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.
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.
#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.
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.
# 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.
# 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.”
# 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.”
# 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.
(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)