Could capitalism exist without racism?

I’ve recently been working my way through the final volume of Hodgson’s Venture of Islam, the second half of which focuses on the original “disruptive innovation” — modern technological society. Hodgson is at pains to emphasize that the Old World at least had already been a world market, largely under Muslim auspices, for centuries at that point and that once any particular group hit upon modern technological methods, it was bound to spread throughout the rest of the world, giving that group a decisive advantage. He also does everything possible to head off Western self-congratulation, concluding that as far as we can tell, the fact that the West was where industrialism took root in a self-perpetuating way is essentially a matter of chance. Anyone could have stumbled upon the method, and in fact the Chinese almost did centuries previous. Finally, he also notes that Islamic societies emphasized commerce and social mobility and in that sense anticipated bourgeois values much more clearly than anything in the West (a label that he takes to be meaningful only if it’s a synonym for “the developed world”).

What haunts me is the question of whether the luck of the draw could have been better. We know that in practice, once the West did develop technological superiority, that created a durable and self-reinforcing power differential between the European nations and the rest of the world. Fully actualizing the powers implicit in modern technology in fact required European economic activity to reshape the rest of the world, disrupting settled arrangements and exploiting essentially all other nations to varying degrees.

And we know that the ideology that legitimated that power differential, in the last analysis, was racism. Europeans, it seemed, were made of better stuff — and from there an all-too-familiar hierarchy, terminating at Africans, unfolded, a hierarchy that continues to deeply shape the modern world and especially the United States.

In the case of racism, I believe there is a much clearer case to be made that the conceptual and cultural presuppositions were distinctively Western. Where modernity was an awkward fit for Christendom, racism was a natural evolution of attitudes centered on the race par excellence in Christian thought: the Jews, that cursed people irredeemably tied to the flesh. I know that every minority population has been at a disadvantage relative to the majority, but I think it’s fair to say that Western Christian attitudes toward Jews have historically been uniquely fucked up in a way that has no real parallel elsewhere. The Islamic enemy was similarly racialized, and the encounter with the peoples of the New World was problematic for Christians, who felt constrained to debate whether they were even human, in a way that I don’t think it would have been for Muslims nor indeed for the Chinese.

By contrast, if we take the next most likely candidate, Islam, we have a multi-cultural empire with a much more comfortable and sustainable relationship to its minority predecessors. By the early modern period, it included people we would recognize as white and Asian as well as Africans and Middle Easterners — and whatever residual privilege the Arabs had as the original recipients of the revolution had long since faded away. There were tensions in India given that Hinduism is polytheistic, but creative rulers were able to bring about remarkable integration over even the seemingly unbridgable chasm. Even if later rulers undid those achievements, the impulse was always religious rather than racial, given that Islam had, characteristically, recruited upwardly mobile Indians on ultimately equal terms.

Once the concept of race was established, disadvantaged groups tried to turn it to their advantage, using nationalism as a rallying point to gain some measure of self-determination, most often through selective self-directed modernization — a move that inevitably gave conflicts in the subaltern world a racial tinge, beyond the well-known effects of European authorities essentially creating racial distinctions as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. The perverse effect is that the mainstream narrative now paints non-Westerners as definitionally racist/nationalistic and, in the ultimate world-historical retcon, views those traits as paradigmatically primitive — when in reality, they are symptoms of modernization.

Overall, I’m inclined to say that — while modernization would have brought about considerable disruption, exploitation, and suffering in any case — there’s at least a chance that modernity would not have taken on its distinctively racist form had one of the Muslim powers gotten there first. (In terms of the other plausible candidate, the Chinese, I just don’t know enough.)

In any case, though, the die has been cast and I don’t think that actual-existing Western capitalism can take on a non-racist form.

3 Responses to “Could capitalism exist without racism?”

  1. Mohammed El-Sayed Bushra Says:

    Good post.

    I think there are two key issues that factor into this: empire and intervention.

    The post-1492 rise of modernity in the West came in the form of expansionist imperial projects, in which the purpose was the enrichment and development of the homeland (Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, etc) at the expense of the newly conquered territory. Although some parallels may be seen with some of the late (also post-1492) Ottoman expansion in Eastern Europe, it contrasts sharply with the mode of expansion in early Islam — riches were not hauled back to the Arabian Peninsula, which remained relatively underdeveloped for centuries, but rather new metropoles and civilisational centres were developed precisely in the newly conquered lands: Damascus, Basra, Rey, Samarkand, and, of course, al-Andalus.

    As for the issue of intervention and the ‘civilising mission’, one example will suffice: the Indian practice of Sati, in which a widow is expected to self-immolate upon her deceased husband’s funeral pyre, was seen as particularly alarming by the British and was banned under the Raj. The same practice was noted centuries earlier as an anthropological aside by al-Bīrūnī (d. 1048). So much for our fantasies of religious coercion!

  2. Ry Yelcho Says:

    Could this entrenched western prejudice toward ‘others’ be a significant factor in the Islamic fundamentalist violence toward the West. Finding fundamentalism and violence a seductive means to restore self esteem. A Muslim version of “Bringing it all Back Home”. George Clooney, in the movie Syriana, put it in words through his character Bryan Woodman: “You know what the business community thinks of you? They think that a hundred years ago you were living in tents out here in the desert chopping each other’s heads off and that’s where you’ll be in another hundred years…”

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It does seem clear to me that the current forms taken by Islam are a reaction to Western modernity and hence not helpfully predictive of what an Islamic modernity would have looked like (despite the protestations from a deleted commenter).


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