Plato and Colonialism

Colonialism and Plato

Thanks to Victor for some inspiration on how to start this discussion thread.  This begins with Glaucon and Socrates discussing the idea of justice and Socrates moving toward looking at how it can be judged in a large state, so that this can be shrunk down to see how it might occur in an individual.  Victor pointed out how Plato here is using the growth of a country and its accompanying need for more resources to justify the invasion of nearby countries and the need for an army:

Socrates: And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Glaucon: Quite true.

S: Then a slice of our neighbours’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

G: That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

S: And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

G: Most certainly, he replied.

S: Then without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.

G: Undoubtedly.

S: And our State must once more enlarge; and this time the enlargement will be nothing short of a whole army, which will have to go out and fight with the invaders for all that we have, as well as for the things and persons whom we were describing above.

G: Why? he said; are they not capable of defending themselves?

S: No, I said; not if we were right in the principle which was acknowledged by all of us when we were framing the State: the principle, as you will remember, was that one man cannot practise many arts with success.

G: Very true, he said.

S: But is not war an art?

G: Certainly.

(Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 17003-17012). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.)

Victor described this perspective would generate a cold-war like tension, and could provoke a discussion on trade, post-colonialism, development and the role of the military.  Whilst viewing the actions in themselves as unjust Victor did seem to suggest that the honesty of Plato’s perspective is at least preferable to making up “fake chemical-weapon carrying lorries to justify it”.

My instant reaction to all of the above is a series of questions that arise that may generate debate on this topic:

  1. Will there ever be a time when the field of politics can see beyond humans competing over resources?
  2. Is the military the only or best tool for dominating other states or spheres of influence in the modern day?
  3. Does Plato believe even in his time that continual expansion is a must for states to survive?

Any ideas, further questions or observations raised by any of this are welcome….

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7 thoughts on “Plato and Colonialism

  1. 1.
    I would like to think that there may be a time when politics can see beyond humans competing over resources. However, until the economic system changes, economic growth will always rule. Economic growth will always come at the expense of our climate and economic growth will always come at the expense of the stability of regions (in the aggressive pursuit of increasingly scarce resources).
    Until we can move away from the presiding economic model that unfettered growth is the key objective (above everything else), there will always be competition for more scarce resources. In fact, as the pursuit of economic growth intensifies, so to will the scarcity of the resources used to feed economic growth.

    I don’t know how these two factors will reconcile, given that natural resources (e.g. oil and gas) will at some stage run out.

    A capitalist may argue that competition is seen as the best way to increase economic growth and ensure that goods are produced in the fairest possible way. However, dig a bit deeper and many multinational companies receive tax breaks, government subsidies, as well as an increased ability to avoid paying their fair share of tax. I would almost guarantee that a supporter of capitalism would forget to add that this “competition” isn’t carried out on a level playing field; a huge unfairness in what is regarded as a fair and equitable economic system.

    Capitalism means competition, pure and simple. Capitalism means using the cheapest labour to sell goods and services as profitably as possible. There is no place for cooperation within this model unless it serves to increase profit. Until there is a shift in how the UK does business, competing for resources will continue.

    • I can’t agree that growth is the problem. Economic growth is just another term for becoming more effective at what we do. Discovering new medicines is growth; building more effecitve wind turbines is growth; developing better ways to educate our children is growth. surely all good things?

      As for climate change again growth and innovation must be part of the solution – developing more energy efficient systems. engines and materials; discovering ways to mitigate or reverse the effects of climate change; managing those climates disrupted by climate change.

      Growth can also help us move towards greater social justice. In a static economy, directing more resources to the have-nots means taking it off the haves. In a growing economy this doesn’t have to be so – the extra for the have nots can come from the growth. Of course it is not as easy as this and there are all kinds of institutional barriers – but it’s more realistic to say to the rich – ‘you can only have a little more’ than it is to say ‘you must give up some of what you already have’

      • I think there’s a distinction to be made between the meanings of the words growth and economic here. Pete you seem to be looking at the financial aspect where they push for profits, the kind of dominant discussion model that brings out quantitative measures of things such as profit. Rob your seems to stress the well-being aspect of economics that is often forgotten in the modern day. It it were to be included more often it may move us away from the model of discussing growth as measures of GDP etc. I think Pete’s underlying point still holds even beyond whichever definition you take. To confuse the two and blur the lines is in some sense the trick modern politics has played to the extent where your aspect Rob is often left behind now as people forget economics is about managing all our resources to achieve a goal.

