Gurpreet Bola: Progressives reference the ‘new economy’ in order to describe a system that is based on social and environmental justice. Yet type these words into any search engine and you’ll find that we don’t own it, neoliberals do. The ‘new economy’ they are talking about refers to the emerging and ever-strengthening data economy. This economy is built on a technology that is rooted in the same principles and institutions as neoliberal capitalism. As such, we have some indication of what is in store, particularly around work, wages, and racial injustice.
Labour market trends that assess who is most impacted by precarious work all show up the same patterns; these folks are black and brown, often women, and often working class. Precarious work includes digital apps such as Uber, abuse of zero-hour contracts, or those most at risk from losing a job due to automation. As this ‘new economy’ thrives, we need to be aware that race inequality will worsen because white supremacy is a systemic feature of neoliberal capitalism. This article suggests seven concrete steps that progressives can take towards a genuinely new and transformative economy for all workers.
Play the race card
Our economic system inherently disadvantages marginalised groups, and this trend is consistent through history. To better understand why this happens, we need to consciously develop a deeper analysis of the problem we are trying to address. In this case, how are Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers impacted by the rise of precarious work practices?
Research conducted by the Resolution Foundation think tank shows that ‘minority ethnic’ families currently earn nearly £9000 a year less than their white British counterparts. This is supported further by the tuc’s Insecure Work and Ethnicity report that identified one in every 13 BAME workers were in insecure employment, compared to one in 20 for white workers. The same report also identifies that of the 3.1 million BAME workers in the UK, nearly a quarter were in insecure work or were likely to be underemployed. Additionally, the number of BAME workers in insecure jobs rose by 2% in five years, whilst the number of white workers remained the same.
Wages and earnings aren’t the only issues here. Precarious work is often not a choice, but a result of systemic racism in which BAME workers find it harder to access stable employment. In addition, expecting digital platforms to deliver some utopian democracy ignores the reality of white supremacy. When your customer base is largely white affluent middle class, this plays into the race and class power dynamic, sometimes influencing who gets chosen for work. And as independent contractors, these workers are also at risk of abuse or attacks with very little protection. And in a society where the new norms are xenophobic rhetoric and hate crime, this leaves many unsupported workers vulnerable to discrimination, hurt, and shame.
If you need any more evidence on the broader systemic failures around employment and work, the Race Disparity Audit commissioned by the government offers a sobering and heartbreaking reality check on the lived experience of the BAME population in the workplace. What is important to take away from this evidence is that marginalisation of communities is active, not passive. There are multiple systems at play that are responsible for race inequality; white supremacy, elitism, and patriarchy to name but a few.
How is this data shaped by the characteristics of neoliberal capitalism? For this we need to look to the origins of capitalism as an economic model and, as a result, how deep white supremacy is embedded in the functions of our society – even today.
Many people argue that the modern economy has brought us substantial material benefits, better rights for workers, and flexibility in work practices. Whilst this may be the case, these benefits have, by design, been disproportionately distributed amongst a privileged few. For the global majority (non-white people/people of colour), capitalism is a system that is historically tied to colonialism and racism. Colonialism is a project that led to the demolition of sacred land and cultures, extraction of natural resources, sale of black bodies as property, and sent brown bodies to war for the British Empire.
The colonial mindset continues to this day and is justified by the pursuit of economic growth that is centred around white superiority. We can connect capitalism with white supremacy, and come to understand racism as the tool by which white European colonisers wielded economic power over large parts of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Well known critical race theorist F.L. Ansley helps us understand the colonial mindset here:
By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily re-enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
500 years of colonial rule and settler colonialism has created an economy so entrenched in systems of oppression that we must connect this to the reality of inequality today. In Britain, a colonial mindset dominates the way institutions control our media, legal system, education, financing and policing, and the way we respond to them. As a result, white supremacy is normalised as an invisible force that is subtle and powerful. The evidence for structural racism is clear, and the only justification that is viable is the lasting legacy of white supremacy. Future alternatives to neoliberalism need to be informed by confronting our economic history of colonialism, mercantilism, and imperialism.
