"Settlers" is not a horrible book. If you have only read white washed versions of the United States labor movement, then Settlers may be a good book to force you to open your eyes about the opportunist, white supremacist side of the labor movement as well as how deep white supremacy is rooted in our current society. Settlers of course, is a also a slanted history, but given that most accounts are slanted to the other side, Settlers can be helpful in bending the bow away from vulgar Marxist class reductionism.
However, Settlers suffers from a couple major problems. Inconsistent or incoherent definitions of key terms, poorly researched or cherry picked sources, a sort of "American Exceptionalism" that glosses over the similarities of the American racial caste system to other caste systems in other nations and a conclusion that does not follow from the premise arguments.
Sakai's argument is rather messy because of his essentially non-Marxist definition of class. At time it seems he believes that whites are quite literally not exploited, as in they do not produce surplus value. He implies this heavily in articles responding to the book "Looking at the white working class historically" where he says.
"What is determining is the extraction of surplus value. Technically, when we say a class is exploited what we mean is that capitalism extracts surplus value (what becomes profits in the level of the marketplace) from its labor.
For example, no one can deny that there is a Boer white working class in South Africa (at least there is at this writing in 1992 – this is only an example). They exist in the millions, in mines and offices and factories. They are wage-laborers. Yet, as a whole, they produce no (as in zero) surplus value. Economic studies show that all the surplus value created in South Africa is created by Afrikan labor. The Boer white workers’ wage-labor is merely an indirect mechanism for them to share in the exploiting of Afrikans. That’s why Afrikan workers live in dusty Soweto and the white working class lives in ranch-style homes with cars, appliances, .357 magnums, swimming pools and cheap Afrikan servants. They are a working class, alright, but a parasitic one with no real class consciousness and no contribution to make to the liberating of the world.
It isn’t so hard to see that the same thing is true with the white working class in settler amerika (the only working classes anywhere in the world with lifestyles like the Boer workers in South Africa are those here in north amerika)."
This idea is obviously incoherent. How is it possible at the same time that no stratum of whites are exploited and also that some stratum of black people are? If a black service worker making minimum wage is exploited, then surely the white worker next to him is also exploited. If Sakai wants to say that only the portions of black society that have no class counterparts in white society are exploited, then he is essentially saying that only the poorest lumpen, and perhaps not even that, are exploited, given that the white trailer trash working for minimum wage is apparently not exploited and indeed a parasitic labor aristocrat.
This assertion if obviously impossible. Being exploited is determined by your wage and the amount of value you generate. If you wage is lower than the amount of value you generate, then you are exploited. If it is higher than the amount of value you generate, then perhaps you could be called a net-exploited, a labor aristocrat, whatever you want to call it. This is an economic fact.
Yet the economic based argument about whites not being exploited is not really present in Settlers. Sakai's argument is far more floaty and subjective. Very little attempt is made to really explain why whites are not revolutionary, instead Sakai beats in the subjective idea of the privilege and treachery of whites over and over with example after example, using powerful rhetoric that is admittedly convincing until you stop to think about it for a bit longer.
In one of the final chapters of Settlers, Sakai talks about the 10% of the population which he thinks is poor and 'exploited', although its very unclear whether you thinks they are exploited in the Marxist sense or in a more subjective 'ripped off' sense. He notes that these Appalachian whites he is talking about are 'exploited', and details their abject poverty. Instead of explaining why, in his opinion, these whites do not have revolution in their interests, he instead brushes them off as hopelessly reaction because of their culture and past record of essentially passive poverty and racism.
But if white culture keeps whites from fighting for liberation from conditions that even Sakai can admit are 'exploitative' then shouldn't we make some attempt to make these whites see their own interest past the shackles of whiteness? Apparently not. They are hopelessly reactionary because they have been hopelessly reactionary, and despite the fact that Russian workers spent quite a long time murdering Jews and Siberians en masse before they had their revolution, this is not something that can change.
Sakai swaps back and fourth between a number of explanations for the unrevolutionary nature of whites. Sometimes they aren't exploited. Sometimes is a vague notion of a selfish colonizer culture, most of the time its their subjective sense of being 'well off' and making 'good bucks'. None of these really hold up. In the end, Settlers doesn't have an analysis. As New Afrikan Maoist political prisoner Kevin 'Rashid' Johnson said, "Sakai’s work is geared more to the incitement of visceral reactions to the horrors of the practice of white supremacy and driving home the subjective theme of inherent treacherousness of “whites”."
