The Economics Of Life And Death (Boston, 1991) by Prof John McMurtry

The Economics Of Life And Death

Reproduced from:

John McMurtry
University of Guelph

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This paper begins with an explanation of the “life sequence of value,” which is defined by the formula Life->Means of Life->More Life (L->MofL->L1). The analysis then contrasts this general sequence of value to the “money sequence of value,” which is shown to have three autonomous forms not before distinguished: (1) Money->Means of Life->More Money ($->MofL->$1); (2) Money->Means of Life Destruction->More Money ($->MofD->$1); (3) Money->More Money->More Money ($->$1->$2->$3->$n). I explain how the first money sequence of value, analyzed by Marx in his classical formula of industrial capital (M->C->M1), has mutated so that the standard sequence of (1) assumed by economists has, in fact, been increasingly displaced by sequences (2) and (3). The argument shows that these sequences of economic “growth” increasingly dismantle environmental and civil life-fabrics, but remain unproblematic to the dominant economic paradigm whose measures of value do not register life-losses in their value accounts. It is concluded that a regrounding of economic understanding in the life sequence of value is required to avoid a cumulative breakdown in the conditions of social and planetary existence.

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“The techniques which induce a paradigm change may well be described as therapeutic, if only because, when they succeed, one learns one had been sick before.” – Thomas Kuhn1

The life sequence of value can be formulated in simple axiom as the sequence:

Life –> Means of Life –> More Life
( L–> MofL –>L1)

In this formula, life refers specifically to sentient life. Sentient life, in turn, is life which can move, feel and – in the case of humans – think in concepts. These three planes of being – organic movement, sensation and thought – all admit of ranges of function. These ranges of function or capability can be reduced by their economic conditions (as with the vital capabilities of a malnourished child), or increased (as with the opening horizons of movement, felt being and cognition of the same child with access to nutritious food).2

Means of life refer to whatever enables life to be preserved, or to extend its vital range on these planes of being alive. Clean air, food, water, shelter, affective interaction, environmental space and accessible learning conditions are such “means of life”. To reproduce life is to maintain its achieved ranges of capability. To increase life is to widen or deepen them to more comprehensive range. To reduce life is to diminish or to extinguish any vector of their vital domains of being. These greater or lesser ranges of being alive are the defining parameters of life value.

Although life value is often confused with other kinds of value, like having more money, it registers its gains and losses on its bearers with no mediation of an economic medium. It is the being of value for all creatures in whom blood runs. An economy succeeds in reality rather than in claim to the extent that life’s ranges of vital being are maintained and/or increased for its members. It fails to the extent that the opposite occurs, and the life of its members declines on these planes of life power.

Although the parameters of the life code of value are not computed in the received value paradigm of economics, their lines of quality and quantity do reveal to what extent an economy serves life. These parameters are not mysterious or opaque. Even very small reductions of the vital range of breath, feeling, organ or limb are normally experienced by us as “something wrong,” whether or not they register in the priced transactions of an economic metric. The measure of life value is also exactly calibratable in its gains and losses. The entire corpus of scientific medicine, for example, can be understood as the development of ways and means of assessing and responding to deficits of normal life ranges – mainly, by diagnosing disease and prescribing treatment for the deficits of life range which it brings about. The entire practice of formal education as well can be decoded as the process of judging and enabling more comprehensive levels of thinking across defined breadths and depths of cognition. Yet again, environmental protection can be understood as the body of practices which effectively defend the evolved scopes of life of the species and ecosystems around us.

From the standpoint of the life sequence of value, the more of life’s breadths and depths are reproduced and extended, the better is our objective condition. Conversely, the more of these life domains are reduced or lost, the worse is our real condition. Our global predicament is that public health, educational and environmental expenditures to realize this life sequence of value are now being “cut back” or “axed” across the world in accordance with the demands of a paradigm of value which judges these expenditures to be “unaffordable”. The inner logic of this value system is “the money sequence of value”, and its demands increasingly imperil the conditions of planetary life, as we will see.

