This Week: The Enlightenment Meets Capitalism


I’ve been doing a lot of research trying to understand the seeming contradiction between the dominant ideology of Individualism, on the one hand, and the massive and systemic problems of social oppression that are based on elevating some groups at the expense of others.  Racism, sexism, and so on.

The last installment in my ongoing series on Individualism was Nygaard Notes #595.  I return to the subject this week by looking at some history and context that shaped the United States at its founding, and which has everything to do with the prominence of Individualism as one part of what might be called our National Ideology.  As it turns out, Individualism is quite directly related to group-based oppression.  Look for Nygaard Notes #600 soon.


“Quote” of the Week: “Why is Trump’s racism so popular with so many?

Responding to a New York Times column headlined “Is Donald Trump a Racist?,” sociologist Jessie Daniels responded by letter, saying in part,

The framing of the column around Mr. Trump’s individual racism (Is he? Or isn’t he?) encloses the problem to a personal, idiosyncratic one that invites speculation about the candidate’s heart and mind.   Such a question makes it seem as if his well-documented racism is somehow peculiar or unique. In so doing, it absolves the rest of us (white people) from responsibility for the popularity of Mr. Trump’s unabashed racism. The more difficult question we must ask is, Why is Mr. Trump’s racism so popular with so many?”

Mortgages and Race

Here’s a story of interest to local people in Minnesota, because it’s about race and mortgage lending in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  But it’s also of broader interest, as it illustrates—quite well, I think—how racism operates at a structural level.  See what you think.

In the Business Section of the July 19th New York Times there was an article headlined “Race Strongly Influences Mortgage Lending in St. Louis, Study Finds.”

The story reported on a study by the “National Community Reinvestment Coalition,” or NCRC, entitled, “Home Mortgage Lending in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Surrounding Areas.”  Yes, that’s right, despite the headline the study included three cities, of which one is my own Minneapolis.  There has been no mention of this study in the local media in Minnesota, as far as I know.

This sort of thing happens relatively often, I’ve noticed.  That is, important studies, books, or other information about the operations of racism-sustaining systems pops up in the media, but doesn’t get noticed by the affected parties.  In this case, the 99.9999% of Minnesotans who don’t read the Business pages of the New York Times.

Just for the record, here are a few comments drawn from the 47-page report’s section on “Minneapolis and Surrounding Areas”:

✦ “In outer neighborhoods [around Minneapolis], certain trends of investment and disinvestment become visible, trends which seem to put the area on the track towards a bifurcated metro economy with significant disparities.”

✦ “NCRC has found an extensive mortgage lending imbalance in Minneapolis. Within the City of Minneapolis, the race of the neighborhood is an important predictor of the amount of mortgage lending activity. Although median family income is significantly correlated and a stronger predictor of mortgage lending, race (white) is also an important predictor in our model. This relationship between race and income is probably due to the higher median family income of white families in the neighborhoods analyzed. This means that as lenders concentrate lending in wealthier neighborhoods they tend to ignore the lower income neighborhoods, which are home to more African American families. If unchecked, this process creates more segregation, as African American families are concentrated in neighborhoods that see little to no investment from lenders.”

Here are excerpts from the section “Key Findings” [All emphasis is in the original]:

“Examining the number of loans in the Minneapolis MSA in 2014 reveals that the market favors white applicants slightly. Whites make up 78 percent of the population, and they received 80 percent of loans. This is a slightly favorable disparity ratio of 102 percent. African Americans, who make up just over seven percent of the population and received two percent of loans, fared the worst with an unfavorable disparity ratio of 28 percent. Hispanic borrowers, who make up five percent of the population and received a little over two percent of loans, also had an unfavorable disparity ratio of 41 percent.”

“…a large imbalance in lending toward the exurban ring outside of the beltway cannot be ignored. This imbalance is draining the tax bases of communities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

“Other studies suggest that it is difficult for qualified borrowers of any race to secure credit in high-poverty, hyper-segregated areas. These areas place a strain on public services due to their decreased tax revenue, aging infrastructure, and increased demand for services. As a result, public services may fail or be scaled back, with the segregated area becoming one of concentrated poverty to the detriment of other parts of the [larger metropolitan area].”

