by Jag Bhalla
Jag Bhalla blogs at Evonomics, where this essay was first published.
What role should greed play in how we run the world? Should it rule us and shape all that we do?
I’d argue that we live under “greedocracy” disguised as a form of liberalism. Gussied-up as the only rational way, greed has become the guilt-free guiding star of global elites. But the grand narrative usually used to justify this world-shaping greed-is-good creed vigorously ignores salient history, and disingenuously suppresses data on greed’s present-day harms. This essay will walk you through why the “liberal world order’s” free markets are not really remotely in the business of maximizing flourishing—to rightly judge their track record requires reckoning with the greedocracy’s glossed-over genocides and hushed-up holocausts.
Consider how “rational optimist” Steven Pinker paints the history of trade in his billionaire-beloved good-news-bearing bible, The Better Angels of Our Nature (its “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read” gushed Bill Gates, the prominent predatory philanthropist). In it Pinker preaches thinking “like an economist” using “the theory of gentle commerce from classical liberalism,” under which trade becomes “more appealing than… war.” Rationally-enlightened leaders reasoned that your “trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead.”
Compare that glorified life-affirming tradeoff to the views of a frontline practitioner of that so-called gentle commerce: “There can be no trade without war,” declared Jan Pieterzoon Coen of the Dutch East India Company. That’s a quote from Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse (an eloquently alarming book about gigantic ideological gaps in climate crisis discourse). Unlike Pinker’s, Coen’s words weren’t abstract theorizing, and he concretely came to the opposite conclusion on the value of trading “partner” lives. He ordered a monopoly-securing massacre of the Banda Islanders. This involved 50 vessels, and 2,000 men (including 80 Japanese ronin, masterless samurai mercenaries) who displaced, “killed, captured, or enslaved” 90% of the 15,000 indigenous “trading partners.” This “almost total annihilation of the population of the Banda Islands [was] clearly a genocidal act” (concluded a 2012 paper in the Journal of Genocide Studies). The cursed spice of Ghosh’s title was so valuable that a handful of nutmegs “could buy a house or ship.” which sadly meant Coen’s gentle-commerce genocide made greedy profits even at the cost of 5,000 slaves per year (“labor” didn’t last long under gentle-commerce conditions).
Pinker isn’t wrong in reporting Enlightenment views. Economist Albert Hirschman, in The Passions and the Interests, an influential book on the long process of alchemizing the once-deadly vice of avarice into plainly-rational “self-interest” during the rise of early capitalism, confirms there was “much talk… about the douceur of commerce.” Douceur translates to “sweetness, softness, calm, and gentleness… the antonym of violence.” Hirschman and Pinker cite a long list of Enlightenment luminaries, for instance, Kant in 1795 wrote that “The spirit of commerce… can not exist side-by-side with war.” Pinker concurs, “commercial powers… tended to favor trade over conquest.”
But this majestic myth-making of modernity—the Enlightenment as a triumph of rationality and humanism—must not be allowed to mask that the Age of Reason ran parallel to and often justified the vast violent plunder of imperial economics (now often euphemistically called “free trade”). One reason this hushed-up history matters is that even today economic “rationality” and plunder often remain partners in crime. For all of Pinker’s elegant-stats-wielding elite-soothing sermons that “in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy,” there was little empathy, empirically evident, for the likes of the Banda Islanders. Or for many millions more lives ended or blighted by “gentle commerce” and “free trade,” which as we’ll see could materialize at your border in the form of a genocidal corporate army bent on “premium-empathy”-ing your way of life into your own blood-soaked dust.
Consider what classical-liberalism’s gentle-commerce blessings brought to the basic business of staving off starvation. As presented in Pinker’s brand of rigorous rationality, which seems to require boiling history’s byzantine complexities down to whatever sort of weak grasp can be gained by glancing at “the numbers.” Dispositive data should preferably be plotted on a now rhetorically powerful sexy chart or failing that, one should squeeze hyper-complex histories into spreadsheet-like tables with columns for nifty swift numerical comparisons. For instance, the Deadliest Disasters of All Time table on page 195 of Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature.
