The Expansion of Civilisation: Gustave de Molinari

The Expansion of Civilisation

The nations of the civilised world began to seek means of expansion during the fifteenth century, and the process has never been more active than at the present time. The white man has subjugated the greater part of the globe. America and Australia are occupied, Africa is in process of partition, and the greater part of Asia is already in a state of dependence. Thanks to the overwhelming power of their armaments and capital, the white races meet with little real opposition, and may style themselves masters of the world.

Yet the white man’s methods of conquest and domination differ in few essentials from those of the barbarian who once invaded civilisation. The barbarian massacred and pillaged, and only when pillage ceased to be as remunerative as heretofore, did he turn to a permanent occupation of conquered territories and a regular exploitation of subject populations. When civilisation became the stronger power it used the same methods upon the barbarian and other backward races. Spain and Portugal led, and their rivals and successors—Holland, England, France—have been content to follow. With the fewest possible exceptions colonial systems, resulting from extra-European conquest and discovery, were devised for the sole purpose of exploiting foreign lands for the exclusive benefit of the political and military oligarchies ruling the homeland, or commercial and industrial corporations to which, in return for a monetary consideration, those oligarchies were content to cede the right of colonial trade, and the monopoly of importing colonial produce. The insatiable cupidity and bloody cruelty of the Spanish conquistadors has become a byword of history. Their advent in the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru, was marked by an orgy of massacre and pillage, and nothing but exhaustion of the gold, silver, and other movable treasures of those countries, turned the thoughts of these men towards partitioning the land, and exploiting the mineral and other resources of the country, not excepting the human cattle—their inhabitants. The vast colonial territories of Spain afforded ample scope for a fruitful activity on the part of its governing classes, soldiers, civil officials, holders of concessions, who exploited their lands by Indian labour, and later—when the native had perished under the lash—by the labour of imported African slaves. A few industrial and commercial monopolists secured rapid fortune by their control of colonial markets, but the Spanish nation obtained no return for the enormous expense of maintaining its empire. Desirously coveted by the oligarchical governors of other States, these colonies required a costly garrison and navy, and were an incessant cause of war. Those wars necessitated increased taxation, harassed industry at home, multiplied the numbers of the unemployed, and reduced the masses to a state of covetousness and misery. By its temporary enrichment of a few families, and their enrichment was only temporary since general impoverishment of the nation soon overwhelmed them with the rest, the vicious colonial system of Spain was the chief cause of that country’s ruin.

Nor, if we regard it from the point of view of general national interests, has the system of conquest and exploitation been of real benefit to any country. The governing oligarchies, aristocrat or bourgeois, in England, France, or Holland, may have benefited from colonial possessions, but they are a burden on the generality which must pay for endless wars, and suffer the artificially enhanced prices of colonial products protected in the home market. And, after all this, the colonies cast loose from their mother countries. In the Spanish colonies the war of emancipation was initiated by native aspirants to civil and military employ, who sought to displace officials imported from home; the leaders in the English colonies were colonists—landed proprietors, merchants, and artisans—claiming the right of their relatives in the mother country to be subjected to no taxation of which they had not themselves approved. Thus to the expenses already incurred in colonial conquest and defence there was now added the cost of combating these revolts. The War of American Independence, to mention no other, doubled the National Debt of England, and loaded French finance with a burden which was a prime cause of the premature explosion of the French Revolution. A balance sheet of a “Colonial Undertakings” account, between the close of the fifteenth and opening of the nineteenth century, would discover a singular inclination towards the debit side. And if it be asserted that expansion of trade and industry, due to colonisation, has been an active cause of progress, the assertion is true, but it remains that the same progress could have been secured at less cost and by far less barbarous methods.

After a period of comparative rest, civilised nations have again begun to seek after expansion; but so far from novel are the means employed that, while conquered nations suffer no loss than in former times, those which expand do so at a greatly enhanced cost. Under the old system, governments seeking to conquer or exploit nations outside the civilised pale, were accustomed to entrust part of the task—and often a very large part—to specially organised companies. They still delegate governmental rights to semi-political, semi-mercantile companies, but it is seldom indeed that they delegate the task of conquering and administering actual new colonies. The colonial expansion of to-day pretends to foster industry and commerce generally, but its true purpose is to satisfy the demands of particular, and politically influential, classes whose support is essential to the governments concerned. This class, the active element in the electorate, is greedy of public employment, and salaried officialdom belongs almost entirely to its ranks. These men live on the budget, whether they be civil or military officials, great merchants or manufacturers, and their agents, in search of markets protected from foreign competition. The enormously increased costs of a modern war between civilised peoples, and the difficulty of procuring new territory by this means, have forced the governing classes to go outside the boundaries of civilisation in search of employment for their surplus officials, and protected markets for their merchants. The benefits thus secured by certain classes are as nothing compared to the costs imposed on the nation at large. Taking the single example of the French colonies, these possessions cost the mother country a sum practically equal to the value of her exports to the same places, so that it is no exaggeration to assert that colonisation is the most costly and least remunerative of all enterprises undertaken by the State.