The Money Sequence of Value

The money sequence of value is often confused in its outcomes with the maximization of utility. Although it can certainly have this serendipitous effect, its regulating objective is to maximize money returns over money inputs by whatever means is perceived to best achieve this outcome. Its structure of reproduction, called “profitable investment”, can be represented by the formula:

$ –> Means of Life –> More $
$-> MofL-> $1

To begin with, money is only a medium of exchange. The baker or the shoemaker exchanges shoes or bread for money, in order to buy other life-goods with the money received. Here the money received and spent stands in as equivalent to means of life, because its reproduction is solely to exchange means of life. Most people normally use money in this way – not for money gain, but for life gain. We could therefore add an intermediate formula here to represent this value sequence:

Life–> Money–> Means of Life–> More Life

In this form, the sequence is not the money sequence of value, but the life sequence of value. It is not invested as money to have more money, but to have more life.

The money sequence of value, in contrast, begins with money and ends with money in its reproductive cycle. Means of life are what money, in the person of its agent, uses as a middle term to become more money. More money, not more life, is the regulating objective of thought and action throughout this value cycle: which is normally reiterated in compounding sequences to ever greater accumulations of money value. Value judgment here does not calculate whether life gains or loses by this reiterating money sequence. The objective is to net more money for money investors. Indeed, it is famously held that any other objective is a betrayal of fiduciary trust to stockholders. It follows from this value calculus that wars, ongoing car crashes or endemic diseases can be occasions of momentous “value adding” and “economic prosperity”, so long as they promote increased profits or priced transactions in the aggregate.

Since those programmed by the money sequence of value always assume that more real money demand expresses more value, they conclude more real money demand is always better for the individual or for society. This value metric has become socially institutionalized in such standard measures of social wellbeing as the Gross National Product (ie. the total money value of the goods and services sold in and by a national economy, which registers no life debits in people killed by it or environments degraded by its activities). Such a value system, unfortunately, suppresses the distinction between life and death itself. In failing to distinguish between life-wealth and money demand on life-wealth, it systemizes a fateful confusion. If money demand on the wealth of life keeps increasing, but the wealth of life keeps decreasing by its demands, then the market or money calculus cannot recognize the problem. According to its metric, all is well and prosperity and development are being won. This can lead, if its logic is not seen through, to the stripping of the life-world by money demand until the life fabric can no longer hold.3

The Death Sequence of Value

But the problem here is not fully fathomed. The money value program also undergoes fundamental mutations in its sequence over time. In its classical capitalist form, it invests in buying factors of production (labour, instruments of labour and natural resources), and organizes them to produce means of life (e.g., clothes, foods, homes). Then, to complete the investment sequence, these commodities are converted back into money again, with the “value added” of profit by sale to buyers in the market. This is the capitalist sequence analysed so trenchantly by Karl Marx. But the money-into-more-money sequence mutates insofar its middle term is no longer means of life, but means of life destruction. This is a mutation in the investment sequence which is not registered in market theory or practice. By not being recognized, it is more lethal. The need to inhibit its growth does not register to the value system’s feedback loop.

There are two principal forms of this mutation of the money sequence. The primary form is to invest in producing and selling means of destruction, military armaments, which are produced so as to maximize their capacity to maim or kill life.4 The armaments commodity is researched, designed and produced so as to achieve this capability with the maximal efficiency which the physical, biological and engineering sciences can program. Most public research money in the world’s richest nation is assigned to this form of research, which is then applied to producing arms for profit. The weapons commodity, which began its truly modern history with the study of falling objects and projected missiles by Galileo, consists in ever more lethal instruments to obliterate people and settlements against all defence. In the life-blind calculi of the money sequence, however, these systematic negations of life – by resource diversion as well as by destruction – are not factored into value designations or judgements. The debits of life and its resources may be immense, but since only monetary returns count as values, no economic problem can be perceived. The armaments commodity can become, as it has, the most profitable manufacture of global trade. But the problem can no more be discerned at a high level of life loss than a low level by this value paradigm. What kills and deprives human life is the same in value in its monetized calculus as what serves and enhances life. This deadly confusion follows unremarked from this paradigm’s regulating metric of worth.

