Social Philosophy and Oncology | G. Baruchello and E. Hjörleifsdóttir (2014)

Reproduced from: (60) Social Philosophy and Oncology (review essay) | Giorgio Baruchello –

Review Essay

Social Philosophy and Oncology

The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure

John McMurtry (1939-2021)

Pluto Press, London, 2013, £21.99, xiv + 378, ISBN 978 0 7453 3313 7

 Social Theory & Health (2014) 12, 313–338. doi:10.1057/sth.2014.7; published online 25 June 2014

Rhetoric and rhetorical tropes have always played an important role not only in human thought and communication at large (cf. Nietzsche, 1983[1871]; De Man, 1986), but also in scholarship and scientific research (cf. Kuhn, 1970; Gross, 1990; Ortony, 1993). For example, politically structured communities have been repeatedly described and comprehended via the metaphor of ‘the body politic’ (for example, Mandeville, 1732, Volume 1), while the solar system has been taken qua conceit or allegory, that is, a sustained metaphor, for the electrons orbiting around the nucleus (Bohr, 1913). Some tropes have proven more apt than others, as with the metaphor of the body politic, which has been in use since at least the times of Aesops Fables. Others have grown into outright explanatory models of reality, as with Bohr’s classical study in physics. A few have become the basic imagery of certain disciplines: Could one conceive of physics without ‘forces’, ‘fields’ and ‘vectors’? Or think of cellular biology without ‘cells’, ‘corpuscles’ and ‘nuclei’? And what would immunology be without the lexicon of ‘invasions’, ‘responses’ and ‘defences’ derived from prior, broader socio-historical experiences? (McMurtry, 2013, p. 160; hereafter CSC2013)

Economics has been prone to using rhetorical devices too (cf. McCloskey, 1985; Hirschman, 1991), whether by talking of ‘markets’, ‘growth’ and ‘depressions’, or by importing engineering-born ‘mechanisms’, ‘overheating’ and ‘flows’ into the discipline. Perhaps as a result of the latest massive economic ‘meltdowns’ caused by ‘toxic assets’ spreading worldwide through financial ‘contagions’, medical and especially cancer-related imagery has been appearing frequently of late, for example, Nobel-laureate Paul Krugman’s ‘metastasised finance sector’ (as cited in CSC2013, p. 10) and The American Conservative co-founder Pat Buchanan’s corporate ‘cancer … eating away at the economy’ (as cited in CSC2013, p. 234).

Since first presenting it in an article for an academic journal’s 1995 special issue on public health, Canadian social philosopher McMurtry has been elaborating a ‘diagnosis’ of the global economy’s ongoing systemic depletion of natural and social resources ‘as carcinogenic’ (CSC2013, p. 22). This diagnosis was fully articulated 4 years later in the first edition of The Cancer Stage of Capitalism (hereafter CSC1999). Widely read and reviewed,1 sometimes years after it first appeared for Pluto Press (for example, Streeck, 2009), the cancer diagnosis has often been misrepresented and misunderstood. Thus, McMurtry clarifies it in the second, revised edition of his book: ‘the cancer stage of capitalism is not a metaphor’; it is ‘an explanatory model’ (CSC2013, pp. 22–24; emphasis added). Unlike a mere image of likeness, the explanatory model applies thoroughly and with systematic correspondence the carefully discussed defining features of a serious carcinogenic disorder of economic phenomena. In addition, McMurtry observes with numerous examples how this diagnosis is implicit in or underlies much recent discourse on the global economic crisis, though it is not yet capable of penetrating the systemic meaning of the disorder and indeed incoherently avoiding it with terms like ‘financial contagion’ (cf. CSC2013, pp. 22–25).

Structure and Aims

In this essay,2 we first summarise McMurtry’s theory of value and then present his oncological explanatory model of socio-economic affairs in three simple analytical steps, which simplify its articulate exposition in Chapters 1 (especially pp. 63–77), 4 (especially pp. 170–176) and 5 (especially pp. 210–219) of CSC2013.3

Second, we offer some reflections on the implications that standard oncological analysis as such possesses vis-à-vis the cancer’s possible curative therapies, examples of which are discussed in Chapters 5 and 6 of CSC2013, whose concluding sections (especially pp. 257–326) have absorbed, deepened and expanded the epilogue of CSC1999. Under this perspective, it is revealing to observe how CSC2013 contains a subtitle that did not appear in CSC1999: ‘From Crisis to Cure’ (emphasis added).4

We focus upon McMurtry’s oncological explanatory model and offer only some necessary introductory remarks on his theory of value, which we regard as original and illuminating, that is to say, capable of giving a novel and clearer shape to a plethora of phenomena – social, political, biological, environmental, medical, legal, economic, cultural, ethical, psychological and existential – that, normally, would be perceived and treated separately, especially within compartmentalised academia. Thus, in addition to McMurtry’s own publications, a few references to representative contributions by other researchers are included too, in order to substantiate further his account and help the reader to place it within the context of current intellectual and public debates. Hopefully, in not too distant a future, McMurtry’s key notions (for example, ‘civil commons’) and theory of value (that is, his ‘life-value onto-axiology’) will be as commonplace among scholars and scientists at large, including experts in the health sciences, as John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ and ‘theory of justice’ have been over the past four decades.

Life-Value Onto-Axiology

McMurtry’s entire endeavour is based upon the reasoned belief that, contrary to much modern relativism and subjectivism, it is possible to identify a universal and objective ground of value, which professionals in the health sciences are likely to receive far less controversially than post-modernist philosophers, ‘value free’ social scientists and ordinalist economists (CSC2013, p. 101). According to him, it is in fact possible ‘to recover step by step the missing life-ground of values and the ultimate meaning of how we are to live’ (McMurtry, 2009–2010a: Paragraph 1.16; emphasis added; cf. CSC2013, p. 338 n115).

The definition of the life-ground is fairly simple to grasp: ‘Concretely, all that is required to take the next breath; axiologically, all the life support systems required for human life to reproduce or develop’. (McMurtry, 2009–2010b) Without enough bread, clean water, breathable air, open spaces in which to move, regular sleep, acceptable education and meaningful socialisation, no value whatsoever that we cherish will ever be expressed in reality. All values with no exception, whether ethical, political, legal, economic, epistemic, spiritual or aesthetic, rely upon this vital platform, typically in a pre-reflexive manner. Even the libertarian’s individual freedom cannot be and, a fortiori, cannot be enjoyed outside such an essential platform (CSC2013, p. 242). To deny the life-ground’s import constitutes a token of performative contradiction, for she who denies it has been meeting her vital needs for the very long time needed to become able to deny it. Even pessimists and suicides affirm it, albeit via negativa, for they take their departure from a better life that is no more, that is dreamt or conceived of or that is to be gained post mortem (cf. Baruchello, 2007).

There can be no life, not to mention any good life, outside the life-ground. As McMurtry (2009–2010a, Paragraph 6.2.1) states, ‘Life support systems – any natural or human-made system without which human beings cannot live or live well – may or may not have value in themselves, but have ultimate value so far as they are that without which human or other life cannot exist or flourish’. Logically, it is still possible to distinguish between life’s intrinsic value and the life-ground’s instrumental value. Ontologically, however, it is not: ‘All that is of worth consists in and enables life value to the extent of its experienced fields of thought, felt being and action (intrinsic value), and what underlies and enables these fields of life themselves, life support systems’ (McMurtry, 2009–2010a, Paragraph 6.1.4).

