Reproduced from: https://sci-hub.tw/10.1007/s10551-011-1086-4
J Bus Ethics (2012) 108:49–60
Behind Global System Collapse: The Life-Blind Structure of Economic Rationality
University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
Published online: 24 November 2011
©Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011
This study examines the system-deciding principle of economic rationality for its logical soundness and effects in global practice. Analysis demonstrates the fallacious structure of the underlying assumptions of homo economicus across theories and institutions, and explains how cumulative destruction of global economic, social, and ecological life systems follows from its life-blind mechanism. Higher-order concepts of life-capital, life-value efficiency, and life-good supply and demand are then defined to bring economic rationality into coherence with terrestrial and human life requirements.
At the unexamined core of contemporary economic calculation and its satellite thought systems is an axiomatic principle of ‘rationality’ whose underlying universal regulator is exactly identified across theory and practise by one formula: To be rational is to consistently self-maximize one’s private interests in money-value terms. Such is the meaning of ‘‘homo economicus’’, ‘‘market rationality’’, ‘‘rational choice’’, and ‘‘rationality’’ as such. Although this transparent formula is typically obfuscated by unfocused notions of ‘‘instrumental rationality’’, ‘‘wanting more rather than less of a good’’, ‘‘maximizing utility’’ and so on, one will not find any place in received economic theory and practise this more exact criterion does not govern.
Corporate market advertising may pervasively claim the opposite, that ‘‘we care about you’’, but no place on the balance sheets is provided for doing good for others, or even providing for anyone’s life need. At the same time, all the mathematics of equilibria depend on private capital owners, resource holders and individual consumers conforming to the ruling principle — seeking maximum returns on money invested for the self’s private possession with no limit on more. Indeed any other direction of invested money by a corporation is unlawful, and public taxation outside private profit and consumer circuits is increasingly attacked as ‘‘taking money out of people’s pockets’’.1 At the same time, private consumer wants for more commodities are assumed as unlimited by the ruling paradigm with no required connection to any life requirements, their own or anyone else’s. Within the production system itself, workers are bought like other commodities for the cheapest market price. Codifying the institutional lock at the global level, only private money investors have rights in international trade treaties, and these rights are to self-maximize in pecuniary terms, with no life or other rights to workers or consumers. Governments themselves are required not to ‘‘diminish the proof opportunity’’ of any transnational corporate enterprise on pain of severe financial penalty.2
Reigning political and moral theory follow. In his canonical, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls calls the self-maximizing principle of rationality a ‘‘principle familiar in social science’’, and he explicitly includes ‘‘to want a larger share for oneself’’ in the ‘‘original position’’ of deciding principles of justice (p. 143).3 In Morals By Agreement, David Gauthier adds that self-maximizing rationality means ‘‘no upper bound [of the self’s appropriation]’’(p. 318).4 Long before either of them, Vilfredo Pareto instituted the principle as the producer of ‘‘optimality’’.5 In his model of self-maximizing atomic exchanges, the optimal outcome is mathematically entailed within a dyadic asset vacuum. None who appeal to the Pareto principle, however, observes that ‘Pareto-optimality’ is consistent with (1) few having all the assets and the rest having only debts and debt payments, and (2) systematic degradation of the world’s life-support systems — the air, water, natural life habitats, public resources, and climate stability. While Amartya Sen comes closest to moving beyond the limitlessly self-maximizing atoms of economic rationality in his aptly titled article ‘‘Rational Fools’’ (1977), he does not break the closed system of life-blind atomic exchanges. He argues only that ‘‘self-maximization’’ for individual choosers admits of other alternatives than more pecuniary payoffs to oneself, and he blinkers out the money-capitalist system which selects against such alternatives.6 Moreover Sen, who is at the most progressive end of economists and high theorists, continues to conceive of society as an aggregate of private market selves. When he comes to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, he still does not think in system terms beyond private choosers. The actually regulating money-capital system remains abstracted out, and no public-choice alternatives are conceived. As analysis of the text and monumental bibliography of his 1998 Nobel Prize Lecture, ‘‘The Possibility of Social Choice’’ demonstrates, Sen’s conception of social choice does not include any rational collective agency stewarding the ruling capitalist system itself although — what all miss — it has no life coordinates whatever.7 The possibility of binding life standards being built into the global market’s exchange mechanisms by constitutional public authority does not enter the contemporary economic mind.8
The Fallacious Structure of the Ruling Paradigm
In short, all mainstream ‘economics’ including Sen remain confined within the ruling metaphysic of atomic selves and aggregated private preferences. Common life-grounds and cooperative agency of decision are thereby screened out a priori. Two instituted errors of rational choice and comprehension are therefore locked into ruling conception without notice: (1) A fallacy of division is built into the reigning framework of rationality which cannot be detected from within it (i.e., social choice is fallaciously reduced to the sum of the private choices of the separate individuals constituting the social organization); while simultaneously; (2) social life standards to rationally regulate choices to cohere with life support systems are blinkered out a priori. The ruling thought-system has long remained within this metaphysical box. Yet scholars since Arrow’s Theorem was published attribute the problem to the formal impossibility of collective choice itself.9 Although in fact collective preferences for collective life goods are already instituted in every institution of civilization (e.g., universally accessible water and sewers with collective taxes the basis of their existence), these universal life goods accessible to all are blinkered out a priori by the atomic aggregate presupposition. What are called ‘‘collective goods’’ are not conceived as social choices or universally life-enabling goods, but infrastructures of the private commodity and profit market — an implicit assumption which is itself not identified.10
The invisible prison reaches far and deep. Thus most of the social reality and civilization and the shared bases of everyone’s lives beyond market-capitalist functions is screened out in principle. Since ‘‘individual freedom’’ is assumed to mean only individual choices exist, any cooperatively governing principle of life-grounded rationality becomes an unthinkable concept within the reigning thought syntax of pecuniary self-maximization. Yet since empty formal notations mask the foundational erasures set into the model’s unexamined first premises, none who are governed by it can see the ultimately fatal problem.11
