John McMurtry shows that a false economic paradigm holds the world in thrall to a global corporate death system masked as market freedom. Liberation is explained as grounded in humanity’s repressed life-value code, life capital bases and civil commons organization which unify across distances and differences.
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 Cancer Stage of Capitalism is a modern classic of critical philosophy and political economy, renowned for its depth and comprehensive research. It provides a step by step diagnosis of the continuing economic collapse in the US and Europe and has had an enormous influence on new visions of economic alternatives.
John McMurtry argues that our world disorder of unending crises is the predictable result of a cancerous economic system multiplying out of all control and destroying ecological, social and organic life – a process he describes as ‘global ecogenocide’. In this updated edition he explains the ‘social immune response’ required to fight the ‘macro cancer’, something which has already been shown in developments such as the Occupy movement and the democratic social transformation of Latin America.
In an official global culture increasingly destructive of life, this book shows the necessity and possibility of building a sustainable society based on a universal commitment to life and nature.
The 2008 financial crisis spread from Wall Street to the world almost overnight, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions, even though its causes had nothing to do with the production and distribution of any of the basic necessities of life. Instead, the crisis erupted because the financial system had become unhinged from its real function: supplying credit to productive enterprises. Finance capital increasingly made its money from complex “derivatives,” which are not claims on a company’s proﬁt (as shares are) but on debts packaged and sold as investments. Immense profits were made, which provided the incentive to create more derivatives, causing debts to be piled on debts, all sold with guaranteed returns. Many of these derivatives involved American mortgages. Since these were backed by a physical asset (the house), they were advertised to institutional investors as highly secure, but the models assumed that housing prices would continue to rise. As it turned out, the housing market was a bad-mortgage fuelled bubble. When it burst, the “mortgage backed securities” became worthless, and banks from Athens to Iceland collapsed. Instead of having to foot the bill for their recklessness and greed, major banks were bailed out with hundreds of billions of dollars of public money. Workers lost their jobs, housings, and savings; Wall Street bankers paid themselves bonuses for the greatest failure of the financial system since 1929.
WHEN WE THINK OF A SOCIETY’S “DEFENSE SYSTEM,” WE THINK OF ITS ARMED FORCES. We have long been conditioned to do this. The military industrial establishment and the armaments business are the world’s most powerful institutions of organized violence and international trade. For them to preserve their vast systems of power, it is essential that they be sold as society’s primary form of “self-defense” (e.g., at least $700 million a day of demand on the U.S. public purse alone).[note]For a systematic critique of the military paradigm of social self-defense, see McMurtry (1989).[/note] Society’s real system of self-defense, its public health process, is in this way deprived of its proper social resources and functions. At the same time, ever more invasive assaults on the protection and circulation of means of life within societies by environmental despoliation, redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle-income classes to the rich, and radical dismantling of public forms of life-provision now attack society’s health and life-defenses from another side.[note]On November 11, 1994, Canada’s House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs made the extraordinary announcement that the state of Canada’s economy was more important than military defense to Canada’s security “because the threat to Canada’s standard of living is now greater than the threat to its borders.” The announcement, however, was not communicated in any mainstream news media.[/note] In these ways, we now confront a situation where the cumulative breakdown of society’s structures of life-security and health protection poses a more systemically far-reaching threat to social and planetary well-being than we are yet prepared for.
In this context, we must look through a wider lens at what we call “public health.” Public health regimes regulated by self-conscious scientific practices are a comparatively recent evolution, originating in Europe in the latter half of the 18th century with, as Michel Foucault puts it, “the accumulation of bodies” in large cities during the industrial capitalist expansion. The intensive concentrations of propertyless humanity in rising capitalist production centers introduced a host of new and deadly problems of runaway sewage, fouled water supplies, adulterated foods, contagious diseases, roaming street people, abandoned children, extreme poverty and degradation, infirm and aged people without familial supports, and so on – much as we see growing again in the unfettered “free market” cities of today at the end of the 20th century.[note]Interestingly, the postmodernist Foucault (1984: 279-281), typical of the naive nihilism of this school, seems to deplore the regime of “care, contact, hygiene, cleanliness, attentive proximity, and physical exercise … which envelopes, maintains, and develops the child’s body … as an instance of social control.”[/note]
Subsequent to its initial development in Europe and Britain, public health came to be associated with a host of municipal, regional, and national government regulations to secure the prevention of disease and the promotion of health in social populations – from laws to ensure the purity of food and water supplies, to administrative and liability norms to protect workers’ health and safety, to public educational systems to develop cognitive capabilities essential to social and individual survival within vast, interconnected organizations of interdependent functions constituting contemporary social bodies. When surveying the increasing state and public-sector mediations of every aspect of our lives by complex, articulated systems of life-protective circulation and regulation of social intercourse and functions, one begins to recognize that – despite its continuous errors, oversights, and dogmas – this historically evolved organization of societies for the protection of their members against disease, trauma, and dysfunction is a determining level of species survival and development. It is a social immune system.
