Friday, January 9, 2009

The Battle Royal as a Symbol for the Violence of Capitalism

There are a great many similarities between the battle royal and the structural violence encoded into capitalistic institutions. I will not here argue that capitalism creates racism, although it has been convincingly argued. Instead, I will argue that the machinations of capitalism are particularly well suited to supporting pre-existing racist attitudes.

In the system which exists there is naturally a great deal of power to be earned from accumulating capitol. Booker T. Washington recognized this. His project was to uplift the black rise by empowering them with capitol. “Cast Down your bucket where you are (p. 29),” the protagonist of Invisible Man quotes in his speech. However in the US, and particularly the South, the sources of capitol have been unevenly distributed. In order to earn money, therefore, a black person almost always has to go through a white. This becomes problematic: In the racist South, you’re basically looking for salvation from your oppressor, when you espouse Booker T.’s philosophy. We see this in the battle royal, in order to get his scholarship – an opportunity to get ahead in the capitalist system – the protagonist had to accept help from the white community. This puts him at a disadvantage. He is convinced to join in a battle royal, since he’d be there to deliver his speech “anyway he might as well take part in the battle royal.” Because the economic rewards of white appeasement are so great, the protagonist is afraid to “act any other way (p. 17).” So he joins the battle Royal. Furthermore, he has become so well trained to accept white approval, as the key to his success, that he says, “Only these men could judge my true ability (p. 25).” White approval and white capitol are the golden coins on the electrically charged rug. The boys want it, but the only way to get it is to degrade themselves before the white men in the community. They scramble for the coins on the rug, occasionally get kicked and receiving a horrifying shock (p. 27). By strongly incentivizing black subservience, capitalism reinforces racism through its performative efficacy. Individuals become the oppressors of their own soul, constantly disciplining themselves to play an inferior role among whites in order to succeed economically.

Along with the power that naturally flows to the dominant white community (because of their access to the sources of capitol) capitalism also allows people to be kept down by dividing oppressed communities – forcing individuals to compete in order to succeed. This competition is amply evinced in the battle royal. The boys are made to fight one another in order to make money (p. 20). Furthermore, only the winner of the entire fight will receive the bonus (p. 24). In other words while the entire community fights amongst themselves – only one person is able to break away from the pack economically. The community is forced to degrade itself in order to gain influence because of Capitalism. The protagonist gets badly beat by the man who is the ultimate winner of the fight (p. 25). He asks do you fight, “For them?” The big man says No, “For me, you sonofabitch (p. 24).” Capitalism divides oppressed communities by keeping them in constant pitched battle against one-another for the limited resources made available to them.

An example of the divisive effect of capitalism on oppressed communities is the relationship between Lucius Brockway and the Union members at Liberty Paints. Lucius is constantly trying to protect his small piece of the pie in which he has nitched himself (p. 209); He is not interested in sharing. He says, “Lucius Brokway not only intends to protect hisself, he knows how to do it! (p. 209).” He knows not to rely on his black brethren for his economic security, instead relying on his relationship with the white plant owner: “The Old Man hired me, nobody else; and, by God, it’ll take the Old Man to fire me! (p. 209).” The Union blacks are jealous of Lucius’s economic security and are at war with him, because they think he undermines their effectiveness. If Lucius and the black Union were able to work together, they have a great deal of leverage over the white plant owner; however, in the capitalist system self-interest prevents this arrangement. Lucius feels he can’t trust the black union, because he fears their competition in the small niche he has been able to base his life on.

The limited resources the oppressed blacks fight for seem like mere trifles to the white community. “I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile (p. 32).” The protagonist’s struggles have been for naught. He will never be able to gain control over enough resources, to lift himself or the community up from the systematic degradation of capitalism – this is simply a carrot held in front of the protagonist to, as his grandfather says, “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running (p. 33).” Likewise Lucius and the union are struggling against one another for a position in the economy which, while perhaps better then their current position, still places them in an inferior position in relation to their white boss. The protagonist perhaps realizes this at the end of the novel when he states, “It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the truth great truth of our country or of any country (p. 577).” You may win your tokens, but their meaningless if in order to do so you must sacrifice your soul.
Also, through this scheme, responsibility for oppression is diffused. White’s are not held responsible for the violence of the system because they do not have to commit the violence directly. “As the protagonist puts it, “They want you guilty of your own murder (p. 558).” By structuring the system such that blacks fight amongst themselves – and against even their innermost selves – the whites still feel a sense of righteousness benevolence towards blacks. “We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know you’re place at all times (p. 31),” the protagonist is told. And they mean it, just so long he follows “the proper paths.” He can succeed economically – but it comes at the cost of his dignity and complete subservience to oppressive white America.

Thus capitalism props-up and perpetuates racism in the United States.

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