The methodological turn of economics to an atomic-choice mechanism is formulated well by one of its founders, Frances Edgeworth. He explains the ruling premises in one crystalline sentence with emphases added: ‘‘The conception of man as a pleasure machine [driven by self-maximization]’’, he writes, ‘‘may justify and facilitate the employment of mechanical terms and mathematical reasoning in social science’’.12 Without notice, every life coordinate of the economy — producing and distributing goods otherwise in short supply is a priori erased from account. No life needs, no environment, no society, no children, no relations with others, no life needs, nothing else remains but self-maximizing desiring machines. No feedback of the degradation of everything else can, therefore, enter into this life-blind value calculus. Desiring machines can now consume the world as insatiable aggregates wanting only more in globalizing private money and commodity sequences with no life function ever entering equations. The formula for cumulative disaster is thus built into the ruling model. In exquisite irony, this regulating mechanism is assumed as the defining inner logic of ‘‘individual free choice’’ and ‘‘economic efﬁciency’’. Few notice any distinction between opposites — ever more commodities and money stores for insatiable desiring machines and more means of life available for people’s lives on the basis of shared life support systems. Fewer still observe that the ‘‘individual freedom’’ of homogeneously self-maximizing atoms within a mechanical system is a contradiction in terms. That the system’s dominant economic agents across the world are in fact not individuals or even alive is blinkered out, although this ultimate structural fact of corporations renders absurd the justification of the system as one of ‘‘individual freedom’’.13
Prisoner’s Dilemma as Synecdoche: Life-Disconnected Rationality Locked into Life Blindness at all Levels
Perhaps the single most famous paradigm of the metaphysic of atomically self-maximizing rationality is ‘‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’’. While it generates a paradox which exposes the problem of self-maximizers even achieving is what in their own interest, it too presupposes the life-blind atomism of the ruling paradigm of rationality as given. In its exemplary model which has held economic and related sciences rapt for decades, pre-set choices are boxed into one set for two players whose possibility of cooperation over their lot is ruled out a priori.14 Once released into academic currency, cascades of disputes on rational choice within this game are generated, with none noticing that its parameters of decision are a priori void of all life coordinates. ‘‘Reiterated’’, ‘‘n-person’’, and ‘‘free rider’’ variations proceed to fill journals and books across disciplines, but all conform to the given syntax of rationality without question of it. Self-maximizing atoms alone exist. Cooperative unities of persons deciding from common grounds of universal life interests are ruled out. Environments and civil commons infrastructures which enable universal access to universal life necessities — for example, air to breathe — are thus abstracted away a priori. Relational social ties and human concerns are expunged altogether. The system and its regulating principle of rationality are thus made inhuman in principle.
In a poignant but unremarked symbolization of the wider social conditions within which the paradigm of prisoner’s dilemma is presented, all the legal parameters of the dilemma are blanked out — what the criminal accusation is, whether either party is guilty or innocent, and their purpose of action. At the same time, the moral values by which a sane humanity or society governs itself cannot enter this ‘rationality’. It abolishes the substance of reasoning itself at every level. It follows that the terrestrial reality of life systems and their universal life necessities are simply erased. Or more darkly, because life fabrics and support systems are irrelevant to this ‘rationality’, they may be cumulatively destroyed without recognition. The underlying presumptions can be laid bare by deducing the necessary conditions of their regulation:
(1) All agents seek only to maximize their own preferences.
(2) Each agent’s preference-object is fixed.
(3) One’s competitors in the game are not subject to choice.
(4) One can appeal to no standard of justice or right external to the game-structure.
(5) Each player’s position is preordained independent of moral desert or life need.
(6) All choices and outcomes are prescribed in advance.
(7) The preference order of payoffs and losses is inalterable.
(8) No concern for anyone else’s interests can influence choice save by its impact on one’s own payoffs or losses.
(9) No decision may be related to any relationship or tie of the players beyond the game.
(10) No payoff received relates to life contribution or need.
Together these regulating presuppositions define a general axiological framework which is a priori blind to the life requirements of human and ecological worlds. Everyday life is also so governed insofar as it’s a priori constraints are conditions of playing the market game. One may put an out-of-work person or corporate CEO into the choice spaces, and all are expected always to prefer more to less money; to compete in the market with whomever desires what one also wants; to know that there is no standard of value that can overrule the rules of the game; to accept that one is born into it and goes where one is assigned with no moral claims beyond its order; to accept the options and outcomes as they are set to maximize one’s own position; to hold one’s course of choice consistently to succeed; to not worry about others or what is not your assigned job; and to stick to one’s assigned place within the given order.
As one can see when it constraints are laid bare, this regulating framework of ‘rationality’ rules out everything required for a healthy and flourishing human life. Since it regulates academic careerists as well as business executives, the man in the street as well as politics, we may discern here the inner logic of what we now increasingly experience as the collapse of the world life system. Propelling it throughout is the meta program of ‘economic rationality’.
The Meta Program of Market Progress: Life-Blind Competition for More
Fascination with formal proofs within an idealized exchange of assets has long bewitched economists, their client governments and rational choice in general with this covert value syntax unexamined. At the level of market competition, a meta program of human life is shared with evolutionary biology and is assumed as a law of Nature.
In truth, it is constituted of five steps set of controlling assumption which are neither recognized nor distinguished. Unmatched in history in cumulative ill consequences for the species and the planet, it is assumed as ‘‘natural competition’’. Its meta program presupposes a priori:
(i) the self-maximizing strategy of each and all
(ii) in conditions of conflict over
(iii) desired but scarce rewards
(iv) at minimum costs of contribution
(v) to have more money and commodities for the self.
