Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were values essential to the European Age of Enlightenment characterized by reason, knowledge, and freedom. The birth of the American Republic coincided with the apotheosis of these values and freedom and democracy became the basis for the new country. Adam Smith’s free trade ideas opened the modern economic world, which combined with the new ethical values, became the secular guidelines for our current dominant culture. At the time of the Enlightenment, Britain was positioning itself for its role as the ruling empire, a role that was relayed to the United States after WWII. Both empires based their claim to moral superiority on their belief in freedom and free trade. The current world order is ruled by these claims so it is useful to put these values into context historically and at present.
While these beautiful liberal values were being proclaimed in Europe and America in the 1Tth and 18th century, it seems confusing to notice that this epoch also coincided with the displacement of indigenous people by European settlers in the American West, the consolidation of slavery as a business, and widespread colonization of most of Africa and Asia. An extraterrestrial arriving on Earth could have wondered how a species could boast about freedom and equality as their values, while practicing the complete opposite, without anybody noticing that the Emperor of Values had no clothes. Not only did most people didn’t notice the dichotomy at the time, but the belief in these empty values has continued for centuries to come.
The word freedom is the key to this dichotomy since the freedom of the Enlightenment had qualifiers of which we are mostly unaware of at present. Freedom wasn’t just a right for all people; its meaning had connotations that implied a division of the people of the world into hierarchies. The ideas about the origins of man in a state of nature prevalent at the time led to a characterization of non-European people as devoid of morals and social organization.
The discovery of the Americas and the encounter of people in Africa and Asia with different cultures and no idea of monotheism was a continuous shock for Europeans, who couldn’t understand how God could have left so many people out of his embrace. Most European thinking concluded that these inferior cultures were in states closer to nature and the evidence to prove it was their foreign Gods and their fluid or non-existent concepts about property. As a consequence, freedom made sense only for civilizations far from the state of nature, like the European one.
For the British, partaking of civilization meant understanding the sanctity of property, which for them, was the basis of freedom. This is why when John Locke wrote the Constitution of the Carolinas, he proclaimed the right to life, liberty, and property.
John Stuart Mills defined the idea of liberty within a division of the world into people who were fit for freedom and those who weren’t. In this European invented game of freedom privilege, the obvious winners were the ones who had come up with this definition, while the losers were the rest. As a result, people were fit for freedom if they had the history of Europe and arrived at the same conclusions as the Enlightenment had, but if your culture had followed a different path, you were automatically unfit for freedom.
This definition of freedom was very convenient for the colonization of the world, the promotion of the business of slavery and the mistreatment of the American Indians, all while maintaining the West’s high liberal values. John Locke was instrumental for enhancing the idea of freedom as the right of the European settler, who endowed with the aura of reason and knowledge, had the right to take over the land of indigenous people. He rationalized the expropriation of indigenous land by defining property on the basis of the productivity the owner was willing to extract from it. For Locke, European civilization’s role was to fight the natural world, which was lacking the strong values of property and extensive use of land as was done in Europe.
Indigenous resistance to European settlers was seen as a primitive warring defect in people lacking reason and knowledge. The possibility of the existence of civilizations with different cultures and relationships with nature never entered Locke’s mind. He set the precedent for cataloging the righteous resistance to the abuse of the powerful as a characteristic of primitive, aggressive and uncivilized people, ‘evidently’ unfit for freedom and deserving of punishment and mistreatment. Our current culture still equates cultures that respect nature with primitive values and barbarism, making evident how the values of the Enlightenment have influenced us until now.
Locke and Mill’s ideas were complemented by Hegel’s view of history as an evolutionary process in which civilizations could be classified according to his standards. According to Hegel, the Europeans, especially the Germanic Protestants were at the top of the pyramid, Catholic Europe was a notch below, Muslim countries followed down lower, while the Chinese and Asians were near the bottom. Africa was not even in the pyramid, though their existence was at least acknowledged. American Indians didn’t even have that; they were considered a forgettable blip in the events of the world.
It is obvious that Hegel’s historic pyramid placement corresponds to the amount of information that Europeans had about those foreign lands at the time. This European claim to absolute knowledge, while being quite ignorant about other cultures, was very convenient for the conquest of the world by the rightful claimants of history, freedom, and property.
Once we understand the true meaning of freedom, we can link it to another invention of the time, free trade. Adam Smith, the father of free trade, was also imbued with the freedom ideas circulating during the Enlightenment; he argued that if you leave people free to follow their own self-interests, the result will be prosperity for all members of society.
Smith believed that a government should limit itself to guaranteeing individual liberty and property rights so that the self-interest behavior of the market participants would result in the improvement of the human condition. He supposed a very rational market behavior in which the actors would acknowledge the superior skill of a tradesman and allow it to flourish, expecting the same in return for their own skill. In this way, society would benefit from the best skills in the market and the economic system would prosper.
