30 September 2017

Preaching non-alignment from the pew

A fascinating (if somewhat disheartening) Pew study released in 2015 gives a rather stark visualisation of the distribution of income by quintile across the globe. In some ways, it makes a strong case that the theories of Immanuel Wallerstein are not at all discredited. If there was ever a case to be made for a new non-aligned movement – or indeed, a revitalisation of the old one – this report and these infographics ought to contribute significantly to that case.

From the macro-level view, the big success stories between 2001 and 2011, as far as securing a ‘middle-income’ (as defined by this study) existence are concerned, hail almost entirely from the stability-and-order loving post-communist world – or what would have been called by Wallerstein the ‘semi-periphery’: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, the Ukraine (under Yanukovych, mind you), the Balkans, and most of all China. ‘Convergence’ is the story of those countries which ignored capitalist ‘advice’. Absolute poverty is still a problem. As the maps show, it’s almost entirely a sub-Saharan African and South(east) Asian problem, a problem of the ‘periphery’. Many of the people who were previously classed in the ‘poor’ category, however, have simply moved into the ‘low income’ category. The wealth of these areas is, as can be shown, still rather starkly being drained from the ‘periphery’ into the ‘core’, which still shows the highest concentration of the ‘rich’ category and has shown pretty much the only percentage point gains in that category.

If anything, this map shows quite starkly the true legacies of colonialism, which have unfortunately come into question in academic circles of late at the hands of a contrarian ‘scholar’ and a remarkably poor peer review process. Colonialism justified itself, as we can see by this ‘scholar’s’ argument, by the ‘benefits’ it brought to the colonised countries. Empirically, now, we can see just where those material benefits have gone, how they have distributed themselves, and how formerly-colonised countries have fared in the decades since. If the ‘periphery’ has indeed improved its lot and the living conditions and income for its people (from terrible to merely bad) in the wake of the Cold War, let’s at least give them credit. It has been entirely on its own merits and in spite of prior colonial meddling.

Of course, the entire preceding utilitarian analysis of ends (income, etc.), which purports to answer the entirety of colonialism’s defence (which is wholly utilitarian and whiggish), entirely misses the point. Colonialism was bad because it dehumanised the colonised and eroded virtue among the colonisers. Colonialism was bad not because of the results, but because it was robbery. Its perpetrators made themselves gangsters, slavers, rapists, dope-pushers, usurpers and murderers under the auspices of various European flags. Yes, I’m sipping Earl Grey with cream and cane sugar as I write this. Yes, that does make me a hypocrite. But damn it, this needs to be said. Europe visited horrendous, heinous crimes upon the rest of the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – crimes which came home to roost in the twentieth. I do not think it is an accident that those countries in Europe which still recognise God are those countries that took least part in the plunder.

The struggle of the poor in poor countries to make it into the ‘low income’ bracket while the ‘rich’ NATO countries enrich themselves further is evident. As is the fact that the promised ‘convergence’ of modernity is empirically not happening for those countries that want it most. Underscored by these facts is the need for the colonised to stand up themselves, collectively. As stated above, a strong case is made when looking at the above maps, either for the resurrection of the old Non Aligned Movement, or for the creation of a new one. Such a movement needs to avoid positing the ideology of the robbers, even in an inverted form. Africa and Asia are rediscovering traditional virtue ethics and the ethics of care: whether in the form of the ancestral religions, Confucian morals or classical Christian theology. The portions of Latin America which are periphery (rather than semi-periphery) must do the same.

Going back to virtue does not mean adopting a naïve attitude toward political œconomy. It does not mean ignoring or downplaying the venialism and predatory self-interest of the global capitalist class or its apologists. It does not mean internalising or psychologising the real structural problems of the global œconomy. Indeed, wisdom is one of the virtues, and virtue ethics as a whole is worthless if it cannot manage the ‘subtlety of serpents’ when it encourages the ‘innocence of doves’. Virtue ethics instead means the cultivation of self and of institutions. Virtue ethics must be able – as the Republic shows – to critique entire polities as well as individuals.


  1. The reason these countries are not doing well are not because of "colonialism", but rather because of their own mismanagement. The cases of Zimbabwe and South Africa are clear in that regard.

    What made the West successful in the first place was Traditional Christian practices, strong property rights, and Rule of Law. Many of these poorer countries lack all three. Furthermore, these countries greatly lack economic freedom. And all the while, guilt-ridden Westerners send foreign aid that distorts the markets of these countries by propping up human rights-abusing regimes.

    If we are to help our brothers and sisters living on the peripheries, we must teach them more about these problems.

  2. Hello, Ghost of Buckley! Welcome to the blog, and thank you for the comment. Sadly, I find I cannot agree with much of your position.

    The West is now lacking traditional Christian praxis, which is precisely what the Third World now has (particularly sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America) and has been fighting like mad to keep for some time.

    It's also rather off-the-mark to say that places like China and India don't have strong property rights. (China simply doesn't allow private property in land; however, its enforcement of contract ensures that land is treated like the property of its tenants. India's adoption of British property law is, in fact, a continuing major factor in the Licence Raj.)

    As for 'œconomic freedom', the experience of the semi-periphery puts the lie to that notion, as œconomists like Ha-Joon Chang would doubtless point out. The countries that have done the best, shown the most improvement on basic need measures, have been the ones who did not adopt free trade and free market dogmas. The East Asian Tigers would be an early example; but Eastern Europe now provides a second.

    As for aid: you won't get any argument from me that a great deal of it is ineffective. I'm not entirely in disagreement with the likes of Easterly and Moyo in that regard: aid-in-kind has proven to do more harm than good to local producers. I don't think this amounts to an argument that all aid is ineffective, or that there exist no appropriate strategies for redistributing goods across nation-state borders, however.