Appetite for economic gain not a natural force

August 26, 2012 | categories: Politics, Economy | View Comments

While reading Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom, I came across this passage from English economic historian R. H. Tawney's book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, which elaborates the medieval view on economic activities:

Material riches are necessary; they have secondary importance, since without them men cannot support themselves and help one another [...] But economic motives are suspect. Because they are powerful appetites, men fear them, but they are not mean enough to applaud them [...] There is no place in medieval theory for economic activity which is not related to a moral end, and to found a science of society upon the assumption that the appetite for economic gain is a constant and measurable force, to be accepted like other natural forces, as an inevitable and self-evident datum, would have appeared to the medieval thinker as hardly less irrational and less immoral than to make the premise of social philosophy the unrestrained operation of such necessary human attributes as pugnacity and the sexual instinct [...] Riches, as St. Antonio says, exist for man, not man for riches [...] At every turn therefore, there are limits, restrictions, warnings against allowing economic interests to interfere with serious affairs. It is right for a man to seek such wealth as is necessary for a livelihood in his station. To seek more is not enterprise, but avarice, and avarice is a deadly sin. Trade is legitimate; the different resources of different countries show that it was intended by Providence. But it is a dangerous business. A man must be sure that he carries it on for the public benefit, and that the profits which he takes are no more than the wages of his labour. Private property is a necessary institution, at least in a fallen world; men work more and dispute less when goods are private than when they are common. But it is to be tolerated as a concession to human frailty, not applauded as desirable in itself; the ideal—if only man's nature could rise to it—is communism. "Communis enim," wrote Gratian in his decretum, "usus omnium quae sunt in hoc mundo, omnibus hominibus esse debuit." [1] At best, indeed, the estate is somewhat encumbered. It must be legitimately acquired. It must be in the largest possible number of hands. It must provide for the support of the poor. Its use must as far as practicable be common. Its owners must be ready to share it with those who need, even if they are not in actual destitution.

(My emphasis)

According to Tawney, the basic medieval assumptions concerning economic life were two: "That economic interests are subordinate to the real business of life, which is salvation, and that economic conduct is one aspect of personal conduct, upon which as on other parts of it, the rules of morality are binding."

Today, it seems that people often assume that the free market is a natural force and that other apects of human life, out of necessity, have to be subordinate to it. It turns out that in the Middle Ages, the opposite was expressed in the doctrines of the Catholic Church, and in secular law.

To constantly portray the capitalist market as a natural force, as the corporate media does, is to help sustain these avaricious economic interests that threaten to destroy our planet, and that are a direct cause of immense human suffering around the world.

[1]This should translate to something like: "Common to all humans should be the use of things found on Earth."

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Climate Science - The Forbidden Topics

March 18, 2012 | categories: Environment, Media, Politics, Economy | View Comments

The following is an excerpt from the book Newspeak in the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens published in 2009 by Pluto Press. You can find out more about the book and buy it here.


In 2006, an explosive front-page article in the Independent was titled: "Earth's ecological debt crisis: mankind's 'borrowing' from nature hits new record." Martin Hickman, the newspaper's consumer affairs correspondent, explained the results of a study featured in the story:

Evidence is mounting that rapid population growth and rising living standards among the Earth's six billion inhabitants are putting an intolerable strain on nature. For the first time an organisation — a British think-tank — has sought to pinpoint how quickly man is using the global resources of farming land, forests, fish, air and energy.

By analysing data from the US academic group Global Footprint Network, the think-tank has worked out the day each year when "humanity starts eating the planet". Just like a company bound for bankruptcy, the world started falling into ecological debt on October 9 that year. Hickman explained: "Problems, affecting everything from the seabed to the stratosphere, range from carbon dioxide emissions to the destruction of rainforests to the intensification of agriculture". The crisis Hickman was describing could hardly be more serious: humanity really is devouring the planet's life-support systems. And yet, typically for mainstream reporting, Hickman's analysis of the causes behind the crisis was lost in unsupported, clichéd assertions about "rapid population growth" and global "rising living standards". It is not just that "mankind" is "'borrowing' from nature", as Hickman claimed — the problem is rooted in a particular form of politics controlled by wealthy elites.

