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Scorpions, icebergs and cancer cells

in Opinion/The Nonagenarian’s Notebook by

Feedback from readers of my earlier essay “Who benefits from government policies?” was mostly positive, but a few thought I had taken a view of the future so dire that it implied capitulation—that further “resistance is futile.”

Let me clarify my thinking, at least to the extent of assuring readers that I have not lost hope. Although I see unchecked capitalism as inimical to life on Earth—as the deadliest enemy of all that is fair, progressive and wholesome—I believe it can be vanquished and replaced. Eventually. And before its demolition of the environment passes the point of no return.

I am reserving my rationale for optimism until the very end of this perhaps overly protracted blog. I think it will be helpful first to consider how and why capitalism has become the world’s predominant economic system. This does not necessitate a tedious academic treatise, but can best be done by making use of three illuminating (and more beguiling) metaphors.

The scorpion and the frog

The first metaphor can be found in Aesop’s fable about “The Scorpion and the Frog.” It tells how a scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream they both want to cross. The scorpion can’t swim, so he asks the frog to carry him over. The frog is disinclined to do so. “How can I be sure you won’t sting me?” he asks. The scorpion replies, “Because if I did, I would die too.”

That makes sense to the frog, so he lets the scorpion hop on his back and starts swimming. But in midstream the scorpion stings the frog. As they both begin to sink and drown, the frog gasps, “Why did you sting me?”

Replies the scorpion with his last breath: “Because it’s my nature.”

It’s the nature of capitalist corporations, too. They are locked into an economic system that can only be maintained by infinite growth—even though infinite growth is clearly unsustainable on a planet with finite resources. And even though the eventual ecological collapse will doom the corporations and their investors and shareholders, just as it will their employees and customers and most other people.

This inability of corporate executives, on their own, to stop their economic juggernaut from careening into the abyss, is inherent in the very nature of capitalism. Prolonged stoppages or even slowdowns of growth trigger recessions, sometimes deep depressions. Unless rescued by huge government bailouts funded by taxpayers, many corporations would founder and ultimately the whole capitalist system would collapse.

The corporations are also constrained by the terms of their charters, and by the laws that oblige them to make the maximization of profits, dividends, and share values their sole objective. That one fixation trumps everything else, including the broader public interest and even the survival of civilization as we know it.

Every corporation, to get started, has to obtain a government charter. So, theoretically, a corporation’s activities could be changed by a revision or revocation of that charter. This has happened a few times in the distant past, but never in recent times. Why not? Because corporations have amassed so much power that no government today dares to amend their charters to compel them to take the broader public interest into account. This would in any case also involve major amendments to the laws that govern corporate activities.

Consider what happened to Henry Ford in the early 20th century when he dared to defy his directors and U.S. business legislation. He unilaterally lowered the price of his Model-T cars so workers could afford to buy them. This was a brilliant stratagem that, in the following year, led to increased sales. But in the short term it reduced profits and dividends. So two of the Ford company’s directors sued him for abandoning his primary mandate to keep profits as high as possible.

The judge who heard the case found Ford guilty as charged. He awarded the Dodge brothers a multi-million-dollar settlement that they then used to set up their own car company. (Any readers driving a Dodge?)

The same enshrinement of profit maximization is built into Canada’s business legislation. In the People vs Wise (government vs. corporation) case in 2004, our Supreme Court based its decision favouring the corporation on the wording of the Canada Business Corporations Act. The relevant section of this Act states that directors and officers “owe their fiduciary obligations to the corporation, and the corporation’s interests are not to be confused with the interests of the creditors or those of any other stakeholder.”

There you have it. Any CEO or board of directors who dared to deviate from the pursuit of profits for any reason—for the benefit of their employees, customers, society as a whole, or even the planet—would be punished. Either they’d be sued as Ford was, or ousted by the major stockholders, or the drop in profits would make the company vulnerable to a hostile takeover by a less ethical competitor.

All of which makes it the nature of corporations and their CEOs to act in the same way that Aesop’s scorpion did.

Capitalism and the Titanic

The second metaphor, which has become something of a cliché, is to compare the present situation with that of the Titanic shortly before it hit the iceberg. Most of the passengers believed the big ocean liner could never be sunk, as the White Line owners assured them, just as many people today believe the planet’s ecosphere is impervious to the worst human assault and battery.

But the captain and crew of the Titanic—and a few of the passengers—knew that any ship, even one as large and allegedly unsinkable as theirs, should reduce its speed in the North Atlantic. They knew that a failure to do so risked colliding with one of the many icebergs drifting down on the Labrador current.

But the liner’s speed was increased, not reduced. Why? Because the managing director of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, was on board. He wanted the Titanic to set a new trans-Atlantic record on its maiden voyage, so he gave the captain a “full-steam ahead” order.

Ismay’s motivation was profit-driven. He knew that a new record would enable White Line to take more passengers away from Cunard and other rival ocean liner firms. And he was also convinced the Titanic could never be capsized.

It was Ismay who had also ordered that the planned installation of 48 lifeboats on the Titanic be lowered to just 16, and again just to save money. “We really don’t need any lifeboats at all on an unsinkable ship that is in effect a big lifeboat itself,” he boasted.

