The Institutionalization of the Criminal Mind
©Douglas S. Harvey 2012
It is interesting that Adam Smith, the oft-cited codifier of “classical economics,” whose 1776 book The Wealth of Nations continues to be mentioned with great frequency, did not advocate cold, amoral rationalism in all one’s economic affairs. Smith maintained a moral center in which concepts of justice took precedence over “enlightened self-interest.” Indeed, Smith even referred to the “beneficent” society which served as an embellishment to a “just” society. Yet, the concept of “enlightened self-interest" has become a phrase conflated with cold, calculating – even cunning – behavior. The expansion of economic empire has made this behavior an assumption in capitalist market societies like the U.S. and Britain. This assumption whispers to us that profit is our proper priority, greed is good, “self-interest” equals capital and material accumulation, and this “self-interest,” when pursued by all, creates an ideal population of virtuous individuals.
In the so-called “developed” world, this assumption seeps into our pores as we mature into adulthood. Indeed, we are led to believe that this is the only way to motivate people – without the profit incentive, no one would ever do anything. This brings to mind the mythos prevalent in western religions that without the threat of eternal damnation, people would succumb to their “base instincts” and the world would deteriorate into pagan barbarism. Indeed, as many on the political “right” would argue, profit motive is the only legitimate motivation. Some have gone to great lengths to associate capital accumulation with virtue, and with Christian virtue, at that. In this mythos, “self-realization” is measured by accumulation – money, houses, cars, clothes, jewels, etc. Wealth accumulation became the measure of virtue. As for barbarism, a cleared-eyed body count of the victims of economic expansion might cause us to redefine the concept.
This is not a process that began with the Industrial Revolution, or even Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The search for resources and markets to facilitate the continued accumulation of capital can be traced at least to the thirteenth-century Mediterranean world. There, for a brief time, connections were established between the Silk Road and the relative backwaters of northwestern Europe that spelled profit for the merchant middle-men. When the search for resources and markets expanded into the New World after Columbus, unprecedented engines of commerce and accumulation were kick-started that continue to ebb, flow, and expand to this day. Wealth once enjoyed only by “divine-right” monarchs was now realized by a growing number of individuals who, often, had not even a title before their name. The liberal economic revolution was in full swing.
It is worth asking, as many have done: where did the wealth actually come from? Who took the stuff of the earth and transformed it into something of greater value AND did they enjoy the “surplus value” they created? The answers to the first question is: well, it wasn’t the capitalists. The correct response to the second question is, no they did not. Those who hoarded the surplus value were those who were in a position to steer some of that added value their way. They were in such a position because of influence or access to existing wealth that had been accumulated through, for example, policies deracinating entire communities, redistributing land (resources) to the wealthy, enslaving thousands of people, and creating a large number of itinerant, landless laborers. This can be seen in Europe, Africa, and the Americas in the early modern period, and it can be seen in Mexico, India, Brazil, China, and elsewhere today.
Those accumulating this wealth had a deeply-rooted interest in creating the assumption that “wealth = virtue.” This accumulation of “capital,” the value added to the fruits of the earth by the work of artisans, became the standard rate of measure for “success.” This was accomplished through books instructing one in the arts of polite society, through various theater plays that depicted accumulation as virtue, and by demonizing or dismissing alternative viewpoints in the public sphere. For example, the notion of “commonwealth” – that certain aspects of the earth are owned by all as fellow creatures – was downplayed or forgotten. Holding resources in common was said to be “savage”; simply not the way civilized people behave. In the 1980s, champion of laissez-faire capitalism Margaret Thatcher announced that “there is no such thing as society.”
One may study the historical record and a pattern emerges: people must be displaced and alienated from the land so that Big Capital, (those who have accumulated the surplus value they themselves did not produce), can control the extraction and production of resources. “Peace Treaty” meetings held with native peoples in North America were conducted with a veneer of sincerity, but behind the scenes there was a calculation that the indigenous peoples would ultimately be alienated from their land. One basic way that this can be illustrated is by observing that these “treaties,” which invariably meant more land for whites, less land for Indians, had to be ratified by the colonial authorities be they British or Anglo-American. Indigenous people, while they often held treaty ratification votes of their own back home, considered all that was said at the treaty meeting to BE the treaty. For the colonial interests, it was only the markings on the paper that constituted the treaty, regardless of what had been said. Since the indigenous peoples often could not read English and were in any case an oral culture, this paper was secondary to the words spoken at the meeting. Here is what an English official told Tanighrisson, the Seneca leader who met with them at Logstown, Pennsylvania colony in 1752 to discuss their presence in the Ohio Valley:
Brethren, be assur’d that the King [George II], our Father, by purchasing your Lands, had never any Intention of taking them from you, but that we might live together as one People . . .
The deceit plainly visible in hindsight is the rule, not the exception. From the Canary Islanders of the fifteenth century to the Taino peoples of the sixteenth, the Lakotas of the nineteenth, and the farming folk of Mexico, India, China and beyond in the twentieth, the deracination of people from their land by hook, crook, bullet, and bomb has been a feature of this economic empire. Native “leaders” willing to sign-off on this resource usurpation are bought off, created or, failing those methods, native resistance to economic empire is crushed by a publicly-funded military.
The same pattern continues through to Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and other regions where there are resources and markets coveted by Big Capital. The death of innocents who just happen to be in the coveted region can be numbered in the millions. Yet, those who champion this behavior, from the Donald Trumps to the Dick Cheneys to the Koch Brothers are put forward as exemplars of virtue – “hard workers” who have been “successful.” In most cases, their “success” is built on deceit and cunning. They have institutionalized the criminal mind.
There was a brief time – about two generations' worth of time – labor unions mitigated the leak of surplus value flowing into the coffers of the rich. This is the American "middle" class of the mid-twentieth century – probably the largest affluent working class in the modern period. (Note: the "middle" class works, hence they are "working" class. It doesn't really matter what color your collar is. If you want to know what "class" you're in, stop making your house payments or paying your rent; this will clarify the issue for you.) Yet, we are told that the rich are the "job creators" and that they need regulators and government in general "off their backs." Here's a secret they either don't know themselves or they certainly don't want the rest of us to know: they don't create the jobs. People with ideas, people with skills, and a large, well-paid working class with money to spend create jobs. Ultimately, the capital accumulators are superfluous - if they don't know it they may suspect it – hence the burning need to control the discourse and equate wealth with virtue.
The cultural echo chamber that measures success in private wealth accumulation needs to be called out in its deceit again and again and again until the values and mores of the mainstream begin to be called into question not daily but hourly. A value system that champions values of health – for humans AND their environment – a good quality of life for ALL, and allowing food producers, artisans, craftsmen, and laborers to enjoy the fruits of the wealth they produce needs to replace the institutionalized criminal mind of deceit and cunning. Truly “enlightened” self-interest includes the welfare of our home and all who are in it. This home is Planet Earth.