The history Sakai uses to back up this theme is just as messy as his definitions.
Sakai states that the IWW, a multi-racial anarchist union, had "no intention of fighting colonialism and national oppression" which is simply untrue. Sakai erases the IWW's work at desegregating factories and fighting racism at every turn. There is no support for this statement. He also says that they were willing “to sacrifice the interests of colonial and oppressed workers in order to gain their real goal - the unity of all white workers."
This statement also has little to no evidence to support it and much to the contrary. The IWW had a history of apposing racism and imperialism that they kept up during the xenophobic fervor of WW1. If their true goal was white worker unity, then much of their organizational structure and platforms make no sense. Why didn't they operate as a craft union like the racist AFL? Why did they stick to their internationalism and anti-racism even when it would have been an opportune time to drop it? Event when they were fiercely repressed by the US government?
Sakai's treatment of the CPUSA is also somewhat unfair. He misquotes their leaders horribly out of context, takes statements of ex-party members looking to trash the party on personal disputes as objective fact and discounts the very obvious influence of the Soviet Union of the CPUSA, mostly skimming over the fact that the "Americanization" as well as the obviously chauvinist and reformist support and compliance with FDR were in fact, orders directly from the USSR and the International.
His chapter on the CIO is similarly reductionist. To him the CIO was a purely settleristic union and no nuance can be had regarding the CIO's policy and genuine efforts towards desegregation in multiple industries with black and white participation. He says that the CIO had black workers "conscripted into the settler trade unions" and provides no evidence for this, due to the simple fact that it did not happen. His other evidence is so thin on the ground he resorts to misrepresenting quotes about the reluctance of black workers to join the higherups of the CIO as evidence that they were being kept out and anecdotes. The CIO was not perfect, nor was the CPUSA or IWW, but they were far more complicated than simple white betrayals.
Sakai can only allow himself to see one side of history. His partial side is just as false as the typical class reductionist history that erases national oppression and its profound impact on the white working class consciousness.
Finally, I would like to touch on the "American Exceptionalism" of Sakai. This is more or less understandable given that Sakai lived in America and primarily interacted and organized with the American working class, but it is still a problem.
The character of American trade unions as supporters of imperialism, chauvinism or reformism, is not as Sakai seems to believe, unique at all to the white American labor movement.
In the modern day, there are violent attacks between black south Africans and workers coming in from other parts of Africa. The black south African citizen has a relative privilege (although still living in horrible poverty) over the migrant worker, and thus sometimes attacks and even murders the migrant workers for "taking their jobs". This should be a familiar dynamic and you can see it repeated everywhere.
In the Settler state of Russia, Russian workers more or less supported and greatly benefitted from the Tsar's prison house of nations, which assimilated and genocided several different nations all trapped within the Russian empire as well as constant anti-semitism, which was present even among bolshevik workers. Were Russian's hopelessly reactionary? Clearly not.
In China, the Han Chinese were in a privileged position over the rest of the population and had more or less supported the domination of the national minorities, and yet, they were not hopelessly reactionary.
The idea that reformism, tempered incremental and immediate demands is a symptom of "labor aristocracy" is another misconception. Unions in Africa or South America aren't screaming bloody murder for revolution. They are doing the same exact thing as unions in the first world, making slow gains, immediate demands, higher wages, more job security, better benefits, etc. (the entire concept of the labor aristocracy is somewhat suspect to me, especially the idea that skilled workers are antirevolutionary, when historically the opposite is true, with well paid skilled workers being the vangaurd of the anti-war European socialists for instance, while low paid workers were whipped into a frenzy in support of the war.)
Instead of Sakai's reductive analysis, I would like to propose an alternative, soured from the work of Ted Allen, the author of "Invention of the White Race" as well as Noel Ignatiev, author of "How the Irish became White".
Whites in America have been given privilege for a very specific reason. Before the invention of the category of 'white', white servants and black servants were equal and bore little to no ill will towards each other. Following a series of rebellions in which servants of all races rose up against their masters, as well as an economic demand for controllable cheap labor, the system of white supremacy was first created with the Virginia slave codes. Black servants were made chattel slaves and imported en masse while newly white European servants were given a few privileges, such as white women servants being exempt from field work and the servants whose contract had been filled (this did not often happen as owners were more enclined to work European servants to death knowing they had to them for a limited time) they would be granted a free plot of rather poor land in the Appalachian mountains, where poverty established by these early settlers still persists to this day.
