Unchecked capitalism threatens the earth

The coming of Medford's Monument to Mammon, that Walmart "Superstore," brings to at least one mind the prediction made by a "terrified" Alexis de Tocqueville way back in 1840. Observing American individualism (selfishness) and materialism, he foresaw "... an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives." Walmart does indeed capture much of the "American way of life," namely the crudely materialistic and cruelly selfish aspects. (It is no accident that it is sometimes called the "capita-LUST" system.)

There is no question that Walmart as a company has been hugely successful as a corporate entity. Except for its ruthless exploitation of workers; its total opposition to unions; its depressive impact on both local businesses and workers; its enormously efficient global outsourcing to places where strong protective labor and environmental laws are nonexistent; and, with all its wealth, its not-so-uncanny ability to seduce both politicians and city planners and hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to its side; the company is a great success.

Or, rather, necause of all those factors. Why else would sound scholars write works like "How Wal-Mart is Destroying America" (1998); "How WalMart shapes the world — in a race to the bottom" (May 2011); "WalMart's Shirts of Misery" (1999); "Wal-Mart: The new Southern Plantation" (2006) and "Walmart and the Big Box Decaying of America" (2005; that one is mine!)

Oh, yes, mustn't forget Walmart's part in bringing about earth's ecological failure. All those "petty and paltry possessions" come right out of the hide of Mother Earth, along with disastrous anthropogenic global climate change. A recent study, "Pandora's Box: Digging the Earth, Killing the Future," (www.gaiafoundation.org) documents how the extractive industries especially are having a devastating impact on our natural world, the only home we have. But this goes along with how our destructive manufacturing corporations and our agribusinesses burn vast amounts of carbon fuels (aka: greenhouse gases) and use the natural world as a handy sink for the dumping of all wastes and toxins used in and resulting from the production cycle. It's called "externalizing" the costs to the public.

Let's be clear on this matter of materialism and the quite literal "consumption"— or is it the "metastasizing cancer? — of our natural world. The local supermarket offers about 40,000 products. Walmart's Superstores offer 150,000, with many more products available online. Now, pay attention: Careful studies have shown that humans can enjoy an "attractive" existence based on but 40 products, most of which can be made locally in neighborhood workshops and mobile workshops, with comparatively little labor and superior productivity — and with a vastly lower impact on the ecological basis of our society.

Of course, corporate profits would take a mortal hit. And that is precisely the problem. Our "free market" capitalist system, now globalized, simply MUST produce in order to sell and to profit thereby. Capitalism needs workers or the technology (dead labor) made by workers to create the value from which all profit flows. Here's the catch: the globalization of the capitalist system has pitchforked literally billions of peasants into the labor market. For the first time in its history, China now has more citizens living in urban areas than in the countryside. In India, millions of peasants eventually will be forced off of the land and into urban areas to look for work. Mexico City and environs now has about 23 million inhabitants, most of whom similarly have been forced out of other peasant traditions, having been replaced, as in China and India, by the mechanization of their farmlands. The international sex trade, especially in women and children, and drug trafficking have provided some (temporary) work for a minority of them, in true free market fashion. "Planet of Slums" is unfolding before our eyes, if we can bear to see it.

Capitalist economic growth must always increase (like a cancer) in order for profits to made. And in a finite physical world, mind you. We are running out of essentials in eery field and no replacements in sight or imagination. If we are to avoid social breakdown which will occur as our global climate catastrophe passes the "tipping points" leading to irreversible collapses globally, then clearly we must transcend the key mandates of our present economic system: greed, gluttony and cancerous economic growth. Capitalism must be superseded by a social-economic system without "consumerism." (We Americans are among the 1 billion culprits who consume 50 percent of everything that is produced; the other 6 billion now subsist on the remainder.)

If we don't choose to change, then go on, consume, drink, and be merry: it's later than you think.

Gerald Cavanaugh lives in Ashland.

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