As the preceding quoted passage reveals, McMurtry (2009–2010a, Paragraph 6.1) regards life as unfolding along three modes of ontological manifestation – that is, ‘thought’, ‘felt being’ (also ‘experience’ or ‘feeling’) and ‘action’ (also ‘biological movement’ or ‘motility’). In their daily practice, health professionals relate to them in terms of mental, psychological and physical health. As in holistic nursing, no sharp ontological tri- or dualism is implied by McMurtry’s distinction: ‘Although we can distinguish the cognitive and feeling capacities of any person, this does not mean dividing them into separate worlds as has occurred in the traditional divisions between mind and body, reason and the emotions. Life-value onto-axiology begins from their unity as the nature of the human organism’ (McMurtry, 2009–2010a, Paragraph 6.3; emphasis removed and added). Consistent with this picture of life on Earth, the fundamental axioms in McMurtry’s ‘life-value onto-axiology’ read as follows:

  • X is value if and only if, and to the extent that, x consists in or enables a more coherently inclusive range of thought/feeling/action than without it
  • x is disvalue if and only if, and to the extent that, x reduces/disables any range of thought/experience/action (McMurtry, 2009–2010a, Paragraph 1; emphasis in the original).

These axioms can be applied to all domains of human agency. For instance, within the context of contemporary environmentalism, McMurtry distinguishes between ‘zero growth’ and ‘zero bad growth’, claiming the former to be negative and the latter to be positive, since ‘growth of production that serves universal human life-needs is necessary and good the more there is deprivation’ (CSC2013, p. 42). Much worse is ‘Money-sequence growth throughputs that produce no life-necessity and use non-renewable resources … as they multiply waste of resources and incapacitate life and life-support systems’ (CSC2013, p. 42). In political science, McMurtry distinguishes between good government, the legitimacy of which depends on its fulfilling constitutionally mandated ‘preventative’ and ‘enabling’ life-functions (for example, life-serving fire-fighting, law-and-order, public hygiene monitoring, health-and-safety inspections), and bad government, which fails in these functions (CSC2013, pp. 255–256).

Au fond, McMurtry’s life-value onto-axiology achieves a traditional aim of philosophical enquiry, since it allows for the determination in principle of good and evil, cutting across received dualisms (for example, utilitarianism versus deontology, free choice versus paternalism, free trade versus protectionism, individualism versus collectivism, liberalism versus conservatism, cooperation versus competition): life enablement is good; life disablement is bad. Social Darwinists, libertarian objectivists, sadists and radical sceptics might disagree, although we know of no member of these groups who has sought life disablement for himself or herself, except the legendary Phyrro (cf. Baruchello, 2007). Far more common are those who have behaved like Ayn Rand, who opted for long-despised socialised health care when old and ill (cf. McConnell, 2010). Certainly, there may be simpler as well as more complex evaluations. Nevertheless, if McMurtry’s life-value onto-axiology is correct, then the better option is bound to be the result of comparisons of life-value, as in the dramatic medical experience of triage.

Needs and Civil Commons

McMurtry clarifies the composition and the scope of the life-ground by means of two key concepts: ‘need’ and ‘civil commons’.


With regard to the former key concept, McMurtry observes that not everything that we may claim to ‘need’ is, after closer scrutiny, a need. According to him, ‘ “n” is a need if and only if, and to the extent that, deprivation of n always leads to a reduction of organic capacity’ (McMurtry, 1998, p. 164). Only that ‘without which life-capacities are always reduced’ counts as need (CSC2013, p. 19). We can live, and even prosper, without candy bars or financial derivatives, but we cannot live, not to mention prosper, without ‘sufficient nutriment, clean water, sewage facilities, learning of society’s symbol systems, home and love, and expert care when ill’ (CSC2013, p. 1).5 In this connection, McMurtry (2002) identifies humanity’s fundamental ‘means of life’ or ‘vital need[s] … for none can be deprived without reduction of vital life capability’ (p. 156; emphasis removed). In the formulation for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he lists seven vital goods that he refers to as many vital needs:

  1. the atmospheric goods of breathable air, open space and light;
  2. the bodily goods of clean water, nourishing goods and waste disposal;
  3. the home and habitat goods of shelter from the elements;
  4. the environmental good of natural and constructed elements all contributing to the whole;
  5. the good of care through time by love, safety and health infrastructures;
  6. the good of human culture in music, language, art, play and sport; and
  7. the good of human vocation and social justice that which enables and obliges all people to contribute to the provision of these life goods consistent with each’s enjoyment of them.

(McMurtry, 2009–2010a, Paragraph 10.10.4; cf. CSC2013, pp. 82–83; 196–197)6

If these goods are not provided, then vital needs are not met, and if these needs are not met, then human capabilities dissipate, to the eventual point of individual and/or social non-existence. If instead these needs are met, then human capabilities do not only continue to be; they can ‘flourish’ into the good life, individual as well as social (McMurtry, 2002, p. 156).

Civil commons

With regard to the latter key concept, McMurtry (2009–2010b) defines ‘civil commons’ as ‘[a] unifying concept to designate social constructs which enable universal access to life goods’ (cf. CSC2013, pp. 237–242). Under this perspective, also the United Nations scientists’ ‘life support systems … are civil commons so far as society protects and enables their reproduction and provision for all members’ (McMurtry, 2009–2010b). For the sake of example, McMurtry (CSC2013, p. 240) lists a vast and diverse array of concepts, arrangements and artefacts aimed at fulfilling life-enabling ends in most diverse socio-historical contexts:

The nature of language, the air we breathe, the common fire, food recipes, universal health plans, the world wide web, common sewers, international campaigns against US war crimes, sidewalks and forest paths, sports and sports fields, the open science movement, the Chinese concept of jen, the Jubilee of Leviticus, public streetscapes, effective pollution controls, bird-watching, city squares and sidewalks, Buddha’s principle of interdependent origination, old-age pensions, the rule of life-protective law, universal education, universal hygiene practices, footpaths and bicycle trails, fair elections, unemployment insurance, the global atmosphere, maximum work hours and minimum wages, public parks, clean water, the Tao, community fish-habitats, public broadcasting, the ancient village commons before enclosures, the unnamed goal of the Occupy Movement.

Possibly built upon the cooperative inclinations that have helped the survival of many animal species, including ours, these ‘commons’ are characterised by the predicate ‘civil’. By this choice of predication, McMurtry’s phrase reveals the socially constructed and aimed dimensions of the institutions nurturing ‘real capital’, that is, ‘life-capitalthe natural and human-made wealth that produces more through time without loss’ (CSC2013, p. 199; emphasis in the original). McMurtry is not talking, say, of pastures available to all without supervision and sanctions for misuse, but of pastures that the community consciously or pre-consciously (that is, akin to linguistic syntax) recognises in its symbolic system and manages so as to yield life-supporting fruits through time for all its members, thus reducing a prime cause of internecine competition (cf. CSC2013, pp. 147–149 on the evolution of civil commons).

McMurtry’s latter key concept should not be confused with Garrett Hardin’s (1968) unregulated natural ‘commons’, whose tragic doom justifies their appropriation for private ends (cf. CSC2013, p. 239). On the contrary, McMurtry’s works are consistently critical of such appropriation, inasmuch as it has regularly taken place for class or elite benefit (for example, 19th-century Highland Clearances; Richard, 2000), and/or converted the existing civil commons into means of non-universal (for example, costly closed-access online resources in for-profit academic archives; cf. CSC2013, pp. 242–243) and/or life-disabling ends (for example, using higher human knowledge for the production of speculative ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’; Buffett, 2003, p. 15).

McMurtry’s observations remind the reader about the basic fact that privation is inherent to private ownership when this exceeds the life needs of the possessor, first and foremost for those who cannot exercise adequate money demand, if any at all, and yet can experience genuine need (for example, children, paupers, indigenous peoples, animals, ecosystems). It follows for McMurtry that ‘civil commons formation in provision of life-goods’ is superior to ‘any for-profit system’ without exception (CSC2013, p. 244; emphasis in the original; cf. also p. 272). As for the community that such civil commons may serve, it is an undeniable historical given that many have been parochial, that is, confined to a nation, a parish, or even just a clan or tribe (cf. CSC2013, pp. 241–242). Their very symbolic articulation may have been limited, for the life-ground runs deep in the human psyche and finds pre-rational expression in imitative child-play as well as artistic and religious traditions, without reaching necessarily full self-understanding in more abstract intellectual generalisations (cf. CSC2013, pp. 78, 204–205, 244–245 and 254). Still, whatever socio-historical qualifications may be appropriate, it follows from McMurtry’s fundamental axioms of life-value onto-axiology that the more comprehensive the life enablement is, the better it is.

