Review of a book by Bruce Rich, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994

Mortgaging the Earth — The World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment, and the Crisis of Development

One of the things that make this 8-year old book so invaluable is that it is written by an ethnologist rather than an economist. He brings to his subjects the insights of such alien thinkers as Max Weber on the role of bureaucracies of whatever political stripes. There is no more powerful way of reducing humanity to a becoming modesty when it is overtaken by the itch to rearrange the biosphere to its convenience.

"In a famous essay published over two decades ago, ‘The Original Affluent Society,’ anthropologist Marshall Sahlins pointed out the ultimate paradox of modern development: ‘the most ‘primitive’ hunting and gathering societies on earth, Australian aborigines and African bushmen, enjoy material and social plenty, working at most an average of three to five hours per day at a leisurely pace to satisfy all of their material needs. They ‘keep bankers’ hours, notably less than modern industrial workers (unionized) who would surely settle for a 21-35 hour week.’1 The considerable leisure time at their disposal – enough to make the average two-job household jealous – is spent socializing, sleeping, and in surprisingly sophisticated cultural activities.

"Claude Levi-Strauss’s description of the cultural life of Australian aborigines, spent in endless elaboration and discussion of fine totemistic classifications and distinctions, focuses on aboriginal culture’s extraordinary social complexity and – there is no other word – development, the product of long isolation.

"Moreover, this development was not undergone passively. It was desired and conceptualized, for few civilizations seem to equal the Australians in their taste for erudition and speculation and what sometimes looks like intellectual dandyism. But lest there be any mistake about it: these shaggy and corpulent savages whose physical resemblance to adipose bureaucrats…makes their nudity yet more incongruous…were in various respects…real snobs. Theorizing and discussion was all the rage in this closed world and the influence of fashion often paramount.

"For Sahlins, not only hunger but especially poverty is socially produced, ironically, through the process of economic development itself. Poverty, he observes, is above all a relation of relative status amongst people. Although ‘the world’s most primitive people have few possessions, they are not poor.’

"How did this conception of social organization, which most of the humans who ever existed did not know and lived well enough without, become in less than four centuries, not only universally desirable but something perceived as unstoppable.

Nature as Booty

"The ultimate answer of how we got to here takes us back to 1619, a 23-year-old French mercenary in the pay of the Prince of Nassau, Réné Descartes, later recalled in his Discourse on Method. ‘It was in the Bavarian town of Ulm.2 I spent the whole day shut up in a room heated by an enclosed stove, with the aim to seek the true method of arriving of knowledge of everything – a practical philosophy through the invention of an infinity of devices by which we might enjoy, without effort, the fruits of the earth and all its commodities.’ Descartes is promising us not only an infinity of new inventions to master nature, but the entire earth, without effort. The goal, Descartes wrote, was not just knowledge, but power and welfare. ‘I shall not perhaps appear to you as too vain if you consider that as there is only one truth of each thing, whoever finds it knows as much about the thing as there is to be known.’"

As the inventor of analytical geometry that allows geometric problems to be formulated and solved by the routine procedures of algebra, Descartes as much as any human could be forgiven such hubris. But it turned out a pitfall.

"The Cartesian approach was an almost totally novel, alien vision of the world in 1637. Its promise of unimagined power entailed a Faustian bargain – the ‘progressive devalorization of being,’ a world reduced to an extension occupied by objects for a rationing, calculating subject."

"But if Descartes was the metaphysician of modernity, Francis Bacon was the prophet of technocracy. A year after Descartes had his vision in Ulm, Bacon published his The Great Instauration. It was nothing less than a program to lay the foundation of human utility and power. ‘His project bore much in common with Descartes’ – a grand vision of the domination of nature, as well as of human affairs, through the application of the "new philosophy." One finds embedded in Bacon’s writings many of the sociological implications of modernity that would become manifest centuries later. He envisages the critical role of instrumental reason in a world rationally directed to the conquest and utilization of nature….’ The goal is not to win arguments with academicians but ‘to command nature in action.’ As money will fetch all other commodities, so this knowledge is what should purchase all the rest." In his Novum Organum he exhorts the reader to consider what a difference there is between the life of men in the most civilized provinces of Europe and the wildest and barbarous districts of the New India – enough to justify the saying that "man is a god to man."

