Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat

First published in the early 1980s to inform and empower people of colour struggling against the white capitalist hegemony of American society, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat remains a relevant historical materialist interrogation of “whiteness” that has much to offer our understanding of the workings of race. However, despite Settlers’ vitality, Sakai’s critical inquiry is hobbled by certain critical lapses and overly strict conceptual categories. While acknowledging the ingenuity of Sakai’s thought, I intend to address some of his work’s shortcomings in an effort to advance our struggles against the politics of domination.

Sakai argues that the US is an oppressor nation, dominated by the institutions of white supremacy. White settlers (US citizens of European descent) benefit from the exploitation and subjugation of other nations. (Sakai uses the terms nation to describe a group of people united by race or ethnicity, positing that people of colour within America constitute “nations” deprived of self-determination through their oppression by whites). American history, Sakai argues, demonstrates the persistent overarching theme of national domination, in which the hegemony of US settler nationalism not only suppresses the self-determination of other peoples, but actually exists parasitically off of them. This characteristic, according to Sakai, transcends intra-national class differences among settlers, as all white settlers are privileged through the colonial relationship.

To demonstrate this, Sakai charts US history as the development of white dominance. Settlement, built on genocide and slavery, witnessed each white (mostly British, at that point) settler striving to achieve a social status built on the systematic oppression of others. The end of slavery entailed not a rejection, but only an adaptation of this arrangement, as Northern (white) industrialists needed more labourers and feared the growing rebelliousness of black slaves. In tracing the history of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century labour struggles, Sakai recognizes tension in the system as national (ethnic) divides arose between the emergent white proletariat (largely the product of a flood of Eastern and Southern European as well as Irish immigrants) and the privileged settler nation. These recent (white or soon to be white) immigrants, forming a mass with little prospect beyond wage-labour, had some limited anti-imperialist potential. But as Sakai documents, this potential zenith did not alter the nature of the system, as the politics of privilege retarded revolutionary potential. Provided opportunities and wage levels unavailable in Europe, these European immigrants opted for the benefits of membership as oppressors in the settler nation, rather than solidarity with the colonially oppressed. This compact, guaranteeing Euro-Americans of all nationalities participation in the whiteness of the settler nation, was, as Sakai shows, cemented with the New Deal.

Sakai’s analysis prefigures later intellectual developments in critical thought and provides important theoretical considerations for anti-capitalists. More recent books like David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness and Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White mirror core elements of Sakai’s analysis, although both are worth reading on their own merits. Practically, Sakai demonstrates that no easy assumption can or should be made regarding the common interests of “the workers.” Rather, we need to actively engage the politics of race and class, not to mention gender, sexuality, and ability, which Sakai hardly touches on.

Unfortunately, while Sakai explores the historical construction of race, his analysis serves to reify a line between the white oppressor nation and the nationally oppressed underclass of people of colour. He employs largely undefined categories like proletariat and nation without exploring how these categories are constituted in the specific, varied and dynamic spaces of American history. Rather, he utilizes what often comes across as gross generalizations, ignoring and obscuring the tensions among the colonized nations almost entirely; and while he acknowledges contradictions among the settler elite, he silences the greater diversity of white political activity, dismissing it all as irredeemably colonial. His narrative totalizes reality under his conflated race-class category, without acknowledging the semi-autonomous nature of different ideological regimes, such as race or gender, beyond base economic determinants. Thus, the discursive construction of race is muffled beneath Sakai’s deterministic materialist analysis, and gender is muted altogether by an analysis that relegates the non-economic to the periphery.

His categories of colonized (people of colour) and colonizer (white settlers) mute much difference, obscuring or denying oppression within these categories. Equally problematic, the hard dichotomy of the two categories – whites vs. people of colour – silences the similarities that can (and must) be brokered between them in building a transformative movement for a better world.

Sakai depicts white America as unable to transcend its materially determined consciousness. Sakai elucidates; “[w]hen we say the principle characteristic of imperialism is parasitism, we are also saying that the principle characteristic of settler trade unionism is parasitism, and that the principle characteristic of settler radicalism is parasitism.” Sakai defers to Lenin, who said that the “class of those who own nothing but do not labour either is incapable of overthrowing the exploiters. Only the proletarian class, which maintains the whole of society, has the power to bring about a successful social revolution.” Sakai asserts that for the colonized, “their true strategic interests lay not only in national liberation but in developing their own fighting organizations which alone could defend their true class interests.” While I concur in supporting the autonomous self-organizing of the oppressed, I find both Sakai’s dismissal of the potential of organizing from various social locations and his singular focus on the colonial axis of oppression – to the exclusion of all else – problematic.

Sakai’s core premise is that the oppression inherent in racialized capitalism constructs white settlers as a bourgeois/petit bourgeois class, privileged by the oppression of people of colour – the colonized proletariat. In this race-class articulation, Sakai fails to resolve key tensions regarding oppression and agency. Following Marx, Sakai asserts that the exploited producers are a revolutionary class, ascribing them political power on the basis of their economic vitality. However, as the recent race/class riots in France have shown, the current socio-economic order excludes many racialized bodies from the relations of production. This lumpenproletariat can be recruited as a reserve labour force employed during labour shortages, undercutting the power of organized labour. Conversely, these marginalized peoples can also be organized, and, as those with the least stake in the current system, serve as a radical challenge to the status quo. As Sakai documents, those with greater economic clout are also most likely to identify with the system. Thus, organized (white) labour is possessed by the narrowest set of interests, whereby they seek to enrich union members through struggling for a share of the wealth created by usurping the resources and exploiting the labour of the colonized – often, at this point, bodies external to our borders. Labour must connect with the struggles of the dispossessed if it is to build a more revolutionary emancipatory movement. Sakai, however, never engages these tensions. He instead simply asserts that colonized nations represent the true proletariat, and, thus, the real agents of change. Sakai fails to delve into the tension between the dual status of the colonized as dispossessed economic outsiders and exploited primary labour, undermining his conclusions regarding political praxis.