This lethal league table of tribulations has just two entries explicitly called “Famines.” At number two “Mao Zedong (mostly government-caused famine)” with 40,000,000 deaths, and at number 12 “British India (mostly preventable famine)” at 17,000,000 deaths. Pinker also provides figures adjusted for relative population growth, which makes the adjusted British-in-India famine number 35,000,000. That’s deadlier than World War I (15,000,000) and many-times more murderous than the Nazi holocaust (6,000,000). Pinker blames Mao’s “harebrained schemes” which he feels illustrate how “utopian leadership selects for monumental narcissism and ruthlessness.” But nowhere does Pinker note that, as I’ll show, those Brits-in-India famines were policy-driven and explicitly justified by liberal free market doctrine. These “enlightened” imperial policies were implemented by impeccably elegant elites selected for at least industrial-scale ruthlessness, if not also monumental statue-seeking narcissism. Surely such colossal crimes should weigh against “gentle commerce” in history’s moral scale?
Plus ‘Pinkering’ (rationally optimistic number-narrowed thinking) too easily hides how imperial “free market” policies contributed to the series of revolutions that culminated in Mao, triggered by those paragon gentle-commerce programs known as the Opium Wars (1839-1860). Britain’s noble narco-capitalist armed forces wrecked China’s multi-millenia old social fabric, which centrally featured famine prevention infrastructure. This vast opulence-enabling opium operation was run by the most successful narcotics gang in history (these Brit nobles were O.G. drug kingpins). These sorts of intricately entangled causal interconnections are easily lost in neatly labeled “numbers” (under a risible ruse of rigor).
Historian Mike Davis reports Brit-ruled Indian famine deaths at 12 to 29 million, in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. He explicitly blames the “imposition of free-trade,” noting that these millions were killed “in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism.” The first public reports in February 1878 by journalist Robert Knight declared British officials were guilty of “multitudenous murder.”
Applying Pinker’s scaling factor To Davis’s figures, we get the equivalent to 24 to 58 million 20th-century-scaled deaths (four to ten times the size of the Nazi holocaust). During all this the decorously dining Downton-Abbey set exported grain to world markets as millions starved. Market “efficiency,” then as now, means allocating resources to whomever pays most. But fear not, noble Brits acted quickly to protect what mattered most to them–their beloved free market. They imposed the “Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877, outlawing private relief that might interfere with the “market-fixing of grain prices.” The only aid permitted was at horrifyingly harsh hard labor camps, such as in Madras, which offered fewer daily calories than Buchenwald. As Davis writes, while “Asia was starving the United States was harvesting the greatest wheat crop in world history… and in California’s Central valley worthless surplus wheat was burned”—malicious market morality in action. To understand the frame of mind of this enchanted circle of imperial overlords, consider that in 1874, those exemplary classical liberals at The Economist wrote that it was unwise to encourage “indolent Indians” to believe that “it is the duty of the Government to keep them alive.” Lord Salisbury, secretary of state for India, felt it was a mistake to spend “money to save a lot of black fellows.”
Many Brits weren’t nearly as callous as the glamorous imperial ghouls of their governing elite. As Shashi Tharoor notes in his book Inglorious Empire, a piece in The Times of London lamented that “the Viceroy had interposed to repress the impulses of charity.” And relief fund of “£820,000 was raised from millions of small contributions by individuals, schools, churches, and regiments throughout the British world.” Viceroy Lord Lytton, whose main qualification for governing India was that he was Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, called the fund a “complete nuisance.” Tharoor concludes that “the facts of British culpability even at the height of their ‘civilizing mission’… are overwhelming” but often still glossed over.
Why, one wonders, aren’t these famines rightly called Imperial Holocausts? British Holocausts? Free Market Holocausts? Liberal Holocausts? Corporate Holocausts? Capitalist Holocausts?
Readers repelled by linking that term to much-lauded much-laundered liberalism, should recall that ‘holocaust’ means any mass destruction. It derives from the Greek for a wholly burnt sacrificial offering (hence many Jews use the term Shoah–catastrophe–which lacks godly links).
