THE CANCER STAGE OF CAPITALISM (2):
Second edition of McMurtry’s book updates cancer diagnosis
By Giorgio Baruchello
A review essay of the second, revised edition of John McMurtry, Understanding the Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Cancer to Cure (London: Pluto, 2013). Published in the November 2013 issue of the CCPA Monitor, Canada.
The first edition of John McMurtry’s Cancer Stage of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 1999) needed no amendment, but the second edition massively updates and advances its diagnosis. The great global turns of 9-11, the 2008 Wall Street crash, Latin America’s “socialism for the 21st century,” and the ongoing fall of social-democratic Europe are all here analyzed in depth.
The new anchor concept of “life capital — life wealth that produces more life wealth without loss” — spells out the life ground so long missing from economic theory. The book’s Preface (“What is Capital?”) and long opening chapter (“Decoding the Cancer System and its Resolution”) are completely new, while the new subtitle “Cure” is spelled out in light of the last 12 years of corporate assault on the life-ground and the rising global resistance to it.
“Any exponentially multiplying and uncontrolled demand serving no life function is cancerous by definition.”
This is not a neo-Marxian work. The Marxian assumptions of David Harvey (not to mention Marx himself) and the Critical Theory analysis of Jürgen Habermas are exposed to devastating re-grounding analyses. On the right, the “life-blind” categories of neo-classical theory and neo-liberalism are exploded, while F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman are surgically demolished. Even Naomi Klein’s work, which followed the first edition of McMurtry’s book, is found to miss the underlying carcinogenic normality of “disaster capitalism.” Critique, however, is not the final goal of the book. It is finding a life-coherent way out of the greatest collapse of biosphere and civilization the world has ever known.
McMurtry decodes “the Great Sickness” as driven by private “transnational money sequences” multiplying in ever new and bizarre types through life hosts at every level. For him, the system disorder emerged back in 1973 with the U.S. loss of the Vietnam War, the related abandonment of the gold standard, and the Chilean experiment which launched the absolutist rule of free-market dogma that Italy’s long-time conservative MP and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti has recently dubbed “financial fascism.” Then, from the Reagan-Thatcher years to 21st-century world rule, the “Great Sickness” is unpacked step by step.
Against its expansion, which has already claimed countless lives and ecosystems, McMurtry poses the universal and interrelated “human and natural life-requirements” whose necessities to reproduce are cumulatively deprived and despoiled. This conflict is the ultimate theme of the study. In brief summary, the “cancer system” diagnosed in the new opening chapter is the deregulated and exponentially growing global money sequences to limitlessly more. Re-grounding in “life sequences of value” and the “civil commons” is the inner logic of recovery.
McMurtry’s “Diagnostic Summary of the Degenerate Trends” spells out in detail the elements of the “causal mechanism” at work behind the sickness. Yet one paragraph of this study suffices to summarize the all-fronts corporate money-system attack on biosphere and civilization:
The air, soil and water cumulatively degrade; the climates and oceans destabilize; species become extinct at a spasm rate across continents; pollution cycles and volumes increase to endanger life-systems at all levels in cascade effects; a rising half of the world is destitute as inequality multiplies; the global food system produces more and more disabling and contaminated junk food without nutritional value; non-contagious diseases multiply to the world’s biggest killer with only symptom cures; the vocational future of the next generation collapses across the world while their bank debts rise; the global financial system has ceased to function for productive investment in life-goods; collective-interest agencies of governments and unions are stripped while for-profit state subsidies multiply; police state laws and methods advance while belligerent wars for corporate resources increase; the media are corporate ad vehicles and the academy is increasingly reduced to corporate functions; public sectors and services are non-stop defunded and privatized as tax evasion and transnational corporate funding and service by governments rise at the same time at every level.
This diagnosis may seem hyperbolic. But search for one exception to these trends reveals how exact and precise they are. Overall, one basic lesson emerges. The “common interest” of nations and “competitive economic growth” are not one and the same, as regularly assumed. On the contrary, they are in full-scale war of corporate money-sequence occupation with no bound against life and life-value resistance at all levels.