Consider some of the key issues that should be at the heart of any analysis of the looming catastrophe under discussion. And consider how inclusion of these issues is all but inconceivable in any corporate newspaper. These issues include:

  1. The inherently biocidal, indeed psychopathic, logic of corporate capitalism, structurally locked into generating maximised revenues in minimum time at minimum cost. As corporations are legally obliged to maximise profits for shareholders, it is in fact illegal for corporations to prioritise the welfare of people and planet above private profits. How can this simple fact of entrenched corporate immorality not be front and centre in any discussion of the industrial destruction of global life-support systems?
  2. The proven track record of big business in promoting catastrophic consumption regardless of the consequences for human and environmental health. Whether disregarding the links between smoke and cancer, junk food and obesity, Third World exploitation and human suffering, oil exploration and lethal climate change, factory farming and animal suffering, high salt consumption and illness, corporations have consistently subordinated human and animal welfare to short-term profits.
  3. The relentless corporate lobbying of government to shape policies to promote and protect private power.
  4. The billions spent by the advertising industry to promote consumer products and services, creating artificial 'needs', with children an increasing target.
  5. The collusion between powerful companies, investors and state planners to install compliant dictators in client states around the world.
  6. The extensive use of loans and tied aid that ensnare poor nations in webs of debt, ensuring that the West retains control of their resources, markets and development.
  7. The deployment of threats, bribery and armed force against countries that attempt to pursue self-development, rather than economic or strategic planning sanctioned by 'the international community'.
  8. The lethal role of the corporate media in promoting the planet-devouring aims of private power.

In a powerful book titled The Decline of Capitalism, economist Harry Shutt explains how the current system ensures "the wasteful diversion of economic value added into the pockets of the small minority who also (through their disproportionate wealth) exercise largely unaccountable political power". As Shutt rightly concludes, global capitalism is "too dysfunctional to be tolerable in a civilised society". Forty years ago, Martin Luther King called for "a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society". He observed: "Global capitalism is much more concerned with expanding the domain of market relations than with, say, establishing democracy, expanding elementary education, or enhancing the social opportunities of society's underdogs." Indeed, King increasingly questioned capitalism towards the end of his life: an aspect of his inspirational speeches that tends to be ignored by establishment commentators who are otherwise keen to praise him. He associated domestic racial and social inequality with US imperialism and social disparity abroad, denouncing what he called "the triple evils that are interrelated": "racism, economic exploitation, and war". In one speech, he said:

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will 'thingify' them - make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.

King decried the "evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of society" which had "systematic rather than superficial flaws". He concluded that "radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced". But this deep problem, facing anyone hoping for genuine action to combat the environmental crisis, is beyond the pale of mainstream thought and public debate.

Ecologist Franz Broswimmer put it this way: "At its very core, the prevailing capitalist ethos and liberal word view of the modern industrial era remain expansionary and imperial, involving a calculated form of indifference to the social and ecological order." The social insanity of this capitalist-fuelled expansionism leads to 'inverted priorities', to adopt the phrase used by the social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein. Hence, dominant features of the economy include a trillion-dollar global arms budget, depletion of the planet's natural resources and a deepening economic apartheid between rich and poor. These features are, in the words of eco-feminist Mary Mellor: "not the neutral decisions of a market; they are the priorities of powerful people in powerful nations, mostly men whose gender, race, and class interests drive the capitalist political economic system and its worldwide system of accumulation and deprivation". It is simply not possible to understand, far less to address, the crises facing us without understanding these issues. But, of course, they are simply "not of this world" from the perspective of mainstream corporate news reporting and commentary.

These are compelling, evidence-based arguments that are buried beneath the complacent clichés favoured by even the best newspapers. We have sketched them only in the briefest detail here - the point is they are hardly ever discussed at all.

Newspeak in the 21st Century

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