In his history of the global food system, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, Mark Bittman notes that free-market loving classical liberals lorded it over a 3,000% increase in the Indian famine rate—from less than one famine per century to one every three years. Explicitly invoking the name of rational free market efficiency, Brits violently disrupted ancient practices of storing local food reserves which had for centuries enabled Indian elites to discharge duties to feed their poor in times of famine. And ruthlessly increased British taxation had eviscerated the peasantries purchasing power (Tharoor calls this “the culmination of two centuries of colonial cruelty”).
Of course, these stupendous century-spanning imperial sins had contemporary critics. For instance, Thomas Paine of American revolution-launching pamphlet fame, wrote that “the naked and untutored Indian, is less Savage than…King of Britain.” His incendiary ink-fire inflamed the colonial settlers against the “crowned ruffians” of royalty that ruthlessly ruled such that “every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression.” Paine skewered the supposed divine right of kings, by calling William the Conqueror “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti… [to] establish himself king against the consent of the natives.” Lets skip the ire-raising ironies of Paine promoting a genocidal invasion without securing the consent of American natives, to focus on his divine debunking of royal rights: he concludes that William the Conqueror was “in plain terms a very paltry rascally original—[whose claim to kingship] certainly hath no divinity in it.”
Paine was disgusted by the “horrid cruelties exercised by Britain in the East Indies–How thousands perished by artificial famine.” His moral reflex here is laudable, but his numbers are a thousand times too small, and he got the guilty party slightly wrong: as Horace Walpole, son of a British Prime Minister wrote “We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped—nay, what think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three millions perished, being caused by a monopoly of the provisions by the servants of the East India Company”). Don’t forget Boston’s totemic tea-tossing was of East India Company shipments. Sadly, Paine’s deep political desire that such decorous dastardliness should “never, never be forgotten” has failed to hold up. Did your schools teach this history? That the private army of a corporation (twice the size of the king’s) killed millions to enforce “free trade” and “gentle commerce”?
Readers tempted to shake their heads at all this monumental moral ignorance and nakedly nasty nonchalance, while feeling assured that our Pinker-reading elite would never allow anything like any of the above to happen today should consider the global Covid immunization situation. Our greed-is-rational elite are again putting profits above saving lives by not lifting vaccine patent restrictions (Pinker’s pal Gates has played a leading far from philanthropic role in this). Millions of avoidable mostly-distant-dark-skinned deaths are again being offered for sacrifice on the altar of the almighty liberal god of greed. This horrific fiasco has been dubbed “vaccine apartheid” by many Global South advocates, including World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, because of how deeply under-protected non-white poor nations remain.
To be fair, we should note that those jolly jodhpur-clad classy Brits weren’t quite being racist in today’s sense. They were equally elegantly evil on an industrially deadly scale to their Irish neighbors. Davis writes “India like Ireland before it had become a Utilitarian laboratory where millions of lives were wagered against dogmatic faith in omnipotent markets.” Regarding the Irish famine, that cherished champion of classical liberalism John Stuart Mill wrote that “The Irish are indolent, unenterprising,” he feared “it may require a hundred thousand armed men to make the Irish people submit to the common destiny of working in order to live” (a position lately lampooned as: Let them eat liberty). Don’t forget Mill was for decades employed by the looting-Lords of the East India Company before entering Parliament as a Liberal. In case you haven’t kept track of the Irish Famine details, a million perished, two million fled, and Ireland’s population took 170 years to recover (achieved pre-famine levels only in 2021).
And, lest we forget, European elites also starved their own poor in the internal colonization process of enclosing the commons. Public lands used for collective benefit (enabling a “Golden Age” for European peasants) were privatized. This was part of the vast organized political effort to create and naturalize economic liberalism and emerging capitalism. As economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi writes in The Great Transformation “the people of the countryside were pauperized” in “a revolution of the rich against the poor.” From 1500 to 1700 real wages fell 70%, starvation became common, and life expectancy fell from 43 to the low 30s (hitting 25 in the urban squalor of Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills,” he didn’t but could just as well have meant John Stuart). Polanyi provides extensive evidence that “there is nothing natural about laissez-faire free markets.”