Since it is presumed ‘‘rational’’ as well as ‘‘natural’’, its omnibus assumption is immune to disconfirmation. However, catastrophic its long-term outcomes, no facts of the world can show it to be misguided. Even when its visible results are cumulatively fatal to global life organization itself, it continues on as rational and natural with no alternative conceivable within the closed thought system. When its exponential growth demonstrably selects for worldwide meltdowns of private money-sequencing webs, bankrupting of governments and social sectors to re-capitalize the private banks responsible, and the destruction of countless millions of people’s pensions as well as ecological devastation, still no resetting of the meta program occurs. We are thus confronted by a system insanity in fact, but it is unspeakable to name it. Indeed the (i) to (v) lockstep is structured against the advance of knowledge itself. For research or learning that exposes or opposes it is selected out. Thus, higher learning institutions themselves are systematically restructured to fit the meta program. Universities’ constitutional objective of advancement and dissemination of knowledge by cooperative critical inquiry becomes, instead, an aggregate of self-careers in which all compete for scarce goods to achieve rank and income over others at minimum money cost — in short, all the steps of the (i) to (v) sequence of market ‘rationality’ and ‘natural’ competition. University central administrations are fund-pressured to internalize the external corporate program, and impose it as their own. To do so, they re-order the academic and service missions of the University and its mandated teaching and research responsibilities by the ruling formula of market rationality: selecting only for what brings them more money to control, and against whatever does not. In this way, this meta program subverts the academy’s very logic of vocation to serve the pecuniary interests of external powers.15
The question, ‘‘What choice is there?’’ reveals the depth of the occupation. What is not recognized by even academics is that the regulating principles of higher research and learning are the very opposite in principle, and that a reversal of the knowledge vocation itself has been forced on the once independent academy and its advancement and dissemination of critical understanding. Higher learning and autonomous research is subjugated to external money powers to serve instead. Analysis discloses the unseen revolution backwards. The italicized principles are intrinsic to the academy’s historical mission and search for truth, while the square-bracket contents specify the ruling meta program which has usurped them:
(i) to maximize learning advancement and dissemination [not private money profit]
(ii) by knowledge sharing without limit [not proprietary patent or copyright]
(iii) for understanding as a value in itself [not more money or commodity possession]
(iv) at any cost of difficulty [not pecuniary billing by time allocated]
(v) to develop humanity’s more inclusive comprehension of natural and human phenomena [not only what sells].
Revealingly, not even logicians or social scientists identify this systematic opposition of regulating principles and paradigms. On the ground, university restructurings ape CEO pay and top-down rule and direct faculty and disciplines by policy-favouring only what brings more money under their direction, and against what does not. On the global level, World Bank advocacy and funding impose the corporate market model on higher education as a panacea.16 In these ways, all knowledge advance and distribution that is not profitable to private proprietary interests is systematically unfunded or defunded. The new structure of censorship and thought suppression is thus normalized, while inquiry or knowledge that identifies the causal mechanism of ongoing ecological, civil and epistemological collapse is screened out.
The Invisible Hand of Adam Smith: The Providential Assumption Against the Facts of Life
Adam Smith affirms the set-point of life-blind economic rationality when he says in a sweeping statement of the providential design of the capitalist market that (emphases added) it is ‘‘the obvious and simple system of natural liberty which establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, so long as he does not violate the laws of justice is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way [and]… the sovereign is discharged from the duty … of superintending the industry of private people’’.17 Now if we bear in mind that there are no ‘‘laws of justice’’ to which Smith refers here other than of private property in pursuit, exchange and gain with government as their infrastructure provider and guarantor, then his meaning and its relationship to our time becomes clear. Liberty is of self-maximizing individuals in the market, and public authority has no need ever to intervene in its self-regulating operations on behalf of the common interest except to sustain it. For the common interest has already been provided for by market laws and the invisible hand adjusting the supply of priced goods to people’s money demand for them. Smith’s reasoning has so been locked into modern consciousness that Princeton-trained philosopher, Barry Allen, can representatively proclaim the same inbuilt justice of the system centuries later. ‘‘Why should we suppose’’, he asks, ‘‘that the distribution of goods is the sort of thing that should be governed by a theory [of justice]? Why not leave it to individuals to do just as they please, barring theft or threat?’’18 The need of any regulating beyond the market itself is assumed as superfluous. For it is perceived to produce the optimum or best of possible worlds if none interfere with its self-regulating system. Thus Smith says without a blink of concern for the mass-homicidal effects he describes in overview of the market’s invisible hand: ‘‘among the inferior ranks of people the scantiness of subsistence can set limits to the further multiplication of the human species; and it can so in no other way than by destroying a great part of the children which their fruitful marriages produce’’.19
There is, in fact, no axiom or criterion in modern economic thought to move beyond this life-blind logic. Not even the systemic malnutrition and deaths of children or degradation of every life system on the planet today poses a problem to this invisible-hand system. Indeed now public intervention is punishable by transnational trade law. The ultimate article of creed remains as with Adam Smith that the market capitalist’s ‘‘study of his own advantage naturally, or necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society’’.20 Accordingly all existing legal barriers of ‘‘discrimination’’ against the ‘‘free circulation of capital and commodities’’ are prohibited in transnational trade and investment regimes.
Life-depredating processes of extraction, pollution, exhaustion or exploitation are not only ruled out from view by doctrine, but ‘‘trade discrimination’’ on the basis of protecting common life support systems is harshly penalizable under transnational economic laws. In environmental and resource matters, ‘‘processes of production’’ which attack and deplete common life support systems and resources are, for example, forbidden as grounds for any ‘‘tariff or non-tariff barrier’’. In conformity to the ultimately regulating first principle of rationality, market criteria of price and purchase alone govern how societies may live. If citizens vote for policies of protection of their common life-grounds or children or anything else by legislation deemed ‘‘trade restrictive’’, their life-protective laws may trigger serious penalties under world trade and investment ‘‘disciplines’’.
These exact prescriptions and prohibitions run to thousands of pages of re-ordering the world’s economies to comply with the revealed form of how to live. The beneficent consequences are known in advance independently of all contraindicative evidence of harm. For every commodity sold counts as ‘‘more wealth’’ and ‘‘more welfare’’ in proportion to money-value volumes. Conversely ‘‘trade restrictive’’ rejection of any commodity (e.g., cigarettes) or ‘‘process of production’’ (e.g., slave labor) is forbidden. Every investor ‘‘intends only his own gain’’ but is ‘‘led by an invisible hand to promote an end which is no part of his intention … the public good’’.21 Consequently it follows in principle that elected governments acting to rule out, say, ecocidal processes of production, neurotoxic pollutants in gas additives, or saturating advertisements targeting young women for cigarette addiction are violations of the hand’s production of the common good. In fact, these very initiatives have been declared illegal and the governments sponsoring them heavily fined. Alex Michalos has demonstrated in detail through the successful $201 million NAFTA corporate lawsuit against one life-protective law that the structure of this ‘‘free trade agreement’’ and its procedures are in fact ‘‘intentionally structured to override environmental protection and community rights’’.22 Not only is this system not deemed immoral, but is equated to morality itself, indeed the supreme morality. Thus US Trade representative, Robert Zoellick publicly denounced the European Union’s electorally demanded labeling of potentially contaminating genetically engineered foods as ‘‘immoral’’.23 Zoellick now runs the World Bank.
