"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
The Nature of the Beast
The nature of capitalism was well-described by St. Thomas Aquinas, "The other kind of exchange is either that of money for money, or of any commodity for money, not on account of the necessities of life, but for profit, and this kind of exchange, properly speaking, regards tradesmen, according to the Philosopher (Polit. i, 3). The former kind of exchange is commendable because it supplies a natural need: but the latter is justly deserving of blame, because, considered in itself, it satisfies the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity. Hence trading, considered in itself, has a certain debasement attaching thereto, in so far as, by its very nature, it does not imply a virtuous or necessary end." - St. Thomas Aquinas, ST II-II, a. 77, a.4
Note first what Aquinas condemns - not greed in itself, an abstract tendency to sin independent of time, place or circumstance, but exchange for the sake of profit. He specifically condemns profit-making because "it is satisfies the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity." Here the saint of wisdom sees and foresees something that we are experiencing the final fruits of.
More scientifically stated, this practice, which most people recognize as the foundation of our economic system, leads by necessity, not choice, to blind expansion of the use of the earth's resources. Capitalists pursue their own interests to maximize profit. If that maximization happens to coincide with another interest, such as eradicating disease, that is no more than a happy accident, to be brushed aside if it interferes with profits, as we see clearly in the case of big pharma denying AIDS medicines to Africans unless they pay the full price. In saying this I'm not morally condemning the individuals who run these companies. They are usually decent, even Christian, people, but the nature of the system in which they operate forces them to do things which are inherently immoral. Therefore a whole industry of justification has grown up to salve our consciences, in which the Church plays its role.
In our system, all natural and social relationships are subsumed under the drive to accumulate capital. To support this, natural processes must be subjected to the whims of the economic cycle. Natural ecologies are governed by complex relationships of interchange with cycles and rhythms that cannot be subsumed under the demands for maximum profit without destroying them. Thus, capitalism always tends to violate the natural conditions that ensure nature's vitality and ability to right itself, expelling the poisons which weaken it. Essentially, the demand for increasing growth and profit margins must collide with the interests of ecological balance and the winner of this struggle will always be capital.
More deeply, what is at stake is the nature of human happiness. which can never be found in the coercive relationships produced by money, but only in the free (utterly free) action of human beings living out the full potentialities of their nature. That is the positive side of the socialist revolution that must take place if humanity and the planet they depend on are to survive. The negative prod is the more than 2 billion people around the world live on less than $2 a day, while 6 million children starve to death or die from easily preventable diseases each year. That Holocaust should shock the Christian conscience as much as Hilter's, but due to its hidden nature, it does not.
Apologists for the current system ignore its systemic nature. The reason capital cannot solve the ecological crisis which it has caused is that it is propelled constantly to expand. This is not an accidental tendency which could be counteracted by firm management, but a feature without which the system would collapse. To understand why this is the case, we notice first that capitalism always privileges short term gains, often provided by technological fixes, over long term planning, even when such planning might lead to more sustainable profits in the long term. The capitalist cannot concern himself with such planning because his focus must be on the immediate opportunity. If the soil becomes depleted due to exploitative agricultural practices, the solution is not end those practices in favor of sustainable agriculture, but to genetically modify crops so that they can grow in depleted conditions. Thereby the rate of profit can be sustained, while ignoring the long term effects of genetically modified crops. Not to sustain the rate of profit is to be liquidated by the market. No other consideration can be allowed to interfere. The price for ignoring this principle is economic suicide.
"The constant drive to renew the capital accumulation process intensifies its destructive social metabolism, imposing the needs of capital on nature, regardless of the consequences to natural systems. Capitalism continues to play out the same failed strategy again and again. The solution to each environmental problem generates new environment problems( while of ten not curtailing the old ones). One crisis follows another, in an endless success of failure, stemming from the internal contradictions of the system. If we are to solve out environment crises, we need to go to the root of the problem: the social relation of capital itself, given that this social metabolic order undermines the "vital conditions of existence." - Brett Clark and Richard York, Rifts and Shifts: Getting to the Root of Environmental Crises, Monthly Review, November, 2008.