Here we must re-examine a view dear to many Pinker-parroting pious liberals and greedocrats alike, who feel certain that their own unbridled greed is just inalienably at the very heart of human nature. Polanyi debunks this as an anthropologically and historically ignorant self-serving projection. Many cultures have been studied that are not organized around unbridled individual greed (and there is no evidence of any of them having extraterrestrial origins). In sharp contrast to Enlightened European liberalism, Polanyi says ”as a rule, the individual in primitive society is not threatened with starvation unless the community as a whole is.” He cites three examples, South Africa’s Kaffirs (for whom “destitution is impossible: whosoever needs assistance receives it unquestioningly”), Canada’s Kwakitul tribe (“No Kwakitul ever ran the slightest risk of going hungry”) and pre Brit-blighted India. “Under almost every and any type of social organization up to about the beginning of 16th century Europe” a principle for freedom from starvation prevailed. Sadly the logic of “smashing up social structures in order to extract labor” under threat of starvation became standard “civilized” liberal market practice (as violently imposed in Ireland and India and many places beyond).
Importantly, Polanyi notes that this destruction of the material fabric of a peasantry’s way of life, to force them into capitalist labor, was first done to “white populations by white men” before being exported globally to the benighted barbarians of distant dusky-maiden-laden lootable lands. The idea that letting the poor starve is just human nature took vast industrial-scale evil-evangelizing efforts to make the “creed of liberalism” feel like it was human nature itself. As Paine noted in his other smash-hit, The Rights of Man: “a great portion of mankind, in what are called civilized countries, are in a state of poverty and wretchedness, far below the condition of an Indian.” Classical liberal market-oriented “civilization” historically went hand-in-hand with making mass starvation amid plenty seem morally acceptable or like an unavoidable necessity. 1830s Britain saw “an almost miraculous increase in production accompanied by a near starvation of the masses.” Polayni calls Britain’s 1834 Poor Law Reform a “scientific cruelty” under which the prior “right to live was abolished” for the sake of the labor market. The threat of starvation was a “psychological torture coolly advocated and smoothly put into practice… as a means of oiling the wheels of the labor mills.”
Here, the concept of “conscience management” can illuminate. That’s just one of many important ideas in historian Priya Satia’s 2020 book Time’s Monster (on the role of historians in building the “ethical scripts” and elite-soothing grand narratives that enabled empire’s evil). Conscience management explains how “for the most part, empire was not the work of villains, but of people who believed they acted conscientiously.” Some (especially elites) were in it for “loot and adventure” but millions “sincerely believed they were in the business of spreading liberty.” Under that exquisitely engineered oxymoron ‘liberal imperialism’ the vast violence of colonialism was justified to bring the blessings of civilization to the savage races—they’ll thank us later. She rightly rejects today’s moral-balance-sheet-minded defenders of British occupation benefits as akin to saying “Hitler was horrible to Jews but, on the other hand, he built the autobahn.”
Speaking of Hitler, many post WWII intellectuals and artists, of many stripes, have cast the Nazi holocaust as a “chasm in history,” as exemplified by Adorno’s declaration that “to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric.” But this serene studious sophistication sails on an ocean of ill-informed ink, premised on ignoring the prior gentlemanly genocides noted above. To cast Nazi atrocities as history-remaking exceptions requires an act of mindbogglingly-monumental collective amnesia, of industriously suppressing the centuries-long carnage of liberal imperialism. Not to mention the role of liberal civilization’s own artists and intellectuals in creating the “ethical scripts” of empire. As Ghosh points out, Alfred Lord Tennyson, his era’s leading lyric poet, in 1849 wrote that nature’s “red in tooth and claw” battles would ensure the victory of a “crowning race” of European conquerors. That was a decade before Darwin’s The Descent of Man declared that “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate… the savage races.” Darwin was a liberal and abolitionist, but these sorts of race-ranking, death-to-the-lesser-losers ideas were in Ghosh’s view “mere common sense [for] a great number of liberal progressive Westerners.” Such license to kill en-mass for profit goes back to another rational Enlightenment hero, Francis Bacon, who in An Advertisement Touching on Holy War, concludes it is both lawful and godly “for any nation that is policed and civil [to].. cut from the face of the Earth” those who are not.