Although the colonies of England cost her less and yield a greater return, there can be little doubt that the balance on their account is still on the wrong side. Colonial Office estimates may be relatively inconsiderable, but the Navy and Army votes increase every day, and are largely necessitated by the obligation of England to protect her empire, and to be prepared for the numerous quarrels which are inseparable from a policy of expansion. The English taxpayer supports a destructive apparatus little short of colossal, and little more than a fraction of which would suffice to protect the United Kingdom proper. Impost plays no small part in meeting the cost of that armament, and it must not be forgotten that impost increases public revenue at the expense of a corresponding diminution in private income plus the cost of collection, while, by increasing the cost of general production, it also renders the producer less able to compete with his foreign rivals. Competition daily becomes more acute in the field of industry no less than between nation and nation, and while colonial expansion augments the burden of naval and military establishments, it also enfeebles British industry, and renders the nation decadent.

Nor will the effects of this policy appear less disastrous when examined from the standpoint of the nations thus subjected to their civilised brethren. In no single case has the conquest and exploitation of territory inhabited by barbarians, or people on a lower plane of civilisation, brought any moral or material benefit to the victims. Destruction seems inseparable from conquests of this nature—destruction in the act of conquest, but still more from the vices and sickness introduced by the conqueror; destruction of natural wealth through a greedy and improvident system of exploitation which fells the tree to pluck the fruit of a single season.

But a substitution of a State of Peace for the State of War immediately gives a preponderant influence to that majority of the people which is vowed to productive labour. This class finds little use in expending blood and treasure on an empty pursuit of conquest, only profitable to a minority of civil and military officials and certain privileged merchants. While necessity, consequent on the pressure of universal competition, compels it to decrease its costs of production to a minimum, it is cheaper to delegate the acquisition and exploitation of countries, still without the civilised pale, to free “Colonising Companies,” whose action in extending civilisation will be no less rapid, more sure, and much more economical.

The present system by which the government of a State undertakes these functions and the taxpayers support the cost, appropriates all profits to the governing class in the mother country. The interest of the conquered State and its now subject population is wholly subordinated, and invariably sacrificed, to that of the conqueror and master. Substitute the agency of companies, constituted without limitation as to the period of their duration, and with no restrictions on the choice of personnel or method and—the enterprise being at their proper risk and peril—they will take good care that the wealth of countries, hitherto occupied by backward or decadent races, is exploited on the most scientific lines. Such companies will have every interest in developing the productive faculties of their subjects, and will be entirely ready to ameliorate their moral and material condition. Civilisation will thus be extended without recourse to the present barbarous and costly processes of conquest.


Although man shares many of his faculties with the rest of animal creation, he only possesses others, or enjoys them in a greater degree. This advantage, coupled with an organism peculiarly adapted to the practical application of any faculty, completes the endowment by which he was enabled to rise superior to all rivals, and to achieve civilisation. Man is the subject of our investigations, and it is unnecessary to discuss whether his superiority is due to one final act of creation, or whether it is no more than the product of a lengthy process of evolution, triumphant issue of an Intelligence clothed in material form. For present purposes, we need investigate nothing more than—”What was the environment in which this being was placed, and what is the scope of his activities?”

Man is an organism composed of matter and vital forces, and failure to nourish these forces entails waste and ultimate destruction. The consequence of this need—the need of sustenance or consumable material—implies the corresponding necessity of production. The environment in which mankind has been placed also contains a destructive principle entailing the need for security, or a means of assuring safety. Proof of this twofold need is to be found in the suffering which follows any loss of vitality.

Man suffers whenever he experiences a sense of these needs, but each satisfaction of their demands is accompanied by a feeling of pleasure. They can be satisfied by two kinds of labour—labour productive of materials which minister to vitality; destructive labour, or such actions as eliminate beings and things which menace it. But labour, of whichever class, involves an investment of vital force, consequently a pain. Man will not, therefore, labour unless his action procures, or assures, an amount of vitality superior to his expenditure, or unless the amount of pleasure derived, or suffering avoided, is greater than the liability incurred. It is this margin of gain, commonly known as “interest,” which provides the stimulus of human, no less than of all other, action.

This hope of a margin of gain is the first part of the stimulus exerted by interest. The man who has become a producer immediately wishes to satisfy his need of sustenance, or security, at the least outlay of labour; or—stated from the other side—the producer endeavours to secure a constantly increasing return for the same outlay. But even this impulse would not, taken alone, suffice to impel man to perfect his means of production or destruction. Every such advance implies effort, a supplementary outlay of vital force with its accompaniment of pain. Nothing but increased effort or pain will induce a man to agree to this additional outlay, and the complementary stimulus, which is the essential condition of all progress, is found in the competition for mere life. Competition for life, for the means of sustenance, began when the multiplication of humanity outran the means of natural subsistence. In the ensuing struggle with rival species or varieties the physically strong became victors, and survived at the expense of the physically weaker. But physical strength is by no means the sole criterion of ability, and the weak were immediately impelled to make every effort to remedy their physical deficiencies by the invention of new methods, improved arms, or tools. Competition became the motive of progress, for the one depended upon the other, and the penalty of remaining stationary, still more of retrogression, was total lack of subsistence, a maximum suffering.

The action of the competitive principle upon the early stages of human existence has been traced in this book. Man, face to face with species of superior strength and endowed with more efficient natural weapons, learned to co-operate and to combine. Natural weapons were supplemented with artificial, weaker individuals destroyed that the stronger might obtain a more plentiful supply of food, and when it was finally discovered that more profit was to be gained by enslaving the weak and systematically exploiting their productive capacities, instead of spoiling and destroying, this discovery opened a new and fruitful era of progress, for it involved the formation of political States.

The struggle for existence was now transferred to a new plane. The proprietary association in these enterprises—the political States—competed with such communities as continued to live by the chase and war; finally, State opposed State. The proprietary association in each State subsisted on the nett product of its subject populations, and as this was taken, whether wholly or in part, in the form of forced labour, imposts, or payments in kind, the master naturally desired to enlarge his possessions in order to increase his income. The stronger State did this at the expense of the weaker, and the era of destructive competition—of the State of War—was thus continued on a new and larger scale, victory inclining as before to the side which disposed of the largest forces, the greatest sum of destructive ability. A State is, however, a complex unit. It needs a government—an organisation suited to the conservation and development of its forces, and able to concentrate and control their action; an army—a body capable of attaining the greatest possible powers of destruction; also a population, sufficiently industrious and economical to furnish the means of supporting, and applying, the destructive apparatus of the army. The scale of these advances increases with every development of the army, and every advance, under whatever head, in the various powers of rival States.

States, which were able to perfect these various elements to the highest pitch, proved conquerors in the State of War, acquired a decisive superiority over the barbarians whose inroads they ceased to fear, and became masters of the world. This result entailed yet another, unimagined by any one of the competitors, and no less than the secure establishment of civilisation. War, here, ceases to be the producer of security and loses all justification; its use vanishes and it becomes harmful.

The fact that war has become useless is not, however, sufficient to secure its cessation. It is useless because it ceases to minister to the general and permanent benefit of the species, but it will not cease until it also becomes unprofitable, till it is so far from procuring benefit to those who practise it, that to go to war is synonymous with embracing a loss.

A consideration of modern wars from this aspect produces two opposite replies. Every State includes a governing class and a governed class. The former is interested in the immediate multiplication of employments open to its members, whether these be harmful or useful to the State, and also desires to remunerate these officials at the best possible rate. But the majority of the nation, the governed class, pays for the officials, and its only desire is to support the least necessary number. A State of War, implying an unlimited power of disposition over the lives and goods of the majority, allows the governing class to increase State employments at will—that is, to increase its own sphere of employment. A considerable portion of this sphere is found in the destructive apparatus of the civilised State—an organism which grows with every advance in the power of the rivals. In time of peace the army supports a hierarchy of professional soldiers, whose career is highly esteemed, and is assured if not particularly remunerative. In time of war the soldier obtains an additional remuneration, more glory, and an increased hope of professional advancement, and these advantages more than compensate the risks which he is compelled to undergo. In this way a State of War continues to be profitable both to the governing class as a whole, and to those officials who administer and officer the army. Moreover, every industrial improvement increases this profit, for the enormous late increase in the wealth which nations derive from this source necessitates enlarged armaments, but also permits the imposition of heavier imposts.

