We have to understand capitalism before we can challenge it

Photo: Mary Crandall/Flickr

Readers’ reaction to my “Cui Bono” column has been mixed.

Most agreed with my rather somber depiction of uncontrolled capitalism as the main cause of large-scale inequality, poverty, conflict, preventable disease, and the erosion of democracy.

But others thought I had exaggerated the dominant global economic system’s threat to human “civilization” and to the planet itself.

Nearly all the responders feared I had taken a view so dour that it implied “resistance is futile.”

Let me try to clarify my thinking, at least to the extent of assuring readers that, though I see capitalism as the most deadly enemy of everything fair and wholesome and progressive, I haven’t lost all hope it can be vanquished. Eventually. Perhaps even before its dominance passes the point of no return. 

To understand how capitalism has become inimical to life on Earth, it helps to make use of three metaphors.

*     *     *

The first metaphor is the Aesop fable about “The Scorpion and the Frog.” It tells how a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream they both want to cross. The scorpion can’t swim, so he asks the frog to carry him over. The frog is disinclined to do so. “How can I be sure you won’t sting me?” he asks. The scorpion replies, “Because if I do, I will die too.” 

That makes sense to the frog, so he lets the scorpion hop on his back and starts swimming. But in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. As they both begin to sink and drown, the frog just has time to gasp, “Why did you sting me?”

Replies the scorpion with his last breath: “Because it’s my nature.”

It’s the nature of capitalist corporations, too. They are locked into an economic system that can only be maintained by continuous growth -- even though unlimited growth is clearly unsustainable on a planet with limited resources. Even though the eventual and inevitable environmental collapse will doom the corporations and their investors and shareholders just as it will their employees and customers and most other people.

This inability of corporate executives, on their own, to stop the runaway economic bus from careening into the abyss, is inherent in the very nature of capitalism. A prolonged stoppage of growth triggers a depression that, without government bailouts funded by taxpayers, would morph into capitalism’s demise.

The corporations are also constrained by the terms of their charters, and by the laws and mandates that oblige them to make the continual maximization of profits, dividends, and share values their one and only objective. That one fixation trumps everything else, including the public interest and even the survival of what we call “civilization.”

Every corporation is the creation of some government when it is awarded its business charter. So, theoretically, a corporation’s activities could be changed by a revision or revocation of that charter. That has happened a few times in the distant past, but never in recent times.

The explanation is simple: corporations have amassed so much power that no government today dares to amend their charters or the laws governing business activities to force them to become ethical or sensitive to broader public concerns. In effect, it is now governments that have become subservient to the dictates of the corporations.

If you think I exaggerate, I refer you to what happened to Henry Ford in the early 20th century when he dared to defy his directors and U.S. business legislation. He unilaterally lowered the price of his Model-T Ford so workers could afford to buy them.

This was a brilliant move that led to increased sales, but in the short term it reduced profits and dividends, so two of the Ford board’s directors sued him for abandoning his primary obligation to keep profits as high as possible. The judge who heard the case found Ford guilty as charged and awarded the two Dodge brothers a multi-million-dollar settlement that they used to set up their own car company. (Any of you older readers ever drive a Dodge?)

The same enshrinement of profit maximization is built into Canada’s corporate charters and business legislation. As Garth Woodworth noted in 2014, our courts also uphold this principle. He cites the People’s vs. Wise case in 2004, when the Supreme Court’s judgment was based on the Canada Business Corporations Act. The relevant section of this Act states that directors and officers “owe their fiduciary obligations to the corporation, and the corporation’s interests are not to be confused with the interests of the creditors or those of any other stakeholder.”

There you have it. Any CEO or board of directors foolish enough to deviate from the pursuit of profits for any reason -- for the benefit of their employees, customers, society as a whole, or even the planet -- would be punished. Either they’d be sued as Ford was, or ousted by the major stockholders, or the drop in profits would make the company vulnerable to a hostile takeover by a less ethical competitor.       

All of which makes it the nature of corporations and their CEOs to act like scorpions.

*     *     *

The second metaphor, which has become something of a cliché, is to compare the present situation with that of the Titanic shortly before it hit the iceberg. Most of the passengers believed the big ocean liner was unsinkable, as the White Line owners claimed, just as most people today believe the planet’s ecosphere is impervious to human abuse.

But the captain and crew of the Titanic -- and a few dozen of the passengers -- knew the speed of any ship, even one as large and allegedly unsinkable as theirs, should be reduced in the North Atlantic to avoid collision with one of the many icebergs floating down on the Labrador current.  

But the Titanic’s speed was increased, not reduced. Why? Because the managing director of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, was on board. He wanted the Titanic to set a new trans-Atlantic record on its maiden voyage, so he gave the captain a “full-steam ahead” order.

Ismay’s motivation was profit-driven. He knew that a new record would enable White Line to take more passengers away from Cunard and other rival liner firms, and he was also convinced the Titanic could never be capsized.

It was Ismay who also ordered that the planned installation of 48 lifeboats on the Titanic be reduced to 16, to save money. “We really don’t need any lifeboats at all on an unsinkable ship that is in effect a big lifeboat itself,” he boasted.

The ensuing collision and its preventable loss of life resulted from a corporate obsession with maximizing profits. Ismay, who, to his everlasting shame, jumped into a lifeboat meant for women and children, could be considered one of the first irresponsible CEOs ever to be “bailed out.”

*     *     *

The third metaphor is probably the most applicable and graphic. It was first coined by John McMurtry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Guelph. In his book The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, he compared the behaviour of corporations in the economy to the conduct of biological cancer cells.

