Second Vermont Republic

A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.

Capitalism’s Cancer Stage, Our Civil Commons, and the Values Wars, by Ron Miller (BOOKS REVIEW)

John McMurtry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph in Canada, produced two enormously provocative and insightful books more than a decade ago, which some of us in the Vermont independence conversation have only recently discovered. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism was first published in 1999, and Value Wars: The Global Market Versus the Life Economy, in 2002. A new edition of The Cancer Stage of Capitalism was issued in 2013, after the crash of 2008 and accelerated environmental desecration in the pursuit of “extreme energy” have awakened many more people to the awful destructiveness of global capitalism. There is now even more evidence that McMurtry’s analysis was spot on.


McMurty is concerned about the deeply rooted value system that fuels the capitalist empire. He looks beneath the surface manifestations of this worldview, such as particular corporations, politicians, or trade agreements, and emphasizes that a system of unquestioned assumptions drives the economic, political and social agendas of the global corporate juggernaut. Although he doesn’t use this term, I think he is pointing to the essential meme at work—a cluster of beliefs that seems to have a life of its own and spreads itself insidiously throughout a culture, like a virus.

For McMurtry, the capitalist value/belief system is literally a cancer– “an uncontrolled and unregulated reproduction and multiplication of an agent in a host body that is not committed to any life-function of its life host and aggressively and opportunistically appropriates nutriments and resources. . .until it obstructs, damages and/or destroys successive organs of their life systems.”

This system revolves around the single-minded pursuit of abstract financial wealth–money. An interlocked, impersonal network of banks, corporations, and international agencies that McMurtry calls “money sequences” strives solely to maximize their holdings. Believing that financial wealth is ultimately real, these institutions and the people who run them are blind to the horrific damage their actions cause to persons, communities and ecosystems. The corporate system “overrides all claims of life value.” Organic human needs—a healthy environment, adequate food and health care, coherent community, cultural enrichment, sense of place—are secondary, and sacrificed, to the demands of the market and the cancerous desire for endless growth.

Normal capitalism, McMurtry explains, followed the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, who assumed that the economy produces goods for human needs and that property is rooted in tangible assets, such as land. But over the past few decades real capital has morphed into money sequencing — transfers of abstract wealth that produce no actual goods and bear no intrinsic relation to community or ecological realities. (Think “derivatives” or currency trading casinos.) “Money investment which seeks to become more money without production of any life-good or service has been known as long as usury, but never before as the dominant decision-structure of social life-organization.”

According to McMurtry, this “money sequence” meme accounts for most of the severe and intractable problems of the modern world. He explains how climate change, rampant militarism, concentration of media ownership, industrial agriculture, wealth inequality, crushing student debt, and many other ills can be traced to this root cause. He argues that every place the global capitalist program has been adopted, or imposed by the IMF or trade treaties or military intervention, quality of life declines for the majority of people: poverty increases and public health declines, communities are uprooted, food sovereignty is sacrificed, and meaningful work disappears, leading to epidemics of mental illness, crime, and xenophobic and fascist tendencies (an analysis I found especially perceptive).

Democracy suffers under money-sequence capitalism. What the global oligopoly calls a “free” market does not bring democracy to nations, as it claims, but actively and effectively subverts democratic governance. The free trade agreements negotiated in secret since the 1990s gave these money sequences legal rights that trumped all human, social and ecological interests, and severely (and deliberately) limited democratic oversight. The free trade (“neoliberal”) agenda has sought to discredit social spending as wasteful and anti-freedom (“big government”), because it provides goods without adding to private profits. More and more of the commons are appropriated to generate these profits, and the elite few thrive. There is not enough money to serve human needs, but unlimited amounts for their “security.”

Yet the meme holds sway, because its apologists have, since the time of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, portrayed market forces as irresistible laws of nature rather than social or political choices. Attempts to interfere with “free” trade or “free” markets for the sake of other goals (small things like clean water or fair treatment of workers) are dismissed as unscientific or simply incorrect: “There is no alternative.” The accepted tenets of conventional economics reinforce this view: “To be rational means only to self-maximize one’s private interests in money-value terms…. All needs and demands of organic, social and life systems count for nothing.”

McMurtry sees this worldview as a blind (and blinding) faith, asserting that we are experiencing another Dark Age because “there is only one God or System, an all-powerful one,” that dictates social meaning and allows no dissent. To question the “free” market is to question “freedom” itself; opponents of radical capitalism are branded communists or terrorists—dangerous subversives who must be eliminated. The empire “demands more surveillance, control, armies, police and prisons to cage any person or society which ‘puts itself in a state of war’ [a phrase from Locke] with the unlimited and growing property claim to all that exists.” McMurtry reviews the sorry history of the U.S. empire’s violent intervention in other nations since the 1950s, from Iran and Guatemala to Chile, Yugoslavia, and Iraq, demonstrating the system’s consuming need to expand.

What can we do about any of this? McMurtry describes social and cultural life as an “immune system” that normally can fight off forces that threaten the integrity of a community or civilization. Ethics, philosophy, science, journalism, the arts, etc. can promote “truly human” thinking that goes beyond an accepted “value program” that is proving to be harmful. McMurtry cites public health campaigns as an analogy. But cancer capitalism has overwhelmed this immune system. It has invaded culture itself and turned it to its own advantage, as we see in corporate control of mass media and increasingly over the educational system.

Our task, then, is to reclaim what McMurtry calls the “civil commons,” the arena where ruling values and beliefs can be contested. His naming of the root of the problem, and his thorough description of its interlocking tentacles, is a promising place to begin. Let’s recognize that we’re not just dealing with specific villains, like ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs or the Koch brothers or the corporate lackeys on the Supreme Court. We must deal with an invasive meme, a worldview, that exerts its power subliminally as well as overtly.

I would argue that this supports the strategy that the Vermont Commons/Second Vermont Republic group has been pursuing for nearly a decade. In the light of the dominant meme, our call for greater economic and political independence from the empire appears heretical; the notion of secession is derided as naively dangerous. Remember, says the meme, there is NO alternative. But that’s the point—there are indeed alternatives, and they are demonstrably better than empire. When we promote local food systems, decentralized and renewable energy production, local currencies and public banks, independent media and alternative schools, community resilience and decentralized governance, we are strengthening our cultural immune system—we are promoting human and ecological values to contest the inhuman and extractivist values of money-sequence capitalism.

Unfortunately McMurtry’s ideas will not reach a wide audience. Between these two books, he uses 600 pages to make a case he could have done crisply and effectively in about 250; his writing is repetitive and not especially well organized. In addition, the text desperately needed a proofreader before it was printed. (The publisher is Pluto Press in Great Britain, which offers a full catalog of what appear to be sophisticated progressive titles; one would expect a higher production standard.)   Oddly, he seems to want to take credit for being the only thinker in the modern world to have exposed the core of imperial capitalism; he only mentions a few other important writers, such as Herman Daly or Naomi Klein, to show how their analysis falls short. (He’s not the only theorist to use a disease metaphor, either; Ellen LaConte persuasively compares the global crisis to an AIDS infection in her book Life Rules from New Society Publishers.)

Even so, I found that wrestling with these texts was worth the trouble. McMurtry connects the dots brilliantly; he considers more dots, and illuminates the connections more brightly, than most other theorists I have read.

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2014 by in Arts.

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