This value paradigm’s indifference to the distinction between life and death is systematic, and reaches far beyond military means of life destruction. Other forms of this commodity are increasingly manufactured and sold as the middle-term of the money sequence as well, even though their content is known to cause disease to and kill human beings in predictable millions. The contemporary cigarette commodity, for example, bears an estimated 4000 to 5000 chemicals into its consumer, a number known to be highly toxic and deadly. But unlike the weapon commodity, its life-assaultive properties have traditionally been denied rather than asserted by manufacturers. The feeling its consumption produces of enhanced being is, in fact, the response of the body’s immune system to deadly toxins entering the life-system.5 But here as well, even though the commodity between money input and money output destroys life by its design, this consequence to life is not a problem which registers to the money sequence of value. We may represent this second, directly deadly form of the money sequence, then, as follows:

Money –> Means of Destruction–> More Money
( $ –> MofD–>$1 )

Means of life destruction as a whole have become, without the current economic paradigm recognizing the pattern of the sea-shift, a more dynamic middle term of the money sequence than means of life. But there are two species of this commodity which require distinction – commodities which are produced and sold for the assault and destruction of life, and commodities which are produced and sold to represent the assault and destruction of life. The latter is still more pervasive. The global production and marketing of images, films, games and other portrayals of terrorizing, wounding and murdering people increases in both sites and vehicles every year. As the leading edge of the “entertainment industry”, the representation of bodily harm and death has ever more branches of manufacture and sale. Although its portrayals and images often have as their referents real injury or killing (as in mass-market “sports” and television “news”), this commodity form is re-presentational, not real in its assaults on living structures. With the screens of the media watched up to five hours a day across the world, thousands of killings, shootings, acts of terror, fatal disasters, tortures and, in general, irreversibly violent insults and deaths to human bodies in single or mass numbers are portrayed or re-enacted on a daily basis to “attract viewers”. The regulating principle of their manufacture is that they advance money-sequence gains, and all are contrived, selected and marketed in accordance with this final criterion of worth.

In sum, whether real or representational, the $–>MofD–>$1 sequence always has as its middle term the destruction of life as its logic of money gain. We might properly call this second form of the money sequence, therefore, the death sequence of value.

Means of destruction of life are also at work in other monetary sequences of value – principally, in the use of non-human life as raw materials for this or that commodity in the ceaseless transformation of money-demand inputs into increased money-demand outputs. The levelling of forest ecosystems to raise domestic animals for killing for meat, for example, also erodes and depletes topsoils, water supplies and natural ecosystems. This commodity production alone, it is estimated, slaughters 6,000,000 animals a year in the U.S., has resulted in the destruction of 260,000,000 acres of its forests, appropriates half of all the country’s water supplies and, by deforestation, extinguishes an estimated 1000 species a year across the world.6 But none of these life costs enters the ledgers of the market calculus as losses. One might say that the mechanized conversion of the organic into the inorganic to maximize the returns of the money sequence is the meta-value theme of our era. Its systems of expression include, more generally, the world-wide industrial extraction of natural resources which leave behind them extinguished ecosystems above and below the earth and the water, and which pervasively contaminate the life-systems remaining with the poisonous effluents of their processes of production and sale.7 Strictly speaking, however, the death sequence of value is confined to investment circuits in which means of life-destruction are the commodity which is manufactured and sold.

The death commodity is especially prominent in the manufacture of ever more efficient machineries to tear natural life-fabrics apart – for example, rainforests, ocean bottoms and earth strata – in order to extract their marketable elements. Large-scale factories of slaughter on land and sea to transform myriads of domestic and aquatic animals into meat is another form. These highly articulated machines to dismantle and to slaughter life-systems and animals develop scientifically alongside armament commodities for killing human beings. Similarly efficient in their technical capacities, they rip up soil communities, demolish forest worlds and strip aquatic ecosystems in minutes so as to ensure the maximum velocity and volume of competitive money-sequence gains. They cage, kill and process animals at the rate of millions an hour with the biological sciences as their servant. But, again, none of these advancing forms of the death sequence of value is recognized as constituting a deepening economic pattern across the globe. Here as well the received economic paradigm is constructed not to distinguish between life and death in its value judgements.

