Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Root of all Evil

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell" - Edward Abbey

Capitalism can be defined as a system under which industries, trade and the means of production are largely or wholly privately owned and operated for profit. Following the end of feudalism, it dominated the Western world, and thanks to imperialism this domination extended to the global economic system by the end of the 19th century. Entering the 21st century, it continues to reign unchallenged as the world's pre-eminent economic doctrine.

The world's richest person (Bill Gates) has a personal wealth of $78.7 billion. This is higher than the (nominal) GDP of 130 countries, including Uruguay (population 3.4m), Ecuador (population 15.9m), Bulgaria (population 7.2m) and Croatia (population 4.3m). The wealth of the top ten richest people combined is $544 billion - higher than the GDP of 172 of the 194 nations for which UN data is available, including Thailand (population 65m), South Africa (population 54m), Egypt (population 88m), Portugal (population 10.4m) and Czech Republic (population 10.5m).

Almost half the world's population, over 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die EACH DAY due to poverty. They “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.” Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names. For every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent on debt repayment. Less than one percent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000. [Sources. (Note: site last updated in January 2013. Some data is a few years out of date, meaning it is likely to be worse now as global inequality has widened.)]

The modern form capitalism has taken is complex, with close relationships and revolving doors between politics and the multinational corporations and banks that act as the main players commonplace. Directors of corporations are under severe pressure to increase profits each quarter, partly to increase the size, market share, wealth and power of the company, not to mention keep their jobs. There is also a legal (fiduciary) duty to shareholders to maximise income and, as explained by Boris Johnson, avoid paying taxes vital for public services. This necessity for relentless growth inevitably leads to the cutting of costs in ways that damage societies and local communities (outsourcing, lay-offs, etc.) as well as a massive global network of tax havens hiding trillions of dollars. It also aggravates poverty cycles in poor nations chosen as manufacturing bases, where their enormous power enables corporations to dictate extremely poor terms and salaries.

The profit motive, therefore, is the fundamental principle underlying modern capitalism; the all-encompassing priority of corporate entities. This drive for profit, however, is incompatible with the complex needs of humanity and the environment, as it leads to exponential 'growth' in a limited system, meaning it is unsustainable, creating mounting misery and chaos for ever increasing numbers of people, even those in so-called 'rich' or 'advanced' nations. The only beneficiaries of such a system are the corporations and the shareholders themselves, along with those in service to the system. The proof is in the pudding, as new horrors of poverty or environmental damage are reported (to the tiny percentage of people with access to or interest in such information) almost daily while the rich just keep on getting richer.

Capitalism ultimately results in massive concentrations of wealth in the hands of very few individuals. This wealth is inevitably employed to further game the system to in turn acquire ever more profits, no matter what the destruction caused to the planet or its inhabitants. This has obvious negative consequences for democracy, as rich lobbyists command the overwhelming bulk of the attention of elected officials.

Essential public services are also fair game as greedy and corrupt officials allow health, transport, education, transportation and energy systems to be sold off to private companies, whose sole concern is profit. See, for instance, this list of UK MPs with links to private healthcare firms; energy companies boosting profits despite falling wholesale prices; the rail privatization 'scam'; and the truly appalling private prison 'industry' (AKA modern slavery) in the US.

Chris Hedges has this to say on private US prisons:

Our prison-industrial complex, which holds 2.3 million prisoners, or 25 percent of the world’s prison population, makes money by keeping prisons full. It demands bodies, regardless of color, gender or ethnicity. As the system drains the pool of black bodies, it has begun to incarcerate others. Women—the fastest-growing segment of the prison population—are swelling prisons, as are poor whites in general, Hispanics and immigrants. Prisons are no longer a black-white issue. Prisons are a grotesque manifestation of corporate capitalism. Slavery is legal in prisons under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. …” And the massive U.S. prison industry functions like the forced labor camps that have existed in all totalitarian states.

Corporate investors, who have poured billions into the business of mass incarceration, expect long-term returns. And they will get them. It is their lobbyists who write the draconian laws that demand absurdly long sentences, deny paroles, determine immigrant detention laws and impose minimum-sentence and three-strikes-out laws (mandating life sentences after three felony convictions). The politicians and the courts, subservient to corporate power, can be counted on to protect corporate interests.

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner of for-profit prisons and immigration detention facilities in the country, had revenues of $1.7 billion in 2013 and profits of $300 million. CCA holds an average of 81,384 inmates in its facilities on any one day. Aramark Holdings Corp., a Philadelphia-based company that contracts through Aramark Correctional Services to provide food to 600 correctional institutions across the United States, was acquired in 2007 for $8.3 billion by investors that included Goldman Sachs.


