Descent Of Man Revisited

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Capitalism is not a natural phenomenon for society

July 20th, 2011 · No Comments

From I to We
By Daniel Johnson, Associate Editor,
Capitalism is framed on the assumption that man is an animal and nothing else. But, because man is potentially so much more, it’s irrefutable that capitalism is not a natural phenomenon for society.

What is a human being worth? What are you worth? Fancifully, scientists have calculated the proportion of minerals in the body and, including the skin, figure the average body (even if you’re not done with it) is worth four or five dollars.

A more poignant illustration would be the dollar-value placed on a human being killed in an accident where some person or company can be held liable for the death, or a fine levied for some act of negligence.

Virtually everything in Western society is framed in terms of economics—dollars. There is little or no value placed on creative people–artists, composers, writers (excluding journalists)–unless they find a patron. As forty-five year old Canadian freelance writer Brennan Clarke noticed:

“As the holder of not one but two undergraduate arts degrees…I am quickly reminded by the working world that being intelligent and capable is no longer enough. You have to do something that makes somebody money.”

In a recent column, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote:

“Whatever you may be thinking when you apply for a job today, you can be sure the employer is asking this: Can this person add value every hour, every day—more than a worker in India, a robot or a computer? Can he or she help my company adapt by not only doing the job today but also reinventing the job for tomorrow? And can he or she adapt with all the change, so my company can adapt and export more into the fastest-growing global markets? In today’s hyperconnected world, more and more companies cannot and will not hire people who don’t fulfill those criteria”.

(Notice that the word adapt appears three times in that paragraph. This is important to recall for later.)

Nobel economist Milton Friedman (no relation to Thomas) once wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine titled: “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” where he said:

“ In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” (italics added)

(Check out Wall Street on this last point.)

Or historian Andrew Bacevich:

“To credit the United States with possessing a ‘liberating tradition’ is equivalent to saying that Hollywood has a ‘tradition of artistic excellence.’ The movie business is just that—a business. Its purpose is to make money. If once in a while a studio produces a film of aesthetic value, that may be cause of celebration, but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise.”

…and this became the defining cultural motive of the United States and those nations that have followed the American economic-ethical model. As Benjamin Franklin, one of the seven key Founding Fathers of America wrote:

“Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. … Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.”

Samuel Bronfman, the founder of the Seagram’s liquor empire was once asked what he thought was the most important human invention. With no hesitation he answered: “Interest.” So much for things like fire, the wheel, penicillin and antibiotics, and the Dorito.

Following Franklin, our society is completely framed by issues of economics, money and gain. In a single word: Greed.

Historian Michael Kazin, reviewing Richard White’s book Railroaded, concludes: “The history of American capitalism is stuffed with tales of industries that overbuilt and overpromised and left bankruptcies and distressed ecosystems in their wake: gold and silver mining, oil drilling and nuclear power, to name a few. The railroad barons wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age. But their behavior revealed a trait they shared with many of their fellow citizens: too much was never enough.”

In a famous speech delivered in 1986, before being convicted of insider trading and sentenced to prison, Ivan Boesky said: “I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself”.

This is the foundation of our society’s dysfunctionality. Greed may not be a likeable trait, but greedy individuals can be tolerated within a society because, in principle, the ethical norms and expectations of the larger society will rein in excessive or extreme anti-social activity. But, when society’s values themselves have become Franklinized, so distorted by the priorities of business, it can actually be illegal to help the needy and for which a person can actually go to jail.

In 1980, Keith McHenry was one of the founders of a group calling themselves Food Not Bombs that has become an international anti-war, anti-poverty organization that serves free vegetarian meals to anyone who is hungry. (There’s a branch here in Calgary.) They have been active in Orlando, Florida for many years, but the business community rose up against them. After complaints from residents, but mainly business people about the twice weekly feedings of homeless people in Eola Park, the city passed a law in 2006 requiring anyone who feeds more than 25 people in a public park to have a permit. The kicker is that no group may have more than two permits per year per park.

This last June alone, 25 volunteers, including McHenry, were arrested and jailed for illegally feeding homeless people (the charge, of course, read without a permit. “We will continue to enforce the city ordinance,” said a spokeswoman for the mayor. “We must continue to focus on what our Orlando residents want and not the desires of others from outside the community.” (There goes religion. I don’t think the American God lives in Orlando.)