It is predictable from this ruling doctrine that just as increased misery or life catastrophes do not cause believers’ faith to waver in the divine design’s supremacy and goodness, so meltdowns of societies and environments do not cause doubt of the invisible hand’s benevolence for humanity. The well-being of all is ‘‘necessarily’’ served for the best possible outcome.24 So instituted does this assumption become as the given logos of worldview that leading analytic philosopher David Gauthier contends that morality itself requires only market rules. ‘‘Coincidence of utility maximization and optimization in [the] free interaction [of the market],’’ he says (emphases added), ‘‘removes both need and rationale for the constraints that morality provides…’’.25 Thus the master principle that originates in eighteenth-century deist capitalism is reborn not only in world corporate capitalism but in moral theory.
From the Deist Logic of Smith to Global Theo-Capitalism
Adam Smith’s invisible-hand doctrine of economics was introduced at a time when Deism was a binding intellectual framework of understanding. In the historical bridge to modernity from the divine right of kings, the idea of an immanent divine design without priesthood or king was a liberation of the mind. None could recognize — and Kant and Voltaire were among their number — what was to come. The free market would cease to be populated by individual producers and vendors in which none influenced market supply or demand. Instead it would be dominated by exclusively self-maximizing corporations with no life or life concerns, no person, and no community location or national government to hold them accountable.26 The new ‘global market’ would not only have no limit to transnational corporate control of supply and demand by oligopolist position and monopoly media conditioning, but would have pervasive corporate-lobby and private financial control of governments across borders. What was least of all anticipated was that this system would come to be implicitly conceived as infallible and omnipotent with all alternative to it attacked as subversive or evil.27
That an eternal and limitless necessity of rule of the world by such a system would override all else including the conditions of life itself did not occur as a possibility in the Enlightenment. That ‘‘market miracles” and ‘‘market magic’’ would be widely proclaimed would have seemed inconceivable to the leading rational minds of the movement. Yet the logic of a fundamentalist religion at work now is repelled. More sinisterly, a virtually theocratic reign — where God and system are one — has become unconsciously globalized. We see beneath the surface of scientific patina, in short, a long-building pattern of theo-capitalist cult and religious wars against opponents to the invisible-hand order. Non-conforming societies are always vilified, and conversion or genocidal conquest follows again and again. The One True Ruler is assumed beneath consciousness of the assumption. Yet no religious crusades and world conquest have exceeded this theo-capitalist God in breadth and depth of human and material transformation, mass deaths to apostates, and certitude of rightness for all in all matters.
Yet eventually its failures in providing what it claims — ‘‘by far the most efficient economic order in history’’ — falsify the claim in increasingly undeniable effects of human and ecological life degradation and destruction. In even Adam Smith’s day, it is surprising that mass slavery across continents, dehumanized subjugation of the working majority, and continual sacrifice of children did not strike the market Deists as less than a perfect design for humanity. Today cumulative ecocide, species extinction and despoliation on all levels of life organization are more strikingly unconnected back to the claims of a ‘‘peerlessly efﬁcient and productive’’ system of rule. Continued certitude that this ruling disorder is necessarily ‘‘led by an invisible hand’’ to ‘‘the public good’’ by ‘‘optimal allocation of resources and goods’’ can in the end only be explained as instituted fanaticism in the pecuniary interests of some — invulnerable to the facts of the real world, rigidly certain of the opposite as a priori true, and seeking ever more growth of its panacea whatever the human and planetary despoliation. In the lead of this theo-capitalist dogma is refusal to acknowledge that any event or trend can call it into question. No matter what happens, the market’s invisible-hand rule is unfalsifiable and all must be converted to it.
Thought experiment assists understanding here. Is there any exception in, say, the official pronouncements of the G-8 or G-26 or other such global institution in the past 20 years? The only problems which are seen are obstacles to the meta program, and they are marked for elimination. Most profoundly, the obverse of this theo-capitalist world rule is that society and social responsibility do not exist. F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman are the lead economists of this view, and Leo Strauss the leading political theorist of it. All worship capitalism as a God system. Hayek, perhaps the most policy-influential economist in the transmutation to the New World Order of today, goes far further than Adam Smith in his deification of the invisible hand. He deepens the abyss between the market’s suprahuman perfection of design and humanity’s incapability of ameliorating its rule. He most explicitly affirms capitalist theism — that is, capitalism’s ‘‘transcendent order’’ to which ‘‘humankind owes its very existence’’.28 Humanity, he asserts categorically, ‘‘does not have the option of choosing’’ any other way to live. Margaret Thatcher was his avowed student as Prime Minister. President Ronald Reagan was as well through Hayek’s native American follower, George Gilder, an evangelical worshipper of capitalism who provides a developed theodicy of it. All are distinguished by conception of any other economic system as anathema to be attacked. With multiplied human populations as the proof of capitalism’s goodness to mankind, there is for Hayek and his ruling creed no possible alternative for humanity’s continued existence without condemnation to hellfires. The higher design of capitalism, however, can only be seen through the glass darkly: ‘‘Thy will (i.e., not mine) be done on earth as it is in heaven’’ are his words, with his italics, in explanation of the capitalist God’s transcendent authority. In quintessential theo-capitalist worship, he proclaims that its universal order ‘‘far surpasses the reach of our understanding, wishes and purposes and our sense perceptions’’.29 The life-blind faith is thus exactly proclaimed with no evident demurral from journals of economics, the media, or philosophy itself. Paul Samuelson keeps the faith less overtly. In his post-1991 Forward to his canonical ECONOMICS, entitled ‘‘Economics and Perpetual Youth’’, a bible for economic departments across the globe, he says: ‘‘Spread the gospel anyway we can, I say’’ (p. xiii).