The Great Sickness

If scientific research is not enough (for example, UNESCO, 2002–2013), then regular gatherings of world leaders to produce documents such as the 1992 UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development are sufficient proof of the widespread acknowledgement of an ongoing ‘environmental crisis’ (CSC2013, p. 170). Analogous events and documents testify to the existence of an ongoing major economic crisis since at least 2008, which follows the ‘meltdowns of South-East Asia in 1997, Russia in 1998, Brazil in 1999, and Argentina in 2002’ in both their liberalised capital-trade causation and socially devastating effect, not to mention the paradigmatic Great Depression of the 1930s (CSC2013, p. 264). What CSC2013 adds to this picture is a thorough explanation of their common cause.

Throughout his volume, McMurtry dubs the ecological and economic crises, and the missing recognition of the shared cause thereof, ‘the Great Sickness’ of our age. Step by step, CSC2013 seeks to illustrate how modern capitalism has been working relentlessly against both the natural life support systems upon which the long-term universal satisfaction of human needs depends, and the civil commons that societies have evolved to secure these systems’ respect, protection and fulfillment:

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 (CSC2013, p. 6; emphasis removed; cf. also pp. 106; 144–146).

This picture of contemporary reality may sound hyperbolic to some, yet a search for even one exception to these empirical generalisations reveals how exact and precise they are (cf. Jonas, 1984, 1993; UNESCO, 2002–2013; Weston and Bollier, 2013). It is this demonstrably law-like quality of McMurtry’s diagnosis across domains what makes it so compelling. It challenges the reader to find any factual disconfirmation of generic claims that ought to be recognised, but are seldom connected by science or policy response. Overall, McMurtry’s books since 1998, including CSC1999 and CSC2013, are vast collections of empirical data across global fields of enquiry showing how ‘common interest’ and ‘money-demand growth’ are not one and the same thing as so often assumed, but, on the contrary, increasingly at war (CSC2013, pp. 216–228; 256–257).

For example, CSC2013 shows that non-contagious pathologies, and ‘cancer’ in particular, are due primarily to intentionally marketed, life-harming, addictive, priced ‘consumables’, that is, as ‘a capitalist disease epidemic’ (pp. 30–40 &167–178; emphasis in the original), and so is the decline in environmental and social standards across the planet over the post-Bretton–Woods decades (for example, pp. 46–63 on Chile, the United States, Iraq, Canada and Japan; pp. 138–140 on Canada; p. 141 on New Zealand; pp. 156–158 on former Yugoslavia, sub-Saharan Africa and Guatemala; pp. 163–164 and 223 on Mexico; pp. 26–28, 190–191, 226–227, 251–252 and 278–286 on the EU; pp. 193–195 on post-communist countries; p. 224 on Peru; pp. 224–226 on Rwanda; pp. 274–277 on Japan; pp. 286–287 on Libya).

CSC2013 cites many authoritative endoxa in support of its theses, such as leading health scientists’ assessments of the socio-economic determinants of ill health, and cancerous pathologies in particular (cf. CSC2013, pp. 76–77 and 152–153), as well as famous politicians’ and one Wall Street mogul’s dramatic assessments of the economy’s inability to produce genuine well-being – left and right of the political spectrum (for example, Giulio Tremonti, p. 226; Nicolas Sarkozy, pp. 229–230; Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole, p. 234; Robert Reich, pp. 234–235; George Soros, p. 236; Bill Clinton, p. 247; Aung San Suu Kyi, p. 250; ‘Lula’ da Silva, p. 308).

To the authors of this essay there seems to be little or no doubt that the global economic system, which for convenience is called ‘capitalism’, operates increasingly, though certainly not exclusively, against both natural and human-made life support systems. High-level gatherings and documents such as the aforementioned UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development bear public, formal witness to that. Water aquifers lost to industrial pollution and agribusiness’ overexploitation, or corporate patents making life-saving medications unaffordable to many countries’ health-care services, are further, tangible proof of that – not to mention highly profitable ‘weapons’, that is, commodities ‘intentionally constructed to maim and kill life’ (CSC2013, pp. 212–216). Such examples also show that the faith in the ‘happy coincidence’ between profit-making and ‘social or ecological goods’ (CSC2013, pp. 202–203) thanks to the providential ‘invisible hand’ informing the market mechanism is naive at best, disingenuous at worst and empirically false (cf. Baruchello, 2013). With regard to the life-enabling goods (for example, bread) and services (for example, employment) supplied by the same system to certain living beings, there has often been hardly any alternative source; hence, praising ‘capitalism’ for such goods and services would be like praising the institution of slavery for having the slaves fed.

Moreover, we do not claim to know what the ideal capitalism of ‘the local butcher, brewer, and baker’ depicted by Adam Smith in his 1776 Wealth of Nations could have achieved (CSC2013, p. 17). Since then, however, the real capitalism of Dickens’ powerful industrialists, Veblen’s large trusts and Galbraith’s transnational corporations has shown long successions of entrepreneurs, shareholders, landowners and top managers, as well as their political, academic and media apparatchiks, who ‘have over centuries militantly opposed maximum work hours, reduction of child labour, minimum wages, workplace safety, labour unions, public health care, unemployment insurance, old age pensions and social security support systems’ (CSC2013, p. 128; cf. p. 247).

The Cancer Stage of Capitalism

It is difficult to think of a single civil commons institution of modern societies, be it public postal services or regulatory frameworks for the banking industry, that corporate interests have not tried ‘to eliminate … or price … for profit’ (CSC2013, p. 245). Valuing everything in terms of money and money alone, whatever may serve other values (for example, fairness, beauty, religious probity), is an obstacle to business unless it can become a profit opportunity. McMurtry is factually correct when recording the significant reduction of funds and personnel of ‘environmental agencies’ in the United States and Canada since the 1990s in particular. It is equally true that the ‘1998 Kyoto pact’ to reduce the destabilisation of the Earth’s climate was turned into a ‘new market regime for private corporations to buy and sell rights to pollute the planet’s atmosphere’ (CSC2013, p. 169). But why should all this count as analogous to a cancer?

Theoretically endless cellular self-replication

The first, crucial step in McMurtry’s diagnosis is the determination and assessment of the defining modus operandi of the world’s leading economic agents, that is, national and transnational corporate businesses (cf. Vitali et al, 2011). Whether cast as ‘money sequences’, ‘money-making’, ‘profits’, ‘return on equity’, ‘quarterly earning reports’, ‘shareholder value’ or other accounting formulae, and taking account of the actual behaviour of private bureaucracies (cf. Galbraith, 2004), the one and essential characteristic or ‘ruling value code’ (CSC2013, p. 9) that best describes what paramount aim these agents pursue is the following: ‘to maximize by any vehicle, method, or channel open to its entry the ratio of its ownersmoney-demand increases to money-demand inputs’ (CSC2013, p. 179; emphasis in the original; cf. Glyn, 2006). In the words of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, ‘The one and only responsibility of business is to make as much money for stockholders as possible’ (as cited in CSC2013, p. 115; emphasis removed).

