Race, Technology, and the Word “Traditional” in the World-System

“Traditional” is one of the more interesting words to keep track of in contemporary discourse, particularly when it comes up in discussions of technology.

For the most part, it is used as a slur.

It is a word used to disparage an object or practice, to compare it to whatever one wants to posit as “new” or “innovative” or even “worthwhile” or “useful.”

It’s an implicit slur: after all, in a variety of contexts, “traditions” and “traditional” are words that point to good things, things we (apparently) value, things we don’t necessarily want to change. Though these days, more and more, especially in discussions of technology and the economy, it’s the slur meaning that predominates.

I’ve always noticed this and meant to write a brief note about it, since it seems to me the question of what is “traditional” and what isn’t is highly relative and mobile. Before I could get around to that, though, I ran across a surprisingly pointed discussion of this term in an unexpected source: the short 1983 book Historical Capitalism (London: Verso), by the Marxist world-systems theorist and sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.

Wallerstein’s work is usually, rightly, seen as an effort to understand how capitalism works across the globe, with a particular focus on international flows of trade and the ways classes can be played off against each other among as well as within countries. His best-known work is the multivolume The Modern World-System. Wikipedia provides the following fairly accurate if quite general summary of some key parts of his work:

A lasting division of the world into core, semi-periphery, and periphery is an inherent feature of world-system theory. Other theories, partially drawn on by Wallerstein, leave out the semi-periphery and do not allow for a grayscale of development. Areas which have so far remained outside the reach of the world-system enter it at the stage of “periphery”. There is a fundamental and institutionally stabilized “division of labor” between core and periphery: while the core has a high level of technological development and manufactures complex products, the role of the periphery is to supply raw materials, agricultural products, and cheap labor for the expanding agents of the core. Economic exchange between core and periphery takes place on unequal terms: the periphery is forced to sell its products at low prices, but has to buy the core’s products at comparatively high prices. Once established, this unequal state tends to stabilize itself due to inherent, quasi-deterministic constraints. The statuses of core and periphery are not exclusive and fixed geographically, but are relative to each other. A zone defined as “semi-periphery” acts as a periphery to the core and as a core to the periphery. At the end of the 20th century, this zone would comprise Eastern Europe, China, Brazil, and Mexico. It is important to note that core and peripheral zones can co-exist in the same location.

Yet what is sometimes less understood is that Wallerstein is a theorist of race and its critical role in the establishment of capitalism, that much of his early work focused on Africa, that he considers himself profoundly influenced by the anticolonial writer Frantz Fanon.

Wallerstein describes Historical Capitalism as an attempt “to see capitalism as a historical system, over the whole of its history and in concrete unique reality” (7). The book is made up of revisions of three lectures Wallerstein gave in 1982 along with a new conclusion. The first chapter, Wallerstein says, is largely devoted to economics; the second to politics, and the third, which I’ll be discussing here, to culture. Its title is “Truth as Opiate: Rationality and Rationalization.” Somewhat surprisingly, the word “traditional” occupies a central place in Wallerstein’s analysis.

Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism (Verso, 1982)

These, for example, are the third chapter’s first two paragraphs:

Historical capitalism has been, we know, Promethean in its aspirations. Although scientific and technological change has been a constant of human historical activity, it is only with historical capitalism that Prometheus, always there, has been ‘unbound,’ in David Landes’s phrase. The basic collective image we now have of this scientific culture of historical capitalism is that it was propounded by noble knights against the staunch resistance of the forces of ‘traditional,’ non-scientific culture. In the seventeenth century, it was Galileo against the Church; in the twentieth, the ‘modernizer’ against the mullah. At all points, it was said to have been ‘rationality’ versus ‘superstition,’ and ‘freedom’ versus ‘intellectual oppression.’ This was presumed to be parallel to (even identical with) the revolt in the arena of the political economy of the bourgeois entrepreneur against the aristocratic landlord.

