The 2002 film ‘Treasure Planet’ opens with a portrayal of merchant ships carrying crates of gold, until they were sabotaged by pirates. The rest of the movie depicts the conflict over said gold. The hero graduates from his family’s bed and breakfast to a quest for a greater prize of trade: the excesses of commercial gain, in the form of unusable gold. The thread that unites premodern economies, money in the form of metallic currency, becomes an object of desire. This desire produces destructive urges in all who seek it. The love of money produces the love of power.
The heroic task lies in balancing between these extremes, subjecting the social goals of money and power to abstract goal of goodness and the concrete goal of survival. Trade and war pull us away from balance, but also remind us of its significance. Society has a unique tendency to tear itself apart. And Treasure Planet isn’t the only modern movie to depict this tendency.
In Star Wars, the trading guilds and monopolistic interests they embody lead directions to the separation of the Republic and the violent road to the Empire. In Pirates of the Caribbean, the East India Trading Company challenges pirates, depicted (unlike in Treasure Planet) as heroes, in a baroque showdown of tentacular proportions.
It was argued in the early twentieth century that the excesses of trade, through monopolies and finance, led to warfare by way of imperialism. The other analogy is the eighteenth century, where trade and war began to disentangle from one another. In the fifteenth century, as the Medici series on Netflix shows, trade and war were intricately connected and subordinated under the mantle of power, human and divine. The separation of human power from divine power in the Reformation after the Renaissance led to the rise of the profit motive through trade, which ultimately corrupted the divine element of power and turned war into a form of medicalised monstrosity in the last century of chaos, at the end of the second millennium.
This century, we are seeing a return of Renaissance dynamics of trade and war interacting and overlapping, but in the shadow of the modern separation between trade and war, and the monetisation of military power. Trade does not reduce the deadliness of war; it increases it. Indeed, trade is the central reason why wars break out in the first place. Trade allows us to manage a world of scarce resources by allocating resources according to supply, demand, and the resulting prices and people’s ability to pay these prices. But this management of scarcity exacerbates the problem by rapidly altering the economic bases of military power. Sooner or later, the old balance of power which underpinned peaceful trade breaks down, because trade allows a new power to rise that wishes to forge its own order. The same avarice, capriciousness, and mortal dread that lead parties to trade lead directly to warfare, which combines terror with a paradoxical sense of glory and honour.
But the price of military virtue is too high. The alternative is a struggle which falls short of war but goes beyond trade. In Treasure Planet, one such struggle for survival and reconciliation takes place. In our own world, another struggle has already begun, between the peripheral destruction of war and the core exploitation of trade. The task ahead of us immense, and demands nothing less than a renewed vision of heroism and the good life, to wake ourselves up from our complacent delusions. We need a new beginning, in our own time and place, to save the treasure planet which we call Earth. Shall we begin?