Mark Twain quipped that the lack of money is the root of all evil. Humans are irrational, but societies are rarely so, until they choose to become extinct. Understanding the economic factors underpinning society helps us to appreciate the process of change better than an independent evaluation of all else.
In past articles, I have shown the impact of economic incentives in addressing terrorism, [1, 2] as a determinant of foreign policy  and as a guide to reconstruction . An over-reliance on other factors, such as religion, human emotions, politics, nationalism, makes for interesting debate but usually ends up as an exercise in romanticism.
The success and decline of religions, as well as the failure of political systems such as communism, all hark back to economic factors. The ability to feed and care for adherents has too often been mistaken for spiritual success, in much the same way that religion can be blamed for entrenched inequality and poverty – for example, by its role in maintaining social strictures that in essence allowed vested interests to flourish in various countries. Communism collapsed not because it is a bad idea per se, but because the idea is inconsistent with cold economic realities.
Even in the most basic of human activities, economic rationale rules. Women choose men based on their ability to provide economic security for their offspring and themselves. Men in turn choose women based on their own status in society, getting the women that best represent their position. This is why some old, rich men are with nubile members of the opposite sex. At the social level, this translates into a definition of success that allows many humans to make rational choices. In this environment, both men and women may choose alternative lifestyles when they fail to make the grade in their own societies.
Thus it is that the brothels of Manila are sustained by middle-class Westerners, most of whom are in effect frozen out of acceptable choices back home. Similarly, as evidenced during the rapid decline of the Soviet Union, a number of women failed to secure mates with adequate prospects for providing security. They were thus forced to accept alternative sources of sustenance, more popularly referred to as the world’s oldest profession, although other types of the same business – mail-order brides, for example – also became common.
In turn, the observation that a society has failed when it exports its women as whores stands true, albeit for economic rather than any patently nationalist reasons. Whores get all the attention; a wider failure of Russia and the Eastern European countries is apparent from the number of maids, nurses and other menial laborers who have become available for the world economy.
What then can we make of the armies of people who are willing to sacrifice their lives in the name of religion? While an initial explanation can be found in the habitual irrationality of human behavior, one can also discern variations on the theme. American philosopher Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains much about what human beings hanker after, and suggests that more prosperous humans are likely to turn to more irrational pursuits. Perhaps this explains why most religious leaders I have encountered are corpulent – and this is an easy test for most of you. Think of your religious leaders, irrespective of which cloth they adhere to, and compare that mental picture with the social average.
That is not the full answer, though – as I observed elsewhere, many people turn to extremist political organizations such as the Maoists and al-Qaeda simply because of an absence of any economic opportunities. It is a proven fact that poor people are more easily radicalized than rich ones, for the simple reason that convincing people with nothing to lose that there is a potential upside to even the most hare-brained ideas is easier.
Extremist organizations are thought to compensate the families of suicide bombers, while Hezbollah even compensates its support base for material losses such as property in a bid to retain its popularity.
Social is economic
The relative prosperity of some against the deprivation of others has always provided grounds for human introspection. Social structures that evolved from such introspection have allowed the maintenance of vested economic interests. In ancient China, the Confucian ethic of subjecting one to a greater good reigned supreme.
It forced individuals to accept the jobs thrust upon them by society and, by denying opportunities for self-maximization, allowed the maintenance of the status quo. Even so, a number of regime changes effected through the history of China were at the behest of economic interest groups, in particular the trading community. Any emperor who could not guarantee safety and security for traders, or who dared to collect excessive taxes, found himself at the sharp end of a sword soon enough.
In India, introspection on the economic gaps gave rise to the much-reviled caste system. As a way of imposing fatalism on right-thinking individuals, the caste system is without parallel. It subjugated millions in the name of sins committed in a vague past life, with promises for advancement in the next. In effect, it served to keep the peasants quiet and acquiescent, and rarely changed in form until modern India became independent in the 20th century. Conquerors from other religions, including Islam and Christianity, simply failed to end the excesses of the caste system despite ruling India. The only reason for their reticence was economic, not religious.
Perhaps the greatest failure for the young and the romantic is to overestimate the power of religion in shaping society. Throughout history, religions have depended on the economic success of their societies, and indeed often claimed credit for prosperity as a way to expand the numbers of the faithful. Some of the first religious regime changes in the world came about in India, when Buddhism supplanted Hinduism as the religion of state, after its adoption by the Emperor Ashok.
It spread to the rest of Asia by trade rather than theological means, as traders paying taxes to Indian emperors slowly converted to Buddhism. In turn, they spread the religion for a purely selfish reason, as a way of enhancing the common interests that could help to avoid a trader cheating another. As you couldn’t Google your prospective counterpart to check his reliability, the alternative “club membership” became religion. For much the same reasons, the caste system has continued to flourish in India despite a series of conquests by non-Hindu forces.