In essence, the relative privilege of white servants granted by the slave code was a necessity for the enslavement of black slaves. It was a means of getting one section of the laborering class, who were still very much exploited, to police the other section of the working class in the form of passive supporters of slavery or active slave catchers and drivers all in exchange for a promise that they would never be slaves themselves and could maintain their scraps of privilege.
This agreement was meant to divide the working class. By giving one section relative privilege and making the other section chattel slaves, the elite could ensure that the working class as a whole was more permanently entrenched in their own exploitation and could never struggle together for better conditions for all the laborers.
Ted Allen says this about the institution of racial slavery.
"First, that racial slavery constituted a ruling class response to a problem of labor solidarity. Second, that a system of racial privileges for the propertyless 'whites' was deliberately instituted in order to align them on the side of the plantation bourgeoisie against the African-American bond-laborers. Third, that the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-Americans, but was 'disastrous' for the propertyless 'whites' as well."
After the slaves were freed, the system of division and bourgeois social control evolved into the segregated form of white supremacy. In this period, white supremacy acted as something of a release valve on class struggle. When white workers challenged their conditions, this fight would be almost immediately diverted towards black workers, leaving the bourgoise untouched. Because of their racism, white efforts at unionization would be sabotaged by an inability to recruit black workers, thus damaging both themselves and the black workers.
The history of white labor collaboration with and betrayal of black workers can be seen to follow a sort of cycle that Ted Allen lays out.
"1) The normal course of capitalist events brings on a deterioration of the conditions of the laboring classes. 2) The substance of the white-skin privileges becomes somewhat drained away by increased insecurity and exploitation. 3) The laboring-class “whites” manifest, to a greater or lesser extent, a tendency to make common cause with laboring-class Blacks against capital. 4) The ruling class moves to re-substantiate the racial privileges of the white workers vis-à-vis the Blacks. 5) The white workers take the bait, repudiate solidarity with Black laboring people and submit themselves without radical protest to exploitation by the privilege-givers."
This tendency can be seen in the Populist period, in WW1 period and in the Great Depression. Given Sakai's talk of "de-settlerization" in recent times, I think it is evident that we are approaching another one of these windows of oppurtunity as the long crisis stripts the contents out of white privilege to some degree, thrusting more and more whites out of the comfortable middle class and into the logestical-industrial working class of the diverse inner ring suburbs.
The difference is, this time the crisis may not bounce back, and there may be no reestablishment of white supremacy. Sakai asserts this fact with his understanding of "De-settlerization",
"But the big guys are sending a message down to ordinary white men. It’s like a bomb. In the new globalized multicultural capitalism, in the new computer society, the provincial, sheltered white settler life of America is going to be as over as the white settler life of the South African “Afrikaners” is. Forget about it."
Althought he sees the white working class's turn to fascism as a forgone conclusion.
Noel Ignatiev laid out the basics of anti-racist praxis in the United States.
"The only way to overcome the divisions within the working class is to confront them directly. The problem of white supremacy must be fought out openly within the working class. Without a direct challenge to the race differential and to the institutions that reproduce it, all denunciations of white supremacy and all appeals for working-class unity, are empty words."
"The ending of white supremacy is not solely a demand of the Negro people, separate from the class demands of the entire working class. It cannot be left to the Negro people to fight it alone, while the white workers “sympathize with their fight,” “support it,” “reject racist slanders” etc. but actually fight for their “own” demands.
The ideology of white chauvinism is bourgeois poison aimed primarily at the white workers, utilized as a weapon by the ruling class to subjugate black and white workers. It has its material base in the practice of white supremacy, which is a crime not merely against non-whites but against the entire proletariat. Therefore, its elimination certainly qualifies as one of the class demands of the entire working class. In fact, considering the role that this vile practice has historically played in holding back the struggle of the American working class, the fight against white supremacy becomes the central immediate task of the entire working class."
Marxists need a materialist analysis of race and class in order to understand who are enemies are and who are our potential allies are. Settlers is not that analysis. It is scattershot, messy and features a conclusion that could only be implemented in stunted praxis or not at all (how would you ever unionize a workplace or an apartment building if you made a point not to organize whites or condemn them all as hopelessly reaction labor aristocrats?) and ultimately views the division in the working class fostered by the bourgoise as permanent. For Sakai, there is no stradegy for unity, only an acceptance of division.