- The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature
Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire relates that at the height of the empire all the youths of the conquered territories were simultaneously gathered and slaughtered to secure the future of the Roman population for a generation. While we would like to think that such barbaric practices have no modern relevancy, a moment's reflection tells us otherwise. Curtis White's latest book, The Barbaric Heart, completes a trilogy of biting social comment he began with The Middle Mind and followed with The Spirit of Disobedience.
White brings the seemingly anachronistic barbaric into the present by exploring its virtuous side. He reminds us that ancient monuments of all cultures are testaments to power that united the aggressive and religious impulses. Military violence finds justification by a greater good argument. In practice this means, for example, that saving the lives of American soldiers justified the incineration of Japanese civilians.
The warrior of a previous age appears today as the capitalist, who adopts the same virtuous warrior role by surviving struggle and triumphing ostensibly for the ultimate benefit of society. The "Barbaric Heart" gives a name to this quest to overcome obstacles, if need be, by resorting to violence informed by virtue. Doesn't the capitalist provide jobs and pay taxes? More importantly, doesn't he contribute to the creative intelligence of society to a greater degree than any other calling, precisely because he commodifies it? [End Page 168] He brings it to the marketplace. Or as White would say, he offers it to the Market God. But I am getting ahead of myself.
While the capitalist arouses admiration for his strength, energy, and daring, when we probe deeper we realize that these are spurious qualities of the self-interested ego. The center of this ego is hollow, "a repository for hot air," a center as solid as cotton candy. The Barbaric Heart experiences this hollowness as a need for more—more honors, gold, and all kinds of stuff. There is no self-reflection leading to enlightenment. In other words, the sense of a whole that comes with introspection eludes the Barbaric Heart.
The arena of the Barbaric Heart is the marketplace—or, rather, the pit, as in the name given to the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. This is where magic dominates reality, wealth is created from nothing but property rights. They sell us water now, and if they could, they would sell us air.
It wasn't always this way. There was a time, centuries ago, when the marketplace served the local economy to thrive. When Adam Smith wrote, as Curtis White relates, he foresaw a society that limited the size of capitalist enterprise to encourage competition among them. Preventing cartels of association and limiting the monopolization of resources were elements of Smith's economics to sequester the Barbaric Heart. What we have now is an economic structure that has parasitized itself on an almost universal phenomenon, trading, and over time engorged itself to reverse Smith's vision and constrain democracy to serve corporate profits.
The transformation of the market, the perversion and the use of the "market" as an ideological construct, White calls the Market God. The duopoly of power that White sketches is not a poetic exercise. White believes that no opposition to the Barbaric Heart and the Market God can be effective unless these gods and their pervasive intrusions that shape reality are appreciated.
The rise of the environmental movement, with its holistic approach, presents itself as an adversary to the gods of modern life, but as White contends, in a withering analysis, it is not worthy of the contest. The environmentalists limit their concerns to the surface effects of a runaway productivity and addictive consumption and do not delve deeper into the more critical issues, like how we all contribute to the degradation of the environment everyday simply by the limited choices the market society offers. Commodities, yes. Life options, no. White is that rare social...