Would it be going too far to attribute the explosive growth of the Global Domestic Product from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries to three extractive processes: the extraction of silver and gold from Central and South America; the extraction of coal from England and Europe; and the extraction of black people from Africa? Or to put this in other terms: money, energy, and labor.
Did the rise of markets, capital, trade, private property, and the rule of law contribute to the growth in the ‘world’ economy after 1500? Yes, certainly. But their contribution rested on the extraction of gold and silver, coal, and people. Would the transformation of markets, capital, trade, private property, and the rule of law have occurred in the absence of what might be called ‘the extractive economy’? It’s an unanswerable question. They are two sides of the same coin.
There were other extractions. The mass of the people living in western Europe were extracted from their traditional livelihoods, homes, and ways of life. They were either concentrated in the industrial slums of the cities or transported to the empty—or rather emptied—lands of the New World. That was another extraction: the extraction of the land of the ‘Americas’ from their long-standing occupants—and its conversion into property. Life, liberty, and property, Locke said, not adding the important caveat for some.
More than people and things were extracted. Ethical or moral values were extracted from the myths of Fall and Redemption, Salvation and Damnation that had supplied the ‘moral compass’ of not-yet-Europeans for more than a millennium. That ethos was converted into a utilitarian ethic reliant on a narrow concept of self-interest—ultimately christened ‘the virtue of selfishness’. The quest for meaning was extracted from the romances of the Middle Ages—Yvain, Parzifal, Le Morte d’Arthur, Tristan, Orlando Furioso—and distilled down into the quest for wealth and power as ends in themselves. Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, and Perceval—questing for love, honor, glory, and salvation—were transformed into entrepreneurs questing after profit. The spell cast by romance of chivalry needed to be broken (¡gracias! Cervantes) but lost in that disenchantment was the sense—the belief, the conviction—that an individual’s actions have a meaning beyond themselves.
So, would it be going too far? Sometimes it’s worth going too far. Sometimes it’s necessary. And sometimes going too far is not going far enough.