these positions are not sufficient in number (too low) or skill level (too high) to absorb displaced manufacturing workers. In the worst case scenario, these cities are completely neglected to the point where even basic social services such as clean water and sewage treatment are ignored. None of these cities hosts a white majority population, and only New Haven holds a white plurality. White flight, in the case of post-industrial cities, is a stark reality.

As such, the demographic implications of the long arc of development in the US shows that growth and stagnation are buffeted on both ends by a large and largely neglected industrial reserve army. The degeneration of areas such as Flint can be documented in the superstructure: in 1989, Michael Moore produced “Roger and Me,” an expose on the struggles of unionized workers to maintain their livelihoods in an era of unprofitability and stagnation. 30 years hence, Flint has been denied usable water for almost five years, but, strangely enough, no movie has been made about it. The very same workers – the bottom rung of the industrial army – who were the most ignored and neglected before America’s period of development remain disproportionately ignored and neglected 120 years later, after capitalism has pulled them in, used their labor for its purposes, and cast them out.

The decline of small urban industrial centers in the US is a physical manifestation of America’s path through development. In the 1890s, the US was largely unpopulated and replete with land and other such unclaimed economic resources. This situation of plenty, once combined with an imported reserve army (whether from overseas or domestically) was able to initiate a prolonged, almost seven decade period of growth and development – one which transformed the US from an underpopulated and mostly small-scale agrarian society to the world’s industrial powerhouse. The process also initiated the expected class struggle over labor and work hours, a struggle in which labor’s bargaining power hit a local maximum in the 1960s, during the height of the Western countries’ Keynesian experiment. While the regulated capitalism of this social democratic period led to unprecedented prosperity for some elements of the working class (the ones who weren’t being legally segregated or going unrepresented by unions), it also pushed US capitalism’s balance of power so far in the direction of labor (wages) that it stymied the ability to extract profits, and precipitated the Stagflation crisis of the 1970s. The response of American (and, eventually, global) capitalism was for the capitalist class to push strongly in the other direction – removing regulations and barriers to trade and capital movement while largely maintaining barriers to labor movement. Businesses in countries like the US started to move their factories and workplaces in the Global South, where labor costs were much lower. Where this was not possible – for example, in large-scale agriculture – businesses themselves “imported” the labor conditions and wages of the Global South by hiring large masses of undocumented workers. This process of outsourcing stopped the decline of profits in US capitalism (although without pushing them back up), and thus also put a stop to prices spiraling ever upward. However, it pushed American manufacturing and small-scale agriculture into economic irrelevance and, with it, similarly erased the lives, hopes, dreams and ambitions of millions of marginalized workers.

There are two important implications here. Firstly, the history of the use and abuse of the industrial reserve army throughout the history of US capitalism should serve as a cautionary tale for the working class people in the Global South who form capitalism’s current industrial base. There is no reason why they should not be cast out in the same way once this process of accumulation becomes unsustainable, and there is much to be shared and learned by putting the two groups in organizational contact. Secondly, these patterns raise yet another contradiction: it is precisely the same segment of US society whose refusal to pay more necessitate the importation of undocumented workers that most fears those same undocumented migrants.


The Carceral State

No discussion of the industrial reserve army in the US, however, can be completed without  an analysis of the relationship between incarceration and the economic base. The political and economic role of incarceration as a dumping ground for a portion of the industrial reserve army considered surplus to requirement; as such, it allows a portion of the capitalist system’s immanent unemployment to be statistically hidden. The reality of this need in the case of American capitalism is undeniable – at roughly 4% of total population, the US has the largest relative and absolute prison population in the world, exceeding Turkmenistan, Russia, Cuba and Thailand (a nation under military rule, at the time of this writing). Following from our understanding of the carceral system as a necessary component of the industrial reserve army, we expect the demographics of the US prison population to be in flux with its disproportionately non-white industrial reserve army. To that end, where black people make up roughly 13% of the nation’s population, they make up roughly one out of every two prison inmates (BJS 2015). As our framework would imply, the prison population in the US has increased fourfold since 1970 (NRC 2014), congruent with the rise of stagflation and the growth of precarious and insufficient labor in the era of neoliberalism. Notably also, a massive increase in the amount of penal labor (a form of slavery explicitly permitted by the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution) since 1979 shows an expected result – the mass mobilization of vastly cheaper labor in an era of declining profits.