The Pure Money Sequence of Value

A third kind of money sequence of value has become dominant since the end of the Cold War. Like the second, it remains unrecognized and is, by its nature, in conflict with the sequence of life . As I have written elsewhere, the money sequence of value mutates in another way when it bypasses the production of any commodity at all.8 In this form of the money sequence, the investment circuit transforms money into more money in a self-multiplying circuit which is decoupled from the middle term of commodity production altogether. This exponentially escalating money sequence now commands a conservatively estimated 40 times more money value daily than all expenditures on goods and services put together. We can represent this pattern of money begetting money in the formula:

Money–> More Money–>More money
$–>$1 –>$2–>$3–>–$n.

This money-into-more-money cycle is reproduced and expanded in many forms – currency and derivatives speculation, arbitrages, leveraged buyouts to strip assets for sale, and, most well-known, compound-interest demands. All of these variations on the pure money sequence multiply money outputs with no input of production. Because they appropriate revenues from the production and distribution of means of life in society – for example, from budgets for social infrastructures to pay rising compound interest payments to banks and bondholders – they also attack the life sequence of value, but by deprivation rather than by direct assault.9 By appropriating revenues devoted to producing private and public goods to increase the returns of financial circuits which produce nothing but more demand for further returns, the pure money sequence deprives social life-organization of its life means – for example, by rerouting former expenditures on public health, education, social welfare, pensions, civil arts and communications to payments to expanding $–>$1–>$2–$3 – -$n rounds. The rapidly emerging dominance of the “speculative economy” over the “real economy” resembles a carcinogenic circuit in its systemic appropriation of society’s life nutriments so as to multiply itself with no committed function to the host body.10 The inner logic of this money sequence, however, is not recognized, even by Marxian economics.11 Rather, all three money sequences, the destructive and the parasitic as well as the productive, are conflated under the masking general concept of “capitalism”: although the meaning of “capital” as wealth that is used to produce more wealth has shifted from production for life to appropriation from life as the ruling pattern.

In all three expanding sequences of the money value program, global market “value adding” comes into ever sharper and more destructive contradiction with the life sequence and its internal requirements for maintenance and growth. As the mutant sequences grow, the life sequence on both social and environmental levels is systemically depleted and degraded. In the end, an emergent crisis poses a social choice: Either civil society defends the life code of value against these life-blind circuits, or human and planetary life will be increasingly stripped by their cumulative money-to-more-money demands.12

The epistemic problem is that the dominant economic paradigm of understanding does not and cannot recognize the fatal inner logic at work here. As it leads a process of unravelling life fabrics in accordance with its “bottom line” of money valuated gains, it drives the wheels of increasingly catastrophic effects. As with other lethal value programs in other places and other times, the pathological pattern is not seen because its motivational structure is presupposed as “normal”, and its harshest consequences as the “necessary” workings of invisible fatelines which cannot be meddled with by social intervention or ameliorative plan.


