Capitalism—The Carcinoma Economy

August 6, 2014 § 5 Comments

Capitalism is predicated on growth. Unique among all physical systems in the universe, capitalism pretends to disobey one of the laws of thermodynamics by claiming to produce more energy than you put into it. It pretends to be a perpetual motion machine that not only keeps going, but actually picks up speed. Capitalism calls the allegedly surplus energy it produces profit. The energy you put into it is capital plus labor, or, following the Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding, materials, energy and know-how. Capitalism claims that after you account for costs, there’s still some energy left over for humans to use as they please. Never mind that we did not really factor in the true costs to the Earth and to wider society, let alone future generations, of irretrievable resource destruction, thorough waste management, worker basic education, infrastructure building and maintenance, and the support of other social systems that provide capitalism with numerous necessary services.

Profit—growth—is the goal, the fictitious end towards which the whole system strives. Furthermore, the growth itself is expected to grow. The curve is supposed to climb, producing more profit all the time, and it is best if the growth of the growth grows—the ideal system has periods of acceleration and expansion.

In a biological system—in an organism—growth that never stops is called cancer

The earth is a biological-physical system, a super-organism in which the biological subsystems—its ecosystems—interact with each other and with the earth’s physical systems, such as the atmosphere, the rivers, lakes, glaciers, and seas, and the rocks and soils, in a billions-year-old process of evolution that has been self-regenerative throughout all those geologic epochs. 

Capitalism is a cancer in our Mother Earth. Like a cancer, it never stops sucking up resources that other organisms in the super-organism need to survive and thrive. It never stops consuming Mother Earth’s finite supplies of captured energy, water, and industrial minerals. It never stops displacing other systems and organisms as it consumes, grows, and excretes its poisons. It never stops debouching its wastes into earth-cleansing systems that increasingly cannot keep up with the load.

Capitalism has metastasized. It has always needed fuel, water, and minerals. But at first, the fuel was wood, the water was local, and the mineral was iron. Now the fuels are several and most are poisonous, all the water of the planet is at risk, and the mineral and other material resources it requires include virtually all of the periodic table of the elements. At first, only local ecosystems were fouled by its waste. Now the vast oceans, all the waterways, virtually all the underground aquifers, and the entire atmosphere of the earth groan in tortured poisoned pain and unsustainable drawdown. Now even the electromagnetic fields of the planet are distorted and extra-planetary radiation rains in through its holes, killing off the primary source of oxygen on the planet, the phytoplankton off the coasts of Antarctica. We even put junk on the moon.

This describes the global capitalist system as a whole in the Mother Earth. But the smaller organisms in the system follow the same patterns. The cancer operates at all levels of capitalist organization. Tiny individual companies hope to sprout branches in nearby neighborhoods or cities. Startups dream of becoming big enough to go public or be consumed by some larger engine of consumption and profit. Whole new industries rise up to drive the expansion exponentially. National companies seek to become transnational. Some trans-national corporations are already meta-national—they no longer have any meaningful national identity and exist only as global entities with no meaningful allegiances except to profit. It seems only a matter of time before one of them makes a small country into a company nation, the way smaller corporations used to create company towns with their growth and hegemony (I think of Johnson & Johnson’s purchase of New Brunswick, New Jersey), trading meta-national status for the gift to a nation’s people of economic development, and thus acquiring a seat in the United Nations General Assembly. I expect Exxon Mobil to be the first, since it already has made Trinidad Tobago into a company country.

The system is predicated on a simple model of mass-production and mass-consumption. Companies produce goods that consumers consume or services and experiences that consumers purchase and internalize. In doing so, the companies themselves consume goods and services that other companies produce, and so on, back to the Earth as the ultimate source. Venders, producers, and consumers alike consume fuels in order to consume and they release wastes back into the system as an inevitable byproduct. All this takes place on a mass scale. Capitalism is a mass-production, mass-consumption, mass-excretion economic system.

Are you an organism in this system, a business, or a worker, or a consumer? Stop producing and you start to die. Stop consuming and you start to die. Run out of supplies or suppliers, you start to die. Run out of energy, you start to die. Lose your job, you are diminished. Have a really old computer or mobile phone? It breaks down and we lose touch, we lose our productivity, we die a little consumer death. We run out and get another one.

This economic system has to keep producing, keep consuming, keep growing, or it starts to die. The only thing worse than a recession, in which a nation-state organism in the system gets ill and starts shrinking instead of growing, is a depression, in which the organism goes into a coma.