Against the avoidant ideologies of relativism and subjectivism, McMurtry explains a “universal and objective ground of value.“ From it he “recovers step by step the missing life-ground of values and the ultimate meaning of how we are to live.” As defined in McMurtry’s glossary for the philosophy theme of UNESCO’s monumental Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (Paris & Oxford: Eolss, 2009-10), the life-ground is simply defined: “Concretely, all that is required to take the next breath; axiologically, all the life support systems required for human life to reproduce or develop.” Without enough bread, clean water, breathable air, open spaces in which to move and have regular sleep, progressive learning and meaningful socialization, no value we cherish can live on. All values, whether ethical, political, legal, economic, epistemic, spiritual or aesthetic, rely upon this vital platform. Even those who deny such a value ground presuppose it.
The ultimate problem is stated in one axiomatic sentence: “Money-sequence growth throughputs that produce no life-necessity and run down non-renewable resources multiply waste and incapacitate life and life-support systems.” The disorder has many pathways of attack and despoliation: ever more wasteful production and consumption in leading consumer societies; growing non-contagious pathologies from intentionally marketed, life-damaging addictive commodities; and decline in environmental and social standards across the planet.
Corporate cancer is ravaging all our life support systems
The diagnosis investigates many sites of the carcinogenic system at work in plural modes, including Chile, China, Iraq, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the former Yugoslavia, sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda, Libya, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and — most systematically — the once prosperous United States and the European Union. A comprehensive index provides concepts, definitions, trends, and examples.
Throughout, McMurtry distinguishes between good and bad government in principle. Legitimacy of government depends on its fulfilling constitutionally mandated “preventative” and “enabling” life-functions (“the social state”), while bad or illegitimate government fails in or strips these life-serving functions to grow the private money sequences of the rich (“the corporate state”).
But what serves life and what does not? the reader asks. Failure to answer this question has long allowed élites and governments to ignore people’s life needs. McMurtry’s criterion of need resolves this longstanding conundrum: A need is, and only is, “that without which life-capacities are always reduced.” Armed with this understanding, he shows that globalizing capitalism since at least 1980 has become blind to any life needs in both theory and practice. As a result, the most severe ecological and social problems follow from it — from water aquifers and rivers lost to industrial pollution and agribusiness’s overexploitation, to corporate market rights poisoning foods and making life-saving medications and knowledge unaffordable to those who need them, to more and more weapon commodities intentionally constructed and sold to maim and kill life.
All these and other malignant growths of the great sickness show that the widespread faith in the “happy coincidence” between profit-making and the common interest by the providential “invisible hand” is at best pseudo-science.
But why should all this count as a cancerous system? The first crucial step in McMurtry’s diagnosis is the defining goal of the world’s ruling economic agents. Whether cast as “value added,“ “profits,” “return on equity,” “quarterly earning reports,” or “shareholder value,” the sole “ruling value code” is in fact “to maximize by any vehicle, method, or channel open to its entry the ratio of its owners’ money-demand increases to money-demand inputs.” In the words expressing this underlying value principle, Chicago economist Milton Friedman is direct and absolute: “The one and only responsibility of business is to make as much money for stockholders as possible.”
As McMurtry deconstructs the problem: “Grounded in an engineering model of perfectly divisible inputs and outputs, life itself is in principle ruled out… What money wants is all that exists.” Specifically, thousands of corporate-treaty rules override all else, often backed by U.S.-controlled armed forces to debt collect, threaten, embargo, and invade societies that refuse corporate money-sequence multiplication through them.
The second main step of diagnosis lies in recognizing that any exponentially multiplying and uncontrolled demand serving no life-function is cancerous by definition. This is why private transnational money sequences with no committed life-function invading more and more domains of nature, society, and the human organism are cancerous by definition. In the clinical terms of this study: “The atmosphere, freshwaters and oceans, topsoils, trees, animal habitats, and species and mineral resources degenerate in life-carrying capacities and biodiversity,” while “the rising majority becomes ever more insecure, stressed, dis-possessed, and malnourished beneath GDP and market measures.”
“Globalized capital has become blind to any life-needs, so the most severe ecological and social problems have worsened.”
