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The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: Our social immune system is being overwhelmed by growing out-of-control money market cancer

August 1, 1996 One Comment
By Dr John McMurtry, CCPA Monitor, August 1996

When we think of a society’s “defense system,” we think of its armed forces. We have long been conditioned to do this. The military-industrial establishment and the armaments business are the world’s most powerful institutions of organized violence and international trade. For them to preserve their vast power, it is essential that they be sold as society’s primary form of “self-defense.”

Society’s real system of self-defense, its public health process, is in this way deprived of its proper resources and functions. At the same time, ever more invasive assaults on the protection of life within societies by environmental despoliation, redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle-income classes to the rich, and the radical dismantling of public forms of life-provision now attack society’s health and life-defenses from another side.

In these ways, we now confront a situation where the cumulative breakdown of life-security and health-protection poses a more systemically far-reaching threat to social and planetary well-being than we–through our social immune system–are yet prepared for. This threat takes the form of the recent global mutation of the capitalist system.

Prior to the 1970s, capitalism had been compelled by the “communist threat,” workers’ movements, and a new electoral accountability to adopt preventive measures against its own internal pathologies. Slowly and under great social pressure, advanced capitalist societies introduced social reforms to limit the invasive assaults on workers’ lives and development.

This process began with social legislation that restricted working hours and factory-caused hazards and diseases, and eventually led to laws requiring tax-supported educational, health, and social security protections for all members of society. In this way, the pathological patterns of the capitalist organization of society were counterbalanced by socially legislated protections of life development and security.

Social breakdown under the strains of blind money-profit maximization was for a time resisted by newly accountable government bodies. In this overall social immune maturation, a state-regulated system of recognizing and responding to the vital life needs of social bodies as a whole increasingly shielded members from disease, starvation, and disabling morbidities of all kinds against which social life-systems are always in some ways formed to prevent.

Despite this development of a social immune system, however, a relatively sudden mutation of social orders has recently emerged. Dramatic changes and “restructurings” of social life-organizations have rapidly led to a breakdown in evolved social immune systems in virtually every parameter of life protection.

The loss of income security: Only income security can assure members of a capitalist-organized society the requisite needs of life. As the goods of life that meet human needs have become increasingly commodified (i.e., available only upon payment of money), continuity of money income for vital life sustenance has become increasingly essential. Food, clothing, and shelter are now normally available only in commodity form. But capitalist-organized societies are reducing and eliminating the social infrastructures that assure sufficient monetary life-income for members of social bodies.

The real incomes of most of society’s members have declined across the world. With revenue increasingly flowing to private money-capital investors, the means of life that remain have become ever more endangered and insecure.

Unemployment rates continue to rise, and protective social sectors everywhere are suffering cutbacks. The unregulated cross-border movement of money capital for nonproductive speculative seizures of social incomes is accelerating in volume and velocity everywhere, reaching an estimated 30 to 40 times the size of the total dollar turnover for goods and services.

One-quarter of the world’s people are now starving, and one-third of all children are malnourished–a pattern of deprivation of the most basic means of life. What is most alarming about this deepening, spreading deprivation of the basic requirements of life sustenance is the universality, rapidity, and apparent inexorability of its advance. A relatively small and increasingly walled-in proportion of social bodies is escalating its appropriation of world society’s income, while access to vital life means is radpidly decreasing and becoming more insecure for a rising majority of the globe’s population.

Social breakdown: In capitalist-organized societies there are two great classes of social members–those who are employed and paid for contributing to the generation and accumulation of capital, and those who are unemployed. Since the need for employees declines with labour-cost reduction methods and with the dismantling of the public sector, the number of full-time employees in capitalist-organized societies is diminishing with runaway speed.

Nearly one-third of the world’s 2.2 billion workers are now estimated to be unemployed. This loss of a social function leads to a wide variety of pathological outcomes. The probability of an unemployed man succumbing to heart disease or cancer doubles within five years. Adolescent suicide and prostitution rates escalate as future employment prospects darken. Most lethally, ethnic wars, racist attacks, armed violence, urban riots, beatings of women and children, and mass murders seem also to rise in areas of high unemployment.

Environmental damage: The capitalist organization of environmental usage–the atmosphere, fresh water and oceans, topsoils, forests, animal habitats and species, and mineral resources–primarily determines the environment’s sustainability, or lack of it. The degeneration of all these global life conditions and elements is clear to see, but in spite of the environmental crisis, corporate leaders are demanding even less “government interference” in regulating and protecting the environment.

On a world scale, 20,000 pages of GATT or World Trade Organization regulations and 1,400 articles within NAFTA specify exact rules to protect the rights of capitalist corporations to own, produce, sell, and invest across boundaries. Yet absent from this mountain of regulations are any effective environmental protections against increasing pollution, destruction, wastes, exhaustion, or extinction.