You don’t need to read between the lines here to see how we can have racist outcomes in the absence of racist intent.  Don’t get me wrong, there may well be some racist intent at work here as well.  But, even if there is not, “market forces” work to steer wealth away from those who have less wealth, and toward those with more.  And, given the history of racism that has stripped wealth out of communities of color for literally hundreds of years, we now have “high-poverty, hyper-segregated areas” where “it is difficult for qualified borrowers of any race to secure credit.”  And the wealth-accumulating structure of our financial institutions assure that “as lenders concentrate lending in wealthier neighborhoods they tend to ignore the lower income neighborhoods, which are home to more African American families.”

An understanding of how we can have “racism without racists” is the key to understanding structural racism.  And that leads us to public policy, as in this statement from the NCRC report: “To help address this problem, NCRC is calling for stronger enforcement and expansion of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and the preservation and strengthening of the affordable housing goals in the secondary mortgage market.”

It’s not that we don’t have to ALSO work on racism at the personal, moral, and spiritual levels.  But, as Martin Luther King Jr put it, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”  Likewise, housing anti-discrimination laws can’t make your neighbors love you, but they can help you have a home to live in.  And that’s pretty important.

The Enlightenment and the Social Contract

The United States was born in an era known as The Enlightenment, also known as the “Age of Reason.”  There were various versions of The Enlightenment—the British Enlightenment, the French Enlightenment—and there was a distinctive American version, personified in such people as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams.

The prominent European Enlightenment philosophers who influenced the American colonists included people like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all of whom are associated with the idea that is at the core of my thinking (and of this Nygaard Notes series) on Individualism.  That idea is the idea of the Social Contract.

The theory of a Social Contract, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “is the view that persons’ moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement among them to form the society in which they live.”

Thomas Hobbes was one of the earliest to spell out the theory of the Social Contract, most famously in his 1651 book Leviathan.  As philosopher Celeste Friend puts it, Hobbes believed that “humans are necessarily and exclusively self-interested. All men [sic] pursue only what they perceive to be in their own individually considered best interests—they respond mechanistically by being drawn to that which they desire and repelled by that to which they are averse. This is a universal claim: it is meant to cover all human actions under all circumstances—in society or out of it, with regard to strangers and friends alike, with regard to small ends and the most generalized of human desires, such as the desire for power and status. Everything we do is motivated solely by the desire to better our own situations, and satisfy as many of our own, individually considered desires as possible. We are infinitely appetitive and only genuinely concerned with our own selves.”

One cannot conceive of a more individualistic conception of human nature than that.

In support of this individualistic theory, Hobbes conjured up a hypothetical “State of Nature,” in which the “the life of man” was doomed to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  And how could it be otherwise, since the State of Nature was nothing more than a mad scramble of individuals trying to get as much as they can?   Fortunately, according to Hobbes, there was a way out of this “state of nature.”  Because men are “reasonable” (note that Hobbes was writing just at the dawn of the Age of Reason) then they “can be expected to construct a Social Contract that will afford them a life other than that available to them in the State of Nature.”

So, the Social Contract, according to Hobbes, is the result of many individual men voluntarily agreeing to be governed—to live in what he called “society”—because this is the way out of the horrific State of Nature in which uncivilized men had been forced to live up to that point.

(The dominant patriarchal thinking of the time is reflected in the nearly-universal use of the pronoun “men” to refer to humans.  So when I say “men” I am reflecting the original texts.)

As The Enlightenment got going, a philosopher named John Locke took his turn at developing the idea of the Social Contract.  For Locke, the State of Nature was not as brutish as it was for Hobbes, mostly because the individual freedom enjoyed in the State of Nature was limited by something called the “Law of Nature.”  Says Friend, “The Law of Nature, which is in Locke’s view the basis of all morality, and given to us by God, commands that we not harm others with regards to their ‘life, health, liberty, or possessions.’” A version of this list—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—famously appears in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, referring to rights that are “unalienable,” due to the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal,” and have been “endowed by their Creator” with such rights.  Such inalienable rights were, to Locke and others, “natural rights” that were universal and beyond the power of any government to take away.