So, in effect, the ensuing collision and its loss of so many lives resulted from a corporate obsession with maximizing profits. Ismay, who, to his everlasting shame, jumped into a lifeboat intended for women and children, could be considered the first irresponsible CEO to be “bailed out.”

The corporate cancer

The third metaphor is probably the most applicable and graphic. It was first coined by John McMurtry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Guelph. In his book, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, he compared the behaviour of corporations in the economy to the conduct of biological cancer cells in human beings.

To invade and multiply in the human body, a cancer has to overcome the body’s natural defences. A strong immune system can repel the viral invaders, but someone with an immune system weakened by poor nutrition and carcinogenous chemicals can’t stop the cancer from spreading.

The unchecked cancer doesn’t “win,” of course. This is a battle in which both sides are doomed to lose because, soon after the cancer kills its host, it also dies. But, like the scorpion, that is a cancer’s nature, too—the only way it can function.

It’s the same with corporations. Their CEOs are also programmed to maximize profits, which means spreading and growing by any means—by cutting jobs, busting unions, evading taxes, corrupting politicians, exploiting sweatshop labour, clear-cutting forests, pillaging natural resources, increasing poverty, and—most injurious—contaminating the environment.

Freed from political regulation, free to multiply unhindered, the corporate cancer is doing what comes naturally to all cancers: it is growing. Its destructive impacts on families, communities, and eventually the planet itself are not taken into consideration—even though business leaders and their families will inevitably be among the victims of a global apocalypse if their cancerous conduct continues.

Or rather, if it is permitted to continue.

But, incredibly, business leaders and their political collaborators remain indifferent to the bleak future they are in the process of contriving for humankind. Fixated as they are on the next quarter’s balance sheet or the next election, they brush off the environmentalists’ warnings about climate change. “Even if global warming is real,” they say, “its worst effects are still many years away. We still have plenty of time to deal with it later.”

It’s a tragic lack of foresight they share with cancer cells. Talk about famous last words!

Survival up to activists

Well, I guess these corporate metaphors haven’t done much to lighten the gloom that my previous column may have induced. I may even be accused of deepening the gloom by showing how firmly embedded are the protocols, precepts and power that drive capitalism and its lethal ideology.

But hope that an imminent Armageddon can be averted still burns in the minds and hearts of social, economic, and environmental activists around the world. It’s a fervour that has swelled in recent years, spurred by rapidly rising resolve and dedication. Its millions of progressives draw inspiration from campaigns in the past that at first seemed hopeless but eventually triumphed.

The successful campaign against slavery is an outstanding example. So is Mahatma Gandhi’s achievement in winning independence for India from the British Empire. So are the campaigns for women’s right to vote, to end apartheid in South Africa, and to expose tobacco as a virulent health hazard.

There’s one big difference, however, between these projects of the past and the one that’s urgently needed now to stop corporate and business leaders from wrecking the planet. That difference is time. All the campaigns I’ve mentioned, and many others like them, were several years in duration. For those activists, time was not a make-or-break factor. They could ultimately prevail by making slow but steady progress for decades. But such a long, incremental effort to prevent a global collapse would be too little, and far too late.

Fortunately, time has also given today’s save-the-world warriors the potential means to expedite their crusade—a “weapon” that was not available to earlier activists. I refer, of course, to the global digital online social network.

Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other forms of electronic media, activists can now communicate instantaneously with one another. It’s a magnificent means of mobilizing and motivating millions. It can launch a global uprising almost overnight, as happened recently with the posting of the #TimesUp and #MeToo hashtags against sexual harassment. Within a few weeks, wide exposure of the sexual abuse to which women have long been subjected by powerful male bosses, politicians and celebrities toppled many of these predators from heights previously thought to be unassailable.

This and other digital-media-enabled mass revolts against social and economic iniquities have clogged the streets with protestors and dominated the newspaper headlines. They are initiatives that should be applauded and supported.

So far, however, this enhanced ability to mount fast and effectual reform movements through the internet has been confined to rectifying immediate problems. It has not been tapped and exercised where it’s needed most: in the campaign to stop business and political leaders from making the planet uninhabitable.

This is not to belittle the need for the social and economic betterments that have so far been the targets of social media activists. It is to remind them that there is a far more pressing global endeavour that needs to be mounted—one that needs to be given top priority on their agenda.

Time is of the essence. How long will the beneficiaries of gender security, fair pay, gun control, better health care, and other improved living conditions be able to enjoy them? That surely depends on how long they will have clean air and water, a congenial climate, and sufficient food to eat. Which in turn depends on how much longer the plutocrats are allowed to pollute the environment and make the planet as hostile to life as Mars and Jupiter.

This is the stark reality that should determine the priority list of progressive activists today. By all means keep deploying the modern social media tools that maximize your mobilizing ability. Keep doing your best to help the neediest groups and dismantle the unjust practices and impediments that handicap them.

But please, please don’t limit your projects to the most immediate concerns. Look further into the future, where the greatest concern of all is ominously looming. Launch an emergency world-wide crusade to save the environment from the devastation that threatens everyone’s future.

Might I suggest an extension of the #TimesUp hashtag to be applied as well to the planet’s worst corporate and political harassers?

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