March 2004: The Most Destructive Epidemic

Cancer comes in many forms. The corporate kind could be the worst.
March 1, 2004


Cancer comes in many forms. The corporate kind could be the worst

By Ed Finn

The incidence of almost all forms of cancer is rising at an phenomenal rate. Dr. Samuel Epstein, one of the foremost critics of the “cancer establishment”--an interview with whom you’ll find starting on Page 12--puts much of the blame on the preoccupation with treating the disease with drugs instead of preventing it. He says most cancers are being caused by poisons spewed into the environment, or by nutritional deficiencies, both of which weaken the immune system. Cleaner air and water and a proper diet could help most people remain cancer-free.

But it’s cheaper and more profitable for industries to pollute the environment than to spend millions purifying their operations. It’s more profitable for the agribusiness firms to produce pesticide-sprayed plants and bio-engineered beef, and for the food-processing firms to use shelf-life-extending chemicals and carcinogenic trans-fats than it would be to provide nutritious, vitamin-rich foods.

And it certainly is very profitable for the big pharmaceutical companies to make and sell the drugs that are prescribed for the millions of victims of preventable cancers. A significant drop in the cancer rate would cut their profits in half and could even put some of them out of business.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made between biological cancers and corporations.

To invade and multiply in the human body, a cancer virus has to overcome the body’s natural defenses. A strong immune system--one strengthened by adequate vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, and not weakened by environmental carcinogens--has a good chance of beating back the viral invaders. But someone with an impaired immune system can’t mobilize the body’s defenses, and so the cancer spreads.

The cancer doesn’t “win,” of course. This is a battle in which both sides ultimately lose, because soon after the cancer kills its host, it dies too. That’s the only way it can function.

It’s the same with corporations. Their CEOs are also programmed to maximize profits--to spread and grow by any means, even by contaminating the environment, cutting jobs, evading taxes, corrupting politicians, suppressing free speech, exploiting child and sweatshop labour, clearcutting forests, increasing poverty. The destructive impact on families, communities, and even the planet itself is not considered. It’s very much like the process in which cancer cells proliferate without regard for the health of their hosts.

The comparison also extends to the similar ways in which we react to the cancer and corporate epidemics. As individuals, some of us may do our best to strengthen our immune systems, but as a society we are doing next to nothing to clean up the environment, to curb industrial pollution, or to improve the nutritional value of the food we eat. We tolerate brutal and destructive corporate conduct; we excuse or rationalize layoffs, plant shutdowns, the export of jobs to low-wage countries, corporate tax avoidance, obscenely high CEO salaries and perks--even the business takeover of our political system.

We nod our heads when the CEOs and their political, academic, and media propagandists tell us that all these ill-effects on people are unavoidable--that free enterprise would not be free if companies were forbidden to do these things. “It’s the law of the jungle,” they remind us. “Nature has divided the animals into predators and prey, and so it’s in the nature of predators such as corporations to prey on the rest of us. The lion, after all, must get the largest share. That’s his right and privilege.”

We fail to remind those right-wing ideologues who invoke the law of the jungle that the lion and lioness, although the king and queen of beasts, never take more than their share. There’s no massacre of antelope and other animals for the sheer joy of killing--just enough to meet the feline family’s immediate needs. You don’t see lions piling up mountains of carcases out of sheer greed or the lust of killing.

The true law of the jungle, as Nature intended, is that a balance should be maintained among all creatures in which they each have a place and a share. Nature usually provides checks to keep any one species from seriously harming others. So far, humankind has been the exception, but don’t be surprised if Nature soon decides to put an end to our planetary vandalism, maybe with an ebola-type virus that defies all our efforts to resist it.

Even if Nature doesn’t abandon us as another failed biological experiment, the corporations may wipe us all out, anyway, if we don’t take steps to stop them.

The CEOs and their apologists will no doubt resent being compared with runaway cancer cells, but the simile is an apt one. We forget that, more than 100 years ago, unfettered private enterprise caused so much misery and suffering that it had to be forcibly humanized. Laws were passed to make companies conform to minimal social standards. Their conduct was closely regulated. Their profits were appropriately taxed. Strong unions were created to force them to stop mistreating their workers, to pay them fairly, and provide them with safe working conditions.

The corporate “cancer” was thus controlled--not destroyed, mind you, but made relatively benign. The “social contract” imposed on the business sector gave us in the three decades after World War II a period we now fondly look back upon as “a golden age”--a time when we seemed well on the path toward a truly just society. But then, starting in the 1970s, one by one, the corporate cancer controls were removed: regulations scrapped, governments subverted, unions weakened, national borders virtually rubbed out.

Free once again to spread unhindered through human society and now across the globe, with no checks and balances left, the corporate cancer is doing what comes naturally to all cancers: it is growing. It is maximizing its assets. It is feeding on its hosts--the 90% of us who don’t happen to be rich. Eventually, of course, the favoured 10% will also succumb because not even they will be able to survive in a socially and environmentally devastated world.

But that’s many years in the future, and so it’s not a consideration of today’s CEOs. They don’t look any further ahead than the next quarter’s balance-sheet--a lack of foresight they share with cancer cells, which also lack real intelligence.

Whether any serious effort will be made to control the corporate virus--and/or build up our social immune system against it--is the key question for the 21st century. Failing any such effort, the corporations will keep doing what they naturally do in a laissez-faire capitalist system that gives them absolute dominion over our society.

Like any efficient cancer, they will slowly but surely destroy their hosts--and ultimately themselves.


(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected])