February 2006: The "Big Business Bang" Theory II

If unbridled capitalism is the problem, what’s the solution?
February 1, 2006

If you agree with the case I’ve made that almost all our most pressing social, economic, and environmental problems are caused and perpetuated by unbridled corporate power, the obvious question that arises is: how can that horribly misused power be tamed? How can the barbaric economic system spawned by that power be civilized?

Before any effective reform can even be considered, two prerequisites must be met. First, there will have to be a fairly widespread public awareness of the urgent need to curb corporate influence—an awakening that would-be reformers can build upon. And secondly, the movement to challenge the predominant business élite will need to be soundly led and coordinated.

I’m beginning to think the first requirement has come close to being achieved. The scores of thinkers and activists whose critiques of corporate rule have graced the pages of The Monitor for more than a decade are now more mainstream critics than mavericks. Anti-corporate articles and op-eds similar to those elsewhere in this issue by Maude Barlow, John McMurtry, Naomi Klein and Vandana Shiva are popping up in magazines, journals, and some newspapers all over the world--and of course even more frequently on the Internet.

Corporations and their CEOs are now commonly portrayed as villains in movies, TV shows, and books. The blatant greed and corruption that brought down Enron and other big companies, and the proliferation of insider-trading and other “white-collar” crimes make front-page news. Few people have escaped some personal bad experience with a business project or investment—and most are now aware that by far the biggest polluters of the environment are the industrial corporations and the products they make.

I just finished reading Forty Signs of Rain, a science-fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson about the imminence of catastrophic climate change. In it, his protagonist, an environmental activist named Charlie Quibler, writes an angry memo to the executive director of the National Science Foundation, which merits quoting:

“Humanity is exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity for our species, badly damaging the biosphere. Neoclassical economics cannot cope with this situation, and indeed, with its falsely exteriorized costs, was designed in part to disguise it. If the Earth were to suffer a catastrophic anthropogenic extinction event over the next ten years, which it will, American business would continue to focus on its quarterly profit and loss. There is no economic mechanism for dealing with catastrophe. And yet government and the scientific community are not tackling this situation either; indeed both have consented to be run by neoclassical economics, an obvious pseudo-science. We might as well agree to be governed by astrologers. . . Free market fundamentalists are dragging us back to some dismal feudal eternity and destroying everything in the process, and yet we have the technological means to feed everyone, house everyone, clothe everyone, educate everyone, doctor everyone. The ability to end suffering and want, as well as ecological collapse, is right at hand, and yet the NSF continues to dole out its little grants, fiddling while Rome burns!”

Granted, this outburst came from a fictional character, but I’m convinced now that the frustration it reflects is shared by most real-life scientists and activists. They know the gravity of the economic, social, and ecological crises we’re facing; they know what needs to be done to avert the calamity Charlie Quibler is ranting about; but they are just as much at a loss as he is about how to jolt corporate and political decision-makers out of their complacent reliance on a fatally flawed economic system.

This complacency, of course, stems from their belief that, with the demise of communism, capitalism has become the only economic game in town. (Future historians may trace the inevitable collapse of capitalism—whether through economic reform or ecological cataclysm--to the earlier collapse of communism, since that historic event led to the uncontrolled cancerous growth of a globalized free-market system.)

One of our members in Saskatchewan called to speculate that many CEOs might secretly want governments to re-impose regulatory restraints on their business operations. None of them individually can opt out of the current cutthroat system, he pointed out, since that would trigger a shareholder revolt or a hostile takeover, but they might welcome a government “restraining order” that applied to all of them.

There may indeed be some rational business leaders of this kind out there—CEOs who can see past the next quarterly report to the yawning abyss they are careening toward. There may even be some rational politicians who can see past the next election to the disastrous consequences of continuing to serve solely corporate interests. But, regrettably, if such wise corporate and business paragons are to be found, they have yet to make their appearance. All the indicators cast doubt on their existence, and thus on the likelihood of voluntary economic reform.

The desperately needed changes in policies and priorities apparently will only come from the application of strong political pressure—pressure that is strategically focused, concentrated, and unrelenting. Sporadic lobbying will not suffice, nor will the extraction of election promises, nor the currying of favour with MPs and senior mandarins. All of these activities have been carried on by thousands of progressive individuals and organizations for many years, with little or no effect. Only a powerful concerted campaign involving and supported by all the members and groups in civil society will have a chance of succeeding.

And that’s the rub. A few years ago, Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians—recent winners of an “Alternative Nobel Prize”—convened a meeting of the leaders of Canada’s major NGOs and unions. Their aim was to do exactly what I’ve been talking about: persuade these social, economic, labour, and environmental leaders to pool their resources--to join together in one big overall campaign to supplant corporate rule with true democracy and a more equitable economic system.

The civil society delegates were verbally supportive. They acknowledged the need for a joint effort. They talked vaguely about bringing it about. But in the two years that have since elapsed, they are all still acting independently and are no closer to forging a common front.

This tendency for each NGO or union to follow its own agenda, and to unite with others only occasionally for demonstrations and meetings, has long been a deterrent to more effective collaboration. I’ve bemoaned this dissipation of effort many times. A column I wrote on the subject nearly ten years ago still applies, and I quote from it in the next several paragraphs.

