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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The upside and downside of wealth

Spending so much time in London, I notice the extent of wealth that existed here in the 19th century. Of course, there was deprivation then just as there is deprivation now. But from palaces to churches to households, it's clear that there were fantastically wealthy people in London at that time.

Nineteenth-century wealth enabled the British and indeed Europe in general to make advances in technology and overall improvements in the human condition that nearly everyone benefits from today. Although I heed the warning of many religions that acquiring and holding wealth should not be the focus of one's life, I am not one to spurn wealth as intrinsically bad -- or to criticize all wealthy persons as intrinsically bad. I don't wish to return to the Stone Age.

However, a considerable part of the wealth accrued by 19th-century England came from exploiting the human and natural resources of its Empire. The colonial system, in part, made England what it is today. Yes, the labor and ingenuity of native Britons was also a factor, but even the Industrial Revolution relied upon a flow of raw materials from colonies as well as profits from selling finished goods to those colonies -- usually under a restrictive trade regime. Of course, outright slavery was also a factor in the creation and accumulation of wealth not only in England but in the south of the USA.

Today we are confronted by the aftermath. Wealth is inequitably distributed between former colonial powers and former colonies; and within those colonial powers, wealth remains inequitably distributed between the descendants of the exploiters and the immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the colonies. The French have struggled with their former colony of Algeria for over 50 years, and current events in Mali can be understood in part through a lens of colonial history. The USA is not immune to the perils of being a colonial power, although we did come to the party late. Leave San Juan, Puerto Rico and drive through the countryside. Or Mississippi. You'll see.

So, when one sees the magnificent architecture and art in cities such as London, New York, and Paris, appreciate it while being mindful of how it came to be.