From an economic and even legal point of view, there is nothing strange or mistaken, at least prima facie, with this regulating code. As long as nothing illicit takes place, this code is taken to reflect the only rational course of action (cf. CSC2013, p. 100), which should theoretically proceed ad infinitum, since homo oeconomicus’ desires are deemed multiple, varying and non-satiable by textbook definition (for example, Mukherjee, 2002, pp. 11–12). According to standard economic theory, each sentient economic agent is a self-maximising pleasure machine (non-sentient ones self-maximise too, but for the fiduciary sake of their shareholders’ pleasure). Pleasure is obtained by fulfilling one’s desires, that is, textbook ‘preference satisfaction’ (or the older ordinalist ‘Paretian ophelimity’; cf. Häring and Douglas, 2012; cf. CSC2013, p. 202). The fulfilment of these desires translates into corresponding economic transactions under a money-sequence system that, as a corollary of non-satiability, must continuously expand to secure regularly increasing returns, thus producing economic ‘growth’ (cf. Glyn, 2006). Freely chosen, socially implemented changes to this system of supposedly rational agency are excluded a priori, for human beings are ‘presupposed as a-political atoms of automatically self-maximizing sequences of money value’ (CSC2013, p. 99).

From a biological point of view, one major problem is immediately visible in the economic logic at issue: ‘The ruling paradigm is in principle life-blind’ (CSC2013, p. 11; emphasis in the original). There are no life-related coordinates that discriminate between vital and deadly desires and/or corresponding economic transactions, healthy and unhealthy ones, or sustainable and unsustainable expansion of the money-sequence system. Possessing money-based rather than life-based categories of understanding, such an economic logic can draw ‘no distinction between what serves organic, social and ecological life-hosts and what poisons, dismantles and loots them’ (CSC2013, p. 188; emphasis removed). It is therefore possible for the current economic system to conflate regularly and relentlessly for-profit manufactured ‘commodity desires’ and genuine ‘life-needs’, such as ‘junk foods with real food, cigarettes with life-stimulus, toxins with cleanliness, carcinogenic-laced products with body care, erotic satisfaction with power machines, commercial exploitation of nature with oneness with it, violence products with manhood, alcohol with convivial community, gated privilege with grace and excellence’ (CSC2013, p. 41). It is only through the intervention of rationalities and socially organised forms of agency external to the purely money-sequencing sphere that discriminations of this kind can take place, for example, ‘public-sector organization’ (CSC2013, p. 257), ‘public control’ (p. 268), ‘public policy’ (p. 295) and ‘public investment in life-capital regulated by life-standards’ (p. 301).

Taken in their abstract form qua legal personae, economic agents possess no life-related coordinates for biologically sound discrimination, as exemplified daily in concrete form by ‘life-means [that] are destroyed in nature and community and more and more junk, wastes, toxins, weapons and life-despoiling commodities [that] are produced in their stead’ (CSC2013, p. 78). Such allegedly rational agents consistently and continuously engage in money-based transactions that, in theory, must self-replicate endlessly, in order to secure regularly increasing returns onto investment and/or management, whatever may eventually happen to public health, people’s lives, and the fundamental planetary and social structures upon which their health and lives depend (cf. UNESCO, 2002–2013; Castoriadis, 2003, 2005a). In oncology, that is precisely what cancerous cells perform: a theoretically endless process of self-replication within a host body, whose health or eventual survival is not and cannot be perceived by the self-replicating cells as an effective control response (cf. Points 1–3 and 5 of McMurtry’s own synoptic account of ‘a cancer invasion’, CSC2013, pp. 170–171). As McMurtry writes, ‘Grounded in an engineering model of perfectly divisible inputs and outputs, life is in principle ruled out … What money wants is all that exists’ (CSC2013, p. 99).

Harm to the living host

The second step in the diagnosis consists in the acknowledgement that the effects of this theoretically endless self-replication are analogous in practice too. As any oncological record can illustrate, the uncontrolled sprawling of cancerous cells leads eventually to loss of organic capacity, down to the very point of killing the host, whose demise also implies the demise of the cancerous cells within it (cf. Points 3 and 6–7 of McMurtry’s own synoptic account of ‘a cancer invasion’, pp. 170–171). McMurtry writes, ‘As global capitalist exploitation of the environment has advanced and advances across global life-conditions and elements, all of these global life-conditions and elements – the atmosphere, freshwaters and oceans, top soils, trees, animal habitats and species and mineral resources – degenerate in direct proportion in their life-carrying capacities and biodiversity’ (CSC2013, p. 169).

No rational mind can deny that ‘life-capital reproduction through time’ is being endangered by the continuing massive spoliation of our planet’s ‘forests, waters, and animals as well as climate cycles’, yet ‘money-capital’ keeps ‘[m]ultiplying’ nonetheless in aetiologically crucial processes of, say, for-profit mechanised logging, pesticide-intensive agriculture and extensive fossil-oil consumption (CSC2013, p. 78). Moreover, such processes are deemed ‘rational’ in economic terms, as though what we have come to call ‘the economy’ could be separated and opposed to its ontological preconditions (CSC2013, p. 19). Regularly, this bizarre and life-depleting ‘rationality’ prevails, as with Principles 2 and 16 of the 1992 UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. On the one hand, the Declaration openly recognises the ‘environmental crisis’ (CSC2013, p. 170). On the other, it allows itself to press for environmental protection and restoration ‘without distorting international trade and investment’ (CSC2013, p. 170; emphasis removed). Ipso dicto, ‘international trade and investment’ are revealed to have priority over the Earth’s environment, also given that ‘States’, and hence private agents therein, ‘have the sovereign right to exploit their own resources’ (CSC2013, p. 170; emphasis removed).

Life blindness may not mean enmity to life in theory, but it does so in practice. As McMurtry laconically states, ‘“Capital” has come to refer to what deprives the world of life-goods without production of them’ (CSC2013, p. 17; emphasis removed). Specifically, ‘[w]hatever the systemic destruction of human life and universally accessible life means of a society, and however they are provided by peaceful and self-governing life ordering, the ultimately driving transnational money-sequences dismantle them to multiply themselves’ (CSC2013, p. 51; emphasis removed). In other words, according to McMurtry’s analysis of the effects of life-blind profit-pursuits over life support systems and civil commons, capitalism does not only operate increasingly against both of them, but systemically. In other words, capitalism is ‘pathological in principle because it always selects for money-value over life value’ (CSC2013, p. 106; emphasis in the original).

Mostly, there has been no evil intention at play. Although sectors of the existing market economy do benefit from the direct dilapidation of life support systems (for example, pharmaceutical companies profiting from diseases caused by industrial pollution), this dilapidation is rarely the aim of the agents at play (for example, arms manufacturers and arms traders profiting from societies’ descent into civil war). Textbook economics and actual businesses eschew a priori such fundamental onto-axiological structures and damage thereof. This avoidance is accomplished by either presupposing these structures uncritically qua free gifts of history (cf. Castoriadis, 2005b) or treating them methodologically as ‘externalities’ (CSC2013, p. 3), that is, domains lying outside the contractual one in which the economic agents are formally confined in both standard theory and much legal practice. In truth, the very textbook concept of externality ‘reveals its pathogenic programme in principle by acknowledging that the invasion, occupation and destruction of its life-hosts is externalto its growth’ (CSC2013, p. 180; emphasis in the original).

Occasionally, these externalities re-enter the economic purview by turning into costs, such as ‘green’ regulation and/or taxation of life-depleting activities. Given the predominant life-disconnected economic ‘rationality’, business entities tend to resist and/or avoid such regulation and taxation: ‘Life-serving standards are a liability in the global corporate system’ (CSC2013, p. 123; emphasis removed). Revealingly, in standard textbooks for marketing and advertising, long-established SWOT analysis places life-protective laws and regulations under the ‘T’ of ‘threats’ to private businesses, not the ‘S’ of ‘strengths’, for contributing to social and environmental well-being is not these businesses’ chief aim, whereas selling for a profit is (for example, Ferrell et al, 1998). On other occasions, these externalities re-enter as profit opportunities, such as the future likely scarcity of life-giving water, which is going to become ‘the single most important physical commodity based asset class’ (Citibank Chief Economist Willem Buiter as cited in CSC2013, p. 12; emphasis removed).

