“Wealth is the parent of luxury and indolence, poverty of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent.” ― Plato, The Republic, Book IV, 422a
The capitalist religion of free market progress asserts the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. But limitless growth for its own sake is the mechanism of the cancer cell. Whether we consider this axiom to be sacred imperative or anti-apoptotic mania, the fact is all contemporary neoliberal economies, and the heart of free market capitalism itself, continue to be predicated on this unnatural, grow-it-’til-you-implode-it utopia. We are approaching four hundred years of experience – counting from the Dutch tulip craze of March 1637 to the global economic collapse of September 2008 – of the wired highs and wrenching lows that necessarily accompany capitalist-style development and innovation. And what the 20th century showed us in living/dying color is that, miraculous though these innovations may be, our modern fossil-fueled choreography of globalization, privatization, militarization, and financialization only quicken the pace of the disease, mainlining sugar to the cancer cell. It is clear: the current world system, like a malignancy, requires constant growth in order to survive. Yet as we quiver on the precipice of ecological catastrophe, and watch wide-eyed as entrenched levels of global inequality – like the sea levels – rise, faith in the ‘divine harmony’ of market self-regulation remains endemic to politics and psychology. Why?
The cultural values of capitalism are backed by a bracing gold standard of Judeo-Christian teleology, Renaissance humanism, Protestant individualism, positivist ethics, Enlightenment cults of reason, 18th-century moral philosophies, and Euro-American manifest destiny – a potent and addictive mix. And because the invisible hand’s predictable grabs for the forbidden fruit are always-already forgiven via the charismatic narrative of fall and redemption, radical selfishness has transformed from social sin to virtue, and made the dream of alternative, cooperative orders seem flaky, half-cracked, and queer – socialist at best, communist at worst. The irony is that for a civilization believing it’s escaped the expired milk-rivers of religious belief to skinny-dip in the cool, clear waters of Rational-ism™, consumer culture’s radical objectification of money and whirling dervishing of exchange reveal it as the religious gospel that it is. (Alas, where Adam Smith regarded himself as a steward of society’s moral foundations, laissez faire economists have long since traded in their moral compasses for the icy-hot lumens of algorithm.)
We need only look at the United States to separate the bitter medicine we’re drinking from the myth we’ve been sold. The poster child of capitalist democracy now flaunts levels of inequality greater than those of apartheid South Africa. Last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers made $25 billion, enough to pay the salaries of half a million public school teachers. For the fiscal year 2014, Wal-Mart, number one on the Fortune 500 list (edging out Exxon Mobil for the palm) had net sales verging on half a trillion dollars, paid its workers below minimum wage, cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance despite $16 billion in profits, and pocketed a tax cut from the US government for its efforts. Yesterday (July 31, 2014), a single conservative American billionaire pushed Argentina, a nation of 43 million people, into defaulting on its debt. The jury’s in: a 2013 Princeton University study found that the superpower is now, functionally speaking, an oligarchy. And Capital in the 21st Century, a game-changing study by French economist Thomas Piketty, brings centuries’ worth of data to bear to illustrate that it is in capitalism’s DNA to foster ever-faster accumulation of wealth at the top of the financial pyramid. His thesis, r > g, is that the rate of return on capital now, and for most of history, has been greater than general economic growth. This is because once a fortune passes a certain threshold, its size and scale are magnified by the fact that income earned on that capital can be buried straight back into investment. As Piketty puts it, “Money tends to reproduce itself.” In light of this analysis, cancer is more than just an effective allegory for capitalism, more than just the single most emblematic disease of our times. The tumor’s blind drive for growth is a description of the state of profound biological and moral irresponsibility toward the host body – in this case Earth, and society at large – that contemporary capitalist civilization represents.
There is great opportunity hidden in today’s crises; our civilization is already in transition. We still can come to our senses, hold a funeral for consumer capitalism, and light the eternal flame of a regenerative planetary economy. We must:
• Correct! – for r > g through income, capital gains, and consumption taxes;
• Repeal! – the personhood of corporations;
• Cancel! – oil, natural gas and coal subsidies;
• Embrace! – a scaled global carbon tax;
• Protect! – natural resources unequivocally from privatization;
• Invest! – in community-owned renewable energy resources;
• Vote! – only in elections that are publicly financed;
• Elect! – governments whose outlooks are humane and global;
• Delve! – into business practices inspired by nature’s continuous cycle;
• Buy! – only from corporations that reduce waste, honor biodiversity, create positive social impact, and temper climate change;
• Remake! – our approach to remuneration, paying salaries according to the social-environmental worth of work;
• Free! – public higher education;
• Guard! – net neutrality like mother wolves;
• Stop! – exalting radical self-interest as the basis of our social system;
• Reject! – the cardboard cut-outs of reality sold to us by government, media, and religion;
• Teach! – quantum physics in kindergarten;
• Honor! – the wisdom of women in society;
• Balance! – man’s instinct to enrich himself and his friend with woman’s instinct to enrich her family and community.
The Earth is one organism. We all drink from the same well; we all breathe the same oxygen. It is not enough to have a say in whether we win or lose; we must have a say in the rules of the game itself. Only then will we shake the apocalyptic mantra of the cancer cell, and harness the creative exchange of the balanced economy of nature as it transmutes creaking caterpillar into luscious butterfly, and decaying butterfly into fructifying loam. What we need now is a politics of exhaustion. We must come, as Auden wrote, “from the conservative dark / Into the ethical life,” and to do so, “we must love one another or die.” Such will be our chrysalis.
“Nothing beautiful without struggle.”
― Plato, The Republic, Book IV, 435c
Jasmine Melvin-Koushki, Independent Curator, Artist and Social Enterprise Developer