We are dealing here in short with the theo-capitalist world reformation of religion and rationality at once with no life-ground or requirements entering conception.
The Global Disorder Understood by Life-Coherent Economics
In the end, a rational and re-grounded economic theory and practice superannuates theo-capitalism by life-coherent understanding. At its highest level of abstraction, life-coherent rationality judges by the ‘‘life-coherence principle’’ or consistency with and satisfaction of organic, ecological and social life requirements.30 Life-coherent economics follows this principle of rationality with respect to its domain of analysis and explanation — the production and distribution of life goods otherwise in short supply. Thus, it does not ignore the most basic parameters of economic order and reproduction in capitalist-system worship, nor attack socially responsible alternatives to it, nor assume its autonomous necessity as first commandment. Rather it takes the relevant life coordinates of an economic system into account. It does not therefore leave the means whereby people live to the competitively self-maximizing monetary calculations of private consumer and corporate entities in certitude of the best possible world by the providence of an invisible hand. Nor, as rational, does it assume that atomic choices of private self-maximizers are magically transfigured by the autonomous necessity of market laws to the social good. The first commandment of theo-capitalism to ‘‘leave it to the Market to decide’’ is thus consigned to the superstitious religious metaphysics of the past. Private-price system analysis and mathematical modeling are not discarded, but put into economic context as one tool set among many in the challenging subject of understanding how to efficiently provide life goods otherwise in short supply through generational time. Grounding in terrestrial existence and this-worldly facts instead of just-so stories and algebraic models of them, life-coherent economics therefore takes into systematic account life-value costs and life-value added, not only money-value gains and losses through an invisible order with which society must not interfere.
Thus the measured maintenance of non-renewable resources and the systematic effects of production and products on the life capabilities of workers and consumers beyond their price and wage payments are not ‘‘externalities’’ as they are to theo-capitalist mechanics, but are foundational concerns. Life-coherent economics takes into account what money-value circuitries cannot in principle — life-capital costs and adds, the basis of any real economy. Guidance by dyadic exchange models with no life coordinates ever entering into measure and account is thus superceded. In place of life-blind parameters confined to market self-maximizers, money values and price and profit sub-systems, economic comprehension re-grounds in a life-value metric: whose meta standard of measure is what is required across individual differences for human life not to be reduced in its capacities of life range.31 In other words, world rule by ‘capital’ as merely private money stocks and leverages becoming more ad infinitum is restructured to select for life-capital preservation and growth rather than against them, while life-value itself is recognized rather than erased.
While the reigning value order appears to be an impersonal necessity whose system operates independently of human control, its allocating operator in fact abstracts out all life requirements but financial value to private investors — a partial objective which in fact contravenes life necessity the more this self-referential system grows. With all value bearings reduced to moments of its growth, the only common bond of worth left, the final court of value appeal for all that exists, is the global market price it can get — a manna selector that supplants the value of life itself and its conditions of possibility. What appears on the surface to be individual freedom and value plurality without limit is, in truth, an overriding system of private money sequences delinked from any life-ground or standard. Indeed not even landed property, labor, gold or commodity output anchors these money sequences in any value beyond their self multiplication. This is why when one ‘rational expectation’ of the exponentially leveraged financial sequences fails — for example, the value of mortgaged credit derivatives sold across the world in deregulated financialized batches — the system collapses. It has no ground. Only infusions of limitless public-debt support keep the system afloat and they do so by impoverishing the public bodies they predate. Over $20 trillion in public bailouts later, $589 trillion in credit-default swaps (CDS’s) are still in carcinogenic sequence with largely unowned stocks and bonds.32
With the only ruling value as private money demand multiplying where each seeks the most to get rich, the increasing vast majority become in fact ever poorer in life capital and means. The downstream results are predictably chaotic in long term, but the global ecological and social collapses are not connected back to the private money-value circuits which rule with no life function.33
Throughout this system’s expressions, an underlying grammar of ‘rationality’ regulates instead. The subject is self-maximizing desiring mechanisms who only seek more money capital to command and commodities to consume. Their verb is to become more money command and/or more commodity consumption without upper limit to either. And all modifiers, in turn, are money-value equivalents. Competing self-maximizers are the place-holders in all positions, and human and ecological life systems are the disposable media of the multiplying private money and commodity sequences. Seek to find any exception to this ordering in this system’s growth. Yet by its calculations, the best of possible worlds is necessarily produced. If this seems too impossible to believe, we may decode the inner logic of the system in its own terms. Self-maximizing money-value functions in aggregate (Market Demand) are brought by competitive self-maximization to equal what is for sale by all private vendors (Market Supply). This process always moves toward a providential end state (Equilibrium). Each round enlists ever more of the world in its commodity and profit cycles toward higher and higher money-value outcomes (Growth). Environmental bases, unpriced labor and public provision are thus all screened out, while the priced commodities of ever new markets increasingly fail to serve life needs and cumulatively violate life requirements in their cycles of growth at the same time.
In truth, this system is not an economic order at all. It leaves out most of what the real economy requires to reproduce and develop — all the production and reproduction and all the natural factors of production (from extractable resources to ecosystem services) to the unpriced labor of over half the human race (from child-rearing and home-care to subsistence farming across the world) to all the civil commons of producing and protecting unpriced life goods (from water and sewer infrastructures and services to universal public education, culture and healthcare to social security support in age, unemployment, and disability) to, not least, protection of the terrestrial biosphere on whose stability of reproduction everything else depends. We might then properly ask whether this ‘economics’ is more than a regulating system for private money profit by any means.