Either way, resistance to life-serving intervention and forecast profits from life-depletion indicate how ‘economic thought is in principle incapable of recognizing what has gone wrong’ (CSC2013, p. 6; emphasis in the original). This incapability is emblematically exemplified by the World Bank’s apparent schizophrenia in its recurrent acknowledgements of the dramatic environmental and social issues discussed in CSC2013 and the regular funding of projects furthering precisely such issues (cf. CSC2013, pp. 232–234).

The life-blind value logic at issue is such that the ‘global market paradigm … is confined to the simple, fungible inputs, throughputs and outputs of market money-sequences. That is why such a mind-set says “society does not exist” or ‘environmentalists obstruct business’ (CSC2013, p. 156). Societies’ needs and fundamental environmental concerns do not and cannot compute per se in any crucial way: ‘the first question is not is this measure desirable, but what will be the impact on the country’s competitive position in the world’s economy?’ (economist Peter Drucker as cited in CSC2013, p. 127). Only money sequences do, as exemplified by ‘American CEO Albert Dunlap’, who fired ‘11 000 workers to multiply the stock price’ and celebrated publicly that he had ‘created six-and-a-half billion dollars’ (CSC2013, p. 189; emphasis removed).

Yet societies, their basic civil commons formations (for example, families and local communities qua fundamental centres for human acculturation, socialisation, individualisation and care) and the environment upon which all of these rely are presupposed throughout the operations of the global market. Specifically, under deregulated and/or friendly fiscal regimes, the global market free-rides upon ‘all the unpriced goods from natural and social life-support systems’, lest it cease to exist (CSC2013, p. 6; cf. also p. 269). Moreover, ‘most profits are by property in land and knowledge [the global market] does not create’ (CSC2013, p. 109). From a biological point of view, the money-sequencing ‘transnational regime’ is parasitic, for it assumes ‘the right to enter and access other societies’ markets across boundaries cost-free, with no obligation to pay any of the direct or indirect costs of building, maintaining or developing any of the conditions of these markets’ existence … [whilst it] simultaneously seek[s] subsidies and incentives … [and] assume[s] effective immunity from and non-liability for the harms [it] do[es] to organic social and environmental life’ (CSC2013, pp. 128–130).

Immune system failure

The third step in the diagnosis relates to the fact that, in cancerous pathologies, the immune defences of a living organism fail to identify the cancerous cells as harbingers of death and keep facilitating their self-replication (cf. Points 4 and 7 of McMurtry’s own synoptic account of ‘a cancer invasion’, pp. 170–171). In an analogous fashion, societies’ long-established life-protective institutions have been largely blind and unresponsive to the ongoing assault upon local and/or global life conditions. Repeatedly, democratic governments, central banks, legislating parliaments, UN agencies and universities qua centres of ‘critical thought as social-immune system’ have not recognised the sprawling of money sequences across domains for what it is, that is to say, an assault on precisely such life conditions (CSC2013, p. 90).

On the contrary, these institutions have proactively cooperated with the diffusion of the cancerous pathology by allowing, inter alia:

[R]uin of government programmes, workers’ jobs and small business with the cranking up of interest rates to over 20 per cent prime in the 1980s … [,] the 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’, and 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 (CSC2013, pp. 3–4; 14; emphasis in the original; cf. also pp. 257–258 and Hudson, 2012).

Given the symbolic systems in which human beings gain consciousness of themselves and their own environment, McMurtry tracks a number of socio-cultural phenomena that reveal how it has been possible for the cancer to go undetected. Chapter 2 of CSC2013 is devoted entirely to the ways in which the identification and critique of societies’ deepest value structures have been discouraged, though never altogether halted, in human history. However, the whole book gathers and often tackles phenomena of this kind.

As a consequence, the reader encounters in CSC2013 a great number of widespread yet fallacious lines of reasoning that McMurtry detects, such as ‘private money’ alone counting as ‘demand’ in ‘the Economy’, thus discarding ab initio all needs and demands of organic, social and life-systems’ (p. 6); ‘the confinement of social and economic agency to atomic aggregates’ despite societies and environments being the ontological preconditions for any meaningful individuality whatsoever (p. 8); the misleading confusion between ‘over-demand’ and ‘overpopulation’ (p. 10); ‘dictator Hugo Chavez’ qua ad hominem diversion’ from Venezuela’s and Latin America’ strides ahead in life enhancement after ‘the foreign money-sequences with no life-function were no longer permitted to hijack its social life organization to grow and multiply their parasitic compound interest debt services destroying the economy and social life organization’ (pp. 28–29); ‘vast greed’ or ‘moral bankruptcy’ qua causes of the latest major economic crisis, yet failing to explain ‘the surrounding system selecting for them’ (p. 45; emphasis removed); and human beings being treated as means to ‘money-valued growth of the economy’ rather than ends in themselves (p. 188). Among them, McMurtry’s poignant assessment of the conventional wisdom concerning fully westernised China as a paradigmatic success story of modern capitalism deserves to be quoted in full:

More deadly in the long run are industrially devastated environments whose large-scale ruin China leads to produce 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 [sic] air, corruption is far more rampant, and hundreds of millions of poor are more life-means deprived than before the U-turn. Yet the great metaphysical derangement of the era, that money-demand is the ultimate value, rules on. Ruinous disconnect from human and ecological life-grounds has been built in (CSC2013, p. 296).

In addition to fallacious lines of reasoning, CSC2013 records and dismantles a good number of equally widespread (i) dogmatic slogans (for example, there is ‘no alternative’, p. 5; ‘market magic’ and ‘revolution[s]’, p. 15; ‘this is what people want’, p. 20; ‘big government’ is bad, p. 41; a long list of US Republicans’ attacks against life-serving ‘entitlements’, pp. 133 and 246; ‘efficiency’, p. 189; the fossil-oil conglomerates ‘produc[ing] what we must have’, pp. 201–202; it is ‘human nature’, pp. 224–226) and (ii) untested assumptions (for example, ‘the global market system as a technical given’, p. 8; ‘the common good’ qua ‘what the market decides’, p. 16; ‘the global market value-system as normal’, p. 102; ‘Hayek’s canonical definition of ‘the free market’’ corresponding to the actual ‘corporate global market’, pp. 118–124), as well as (iii) unfalsifiable ergo unscientific hypotheses (for example, the global market’s all-optimising ‘invisible hand’, pp. 35, 183 and 202–203; cf. Baruchello, 2013) and (iv) outright lies (for example, ‘new efficiencies’, ‘savings’, ‘development’, ‘well-being’, ‘sustainability’ meaning their opposite, p. 19; deregulated private banks’ debt crisis turned into ‘Europe’s debt crisis’, p. 21; ‘life-system pillage, despoliation and destruction’ heralding ‘productivity’ and ‘greater efficiency’, p. 42; ‘the pervasive equation of the global corporate system to ‘the Free World’, p. 102; ‘the putative “global market … promotes democracy”’, pp. 3 and 124–125; ‘nations of Europe “being saved”’ while ‘the private banks get all the public money’, p. 190; the global market logic being ‘necessary’ or equating ‘liberty’ and ‘the social good’, pp. 208–210; a ‘renewed flow of credit’ justifying the 2008 massive bailouts of over-indebted private banks, p. 218).

Blinded by fallacious lines of reasoning, dogmatic slogans, untested assumptions, unscientific hypotheses and outright lies, human repositories of collective knowledge and social agency expected to operate as the white cells of the body politic – screening for, and selecting out, pathogenic intruders – have facilitated its weakening. Unable to detect and to respond to the ongoing assault, they march on in many countries of the world, as blindly as before, towards self-demise: ‘Like Einstein’s definition of insanity of “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” governments keep abdicating public responsibility and privatizing public life-capital bases’ (CSC2013, p. 15; emphasis added).