To invade and multiply in the human body, a cancer virus has to overcome the body’s natural defences. A strong immune system has a good chance of beating back the viral invaders, but someone with an immune system weakened by poor nutrition and environmental carcinogens can’t stop the cancer from spreading.

The unchecked cancer doesn’t “win,” of course. This is a battle in which both sides ultimately lose, because soon after the cancer kills its host, it also dies. But that’s the only way it can function.

It’s the same with corporations. Their CEOs are also programmed to maximize profits, which means spreading and growing by any means -- by cutting jobs, battering unions, evading taxes, corrupting politicians, exploiting sweatshop labour, clearcutting forests, pillaging natural resources, increasing poverty, and contaminating the environment. The destructive impacts on families, communities, and even the planet itself are not considered.

Freed from effective controls and regulations, free to spread unhindered through human society across the globe, the corporate cancer is doing what comes naturally to all cancers: it is growing; it is feeding on its hosts -- the 90 per cent of us who don’t happen to belong to the planet’s wealthy élite. Eventually, of course, the favoured 10 per cent will also succumb because not even they will be able to survive in a socially and environmentally devastated world.

But that’s still many years in the future, so it’s not a deterrent for business leaders who don’t look any further ahead than the next quarter’s balance sheet -- a lack of foresight they share with cancer cells, which also lack real intelligence.

It’s important, however, to understand that this cancer metaphor does not imply that an unchecked corporate cancer will destroy the planet. Most lifeforms on the globe could be expunged, but not the planet itself. Mother Earth’s immune system is strong enough to resist such an infection.

Some environmentalists envision our planet as a giant living organism. They call her Gaia, and they lament all the wounds being inflicted on her seas, forests, ecosystems, and diverse living creatures. They are still confident that Gaia will survive the corporate cancer onslaught, but fear that many of its lifeforms -- including humankind -- will not.

This is because, in defending herself from the virulent corporate cancer, Gaia can’t target just the CEOs, directors, investors and shareholders, and their political and media lackeys. To her, every human being must be seen and treated as an individual cancer cell. This is not a misperception. Barring a last-ditch “cure” administered by her human allies, Gaia must view us all as active participants in the assault that is being launched on her. Willingly or not, we are all helping the corporations spread their cancer. If only by our silence and somnolence, we are complicit in overpopulating the planet, plundering its resources, poisoning its air and water. Some of us are trying our best to reduce our ecological footprints, but it’s coming too little and too late to ease Gaia’s pain.

In any event, Gaia’s global immune system can’t distinguish between the overwhelming majority of invasive cells that are corporate and malignant and those relative few that are benign. So we are all being subjected to the retaliatory measures she has at her disposal, and, as we are finding out to our dismay, they are awesomely effective.

Already many thousands of us have been eliminated by floods, droughts, famines, fires, violent storms, and deadly disease outbreaks. These “natural” disasters will continue and intensify as the corporate cancer itself keeps metastasizing around the planet.

This may be too extreme a projection of the corporate cancer’s extent and Gaia’s counterattacks. But if, as now seems likely, the corporate cancer leaders remain committed to self-destructive permanent growth, and if we benign cells fail to devise some way soon to stop and reverse the spread of our corporate cancerous cellmates, Gaia will administer her own “cure.” And few of us will still be around to appreciate the kind of emergency “de-growth” medicine she prescribes.     

*     *     *

Well, I guess these corporate metaphors haven’t done much to lighten the gloom that my previous “Cui Bono?” column may have induced. I may even be accused of deepening the gloom by ruling out effective rescue efforts from both corporations and governments -- corporations because it’s their “nature” to remain cancerous to the end, governments because, instead of playing the role of cancer-fighting oncologists, they are instead doing all their can to help the corporate cancer cells proliferate.  

On the bright side, however, eliminating the possibility of pro-survival help from both business and government does prevent wasting time on futile entreaties. It also points squarely to the only viable source of societal and planetary preservation: the millions of global activists and their thousands of progressive groups that have been struggling for many years, not just to save this world, but also make it a better world for everyone.            

Up to now, however, all their efforts have been carried on by individuals and organizations operating independently, and obviously to little or no effect. Only a powerful, sustained campaign involving and supported by all the members and groups in civil society will have a chance of succeeding.

And that’s the rub. About 20 years ago, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians and Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute -- winners of an “Alternative Nobel Prize” -- convened a meeting of Canada’s major NGOs and unions. Their aim was to do exactly what I’ve been urging: persuade the leaders of these progressive organizations to pool their resources -- to join together in one big overall global campaign to replace capitalism with an equitable, democratic, environmentally protective economic system.  

The civil society delegates were all verbally supportive, acknowledged the need for such a collaborative project, and talked vaguely about bringing it about. But nothing of that sort has happened in the 15 years that have since elapsed. They are all still acting independently and are no closer to forging a common front.

But it was Mahatma Gandhi’s mobilization of the people of India that freed that country from British rule; and it was an uprising of the people of Eastern Europe that toppled the mighty Soviet empire.

Stephen Elliott-Buckley described a national grassroots movement he calls “The Fried Squirrels.” It’s an idyllic activist project that could serve as a model for an international “save the planet” crusade.

Surely it is possible for a similar mass movement to be mounted on a global scale when what is at stake is nothing less than the preservation of Earth as the only planet in this part of the galaxy capable of harbouring sentient life.        

This story was first published in The Monitor.

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