Category: Capitalism


capitalism
I was a first-time author waiting to give my first live online interview, and I was nervous. With only a few minutes to make my case for global transformation, I expected the host Gary Null to cut to the chase, but instead he opened with a curve ball. The Occupy movement was afoot, and Gary recounted seeing the police ransack a makeshift kitchen set up to feed the homeless. He was fishing for an explanation, but I could offer nothing beyond my shared vexation. Although this gave us more time to discuss my book (the title of which I nevertheless failed to mention), I soon came to regret this missed opportunity to air a topic that had been all but forbidden just a few months before: class warfare.

If I’d had more time and lucidity, I would have mentioned other gift-based movements like Food Not Bombs and The San Francisco Diggers that have faced routine harassment. I would have lamented the absurd illegality of dumpster diving. I would have talked about the War on Drugs and how America imprisons more of its citizens—mostly poor people of color—than any other country in history, mainly for petty drug offenses, while those with white skin and white collars (who use illegal drugs themselves) enjoy almost total impunity for fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, war profiteering, and other high crimes that adversely affect millions of lives. I would have described the aggressive, well-organized, and ongoing campaign led by corporate-backed politicians to kill unions, outsource and automate jobs, keep the minimum wage unlivable, defund Social Security, cut Medicaid and food stamps, and generally shred the social safety net.

I would have concluded, like my allies in Occupy and millions of other reasonable people, that an all-out war against the poor and working class has been raging for decades.

As Marx pointed out, class conflict is as old as civilization itself. But in the US, the war in question was, by most accounts, unofficially declared by Ronald Reagan, who espoused the theory that wealth would somehow “trickle down” from the upper class to the lower. Needless to say, no such trickle has occurred, and the wealth gap has since become a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. One of Reagan’s closest comrades was Margaret Thatcher, an equally ardent devotee of Ayn Rand (“altruism is evil”) who infamously asserted that “there is no such thing as society.” Thatcher also earned the nickname “TINA” for declaring “There Is No Alternative” to the pro-corporate laissez-faire economic policies, structural adjustment programs, and austerity measures that have since been imposed throughout the world, under the authority of every US President since Reagan.

Of course, most elites would deny that a class war is being waged. Among those who dare entertain the notion, the tendency is to insist that it is the rich, not the poor, who are put upon and persecuted. Such was the recent claim of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who went so far as to compare the 1% to the Jews during the Holocaust. Though his hyperbole was widely criticized, Perkins was defended by the Wall Street Journal in a follow-up article that concluded: “The liberals aren’t encouraging violence, but they are promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents.”

Apparently for the rich right, it’s all about politics. Fairness is not the issue, nor even poverty. Never mind the billions of people worldwide who are scraping by on $1.25/day or less. Pay no attention to starving children in Zambia, sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, rice farmers in China, and struggling single mothers in the US. Forget the populist rhetoric of Obama, the admonitions of the Pope, the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and the core teachings of every major religion. Disregard the recent Oxfam report revealing that the richest 85 people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. And if you can’t ignore such news, why not openly celebrate it like Kevin O’Leary, a reality show host and investor who called the Oxfam findings “fantastic” and asked, “What can be wrong with this?” Not to be outdone, a staff writer for Forbes described income inequality as “unrelentingly beautiful,” insisting (again in his italics) that “inequality hasn’t increased enough.”

One could dismiss these guys as renegade extremists if their ideas weren’t so apparently widespread amongst the top percentile. But normally such “greed is good” rhetoric is kept confined to smoke-filled back rooms, secret society functions, and $1000-a-plate dinners, which begs the question: why the recent public displays of psychopathy and megalomania? Perhaps the rich believe that the war on the poor has already been won, as maintained by journalist and producer of The Wire, David Simon. If indeed the common folk have been successfully subjugated, then there is little to lose by offending them, since any insurrection can and will be quickly and violently suppressed, as happened with Occupy.

On the other hand there exists a more hopeful possibility, one suggested by the persecution complex of the 1 percent: they’re worried that their halcyon days are numbered, genuinely afraid of a sudden outbreak of equality. Only time will tell if we the people will, like citizens in so many countries throughout the world, rise again in defense of our most cherished ideals.

billet 100 dollars #1

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has famously remarked that for most people it’s easier to imagine the end of life on earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This might be especially true in America, where despite ample evidence of the antagonism between free markets and freedom, the two have become virtually synonymous in the popular psyche, and where both are frequently defended with a passion that Patrick Henry would admire.

