The Racist Paradox of Modernity: Are Capitalism, Socialism, Science, and Democracy Hopelessly Racist?

“The great paradox of Western modernity is that democracy flourished for Europeans, especially men of property, alongside the flowering of the transatlantic slave trade and New World slavery. Global capitalism and nascent nationalisms were predicated initially on terrors and horrors visited on enslaved Africans on the way to, or in, the New World. This tragic springboard of modernity, in which good and evil are inextricably interlocked, still plagues us. The repercussions and ramifications of this paradox still confine and circumscribe us—in our fantasies and dreams, our perceptions and practices—in these catastrophic times.” Cornel West, The Ignoble Paradox of Modernity.

(This blog post is the first one I’ve written in quite a while at It is more personal in tone than most of my previous ones. It may or may not mark a transition in how I blog here.)

One of the recurring arguments that I’ve had over the years about racism is whether it is inherent within modern Euro/American civilization. Since I am usually arguing with Marxists or Liberals, they both want to rescue some element of modernity such as science, democracy, or capitalism from the claim that each of these depend on racism. Cornel West calls this “the great paradox of Western modernity” that both the flourishing of democracy and the transatlantic slave trade coincided historically.

I, too, believe in science and democracy, not so much in capitalism. However, like my Marxist friends, I want to believe that socialism can be achieved without racism marring it. With racism (and I would argue in a different vein, sexism) we can’t even limit its negative characteristics to the “ruling class” as we can with capitalism, since the examples of racism among the working-class and socialist leaders are abundant.

When I began trying to find a socialist organization to join last year, I kept finding them to be preserves of white guys. I sought out an explicitly socialist, feminist, and anti-racist organization, only to find it to have done pretty good attracting women, but not so much blacks. If I want my political engagement to break out of this sort of white ghetto, I have to travel further afield.

One idea I have is to find a Black Church and attend it with the intent of immersing myself in its living culture. Of course, some have argued that Christianity itself is inherently racist. I’ve found one Black church in Chicago that does have a strongly liberal theology and even on the edge of being post-Christian. It’s an experiment that I think worth doing, though I can’t exactly approach it as one, as being part of a church requires becoming authentically relationally connected to people.

Back to the big question, can modernity be rescued from its racist origins? One perverse sign that it can transcend its origins is the experience of Asian capitalism and Communism. Both of these Western exports have found fairly fertile soil in Asia and have flourished there, though the Communist nations there are actually trending towards a new form of capitalism.

The counter-examples come from Africa, the motherland of humanity, and the poorest, most exploited continent on earth. When South Africa overthrew its apartheid regime and began transition to a multi-racial democracy, many of us where simultaneously thrilled and stunned. It happened so quickly that many of us who’d been involved in anti-apartheid activism were scratching our heads. Just like the collapse of the Soviet Union surprised many of us.

As uprisings surged across northern Africa this past year, many of us hoped that finally Africa was going to stand up to Euro/American hegemony. When Libyan revolutionaries became military partners with NATO, we knew the possibilities of revolution were still bottled up within the narrow strictures of that hegemony. The struggle continues, the questions unanswerable.

One thought on “The Racist Paradox of Modernity: Are Capitalism, Socialism, Science, and Democracy Hopelessly Racist?

  1. Formal “democracy” probably flourished here, not because that was intrinsically “racism”, but because this was a place with an unusual amount of surplus ‘you-name-it’: energy, land, raw materials. One reason there was a lot of available “energy” was that the prime preindustrial source: enslaved human muscle– was readily available. That is, plenty of people were without a viable niche in the English economy, and were therefore willing to sign up for temporary slavery in the colonies, in hopes of working themselves free, gaining access to that land & raw materials… and plenty of upwardly mobile Brits (& then “Americans”) were willing to kidnap and ship Africans here, where their labor too could be applied to those other resources– for less money, with no need to offer them any sort of contract, any termination date.

    Racism flourished here because slavery flourished. Racism paid; it helped fend off those nasty fears that enslaving people might be wrong, and might lead to repercussions, such as angry slaves revolting and treating one as one deserved.

    Given racism, and a market for racism, it was as easy to get racist science as it was to get racist theology. The genre remained popular into the late 20th Century (“The Bell Curve” comes to mind, among other works that could only have been taken seriously in a seriously demented intellectual climate…) but had far more to do with racism than with “science,” as the Biblical justifications for slavery had far more to do with racism than religion.

    A lack of Black people at your local socialist organization? No universal principle implied; plenty of Black people have been attracted to socialist organizations in the past. Much of the time such groups were the one place they could find white people treating them with proper respect– but as in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” betrayals happened also. And these days? If they aren’t hanging out with your favorite politicos, you might try the local ‘occupy’ sites… ?

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