In his own life Bacon acted out some of the less lovely implications of the new faith, "In 1618 he was appointed to the highest legal office in England, Lord Chancellor, from which he personally supervised the torture of prisoners when the practice was illegal, issued monopolies to curry favor with the court, accepted bribes and favors from prospective litigants and tampered with trials and judges. In 1621 he was indicted by the House of Lords for corruption, pleaded guilty, and was banished from London, as well as permanently disbarred from public office and fined 40,000 pounds, a huge sum for the times."

Rich quotes Martin Heidegger, "Chronologically, modern physical science begins in the 17th century. In contrast, machine-power technology develops only in the second half of the 18th century. But modern technology, which for chronological reckoning is the later, is, from the point of view of the essence holding sway within it, the historically earlier." Rich enlarges on this: "C.S. Lewis in a marvelous essay called ‘The Abolition of Man’ advances the thesis that the birth of science and the modern age are often misinterpreted, especially by those who claim that magic and the occult were medieval remnants to be swept away by the Enlightenment: ‘There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the 16th and 17th centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But both were born of the same impulse. For both alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is technique.’

Meet the other Mr. Newton

"The most striking proof of this lies in the life of Sir Isaac Newton. On July 14, 1936, several thousand pages of manuscript just rediscovered were auctioned off at Sotheby’s and John Maynard Keynes was the successful of three bidders for almost half the offering. To his surprise, on studying his purchase, Keynes was astounded to have to conclude that Newton was not a ‘rationalist, but rather an alchemist and magician. ‘Newton was seeking the philosopher’s stone, the Elexir of Life, and the transmutation of base metals into gold. He corresponded extensively on the subject with Robert Boyle, formulator of the celebrated law on the behavior of gases, who himself published many alchemical and occult tracts, and even a treatise in which he claimed to have found the philosopher’s stone which enables the transmutation of lead into gold. Newton was so concerned with the apparent discovery that he argued that the knowledge was ‘not to be communicated without immense damage to the world.’ John Locke’s correspondence shows that he shared Newton’s obsession with the subject, and on his death they exchanged the different incantations the old alchemist had had left them."

Richard S. Westfall, Newton’s biographer, notes that Newton "started with sober chemistry, and gave it up rather quickly for what he took to be the greater profundity of alchemy."3

What was common to both of Newton’s interests that are considered incompatible was a common will to power over nature. Eventually that led Newton to abandon physics and mathematics to become Warden of the Mint. In this post his experience with alchemy was of assistance in assaying the proper proportions of gold and silver in the coinage of the realm. ‘A fascinating aspect of Newton’s tenure at the Mint was the energy with which he hunted down counterfeiters, setting up networks of informers and spies all over England, visiting, incognito, taverns and quarters infested with thieves to ferret out information. In a single nineteen-month period (June 1698 to Christmas 1699, he appeared in 123 separate days at the Mint to interrogate some 200 informers and suspects, many of whom were subsequently executed’ (Manuel, Frank (1979). Portrait of Isaac Newton. Washington, DC: New Republic Books, p. 230). On that the solvency of the realm could depend.

Rich traces the portentous vision of applying spur and whip to nature. He finds in the system-building mania of Claude-Henri Saint-Simon a common ancestry of both international development banking and socialism. Oddly enough, he fails to mention Karl Marx, who certainly belongs in the grand vision of a liberating future based on the subjugation of nature.

The Common Ancestor of Socialists and Bankers

"In a life filled with surrealistic escapades, the French count Claude-Henri Saint Simon fought as a 19-year old adventurer in the American War of Independence and years later was interned in the same insane asylum as the Marquis de Sade. Saint-Simon’s early experience in America inspired his life’s mission – to work for the improvement of humankind. Material production and technology would be the means to accomplish this improvement, the total reorganization of society.

"Saint-Simon was arguably the first international planner. Following the American Revolutionary War the young count traveled to Mexico where he tried unsuccessfully to convince the Spanish viceroy to invest in a canal across the isthmus of Panama. In 1787 he surfaced in Spain, attracted by rumours that the government was committed to building a gigantic canal to link Madrid to the sea. He landed a job consulting with the king’s financial advisor and chief architect of the project. But the French Revolution broke out and the plan was abandoned.

"He suggested that the Papacy be replaced with a ‘Supreme Council of Newton’ in which 21 eminent men of science would govern the world. Society would be ‘one workshop’ directed by the council.’ He promoted an Anglo-French union. As a consequence of his thesis on the prevalence of the will to power in human nature, social equilibrium would be guaranteed through gigantic internal and international economic development programs.

