The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas during the 17th to 19th centuries.
Ideals of the Enlightenment
Sir Isaac Newton's rational explanations for cosmic phenomena demonstrated that reason is better than superstition. Diderot's Encyclopedia and the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau paved the way for the end of Feudalism, the end of the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, and the liberation of serfs and slaves throughout the world.
In England, John Locke was expressing the spirit of the times when he wrote:
Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature... A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature and the use of the same facilities, should also be equal amongst one another without subordination or subjection...
But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license... The state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.
Locke's ideas were reflected in the wording of the American Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
Sadly, these ideals do not hold in the United States today, and perhaps they never did. Although years of slavery were ended after the Civil War, and despite the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, racism is widespread today, and in fact US President Donald Trump was elected on an openly racist platform. During his term of office, he has been a racist in both word and deed.
Recently many American cities have erupted in protests over the senseless killing by police of yet another black man - George Floyd. The country is deeply divided.
Racism, colonialism, and exceptionalism
It seems to be possible for nations, and the majority of their citizens, to commit the worst imaginable atrocities, including torture, murder and genocide, while feeling that what they are doing is both noble and good. Some understanding of how this is possible can be gained by watching the 3-part BBC documentary, The History of Racism, broadcast by BBC Four in March 2007. Watching this eye-opening documentary can give us much insight into the link between racism and colonialism and we can also begin to see how both racism and colonialism are linked to US exceptionalism and neocolonialism.
Looking at the BBC documentary we can see how often in human history economic greed and colonial exploitation have been justified by racist theories. The documentary describes almost unbelievable cruelties committed against the peoples of the Americas and Africa by Europeans. For example, in the Congo, a vast region which King Leopold II of Belgium claimed as his private property, the women of villages were held as hostages while the men were forced to gather rubber in the forests. Since neither the men nor the women could produce food under these circumstances, starvation was the result.
Leopold's private army of 90,000 men were issued ammunition, and to make sure that they used it in the proper way, the army was ordered to cut off the hands of their victims and send them back as proof that the bullets had not been wasted. Human hands became a kind of currency, and hands were cut off from living men, women and children when rubber quotas were not fulfilled. Sometimes more than a thousand human hands were gathered in a single day. During the rule of Leopold, roughly 10,000,000 Congolese were killed, which was approximately half the population of the region.
Oligarchy and war
Today the world spends almost two trillion dollars ($ 2,000,000,000,000) every year on armaments. This vast river of money, almost too large to be imagined, is the “devil's dynamo” driving the institution of war. Politicians notoriously can be bought with a tiny fraction of this enormous amount; hence the decay of democracy. It is also plain that if the almost unbelievable sums now wasted on armaments were used constructively, most of the pressing problems now facing humanity could be solved.
Because the world spends almost two thousand billion dollars each year on armaments, it follows that very many people make their living from war. This is the reason why it is correct to speak of war as an institution, and why it persists, although we know that it is the cause of much of the suffering that inflicts humanity, and that we live under the constant threat of an all-destroying thermonuclear war.
Money from wealthy oligarchs in military industrial complexes buys the propaganda of the mass media and the votes of politicians. Numbed by the propaganda, citizens allow politicians to vote for obscenely bloated military budgets, the oligarchs are further enriched, and thus the circular flow of money continues. Excessive economic inequality is at the root of the problem of war, as well as the loss of our democratic institutions.
The poor suffer most in the COVID-19 pandemic
The poor are suffering most from the COVID-19 pandemic. While the rich can isolate themselves in comfort, working people with no savings are faced with the choice between risking their lives in unsafe work-places or starvation because of lack of income. Here are quotations from a recently-published article by Jake Johnson entitled “Grotesque: While 41 Million People Lost Jobs Due to Covid-19, US Billionaires Grew Nearly $500 Billion Richer”, Common Dreams, May 28, 2020:
Billionaire wealth is surging at the same time that millions face suffering, hardship, and loss of life. This is a grotesque indicator of the deep inequalities in US Society.
Statistics released Thursday by the US Department of Labor show that with 2.1 million new unemployment claims filed last week, a staggering 40.7 million Americans have lost their jobs over just the past 10 weeks as mass layoffs induced by the Coronavirus pandemic continue.
During that same 10-week period, according to a new analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), the combined net worth of America's billionaires soared by nearly half a trillion dollars, bringing their total wealth to $3.4 trillion.
Equality, happiness and renewable energy in Scandanavia
The Green New Deal can simultaneously address the climate crisis and the problem of excessive economic inequality. In this context, it is interesting to look at the social and economic systems of the Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.
In these countries the contrast between the rich and poor has been very much reduced. It is almost true to say that poverty has been eliminated in these countries. At the same time, the Scandinavians have strong policies to address the climate emergency. Thus Scandinavian successes are a counter-argument to those who say that the Green New Deal cannot be put into practice.
The Scandinavian countries also rank very highly on the Global Happiness Index and the Human Development Index, thus demonstrating the benefits of equality.
To achieve a happy and sustainable world, we urgently need to decrease excessive economic inequality, both within and between nations.
I recently published a book that presents evidence supporting the thesis that elimination of excessive economic inequality makes societies happier and better. The book may be freely downloaded and circulated from the following link.