Capitalism is Killing Us

June 25, 2012

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In case you haven’t noticed, capitalism is killing us. It’s killing us in many ways, from the most blatant homicides, those of tobacco companies that manufacture products for the direct ingestion of poison, to the more indirect, those of companies whose products are obliquely lethal, such as mining, chemical and utility companies. Their damage is merely collateral.

In either case, capitalism — which has one fundamental ideal: to make profit — can be a merciless economic system. It’s so seductive, insidious and unconcerned about its effects on personal character that even China, a nation that once prided itself on an ideal of shared wealth (communism), is challenging the bastion of free-market rapacity (the USA), for position as capitalist top dog.

Everyone is apt to check his/her values at the door of capitalism. In fact, the so-called free market depends on it: we’re all in the muck together. As a symbol of capitalism, Gordon Gekko, the main antagonist of the movie “Wall Street,” is as apt as they come. Gekko’s moral code has been minimized to maximize profit.

The legal basis for the minimization or morality lies in the stipulations of corporate law:

.”..the directors and officers of a corporation shall exercise their powers and discharge their duties with a view to the interests of the corporation and of the shareholders….

“Although the wording of this provision differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, its legal effect does not. This provision is the motive behind all corporate actions everywhere in the world. Distilled to its essence, it says that the people who run corporations have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to make money. Failing this duty can leave directors and officers open to being sued by shareholders.” —How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility, Robert Hinkly, Corporate Attorney

Capitalism, the system, is amoral.  It’s fundamentally bloodless and heartless.  Despite the Supreme Court’s wild conceit that corporations are people, corporations would better be characterized as machines. A box-folding machine has just one imperative: to produce folded boxes. A corporate machine’s imperative is to make profit for the benefit of shareholders. Neither imperative has a necessary moral component.

Economist Joseph Stiglizt spoke to this in an interview with Alternet Editor Lynn Paramore:

“… what drives capitalism is the profit motive,” Stiglitz said. “You can profit not only by making good things, but also by exploiting people, by exploiting the environment, by doing things that are not so good. The narrative that you describe ignores the extent to which a lot of the inequalities in the United States are not the result of creative activity but of exploitive activity.”

“Greed is Good,” the fictional Gekko famously claimed. But many powerful characters agree; some are even living, breathing Christians or Mormons.

How can an economic system founded on one of the seven deadly sins go wrong? Let me count the ways.

But Greed is not alone. In fact, Pride and Envy have also found cozy nests in the alleys off Wall Street. Politicians spend millions playing one against the other in back-to-back ads during election cycles. In fact millions in advertizing dollars are spent to stir-up storms of pride and envy. We’ve become so mesmerized by the effects of that trio that many of us deny any fact that troubles the waters of our delusions. When Greed, Pride and Envy are employed as national motivators, blaring endlessly from flat screens, who has the strength of character to distinguish lies from truth, or bad from good?

Let’s be clear, capitalism is not killing the planet, it’s creating an environment and conditions that threaten life on the planet. It’s making Earth uninhabitable for creatures like us. The planet will do fine on its own.  The earth did not need us before we came along and will shed not a tear at our passing. In fact, if planets have inner lives, Earth will probably sigh, “Good riddance.”

Those who profit from the degradation of the planet and the corruptibility of its human inhabitants contest this view. But the truth is that capitalism thrives on the degradation of the environment in the short term. It also counts on the corruptibility of everyone in the system to continue unchallenged and unregulated in its quest for maximum profit.  For the model of unrestrained growth to proceed, everyone from consumer to CEO must not only turn a blind eye to troubling evidence that all is not well with the model, but also reject the evidence outright. This is most likely what informs the thinking of people like Senator James Inhofe, who has labeled global warming a hoax.

Inhofe’s argument is one against evidence which is typical of any founded upon ideology.

At NASA’s Web site, you’ll find this: “Most climate scientists agree the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the ‘greenhouse effect’ —warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.”

“Moreover,” says a report of 18 scientific associations, “there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment.” It would not be inaccurate to throw “life expectancy” into the list of impacts.

Predictably, funding for those arguing against the facts of global warming and environmental degradation come from corporate interests. The environmental organization Greenpeace has documented such funding sources as the Charles Koch Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobile and the Electric Power Research Institute, among others. All of which have profit incentives to counter the consensus of science that corporations are creating conditions that threaten life on the planet. What will an ardent capitalist not do to maximize profit?

The question of whether greed-based capitalism warps character can be settled best by the example of the tobacco industry.

The facts are pretty conclusive: odds are that ingesting tobacco will lead to cancer. In short, tobacco kills. Yet here we have a billion-dollar industry devoted to the manufacture and distribution of a delivery system for a poison that leads to gruesome suffering and death — and with full knowledge that that poison is addictive.

The profit of the tobacco industry is realized through advertizing appeals of Phillip Morris, et al, intended to lure (often young) people into an addiction that’ll kill them. And yet, (and here’s the character-corruption part) in April of 1994 seven intelligent, well-suited (and probably admired in their community) tobacco CEOs, one after the other, testified under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive.

But the character of everyone having to do with the manufacture of tobacco is tainted. The cogs of a system make a system go. Capitalism relies upon malleable character to do business — but should this be surprising in an economic system propelled on the grease of Gordon Gekko’s greed?

We’re told that capitalism is the best of all possible economic systems and there’s no doubt it has produced a cornucopia of wonders and comforts (Joseph Stiglitz agrees). But capitalism is also much like a Ponzi scheme: if you’ve gotten in early and are near the top (USA), capitalism’s a wonderful thing, but if you’re a victim of its unregulated excesses —one of those victimized by the corruption capitalism brings (3rd World nations and labor in general)— it may be more like hell.

The problem is, as capitalism outdoes itself in the short-sighted rapacity of endless growth and escalating profit, everyone on Earth becomes its victim — even its success stories, or their offspring.

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by Jim Culleny
6/25/12
for the West County Independent
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