There is currently a great Recession, high unemployment (for them it’s a Depression), millions of innocent people losing jobs and houses—with no realistic end in sight. In fact, the global economy itself continues to teeter towards unconscionable disaster for almost everyone—all thanks to the greed of the American business community—Wall Street in particular.

A growing economy is a consuming economy, and consumption is down. Business people are doing what they can to encourage more consumption, whether people need more things or not.

As New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt writes:

“The notion that the United States needs to begin moving away from its consumer economy—toward more of an investment and production economy, with rising exports, expanding factories and more good-paying service jobs—has become so commonplace that it’s practically a cliché. It’s also true. And the consumer bust shows why. The old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back.”

This was all predicted more than half a century ago by Vance Packard in The Waste Makers (1960):

“The people of the United States are in a sense becoming a nation on a tiger. They must learn to consume more and more or, they are warned, their magnificent economic machine may turn and devour them. They must be induced to step up their individual consumption higher and higher, whether they have any pressing need for the goods or not. Their ever-expanding economy demands it.”

Tens of millions of Americans now know the feeling, first hand, of what it’s like to be eaten alive by a tiger. It’s not a pleasing experience.

Part 2: The Wrong turn at Darwin

Twenty four centuries ago Aristotle built a view of nature that still dominates our thinking today. He placed all living things on a hierarchy of perceived importance, with humans at the top, just below the gods and going down through the lesser animals to plants at the bottom of living things. Adopted by the Judeo-Christian world, humans were seen as being dominant over all other creatures and the earth itself, in an ordering of life that came to be called the Great Chain of Being.

Seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes refined this idea by declaring the universe to be like a clockwork—an idea supported overall by influential philosophers and scientists who followed him. Johannes Kepler discovered the universal laws of motion which made it possible for Isaac Newton to discover the universal law of gravitation. Said Kepler: “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but rather to a clockwork.”

The goal of these materialist philosophers and scientists was to reduce man to measurable and manipulable parts of the great cosmic machine. Pierre Simon de Laplace said that an all-knowing Intelligence, knowing the state (position and velocity) of every particle in the universe (from atoms to planets) could predict the future and going in reverse, know everything that has ever happened back to the beginning. This view is still dominant in science today (except quantum physics), called reductionism—the view that everything can ultimately be reduced to physical terms.

As biologist David Sloan Wilson puts it: “As with the can opener or the heart, the key is to understand the details”.

The result is what the Romantic poet William Wordsworth called a “universe of death”. MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky says:

“The mind is what the brain does. The brain is hundreds of computers that evolved for five hundred million years. It’s a wonderful natural phenomenon, and we have to understand how this thing works. We must sweep aside the idea that the mind is animated by a soul or a spirit or anything like that. In fact, my view is that there is something insulting and degrading about the idea of a soul, and the idea of a spirit.”

In 1799, Laplace sent copies of his Treatise on Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon Bonaparte. In it, Laplace sought to explain the origin of the solar system as not as the product of divine design, as Isaac Newton had done, but as the result of natural gravitational forces. Napoleon summoned Laplace to discuss his Treatise and asked him about the role of God in his theory. Newton spoke of God in his book, Napoleon said. I have perused yours, but failed to find his name mentioned even once. Why? Laplace reportedly gave the now famous reply: Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.

Barely a half century later (1859), Charles Darwin presented the world with his Theory of Evolution. This is where the human race became mis-framed and it’s been downhill ever since.

That mankind was part of the animal kingdom was not in dispute. But it was the rich and the powerful in society and their sycophantic minions who used Darwin’s ideas to justify their greed and domination of society through a philosophy that came to be called Social Darwinism.

There is, in the animal world, an undeniable struggle for existence governed by an overall mechanism—survival of the fittest. Class stratification in human society became justified on the basis of “natural” inequalities among individuals. The control of wealth and property was argued to be the result of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality. Attempts to reform society through state intervention or other means would, in this view, interfere with natural the natural order. Unrestricted competition and defence of the status quo were in accord with biological selection. The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided because to do so would go against nature and natural law. In the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success.