But while the State of War has become more and more profitable to the class interested in the public services, it has become more burdensome and more injurious to the infinite majority which only consumes those services. In time of tranquillity it supports the burden of the armed peace, and the abuse, by the governing class, of the unlimited power of taxation necessitated by the State of War, intended to supply the means of national defence, but perverted to the profit of government and its dependents. The case of the governed is even worse in time of war. Whatever the issue of the struggle, and receiving none of the compensation afforded in previous ages, when a war ensured its safety from attack by the barbarian, it supports an immediate increase in the taxes, and a future and semi-permanent increase in the interest on loans, those inseparable accidents of modern war, and also the indirect losses which accompany the disorganisation of trade—injuries whose effects become more far-reaching with every extension in the time and area covered by modern commercial relations.

The human balance sheet under a State of War thus favours the governor at the expense of the governed, nor can the most cursory glance at the budgets of civilisation—especially if directed to their provisions for the service of National Debts—fail to perceive to which quarter, and in how large a degree, that balance inclines. This, in itself, affords no guarantee that the State of War is nearing an end, for the governing class, under present conditions, disposes of a far more formidable power than that immense, but, as we may call it, amorphous strength, which is dormant in the masses. They, as no one may deny, have often risen against governments extorting too high a price for their services, or threatening to overwhelm them with intolerable burdens, but the success of such movements seldom results in more than a change of masters, and the new governing class has usually been larger and of inferior quality. The result of these revolutions has been what it always must be—augmented burdens and a recrudescence of the State of War.23

Nevertheless, this State of War must come to its inevitable conclusion. It continuously and, one may say, automatically drains the resources of the governed, and, since it is these resources which support the governing class, that class must eventually find itself face to face with the end. The same influences that maintain the State of War, though long since effete, will then close it, and humanity will enter a new and better period of existence, the period of Peace and Liberty. We have already attempted to sketch the political and economic organisation which will follow, built upon understanding of the motive forces and natural laws which govern human action. The difference between this organisation and the socialistic programme is singularly essential—it will observe, while theirs denies, these laws.24

One question remains before we can conclude—the question of the respective parts played by natural laws and the law of human liberty in effecting this immense achievement. And, finally, we should also inquire the end for which this work has been carried out—a work which has raised mankind, moving him ever further and further from his first state of animalism, his equality with the beasts that perish.

Natural laws have played the higher part, for they have been the determinants of that progress which is summed up in the single word—Civilisation. Stage by stage, they have compelled man to advance under penalty of decadence and destruction. The different communities, together forming the human race, have been driven forward by successive applications of the principle of competition for an existence, to invent and apply forms and methods of government, of destruction and production. The forms and methods succeeded each other in response to new demands, and each was the most perfect devisable by the age in which it appeared. That they should be the best possible, the most efficient and most powerful—should, that is to say, conform in the highest possible degree to the Law of the Economy of Power, needs no insistence. That it was so does not, however, deny any part to the free action of mankind. Such action is subject to physical and economic laws. Man may or may not build in accordance with the law of gravity, but disobedience to that law involves the early dissolution of his buildings. Similarly, his actions may or may not conform to economic laws, but societies failing to respond to the calls of competition, wasting their forces, individually or collectively, instead of preserving and developing them, must fall into decline, and give place to nations which have lived in obedience to economic demands. These conditions have ruled the past, and they must rule the future, but the evolution of the species has tended to a continual advance in the results of individual action, whether upon the particular society of which the individual is a member or upon humanity as a whole. This was not so in the beginning. The intelligence and will of a directing minority were then everything. They led or gave laws, and a passive multitude followed without thought, and without attempting to use its potential power of control. A like system too often prevails at this day. But when the obligations imposed by a State of War have once ceased to exist, when the sphere of collective government has been reduced to its natural limits, and individual action has obtained perfect freedom, the influence of individuals upon the destinies of society and the race will rapidly increase. But this increase will entail fuller knowledge, and far more rigorous observance, of the laws which society breaks to perish.

And now—to what purpose has the mighty edifice of Civilisation been reared? Laws, never made by man, have compelled a continual enlargement of his powers over things natural. Happiness is not that end, for if progress has reduced the suffering and increased the pleasures of the race, no one can maintain that increased pleasure has been the reward of those who have actually achieved advances, nor deny that the present has too often suffered in hope of a future good. Less suffering and more pleasure may be accidents of progress, but they are not its end and purpose. Nor can we define that purpose more clearly than by saying that it is the enlargement of human powers to fit men for a future of which they have no knowledge.


Source: Gustave de Molinari, The Society of Tomorrow: A Forecast of its Political and Economic Organization [1899]