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Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development

Thomas McCarthy
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2009

Initially, the title of this book made me think it could provide a much-needed critique of the ubiquitous notion of “human development” that, for centuries, has influenced a variety of fields from psychology to education to political science to philosophy to history. “Development” is indeed a commonplace term that deserves significant analysis, but this book, unfortunately, does not provide it. As early as the introduction, readers will discover that McCarthy’s primary concern is race, not the idea of human development in its broadest sense. As the book’s title makes evident, human development and racism can be connectedin significant ways, but McCarthy is far more interested in discussing how racism has impacted global nationalistic thinking, especially in Europe and America, than he is with the modern conception of science that gave “development” so much power.

Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development is not a cheery book. McCarthy describes the work as a “critical history with a practical intent” (13-14). I take McCarthy to mean that he views the book as a contribution to critical theory, one that seeks to further the political views he upholds. McCarthy has nothing positive to say about America, Europe, or any other country rooted in a modern political state. The main goal of the book is to uncover how nations—and in particular the philosophical thinkers who gave rise to the institutions these nations uphold—continue to perpetuate institutional and cultural racism through the policies they enact, the language they perpetuate, and the way they treat nations they consider to be inferior when it comes to social, political, and cultural “development.” To McCarthy, nations like America, England, and Germany spread racism, dominate less powerful countries, and exploit racial minorities as they seek to expand liberal democracy using terms like “freedom,” “enlightenment,” and “individual rights.” To McCarthy, however, this so-called attempt at liberation perpetuated by modern liberal states is nothing but a smokescreen for racism. The true goal pursued by leaders of these countries, as McCarthy sees it, is to find ways to assist upper-class white elites as they seek to control racial minorities by keeping them in lower-class positions when it comes to politics, economics, and social status.

In addition to his broad criticisms of liberal democracy, McCarthy’s primary concern is to challenge the neoconservative trends within modern political thought that he believes will only exacerbate the domination and exploitation that has occurred for centuries. When speaking of these neoconservative views, for example, McCarthy writes,

by ignoring economic and political, structural and institutional causes of human misery, neoconservative diagnoses serve as ideological covers for the relations of domination and exploitation that perpetuate it. Not only are the historical roots of existing inequalities largely ignored, but present causes not pertaining to cultural or psychological stereotypes, particular structural and institutional causes, also disappear from sight (13).

Those who reject McCarthy’s analysis suffer from false consciousness, thereby perpetuating racism instead of battling it. In his words, “false consciousness and self-righteousness have scarcely abated. This is unlikely to change, I have argued, until the American public seriously comes to terms with its own illiberal and unenlightened past” (232).

Identifying a central thesis behind McCarthy’s book is not altogether straightforward, but he does discuss his underlying assumptions and his methodology at length. He assumes readers agree with his assessment that racism not only permeates Western thinking, but in fact controls every aspect of our culture. Readers get the sense that, according to McCarthy, no issue can or should be considered without first discussing how race has shaped it. Unless readers come to the book with the sort of radical emphasis on race that McCarthy presents, the work will either not connect with them or perhaps even repulse them. McCarthy has high hopes for the book indeed, wanting to do nothing less than “decenter modes of theorizing that have underwritten Eurocentrism and white supremacy in the modern period” (14). Whether or not he has achieved this goal is for readers to determine, but I am not convinced the audience for the book will stretch beyond those who already adhere to McCarthy’s views. Even given the likely narrow audience for the book, McCarthy hopes to reorient traditions of social and political thinking by exposing racism at the institutional and cultural levels. In his words, “My guiding assumption is that the resources required to reconstruct our traditions of social and political thought can be wrested from those very traditions, provided that they are critically appropriated and opened to contestation by their historical ‘others’” (14). One of the obvious challenges to McCarthy’s claims is the fact that the United States, one of the prime culprits in his analysis, just elected Barack Obama as president. The argument for a racist electorate took a step backward in November 2008. Of course, McCarthy and other critical theorists can make the case that racism still exists in the U.S., (and I certainly agree that it does), but America is moving quickly into a post-racial period. During this time, I contend that scholars—and indeed the public in general—will become increasingly less tolerant of discussions like McCarthy’s that focus on race and almost nothing else. McCarthy acknowledges that some progress has been made since the 1960s, but he is highly reluctant to share any good news. In his words,

I have . . . contended that despite the successes of civil rights movements and decolonization struggles after World War II, new forms of racism and imperialism, which are superficially compatible with the formally recognized freedom and equality of individuals and societies, have become integral to the contemporary world order (231).