The Cure

‘[R]ecovery from the Great Sickness’ is possible, though by no means easy (CSC2013, p. 288). McMurtry does believe that we can regain sight of the common roots of both the environmental and economic crises. Once sight is regained, and that is what CSC1999 and CSC2013 should have achieved, curative criteria and curative actions can unfold, so that the human economy may be life-enabling rather than life-disabling. Collective choice may well choose this wise path, eventually – or it may not. Certainly, the pain caused by the growing cancer is already being felt by many communities worldwide, as indicated by massive uprisings in countries as diverse as Spain, Egypt, France and the United States (CSC2013, pp. 20, 204, 251–252, 303–304). And this is by no means whatsoever all the pain that should be considered. The conceptual continuity between cancer and the modern global economy suggests that recovery, if attempted, will be difficult, will take time, and will include wishful thinking as well as clinging to hope in extremely difficult situations, and that the cure, if at all possible, will be painful, sometimes excruciatingly so. This is true of all forms of cancer treatment (Hjörleifsdóttir et al, 2008). In what follows, we continue our discussion of CSC2013 highlighting continuing analogies between McMurtry’s curative advice and actual oncological treatment. By doing so, we intend to show that the oncological paradigm used by McMurtry also extends to the therapeutic side and, a fortiori, constitutes a valid explanatory model for contemporary global socio-economic phenomena.


With regard to the former step towards a cure, McMurtry offers clear definitions of ‘human’, ‘natural’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘social’ capital as well as ‘globalisation’ and ‘development’ in terms of ‘real capital’ (CSC2013, p. 20). After defining these key concepts along life-grounded lines of interpretation, he proceeds to outline three ‘universal parameters of diagnosis’ of the ‘general determinants of social health and disease’ that should guide any ensuing social action: ‘Continuity of life-necessities and means to members of society … Functioning contribution of citizens to society’s life-requirements … [and] Sustaining the life-carrying capacities of the environmental life-host’ (CSC2013, pp. 162–163). Whatever community we may wish to think of, its members must have their vital needs met, which can be done by letting all able members participate in life-sustaining economic activities, which in turn must not be harmful to the natural and human-made preconditions for need-satisfaction, that is, natural life support systems and social civil commons. As McMurtry writes, truly rational ‘use of natural and human capital’ must be ‘consistent with sustaining and developing them as life-capital’ (CSC2013, p. 19).

In nuce, McMurtry re-grounds the understanding of economic phenomena in their deeper life functions, rather than in ‘the money-exchange surface’ to which they have been reduced by standard economics. Instead, with life-value economics:

  1. life demand is the driver,
  2. life goods are the means of welfare and
  3. the economy is the rational organization of factors to achieve equilibrium between life needs and goods.
    (CSC2013, pp. 182–183; emphasis removed)

McMurtry assumes that human beings are in primis biological, socio-cultural and political creatures. So conceived, the economic sphere of society must be subordinated at all times to these beings’ attendant functions. When the economic sphere fails to do so or even takes on a life of its own, it starts behaving like a cancer in a biological creature, cells multiplying uncontrollably without any reaction from their natural killers, spreading into other cells and other organs, harming them, causing distress, illness and, if not treated, ultimately killing the biological creature. As a consequence, McMurtry calls for a true ‘paradigm shift’ in economics, showing how the original yet marginal environmental economics is still very far from re-grounding the understanding of economic phenomena in the life-capital baseline (CSC2013, pp. 42 and 195–210).


Under current socio-historical circumstances, the criteria for a truly life-enabling economy translate into four major policy shifts: ‘higher taxes and disincentives for the very rich’ (CSC2013, pp. 262–265), ‘aggressive national recovery of control over public owned resources’ (pp. 268–272), ‘public banking and investment’ (pp. 286–294) and ‘policy-led elimination of structural depredation of the poor and the environment’ (pp. 295–299). All four shifts are to be sought for the sake of nurturing real capital, not for the sake of State power (pp. 258–260) or even ‘equality’ as such (p. 300).

McMurtry is not championing some novel form of Marxism, which he criticises in fundamental ways (CSC2013, pp. 11, 17, 80–86, 168, 300). Echoing Montesquieu, he champions a true division of powers, which are now concentrated in the hands of transnational corporate giants capable of influencing the political, cultural, academic, legal, economic and eco-systemic life – hence life as such – of nearly all nations on Earth (cf. CSC2013, pp. 162, 188–191, 229–232, 246–248, 274–277). Capitalism qua socially chosen modes of economic organisation can stay, if and insofar as it can be tamed and made to work for genuine universal life enablement across generational time. But who or what else can plausibly tame it, in today’s world, if not State power qua civil commons? (CSC2013, pp. 300–303) Who or what, if not State power, can make Ray Anderson’s celebrated case of 100 per cent sustainable industrial production the norm for all businesses on Earth (cf. CSC2013, pp. 320–321)?

None of the advised policies are unknown to modern humankind. They are not familiar utopias, but policies that have been tested practically in the recent past on many occasions. Moreover, when tested, they have proved successful vis-à-vis life-grounded criteria of evaluation.

With regard to the first shift, for instance the prolonged experience of Scandinavian countries, and of Norway in particular, suggests a direct correlation between life-grounded well-being (for example, infant mortality and life-expectancy rates, average educational levels, access to medical services) and a high rate of fiscal repayment by corporations and the wealthy for their use of the social and natural life support systems of those countries (cf. CSC2013, pp. 260–262 and 311–312).

With regard to the second shift, Norway and 21st-century Latin America have proved to be consistently and decisively more efficient than the private-profit sector in real-economy terms. At the most basic level, they serve ‘the known needs of … people and their life-conditions’ via ‘public reclamation of the economy’ (p. 30; emphasis removed). Instead of exploiting real capital (for example, arable land, fishing stocks, human knowledge) to generate profits for corporate shareholders that have not created it and that spoil it to further increase their profits, public authorities can regain control of them qua ‘responsible government’ and pursue life-enabling goals (CSC2013, p. 217).

With regard to the third shift, McMurtry insists on the crucial role that credit plays in modern economies and the urgency of restoring public control of it after the disastrous effects of deregulated banking and capital trade. Without denying potential life-disabling abuses, 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’ (CSC2013, p. 28). Moreover, 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’ (CSC2013, p. 28), and ‘variations of public investment … from the French and American Revolutions to the USSR to post-war Japan’ sustained by public credit (pp. 219–220; emphasis removed; cf. also pp. 242–244).

With regard to the fourth shift, McMurtry addresses jointly the bases for human prosperity, that is, human beings themselves and their natural environment. Consistent with the fundamental axioms of life-value onto-axiology, the more is done for the benefit of human beings at large and the life support systems allowing them to live and flourish, the better it is.

Thus, in contemporary money economies, McMurtry argues for guaranteed ‘income security’ as a credible way to create opportunities among the most deprived, such as poor women and dependent children, to ‘animate, exercise and develop their abilities … to sustain both their own life-capacities and those of their life-host’ (CSC2103, pp. 163–167). In this connection, Brazil’s ‘Bolsa Familia’ programme in the 2000s and the older analogous ‘Mincome’ in Canada during the 1970s constitute two manifest examples (CSC2013, pp. 297–298).

Concerning the environment, McMurtry writes, ‘All readers know the three Rs of using energies and materials – Reduce, Re-use, Recycle … When tracked all the way down to first principles, they define efficient economy’ (CSC2013, p. 313). Henceforth, he discusses ‘effective regulatory regimes’ (CSC2013, pp. 245–246) that have improved or could improve the utilisation of existing resources, ranging from a ‘public rationing system … to reduce consumption’ to legal means that ‘discourage waste and over-consumption’, via the paradigmatic ‘no-pollution schedule of the Ozone Protocol’ (CSC2013, p. 15), which McMurtry regards as an ‘available’ token of effective ‘rule of law’ (CSC2013, p. 106). Good legal frameworks are already in place, but they are regularly ignored or trumped by unilateral corporate trade rights, as emblematically flagged out by the prolonged culpable disregard of the ‘binding International Covenant on Economic, [Social] and Cultural Rights’ (CSC2013, pp. 107, 249 and 254–255).