His argument for free trade sounds quite idealistic and reasonable, but once you apply it in the context of the definitions of freedom, history, and property at the time, the idealistic qualities of its application in real life disappear. A civilization that insists on dividing the world in hierarchies of worth could not practice rational free trade by allowing true competition among countries.
If your historical capital accumulation had allowed you to invest in ships and guns, you could bypass market competition by forcing the submission of people to the rules that would benefit your own prosperity. It was evident that the free trade system was only meant for the few people who were deemed fit for liberty, and could, therefore, influence the system to their advantage. The blissful choice of ignoring the elephant in the room of worldwide colonialism, displacement of indigenous people and slavery in the free trade dialectic makes it difficult to believe that the application of Smith’s ideas on free trade was ever very rigorous.
Smith’s idea of allowing people freedom to follow their own self-interest in both internal and international trade was completely negated by the practices of the British Empire in its colonies. One good example is the British East India Company that started in 1600 with responsibilities of administration of factory production, collection of taxes and land revenues, operation of the military command and maritime trade between Britain, India, and China. These self-proclaimed duties and rights of the British in a foreign land with a millenarian culture are enough evidence of the convenience of European views on freedom, history and property and the subsequent practice of free trade at the time. Their belief in the lower status of Indian culture, non-fit for freedom, allowed them to keep their high moral ground while abusing their power.
The area ruled by the Mughals in India illustrates well the true practice of free trade. The Mughals had united most of India under their rule since 1526 and their system required their peasants to pay a tribute of 10–15% of their cash harvest. This allowed for a just division of labor and benefits that would ensure the survival of the peasants. In 1765, the East India Company signed the Treaty of Allahabad in which the British took over the role of receiving the tributes from the peasants. The British had no qualms about raising the tributes to 50% of the peasant’s cash harvest, which proved catastrophic for the people.
The Mughal system had allowed for the peasants enough latitude to save good years crops to compensate for years of drought or other natural disasters. The 50 percent tribute demanded by the British left the peasants with little crops to save, which lead to several famines, the first in 1770, followed by several every few years until 1944. Going back to Adam Smith and free trade, the British imposition of arbitrary taxes that only benefited one side of the economy, the British, could not be described as a beneficial exercise of individual freedom that would bring prosperity to all.
The East India Company morphed into the Raj in 1858 which gave the British crown more control over India. The Raj entrenched the same one-sided tactics by operating a subtle transfer of wealth from the rich parts of India to the British. Until the 18th century, India had been the most important world manufacturer of cotton goods with impressive productivity, using sophisticated looms and high creativity in design and dyeing. The arrival of these materials to Britain created a high demand for them, but soon the British noticed that free trade was leaving them out of the profit loop. Since they had control over the cotton fabric producing areas of India, they were able to destroy the manufacturing capacity of India and transferred it to Scotland.
According to Adam Smith, a market works best when the people who are highly skilled at a trade, like the Indians, are allowed to exercise their skill for profit. The British should have chosen a skill that they were good at, and in this way, the whole international system could have benefited. Instead, the British, imbued with ideas of their superiority in reasoning and civilization took the business away from those who had dedicated effort for centuries to its development and excelled at the trade, to give it to people who had little experience. The result was the deindustrialization of India accompanied by the industrialization of Britain.
Another instance in the freedom and free trade conundrum is slavery. Lock believed in equality, but when it came to freedom, his views on slavery were tainted by his personal profit interests in the Royal African Company, whose profits were based on slavery. This conflict led him to conveniently prioritize the freedom of the master’s right to his property, to the detriment of the freedom of the slaves.
Adam Smith didn’t think that free trade and slavery went together since low-wage labor was essential for his ideas, but for Britain, the easy capital accumulation provided by the business of slavery was too important to let pass and so Britain became the first and primary slavery services provider. England started by supplying Spain and receiving bullion in exchange. Spain had the bullion from its colonies in the Americas and the slavery business created a transfer of wealth from Latin America to Spain and then to England. Once Britain and France acquired their own colonies, the business of slavery increased and Britain and other European countries made a lot of capital from it.
Even after Britain abolished slavery in its colonies, its slavery business continued providing the Spanish and French colonies and the US South. The big profits from slavery and colonialism provided the capital for industrialization that left the non-Western world in the dust. Freedom was in the air in Europe and the US, but somehow the rationalizations of declaring some people unfit for freedom and rights, allowed for these injustices to coexist with their lofty values.
It is obvious that the ideas of free trade, property, and freedom were not made for everyone. Free trade was the beginning of the modern world and its precedent has reached us almost intact, with the same ideas of freedom limited to some cultures and the same division of the world into hierarchies of civilized and barbarian, fit for democracy or unfit. The litmus test for freedom and civilization was then, just like now, being part of Western civilization. Then and now, the Western world can apply the rules as they see fit, prioritizing the sanctity of property when it suits them and disregarding it when it doesn’t, all while maintaining their high ideals of spreading freedom and democracy, in their essential role as the keepers of what is good in the world.