  1. Thomas Kuhn, “Incommensurability and Paradigms”, in Harold Morick (ed), Challenges to Empiricism. Belmont Ca.: Wadsworth, 1965, p.206.
  2. It is worth noting here that the lifeworld to which this paper refers is not the “lifeworld” to which Jurgen Habermas refers in his theory of communicative action Habermas, typically of contemporary philosophers whose analysis is confined to the linguistic plane of existence, means by the term only the symbolic realm of life (See, for example, Jurgen Habermas (trans. Thomas McCarthy), The Theory of Communicative Action (Volume 1) Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, p. xxxiv).
  3. A graphic example of the block against recognizing the extent of life-destructive “externalities” by money sequences of growth is provided by Lawrence Summers, the Chief Economist of the World Bank He proclaims, with no relevant expertise in the life sciences, that there are “no natural limits to [monetized economic] growth” and “no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth”. The claim that there are, he states, “is a profound error” (cited by Susan George, Associate Director of the Transnational Institute, in the Globe Report on Business, May 29, 1992, p.B15).
  4. A more developed account of the political economy of the armaments commodity may be found in my monograph, Understanding War Toronto: Science for Peace, 1989 Lest it be thought that armaments are means of life in the sense of means of defending civilian populations from life from aggressors, we need to bear in mind that over three of four people killed by the armaments commodity in war are non-combatant civilians, and most of them are killed by their own governments (Ruth Leger Sivard et al., World Military and Social Expenditures 1996. Washington D.C., 1996).
  5. International epidemiologist Richard Peto of Oxford University estimates that smoking is responsible for 3,000,000 deaths per year world wide, which will likely reach 10,000,000 in three decades In China alone, Peto estimates that 50,000,000 people will eventually die from smoking-induced diseases. Former U.S. Surgeon-General, C. Everett Koop, observes: “I think one of the most shameful things my country ever did was to export disease disability and death by selling our cigarettes to the world.” Clayton Yeutter, the U.S. Trade Representative, however, exults on the increased trade figures and exports of the the global market: “I just saw the figures on tobacco exports a few days ago and, my, have they turned out to be a marvellous success story.” Here we see in clear expression what we will call the global market’s “death sequence of value” affirmed as an optimum good. (Figures and quotations are cited in Glenn Frankel, “U.S. Aided Tobacco Firms in Asia Conquest”, from The Washington Post in the Guardian Weekly, December 1, 1996, p.15).
  6. MI.T. Vegetarian Support Group, “How our Food Choices Affect Life On Earth,” World-Wide-Web, November 22′ 1996, p.1.
  7. Together these economic operations of extraction and pollution “lead to the extinction of plants and animals at about 1000 times the normal rate” (DJ. McLaren, “Reply”, Delta: Newsletter of the Canadian Climate Change Program, Vol.7:No.3 (1996), p.3), with “about $500 billion a year subsidizing the destruction of the oceans, atmospheres and land” (John Vidal, “World Turning Blind Eye To Catastrophe,” Reports of U.N. Environment Agency, British Panel on Sustainable Development, and World-Watch Institute, Guardian Weekly, February 7, p.1). According to the Rio Plus Five Forum Earth Summit meeting in March 1997, these processes of life destruction and deterioration have not abated since the 178 nations pledged to “clean up the world” five years previously, but have increased. At the same time, the money sequence of value has multiplied the world’s billionaires by more than 10 times since 1987 (Associated Press, July 14 1997).
  8. “The Social Immune System and the Cancer Stage of Capitalism”, Social Justice, Winter 1995, pp1-25. The nature of the pure money sequence of value and its rapid overwhelming of the life economy is analysed in detail in this account, with the relevant documentation not repeated here.
  9. The precise ways in which compound interest charges on national debts strip societies’ capacities to protect and enable the lives of their citizens is tracked in depth in the analysis cited in note 7, which reports, for example, that Zambia’s expenditure on interest payments to foreign banks is five times its total expenditures on public health.
  10. Interest demands on public debt in Canada, for example, have escalated nearly eightfold in real terms in Canada between 1962-81 and 1981-95, requiring a corresponding dismantling of health, education and social security budgets to pay the compound-interest demands In the U.S., it is estimated that at the 1967-to-1987 rate of the interest-demand share of the U.S. national income, all of the national income would be required to pay off compound interest payments to money lenders by 2020 (William F. Hixson, A Matter of Interest: Re-Examining Debt, Interest and Real Economic Growth. New York: Praeger, 1991, pp.177 and 176).
  11. Marxist theory would seem to have the methodological resources to pick out this decoupled circuit of capital which secures accumulating money gains without the production of any use-value, but in fact Marx himself rules out this possibility when he argues in Capital that “movements of money capital are therefore once more merely movements of an individualized part of industrial capital engaged in the reproduction process” (Capital, Volume 3: Chapter 29)
  12. Again, the gross outcome patterns disclose the growth and development of life and money sequences in inverse relation, as opposed to correlation which the current paradigm assumes Thus, for example, while almost 100 species are made extinct every day from the impact of “economic activities” (U.N. Environment Program, Canadian Press, April 20 1996) and while the number of all of the world’s children who are malnourished increases past one in three (World Health Organization, Guardian Weekly, May 21, 1995), the money value of shares in the broad U.S. market skyrockets to six times total value (Globe and Mail Report on Business, July 25), and bank assets in money value delinks from legal-tender reserves to an ratio of almost 300 to 1 (William Krehm, Economic Reform, July 1997, p.3). The assumed correlation between aggregate real dollar value increases in the world economy and increases in the world’s well-being is in such ways increasingly the reverse of the facts.

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