Yet a growing number of people are realizing that economic liberty and death are indeed linked, but not in the way neoliberals imagine. To return to Zizek’s idea, capitalism and apocalypse go together in that the former could well cause the latter. Certainly much has already been said about the basic incompatibility between a system predicated on infinite growth and the finite resources of Earth, but capitalism has other, related design flaws that are already proving fatal, not only to various life forms but to the vitality of human communities as well. What follows is a list of capitalism’s seven deadliest sins (or capital vices), presented in reverse order.

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#7: AMORALITY
Although some economic actors do indeed behave immorally (while many strive to do good), the system as a whole frankly doesn’t give a damn. Its only “concern” is its own survival and growth, which always trumps the welfare of those living within its constraints. As a refutation of the claim that capitalism is the most efficient distributor of resources, consider that almost 50% of food is wasted in America, much of it by producers and vendors. Such waste is all the more egregious when witnessed by actual hungry people. As the linked article explains:

In a capitalist society, the motive behind the production of food is not to feed people, housing is not made to give them shelter, clothing is not made to keep them warm, and health care is not offered primarily to keep people healthy. All of these things, which are and should be viewed as basic rights, are nothing other than commodities—to be bought and sold—from which to make a profit. If a profit cannot be made, usually due to overproduction in relation to the market, the commodity is considered useless by the capitalist and destroyed.

By a similar logic, money better spent on the curing of serious diseases like malaria and HIV is often funneled into relatively trivial conditions like male baldness and erectile dysfunction that affect fewer people but generate greater revenue.

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#6: INTRINSIC INEQUALITY
Due largely to deadly defects in the monetary system (see #1 below), capitalism divides the world into haves and have-nots, inevitably concentrating wealth in the hands of the former—as we have seen in recent years and in the period preceding the Great Depression—until redistribution or revolution. Despite the rhetoric, a rising economic tide does not raise all boats; it only raises the yachts while the dinghies, deprived of bailouts, inevitably go under.

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#5: POVERTY
One of the most common arguments for global capitalism is that it helps alleviate poverty. Problem is, global poverty statistics are generated by the World Bank, an institution explicitly designed to promote globalization. Critics argue that (1) the numbers are usually skewed by one or two rapidly developing countries, (2) the definition of deep poverty as a wage of $1.25/day is set arbitrarily low in order to yield the desired stats, and (3) daily wages say nothing about access to potable water, adequate nutrition, healthcare, education, community, and other things that determine quality of life. Moreover, poverty rates mean little when economic disparity has increased so dramatically in recent decades.

Actually, a compelling argument can be made that global capitalism doesn’t alleviate poverty but causes poverty. After all, the aim of globalization is to expand markets by infiltrating “undeveloped” (read: self-sufficient) communities and dragging them into the money economy, thus creating new laborers and consumers. Could members of a gift-based, indigenous tribe really be called “poor”? Only by the logic of capitalism, which defines poverty as the inability to purchase one’s basic necessities (which might include designer clothing) from an outside party using fiat currency.

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# 4: EXTERNALIZATION
To externalize a cost is to pass it along to someone else, typically the general public and the environment. The most obvious example is pollution: when Company X dumps its toxic waste into a river, downstream communities pay with health problems and ecological degradation. Another example is given in the now-classic Story of Stuff when Annie Leonard talks about buying a $4.99 radio and realizing that the low price is only possible because of the many externalized costs and the people around the world who paid them.

The main purveyors of this capital vice are corporations, which function mainly by privatizing profits and publicizing costs. Indeed a corporation has been described as an “externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine (1),” each doing what they are designed to do. Externalization is legally enshrined in the limited liability corporation (LLC), which cleverly enables risk-taking and pathologically encourages irresponsibility.

A 2013 UN-sponsored study showed that if the world’s top industries were forced to absorb their own costs, none of them would make a profit.