Since the money-price exchanges of market sales and purchase and money-capital investment-proﬁt circuits are, in reality, all that this ruling paradigm can see, how can what it describes still be credibly conceived as the economy, let alone as optimizing in effects? Its systematic destruction of life capital and polluting wastes show, on the contrary, the opposite — a diseconomic system with ever more degradation of life systems. Yet nothing can go wrong in life coordinates that its value calculus can recognize or correct. All that can stop or redirect it is failure of money demand, but money demand has been increasingly supplied by (i) unrestricted financial leveraging sustained by (ii) ever rising government debts for bank and corporate recapitalization requiring (iii) ever more savage cut backs on public life supports to pay for them. Nothing relating to human life requirements through reproductive time, the real central issue of economics, counts in. The 95% of the system’s propelling money demand is in fact based on private pecuniary contracts alone — none of which has any required life or productive function as they multiply public and private debt.34 As a collective system in accordance with which all are obliged to think and act, all that matters is that ever more priced desire objects and money profits are produced. The more growth the better, and the faster and more global the reduction of all else to its circuits of expansion, the better off humanity is, whatever in fact occurs. From stripped ocean bottoms to melting polar icecaps to world-wide malnutrition and water deprivation, no life or life capital computes to the paradigm, while more homicidal weapons and bank-corporate subsidies lead public spending away from the real economic crises. Since no life standards exist in this system, no feedback correction occurs to safeguard life capital at any level. Interconnected and spasmic collapses of the planet’s life support systems — the air quality, the soil mantles, fresh and ocean waters, species biodiversity, destabilization of hydrological and climate cycles, and defunding of life-enabling social infrastructures — thus cumulatively follow over time.
In terms of goods for human beings, a rising half of the world is destitute under this ‘wealth-creation’ system while public sectors, services and pensions are defunded to feed its rising demands. If life pollution, system waste and public squalor grow more intolerable, armed-force spending and use, surveillance and prisons increase to enforce the regime against resistance. The propelling causal mechanism behind every moment of the planet-wide depredation is not, however, connected back to its ‘rationality’ decider. No re-set to life coherence is conceived. As the life-blind formulae select for every step of life host collapse, denial of the ill effects remains built-in. System performance in securing life goods for human beings without waste — the defining purpose of an economy — is unspeakable within the paradigm’s syntax of judgement.
Money-Value Versus Life-Value Sequences: Formalizing the Contradiction
The ultimate problem in principle is that the opposition between two internally and factually consistent sequences of choice are not distinguished. One is the money sequence of value which the reigning economic models presuppose without recognizing the defining inner logic of what they presuppose. Only what is consistent with the ruling presuppositions can be seen. Formally expressed, the ultimately regulating logic of the system moves from money-value as input through anything at all as means to more money-value, or $ → AM → $1→2→>3…→N. What is not recognized through all macro and micro means used — whether genocidal wars or ecological habitats or unliving wages — is that this ruling sequence of value is a priori life-blind whatever is used to grow it. That is, it is in principle indifferent to the loss of life capital and life-value throughout all of its expanding moments. They are called ‘‘capital’’, but are in fact only private money sequences which override real capital requirements. Life capital, means of life that can be used to make more means of life without erosion, includes not only tools and machines, organized labor, and natural resources which produce what is otherwise scarce, but sciences and social life support systems. The life capital sequence is formally expressed as Life → Means of Life → More Life, or L → M-of-L → L1. For example, the life capital we inherit — from arable land, water aquifers, and hydrological-climate cycles to life-enabling knowledge capital and social infrastructures — are basic instantiations of the life capital value sequence.
While the private money sequence of value is structured to gain only money value for private investors of money with ever reduced tax or other constraints, the life capital sequence is opposite in its rationally regulating objective. It is structured to gain life value for people’s lives and to rule out life-value loss as its organizing purpose. The more efficiently it can do this — that is, with ever less life-value cost and waste — the more rational and economic it is in real terms. Dilemmas like ‘‘environment versus growth’’, therefore, cannot arise for the life capital paradigm because they are ruled out from the start. Only what is compossibly consistent with the life requirements of human beings and their life support systems is rational or economic. As we have seen, the ruling money-sequence system is in principle life-blind, and generates no end of conflicts with life requirements and support systems across domains. While atomic self-maximization of money value as end-in-itself does produce ever more private commodities and profits in the market, it predictably comes into conflict with every life requirement there is — organic, vocational, social, and ecological — as evidenced all around us. Yet market miracles continue to be proclaimed as life fabrics and supports unravel.35
Life Capital, Goods, and Efficiency: Life-Coherent Economics as Moral Science
In the end, life capital is the only real capital, just as life goods are the only real goods. The lost economic ground is provision of otherwise scarce life goods through time — not money-value in commodities and profits decoupled from life function. Here, Karl Marx has hardly more to offer us than the money-sequence paradigm. Indeed the first page of Capital rules out life-value as a consideration in defining a ‘‘commodity’’ as the necessary middle term of the money sequence of value growth. Marx had not seen in his time the dominant financialization of our day where no productive requirement mediates the money sequence, nor had he seen a world in which every level of life-system is in decline from this decoupled money-value growth.
Although money-value adding is sweepingly described as ‘‘value adding’’ simpliciter, there could be no greater absurdity in the light of life-coherence requirements. The equation of ‘‘goods’’ to priced commodities for private profit is no less absurd. For it follows from this equation that ever more obesity-causing foods, homicidal weapons, commercial violence games, carcinogenic cosmetics, environment-despoiling leisure machines, and so on are ever more ‘‘goods’’. What more deranged value metric could there be? Logically, it assumes contradictories as equivalent. Morally, it commends and motivates people to do what deforms or destroys their life capacities. Economically, it simultaneously produces degenerate commodities, destroys human capital and wastes healthcare facilities. Yet no ‘‘bads’’ can exist in this system once they sell for a private — the pangloss operator of theo-capitalism. Even the system’s renowned ‘efficiency’ means only less money costs to private money possessors sequencing to more money than they put in — not in fact absence of waste as efficiency actually means.36 Here too system evil is disclosed. Always taking out more than you put in is a self-evidently parasitic regime. The more the take is and the more it deprives others’ lives, the more immoral and life diseconomic it is. All may intuit this outside superstition of the invisible hand.37 But once belief in the necessary benevolence of market avarice takes hold, greed is transformed into ‘‘enhanced well-being’’ for society so long as commodity sales occur. Indeed the exchanges for maximum proﬁt — even if by selling toxic junk — is proclaimed to be ‘‘creating wealth’’ by magic-thinking operation. In truth, however, it is not more wealth but more private money demand on wealth which runs life capital down. As ever more invasive money-sequence growth and multiplication metastasizes across domains and borders with no committed function to any life host, a carcinogenic pattern emerges beneath notice. It is in principle a globalizing cancer at the social level of life organization.38 Yet by leaving all life costs and wastes out of account, systemic depredation of the economy’s social and ecological life capital formations counts as more productive and efficient even as world life and life support systems collapse beneath it. Reason is obliged to ask, what greater inversion of the moral science could there be? What more moronic system of social ordering could exist?39
Money-capital selectors of economic growth thus attack, degrade and pollute what is required for human life to exist and flourish, without the systematic destruction of life capital and goods — that without which all human life suffers life capacity loss by the extent of the deprivation — computing to the value metric. Let us then conclude by identifying all that is at risk the more this system grows without life standards governing it: the atmospheric goods of unpolluted air, sunlight, climate cycles, and seeing-hearing space; the bodily goods of clean water and nourishing food through generational time; the environmental goods of natural and constructed elements contributing to life-supporting and integrated surroundings; the social goods of reliable care through time by life support, healthcare, and security of person; the cultural goods of participant arts, games and community play; and the vocational good of enabling and obliging each to contribute to the provision of these life goods consistent with all’s enjoyment of them. In short, a misnamed system of economic rationality, capital, goods and efficiency is increasingly the reverse of what it assumes, with no capacity within its self-referential paradigm to recognize its final disorder.