It is not only public services that suffer: there are numerous examples of egregious actions by large corporations, many of them household names:

1. After some of its drugs were pulled off the market and calling it a 'humanitarian mission', Pfizer tested an experimental antibiotic called Trovan on Nigerian children with meningitis without informing them or their families. 11 children died, and others developed brain damage and serious arthritis.

From the Washington Post:

The experiment came to light in December 2000, when The Washington Post published a lengthy examination of the trial. It found that Pfizer carried out the experiment on 200 children at a makeshift epidemic camp in the Nigerian town of Kano. The articles reported that Pfizer had no signed consent forms for the children and relied on a falsified ethics approval letter to defend the design of the experiment.

Trovan was never approved for use by American children. The Food and Drug Administration approved it for adults in 1998 but later severely restricted its use after reports of liver failure. The European Union banned the drug in 1999.


2. What about Texaco (now Chevron)?

In 1964, Texaco [], discovered oil in the remote northern region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, known as the "Oriente." The indigenous inhabitants of this pristine rainforest, including the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani, lived traditional lifestyles largely untouched by modern civilization. The forests and rivers provided the physical and cultural subsistence base for their daily survival. They had little idea what to expect or how to prepare when oil workers moved into their backyard and founded the town of Lago Agrio, named for Texaco's birthplace of Sour Lake, Texas. The Ecuadorian government had similarly little idea what to expect; no one had ever successfully drilled for oil in the Amazon rainforest before. The government entrusted Texaco, a well-known U.S. company with more than a half-century's worth of experience, with employing modern oil practices and technology in the country's emerging oil patch. However, despite existing environmental laws, Texaco made deliberate, cost-cutting operational decisions that, for 28 years, resulted in an environmental catastrophe that experts have dubbed the 'Rainforest Chernobyl'.

In a rainforest area roughly three times the size of Manhattan, Texaco carved out 350 oil wells, and upon leaving the country in 1992, left behind some 1,000 open toxic waste pits. Many of these pits leak into the water table or overflow in heavy rains, polluting rivers and streams that 30,000 people depend on for drinking, cooking, bathing and fishing. Texaco also dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic and highly saline "formation waters," a byproduct of the drilling process, into the rivers of the Oriente. At the height of Texaco's operations, the company was dumping an estimated 4 million gallons of formation waters per day, a practice outlawed in major US oil producing states like Louisiana, Texas, and California decades before the company began operations in Ecuador in 1967. By handling its toxic waste in Ecuador in ways that were illegal in its home country, Texaco saved an estimated $3 per barrel of oil produced.

3. In India, a farmer kills himself every 30 minutes, often ingesting Monsanto pesticide chemicals to do so. Comedian Lee Camp explains why in four minutes here. [Note: please watch this - it's mind-blowingly shocking].

4. HSBC, recently in the news again over revelations that its Swiss private bank helped clients conceal undeclared accounts and provide services to criminals and corrupt businessmen, is no stranger to negative press.

Over to Matt Taibbi:

[Lanny] Breuer this week signed off on a settlement deal with the British banking giant HSBC that is the ultimate insult to every ordinary person who's ever had his life altered by a narcotics charge. Despite the fact that HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels (among others) and violating a host of important banking laws (from the Bank Secrecy Act to the Trading With the Enemy Act), Breuer and his Justice Department elected not to pursue criminal prosecutions of the bank, opting instead for a "record" financial settlement of $1.9 billion, which as one analyst noted is about five weeks of income for the bank.

The banks' laundering transactions were so brazen that the NSA probably could have spotted them from space. Breuer admitted that drug dealers would sometimes come to HSBC's Mexican branches and "deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows."


The number of deaths in this 'drug war' are commonly reported as between 40-60,000 but some estimates say it is twice as much, with tens of thousands missing.

5. In Bangladesh, where many Western clothing and fashion companies take advantage of desperately poor people to make their clothes cheaply, the nine-storey Rana Plaza collapsed in May 2013, killing over a thousand garment workers.

Nobody knows how many people were working in the Rana Plaza complex that housed five garment factories across six floors, producing goods for the Western markets. According to some estimates 3,122 garment workers, mostly women, were inside the building at the time of collapse but in reality the figures could be much higher. Due to a lack of regulation and the failure to implement labour laws, the workers are not even registered as employees of the companies and have a legal status equivalent to factory tools, with no purpose other exploitation by the bosses. Such conditions are possible because, according to some reports, only 18 inspectors oversee safety conditions in more than 100,000 garment factories in and around Dhaka.