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# 3: GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT
GDP is supposed to monitor economic wellbeing by tallying up all the goods and services exchanged within a given area and time frame. But GDP sinfully ignores what is being exchanged, such that war, natural disasters, accidents, disease, depression, and other negatives are counted as positives for GDP because they generate revenue, while life-affirming activities like volunteering and gifting are not counted at all. Furthermore, GDP ignores the distribution of wealth.

The bottom line is that a simple number says nothing about human happiness or ecological integrity. In fact, a rise in artificial wealth generally corresponds with a decline in natural wealth. As author Paul Hawken has said, “We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.”

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# 2: PRIVATE PROPERTY
The Romans were the first to advance the legal concept of dominium, which was considered “the ultimate right, the right which had no right behind it, the right which legitimated all others, while itself having no need of legitimation… the right ‘of using, enjoying, and abusing’”(2) This dominator mindset prevailed throughout Europe and eventually infiltrated what is now America, where the ownership of land is still considered an unalienable and unquestioned right.

But to the native peoples of this continent who were so brutalized, land ownership was an absurd concept, for it suggested that a greater power (nature) could be owned by a lesser power (humans). In all parts of the world, indigenous groups have upheld reverence for nature and a respect for “the commons”—the air, water, and land that supports life and thus rightly belong to all living creatures.

By contrast, capitalism strives to privatize and profit from everything; not only land but water, slices of the electromagnetic spectrum, species, seeds, genes, songs, images, ideas, etc. This vice was summed up by the anarchist Proudhon, who said, “Property is theft.”

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# 1: USURY
If anything can be considered the root of all evil, it would have to be usury. The practice of lending money at interest is condemned by most religions, including the Abrahamic faiths, although the Bible allows Jews to profit from foreigners as a way of “fighting without a sword.” The implication of violence is inherent in usury, which is basically the opposite of a gift.

In our modern economic system, institutional theft is the business of commercial banks and the (private) Fed, which have been empowered to conjure money into existence as interest-bearing debt. Since the money to repay all these loans (with interest) doesn’t exist, society is driven by a sense of competition and a mentality of scarcity. Worse yet, usury creates a demand for continuous economic growth (measured in GDP), without which the economy is subject to collapse.

As noted, such growth is obviously unsustainable and ultimately suicidal. Although we may be on the road to ruin, it’s never too late to change our wicked ways.

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(1) Robert Monk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._G._Monks)
(2) Avila (2004) Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, p. 20 (via Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics)

The following article was originally published on elephant journal on March 29, 2013.
overconsumption

Surely you’ve heard about the “law of attraction.” It has appeared in many guises since at least the middle of the 19th century, when the movement known as New Thought first swept America. Another big wave hit in the early 20th century, when books like The Science of Getting Rich made explicit the connection between positive thinking and material wealth. If you buy into the 2006 movie The Secret that most recently popularized positivity, the law of attraction has been known and safeguarded throughout history by towering figures like Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, and Lincoln.

Frankly, I hope you don’t buy into The Secret and its dubious claims. Both the film and the book have been widely criticized for promoting materialism, victim blaming, and a political passivity that ignores or dismisses the deep flaws in the system. The suggestion is that if you’re poor or otherwise beset with misfortune, it’s basically your fault. If this loopy logic sounds familiar, that’s because it’s frequently espoused by Christian conservatives.

Which raises the question of why the law of attraction has been embraced by so many New Age liberals. Granted, the prescription has shifted from thinking positive to cultivating a “mentality of abundance,” and the focus is often extended beyond money to include meaningful work and loving relationships. Still, judging from the number of books and expensive seminars on the subject, the “think and grow rich” notion remains alive and well, especially among those who are already quite wealthy by global standards.

According to the Census Bureau, median income in the US is about $30,000 per person. This might sound fairly modest until we consider that half the world lives on less than $2.50/day (about $900/year), while a quarter live in “deep poverty” on less than half of that. The usual response to this disparity is to advocate raising the standard of living for people in poorer countries, and rightly so. But few folks in the so-called developed world would be willing to consider lowering their own standard of living. In fact, the resounding chorus of capital sings incessantly of economic growth, while most us either absentmindedly hum along or single-mindedly chant the mantra of “more money.”

