By:  Michael Aldous


              Michael Aldous is the Associate Director of International Communication at IE Business School. 


At the beginning of Heart of Darkness Marlow says –

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . ."

His discussion revolves around the arrival of the Romans in Britain and more generally the rise of the roman empire. Yet it is also the beginning of Conrad’s damning indictment of the ‘idea’ of imperialism that evolves throughout the book. The idea becomes all consuming, all is forgiven in pursuit of the idea. Like the Crusaders before them, taking the cross of imperialism (the White man’s burden) absolved you from your past sins and effectively shed you of accountability for all you would do in the name of the idea. As the plot and the journey up the assumed Congo river unravels, Marlow finally meets with Kurtz, a man who is on the point of total mental and physical ruination by the reality of the idea. Supposedly a great, cultured man, with a new more humane approach to managing empire, at the sharp end of its reality his understanding of its true meaning subsumes him.

Perhaps this week we have also started to see the end of a journey. The great idea propogated in the 80’s, blithely summed up by Gordon Gecko as "greed is good" has been severely tested. Greed and growth have become the mantra of the capitalist system, all consuming, everything forgiven in their pursuit. Yet as the bloated, ruined bodies of Lehman Brothers, AIG, Meryl Lynch and their ilk, stumble out of the financial jungle perhaps they too are muttering "the horror, the horror", as realisation dawns on what has been created. I rather think not, but it would be nice to imagine some degree of wider awareness has now permeated the minds of the Masters of the Universe.

Watching the news reports, and reading the interviews and blog discussions on the crisis flooding the information super highway this week I was really struck by how little is actually known or understood of the financial systems and their ideologies we have allowed to emerge around us. One of the interesting aspects about Kurtz and his metaphorical and physical fall is his proximity to, and knowledge of the idea. Millions in Europe were benefiting from the fruits of imperialism, removed from the daily realities of imperialist empires. They were happy in their partial ignorance to allow the system to grow in whatever way it wanted provided the benefits did not stop (a wonderful example, and perhaps a story for another day, is the growth of the Opium trade in China in the 19th century). However some, such as Kurtz, fully immersed in the nitty gritty of empire saw it differently, seeing their constructed reality warped beyond recognition. The benefits of cheap debt, property as a gilt edged guarantee of growth, low interest rates, low inflation, the end of boom and bust has created a wonderful bubble for the citizens of Europe and the US. There has been a general consent that this is the system we should sign up to with little need to check its provenance or reliability.

In his treatise of 1762 Rousseau presented his model of a social contract, the basic premise being that people give up certain rights to a government in order to create and preserve a system of social order. In the turbulence of the 18th century the focus was on systems of government, with the relative values of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy discussed. One hundred years later Karl Marx proposed a new social contract, this time based on choice of the economic system. Perhaps now are we going to heed the messages and understand the implications of our choice? Maybe we are now ready to face a further decision about the economic system we chose to surround ourselves with, asking what sort of new social contract we want to draw up for our society? As history shows us these systems are not set in stone, however complex they are (or are made by the small numbers who benefit the most from them), new choices are always available if we choose to think about them.


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