Herbert Spencer, the “father of Sociology” opposed government support of the poor: “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”

In a Sunday School address, John D. Rockefeller said: “The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest…. The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which cheer its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”

The most influential of the social Darwinists was William Graham Sumner who taught at Yale (1872 to 1909). He defended millionaires, saying that

“millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done….It is because they are thus selected that wealth—both their own and that entrusted to them—aggregates under their hands… They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society. There is the intensest competition for their place and occupation. This assures that all who are competent for this function will be employed in it, so that the cost of it will be reduced to the lowest terms.”

If true, then today’s billionaires are an even greater good for society. Not!

In the world of Social Darwinism, progress is a harsh taskmaster. Edward Youmans, the founder of Popular Science magazine summarized that sentiment, saying that

“we are born well, or born badly, and that whoever is ushered into existence at the bottom of the scale can never rise to the top because the weight of the universe is upon him.”

Lester Ward saw through the Social Darwinist façade:

“The fundamental principle of biology is natural selection, that of sociology is artificial selection. The survival of the fittest is simply survival of the strong, which implies and would be better called the destruction of the weak. If nature progresses through the destruction of the weak, man progresses through protection of the weak.”

Ward’s understanding, however, did not prevail.

Sumner had published a book What Social Classes Owe Each Other and Ward reviewed it, understanding exactly how humanity’s mis-framing occurred.

“The whole book is based on the fundamental error that the favors of this world are distributed entirely according to merit. Poverty is only a proof of indolence and vice. Wealth simply shows the industry and virtue of the possessors. The very most is made of Malthusianism, and human activities are degraded to a complete level with those of animals.” (italics added)

A virtually inevitable result of 19th century Social Darwinism was the Great Depression of the 1930s where the Struggle for Existence and Survival of the Fittest were reduced to an even simpler doctrine: Every man for himself. President Roosevelt apparently went against his class in establishing things like minimum wages, Social Security and unemployment insurance, but in doing so said film scholar Joseph McBride in commenting on the film version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the one thing that FDR “managed to pull off was preserving the system despite the terrible stresses of the Depression.”

In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had said:

“American industry is not free, as once it was free…. The man with only a little capital is finding it harder to get into the field, more and more impossible to compete with the big fellow. Why? Because the laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak.”(italics added)

For the overwhelming majority of people, industry (now called business) is not only less free today, but it’s positively tyrannical when 80% of the nation’s income goes to the top 5% of earners. This is the inevitable outcome of more than a century and a half of Social Darwinism.

Recall the quote from Thomas Friedman at the beginning of this essay where, in describing the value of a worker, he used the term “adapt” three times. Terms from biology are part of the lexicon of business and a demonstration of society’s mis-framing. Notice the business terms that are used in daily discourse to describe ordinary life. How often do we talk about thins like efficiency, the bottom line, cost-effective, profit, to name only four, when referring to ordinary household life? Recall from earlier that Friedman used the term adapt three times in reference to the worker and his world.

Were Charles Darwin alive today, he would aggressively reject what has been done in his name. He was particularly unhappy with the argument linking social progress with the harsh treatment of people who were “unfit” to survive in the struggle for life. In The Descent of Man he wrote:

“With savages, the weak in body and mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.”

What motivates people in this way, he said, is

“the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but [was] subsequently rendered…more tender and more widely diffused…Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”

This describes modern society, where the “noblest part of our nature” has not only deteriorated, but has been actively rejected. Sympathy is not a value in our business-dominated society. As biologist Richard Dawkins (best known for The Selfish Gene and more recently The God Delusion noted:

“[T]he welfare state is a very unnatural thing….There is no need for altruistic restraint in the birth-rate, because there is no welfare state in nature….Since we humans do not want to return to the old selfish ways where we let the children of too-large families starve to death, we have abolished the family as a unit of economic self-sufficiency, and substituted the state. But the privilege of guaranteed support for children should not be abused.”

And so it is. Political scientist Frances Fox Piven wrote in Regulating the Poor:

“Some of the aged, the disabled, the insane, and others who are of no use as workers are left on the relief rolls, and their treatment is so degrading and punitive as to instil in the laboring masses a fear of the fate that awaits them should they relax into beggary and pauperism.”