The third main step of diagnosis observes that in all cancers the immune defences of the life host fail to recognize the invasive growth. Instead they increasingly yield all their resources to the out-of-control self-replication of the parasitic demand. Thus societies’ long-established life-protective institutions are defunded, redirected, and unresponsive to the cumulative assault upon life hosts and support systems. They mutate instead into servants of private money-sequence growth. Governments, the media, universities, and UN agencies do not recognize the system disorder, but increasingly collaborate with it. This is why, McMurtry argues, we have seen a long succession of disastrous policies bleeding societies into depression since the Reagan-Thatcher turn:
Ruin of government programs, workers’ jobs and small business with the cranking up of interest rates to over 20% prime in the 1980s… repeal of Depression-installed regulations like Glass-Steagall… the race to the bottom of wages, benefits, and social legislation by global competition with no life-standards… cannibalist interest rates and debt charges… ‘market reforms,’ trade-treaty edicts prohibiting legislation reducing ‘profit opportunities,’ wars on resource rich regions with social control… supranational treaties in vast all-or-nothing tranches of ‘investor’ rights… according all rights only to transnational corporations… [and] binding regulations… [overriding] all human and natural life-requirements through generational time… private bank displacement of sovereign control over currency and credit.
As for the central discipline charged with understanding the macro system, the focus upon money-value in lieu of life-value runs so deep that “economic thought is in principle incapable of recognizing what has gone wrong.” How then can societies ever recover? The answer is by life-capital re-grounding at every level. The money-greed pathology is as old as civilization, but never before sovereign over nations. In this systemic sense, it is new. Its non-stop attacks on historic working-class rights, government regulation, progressive taxation, public welfare investment, and biosphere requirements are built in. McMurtry re-grounds in what he calls “the evolution of the civil commons” which, he contends, denies civilization itself, i.e., all the real gains of the human species across generational time.
Reform of sick system is taboo, but ignoring it disastrous
This is a major argument of the book and it goes all the way back to the nature of language itself. A vast array of what we take for granted is shown to express an underlying “civil commons principle”: they are “all social constructs which enable universal access to life goods. It is not a bygone or utopian idea, but includes inter alia the clean air we still breathe, life-protective laws, universal health plans, the world wide web, common sewers, sidewalks and forest paths, games and fields of play, the open science movement, public streetscapes, effective pollution controls, city squares and sidewalks, old-age pensions, universal education, universal hygiene practices, fair elections, unemployment insurance, maximum work hours and minimum wages, public parks, clean water, community fish-habitats, and public broadcasting. Far from being merely an ideal, McMurtry demonstrates that “civil commons formation in provision of life-goods” has long already proved superior to “any for-profit system,” including ‘corporate partnerships,’ which are laid bare as public-wealth looting schemes.
“Profound fallacies still unrecognized include the absurd assumption that private money alone counts as ‘demand’ in the economy, and that corporate commodities are ‘goods’ no matter how damaging they may be.”
Behind the global corporate occupation on the cognitive level lie profound fallacies of reason still unrecognized at the highest level of intellectual inquiry. Primary is the absurd assumption that “private money” alone counts as “demand” in “the economy,” thus erasing “all needs and demands of organic, social and life-systems themselves.” This connects to the ludicrous assumption that all corporate commodities are “goods,” however damaging to people’s health and the environment they may be.
Perhaps most controversial is McMurtry’s identification of a confusion between the “over-demand” of the global corporate market and the “over-population” of Earth. What is addressed most centrally are the reigning assumptions that the “global market” is in fact “a free market” and for the “common good” — ultimate value premises he demonstrates as systematically false. More challengingly still, what counts as “productivity” and “greater efficiency,” even to the Left, increasingly runs down life capital at every level.
Here the second edition’s new central concept of life capital leads to a “Copernican revolution of economics.” This is spelled out both in principle and in policy terms: “The three R’s of true economy” – Reduce, Re-use and Re-cycle — [constitute] the inner logic of preserving and advancing life capital in natural, social and technological terms.
