Ch 5: Human nature — The hierarchy of needs

A bit from the chapter I’m writing:

Capitalism plays to what is most insidious in human ‘nature’: competitiveness, acquisitiveness, instant gratification, tribalism. It’s fundamental mandates, the profit motive; economies of scale; the price mechanism; inelasticity of demand… allow this game. The game derives from its character.

Capitalism is not programmed for altruism. It is, and this seems particularly true since about the early 1980s, programmed for individual growth as founded in the capitalist notions of industrial and national development. Why are industrial and national development not the same notion – but notions? Though once development was essentially focused on national industrial growth – a country’s or nation’s economic growth – that is no longer the case: industrial development is not the same as national development in a world of transnationals, global super rich elites, slippery or nebulous borders and deregulated markets.

Industrial capitalism promotes development of a type associated with the profit motive and economies of scale mantra. This mantra is now clearly divorced from the  idea that development is essentially national[istic]. Wolfgang Sachs (2013, cited in the New Internationalist, number 460, March 2013, pp. 22 and 23) notes that the desire  for development is accompanied (among other things) by what he labels ‘the time-honoured vices of greed and arrogance… hopes for the future are fixed on rich people’s patterns of production and consumption.’ This is why writers such as Chrystia Freeland (2012) speak of a class of internationally mobile plutocrats who see themselves as having more in common with other super rich people than their countrymen. Their country is that of their fellow rich, regardless of geography. They may have no immediate neighbours.

In 1928, Mohandas Gandhi had this to say of development: ‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [the United Kingdom] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’ (Cited in a number of places, among them Why Gandhi Still Matters [], How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India And the United States , both by Ramachandra Guha, and the New Internationalist #460.). Therein lies capitalism’s conundrum; that it gives so well to some, often quite a few, in the short and middle terms but seems only to take in the end.

Since Gandhi raised the subject, let’s consider India in terms of this conundrum. Let us put the British Raj (1857- 1948), that aspect of India most within Gandhi’s purview, on trial. Two key arguments can be made regarding the effects of the British Raj (arguably it came into being as an admission of guilt by the British government regarding the failure of the East India Company, which preceded the Raj):

1. That the British Raj, though not perfect, was a significant improvement after the British East India Company and that on balance India as a whole benefited from the Raj.

2. That the British Raj was essentially one of colonial exploitation, and was not, on balance, of benefit to the country.

Let’s weigh up the evidence:


The Indian Empire in 1909


Oxford University Press, 1909. Scanned and reduced from personal copy by Fowler&fowler  18:10, 5 August 2007 (UTC)

The White Man’s Burden

Take up the White Man’s burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought…

Poem source: Modern History Sourcebook: http://www.

Historical note: Kipling wrote the poem  as a response to the United States takeover of the Philippines, following the Spanish-American war of 1898. The US paid Spain $20 million for the Philippine islands. Those figures being carried in the cartoon include the national characters of Uncle Sam (representing USA), John Bull (representing Britain), and Kaiser Wilhelm II (representing Germany).


Cartoon source: From William Henry Walker. Life magazine. USA. (1899, March 16). In

John Stuart Mill on the difficulties of governing a foreign land

It is always under great difficulties, and very imperfectly, that a country can be governed by foreigners; even when there is no disparity, in habits and ideas, between the rulers and the ruled. Foreigners do not feel with the people. They cannot judge, by the light in which a thing appears to their own minds, or the manner in which it affects their feelings, how it will affect the feelings or appear to the minds of the subject population. What a native of the country, of average practical ability, knows as it were by instinct, they [foreigners] have to learn slowly, and after all imperfectly, by study and experience. The laws, the customs, the social relations, for which they have to legislate [make laws], instead of being familiar to them from childhood, are all strange to them. For most of their detailed knowledge they must depend on the information of natives; and it is difficult for them to know who to trust. They [foreigners] are feared, suspected, probably disliked by the population; seldom sought by them except for interested purposes; and they are prone to think the servilely submissive are the trustworthy. Their danger is of despising the natives; that of the natives is of disbelieving that anything the strangers do can be intended for their good.

Source: Considerations on Representative Government. 1861. In Wikipedia.


Literacy rate in India, 1900 – 2010


Source: Wikipedia.

Average Income in the United Kingdom and India; 1800 – 1920


Average income in United Kingdom $US

Average income in India









































 Source of statistics: Gapminder organisation (2010)

The railways, 1870


Source: Wikipedia.

Commentary on British rule in colonial India by Indian historian, Vinay Lal

For close to two hundred years, British rule in India was book-ended by famines1 –– ten million perished as hunger, anomie [instability in society caused by the erosion or abandonment of moral and social codes], loot, and confusion accompanied the British takeover of Bengal, and another three million were sacrificed to save the world from the peril of Nazism and Japanese militarism –– and in between epidemics, disease, war, and other famines took a massive toll of human life.  While life expectancy in Britain, most of Europe, and the United States increased significantly from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, in India it declined from 24.6 in 1871-81 to 20.1 in 1911-21, and on the eve of independence [in 1947] life expectancy was still less than 30.

Source: Lal V. (2011). Lal Salaam: A blog by Vinay Lal. Ours But To Do and Die: The Culture and Politics of Death in India

(Vinay Lal is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles).

1.  The book-end famines to which Lal refers are the 1769-71 Bengal famine and the great Bengal famine of 1943. The 1943 famine killed about 1.5 million from starvation and another 3.5 million through related illnesses and epidemics. This was made worse because of World War II, as the Japanese occupied nearby Burma and this put strain on resources.


    Whether all this is down to the sins of industrial capitalism is perhaps a long haul on a rope. But, given that capitalism was [in the 19th and early 20th centuries] and is [now] the dominant ideology at the heart of India’s experiences over this time period, it can be argued that the rope, however long, presents a connection.

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