Every schoolchild is taught that the ideas of The Enlightenment shaped the thinking of the founders of the United States, and thus shaped the United States itself.  Central to this influence is the idea of a Social Contract between free individuals who agree to be governed only as long as their God-given “inalienable rights” are respected by that government.  But the story is far more complex than that, as I’ll discuss in the following article.

Age of Discovery, Age of Conquest, Birth of Capitalism

One of the great things about the Enlightenment was the idea of the elevation of individual rights.  This was a new idea: People didn’t exist simply to serve the king!  Humans had inherent rights, said Enlightenment thinking, and their individual lives had meaning in and of themselves.  These ideas inspired people around the world.

The Enlightenment period peaked during the 1600s and 1700s.  However, for a couple of hundred years before the Enlightenment we had what is commonly called the Age of Discovery.  The Age of Discovery is the European term for the period of time between the 1400s and 1600s, when European technology allowed people from that part of the world to travel around the globe.  So, from that perspective—the European perspective—the world was being “discovered” by people like Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and the rest.  Every U.S. schoolchild has heard of these people and their daring adventures.  And they WERE adventurous, no doubt about it, and quite daring at that.

But the period that Europeans called the Age of Discovery has also been called the Age of Conquest.  As Philip T. Hoffman points out in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “How Europe Conquered the World”, “Between 1492 and 1914, Europeans conquered 84 percent of the globe, establishing colonies and spreading their influence across every inhabited continent.”

“Spreading their influence” is a very polite way of characterizing the Age of Conquest, as the long process involved massive killing, enslavement, and the dispossession of untold numbers of indigenous peoples.  The Europeans, after all, were not simply “exploring” the non-European areas of the globe.  Here’s how Indian thinker Dr. Sundeep Waslekar explains it:

“Once the Europeans established their supremacy in the exploration of the world, they then also took the next step, from exploration to conquest.  Because in the end, people like Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and others, they were adventurous people. They wanted to explore new things, they wanted to discover new things.  But their sponsors were the royal families, they wanted returns for the investment they made in these enterprises…. So the sponsors were very clear regarding what they wanted from the colonies. And it was this which resulted in the conquest of other lands and, eventually colonization.  In the end it was all about fueling the economies of the European nations.”

The Birth of Capitalism

Adding to the historical stew of the 15th-18th centuries was the rise of modern capitalism.  The exact date of the emergence of modern capitalism is disputed, but it was developing throughout this period.

In her book Globalization and the Postcolonial World, sociologist Ankie Hoogvelt tells us that “There is considerable agreement among economic historians that capitalism as a mode of organising social and economic life not only began in one miniscule little corner of the globe, namely north-west Europe, but from its very beginnings, while it was itself still in the process of being formed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, involved outward expansion gradually encompassing ever-larger areas of the globe in a network of material exchanges.”

In a 2008 article called How Capitalism Emerged in Europe, the journal “Aspects of India’s Economy” notes that “Setting up capitalist enterprises would require considerable investments; where did the initial sums come from? The religious sects promoted by the capitalists, such as Puritanism, preached that capital was accumulated by virtuous thrift (and some latter-day neoclassical economists preach much the same; they call the return on capital, for example, the ‘reward for waiting’). But in fact the initial capital was got largely by various types of plunder and forced labour.”

The journal goes on to quote Karl Marx on this subject:  “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of blackskins, signalise the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.”

Observant readers will notice that there is a rather large problem here.  The Enlightenment was the time during which European philosophers were developing their (very inspiring) ideas about individual rights and a “Social Contract” in which individuals enter freely into agreements about how their lives are governed.  The Enlightenment was all about “inalienable” and “natural” rights.

However, the same historical period saw the rise of capitalism in Europe and the subsequent bloody and brutal conquest of the world.  So, what of the “inalienable rights” of the dark-skinned peoples who paid—and are still paying—the price for the capitalist development of Europe and its colonial child, the USA?  This is where it gets really interesting.  And that’s where we’ll start in the next issue—Number 600!—of Nygaard Notes.