Lessons from Runaway Capitalism: Capital as ‘god’ and Capitalism as Religion

Do we see a need to transform our society?  Why do those who look after our children and our seniors get paid so little when we say we value what they do?  Why did Canada’s billionaires increase their wealth by over 35% during the first nine months of the Pandemic while millions faced unemployment and rent and food insecurity?  Why do the cleaners and retail cashiers get very low pay and insecure work without sick leave?  Why are we subsidizing oil exploration when we know if we burned all the reserves we have already found we would ensure runaway climate change?  These are just a few of the questions that suggest we have lost our common sense.

As we look around us at all the things that make ‘no sense’, there is a growing realization that all this ‘non-sense’ is connected.   It is like discovering a powerful, invasive weed in your garden.   The weed has a strong set of roots supporting hardy leaves and seeds.  The roots spread out choking all around them and sending up new shoots with more leaves and more seeds.  The seeds spawn ever more weeds.   The weeds, like cancer, choke out life. 

A truly functional economy is one that provides humanity with the goods and services we need to live decent meaningful lives.  In doing so, it must not destroy the natural world of which we are part and upon which we depend.  To discover if our economy is healthy we should measure what percent of people have important goods and services like an adequate supply of food, clothing and shelter, and have access to education, health care and meaningful work.  But we do not do that.  Instead, our governments measure gross national product (GNP), the amount of wealth or capital produced.  

They do not regard how that wealth is shared as important even though it was produced through the efforts of billions of people who get to share little of it.  They do not measure the destruction of nature required to produce wealth.  They do not measure impacts on health like the millions of deaths per year caused by fossil fuel combustion. 

We are instructed that if GNP is growing our economy is healthy.  We are taught it does not meant the economy is unhealthy if:

  • Most of the wealth goes to only 1% of the people; 
  • The economy pollutes the drinking water of millions;
  • Spews toxic fumes that make millions of people sick;
  • Workers are paid too little to buy food;
  • The Earth’ climate is altered so that our children will have a difficult life and our grandchildren may have no life at all;

We are told, as long as GNP is increasing as rapidly as possible and the owners of capital and the high priests of capital are happy, all is well.  The same message often comes from the governments who are responsible for the wellbeing of society.

Examining the things that do not make sense, it becomes clear that the forces driving the growing sense of chaos in our world are forces that destroy life in all its forms.  The chaos is driven by a worship of capital.  We have allowed all life on the planet and the planet itself, including human society, to be organized around serving the insatiable needs of capital.  Capital is a product of our imaginations.  ‘Capital’ is a useful idea that has become the ultimate weed, the cancer of our living planet.  It should be a tool we use, but it has become the new ‘god’ and all else, nature and humanity, have become tools serving this new ‘god’. 

Maximizing profit always involve a sort of sacrificial offering.  Sacrifices come in many forms.  It could be a worker paid $2 a day, or a pristine river filled with poison, or a female or black worker paid less, or a thousand people thrown out of work or a child dying from pollution induced asthma.  It could be someone needing a vastly over-priced medicine or someone forced to work when they are sick or workers injured or killed by unsafe working conditions or a ten year old child forced to work.  All of these sacrifices increase profit.  These are sacrifices we are told we must accept to avoid the anger of the ‘angry god capital’.   There are many millions of these sacrifices daily. 

The billionaires are the new holy family.  Their high priests are the corporate managers, lobbyists, high finance traders, chosen academics and politicians – all those purchased (hired or given money) to do their bidding.  As just one example, between 2011 and 2018, lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry recorded 11,452 visits to the federal government, six contacts per working day. (University of Victoria, Corporate Mapping Project) 

The High Priests are the ones who ensure governments obey.  They lobby, threaten, cajole, buy billions of dollars of advertising, play philanthropist, fund sympathetic education to produce good compliant workers, advertise in schools, and, when all else fails, they sue or use the justice system to threaten. They move capital to tax havens beyond the reach of governments and lobby for lower taxes on their corporations and themselves.   Billionaires and their high priests do not need grubby public services like healthcare or disability pensions or social services.

Well the owners of capital do need some government services. 

  • They need a legal system that protects them and enforces contracts. 
  • They need police to protect them. 
  • They need armies to defend them and create markets for their products.
  • They need access to natural resources they can turn into profit. 
  • They need trade agreements that they get to help write, that work well for them. 
  • They need regulations that they can circumvent but poorer people must obey. 
  • They need government to tax the 90% to pay for their subsidies and infrastructure.
  • They need a justice system they can afford better than the 99%.