Therapeutic Analogies

The first chapter of CSC2013 discusses at length how, under current socio-economic conditions, the prime common causal mechanism of cancers and other non-communicative diseases is the money-sequence multiplication system in which all victims are embedded as moving parts. In today’s medical practice, standard cancer treatment hardly helps in preventing cancerous pathologies from arising, since it does not tackle this prime common source of pathogenic toxins and stressors entering the organism and causing the cancers. Rather, the treatment of the resulting cancers focuses upon a number of subsequent factors, such as the type of cancer, whether it is localised or widespread, and the overall health status of the patient. The aim with most treatments is to either directly remove and/or kill the cancer cells or to lead to their eventual death by impeding their abnormal and unbalanced division (Lakhani et al, 2009).

Today, there exist four fundamental kinds of cancer treatment: (i) surgery, (ii) chemotherapy, (iii) radiation therapy and (iv) biologic or targeted therapy. (i) Surgery can be used to diagnose, prevent and treat cancer. In essence, it consists in removing tissue, whether entirely or primarily cancerous, from the body. (ii) Chemotherapy makes use of combinations of specific drugs for getting rid of cancerous cells from the patient’s body. The drugs are aimed at rapidly multiplying cancer cells and also affect other cells that multiply fast, such as cells in our stomach and in the roots of our hair. (iii) Radiation therapy kills cancerous cells by directing strong energy at them. Radiation does not distinguish between normal tissue and malignant tissue; hence, the radiating energy may kill healthy cells as well as sick ones. Exact preparation is therefore required for the treatment to hit the tumour and leave out as much healthy tissue as possible. (iv) Targeted therapy has the ability to treat cancer by targeting delivery through angiogenesis (the physiological process through which new blood vessels form from pre-existing vessels). This method consists of drugs that go after specific characteristics of tumours and prevent the cancerous cells’ self-replication, for example, by blocking the chemical signals needed for cancerous cells to develop and keep growing or the blood stream sustaining them (Peppas and Blanchette, 2004; Kohno and Pouyssegur, 2006). Often, these four different types of treatment are used in combination, either simultaneously or sequentially. All of these treatments, whether eventually successful or not, have side effects creating discomfort, pain or illness in the patient whose life is at stake (Pinsolle et al, 2000). In particular, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are aggressive interventions into the trajectory of cancerous pathologies, aimed at stopping the development of the disease. They are aggressive in the sense that they disturb the life of the patient, cause unpleasant side effects and, above all, kill directly malignant cells.

McMurtry’s policy shifts would also disturb many lives. Many people find radical changes overwhelming and resist them, even if they are sorely needed and the need is recognised by many other persons, including experts and professionals. Faced with such a conspicuous change in the established socio-economic trends, as deadly as these may be, many people would feel like patients diagnosed with cancer: bewildered, shocked, vulnerable and losing hope, despite the chances for a suitable cure (Hjörleifsdóttir et al, 2008). Thus, it is reasonable to assume that these policy shifts require careful preparation and explanation before becoming a reality. And yet, just as in curing cancer the treatment methods may be used together for full effect, so would McMurtry’s shifts be likely to have to be put into practice either all at once or over a relatively short time for them to have full effect, that is, to prevent effective resistance from the financial elite. In fact, with regard to such elite, unless they are capable of or willing to reconsider in a life-grounded manner their position within both society and nature, then the four policy shifts would kill de facto their opportunities to make a killing. If implemented, the four policy shifts recommended by McMurtry would change the lives of the wealthy beyond recognition, meaning that they would not be able to hoard valuable properties at will. In essence, their lives would be much more similar to the lives of the planet’s common people, that is, driven primarily by satiable needs rather than insatiable wants.

It should be noted that, having thwarted the influence of the financial elite, McMurtry’s four policy shifts would open a window of opportunity for the prevention of its resurgence. In other words, public control of banking and investment, variously combined with the other three policy shifts, could serve as civil commons preventing financial overgrowth, speculation and crises, along the lines of the Bretton–Woods system, for instance. By doing so, McMurtry’s recommendations would prove analogous to primary care, that is, the prevention of cancer.

Although McMurtry recommends four policy shifts and there are four fundamental types of cancer treatment, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the two sets. Rather, ‘aggressive national recovery of control over public-owned resources’, ‘public banking and investment’ qua recovery of credit creation and management from the private sector, and ‘policy-led elimination of structural depredation of the poor and the environment’ correspond to all three aggressive interventions identified above, that is, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. By removing entire chunks of business activity from the for-profit domain and restoring it to that of the common good, these policy shifts would simply cause entire sectors of economic agency to disappear, just like the three aggressive cancer treatments cause organic tissue to perish. On their part, ‘higher taxes and disincentives for the very rich’ appear to work more like targeted therapy, for example, by blocking revenue streams to the very affluent who lead the ongoing economic cancer through waves of financial investments.

Concluding Remarks

McMurtry’s work offers a contribution to the understanding, as well as to development of standards for the measurement, of human well-being, so that progress and regress may be interpreted in ways that mainstream economic criteria neglect or fail to ascertain, both in theory and in practice. The importance of determining novel standards and indicators is considerable, and widely acknowledged by many academics and politicians (for example, the 2008–2009 Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission created by the French Government), but above all it is important to reconceptualise economic phenomena so as to re-orient them in line with life-based criteria.

First, it has already been highlighted that the type of ‘growth’ conceptualised and pursued in today’s global market has had systemic negative effects upon life at many levels, to the point of making possible the explanation of said implications by means of a cancer-based explanatory model. ‘Real capital’ as ‘life capital’ is both unseen and harmed by standard economic thought (CSC2013, p. 12).

Second, in the wake of the current economic crisis, the same global market has been proven equally unable to attain ‘growth’ on its own life-blind terms, that is, in terms of pecuniary aggrandisement for money investors and/or managers (cf. Crotty, 2000). ‘Real capital’ as sheer ‘money’ is not there either, especially if one considers that the vast meltdowns of the last few decades have been caused by speculative bubbles in exponentially ‘leveraged’ masses of currency without any ‘grounding’ in ‘a medium of exchange and capital’ such as ‘gold, labour, or livestock’ (CSC2013, p. 12).

The system’s inherent rationality, which economics textbooks presuppose, is to be seriously questioned, and that is what McMurtry’s work does, consistent with Castoriadis’ (2005a, p. 129) poignant characterisation of the Socratic role that philosophers are expected to play in genuinely democratic societies: the possibility and the ability to call established institutions and significations into question. Whether he will be listened to, we do not know. However, responding to a cancer diagnosis by avoiding what alone can work is fatal.


