Some people say that modern western society is built on theft: expansion & enclosure through war & law. How justifiable is this?

by TinyCoblesOutAtSea

I don't think anyone would argue that 'Western Society' hasn't exploited people and stolen things from other societies. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is an obvious example of the western world benefitting from this exploitation in action. But often this question is framed as to whether or not Western society is necessarily exploitative, or whether or not Western society's perceived preeminence is solely due to exploitation. Put another way, is western society built only on theft, or does the chair upon which it sits have other, more virtuous, legs?

Obviously, not everyone agrees about the answer.

For example, if a person thinks wage labor is an unjust form of labor and is necessarily exploitative (theft), then this of course implies that western society is exploitative through and through. This view of wage labor is championed by many, for example Mikhail Bakunin and Rosa Luxemburg, while any capitalist thinker, such as Adam Smith, would disagree mightily. Someone like Abraham Lincoln would be somewhere in between these two poles, believing that wage labor was not the same as slave labor, but all the same it was not free labor. For him, wage labor was a lamentable, but necessary condition that the penniless must go through before they can stand on their own two feet, saying in an 1859 speech in Wisconsin:

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.

Indeed, every individual who has something to say about economics has something to say about the justification (or lack thereof) of wage labor. It's a whole can of worms. And this is just one aspect of Western society. This should demonstrate that there is no answer to your question that satisfies everyone. Some people think that the western world embodies a gradual emancipation from the systems of theft and oppression that came before it (Daron Acemoglu in "Why Nations Fail"). Others think that the rights and liberties of the modern western world is simply a fig leaf for another oppressive system in different clothes (Noam Chomsky in "Manufacturing Consent").

There are many, many other voices in this conversation; anarchists, communists, capitalists, libertarians, democratic socialists, republicans, etc. etc. etc., they all have something to say.

On this subject, a thing I would be careful of is assigning a kind of impotent passivity to the societies that western society is apparently exploiting. Doing so carries with it racist pretensions, as it denies the "victims" of western culture any kind of human agency. To quote Charles C. Mann in his book "1491", which deals with the Americas before Columbus:

The fall of Indian societies had everything to do with the natives themselves, researchers argue, rather than being religiously or technologically determined. (Here the claim is not that indigenous cultures should be blamed for their own demise but that they helped to determine their own fates.) "When you look at the historical record, it's clear that Indians were trying to control their own destinies," [Neal] Salisbury said. "And often enough they succeeded" - only to learn, as all peoples do, that the consequences were not what they expected.

A common thread of new world contact is Native Americans attempting to enmesh colonists in existing New World politics to the benefit of their own tribe, and the detriment of others. A fatal mistake.

When natives met newcomer, both groups tried to benefit, as people will. In almost every case, each side believed itself to be superior - ethnocentrism seems to be a near universal human quality - and from this belief was convinced that it could control the encounter to its advantage. But even though these various groups had wildly varying ideas about what they wanted and how to get it the outcome was similar enough that researchers have constructed what might be thought of as a master narrative of the meeting of Europe and America.

What Mann calls the 'master narrative' is the idea that disease and political fragmentation led to the demise of Native American societies, with the European colonists playing the role of the opportunistic oppressor. He goes on to argue that Europeans were routinely rebuffed when they could not take advantage of disease and political fragmentation. My point here is to simply argue that regardless of where someone stands on western society's faults, the lens of history should not be limited just western society, as westerners are not the only self-interested agents in the world.