To measure the competence of this “social immune system” in any given society, we now have standard indicators of infant mortality, disease frequencies and ratios, average life expectancies and indices of mortality, distribution of life resources across social memberships, national fitness levels, grades of mental competence, and measures of citizen participation in the organizational development of social bodies as functioning wholes. To an increasing extent, these various social indicators of social health and well-being have become more complex and detailed than the medical profiles and records of individual patient organisms.
In recognizing this evolution of social life-organization and the corresponding immune defense systems, we must be very careful not to reduce the individual, as some political theorists like Hegel and the fascists have done, to a mere function and element of a social organism. Rather, we must understand that human individuals are dependent upon the larger social bodies to which they belong for their healthful reproduction and expression. To exist as individuals functionally able to realize individual capacities in a state of normal health, they must be protected members of social bodies. Individual persons are not reducible to, but are based upon the socially interrelated whole to which they belong for their life requirements to be fulfilled, and for their health to be secured. If we imagine the absence from our lives of an evolved social system of life protection, we immediately realize how precarious and lethally exposed individual human life becomes without it – for example, against contagious plagues, toxins, and insecure conditions of life and information transmission. In 14th-century Europe and Asia, up to three-quarters of individual humans suffered horrible deaths without the system of social immune defense that we now take for granted.
I am a seeker of truth, a lover of wisdom and a crusader for social justice; three life assets in great demand but now in very short supply. There is a hefty price we are paying for this state of affairs in terms of life destroyed at all levels of discernment, including the life support systems of the planet and society that nourish us, sustain us and allow us to grow, develop and flourish.
This scarcity of truth, wisdom and social justice is not natural in the sense that it was not preordained by the physical laws of the universe or the workings of nature. This scarcity was manufactured by the hubris of a small group of people hell-bent on dominating and controlling the planet’s resources by using the methods and technologies of distraction, deception and deprivation to destroy the essentials needed to live a flourishing life.
As Professor John McMurtry laments:
The air, soil and water cumulatively degrade and disappear; the climates and oceans destabilize without connection; species become extinct at a spasm rate across continents; pollution cycles and volumes rise endangering life systems on all planes in synergistic despoliation; the world’s forests, meadows and fisheries are cumulatively destroyed by the profit drivers of globalization; food pollinators, songbirds, coral reefs and large animals crash in unconnected response; public sectors and services are defunded and privatized as tax evasion by the rich multiplies; the global food system produces more and more disabling junk and wastes; non-contagious diseases multiply to the world’s biggest killer; the global financial system issues money out of control while collapsing in productive investment; the vocational future of the next generations is erased across the world; official lies and corruption are normalized as public relations. All the trends are one-way, degenerate, and undeniable.– Winning the War of the World | Global Research – Centre for Research on Globalization by Prof John McMurtry
McMurtry has diagnosed this global systemic disorder as a cancer that invades its social life host without resistance from its social immune system, a causal explanation that moved me to study and take seriously given my expertise as a life-care provider. I see all too frequently the effect of cancer growth on individual patient’s lives as the life support systems within their bodies are systematically destroyed by the invading and metastasing cancer until the demise of the life host that “feeds” the cancer.
At the base of this global systemic disorder is a systemic value disorder. McMurtry goes into more detail in his books Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market as an Ethical System (1998), The Cancer Stage of Capitalism First Edition (1999), Value Wars: The Global Market Versus the Life Economy (2002), and The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure Second Edition. Basically he shows in pains-taking detail why the life predicaments we are in are fundamentally because money-value has trumped life-value in almost all of our deliberations and until we wake up to this realisation and put in life-value above money-value, the one-way degenerate and undeniable trend of life despoilation will not mend.
In trying to come to a better understanding of the root of this life injustice, a verse from Scriptures come readily to mind:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms…Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.– NIV Ephesians 6:12, 14-16
What I have learnt over the years in interpreting the scriptures in my pursuit for truth, wisdom and social justice, is that “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” are not without but exist deep within our psyche, within our individual and collective unconscious. Synchronistically, a few days ago, I came across an article by Paul Levy that connected McMurtry’s global cancer system with the unrecognised cancer within our psyche.