        Where I would disagree with you however is in the perception of a static economy. Our economy is static in the sense that our resources are all in place. Where there is room for “growth” is in the way we use these resources through things such as efficiency and technological developments (which is where you say “the extra for the have nots can come from the growth”). This isn’t where I disagree with you,, where I’d disagree is around the use of language as to avoid calling our economy static and see it as ever growing is to not acknowledging the crucial aspect that there are limited resources. There needs to be some mention of limits at all points to remind people its not an endless source (I worry about a similar trick that “free-marketeers” play with their “free” in that is free and open barring subsidies and taxes that pay for the legal system that upholds agreements and various other forms of limits). Also to say to the rich you can only have a little more is where capitalism falls down as it empowers those already in power to take more than a relative share and so inherently increases those at the tops power share whilst reducing those at the bottom’s (you can say it to them but any move to a new state will have to, for those in power, seem like some gain for them to get involved in it) . This is the worry of the economic model that Pete talks about I think and where as Capitalist supporters tout the value of competition really the main factor I would consider is the monopolisation of resources/structures/power that it creates, with a disregard for the effect on resources and other people’s that it encourages.

  2. 1. I am, as Pete, skeptical regarding the field of politics seeing beyond competition over scarce resources. And, if one thinks of the environmental constraint as a wake-up call for a change in the economic model, the reverse is also true: fewer resources leading to an even fiercest competition (the film The Road comes to mind, even though it also showed signs of hope).

    But Pete´s post prompted me to think of examples where cooperation takes place even within the capitalist system, as inoperable as they may be sometimes. In particular, and even though I may fail to do so, let´s analyse Plato´s argument regarding war and national sovereignty. Take Europe as an example: history shows how we have been killing each other over centuries. Now, there is certainly an integrating effort at some level, which is, by the way, being rejected by many, both from the right and the left of the political spectrum. Not wanting to be too naive – since the EU is an unfairly unbalanced system for trade not for citizens, for commerce more than for democracy -, but at least has stopped us from invading Poland.

    When I discussed this with Gareth I had in mind the war in Irak or Lybia and I was surprised at how relevant Plato´s argument still was nowadays. It was also very interesting to observe the contrast between the plainness of his language and the artifice to which politicians go nowadays to justify wars when the economical argument that lies underneath is sometimes so obvious.

    I think that Gareth´s premise in the first point should, however, be questioned: the field of politics may imply “politicians” (though may be this is me misinterpreting it) but the question should refer to everyone conforming a society. And what intrigues me is whether there is a “by nature” inclination of the individual to competition or cooperation and if, as a friend of mine would say that only statistically significant consequences should be considered and, perhaps, from there, derive natural trades of the individual, we´re probably more inclined for competition.

    What do you think that the effect of the environmental constraint cited by Pete could be? If resources are more scarce, would that prompt a change of model or, on the contrary, would that lead an even more fierce competition?

    2. The military has certainly been the preferred tool by nation-states in the past, although I´d say that not the only one, and perhaps loosing part of its effectiveness. Other, more subtle tools of economic domination and cultural imperialism are perhaps more prominent now. The vehicles of these could be international institutions that impose structural adjustment programs, free trade agreements that open up markets for rich country multinationals, financial blackmailing that undermines national sovereignty from financial institutions or control of media and advertising to promote a practice of never-ending consumption that feedbacks the mechanism of resource depletion.

    3. I´ll post the above now and continue with the third question later.

  3. Victor, you raise a really interesting point regarding whether scarce resources would prompt a change in model or lead to more fierce competition.

    Climate change and economic growth is an area that I am currently researching, and, so far I can see, there is little evidence that national governments have the political will to seriously change the overriding economic model (and in my area of interest – climate change – switch to green technology).

    If parts of the world were to become inhabitable due to climate change, that too would raise concerns regarding how countries react, such as the issue of displaced populations, and the inherent conflicts that such issues could present.

    The scientific consensus is that the burning of fossil fuels is directly linked to climate change:

    http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/docs/ar5/ar5_syr_headlines_en.pdf

    However, it really does remain to be seen as to whether there is a move away from the burning of fossil fuels in favour of green energy, and also whether this switch is enforced through some type of catastrophic weather event (or series of events), or whether a longer term plan to act is agreed by all nations, which avoids such a situation. I suppose there are a number of scenarios that may occur, but I use these two as examples.

    Another issue worth considering is that green technologies and services are produced within the existing capitalist system. What I am finding is that treaties like the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) do not support initiatives which encourage local over international suppliers. See Naomi Klein’s recent book “This Changes Everything” for an example of how NAFTA works against favouring localised production of goods. Perversely, the EU and America bought a successful legal claim against Ontario’s Green Energy Bill, (which favoured the use of local suppliers), claiming that this was in breach of equal competition clauses set out in NAFTA:

    http://www.canadianenergylaw.com/2011/07/articles/renewable-energy/us-wind-player-launches-nafta-challenge-against-ontarios-green-energy-act-and-feedin-tariff-program/

    This brings me on to the second point about the use of military as being the most effective way to dominate other spheres of influence in the present day.