We have not advanced much beyond the workhouses of Victorian England.

The inequities egregiously roll on. In 1970, the pay of the average CEO was thirty times more than that of the average worker. By 2007, the ratio was about 340:1. This, however, tells only part of the story. Comparing only the top 100 CEOs, the ratio in 1970 was about 45:1. By 2006, that ratio had become 1,723:1! Natural law in action.


As Canadian journalist Linda McQuaig writes in The Trouble With Billionaires (2010):

“Every situation in which an individual is unable to realize an ambition—of going to university, of pursuing a career, of earning enough to support a family, of developing his or her talents to their fullest—is a dream denied, just as surely as the billionaire’s fortune is a dream realized.

“A society top-heavy with billionaires may seem like a paradise of upward mobility, but it’s actually closer to being a boneyard of broken dreams for all but a lucky few. Those wanting to give their children a real chance to live the American Dream would be well advised to move to Sweden.”

Capitalism, wrote Ferdinand Lundberg in The Rich and the Super-Rich (1968) is a failure system:

“For every businessman in a given year who makes enough of a splash to come to the attention of Fortunes editors, about 10,000 split a gut trying and cough blood in the bankruptcy court. If it weren’t committed to dispensing sunshine, Fortune could write a melancholy article every year on business failures and issue a thick supplementary directory merely giving names and addresses.

Cause for hope?

Concluding that Western society is in significant decline is a no-brainer. A consuming society, with the push on to consume ever more in order to continue enriching a few, cannot last. (Wal-Mart is a good example. The more junk customers can be induced to buy, the richer the Waltons become.)

I (and more than a few others) have spent much of our lives looking for the equivalent of a silver bullet to not only understand the source of the evils of our society, but to find ways to mitigate the harmful, even evil, tendencies of our society. As Darwin said:

“The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we intentionally seek to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil

Society’s contemporary evil is rooted in how we have been taught to frame humanity—as animals and nothing more. We are animals, but we can transcend our animal nature. The key orientation, concluded the Catholic theologian Thomas Merton:

“To live as a rational animal does not mean to think like a man and live as an animal. We must both think and live as men.” (italics added) Living as an animal, is the ethos of capitalism.

This is what the rich and powerful of the nineteenth did. They bewildered ordinary people into denying humanity’s transcendent nature. This flows from what might be mankind’s fatal flaw which, said writer Colin Wilson in A criminal history of mankind is that

“When we look back over the past eight thousand years, it is clear that the most irritating characteristic of human beings is their passivity. The mass of people accept whatever happens to them as cows accept the rain”.

Greed, as a human trait, is not going to go away. It only needs to be reined in and made, if not socially unacceptable, at least in society’s eyes a less than admirable trait.

In the last sentence of his book, Vance Packard wrote: “The central challenge seems to be this: Americans must learn to live with their abundance without being forced to impoverish their spirit by being damned fools about it.” (italics added)

And impoverishing the spirit is at the head of the agenda. Recall MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky quoted earlier: “my view is that there is something insulting and degrading about the idea of a soul, and the idea of a spirit”.

Capitalism is framed on the assumption that man is an animal and nothing else. But, because man is potentially so much more, it’s irrefutable that capitalism is not a natural phenomenon for society. ISS astronaut Sandra Magnus is one who has transcended this limitation. Asked what the earth looks like from the ISS, she said: “Up here I’ve seen the world from a different viewpoint. I see it as a whole system, I don’t see it as a group of individual people or individual countries. We are one huge group of people and we’re all in it together.”

In anticipation of some of the comments I expect, let me forestall them by pointing out that I am not against capitalism and will not suggest that capitalism be somehow halted. This is impossible. Many people are competitive and do wish to have more to the point of surfeit. What I do think is best is that capitalism be fenced off and those who want to live in a dog-eat-dog arena, can have their place to do it. But speaking from a more transcendent level, we are not all capitalists in orientation and many people would prefer to live quieter more non-material lives in a civilized, not a wholly capitalistic society.

I’ll explore this idea, from “I” to “We” in detail in Part 3, forthcoming.

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