Alston notes the often terrifying willingness of the US justice system to mask issues of deprivation (and to raise revenues) through the targeted use of incarceration. The institutional nature of the US penal system also bears distinct effects on the reserve army – ex-convicts are prevented from voting, and frequently subject to strict background checks upon their exit, which often leads to chronic unemployment among ex-convicts. These patterns lead to high rates of recidivism among ex-convicts, which can serve as a trap which perpetuates deprivation among this sector of the reserve army. Additionally, squalid conditions in prisons contribute further to the deprivation of the imprisoned segment of the reserve army. Prison riots and even strikes are becoming increasingly common, reflecting increasingly organized responses to poor conditions in US prisons. Statements made by inmates party to these actions often reflect such concerns directly. Relatedly, even as the prison population in the US steadily grows, mortality among inmates grows disproportionately. Correcting for the raw growth of the prison population, data provided by the Department of Justice reflects a 3.1% average yearly increase in prison mortality between 2001 and 2014. An average of 5.5% of these deaths across this period are due to suicide, the second biggest cause in prison mortality apart from issues of physical health. Given that these inmates are disproportionately black, and that this increase in mortality (whether due to physical health or suicide) is likely exacerbated by inadequate prison conditions and mental anguish, these are very dark and disturbing implications regarding the role of the carceral state and its connection with the racialized reserve army.



This work maintains that a clear understanding of the dialectic between migration, race and class must be placed in the context of a stratified industrial reserve army, serving the needs of American industrialization, beset by the conflict between a free-movement Northern bourgeoisie and a nativist Southern one. In the words of Huey P. Newton, “the initial socioeconomic advantage, begotten by chattel slavery, was enforced by undaunted violence and the constant threat of more violence.” The antebellum conflict between slave capital and industrial capital, the same conflict that erupted into the Civil War, consigned the black worker into a position as the deepest stratum of the socioeconomic ladder. Black workers were kept in such constraint and deprivation by the Southern bourgeoisie that labor power for industrial expansion initially had to be sought overseas. Indeed, it was only after the nativist bourgeoisie and its foot soldiers were able to raise the cost of important international labor and to inflict a campaign of terror on black and immigrant populations that the black population was ‘freed’ and ‘allowed’ to move up North. Once in the North, black workers were forced into urban segregation through a combination of wage pressures, poor union representation, a need for a social network and institutional means, and that segregation was maintained after the pressures of the Stagflation crisis foisted a transformative neoliberal response on black workers. Finally, the carceral state has moved in to statistically shield – at best – the effect of decreased labor opportunities and participation in the neoliberal era.

In response to the debate raging on the Left, all that can be said is that the ‘class-first’/’identity-first’ dichotomy is meaningless within this framework. The core of US accumulation in the antebellum period happened off the back of slave labor, and the core of US industrialization happened off the back of an immigrant and black labor force, whose actual demographic composition shifted over time with the relative political and economic strength of one or the other wings of the bourgeoisie. The demands of accumulation racialized the US working class long before the US was a superpower, and conflicts over accumulation and surplus shaped everything from patterns of race relations to urban and rural geography and demography. The ability to maintain some segment of the public – whether it be black workers, migrant workers, or undocumented workers – as a ‘domestic periphery’ has been a core aspect of the process of accumulation throughout the whole history of capitalism. It is in this light that I hope the pointless and divisive dichotomy between race and identity can finally be put to bed.