By Mike Isaacson
As the NFL heads into week one of football season, Colin Kaepernick remains an unsigned free agent. A Super Bowl quarterback, a conference champion, not even thirty years old, can’t even get a bench warming role. While much attention has been paid to the race politics of the NFL owners’ unanimous blackball of Kaepernick, nearly no attention has been paid to the material structure being wielded to silence him: namely, class.
It might tilt some heads to call Kaepernick “working class.” In popular media, “class” is usually associated with income, with terms like “middle class” thrown in without much in the way of specific or consistent definition. Whereas income is an axis along which class operates, in terms of analyzing how the economy actually functions the two are by no means synonymous. Marx lays out two conditions for the existence of a working class in Chapter 6 of Capital Vol 1:
“[L]abour-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammelled owner of his capacity for labour, i.e., of his person….
“The second essential condition to the owner of money finding labour-power in the market as a commodity is this — that the labourer instead of being in the position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power, which exists only in his living self.”
It should be noted that this is no mere theoretical construct. This definition is based on the emergence of capitalist labor markets from the feudal system of rites and duties. This emerged in two ways. First, was the transformation of land from a divine inheritance from which duties to a sovereign were paid to a universally private, tradeable commodity. Second, was the transformation of labor from a hereditary divine duty to an abstract, saleable commodity.
While these two transformations happened in fits and starts in Europe beginning around the 14th century, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the capitalist labor markets established themselves. In European colonial holdings, the first condition was imposed by military force while the second was substituted by a system of international slavery justified post hoc with invented racial science. This system would not begin to transform to a capitalist labor market until the early 20th century.
It is in this “post-colonial” age that we find Kaepernick. Kaepernick was born to a destitute, white mother and a Black father who had left prior to Kaepernick’s birth. He was adopted by a white couple, and attended grade school in a California suburb. Kaepernick graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and athletic accolades in numerous sports.
Historic conditions still prefigure present day labor relations. By virtue of modern family structures, one’s access to resources necessary to build the skills or relationships to compete in the labor market or to start one’s own enterprise is in many ways hereditary. Beyond transfer of family connections or access to expensive extracurricular activities that the individual family unit provides, the public services in one’s hometown from education to sanitation are provisioned largely according to the local tax base.
Since these public services are often what attracts residents to particular locales in the first place, wealthier buyers price out the less wealthy, further enriching the local budget. This reinforcing system creates de facto segregation along pre-existing income disparities. Given the history of colonialism, slavery, and feudal caste systems with little in the way of correctives for these legal and economic systems, segregation usually persists as well along ethnic lines.
Those neighborhoods left to those with low incomes are often bereft of public services as a result. Businesses are sparse, and food is remote. The lack of a tax base to sustain what public services do exist is often compensated through increased police activity. Municipal budgets are balanced through fines, court fees, and prison labor as was the case in Ferguson. Out of such a social reality, Kaepernick began his protest saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
While his economic and social status provided him with a national platform to make his protest, his class status did not guarantee it. After a full season of kneeling for the national anthem, being joined by other players in various ways, Kaepernick opted out of his contract when it became apparent that he would be cut from the team. As it is with any other worker, it looks better on a resume to resign than to be let go.
In free agency, Kaepernick finds himself in a peculiar form of unemployment. As a worker in the abstract, he faces the infinity of capital owners seeking employees. As a football player, however, he faces 32 potential employers offering a maximum of 96 jobs between them. Though Kaepernick is by no means the best quarterback alive, he is certainly well within the top 96.
His working class status leaves the decision to hire him ultimately up to the capitalist class, however irrational the decision may be to the goals of their organizations. Irrespective of their need for good football players, NFL owners must also placate the military and police organizations that financially support them. Kaepernick, as all workers, does not experience his status as working class by virtue of the work he does nor the income he takes home, but rather by virtue of being at any moment deprived the opportunity for both.
Mike Isaacson is an antifascist researcher and economics lecturer at John Jay College.