Away from Asia, the progress of Abrahamic religions depended on similar economic rationale. Bertrand Russell, writing about the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, notes:
The support of the Christians, as a single organized bloc, was to be obtained by favoring them. Whatever dislike of the Christians existed was unorganized and politically ineffective. Probably [Michael] Rostovtseff is right in holding that a large part of the army was Christian, and that this was what most influenced Constantine. However that may be, the Christians, while still a minority, had a kind of organization which was then new, though now common, and which gave them all the political influence of a pressure group to which no other pressure groups are opposed. This was the natural consequence of their virtual monopoly of zeal, and their zeal was an inheritance from the Jews.
In essence, the thrust of the argument is that the Emperor Constantine needed the Christians for his own selfish interests. Their unitary organization made it easier for him to implement social and economic changes, which helped to solidify his control over the Roman Empire, finally pushing his rival Licinius, whose persecution of the Christians sparked a revolt, into abdicating. Among his various reforms was the introduction of hereditary professions such as butchers and bakers, a nod to economic interests if there ever was one.
A few hundred years later, Islam’s initial expansion was in turn fueled by a change of circumstances for the otherwise nomadic desert-dwelling Bedouin tribes. Joining up with Islamic armies was a way of employment, and offered an escape from the dreadful poverty of roaming around the desert looking for means of sustenance. Military successes provided access to trading wealth, and therefore enhanced prosperity at a stroke, in turn allowing the adoption of Islam as a self-fulfilling rationale. In modern times, increased prosperity in Saudi Arabia and Iran have allowed those countries to fund pet projects elsewhere, designed to further their own economic interests in the long run.
Civilizations and economics
Abrahamic religions, during their expansionary phase, always used their supposed superiority as an excuse for inflicting ills on their conquests. This was simply an extension of the rationale used for the caste system, in that people with better economic prospects just happened to have been born with an unfair advantage of belonging to the right caste, cult or religion. From a social perspective, religion certainly provided an answer for expanding economic girth.
As societies moved from addressing basic needs such as food and shelter to greater living standards, questions on the treatment of other human beings were common enough. In such cases, the overriding principle was to castigate the victims for following barbaric practices, or worshipping the wrong god. Thus, it could be explained, the essential role of the British in India was to convert the “copper-colored pagans” to Christianity, even if in practice the colonial authorities were more interested in plundering the country’s wealth.
Within British society itself, greater economic prosperity was the greatest factor in helping to implement social changes. Despite laws outlawing slavery from many hundred years before, the practice flourished until the middle of the 18th century. The ability of society to outlaw the practice was greatly helped by the Industrial Revolution, which replaced human input with machines, allowing for an expansion in production without more costly manual and animal labor. In much the same way, the agrarian US south resisted the demands of the industrial Yankee north to end slavery, not because of religious or racist tendencies, but because the economics of their situation demanded the continued use of slaves.
Equally, enough industrialists in the north opposed the abolitionist movement because of its potential to affect their economic well-being. The history of civil rights in the US since then has depended much on continued economic growth. Universal suffrage both for women and for blacks was implemented under economic conditions that risked adverse results if the peace was not secured by implementing reforms.
If successful civilizations can be explained by economics, so can failures. A recent example is the collapse of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 2000-01 period, well before the US invasion. The most important reason for the population to move toward the Taliban in the first place was the Afghan civil war in the 1992-96 period that pushed Afghans deeper into poverty. Thus their embrace of the Taliban was more about ensuring economic security than adopting strict religious practices. In the event, the Taliban failed to improve the lot of the average Afghan, because of their stubborn insistence on adopting Wahhabi practices such as severe restrictions on the role of women.
Such practices were all too common in Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of the Taliban, but only because Saudi society did not need its women to work. The reliance on oil wealth rather than manufacturing allowed Saudi society to emerge as a classic closed one, but clearly its export to more open economies was not possible. Thus the trade-dependent Afghans simply could not afford the Taliban-inspired practices, inspiring support for anti-Taliban fighters. Tellingly, it is in urban areas such as Kabul and Jalalabad that the Taliban were first ousted, as cities have more diverse economies than the rural landscape.
I am confident that China will embrace political reforms, and India will greatly enhance its social reforms, simply because the supporting economic-growth rationale exists in both cases. Equally, I despair at the prospects for most Muslim countries because the absence of economic growth vastly increases the chances of their populations being radicalized, in turn pushing these societies deeper into poverty.
Peace, love and goodwill to all men; bah humbug. Show me the money, honey.
1. A capital alternative to terror, Asia Times Online, October 21.
2. Love your children, those little terrors, Asia Times Online, November 4.
3. Garfield with guns, Asia Times Online, September 2.
4. Economics and Bamiyan, Asia Times Online, December 9.