Some time has already passed since Dinesh D’Souza essay “How Obama Thinks” first made the rounds on the web. For those who haven’t read it, it’s an utterly bizarre piece: part crude psychologism, part vehement anti anti-colonial diatribe. According to D’Souza, we are to believe that Obama is basically working to implement the anti-colonial project his espoused by his estranged father, who worked as a state economist in 1960s Kenya. Like everything coming from the mainstream Right these days, it’s long on hyperbole and invective; and very, very short on substance, insight, and rational argument.
One interesting point made by Vijay Prashad in his critique of D’Souza’s argument is how resistant the Right continues to be in accepting the connection between the development of a global market economy in the 17th-18th centuries and the slave trade. This much was a point made by Frantz Fanon in his classic anti-colonial work The Wretched of the Earth. There Fanon wrote that “the well-being and progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians and the yellow races.”
Now, in contrast to this, conservatives and free marketers like to point to Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Paraphrasing Weber, the capitalist system arose out of a certain worldly philosophy that initially developed among Protestant sects, where frugality and success in fiscal affairs were taken as one sign of a favorable predestination for that person in the afterlife. With time, the gradual “disenchantment” of the world emptied this kind of behavior from much of its religious significance or justification, and left in its place a metaphorical “steel shell” (or “iron cage”) of instrumental rationality that still constrains economic behavior.
So here we have a polarization between Fanon (or alternatively the Marxist tradition) and Weber on the origins of capitalism that incidentally corresponds to contemporary ideological wars between the Left and the Right. The Weberian argument has been met with much skepticism among historians and sociologists in the one hundred years since its publication. I think it certainly has value as an example of how ideological motivation is conducive to economic behavior. Anyone who disagrees should look at how economic downturns in capitalist societies correspond to losses of faith in banks, which prompt people to withdraw their money en masse, spurring further downturns, etc. If this is the case, then perhaps the gap between the strictly materialist interpretations of the history of capitalism (this is certainly not the focus of Fanon’s project) and the thesis that some kind of spiritual, ideological, or idealistic motivation is needed, is not as great as we can be led to think. What that says about both the Right and the Left today is then left up for debate.