  1. Aesop’s Fables. (nda), accessed 2 June 2014.
  2. Baruchello, G. (2007) ‘Western philosophy and the life-ground’, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, Paris, France; Oxford: Eolss,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  3. Baruchello, G. (2013) ‘The hopeful liberal: Reflections on free markets, science and ethics’, Nordicum-Mediterraneum 8:2,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  4. Baruchello, G. and Johnstone, R.L. (2011) Rights and value. construing the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights as civil commons. Studies in Social Justice 5(1): 91–125.
  5. Bohr, N. (1913) On the constitution of atoms and molecules, part II: Systems containing only a single nucleus. Philosophical Magazine 26(153): 476–502.
  6. Buffett, W. (2003) Berkshire Hathaway Inc. 2002 Annual Report,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  7. Castoriadis, C. (2003) ‘The dilapidation of the West’, The Rising Tide of Insignificancy, pp. 73–108,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  8. Castoriadis, C. (2005a) ‘Imaginary and imagination at the crossroads’, Figures of the Thinkable, 123–152,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  9. Castoriadis, C. (2005b) ‘The “rationality” of capitalism’, Figures of the Thinkable, pp. 81–122,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  10. Crotty, J. (2000) ‘Structural Contradictions of the Global Neoliberal Regime’, Paper presented at the meetings of the Union for Radical Political Economics at the Allied Social Sciences Association in Boston, MA, 7–9 January 2000,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  11. De Man, P. (1986) Blindness and Insight. London: Routledge.
  12. Ferrell, O., Hartline, M., Lucas, G. and Luck, D. (1998) Marketing Strategy. Orlando, FL: Dryden.
  13. Galbraith, J.K. (2004) The Economics of Innocent Fraud. Boston, MA: Allen Lane.
  14. Glyn, A. (2006) Capitalism Unleashed: Globalization, Finance and Welfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  15. Gross, A.G. (1990) The Rhetoric of Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  16. Hardin, G. (1968) The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243–1248.
  17. Häring, N. and Douglas, N. (2012) Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards. London: Anthem Press.
  18. Hirschman, A.O. (1991) The Rhetoric of Reaction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
  19. Hjörleifsdóttir, E., Hallberg, I.R., Gunnarsdóttir, E.D. and Bolmsjö, I.A. (2008) Living with cancer and perception of care: Icelandic oncology outpatients, a qualitative study. Support Care Cancer 16(5): 515–524.
  20. Hudson, M. (2012) The Bubble and Beyond. Dresden, Germany: Islet.
  21. Jonas, H. (eds.) (1984) The imperative of responsibility. In: Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  22. Jonas, H. (eds.) (1993) ‘Sul razzismo’, Il concetto di Dio dopo Auscwitz. Una voce ebraica. Genoa, Italy: Il melangolo, pp. 41–49.
  23. Jordan, B. (2004) Growth to freedom or support to life? Res Publica 10(2): 193–205.
  24. Joseph, P. (2011) Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, film documentary,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  25. Kohno, M. and Pouyssegur, J. (2006) Trends in clinical practice. Targeting the ERK signalling pathway in cancer therapy. Annals of Medicine 38(3): 200–211.
  26. Kuhn, T. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second, Enlarged Edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  27. Lakhani, S.R., Dilly, S.A. and Finlayson, C.J. (2009) Basic Pathology: An Introduction to the Mechanisms of Disease, 4th edn. London: Hodder Arnold.
  28. Mandeville, B. (1732) The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, Vol. 1,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  29. McCloskey, D. (1985) The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
  30. McConnell, S. (2010) 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand. New York: New American Library.
  31. McMurtry, J. (1995) The social immune system and the cancer stage of capitalism. Social Justice. Special issue: Public health in the 1990s 22(4): 1–25.
  32. McMurtry, J. (1998) Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market as an Ethical System. Toronto, Ontario: Garamond.
  33. McMurtry, J. (2013 [1999]) The Cancer Stage of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press.
  34. McMurtry, J. (2002) Value Wars. London: Pluto Press.
  35. McMurtry, J. (2009–2010a) ‘What is good? What is bad? The value of all values across time, place and theories’, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems,, accessed 2 June 2014
  36. McMurtry, J. (2009–2010b) ‘Glossary’, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems,, accessed 2 June 2014
  37. Mukherjee, S. (2002) Modern Economic Theory, 4th edn. New Delhi: New Age International, accessed 2 June 2014.
  38. Nietzsche, F. (1983[1871]) Lecture notes on Rhetoric. Philosophy and Rhetoric 16(2): 94–129.
  39. Noonan, J. (2006) Democratic Society and Human Needs. Montreal, Québec; Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Quenn’s University Press.
  40. Ortony, A. (1993) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  41. Peppas, L.B. and Blanchette, J.O. (2004) ‘Nanoparticle and targeted systems for cancer therapy’, Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 56, pp. 1649–1659,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  42. Pinsolle, V., Ravaud, A. and Baudet, J. (2000) Does surgery promote the development of metastasis in melanoma? Annales de Chirurgie Plastique Esthétique 45(4): 485–493.
  43. Richard, E. (2000) The Highland clearances. Edinburgh: Birlinn Books.
  44. Rubino, S. (2010) Assiologia dominante: Struttura del neoliberismo tra scienza e superstizione (Laurea degree thesis available at the library of the Faculty of letters and philosophy of the University of Genoa, Italy).
  45. Streeck, W. (2009) Four books on capitalism. Socio-Economic Review 7(4): 741–754.
  46. UNESCO. (2002–2013) Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, Paris, France; Oxford: Eolss,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  47. Vitali, S. et al (2011) ‘The network of global corporate control’, PLoS, 6:10,, accessed 2 June 2014.
  48. Weston, B. and Bollier, D. (2013) Green governance: Ecological survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Giorgio Baruchello Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Akureyri, Solborg v/Nordurslod IS-600 Akureyri, Iceland.

Elísabet Hjörleifsdóttir Division of Nursing, University of Akureyri, Solborg v/Nordurslod IS-600, Akureyri, Iceland.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


  1. Baruchello and Johnstone (2011, p. 112 n2) for a long list of researchers referring to McMurtry.

  2. The authors of this essay are both faculty members, ergo employees of the University of Akureyri, and, apart from regular wages qua civil servants of the Republic of Iceland, they have received no grant or special remuneration from any public or private body towards its completion.

  3. Although the conceptual core of CSC1999 needed no amendment and has been left unchanged, CSC2013 clarifies further a number of points and painstakingly updates the empirical content of the book, both in the main text and in the extensive endnotes (pp. 329–363). Therefore, the reader of CSC2013 will find ample references to some of the most dramatic events of the last 15 years, which include inter alia the loudest financial crash cum ensuing depression since 1929 (cf. especially pp. 175–179); the transformation of the People’s Republic of China into a Western-style consumer society (cf. pp. 22–23, 286–287 and 296); the European regression from post-bellic social market economy to ‘financial fascism’ (Italy’s conservative MP and former Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti as cited in CSC2013, p. 226; cf. also pp. 26–28, 190–191, 226–227, 251–252 and 278–286); and the eventual rejection of the so-called ‘Washington consensus’ by many countries in Latin America (cf. especially pp. 260–269). Moreover, CSC2013’s preface (What is Capital?) and opening chapter (Decoding the Cancer System and its Resolution) are entirely new.

  4. It is not only the content and the subtitle that have changed since 1999, McMurtry’s standing has evolved as well. Back in 1999, McMurtry was well known in Canada as a journalist, his 1971 piece on football ethos entitled ‘Kill ‘Em! Crush ‘Em! Eat ‘Em Raw!’ often being listed on contemporary English literature curricula, and internationally as a Marx scholar, his 1978 book for Princeton University Press entitled The Structure of Marx’s World-View having acquired the status of a classic. After the publication and the wide, sometimes controversial reception of CSC1999, McMurtry has become one of the most prominent Canadian intellectuals, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an Honorary Theme Editor for UNESCO’s (2002–2013) Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems (that is), which is to date the world’s largest online repository of information on sustainable development. His participation in Joseph’s (2011) documentary Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, which has totalled more than 21 million views on YouTube, has made McMurtry visible worldwide beyond academic circles too. As a token of the relevance of such non-academic media exposure, the interviews with McMurtry contained in Joseph’s (2011) documentary were aired frequently in 2012 on La Cosa Web TV, which is the Web channel associated with Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle, Italy’s second largest political party since 2013.

  5. Following McMurtry, Noonan (2006) claims genuine needs and economic preferences (wants) to be distinct: (i) ‘deprivation of needs always leads to harm whereas deprivation of wants is only harmful in light of revisable self-interpretation’. (p. xiv); (ii) ‘needs are satiable whereas wants are not’ (p. 57).

  6. In the course of the last decade, McMurtry has offered slightly different lists of humanity’s fundamental ‘means of life’ or ‘vital needs’. Jordan (2004) has argued that such a list is bound to be undecided, because biological needs are invariant, while the emotional and intellectual ones are not. Probably, as countered by (Rubino, 2010), Jordan confuses invariant emotional and intellectual needs with the varying awareness of them that we possess, as well as with the varying means available for their satisfaction. In addition, Jordan (2004) fails to appreciate the openness of McMurtry’s work to empirical rectification and theoretical clarification.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.