Rather than engaging the tensions of powerlessness, consciousness and agency, Sakai simply envisions a revolutionary politic built from oppressed national consciousness within the colonial system. But what constitutes a nation? Sakai aptly charts the contours of settler nation building, tracing the integration of different nationalities within a common imagination of “America” as the land of opportunity. However, he never examines the national imaginary of the oppressed. He assumes that a national consciousness of oppressed peoples, materially excluded from whiteness, will arise. Yet, many persecuted and marginalized people do adopt the American national imagination. Understanding these discourses of nationhood requires that we engage with cultural politics, a theoretical arena Sakai seems reticent to enter.

Sakai employs essentialist concepts throughout the text, unwilling to engage ideological complexity and contradictions. In his examination of the origins of America, Sakai asserts that “all classes of Euro-Amerikan settlers were equally involved in building a new bourgeois nation on the back of the Afrikan colonial proletariat.” While this could be dismissed as rhetorical hyperbole, it exemplifies the annihilation of the varied material relations and ideological orientations of people within the broad categories of oppressor and oppressed. He stringently opposes “revisionist” historians, who assert the white masses were also exploited by the system. However, a thoughtful analysis needs to account for the texturing of both privilege and penalty throughout society. Demarking sharp borders between categories of people and universalizing one relationship among and between those categories silences the varied interactions that people engage in and mutes the potential for other forms of interaction.

While Sakai asserts that whites only find unity in acting to protect their privilege within imperialism, he falsely elevates people of colour from such petty, selfish behaviour. People of colour is by no means a unified category. Historically, and continuing into the contemporary era, people of colour have participated in the dispossession of other people of colour. But however easy it is to vilify those who betray the solidarity of the oppressed, we must continue to stress and challenge the central role of (white) capital in producing (and profiting from) these tensions.

Advanced and flexible marketing has incorporated multicultural imagery and co-opted all manner of forms of resistance. In America, and in fact globally, individualist consumer mindsets ensnare not just whites. People of colour within America purchase commodities made cheaply through (neo)colonial exploitation of labour and resources external to the nation. Marx showed incredible foresight in theorizing commodity fetishism, although he could hardly have imagined the spectacle that capitalism has become. Sakai was oblivious to the radical refashioning and capitalist cooptation of “colour” that would occurr over the next twenty years. Culture and identity are dynamic and highly malleable entities.

Sakai assumed the material oppression of people of colour would result in the formation of nationally oppressed identities. However, as Guy Debord and others have shown, the market adapts to these evolving identities, co-opting cultural movements and packaging resistance as just another commodity to be bought and sold. As the pillars of opulence remain disproportionately white, it is certainly valid to theorize consumerism as a white phenomenon, and poverty as racialized. But rather than assuming closed categories, such theorizing must remain attentive to the renegotiations of identity that occur as the ideology and practices of consumerism extend to “colonize” broader communities, and this aspect of white identity becomes available to Othered peoples. Attention must also be paid to the ways that the racialization of poverty operates within communities of disenfranchised whites. This all effectively goes to argue that the relationships between race, class and capitalism are (and, indeed, always were) extremely complex, interwoven through and between specific locales and the co-evolving discourses of gender, sexuality, ability and nation. In broadest contours, the realities of inclusion and exclusion, privilege and penalty can often be traced across the broad strokes of history.

Certainly, as Sakai elucidates, the history and current reality has white on top while people of colour fall (or, rather, are forced) to the bottom. However, careful analysis of the interconnections between these layers of racial hierarchy demonstrates various intertwining threads. Racial transgression has a long history; people of colour “fair” enough to “pass” the colour line and participate as white have intermixed between different racialized communities, and so-called “white treason” has occurred as white people left the dominant community to work and live with, and even at times as, the other. And, as the racial overtones of phenotype begin to meld into the ominous backdrop of consumer culture, the bourgeoisie (of whatever colour) is effectively empowered to individually acculturate, and effectively become “white” after leaving the ghetto or reservation. A new racist discourse of culture is emerging whereby it is not the skin colour, but rather the culture and community practices, of the non-white Other that are vilified. Yet this freedom to acculturate, where any colour can be the colour of money, remains in tension with the residues of a still-existing older racist discourse.

This recognition entails moving beyond pure economic reductionism to an analysis of culture and imperialism. Sakai, however, closes himself to this possibility, refusing to recognize the semi-autonomous nature of ideology. Instead, he exemplifies the narrow nature of determinist approaches. Rather than assuming that ideology and culture are the products of material conditions, we must interrogate cultural practices and understandings as they intersect with material realities to find and act upon the tensions and cracks between what people believe, where they are situated, and what they do. Engaging this dissonance between belief, location, and action – the moments on which history turns – we can work to build counter-hegemonic movements towards the ongoing pursuit of equity and justice.