It's increasingly evident to thoughtful persons that humanity has entered a period of unusual danger on multiple fronts. The months and years ahead may bring catastrophe through military conflagration, environmental disaster, economic collapse, or any combination of these. This essay will argue that these problems are all ultimately linked; that they are fundamentally rooted in corporate capitalism, and moreover that none of them can be solved within the framework of capitalism. I will focus on the role of capitalist ideology in precluding resolution of the gathering tensions; and on the idea of capitalism as a system that can be analyzed somewhat as mechanical systems are analyzed.
Infinite Growth in a Finite World?
Capitalism seeks to maximize growth. "Growth" is calculated in a way that overlooks fundamental quality-of-life determinants such as the social cohesiveness of communities, clean air and water, access to healthcare and education, well-maintained parks, leisure time, and the like. Meanwhile, such noxious "goods and services" as mind-numbing TV commercials, hideous real-estate development, and high-tech weapons systems are counted as "positive contributions" to GDP.
The obsession with growth is oppressive and objectionable, even in times not threatened by imminent systemic crisis. But when consumption nears certain natural limits, such as the exhaustion of vital resources, a unidimensional insistence on growth becomes the enemy of reason and planetary well-being. You can't have infinite growth in a finite world -- yet capitalist theology provides no adequate mechanisms for recognizing and responding to such limitations.
The capitalist apologist might argue that as certain processes (climate change, water pollution, the destruction of rain forests and various biological species, etc) approach critical points, a set of price rises should signal economic actors to desist from the offending processes, & to develop alternatives. However, this simple "Econ 101 supply-and-demand" view does not factor in the ability of corporate monopolies and cartels to overwhelm society's information-processing abilities. The simplest example is the threat posed by global warming -- where, rather than facing the crisis, oil corporations are able to simply buy or bribe media outlets and government into denying that the crisis even exists.
This last example -- the power of cartels -- reflects another increasingly destructive and destabilizing aspect of capitalism: the inexorable tendency towards concentration of wealth. The adage that "the rich get richer" is widely acknowledged in American culture. The phrase itself has a kind of "folk wisdom" status. It's often spoken with a rueful chuckle, then dismissed -- as though it were simply "the way of the world" -- as natural and inevitable as the sun setting in the west.
But what underlies the adage is no laughing matter. An economic system in which the dominant social class becomes ever wealthier and more powerful is ultimately incompatible with democratic governance. The only possible endpoint for such a system is a two-tiered society consisting of a ruling class, and everyone else. The only governmental form possible in such a society is plutocracy, in which the machinery of state becomes purely an instrument of class rule. The Bush administration, and the concurrent lack of a real opposition party, are merely bitter foretastes of the blatancy these tendencies must eventually achieve.
The system dynamics here deserve serious reflection, because the basic process is a "self-reinforcing feedback loop." To wit: the wealthier the ruling class gets, the more influential it becomes. The more influential it becomes, the more it can effect policy to make its members still wealthier. A self-reinforcing feedback process grows stronger as time goes on, & can't be stopped without the action of an outside force. In this case, as the loop continues, class tyranny becomes ever more entrenched. Ultimately, the only possible outcomes of such a process are class dictatorship, or social upheaval.
The Cell: a Metaphor for the Organization of Living Systems
In 1974, the physician Lewis Thomas wrote a collection of essays titled "The Lives of a Cell." It was something of a sensation in certain circles, and won the National Book Award. The titular essay ended with this passage:
Indeed, many of the basic processes exhibited by the individual cell -- ingestion, metabolism, growth, excretion, reproduction, and so forth -- are seen at every level of living organization, from the cell, to the multicellular organism, to simple and then great populations, up to and including the whole biosphere. The analogy is self-evidently a rich and compelling one.
What is capitalism, in this analogy? Capitalism is the logic of a cancer cell. It is the prioritizing of growth to the exclusion of all else, regardless of the consequences for the "organism" as a whole. The capitalist class is a cancer on the aggregate social body. While the rest of the body labors to perform its varied functions -- all essential for the well-being of the whole organism -- a disproportionate share of vital nutrients is commandeered by the tumor and diverted into its own excessive and chaotic growth, until the process consumes, cripples, and destroys the entire organism.
In still another sense, an elemental theme is recapitulated as one moves from lower to higher levels of social organization. Marx describes the "class war" -- the inherently conflicting interests of working class and the capitalist. It is clear that at the most concrete and local level (say, a factory owner and his workers), the capitalist holds the power, which the workers must submit to, or cope with as best they can.
What is still true but far less obvious is that as capitalist power relations are echoed throughout ascending levels of society, one winds up with a national power structure just as favorable to the capitalist class in relation to the working class, as the individual worker-capitalist relationship is to the individual CEO or factory owner.
The working class is roughly 4/5 of the population. The various layers of the middle class comprise most of the rest, while the capitalist class is less than a percent. Based on these general estimates alone, it should evoke astonishment that there is no such thing in the United States as a "workers' party." Instead, workers are compelled to vote for candidates of one of the two officially-sanctioned capitalist parties, both of which exist primarily to promote the interests of the richest Americans. This arrangement is papered over with silly fluff in which each party purports to represent the interests of "all Americans" -- a posture so ludicrous that it's difficult to even say it with a straight face. And of course, if you live here, and have heard it all your life, you become so accustomed to the idea that we only have two parties, that it begins to seem "natural." Yet there's really nothing natural about the fact that the 99% of the population who are not in the capitalist class are nonetheless compelled to vote for one of two parties which BOTH primarily serve the interests of the richest 1% -- often to the detriment of most of those 99%. It's deeply revealing, when one pauses to consider it, that in the United States, this arrangement is reverently referred to as "democracy."