How to centre race in the new economy
Neoliberalism is a particularly vicious form of capitalism that has destroyed so much of the fabric of our society, including public services, decent housing, and stable employment. No one should be surprised that BAME workers are the first to be impacted by precarious work. If anything, it is evidence that neoliberal capitalism is functioning as intended: through the exploitation of people of colour. In responding to this, however, we cannot escape the rapid development of technology and the way this is reshaping our work practices. Wage equality and workers rights can only be realised if we centre the BAME community at the heart of our efforts to build alternatives, so that we can truly challenge the foundations of neoliberal capitalism. We can do this in many ways.
In the past century, people of colour in Britain have fought for equal rights alongside white-centred movements, be it through the Suffragettes or labour strikes. They’ve done this in the margins, achieving part but not all of the rights that have been afforded to their white British counterparts. By centreing the lived experience of BAME workers in all our actions, be it labour strikes, protests, or workplace organising, we can be sure to attend to those that are feeling the impact of the gig-economy now, not just the fear of it hitting us in the future. Investigate which sectors are predominantly BAME in identity, and understand their concerns, and do this without essentialising or tokenism of any one identity. Use your time to follow groups such as Hotel Workers Branch and Justice for Domestic Workers, and interrogate campaigns that are whitewashed or lack depth and integrity.
In our work, we need to recognise the overlapping – or intersecting – nature of discrimination that plays a role in our understanding of wage inequality. In this article I’ve concentrated on ‘people of colour’ as one group without doing the necessary work of breaking this down into gender, ability, class, sexuality, migration status and the many other social factors that influence how society influences the workplace. Uncovering this evidence will open our eyes to the reality of inequality, and a deeper understanding of the structure of the economy. Be mindful that using intersectionality as a tool to better understand different lived experiences does not absolve us of our privilege and the work we need to do on ourselves.
An intersectional analysis also allows us to challenge ideas that are designed to divide us. An example of this is the widespread use of the term ‘white working-class’, which routinely excludes the reality of black, brown and Asian working class communities in Britain. Evidence consistently shows that a higher percentage of the BAME community are working class when compared to the white British population. Let’s also challenge the narrative of ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ that comes from a Eurocentric view of our globalised world. Whilst I have embraced this terminology in this article, a vision for a new economy should use terms such as people of global majority, people from formerly colonised nations, or people of colour in order to free us from our colonial mindset.
The progressive ‘new economy’ scene in the UK is full of ideas for alternative practices to neoliberalism when it comes to work and wages. Consider ‘new economy’ projects that build co-operatives or use the gift economy. They are often designed for a lived experience that is so disconnected from those who need it, it renders them inaccessible and irrelevant to the broader goal of economic systems change. The irony here is that many of the alternatives are rooted in a non-European indigenous history, and have been appropriated by those who already have social power. When designing alternatives, take inspiration from some excellent organisations who are decolonising these ideas to make them work for black and brown communities. Explore why Black Lives Matter adopted Universal Basic Income as a central demand in their manifesto, and how one black community in Jackson, Mississippi is using technology and data to reinvent their local economy.
So, ask yourself now “where is this work happening in the UK, and who knows about it?” We all want to commit to building a new economy that works for everyone. To do so we need to get our analysis clear, and recognise that capitalism will always be one step ahead of us unless we are willing to centre people of colour in the solutions we build.
If we do so, we will have built the foundations for alternatives that are powerful enough to uproot neoliberal capitalism for good. If we don’t then the ‘new economy’ will be little more than the successor to what we already have.
Gurpreet Bola is an organiser, trainer, researcher, and writer. She is committed to political and social systems change. Her economic analysis has supported activists to identify the root cause of social inequalities and oppression.
This is a print first feature published in STIR magazine.