This basic image of a worldwide cultural struggle has had a hidden premise, namely one about temporality. ‘Modernity’ was assumed to be temporally new, whereas ‘tradition’ was temporally old and prior to modernity; indeed, in some strong versions of the imagery, tradition was ahistorical and therefore virtually eternal. This premise was historically false and therefore fundamentally misleading. The multiple cultures, the multiple ‘traditions’ that have flourished within the time-space boundaries of historical capitalism, have been no more primordial than the multiple institutional frameworks. They are largely the creation of the modern world, part of its ideological scaffolding. Links of the various ‘traditions’ to groups and ideologies that predate historical capitalism have existed, of course, in the sense that they have often been constructed using some historical and intellectual materials already existent. Furthermore, the assertion of such transhistorical links has played an important role in the cohesiveness of groups in their political-economic struggles within historical capitalism. But, if we wish to understand the cultural forms these struggles take, we cannot afford to take ‘traditions’ at their face value, and in particular we cannot afford to assume that ‘traditions’ are in fact traditional. (75-6)

So for Wallerstein, the very act of naming a practice “traditional” is an important part of the cultural work of global capitalism, tied directly to the historical creation of what we today call “race.” The very allegation that some practices are “traditional” “has formed one of the most significant pillars of historical capitalism, institutional racism” (78); “racism was the mode by which various segments of the work-force within the same economic structure were constrained to relate to each other,” he goes on, “racism was the ideological justification for the hierarchization of the work-force and its unequal distribution of reward.”

Wallerstein uses the past tense in these formulations because he is discussing the historical formation of racial discrimination, especially when racial categorizations were explicit and legal; he is not suggesting that racism does not still exist. But because “in the past fifty to one hundred years, it has been under sharp attack” (80), a complementary ideology has moved to center stage, namely what Wallerstein calls “universalism.” Belief in universalism “has been the keystone of the ideological arch of historical capitalism” (81).

By universalism Wallerstein in part means “pressures at the level of culture” to create and enforce norms around a single model of culture and cultural progress, via a “complex of processes we sometimes label ‘westernization,’ or even more arrogantly ‘modernization’” (82) and which includes phenomena like “Christian proselytization; the imposition of European language; instruction in specific technologies and mores; changes in legal codes.”

The process of modernization, Wallerstein writes, “required the creation of a world bourgeois cultural framework that could be grafted onto ‘national’ variations. This was particularly important in terms of science and technology, but also in the realm of political ideas and the social sciences” (83). Thus the

concept of a neutral ‘universal’ culture to which the cadres of the world division of labor would be ‘assimilated’ (the passive voice being important here) hence came to serve as one of the pillars of the world-system as it historically evolved. The exaltation of progress, and later of ‘modernization,’ summarized this set of ideas, which served less as true norms of social action than as status-symbols of obeisance and of participation in the world’s upper strata. The break from the supposedly culturally-narrow religious bases of knowledge in favor of supposedly trans-cultural scientific bases of knowledge served as the self-justification of a particular pernicious form of cultural imperialism.

The universalism of scientific culture “lent itself to the concept known today as ‘meritocracy’” (84), a “framework within which individual mobility was possible without threatening hierarchical work-force allocation. On the contrary, meritocracy reinforced hierarchy” (85).  “The great emphasis on the rationality of scientific activity,” he writes, “was the mask of the irrationality of endless accumulation.”

While “universalism was offered to the world as a gift of the powerful to the weak,” “the gift itself harbored racism, for it gave the recipients two choices: accept the gift, thereby acknowledging that one was slow on the hierarchy of received wisdom; refuse the gift, thereby denying oneself weapons that could reverse the unequal real power situation.”

There is much more to Wallerstein’s compact and dense argument, including many important reflections on the profoundly ambivalent relationship of technological progress and cultural nationalism to socialism, and I recommend the book in its entirety. But I am primarily interested here in the consequences of Wallerstein’s work for understanding the deployment of the concept of “traditional” in contemporary technological discourse. In my opinion, “traditional” is a word, and a concept, that should be avoided in thoughtful work about technology, economics, and “progress,” as it is an almost-entirely ideological label, one that is even more than what I earlier called it, a “slur.” Indeed, it is not merely a label: it is an ideological lever, a tool used to organize the world so as to maximize power for the ones doing the labeling, and to disempower the lives and cultures of those to whom the label is applied, and to make them available for resource exploitation.

Work on this piece benefited greatly from conversations with Tressie McMillan Cottom and Audrey Watters.

Next: “traditional” in vivo

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