- Arrow, K. (1963). Social choice and individual values. New York: Wiley.
- Barry, A. (1995, June). Be nice, sit down, and talk. Literary Review of Canada, p.7.
- Brown, E. (2011). Web of debt. Baton Rouge: Third Millennium Press.
- Buchbinder, H., & Newson, J. (1991). Social knowledge and market knowledge. Gannet Centre Journal, Spring/Summer, 17–30.
- Edgeworth, F. (1881/1932). Mathematical psychics. London: London School of Economics.
- Gauthier, D. (1986). Morals by agreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hayek, F. A. (1988a). The fatal conceit: The errors of socialism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
- Hayek, F. A. (1988b). The fatal conceit. New York: Routledge.
- Hodgson, B. (2001). Economics as moral science. Heidelberg: Springer.
- Johnstone, D. B., et al. (1998). The financing and management of higher education: A status report on worldwide reforms. Washington, DC: World Bank.
- Marx, K. (1867). Capital. In K. Marx & F. Engels (Eds.), Collected works (Vol. 1). New York: International Publishers.
- McMurtry, J. (1999). The cancer stage of capitalism. London: Pluto Press; Tokyo: Springer Press, 2002
- McMurtry, J. (2000, January). At the edge of a new dark age: The corporate takeover of higher research and education. Economic Reform, pp. 14–16.
- McMurtry, J. (2004). Understanding market theology. In B. Hodgson (Ed.), The invisible hand and the common good. Heidelberg: Springer Press.
- McMurtry, J. (2010). Philosophy and world problems. Oxford: Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), UNESCO.
- McMurtry, J. (2010). Reclaiming rationality and scientific method. Oxford: Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), UNESCO.
- Michalos, A. C. (2008). Trade barriers to the public good. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Mirowski, P. (2000). Machine dreams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Pareto, V. (1971/1906). Manual of political economy. New York: A.M. Kelley.
- Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sen, A. (1977). Rational fools: A critique of the behavioral foundations of economic theory. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 6, 317–344.
- Sen, A. (1998). The possibility of social choice. Nobel Lecture. American Economic Review, 89, 349–378.
- Smith, A. (1776/1909). An inquiry into the nature and understanding of the wealth of nations. New York: PF Collier and Son.
- Woodhouse, H. (2009). Selling out/academic freedom and the corporate university. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.
- Dodge v Ford Motor Company (204 Michigan 459(1919) set the formal precedent where even Henry Ford could not deploy Ford profits to increase the employment and welfare of workers. The Supreme Court ruled in a judgement never since contested that ‘‘the lawful power of a corporation is organized for the profit of the stockholders.
- For the absolutist inner logic of these ‘trade and investment’ treaties including NAFTA and the WTO, see McMurtry (2002, pp. 111–116).
- Rawls (1971).
- Gauthier (1986).
- Pareto (1971/1906).
- Sen (1977).
- Sen (1998). https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2018/06/sen-lecture.pdf.
- These standards are spelled out systematically in Value Wars, pp.117–262.
- Arrow (1963).
- The concept of collective goods does not even exist in Paul Samuelson’s canonical ECONOMICS over 30 years, but where it is referred to in, for example, World Bank documents, its meaning is confined to market infrastructures.
- This missing common life-ground of the economy is conceptualized here and elsewhere as ‘‘the civil commons’’ — all social constructs which enable universal access to life goods, including ecological services regulated to protect their reproduction. This ultimate principle of a real and sustainable economy does not exist in received doctrine. (See McMurtry, J., Philosophy and world problems. Oxford: Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), UNESCO).
- Edgeworth (1881/1932, p. 15). I am indebted to citation by Bernard Hodgson (2001). The mechanical nature of neo-economics since is tracked by Mirowski (2000) into the ‘‘automaton’’ rationality of military and economic strategies where life value and nature is excised altogether.
- In the famous words of British Lord Chancellor Turlow (1731–1806), the corporation ‘‘lacks both a body to be kicked and a soul to be damned, they therefore do as they like’’. In formal terms, the corporation can be exactly defined as follows: The corporation is a changing pool of money owners defined by a unitary legal goal of profit maximization for its shareholders and their non-liability for the corporation’s actions. It is also the sole right holder as ‘‘the investor’’ in transnational treaty legal mechanisms whose rules since 1988 govern the global market and whose articles exclude all labor and citizens rights, the corporation is the sole agent inducing obligations in contemporary international trade with a unilateral rights to sue governments for ‘‘loss of profit opportunity’’ through binding and punitive tribunals with powers of unlimited financial penalty. In domestic law, the private corporation writes its own charter of incorporation as distinct from its original reception of power by sovereign government conferral. Revealingly no substantive definition of the corporation or even recognition of its non-individual and non-human nature is recognized in economic textbooks. Rather the most ultimate ontological distinctions are erased in assumption of their equivalence. (See McMurtry, J., Reclaiming rationality and scientific method. Oxford: Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), UNESCO).