Capitalism is carcinomic. Mother Earth’s immune systems cannot keep up. What reforms can we imagine that would halt its rapacious growth while continuing to deliver its benefits? This fantastical outcome seems impossible to me. Constant growth is part of capitalism’s basic DNA. 

So I might present the predicaments of capitalism for Friends in these queries: Can you imagine an economic system that is not predicated on continual growth at the expense of all the other physical and biological systems of planet Earth? Following the Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding, who popularized the phrase “spaceship earth”, can we envision a system in which all of its production, consumption, and waste generation take place in a series of completely sustainable cycles of reuse and regeneration as we travel through the galaxy in this finite vessel made of earth and air and fire and water? 

No—these are not true queries. They only have yes or no answers. The true query is not can we, but how do we, deliver the benefits of industrial and post-industrial capitalism without carcinomic growth, without the fiction of profit?

The deeper question is how can we redefine wealth as weal-th, as well-being for all organisms on Mother Earth, without embodying this well-being in things that must be produced and consumed, in experiences that must be produced and purchased? How can we organize the natural and necessary processes of an ecos, an organic household economy—providing food, fuel, shelter, clothing, health and healing, art, study, entertainment, and other forms of human expression and fulfillment—in a system that treats all the material and social resources required for these things as gifts to be returned, to the Earth and to each other? How do we build an economic system out of mutuality, reciprocity, respect, and renewal, without continual consumptive growth?

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§ 5 Responses to Capitalism—The Carcinoma Economy

  • Paul Klinkman says:

    It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

    I’m going to name a replacement for our heavily-used capitalist economic model. I call it, “What would the community want?”

    Quaker staffers regularly have to apply this rule. When they buy a box of pencils, they think, “What would the community want?” In this case they just go and buy the pencils. For more thorny issues, they ask one or two other Friends for advice so that they don’t make a mistake. Other issues go straight to the committee, with lots of research beforehand.

    Friends have an unspoken auditing process. If an individual staffer or committee clerk makes too many poor judgments, more emphasis is applied by other Friends to get things right.

    Yes, the community wants each of us not to go hungry. Conversely, capitalism doesn’t care if a small businessperson starves.

    I believe that if we ran some of our businesses by this theory, our businesses would grow (because that’s what the community wants, of course) and we’d be a fairly cohesive large community government. We would eventually either swallow the governments of the world, or else companies would have to compete with us by offering their employees/consumers/etc. the same long-term benefits that our community offers.

  • Jim Schultz says:

    There’s a very easy answer to the question. Don’t buy what you don’t need. It’s like losing weight. Don’t eat if you are not actually hungry – your stomach is growling hungry. Keep your life simple. Look at the costs associated with the purchase, not just the purchase. If Quakers don’t celebrate Christmas, don’t shop black Friday or cyber Monday for anything that hasn’t been on your need list for several months unless you are replacing something essential that just broke down. It’s the old Pogo statement: “We have met the enemy and he is us”. I just sang a song about this at the summer sessions of my YM: “Love your neighbor, think before you spend”. By the way “Capitalism” as practiced in today’s world is a new word for an old vice called “Greed”. It’s just been re-packaged.

  • treegestalt says:

    Yes, for any system whatsoever to work over the long run, the people in it have to be integrated into God’s friend-ship, not just this physical spaceship. So far as we aren’t, a system’s very stability makes it an obstacle to us finding God necessary… and that intrinsically leads to it producing evils and suffering. The more of its problems get “solved”, the more subtly and ultimately-unliveably corruptive the solutions will turn out to be.

    But as we all at last connect better to God, we will see, as Jesus did, that the social/political/economic institutions we have — like the Sabbath — were made for us, not us for them. From the perspective of life centered in God, we can see to tinker with whatever system we have, or to change systems, in any case ceasing to sacrifice sentient beings to any system.

  • Free - ATT says:

    Even without profit there are real needs like food, clothing shelter transportation, medicine, household goods, etc. that are needed to live.

  • Brilliant, Steve, and beautiful.
    How do we? I wish I knew. But faith tells me that I have to be willing to change, willing to suffer, and willing to die, all without putting on a long face and also refusing happiness, all without shutting my eyes and ears to new revelations, all without forgetting my neighbors, who are God’s precious darlings, even the earthworms and the flies. It has to start with me.
    But no, it has to start with God. Even if seven billion of us adopt right attitudes and pull on our own bootstraps at once, that won’t lift us. We need new wisdom. But the One Who Answers Prayer has surely heard us ask for it.

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