    I think trade agreements like NAFTA and the forthcoming Transatlantic Trade and Industry Partnership (TTIP) can be seen as effective tools in enabling big business access to more markets:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/what-is-ttip-and-six-reasons-why-the-answer-should-scare-you-9779688.html

    If countries are not amenable to these types of trade agreements, then, as we have seen in Iraq, the military can be used to devastating effect to achieve economic objectives.

    I’ll respond to point 3 soon…..

  4. So Victor responding to your point on what I meant by politics I would say I just mean people’s action and perception of what the good life is, and by that I left it deliberately vague, but in my own head would think of the whole of humanity. I think we are obviously inclined to both natures as you’ve said and the statistical analysis is an interesting take on it. However I would suggest an alternative approach is better in that it seems it is easier to incite people toward a fearful defensive aspect (this may mean your theory on competition is right, but my perspective may come from living in the media realm that is Britain now) rather than a cooperatve one. The old divide and conquer aspect. I think as groups we are certainly able to be bent in certain directions and I think the current climate (whether deliberate or as a structural aspect, which I think is more likely) tends to put people on the defensive and so bring out the competitive/defensive aspect. However I think focusing and aiming for the cooperative part of nature does reinforce itself and build its own momentum. Moments in history do show this through many examples such as any political movement whereby massive groups of people have enacted change through pressuring people at the “top” through cooperative action. Where the cooperative movements fall down is in not recognising that politics will always be a continuous clash of ideas and to step back for any small amount of time will inevitably mean that the power begins to focus back with smaller groups. The general trend through education and information growth tends to be away from focal points of power, but when these ideas are relaxed the competitive instinct arises again. The approach then based on this perspective is one of assuming and working toward a cooperative perspective in an attempt to maximize it and minimize the defensive/competitive model even though being unaware of which is actually dominant, this is because in not assuming this position you enable the other perspective to gain traction and as much as economics is often about having confidence in small bits of paper I would see these perceptual positions as being similar. Some good examples of things you mentioned on here (if you have any more let me know I would love to keep adding things such as these):

    https://garethhgeorge.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/possibilities-of-the-future/

    https://garethhgeorge.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/daring-to-dream/

    Pete my main thought in response to your ideas is that we shouldn’t forget to note that a third response to the two you mentioned is to develop a system whereby as long as countries protect their own and limit immigration they may literally be happy to let the others burn as long as they can keep their own populations docile enough (a negative view I know but acknowledgement of this at least as a possibility I feel is important).

  5. Rob, in response to your comments:
    “I can’t agree that growth is the problem. Economic growth is just another term for becoming more effective at what we do. Discovering new medicines is growth; building more effecitve wind turbines is growth; developing better ways to educate our children is growth. surely all good things?”

    I agree that building more effective turbines would involve “growth” in that particular market, however, my view is that this would be growth in an area that would be seen of benefit to an environmental problem. I do not accept that economic growth is just another term for becoming effective at what we do. For example, do you agree that the growth in pay day loan companies is a sign that we have been more effective in providing loans, which in turn is of real benefit to society?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-26354479

    My argument is that there needs to be a much more planned economic system in place, which encourages the production of useful technology/services/medicines, whilst discouraging the production of things which cause harm to our environment.

    “As for climate change again growth and innovation must be part of the solution – developing more energy efficient systems. engines and materials; discovering ways to mitigate or reverse the effects of climate change; managing those climates disrupted by climate change”

    Rob, I agree that innovation must be part of the solution, and in order to be successful, growth would be needed. However, I am arguing for a much more planned approach to encourage these types of products and services. Some sort of global energy agreement seems the only workable solution.

    “but it’s more realistic to say to the rich – ‘you can only have a little more’ than it is to say ‘you must give up some of what you already have”

    Rob, in order to be more redistributive, I would argue that the rich would have give up a sizable portion of their wealth.

    Gaz, in response to your comment:

    Pete my main thought in response to your ideas is that we shouldn’t forget to note that a third response to the two you mentioned is to develop a system whereby as long as countries protect their own and limit immigration they may literally be happy to let the others burn as long as they can keep their own populations docile enough (a negative view I know but acknowledgement of this at least as a possibility I feel is important)”

    As mentioned above, this would require some sort of global agreement to ensure that countries do not exceed extracting unsafe levels of fossil fuels.

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