The absence of trade unions, a complete failure to implement labour laws and absolutely no concern for the health and safety of workers have all become hallmarks of the garment industry in Bangladesh and most South Asian countries producing cheap goods for European and North American markets. The collapsed Rana Plaza manufactured products for leading European brands such as Benetton, Mango, Loblaw (Joe Fresh) and Primark.


6. In November last year [Source]:

Threatening the water supply for millions of Americans, the U.S. Forest Service has opened the doors for oil and gas companies to drill by fracking the largest national forest on the East Coast, the George Washington National Forest.

Backtracking on an earlier plan to restrict fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which has been linked to dangerous levels of air and groundwater pollution, the Obama administration reportedly caved to industry pressure to permit such drilling of the Marcellus Shale within park perimeters.

...

Scientific studies show that fracking, which releases shale gas and oil by injecting a slurry of water and unknown chemicals into the earth, causes significant groundwater contamination as well as dangerous levels of methane emissions, a highly potent greenhouse gas. The practice has also been linked to earthquakes, indicating that fracking has significant effect on the geology of the planet, according to researchers.
[More on fracking here.]

7. Nothing is sacred. Even world-famous sites of great natural beauty like the Grand Canyon are fair game for the money men:

On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.

Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems.


This list could continue forever and one factor links them all: profit trumps human or environmental welfare every single time, no matter how many lives are lost or how horrifically. These outrages are committed repeatedly and with impunity, with accountability either extremely rare or non-existent, particularly with regard to the biggest corporations.

These clear examples of the incalculable harm that the profit motive wreaks on societies are the tip of the iceberg. There are quite literally tens or hundreds of thousands of cases that demonstrate again and again and again that capitalism is the most damaging possible way to run an economic system.

Proponents of capitalism like to say that it has raised hundreds of millions out of poverty. First, there is no reason why an alternative economic system could not have done the same (and, of course, this is impossible to prove); and second, this argument ignores the billions left in hopeless, inescapable poverty today.

Supporters of the profit motive expound that the 'free market' ensures quality is high, because it is a competitive market and people will only buy the best products at the best prices. However, the largest companies can undercut smaller competitors, meaning they get bigger and bigger while the smaller ones inevitably die. The effect of Amazon on the book and publishing industry is well documented, as is what happens when large chain supermarkets open in a small town, destroying local businesses that have no chance of competing. Then there are the ten mega-corporations that control almost everything we buy.

This applies to the outsourcing of the public sector as well. Zoe Williams explains:

This is all based on the principle that the public sector is inherently inefficient. Hand it over to private companies and they will swoop in with their efficiency, their economies of scale, their incentives and their competitiveness, winnowing it down into a dart of perfectly targeted public spending.

In practice, when they say efficiency, that generally means lower wages. When they say economies of scale, that generally means constructing the contracts in such a way as to leave only the largest companies eligible to bid for them. When they say incentives, look closely and you will mainly see perverse incentives. And when they say competition, what you're actually left with is four or five – sometimes only three – companies, who barely compete with one another at all but instead operate as an unelected oligarchy.

...

What happens when these firms, with their inexorable expansionist logic, bite off more than they can chew? We pay anyway. We paid G4S; we will pay it again when its prisons catch fire. We will pay A4e when it finds no jobs, we will pay Serco when its probation services fail. We will pay because even when they're not delivered by the public sector, these are still public services, and the ones that aren't too big to fail are too important. What any government creates with massive-scale outsourcing is not "new efficiency", it is a shadow state; we can't pin it down any more than we can vote it out. All we can do is watch.


As for 'trickle-down economics', even the rich admit it is a myth:

Economic prosperity doesn’t trickle down, and neither does civic prosperity. Both are middle-out phenomena. When workers earn enough from one job to live on, they are far more likely to be contributors to civic prosperity — in your community. Parents who need only one job, not two or three to get by, can be available to help their kids with homework and keep them out of trouble — in your school. They can look out for you and your neighbors, volunteer, and contribute — in your school and church. Our prosperity does not all come home in our paycheck. Living in a community of people who are paid enough to contribute to your community, rather than require its help, may be more important than your salary. Prosperity and poverty are like viruses. They infect us all — for good or ill.