* * *

The present situation has been likened to a river in which many people—old, young, men, women, white, black, Aboriginal, etc.—are being swept downstream. Strung out along each bank are various rescue teams, one for each category of victims. The anti-poverty group tries to save the poor, the seniors’ group tries to pull out the seniors, the women’s group concentrates on the drowning women, and so on. It’s an evocative metaphor.

Each organization has strong swimmers, and is equipped with ropes, lifebuoys, nets, poles, and other rescue equipment. It prides itself on how many people it saves. Not all of them, of course. Many are carried away out of sight and drown. But to rescue even some is considered a great achievement.

These organizations exist to pull people out of the river, or at least make the attempt. That is their raison d’etre. Their activities are reactive, not pro-active. This is not to say that their leaders are unaware that somewhere upstream there are other groups--the chuckers or flingers or heavers--whose purpose is to throw people into the river. They know that, and sometimes they will even go and try to persuade the chuckers to stop chucking. (They call it “lobbying.”) But that is as far as they will go. They know why the chucking and heaving is going on, and who is responsible. They know that there is a privileged powerful minority whose members are never in any danger of getting wet themselves—so rich that they can easily afford to pay the heavers and chuckers (sometimes called “politicians”) to do their dirty work for them. The more people who get thrown in the river, you see, the fewer left to share the nation’s wealth.

It’s a pathetic sight when the rescue group leaders hike up the river to remonstrate with the political heavers. “Please stop throwing so many of our members in the river,” they beg. Usually on bended knee. The politicians promise to stop eventually. Maybe next year. Or the year after that. But they never do. Or they say they have no choice but to keep filling the river with throwaway people because, after the rich and powerful finish gorging themselves, there’s not enough food or shelter or work for everyone in a system based on the survival of the fittest. Some have to be discarded, and it’s only fitting that they be the weakest and the most vulnerable.

The rich and ruthless élite will sometimes fool the would-be rescuers by replacing one bunch of chuckers with another. The flingers take over from the heavers, or the slingers take over from the hurlers. “Surely,” the rescue groups reassure themselves, “surely this new gang of people-drowners won’t throw in as many as the last crowd.” And they don’t. They throw in more.

It never seems to occur to the rescue organizations to blame the economic system itself for all the drowning victims, or to wonder why the people with the most money and power are never among those sacrificed.

Maybe it’s because the rescuers are so busy saving as many victims as they can, so busy collecting donations to buy their nets and ropes and lifebuoys, that they don’t have time to think about changing a system that is so harmful to so many. Or maybe it’s because they are now so accustomed to their role of rescuers, and so organizationally structured, that they can’t even conceive of a river into which nobody is thrown. How, then, could they justify their existence? On what basis could they continue to appeal for donations?

Now, admittedly, saving people from drowning (or from poverty and hunger) is a noble pursuit. But surely preventing them from being tossed into the river in the first place would be even nobler.

Could it be done? We’ll never know as long as groups concerned about the drowning of the weak and poor confine their activities to pulling them out, instead of joining together to confront and foil their corporate and political assailants.

To desist from such a preventive approach is in effect to tolerate a system in which civility and compassion have been displaced by the law of the jungle. It is to concede that there is nothing to be done to change this brutal system except to rescue and comfort its victims.

* * *

Not much has changed in the decade since I penned those words. If anything, the number of “drowning” victims has doubled or even tripled, as have the number and size of the rescue groups. And the rescuers have come no closer to forging a broad and more reform-minded alliance.

It’s not that they are resigned to a system so unfair that the need for charity becomes permanent. In its latest annual report, for example, the Canadian Association of Food Banks (see Page ) clearly would prefer that hunger be eliminated by political reform so all the food banks could be closed.

Not all the charitable organizations, however, seem so anxious to make themselves redundant. If you read David Ransom’s critical assessment of NGOs (starting on Page ), you’ll see that there’s some legitimate concern about their approach to making the world a better place. Ransom takes them to task for not being as politically active as they could and should be. “Avoidable starvation, preventable illness, and predictable disaster are supremely political events,” he argues. “They result in good measure from people being forced to consume the poisonous brew of free-market economics and fake democracy that is concocted by corporate globalization and neoliberal politics.” What are the NGOs doing, he asks, to find and apply an antidote to this venomous concoction?

Not nearly enough, it seems. Yes, each in its own way, they are doing a great deal to mitigate the hardships inflicted by free-market economics and corporate greed--but that’s still an exercise in trying to save and comfort the victims. It’s still pulling people out of the neoliberal river instead of preventing them from being thrown in.

The rescuers will remain indispensable as long as the current economic and political barbarism prevails. Much more urgently needed today, however, are NGOs committed to pooling their resources in a determined, coordinated, all-out effort to achieve economic reforms--reforms that, if successful, will make their rescue operations (and their very organizational existence) unnecessary.

Might I suggest that Tony and Maude call another meeting of civil society and labour leaders? Maybe they’re finally ready to launch a collective effort to prevent economic victimization rather than trying separately to cope with it.

Maybe they’ll agree it’s time to give solidarity—real solidarity--a chance.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)