The point here isn’t to judgmentally impose our moral norms retrospectively, rather it is to consider the magnificent ambient amnesia necessary for the educated today to feel that Nazi atrocities were unthinkable exceptions for civilized art-loving European elites, rather than a centuries-long pattern that was coming home to roost. A pattern long celebrated in “civilized” literature and the arts, for instance Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 hymn to empire, exhorting imperialists to “send forth the best ye breed” to take up the “White Man’s burden” and “serve your captive’s need.” Captives lyrically painted as “your new-caught sullen people, half devil, half child.” He was awarded one of his “civilization’s” highest honors, the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1907 for the “virility” of such ideas. And don’t forget that shortly before the allied intelligentsia exerted itself to express an inability to grasp Hitler’s “history-rupturing” horrors, that lion of liberalism, Winston Churchill in 1943 enacted policies that starved another 3 million Indians.
All this matters because as Satia rightly fears, “the historical sensibility that enabled imperialism is still intact.” I’d add that that sensibility’s most dangerous disguise now goes under cover of the grand narrative of neoliberal globalization’s free-market growth supposedly lifting the poor out of poverty. This is Pinker-approved, let-the-market-decide, free market economic doctrine—whereby elite greed is alchemized into awesomely being what’s best for everyone, and especially the poor. Meanwhile, in reality, this form of greed-excusing economics systematically underweights the preferences, rights, and even lives of the planet’s poor.
Consider what lurks in savvy-sounding jargon like economic rationality and “efficiency.” As a leaked memo signed by the sadly-still-influential former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers revealed: “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable.” Since “measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings … a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.”
This sort of “rational” economics is riddled with systematic anti-poor biases. A view seconded by the spiciest Federal Reserve footnote ever, in 2021 long-time Fed economist Jeremy Rudd wrote of his “deeper concern that the primary role of mainstream economics… is to provide an apologetics for a criminally oppressive, unsustainable, and unjust social order.” He noted that did “not necessarily reflect the views of the Board of Governors or the staff of the Federal Reserve System.”
Scandalously few economists actually address poverty in their work (research from the International Monetary Fund found only 1.4% of papers in the top 10 economics journals focused on poverty). Unless this kind of impeccable economic rationality and “efficiency” is explicitly countered, it structurally adds to the burdens of the poor—Summers-style standard economic ‘logic’ sees the loss of earnings of one American as equivalent to the lost earnings of 265 Barundians (using the ratio of national gross domestic product per capita as a proxy for typical earnings in each economy). However rational and “efficient” that looks in your Pinker-approved think-like-an-economist [liberal-loot-orama] calculus, it is clearly contrary to basic morality and to any semblance of resource justice.
The most seductive and super-poisonous flavor of this greed-washing is preached under liberal-beloved “win-win” rubric whereby elite-fattening market-greed is sold as lifting millions out of poverty. As Phillipe Alston, ex- UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty has written, this rhetoric has really been used to redefine “the public good as helping the rich get richer.” Far from being one of the “greatest human achievements” this “win win” narrative has been a “convenient alibi” for guilt-free greed.
Why exactly should every gain for the poor require gains for the rich? I find it appalling that many greedy growth fans feel they are simply deferring to the objective facts while their data-driven Pinkering gospels hide how markets actually allocate the vast bulk of the global economy’s gains and resources to precisely the opposite of poverty-alleviation. Only 5% of global GDP growth gets to the poorest 60% of people (95% adds to the comforts of the unpoor, and even within that it’s heavily top-skewed to the Top 1-10%). Do those numbers pass a basic ethical sniff test? Should we celebrate a trickle-down pace so slow that it means 8 generations of sweatshop toil till your descendants rise above a disgustingly low poverty line? While for each of those generations the bulk of the planet’s resources are win-win-ed away into rich wallets?