What of China now winning the great global competition of “growth”? In fact it leads to:
[E]ver more industrially devastated environments and peoples whose large-scale ruin – produces mass cheap commodities serving no life-need. Ever more monumentally life-blind cycles have dwarfed Western industrialization and inequality in scale. The Three Gorges defining China’s wondrous natural beauty have been destroyed, its largest freshwater lake turned into mud and dust; Tibet is looted and overrun, one can hardly breathe or see through the megopolis air, corruption is far more rampant, and hundreds of millions of poor are more life-means deprived than before the U-turn.
Life and life capital costs are factored out in fatal large scale. The system derangement of the era rules the Chinese Communist Party itself: that transnational market money-demand is the ultimate value, and ever cheaper commodities is the supreme goal of human society on Earth.
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But what is the point of this devastating critique? It seems a lost cause. Where anywhere do humanity’s life-capital advances come before private transnational money-capital growth? McMurtry identifies underlying civil commons and life-capital trends expressed in four pivotal changes of policy that have long worked and do so again when implemented: 1) “higher taxes for the corporate rich” to pay for the social and environmental life support systems and vast public wealth subsidising their products at every level; 2) “aggressive national recovery of control over public owned resources”; 3) “public banking and investment;” and 4) “policy-led elimination of structural depredation of the poor and the environment.”
Lucid criteria inform the definitions of “human,” “natural,” “knowledge,” and “social” capital underpinning these policies, while “life capital” and its “universal parameters of diagnosis” specify “determinants of social health and disease” to guide action. “Recovery from the Great Sickness” is therefore possible, though by no means easy, McMurtry concludes. Certainly, social response is demanded by the rising pain and oppression worldwide as expressed in massive uprisings in countries as diversely central as Greece, Spain, Egypt, France, and the U.S.
All effective policy shifts nurture life-capital, not state power. But who or what else can lead recovery if not state power? Who or what if not combined state power can make Ray Anderson’s celebrated case of 100% sustainable industrial production the norm for all businesses on Earth? According to McMurtry, public authorities’ life-enabling intervention in the economy is the only real option.
The policy logic required has been long tested across continents, if not understood in principle. Shift in taxation for public spending on common life bases has been proven to work by Scandinavian countries over many decades, and public reclamation of public resources has worked wonders in Norway and Ecuador. More broadly, the “public option” serves “the known needs of… people and their life-conditions” by public investment in life capital at every level that this account reports in synoptically connected pattern.
As far as the third policy shift is concerned, McMurtry insists on the crucial role that credit plays and the urgency of restoring public control of it after the disastrous effects of deregulated banking. He compares the long string of post-Bretton-Woods meltdowns with the time when “nations loaned to themselves and spent themselves productively into prosperity across the world during and after the 1939-45 war.” Also, he highlights the positive experiences of “Abraham Lincoln’s” greenbacks, “German Landesbanks,” and North Dakota’s “public-banking and debt system,” the “1935 Bank of Canada Act… [providing for] the central bank lending to government as its sole shareholder,” as well as all leading economies using “variations of public investment” sustained by reclaimed public credit.
Urgently needed is to restore public control of credit
The ultimate moral policy shift identified is “the progressive elimination of structural depredation of the poor and the environment,” financially enabled by the other policy shifts. Here the post-1945 reconstruction of Europe by public investment in human capital, as well as Latin America since 1999, show the way in overcoming absolute poverty while recovering the real economy at the same time.
Lest the environment seems beyond recovery, the analysis points to the “no-pollution schedule of the Ozone Protocol” and the long-neglected “binding [I]nternational Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” as proven steps in life capital protection and advance by binding inter-state policy and laws. Only international norms as conditions of trade can enforce what is already known to be essential.
The economy must work for humankind, not humankind for private money demand. McMurtry observes how, in 2010, conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for basic reforms in “free market capitalism” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and immediately became the target of the corporate media — just as Bill Clinton did when he called abroad for “levelling up, not down” in 1998.
Any reform of the sick system is taboo. But far worse for life on Earth is not recognizing and responding to the fatal disorder.
(Giorgio Baruchello is a Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Akureyri in Solborg, Iceland.)