Changing the system, recognizing the harm in our current idolatries and myths
A reflection by Joe Brewer
Modern capitalism began with the Enclosure Movement in Britain as peasant farmers were kicked off their land and forced into wage slavery in nearby factories. This was accompanied by the first wave of mass poverty in the modern era. It is one part of the Story of Poverty Creation. It may be that only after these myths of our industrial system are dealt with that can we get on with the real work of evolving to whatever comes next for humanity.
Want to tackle the climate crisis? Recognize that we will not be able to fund an energy transition so long as wealth hoarders keep trillions of dollars hidden away in a system of tax havens.
Want to end poverty and inequality? Realize that systems of wealth hoarding hide in our own minds and begin the delicate process of deprogramming your mental habits.
Want to repair broken political systems? Recognize that the artificial “construction” of choice in major elections is done to distract us from our collective power to rise up and create meaningful, systemic change.
All of these problems are connected — along with many more we could name like police brutality, structural racism, money laundering for war, land grabs, and so much more. Yet at their core is the same essential logic of the parasite.
Take what you can, the rest be damned.
That is the overriding ethic of “business-as-usual” taught in MBA programs around the world. This is why students leaving these programs are more selfish and greedy than when they entered. The norms being programmed into them are keeping social change from spreading through the marketplace, keeping us from the future we really want and need.
Until we recognize this cultural blight for what it is, it will not be possible to replace the outdated models for governance and economics that hold us in a death spiral today. We are literally in “overshoot-and-collapse” mode right now and the future looks pretty grim. But if we can recognize the profoundly social nature of humanity — we are NOT the greedy creatures that economists claim us to be — then there is much hope for a brighter alternative.
The logic of extractive capitalism goes like this:
Those with the capital get to choose what is created by society, directing their monetary resources to the places with the largest “return on investment.” Profit is then extracted by these owners as they parasitize the social infrastructure built up with taxpayer dollars.
This is a medical problem for societies. And it has a medical solution: Bolster the cultural immune systems that keep selfish behavior in check.
We can learn from the anthropologists on this one. In the work of Christopher Boehm, for example, it is now clear that hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian because they kept the cheaters in check. This was done through gossip (to manage social relationships) using storytelling that would shame anti-social individuals. When these tactics didn’t work, the community would move to more severe practices like ostracism and, in rare cases, execution.
The important thing is that our ancestors survived for more than a hundred thousand years by keeping the bullies and cheaters in check. Yet today the parasites among us are revered as “captains of industry” as they pillage and plunder every commons imaginable for the sake of power and profit.
An example can be seen in the extractive practices of for-profit scientific publishing. Research funded by taxpayer dollars (mostly done at public universities) is published in peer-review journals that extract up to 39% of the money that changes hands as profit. In other words, the investors have set up a syphoning hose to the academic institutions we collectively paid for to create artificial barriers — both for the researchers to publish (which they have to pay for with research funds) and for the public to access (in subscription fees).
This is paralleled in the for-profit health insurance industry that created middle man businesses to extract money from the exchanges between patients and doctors in the United States. Billions of dollars that could be used for prevention and universal health care are instead transferred into the coffers of wealthy investors — many of whom have self-serving relationships with policymakers by greasing their pockets at election time.
Note how the profit-making does nothing of value. It was the investments from taxpayers to universities that created the scientific knowledge and medical findings. Yet systems were put in place to extract and parasitize this public infrastructure in the name of “free market” ideology. The truth is that market systems — which are excellent for allocating resources efficiently — are distorted and corrupted by the influence of pooled capital.
The sickness is a moral one. And its healing elixir is too.
We can put a stop to greedy behavior by learning from our ancestors. Recognize the parasites for what they are, spread the word to our friends, and establish policies that sanction against the extraction of wealth from the benefits created through cooperation and partnership.
We can do better by working together. This includes creating purposeful businesses and using market principles in service of larger goals. Confusion of the pursuit of profit with the creation of value is rampant today. Let us correct this misconception and reconfigure our societies around shared goals — like making governments responsive and participatory; restoring balance with the environments we depend upon for our survival; and sharing the wealth in an inclusive economy that is designed to promote social well-being and planetary thriving.
The harms of parasitic extraction have gone on too long. Let’s fix this.