By the way many misunderstand what that disgustingly low official poverty line means. It is a P.P.P $1.90 a day, which means it is adjusted for purchasing power parity. So as best as can be estimated, like living on ~$700 a year in the U.S. now—one nineteenth the official U.S. poverty line. And surely countless sins lurk in data built on the idea that making 10 cents more, for a total of $2 per day ($730 per year) warrants being classified as having “escaped” extreme poverty.
The data-driven discourse here is dominated by a diabolically bad framing of the main moral issue. Contrary to the Pinker-preached plutocrat-pampering perspective, the key question isn’t “Are things better now than before,” but rather “Is this the best we can do?” Indeed, are we even making a minimally decent effort to minimize suffering? As economic anthropologist Jason Hickel has pointed out, viewed from that angle, global poverty has never been worse. The world is richer now than ever, but we still don’t prioritize use of enough resources to end poverty. Only a small fraction of the world’s wealth would be needed to end “extreme poverty” (Hickel calculates 3.9% of global GDP, and Max Rosner of Our World in Data, in 2013 figure estimated $160 billion from a $70 trillion pie, or under 3%). Yet we let global markets “decide” to spend more each year on ice cream and face cream than that ($90 & $100 billion). How can it make ethical sense that markets “decide” to use 80% of arable land to fatten cattle while 150,000,000 kids are stunted by malnutrition and 1,900,000,000 humans (25% of everyone alive today) are more food insecure than rich-nation pets? The deep data-dazzled dumbness here is due to how GDP mixes luxuries and survival basics in the same monetary bucket, then “rationally” and “efficiently” sends resources to whoever pays most, thereby “objectively” prioritizing the whims of the wealthy. Whatever your political or moral leanings, if they don’t help you condemn and counter this, they may need an upgrade. They are in no coherent sense humane or enlightened.
The Pinker-preached faith that markets are in the business of maximizing flourishing often operates as fancy conscience management camouflage. As currently practiced, markets don’t distribute flourishing (or much of anything else) in an ethically sound way. Surely, the right thing to do is to always prevent avoidable suffering, before further enhancing rich lifestyles. By what logic can we square squandering resources on rich toys when so many obvious gains in basic suffering reduction are within relatively easy reach? While this isn’t quite as simple as redirecting financial resources from ice cream and face cream to poverty alleviation, it’s also not that much more difficult. Why are toys and trinkets for the world’s wealthy more important than food to prevent those 150,000,000 kids from being stunted? Surely much less flourishing arises from the incremental last 1% of billionaire bauble buying than would for example by educating the world’s hundreds of millions of kids who aren’t presently schooled. A 1% wealth tax on the $13 trillion of the world’s 3,000 billionaires (meaning they might have to make do with a smaller second superyacht) versus the vastly improved flourishing of 250,000,000 kids. Why is that a hard trade off if you really are interested in maximizing flourishing? By ignoring such noxious nightmares of distributional sins, neoliberalism operates like a nerdier form of imperialism (with extra-advanced emperor’s new-clothes tailoring courtesy of Pinkering pundits, in our era’s version of Kipling’s conscientious conquerors—“The Bright Man’s Burden”—cognitive supremacy (assessed by flimsy tests like SAT scores) grants divine rights to hugely disproportionate share of global resources, and control of how horribly slowly the not-so-bright looser-layers can gain.
To present a key puzzle pictorially, for the benefit of the the Pinker-reading data-driven rational optimist do-gooders: if globalization is really all about lifting billions out of poverty, why has the gap between the rich and poor nations basically never not been growing? In the deluge of dazzling data visualizations daily paraded, like that on the left below, why hasn’t the data plotted on the right gotten any attention? The chart shows GDP per capita, with the upper line for rich nations accelerating away from the lower line for poor nations. It is almost as if there was a plot against sharing the world’s resources more equitably.
If you are sincere in your concern for the world’s poor and haven’t encountered these facts before, you might consider finding alternative sources of information. Your education and media has failed you. It is not hard to refute the rational-optimist plutocrat-pampering narrative (but that has been too much effort for far too many journalists and pundits who prefer to sell you self-flattering soothing conscience-management fairy tales).
