Greed is Good

The authors of Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, state, ‘the dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies is what we have called Occidentalism” (pg. 5). This dehumanization fosters violent methods used by Occidentalists, in their attempt to eradicate a culture that they despise for its wealth, mediocrity, hubris and power. The authors reference the Nazis in Germany, the Japanese during WWII and current Islamic radicals as Occidentalist groups, which have attempted to stop the West with violence, sometimes in the form of suicidal attacks. Unfortunately, Buruma and Margalit shed little light on why regular people living in and outside of the West hate Western culture and economic practices. Anti-Western views held around the globe share common themes, and by examining these ideas, which foster Occidentalism rather than focusing on the radicalized Occidental violence, this piece shows the validity of these criticisms and why they are popular within many political and social circles. Many people view the West as a “poisonous material civilization” (pg. 3) that corrupts the mind and body and destroys the soul. Under this view, Western culture causes people to lose their religion and spirituality. The poisonous material civilization view is not uncommon, people all over the globe -and in the U.S.- share this common sentiment. This view is incorrect because religion is as strong in the West as it is anywhere else in the world, the only difference is that religion has become less public. Since the founding of the U.S. there has been a constant supply of religious peoples within the U.S.. If you look at presidential debates, historical and current, the amount of religious rhetoric is very prevalent. This illustrates that Americans have a religious tendency and that religion is important in the public’s eye. Although many argue that religion in America is only superficial and people only practice their religions when it is convenient, this description of American religion is unrealistic and shortsighted. Instead religion has just been pushed out of sight. Rather than impose religious affiliation on others, people practice their religion in private spaces like churches, temples and in households. In fact the privatization of religion is one of the West’s greatest successes. By keeping religion behind closed doors there is a greater opportunity for people to interact in the public realm unbiasedly, without feeling hostilities or resentment towards people who worship a different God. Anti-Westerners only take into account what they see in the public realm and use this as proof of the alleged shallowness existing. This shallow critique of Western society is ironic because it discounts the importance the West places on protecting religious freedom. Many of the people who insult the West’s lack of spirituality are the same people who would and do benefit from the freedom and understanding for different cultures that exist in western societies. If the U.S. and other Western nations were really offensive and did degrade religious values, then people who have been historically persecuted for their religion would not continuously immigrate into these more liberal countries. Another anti-Western critique is that liberal nations in the West are greedy and materialistic. Anti-Westerners are right to say that the West is greedy and materialistic. However, this is a compliment. Greed and materialism are actually good because these characteristics are the one moral truth that all humans seem to be able to live by because they bring the greatest happiness to the most. The path to material wealth is that of working hard and trading one’s own productive capacity. The productivity of an individual, and how society judges their importance, determines the wealth a worker will receive. In other words, people trade their value to society in return for pecuniary compensation, allowing both society as a whole and the individual to prosper. This prosperity comes from hard work, which anti-Westerners also criticize. Westerners are viewed as overworked and under-spiritual people whose only goal is to obtain material things. Indeed, this cannot be further from the truth. In reality, Westerners have more leisure time than most of the world implying that they are not overworked. Besides that, work is the spirituality that religious zealots miss. Of course there are some people who hate their jobs, but that would be to miss the point. All humans work, all humans have a natural urge to be productive and creative, this is what Marx called the species’ being. It is the one common feature that people from all over the world have in common, but anti-Westerners like to criticize this commonality, whereas Westerners praise and reward it. The anti-Westerners say “modernization means secularization” and the breakdown of community because of individualism, but the opposite is true. Modernization is religion, because modernity in capitalist societies gives all people the opportunity to participate in a global community where everyone shares a religion of productivity and everyone in the global community experiences the benefits. In the eyes of anti-Westerners materialism is sinful and trite. Their argument is that rather than spending time reading a bible or living some glorious life, Westerners just buy stuff and then play with it. However, material comforts are not trite nor are they sinful. Instead, goods that people use and trade for represent the product of a global community’s trade and production. An interconnected global community fostered by some of the greatest technological advances in history is anything but mediocre. For example, global transportation and communication are two technological advances invented within the West’s supposedly mediocre existence. Surely, there is nothing mediocre or superficial about being able to cross oceans in a day, or, at your beckoning, talk to other people around the world in a moment. These two achievements are the consequence of Western materialism, individualism and greed yet every one in the world benefits, including those who hate the West. Anti-Westerners generally have not found their niche within western society and trade, but instead of blaming themselves they take an easier route and blame others. Germany, Japan and the modern Middle East are all places where it is easy to see how failure in the system led to resentment and hate. The Germans lost a world war, the Japanese tried to fully incorporate western techniques of imperialism and modernization but was resisted by the west, and the Middle East used to be the world economic and military super power but now has little power. The Middle East interestingly was founded on a free market type of mentality. Mecca was an economic crossroads, a place of trade, and the Ottoman Empire ensured the free flow of merchants. But now Middle Eastern zealots condemn trade and the pursuit of financial gain because they no longer have any competitive edge over the rest of the world, except in fossil fuels. Without real economic power, people who hate the West have resorted to ideological and religious power which is even more contemptible because it takes advantage of faith, a sacred element that people should not use to develop feelings of hate and resentment. Faith and religion have been used by the powerful to incite some of the bloodiest wars and genocides in history. Currently terrorists use religion to recruit the disenfranchised in order to attack the innocent, which is far more poisonous than materialism and greed. “Money, as Voltaire saw it, dissolved differences of creed or race. In the marketplace, men are bound by common rules, contract, and laws… birth doesn’t count for much in the marketplace” (p. 24). These virtues allow people from all walks of life to participate in an open society and not be persecuted unjustly. Ironically the marketplace, trade and democracy within the West are best suited for the protection of the spirituality and religion that anti-Westerners hold as the highest value and claim to protect. In reality it is power that the anti-Westerners want, not spirituality or greatness. Anti-Western critics make arguments for spirituality, community, greatness, and modesty but in reality what they want is to impose their own system on others. Western culture has been imposed on the globe and except for a few rare exceptions it has brought increased trade, freedom and peace. What could be more glorious than peace?