In late July, Florida’s Board of Education approved a new social studies curriculum that claims enslaved Black people in America “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.’’ Endorsed by Governor Ron DeSantis (who has since attempted to distance himself from it), the curriculum — specifically, the passage about skills — has been criticized by activists, journalists, and scholars for its crass distortion of history. During a Fox News debate on the new standards, “insult conservative’’ Greg Gutfeld doubled down on the principle of utility under duress, commenting that usefulness to the Nazis had kept some Jews safe during the Holocaust.
Both assertions are wrong on their face. Enslaved Africans had nowhere to use their “skills’’ outside the institution of slavery itself, and survival in the Nazi death camps was often a matter of sheer luck. Beyond betraying an appalling ignorance of history, these comments perversely apply a modern concept of skill to the death camp or the plantation. Conservatives like DeSantis and Gutfeld are now spicing up their free-market economics with white supremacy.
The reason we call it “chattel slavery’’ is that slaveholders and slave traders saw their charges, no matter how skilled, as property, not people. As for the Jews, they could never be useful enough to the Nazis to save themselves. Arbeit macht frei (“Work sets you free’’), the infamous inscription on the Auschwitz gate, was a deliberate deception meant to camouflage the Nazi policy of “extermination through labor.’’
Historian Raul Hilberg, who founded the field of Holocaust studies, has argued that the Jews were tragically mistaken to hope that “they would be left alone if only they worked hard and minded their own business.’’ The Nazis were much more interested in “solving’’ what they called “the Jewish question’’ than in profit, labor efficiency, or even winning the war. Filip Müller, one of the very few survivors of the Sonderkommando, the cadre of death camp inmates compelled to facilitate mass murder on pain of death, recalled that Allied gains in 1944 “failed to halt the process of mass extermination.’’ Forced Jewish labor might have helped the German war effort, but no amount of usefulness or skills outweighed the Nazi goal of making Europe judenrein, “clean of Jews.’’
True, new arrivals to the death camps were often greeted by polite SS men who, hiding their truncheons in their pockets, called on tailors, goldsmiths, and other skilled laborers to identify themselves. Yet this reference to skills was only a ploy, meant to keep the conveyor belt of destruction moving by lulling victims into a false sense of security. Usefulness wasn’t a relevant category, because the “use’’ to which the Nazis wanted to put the Jews was death.
Conservative talk of “usefulness’’ draws on the theory of “human capital,’’ the skills and knowledge gained in education and training. Inspired by Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,’’ the term was coined in 1928 and attracted mainstream attention in the 1970s and ’80s through the work of Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and his student Gary Becker.
But human capital only applies when workers are free, which seems not to matter to today’s Republicans. When the Florida Board of Education and its defenders invoke usefulness, they flatten the difference between skills helpful in a free market and the desperate strategies that enabled survival on the plantation or in the death camp.
The emphasis on skills in discussions of world- historical atrocities like American slavery and the Holocaust points to a pattern in contemporary right-wing thinking — a bizarre and ahistorical obsession with the redemptive potential of labor.
Whether styled as the Horatio Alger myth, the doctrine of personal responsibility, or the bootstrap narrative, the idea that work liberates has near-religious potency among conservatives. For Republicans and some centrists, work is not merely profitable, respectable, and moral. It is the American dream writ large, the ultimate realization of one’s human capital. In the minds of conservative labor enthusiasts, to work for wages is only human. To maximize human capital is divine.
Today’s political discourse is such a confused medley that a mashup of human capital theory with slavery is not surprising in itself. But the debate around the Florida social studies curriculum reveals a disturbing new trend: the convergence of two currents of far-right thought that are usually distinct. The first is free-market fundamentalism — expressed in the worship of human capital — and the second is an increasingly fascist white nationalism. This hybrid ideology imagines human beings as mere resources and promotes the optimization of human output regardless of circumstances and costs. The question DeSantis, Gutfeld, and others leave unanswered is: What ends should the “useful’’ skills of human capital serve?
By misinterpreting historical contexts like slavery and Nazism, Republicans advance a political vision that would destroy the very freedom it claims to defend. Removing classical free-market ideas from their original context, they legitimize a racist history while normalizing a new far-right status quo. The Florida curriculum’s suggestion that slavery benefited enslaved people certainly exculpates slaveholders. Yet even if this language is massaged or removed altogether, the underlying faith in work as inherently virtuous will remain. By implication, those who cannot benefit from their toil — for instance, because it kills them — are not victims of structural injustice so much as insufficiently motivated strivers. In combining authoritarian ideas with economic jargon, the far right is revealing how anemic its commitment to freedom really is.
Maya Vinokour is assistant professor in the department of Russian and Slavic studies and a co-organizer of the Working Group on the Global New Right at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Her forthcoming book is “Work Flows: Stalinist Liquids in Russian Labor Culture.’’
Image Credits: The Boston Globe