- Recall that the dilemma which the atomic choosers confront is whether to ‘‘defect’’ (confess), or not. If one confesses and the other remains silent, the one who turns coat goes free, and the one who remains in solidarity gets 10 years. If they turn on each other for self benefit, they get 5 years. If both remain silent, they each get a light sentence of 2 years or less.
- See Woodhouse (2009) for an in-depth study which deploys the principles of the market model to track the repression of critical freedom of inquiry within Canadian universities. For how CEO’s of corporations and universities in Canada collaborated in recommending university under-funding to government to force faculty into serving private market priorities, see Buchbinder and Newson (1991).
- In Johnstone (1998), ‘‘entrepreneurship’’ is prescribed for all ‘‘institutions, departments, and individual faculty’’ to ‘‘improve education’’ and ‘‘beneﬁt societies’’ without response to longstanding arguments of contradictions in principle between the nature of higher education and research and commercial models.
- Smith (1776/1909, Book IV, Chapter II, pp. 351–52, 466–467).
- Allen (1995, p. 7).
- Wealth of Nations, p. 84.
- Wealth of Nations, p. 349.
- Wealth of Nations, pp. 351–352.
- Michalos (2008).
- U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, is quoted by Susan George, ‘‘Europe’s Harvest of Contamination, Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2003, p. 14.
- Wealth of Nations, p. 351. While Smith is clear that the ‘‘mean rapacity and monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers neither are or ought to be the masters of mankind’’ (p. 383), he is confident that the invisible hand will correct their greed by competition among them to provide the cheapest goods in order to sell them, the eternal precondition of profit. The natural law is of everyone’s self-interest maximization ensures it. ‘‘In every country it always is and must be the interest of the great body of people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it cheapest’’, he says. It is ‘‘ridiculous to take any pains to prove it (p. 383, italics added). Thus the natural liberty of all in wants for more by less price paid operates through the market’s invisible hand to necessarily produce the best outcome for all or the common interest. This is the innermost ruling logic of almost 250 years of Western society’s global expansion — the necessity of self-maximizing individuals producing the optimal outcome via the free market. Karl Marx assumes it as given throughout Capital. Pareto proves it formally in doctrinal belief. The canonical contemporary economic theorists, Ken Arrow and Frank Hahn, state it in these modified terms: ‘‘the notion that a social system moved by independent actions in pursuit of different values is consistent with a final coherent state of balance … is surely the most important intellectual contribution that economic thought has made to the general understanding of social processes’’ (italics added). Observe how the transition from a perfectly life-blind model to implicit claim of its universal generalizability as understanding of all human society in process is made by the most circumspect of neo-classical theorists.
- Gauthier (1986, p. 93).
- See footnote 14.
- McMurtry (2004).
- Hayek (1988). The passages cited here and below are located on pages 6–7, 74, and 130–131, respectively.
- Hayek (1988, p. 74).
- The life-coherence principle is systematically explained and applied in McMurtry ‘‘Reclaiming Rationality and Scientific Method’’.
- Life-value measure is explained in The Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems. See also the last section here.
- McMurtry (1999) explains the ‘‘private money-sequence system’’ in terms of a spreading carcinogenic disorder, and Brown (2011) provides a history of its growth to the 2008 financial crisis).
- In fact no economic function at all is required, and economic disfunction is enforced by blocking any regulation of otherwise toxic derivatives. Such occurred both before and after the 2008 ﬁnancial meltdown in the US and, by its veto power, at the international level at the same time. For example, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act U.S. HR5660 specifically forbade any regulatory interference after it. Typically conceptualized in opposite positive terms as ‘‘Modernization’’, the Act promotes the ruinous derivatives trading as solely benevolent — ‘‘to promote legal certainty, enhance competition, and reduce systemic risk in markets for over-the-counter derivatives, and for other purposes’’. Immediate fabulous bonuses for sales of toxic financial commodities with no subtraction for fraud were not mentioned; nor regulated against after societies paid over $20 trillion to refloat the fraudulent financial system. Throughout we see that so long as more money returns are reaped immediately by sales — no matter what the toxic junk sold — the a priori conclusion is that the market is good.
- See Cancer Stage and Web of Debt for documentation of the dyseconomic and predatory pattern. Current phenomena expressing the cumulative economic disorder are the near bankruptcy of the United States itself to pay the many trillions of dollars of public wealth to finance banks as well as ever greater tax-cuts to the very rich while slashing social programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and publicly funded pensions) and life-support investments in carbon and pollution abatement by corresponding trillions — while in poignant synecdoche the highest contributor to the Republican Party is a vulture capital dealer. The underlying pattern is cross-cultural. Greece, ‘‘the cradle of democracy’’, is plunged into bankruptcy simultaneously by the same invasive and non-productive financial forces as its industrial production falls over 30% in 2 years and youth unemployment escalates. We may observe that the financial forces of destruction which have bled economies dry in Latin America, Russia, and South-East Asia by ‘‘free capital ﬂows’’ are now hollowing out the US, Britain and Europe.
- A poignant illustration that arises as write is the case of the new ‘‘miracle economy’’ of India. Its idealization by aggregate money-value gains blinkers out all disconfirming facts of life ruin and deprivation — such as a quarter of a million suicides of farmers impoverished by globalization between 1995 and 2010, ‘‘the bottom 50% famished’’ with ‘‘836 million Indians living on less than 50 cents a day according to government report’’, and the ‘‘cost of fuel, healthcare, education and producing food’’ increasing within the global market magic (reported by Jaideep Hardikar, ‘‘Bomb drops on Indian countryside, New Internationalist, March 2011). ‘‘24 billionaires with a combined worth a third of India’s gross domestic product’’ have meanwhile emerged.
- Samuelson so defines ‘efficiency’ at the most general level in the Glossary of his standard text.
- Superstition is understood as belief relying on highly selective evidence which ignores all wider counter examples to it.
- See footnote 32.
- I defer to Amartya Sen for this latter conception. In his ‘‘Rational Fools’’ article cited above, he describes the ruling economic rationality as that of a ‘‘social moron’’.