Monthly Archives: November 2013

How the Industrial Revolution Changed Global Commerce

The second industrial revolution began in the middle of the 19th century and fundamentally changed global commerce.  Advances in science and technology allowed rapid development of new industrial techniques, new power sources, rapid communication and transportation, and new war machinery.  All this combined with innovations in financial systems such as the creation of limited-liability joint-stock ownership and the stock market, helped to move economic power away from government and more into the hands of the industrial capitalists and bankers.  Capitalism was embraced with a fervor and devotion few religions enjoy.

Global competition intensified when Germany, the United States, and Japan challenged Britain’s early lead in industrialization.  The need to secure existing colonial and imperial possessions and to acquire more became more important than ever.  This increasing competition caused both governments and industrialists to pour money into research, education, expanded industrial capabilities, and increased military forces and weaponry.  Besides coffee, tea, sugar, and other commodities, industries now needed new resources such as copper, rubber, oil, and bauxite.

This need for raw materials and the need to utilize industrialized farming techniques led to a new age of conquest, population dislocations, and subjugation.  The United States invaded Mexico in 1846 and forced them to cede half their territory, then in the late 1890s declared war on Spain and invaded the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.  The United States entered these wars under the pretext of freeing the colonies of Spanish rule but the concept of “American Exceptionalism” justified retaining domination of all three countries.  In India, after Britain put down the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a massive push for infrastructure began.  This came in the form of railways, communication lines, and a postal service, all for the support of the commercial interests of Britain and the East India Company.  British investors financed these projects but charged them to the Indians in the form of taxes.  Britain went on to conquer Malaysia, Burma, and Ceylon.  Between the 1860s and 1890s, France occupied Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos.  The Dutch had ruled Indonesia until they chose a policy of less government exploitation in favor of settlement and private exploitation.  Africa suffered most from this new wave of colonization.  In 1884 and 1885 delegates from Germany, Portugal, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, the United States, and the Ottoman Empire partitioned an unmapped Africa.  No Africans were present.

All this upheaval and rapid change created unprecedented wealth for the industrial and banking magnates while poverty, exploitation, displacement, and low wages became the norm for the vast majority.  This period of technological advancement, industrialization, and global interdependence saw the coming of age of capitalism and its ideals implanted in the world’s psyche.

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Can Military Power, Democracy, or A Free Market Assure Peace?

Military power, democracy, and a free market may be necessary to promote peace but none or even all are sufficient.  Each of these methods has prevented wars but each has also been responsible for causing war.  A defensive build-up in military deterrent forces may be misinterpreted as an aggressive build-up, a state that supports communism, socialism, or monarchy is in danger of attack by a democracy, and economic tariffs, sanctions, and trade imbalances are all susceptible to misinterpretation.

Military power in the form of deterrence can and has prevented war.  Countries are reluctant to attack a military power that is capable of inflicting an unacceptable amount of damage even in defeat.  In addition, if given a voice, military professionals can be valuable in preventing certain kinds of war.  The military leaders will often try to avoid high-risk missions, unnecessary wars, and wars with unclear goals such as regime change.  However, deterrence is not an assurance against all types of attack.  A country facing large deterrent forces may launch a preemptive attack under the real or imagined threat from another.  In addition, a deterrent force has no influence over countries or individuals who do not fear retaliation.  Threat of death will not stop a suicide bomber.

Liberalism and democracy both include the control of political power through rule of law, political pluralism, and political competition and peaceful power transitions.  While it is true there has never been a war between democratic governments, other types of governments are not secure from attack by democracies.  Democracy adds political participation, universal suffrage, and the concept of universal human rights to the concepts of liberalism but adds little to the assurance of peace.  Over time, democracies grow top heavy with moneyed elites and even control by corporate influence and political corruption.  The U.S. attack on Iraq is an example of a democracy run amuck.  Right-wing extremists distorted Wilsonian ideology to justify war as a means of spreading democracy.  Corporate influences pressed for war for oil and sold it to an increasingly nationalistic public through the corporately owned media.

The economic exchange of goods and services has increased global interdependency that will do more to promote peace than either liberal governments or military power.  Most modern economically advanced and advancing states recognize that war with a trade partner will result in economic loss.  On the other hand, the desire to control wealth, territory, and trade routes has been the source of war throughout history.

If the world cannot learn to cooperate, we will continue to live in a state of global anarchy and with the constant threat of war.  The current state of social science is not equipped to cope with the advances in science, warfare, and capitalism.  As long as individuals and nations continue to identify themselves as citizens of particular geographies and flags, the world will face the danger of war.  Some form of global governance that has the power to enforce the rule of law must be created and agreed upon by the peoples of the world.

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