"Saint-Simon died in 1825, but by the early 1830s his writings had attracted a large following and spawned a journal, Le Globe. The editors extolled huge development schemes such as canals across Panama and Suez; and a political and economic union of Europe and the Near East, linked by a system of railroads and canals to be financed by new industrial development banks.

"Though Saint-Simon was a proponent of liberal economists like Adam Smith and J.B. Say, an important number of his followers concluded that the principal obstacle to the technocratic utopia was private property. In February 1932, Le Globe invented one of the most fatal neologisms of the modern age – ‘socialisme.’ That, considered seditious, brought the editor Barthelemy Prosper Enfantin, a year in prison.

"Enfantin’s approach was more like that of an idealistic Peace Corps worker than that of a World Bank consultant. Enfantin and his associates worked on the Nile dam through 1836, refusing to accept money and insisting on living and eating with the native workers. Fever and disease caused the project to be abandoned. But several of the Saint Simonien engineers stayed on in Egypt to build highways, found the Polytechnique School in Cairo, head the Artillery School and direct the School of Medicine.

"The Saint-Simoniens Isaac and Emile Pereire founded the first railway in France, and with other Saint-Simonien bankers and engineers promoted railways during the Second Empire in Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Austria and Hungary. The Pereire brothers set up the first industrial development bank, the Credit Mobilier, in 1852. It became the model for modern continental banking.

"The movement also produced a political right wing, headed by Auguste Comte, who had been Saint-Simon’s secretary. It was particularly strong in Latin America. Comte elaborated a systematic (and authoritarian) philosophy of history, society and politics, in which humanity evolved in three stages, the final, modern phase being the ‘positivist’ approach. Its motto would be "Order and Progress" which is still to be found on the Brazilian flag."

In the mid-twentieth century the Saint-Simonian technocratic faith flared high during the first generation of the new nations. Nasser proclaimed that after the construction of the Aswan dam Egypt would be paradise. Nehru called India’s gigantic new dams its "modern temples."

Why we Need Double Vision when Looking at Descartes or Newton

An important caveat is called for. Throughout the excellent work the terms "Cartesian" and "Newtonian" are used as though these men contributed nothing but their philosophical view of human affairs – their Weltanschauung. Without their seminal work in mathematics and science, the ecological critique that Rich handles so ably would be unthinkable. Crucial for the warnings of the hothouse gas effect, for example, was the ability of astrophysicists to devise and deliver exploratory machines to the surface of Venus that opened the likelihood that there may have been rudimental life on that planet until it lost its atmosphere. And the alternate models that Rich calls for could not be formulated without Decartes’ great mathematical innovation that made it possible to translate relationships in any sphere into the tongue of algebra, accessible to its routine processing. Both Descartes and Newton, for all their genius, were children of their age, subject to its worldly outlook. Surely it would be helpful to distinguish their time-bound world "philosophy" from their timeless scientific heritage. Failing to do this would repeat the gaffe of many well-intentioned environmental activists who from the abuse of mathematics by free market theory, disapprove altogether of applying mathematics to economic problems. Mathematics has no independent factual input. It merely reveals the implications of assumptions made.

The positive contributions of Descartes and Newton for stopping the rapine of the biosphere outweigh beyond measure their negative contributions as social philosophers. Newton destroyed the dogma of man as the pre-ordained belly-button of the universe. Descartes freed mathematics from its origins in the need to resurvey the fields after the Nile’s annual floods. Referring to their social musings as the Newtonian and the Cartesian systems is not only grotesquely unjust. It helps confuse what should be clarified. It ought to be expunged from an otherwise excellent book.

William Krehm

In our next issue we will carry the second part of this review dealing specifically with the record of the World Bank.

1. Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine Publishing Company, 1972, pp. 34-5.

2. Einstein’s birthplace. A case of lightning striking twice in the same place!

3. Isaac Newton had heaped scorn on the chronologies drawn up by Egyptian scribes vain enough to claim that their ancient monarchy was "some thousands of years older than the world." "Before Civilization. The Radio-Carbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe," London, 1973, p. 22, quoted in Braudel, Fernand (1990). The Identity of France. Vol. 2, p. 22, translated by Sian Reynolds, Harper Collins Publishers.

—from Economic Reform, September 2002