Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Disease of Capitalism

Filmmaker Michael Moore makes a poignant observation at the end of the documentary film The Corporation. Acknowledging the irony that his anti-corporate films are produced and distributed by major film studios, Moore suggests this is because corporate capitalists “don’t believe in anything” other than making money.

“I’ve been able to get my stuff out there because I’m driving my truck through this incredible flaw in capitalism, the greed flaw,” he says. “The thing that says that the rich man will sell you the rope to hang himself with if he thinks he can make a buck off it. Well I’m the rope.”

Of all economic systems, only capitalism seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction. As journalist Chris Hedges explains to Moore in a deleted scene from his film Capitalism: A Love Story, “Built into capitalism is a self-destructive quality--a form of self-annihilation.”

The real question, however, is whether it will destroy us first.

Corporate capitalism (or “corporatism” as many political theorists have termed the merging of business and government) is so narrowly focused with short-term profit it turns everything—including human lives and the environment—into a commodity. While the Ayn Rand-worshipping Republicans running Congress call themselves “conservatives,” capitalism, even in its purest “free-market” form, is an extremely radical system. As Karl Marx observed in Capital (Vol. 1), the concept of using money to generate more money, rather than purchasing commodities (the process of “Money-Commodity-Money,” instead of “C-M-C,”) represented a fundamental shift in the economic structure of society.
Under capitalism even essential human needs like health care, education, and affordable housing are debased into transactional commodities. The system is unjust, unequal, inhuman and antidemocratic. And it is literally destroying our planet and the ecosystem that sustains life upon it. 

Those who dismiss me as hyperbolic are clearly not paying attention to the headlines.

Last month, the World Bank issued a startling report which predicts a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if nations do not take measures to radically reduce CO2 levels worldwide. This estimate is double the 2 C rise in temperature scientists already claim would be catastrophic for the planet. Such a rise in global temperature will ensure floods, droughts, hurricanes and other climate-related disasters will become the “new normal” according to the report titled “Turn Down the Heat.” The authors also note poor nations are likely to suffer the worst effects.

 “We will never end poverty if we don’t tackle climate change,” World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim told reporters upon the report’s release (The Guardian, 11/19/2012). “It is one of the biggest challenges to social justice today.”

We know, thanks to author and environmental activist, Bill McKibben and his worldwide movement,, that 350 represents the earth’s “safe zone.” Three hundred fifty parts per million is the total amount of CO2 the earth’s atmosphere can comfortably handle, according to leading climate scientists. Any CO2 concentration greater than that, according to NASA’s James Hansen, is not compatible with “a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.” Global CO2 concentration currently stands at 392 ppm.  

One would think such urgent information would prompt the executives of giant oil corporations like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP and the like to, at the very least, rethink their business model. Alas, it has not. Quite the reverse, the fossil fuel industry is charging full-speed ahead with its plan to ultimately extract and burn the remaining reserves of coal, oil and gas on the planet—roughly 2,795 gigatons according to London’s Carbon Tracker Initiative. That is five times more than the 565 gigatons scientists believe we can safely pour into the atmosphere without hitting the 2 degree mark.

This is the disease of capitalism. It is not that CEOs at Exxon-Mobil truly do not believe the science of global warming (although many of them claim not to). It is that their corporate profits ultimately depend on continuing to rely on cheap, dirty fuel. (Last year Exxon raked in $9.45 billion according to Think Or, as Naomi Klein puts it, “Their [the oil companies’] business model is to wreck the planet.”

And therein lies the dilemma of corporatism. Corporations and citizens do not meet each other in the metaphorical “marketplace” as equals, because they are not equals. Corporations have far more money, power, political influence and economic authority than the average citizen. The two entities are about as equal as David and Goliath.

Furthermore, the interests of corporations are completely at odds with those of citizens. Consider the for-profit, pay-or-die health care system. The only way the health insurance companies can make a profit (which, remember, is their overall goal; not providing health care) is by denying a customer’s claim. If the company covers every treatment, illness, and medication, it will not make a profit. If this means the patient must die in order for the insurance provider to cash-in, so be it. People are often offended when I put it in such stark terms, but this is the nature of capitalism. It is not about saving lives, promoting the common good, or protecting the environment. The system is about making money. Period.

As Marx writes in Capital:

[T]he valorization of value…is his [the capitalist’s] subjective purpose, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole driving force behind his operations that he functions as a capitalist… Use-values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making. (p. 254)

How is such a pernicious system compatible with the inalienable “rights of man” enumerated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (you know—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness)? It is not. Capitalism provides these ideals for a select few, certainly. But it does not ensure them for all. It is by nature an exclusive, elitist system—the very antithesis of an open, citizen-powered democracy. And, as I mentioned before, it is destroying our planet.

So…who’s ready for revolution?

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