The scientific and industrial revolutions exploded in the age of conquest and discovery. This period of conquest and discovery produced both the need and the financing for further scientific investigation. Increased focus on education and research gave rise to the unintended consequence of advances in moral and cultural studies. This moral and cultural enlightenment, and the social sciences it created, have been in conflict with capitalism since the development of the concept that certain rights exist in the individual and that these individuals have the right to create laws that control them and their governments. While the Enlightenment did much to temper the pain, it did little to curb the advancement of imperial and economic conquest. Capitalistic pursuits have had more influence on international relationships and global interactions than moral values.
The power of this new understanding found expression in the American and French revolutions. The establishment of governments “by the people” raised new questions such as who is a citizen, who gets to vote, and who deserves equality. The answers to these questions put the aristocrats and property owners at odds with those trying to achieve their newly imagined rights. The moneyed interests prevailed, and only white, male, property owners gained suffrage. This arrangement saw many more of the new ideas ignored and even perverted; ideas such as the immorality of slavery and sovereignty of native peoples. The utilitarian view of “the greatest good for the greatest number” was twisted to justify conquest and colonialization of other cultures for their own good. Both Europeans and Americans perverted Darwin’s theory of evolution to “prove” that Africans were lower on the evolutionary chain and it was therefore moral to treat them as animals. Europeans and Americans continued to enslave Africans while Europeans maintained profitable slave trading networks in the name of economic growth. Darwin’s ideas were also used the judge cultures and societies. In addition, the ideas of Manifest Destiny and the belief in the white racial superiority were used to justify the eradication of Native Americans and the military conquest and eviction of the Mexicans from their own lands.
As formal imperialism began to slow, other informal forms of imperialism continued. In Free Trade Imperialism , countries no longer used their navy and military might to monopolize trade routes and port cities; they now used the navy and military might to protect their interests abroad. Free Trade Imperialism gains and maintains control through economic influence, dependence, and debt. A common method of attaining these goals was to finance infrastructure such as railroads to transport goods and to provide markets for those goods. This tactic placed tremendous pressure on the dependent countries to grant trade and other concessions to the more powerful trading partners and thus freed the conquerors of any responsibility for conquered societies. This also relieved the citizens of the imperialist countries of the moral difficulties of conquering and controlling sovereign peoples. Liberal Imperialism uses methods such as civilizing missions. This involves evaluation of cultures based on economic and religious values. If a society was not exploiting their resources for profit or they were not worshiping the right gods, they were classified as uncivilized heathens, incapable of ruling or educating themselves. The only moral thing to do was to provide them with God, civilization, and leadership.
The process of free trade imperialism is very much alive today and spreading Euro-American capitalistic values around the world. Not only European countries and the U.S. but also other economic powers such as Russia and China are encouraging domestic companies to spread their economic footprints. Increasing the economic strength of privately owned companies increases the power and influence of the nation so governments provide protections for these companies. This is illustrated by the military presence protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies and trade routes and economic and military aid to preferred countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and others by these same economic powers.
Liberal Imperialism was one aspect of the reasoning for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The U.S. government removed a ruler that did not meet their standards. A liberal democratic super-power of the world removed the ruler of a sovereign nation under the pretense of bringing democracy and a better life to the citizens. Free Trade Imperialism then helped perpetuate the war due to the large number of private contractors employed whose only motive was profit. This is just one example of the economic powers of the world interfering in the affairs of sovereign nations.
The ideas that developed in the Enlightenment Period alleviated tremendous amounts of suffering around the globe. These new ideas were key elements to the revolutions and evolutions of democracy, ending slavery, and bringing about a greater awareness of injustice and inequality. However, these powerful moral concepts have merely been treating the symptoms. Much more dangerous to humanity are the goals that have been and still are driving economic development. While the philosophers and social sciences tinker with making the path smoother, other than a few marginalized intellectuals, no serious examination of the direction of the path or of what might lie at its end. The Enlightenment did so much for the people of the planet but it failed to stop the relentless march of capitalist theocracy to ecological damnation. Perpetual economic growth requires infinite resources from a finite planet, which makes the very concept of continuous economic growth logically unsound. The capitalistic system is a Utopian fantasy; the fantasy is that a system based on personal profit over the greater good can continue. The advancements in moral and ethical philosophy and critical thinking have not enlightened enough people to prevent us from committing suicide by capitalism.