Africa is still seen as a static continent in which independence from European colonialism hasn’t brought any progress. Africans fit the description of not fit for democracy, since at independence, each time they tried to elect a government that would benefit the people, their choice seemed detrimental to Euro-American interests and the elected government was overrun by US-led regime changes. Africa was an instrumental continent for the capital accumulation of Europe until the 1960s, but was left with no capital after independence and the countries were forced to depend on the world’s lending institutions like the IMF for their infrastructure and development needs. Since the IMF is dependent on the US Treasury, the promise of IMF loans was used by the US to manipulate regime changes that would benefit Western corporations. Once the leader chosen by the US was in charge, the IMF would be generous with loans to the strongman and his elite entourage, while demanding austerity measures that precluded the development of infrastructure and social services to benefit the population.
This has led to Africa’s lack of development and to the limitation of its role as a supplier of raw materials that the developed world needs and prefers to get without fair compensation to the Africans. In a true free trade system, countries that have raw materials essential to the functioning of the modern world should be fairly treated. Instead, we have a heavy-handed manipulative system that ends up benefiting the Western world and a few elites in the respective African countries.
The freedom division continues to this day when US presidents appeal to its patriotic citizens to go to war against the people who are jealous of the US freedom, without acknowledging that the West’s interventions in those areas have precluded freedom. Just like Locke saw the indigenous resistance in the New World as an aggressive defect in the people, the US now sees resistance to US military intervention as unfitness for freedom and democracy. World organizations like the UN pay lip service to the equality of nations while allowing the US to start unlawful wars and effect regime changes that only benefit powerful corporations.
The modern world that started with the economics of Adam Smith combined with the division of the world’s cultures into a hierarchical order of worthiness, has led to an entrenched system of continuous injustice. Slavery in the US transformed itself into segregation and later into biased sentencing practices that lead to the mass incarceration of African Americans. The ex-colonies of Europe got their independence but were unable to exercise true sovereignty. Latin America and the Caribbean became the US back yard, which meant that US corporations had free reign to do as they pleased. The Middle East continued under the influence of their former colonizers plus the US. The national interest of the US requires constant meddling in the Middle East, home to most of the oil in the planet. Their attempts at democracy were and are still curtailed by the needs of the US, as were attempts at improving their economic and quality of life in a sovereign way.
Homo sapiens is an animal endowed with reason and a high potential for knowledge accumulation, both characteristics essential to the values of the Enlightenment. Their infatuation with reason blinded them about another characteristic of Homo sapiens, self-deception, which is often used to rationalize our non-compliance with our own-defined idealistic values. Who could argue with the promotion of freedom, democracy, and equality? The incantation of these values helps to hide the greedy motives behind foreign policy, free trade and unfair bias in the actions of world institutions; they act like a magic wand that prevents accountability. Imagine if the British would have said openly that they considered Indians as less deserving in the world pyramid of cultures, so that Britain, a top echelon country, was quite justified in their extreme increase of the cash crop tribute for poor peasants and their unjust trade practices of textiles.
Though it was true, it would have been catastrophic to tell it openly, it would have put into question the British claim to Enlightenment values and true free trade. Instead, the British rationalized their unjust behavior by demeaning the Indian culture as unfit for understanding markets and freedom, conveniently blaming the British caused famines on Indian laziness.
This convenient modus operandi is still used today, and it leads to a lack of historical and present-day accountability, that helps to entrench an unjust system. This is evident when two French presidents can still give speeches that include the following gems:
“The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history…. they have never really launched themselves into the future…” -
Nicolas Sarkozy, 2007
“The problems Africa faces are completely different…. they are civilizational…” — Emmanuel Macron, 2017
The chasm between Western ideals and their practice shows us that we should be wary of Homo sapiens tendency to proclaim ideals because very often there is a trick behind them. It is high time to start noticing that there is a truth in history that has very often been clouded by the winner’s wiliness and power, and this fogged up view of history extends its blurry vision into the present. The same rationalizations are now heralded by the media and the fog keeps getting thicker and thicker, while our rhetorical liberal values continue to be used to obscure the truth instead of helping us to lift its veil.
At a time of extreme globalization not only of trade and ideas but of climate and ecological calamity, there is no place for the division of the world in castes of worthiness; it is a time to truly see everyone as members of the same species with the same rights. Western people accustomed to thinking that European culture and history are the only ones that count should see that this view of the world has relegated the majority of the population to a limbo where their history, culture, and rights in the modern world are dismissed. Eurocentrism has led to a lack of accountability in the role of European culture’s disturbance of the Earth’s systems to such an extent, as to threaten the survival of Homo Sapiens on Earth. It is high time for globalized accountability and the true application of human rights.