To obtain what they need they have created the “corporate welfare” state. 

Everything in the universe has to be put to the service of this new ‘god’ to ensure  a ‘profit’ for ‘the god capital’.  Everything.  Rocks and minerals.  Water and air.  All forms of life.  Plants and animals.  Human society.  Education.  Health care.  Universities.  Research and learning.  Religion.  Trade.  Governments.  The atmosphere and the stratosphere.  The moon and Mars and someday, in the psychopathic dreams of this ‘god’s’ followers, the stars.  All must now be seen as having value and meaning only in as much as they can be used to grow capital.   

Alas, all is not well in the capitalist economic religion.  The disasters produced by the millions of daily sacrifices are being noticed and understood.   Like a cancer whose growth has proved too successful, its runaway cells are now choking human society and indeed all life on the planet.  As we look around us it becomes clear that we have abandoned a reverence for life and the search for meaning.  The only meaning has become amassing more and more capital in fewer and fewer hands.   This beautiful planet, this jewel in the universe, may possibly be reduced to a barren piece of space debris by runaway climate change.  

In the capitalist religion anything that produces profit can, and in most cases, will be done.   The high priests of capitalism tell us that the less the size of government beyond what is needed for the corporate welfare state, the better.  Everything should be left to the increasingly dysfunctional markets where all is decided by one dollar one vote and 1% have more than 50% of the wealth.  In the US the 1%, as of 2019, own 56% of all traded equities.  Since the explosive growth of billionaire wealth during the pandemic, amid the suffering of the two thirds of the population living pay cheque to pay cheque, and 6 million slipping into poverty, the stock markets have soared.   The $1.2 trillion in new billionaire wealth had to be religiously invested by their managers and accountants.

The sacrifices to catastrophe capitalism are producing wild fires and floods, droughts and severe cold snaps, super storms and killer heat waves, food insecurity and refugees, rising plastic filled oceans with declining life, health destroying smog, people dying of hunger growing food for the super-rich, growing extinctions of life forms – an almost endless list.  Is this really the best and only way to organize our economies?  Is it beyond our imaginations to say ENOUGH!  Must we be silent until this catastrophic capitalist religion destroys itself and the ability of the planet to support life? 

Imagine we were 300 people on a ship with a failed communication system that went aground on an uninhabited island far from shipping lanes.  As we gather ashore we begin the process of figuring out how we will survive.   We get settled enough to hold a large meeting which most people attend.  Plans are discussed on the things we need to do together.  Finding food, building shelter, caring for any sick or injured, a care organization for the children, establishing some rules of behaviour and more.  People begin forming into groups for various tasks.  Then a loud voice commands our attention.

            “There is a better way to do this, he says.  Fred here is the richest person and he knows best.  We should approve an organization whose purpose is to make Fred richer and richer providing us with what we need.  He will decide what to do and how to do it and who will do what.  Everything that is done will make Fred a profit so he will have the motivation to get things done.  Fred’s greed will make everything happen and the benefit will trickle down to everyone.”  One would hope the laughter would be deafening.  Yet it is a good description of the economy we need to replace.

Where capital is ‘god’, every new idea has to be milked for its possible contribution to profit.  The capital centred objective is how can the person with that new idea turn it into personal gain?  Then, how can some capital-centred agency, a corporation, buy that idea and use it to create as much shareholder profit as possible and exclude others from ‘profiting’ from it?  The objective of capital is market control to eliminate competition.  That is how to ensure the maximum price the market will bear.  If a profit can be made from an idea, but it destroys life or undermines society and meaning, capital owners want to know how they can  prevent regulations from standing in the way of maximizing profit?

Can we transform our relationship to nature and build a society and economy that serves life rather than ‘milking it’?   Can we create a society and economy that enhances the meaning of our lives rather than draining and constraining meaning?  Can we fashion a society and an economy that, to borrow the words of Ursula Franklin, “that would treat nature with the same respect as all governments of Canada have always treated the United States, as a great power and a force to fear.”  Nature is a great power and abusing it for billionaire profit should give us great fear.  We can switch, we have alternatives and indeed we must begin the transformation.

Coming Next: A Nature and People Centered Economy

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