McCarthy’s point in this respect is that in no way has racism dissipated, but rather it has shifted into different forms. For example, instead of racism being rooted in biological determinism, as was the case in the 1910s and 1920s, it now finds its home in arguments, both subtle and conspicuous, about the cultural inferiority of minority races, often supported by social scientific research.

From a Christian perspective, what is perhaps most interesting about McCarthy’s book is the view of human nature that undergirds it. The book is not an attempt at Christian scholarship. The view of human nature to which McCarthy adheres is more in line with the Lockean notion of the blank slate or a Marxist view in which humans are cultural products of their interactions with the environment. Both of these views conflict with the fallen conception of human nature that is at the heart the Christian tradition. McCarthy is not, however, interested in presenting an argument that appeals to Christian scholars, or indeed scholars from any faith tradition. In his words,

The approach I have presented here does not appeal to religious faith, and so the case for the plausibility of a developmental reading had to be made on broadly naturalistic grounds, that is, in light of the comparative plausibility of competing interpretations of historical change and contemporary globalization(241).

McCarthy hopes that readers will accept his argument based on logic and his empirical interpretation of history, not on the work’s extension of a religious or moral tradition. As I see it, however, the primary attraction to McCarthy’s book will be the progressive politics he promotes. My sense is that the readers who will accept McCarthy’s argument are those who come to the book already sharing his political views. Regardless of whether readers accept McCarthy’s politics, the most interesting chapters are the first one, when he discusses the racial underpinnings of Immanuel Kant’s scholarship, and the conclusion, in which he attempts to provide a vision for the future as opposed to critique.

As far as a positive vision is concerned, what McCarthy hopes to bring about is a vague notion of “global justice” that he suggests can be brought into existence through a form of “global governance” that will foster cooperation among nations. McCarthy does not, however, provide many specifics on how this “global governance” is to be established. The details McCarthy does offer include his hope that we can halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, combat global terrorism, address pollution and other environmental problems, control the spread of infectious diseases, respond to ethnic cleansing, and regulate mass migrations caused by factors like drought and political oppression.

For scholars who prefer research that strives to be politically neutral or value-free, it is worth noting that McCarthy unabashedly promotes what he calls a “progressive politics.” In his conclusion, he tries to strike a balance between the negative tone he has used throughout the book on the one hand and his desire to remain “progressive” on the other. To address the issue, McCarthy justifies his critical tone by stating that “the historical record warrants” his melancholy attitude, but he also points out that “a politics premised solely on melancholy or disappointment—or on some other form of historical pessimism, that is, on the abandonment of hope for a significantly better future—would not be a progressive politics” (240).

McCarthy’s desire to remain “progressive” above all else makes me wonder how successful he has been at escaping the enlightenment-driven modernity that he contends has caused nothing but worldwide devastation. Is not the dichotomy between “progress” and “regress” one of the central assumptions of modernity? Are not the ideas of progressivism and developmentalism much more similar than they are different? Why does McCarthy accept the duality between progress and regress when he rejects so many others? What makes him so certain that the politics he promotes will in fact lead to “progress?”

Despite these limitations, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development will serve as interesting reading to scholars in fields like world history, political science, and philosophy. Many if not all of the arguments found in the book have been prevalent since the 1960s, but the work will appeal to those who continue to re-live the arguments born during that tumultuous decade.

Cite this article
Wesley Null, “Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 340-343

Wesley Null

Baylor University
Wesley Null, Education, Baylor University