An economic arrangement that pays a Wall Street worker tens of millions of dollars per year to do high-frequency trading and pays just tens of thousands to workers who grow or serve our food, build our homes, educate our children, or risk their lives to protect us isn’t an expression of the true value or economic necessity of these jobs. It simply reflects a difference in bargaining power and status.


The profit motive is an immensely destructive force, a cancer that has deeply infected the globe. As if the unacceptable actions of large corporations were not enough, the influence that capitalism has had on human behavior is both insidious and profound.

Capitalism requires endless consumption to be desirable. However, as people actually need very little to survive, the system gears itself toward making useless, superfluous or luxury products indispensable. It does this by appealing to the human ego, to insecurities about appearance and weight, to shallow commercial ideals, and accomplishes this goal by employing the enormous power of celebrity and branding through clever marketing techniques modeled on psychological theories.

As a result, we have created a situation that would be profoundly baffling to any aliens who happen to be covertly monitoring human society: the very worst of humanity - the parasites, the cowards, the sociopathic, warmongering political leaders - are treated with respect in the corporate media bordering in some cases, especially with business innovators like Steve Jobs, on reverence. Meanwhile, the very best of humanity, people like Dr. Mads Gilbert or Dr. Denis Mukwege are practically ignored in the mainstream. Token 'angels' like Malala Yousafzai are given the full treatment, of course, but only when they serve the pro-Western narrative. And all the while, people keep buying stuff they do not need.

In the documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Chomsky says the function of the media is to “inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.”

So we see the death of nuance; the triumph of simplicity over complexity. Every story, so complicated in its history and details, is reduced in the media to soundbites. Indeed, politicians talk in soundbites prepared for them by PR experts, who want only a certain phrase or term to lodge itself into the brains of the industrious masses. Human experience, far too ineffable to express, let alone appreciate, is distilled into short, punchy talking points: the CliffsNotes version is now all we need to get by.

Witness the expropriation of great works of human art and music, all for the purposes of profit as the classy BMW glides along the deserted road by the sea to the sound of Mozart, repeated several times a day, debasing the beauty of the original music as millions associate it with a luxury product from then on. See A-list celebrities spouting mawkish nonsense to sell fragrance in return for millions of dollars. Observe in horror brazen war propaganda masquerading as movies.

All aspects of the human experience are now subordinate to commercial enterprise. Anything can be (and is) packaged, sold, repackaged and sold again. The effect is a zombified mass of people who have, in the main, no idea that their only purpose is to consume, to work and to die (hopefully after having babies to follow in their footsteps).

Capitalism is rarely, if ever, questioned within the corporate media. Those suggesting alternatives are politely tolerated and humored unless, in the case of people with mass popular appeal like Russell Brand, they cause too much trouble, in which case they are smeared by the entire establishment. The credos of GDP and growth, absurdly simplistic and misleading (like using a single number - IQ - to describe human intelligence), are religiously followed.

The reality, however, is that alternatives do exist. Examples are here, here and here.

If our top elected officials were truly concerned about democracy, equality and justice, and were not the corporate tools they clearly are, they would appoint expert committees charged with creating viable democratic systems with certain non-negotiable parameters: health, education, justice, and all the other basic principles detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that all United Nations members have signed, and which is currently a worthless piece of paper; a system in which, given the conclusive evidence of its destructive nature (as detailed in this analysis), corporate interference of any kind is banned.

It is no longer apocalyptic to say that 'the end of the world is nigh'. Numerous serious commentators are predicting dire consequences for the human activities that have enriched a tiny few and devastated vast areas of the planet while killing and impoverishing millions. Alarmingly, in the political arena, arrogant, unaccountable and uncontrollable Western leaders, brought to power in elections gamed to ensure corporate-friendly political parties are the only ones with a chance of winning, are even now risking confrontation with a nuclear power (Russia) over Ukraine.

The capitalist system that has brought this to pass, the profit motive in particular, must be abandoned immediately with its instigators and enablers purged from all positions of power. All global institutions must be rebuilt with new democratic charters and powerful failsafes built in to deny the ascendance of future sociopaths in search of power and profit, as has always occurred throughout history. Ordinary people, intentionally distracted, deceived and divided for so long, must somehow be made aware of the danger. Non-compliance, civil disobedience, mass protests and general strikes must be called for by influential people with significant reach (community and union leaders, writers, academics, celebrities who care and so on).

The lunatics really have taken over the asylum: the first (and possibly last) nuclear exchange in human history is now possible. It's time for the gloves to come off.

Written by Simon Wood

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