The question rarely asked by moguls and manifestors alike is how much is enough? Well, thanks to author and activist David Ulansey, we can calculate an actual dollar amount by dividing the Gross World Product (about $80 trillion in 2011) by the number of people on Earth (~7 billion) to arrive at a figure of roughly $12,000 per year per capita. Since this GWP figure is already adjusted for purchasing power, 12K marks a particular standard of living in the US and its equivalent in other countries, NOT what that amount would buy elsewhere. Based on an equal distribution of wealth, then, 12K/yr is the amount to which each human being is entitled, meaning that a higher income involves taking more than one’s fair share. Ulansey is more blunt, stating that “any more than that represents institutionalized and socially sanctioned armed robbery.”

The kicker is that this amount is already unsustainably high for planet Earth, which has been in resource overshoot since 1986. Since then, humanity has been living off of its ecological credit card, taking about 130% more than can be replaced, essentially borrowing if not stealing from future generations. Accounting for this overshoot as well as the increasing global population, the figure in question should be more like $6000/yr. This is the acceptable level both ethically and ecologically, given that the more money you make, the more resources you consume. Collectively, we Americans use about 1/3 of the world’s resources, yet comprise only about 6% of the global population.

Thus most Americans, rather than increasing their means, need to decrease them, in many cases dramatically so. This is the secret law of attrition. It’s a secret not only because most folks don’t know about it, but also because they don’t want to know about it. By and large, we have become so attached to our material comforts that we can scarcely imagine living without them. Little do we realize that our possessions have come to possess us, that our houses are like so many prisons built upon foundations of scarcity and fear.

Although based on compassion, the law of attrition is not about making some difficult and noble sacrifice but about extending the concept of wealth beyond the material realm into the natural, social, artistic, and spiritual realms. It’s about shifting from quantity to quality, and from making a living to making a life, along with the time to enjoy it. It’s about actually embodying the maxim that less is more, and about finally learning the lesson of the world’s wisdom traditions that the key to happiness—the true secret, if you will—lies not in getting but in giving, not in having but in sharing, not in holding on but in letting go.

The following article was originally published on elephant journal on March 1, 2013
Narcissus

Note: The following exercises are intended for advanced practitioners who have cultivated a thick skin-encapsulated ego and an understanding of satire.

First, find a comfortable position in life that allows you to spend hundreds of dollars per month on yoga classes, kombucha, raw cacao, and superfood smoothies, resting quietly in the illusion that doing so will preserve your youth and good looks indefinitely.

While taking a few deep breaths, obsess about your first world problem of having to park four blocks from the yoga studio, which made you have to walk by that homeless guy who always asks for change when what he really needs is inner transformation to help him to cultivate an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity.

Begin your formal “me time” by standing in tree pose in front of a full-length mirror. Open your awareness to just how awesome you look in your new yoga gear. While inhaling and lengthening your spine, bend over backwards to justify spending more on a pair of pants than the average Kenyan family spends on food in a month, bearing in mind the importance of moisture-wicking material that flatters your form so perfectly.

While sitting in half lotus in front of the mirror, see yourself as a living god or goddess. Press your palms together in Namaste and bow three times to your reflection while chanting your own name, or the name you would prefer to be called, such as Mahatma, Morpheus, Chrysalis, or Shamanica.

Allow your eyes to close gently. In your mind’s eye, visualize your favorite Hindu deity from among the three or four that you know. That elephant guy will do nicely. Imagine him spewing a fountain of golden light while you emit from your heart chakra your deepest intention: to cultivate inner peace and tight abs that will be the envy of everyone who sees you on the cover of Yoga Journal someday.

Form the “no evil” mudra by gently putting your thumbs into your ears and using your fingers to cover your eyes. From within your peaceful bubble, spend as much time as possible not thinking about poverty, war, racism, sexism, imperialism, global warming, mass extinction, injustice, inequality, white privilege, and other things that bum you out. Keep your thoughts focused on the positive, like how much fun you’re going to have at that yoga retreat in Bali next month.

Raise your right arm above your head and bend at the elbow to reach behind your back. Using your left arm to pull your right elbow downward, pat yourself repeatedly on the back for being so conscious and so dedicated in your spiritual practice.

Reward yourself with a decaf soy mocha latte from Starbucks. Consider getting something healthy like fruit, but opt instead for a cinnamon roll because dammit, you deserve a little self-indulgence now and then.