In the Global South phrases like the “liberal world order” and “free trade” evoke these evident evils. Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien discovered that people in ex-colonies were often “sickened” by the word liberalism, as Pankaj Mishra notes in a London Review of Books essay On Liberalism and Colonialism. They saw it as an “ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs.” Mishra notes that such contradictions “haunted the rhetoric of liberalism from the beginning.” He quotes the Samuel Johnson quip, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the negroes?”
Two-hearted two-faced tensions have lurked in the term “liberal” from its beginnings. As historian Alexander Zevin excavates in his book Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist, thinkers like John Locke didn’t called themselves liberals. The first people to do so were Spanish activists focused on civil liberties in the aftermath of Napoleonic havoc. Later a uniquely British stream was added which centering economic liberties (typically deemed more important than minor details like democracy). That’s the laissez faire, “free market,” and “free trade” finance-focused ideology that The Economist magazine was founded in 1843 explicitly to promote, as it still does today (for a fast summary check out Zevin on a podcast called The Refined Sociopathy of The Economist). That British greed-driven component (aka greedocracy) has been central to both classical and neo-liberalism. But so far from universal are the norms of classical liberals that Mishra reports, Japanese and Chinese translators of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill had difficulty finding words for phrases like ‘legitimate self-interest’ that avoided the taint of morally reprehensible selfishness and dereliction of duty. Even the most liberal forms of Indian thought were “impregnated with the ideas of sharing, generosity, and compassion… dramatized by tropes from the Indian classics” as Christopher Bayly wrote in Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire. The late nineteenth century Bengali thinker Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw liberalism as a ‘system of duties’ in which “ethical conduct, not rational self-interest, came first.”
Contrast that with Hannah Arendt’s assessment in The Origins of Totalitarianism: the European imperative to ‘imperialize’ meant ‘to organize the nation for the looting of foreign territories and the permanent degradation of alien peoples” (extremely enlightening on lack on liberal enlightenment). As grand mufti Muhammad Abduh declared, “we Egyptians believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plain is only for yourselves and your sympathy is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs to eat.”
Western psychologists have finally cottoned onto the gross anthropological and empirical errors of presuming that experiments on undergrads on an Anglosphere college campus can shed light on human nature. They’ve coined the acronym W.E.I.R.D. for western, European, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Any economics or politics that casts gentle-commerce greed as just human nature is making a historically and anthropologically ignorant W.E.I.R.D.o sampling error (as Polanyi previously noted).
However glorious the glowing rhetoric of gentle-commerce growth gets, it is best understood as designed to protect and fatten the privileged. As American diplomat George Kennan put it in 1948, we have “50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population… Our task… is to maintain this position of disparity.” Today the proportions differ and the ideology now engorges a grotesquely self-satisfied global elite, but neoliberalism enacts the continuation of Kennan’s greed-uber-alles priority. Beware what’s behind the decorous designs of the two-hearted and two-faced beast of liberalism.
Let’s help free market fans and rational optimists avoid (even unwittingly) behaving as badly as those elegant imperial moral monsters of (classical or neo)liberalism. Especially those avuncular avatars of avarice who have usurped the term “rational” to mean something utterly self-serving—their almighty and savage market god of greed isn’t alleviating poverty at anything like a morally acceptable pace. Until the justice-hampering biases baked into free markets are countered by more equitable and just values, economics must not be our main guide on major moral issues (like global poverty, or the climate crisis).
We must be ever vigilant against our own time’s monsters, like those elegant conscience-clearing doctrines that equate all progress with greedocrats graciously gobbling up more of the globe’s resources (strictly for the sake of the poor, of course). If you wish to see the good parts of liberalism’s gifts rescued, you’d better grasp and make amends for its ghastly track record. And best to pay much less heed to those accomplished plutocrat-pampering pundits that our corporate-courtier press loves to parade.
Having been enlightened by all this, what role should greed play in how we run the world?