The invasiveness of such “free trade” regimes may be discerned by the pathologies of its outcomes. The air is increasingly unbreathable; no one may stay in the sun without cancer danger; oceans and ecosystems are becoming lifeless in various parts of the planet; tropical and temperate rain forests are clear-cut at the rate of 100 acres a minute; plants and animals of countless varieties are becoming extinct every year; and the sounds of the world are ever more dominantly coming from the din of fossil-fuel motors–but the profit-exploitation of the global life-environment only increases its assaults without self-control.

The Cancer Stage of Capitalism

Long-term, systematic and irreversible destruction of global life-organization emerged for the first time during the current advanced stage of capitalism. If we consider the defining principles of cancer and the eventual destruction of a life-host, it is difficult to avoid seeing that a cancer pattern is increasingly invading and spreading across the planet.

In other words, there is–

1. an uncontrolled and unregulated reproduction and multiplication of an agent in the host body that:

2. is not committed to any function of the host body;

3. increasingly appropriates nutriments from the host body in its growth and reproduction;

4. is not effectively recognized by the immune system;

5. possesses the ability to transfer or metastasize its assaultive growth to sites across the host body;

6. progressively infiltrates and invades the host body until it obstructs, damages, or destroys successive organs of its life-system; and

7. eventually destroys the life-host in the absence of an effective immune-system recognition and response.

Two comparatively sudden and rapidly advancing systemic changes across the social bodies and global environment are attacking the evolved systems of life-protection just as the stress and assault on their carrying capacities by money-capital circuits have become more rapid, intense, and pervasive.

The most sudden attack is on society’s protective systems, which were designed to ward off the internal starvation of members’ functions and growth by capitalist invasion and accumulation. Globally, protective systems are now being dismantled at every level. The pattern is now so universal and aggressive that even the language of its agents no longer disguises its destructive intent–”drastic cutbacks,” “axing social programs,” “slashing public services,” and so on. And society’s protective systems are openly being “cut,” “slashed,” and “axed” to “reassure lenders and investors”–that circuit of money investment and profit that is no longer linked to the production or circulation of useful goods and services.

Money capital that seeks more money without producing any life good or service goes back as far as usury, but never before has it been the dominant form of social life-organization. The mutation in this macro-circuit of money investment and profit occurred when money capital became exclusively committed at every stage of its growth to the direct multiplication of itself. The comparison with a carcinogen is starkly evident. A cancer pattern of disease and metastasis is confirmed when money capital lacks any commitment to any life-organization on the planet, but is free to move with increasing volume and velocity in and out of–but not to sustain–social and environmental life-hosts. On the contrary, ever more social resources and protections are being diverted to assist the capitalist cancer to multiply.

The spiralling debt and deficit circuits currently bankrupting governments and social infrastructures around the world are a primary channel of money-capital’s mutated form as it invades social hosts and appropriates their life resources for its own growth and spread. For example, even after over $14 trillion had already been taken from poor, less-developed countries by the money-extraction cycles of major banks, their total indebtedness to the banks doubled from approximately $819 billion in 1982 to $1,712 billion in 1993.

Such processes cannot continue for long without destroying the host body. Symptoms of this destructive pattern are visible across the nations of the world, but especially in Africa and Latin America. At a certain stage of this invasive appropriation of life-resources, social bodies can no longer continue to convert their life-sustenance base to more money for the money-lenders. “Restructuring” and “structural adjustment” programs are then imposed on them to ensure that the money cancer keeps spreading without resistance from the host bodies.

The disease agent advances against the weakened host social body and spreads more widely and deeply into its vital organs. Society’s ruling orders submit. Restructurings of social-life organization to feed the invaders proceed faster and deeper. More and more of society’s resources are yielded up to the money lenders and investors.

Unemployment rises, organized labour declines, and jobs become more insecure. Poverty levels rise. Social programs for health, education and housing are cut back or dismantled. Social despair and panic spread beneath the mask of normality. Incremental starvation of social bodies advances to sustain continuous money outflows to agents who lack a committed function to any life-host. The life prospects of most of society’s members rapidly deteriorate.

Systemic deprivation and starvation of the social body’s life sustenance are now clearly evident, from the most undeveloped to the most advanced societies. In Canada, for example, infant mortality rates, the quintessential indicator of social health, have just risen an astonishing 43%, the first recorded rise in over 30 years. At the bottom end of the world’s social bodies, 500,000 more children die each year from the enforced “restructuring” of their countries’ economies.

As this deprivation grows, the capitalist cancer increasingly diverts effective demand for use-value production to its own growth and self-multiplication. Its modes of mutating the metabolism of the social body to its own proliferation have many new and aberrant forms, such as turning bankrupt governments into receiver states that enforce money lenders’ insatiable demands on ever poorer public sectors; demanding more tax breaks for investment and debt instead of equity, and in non-productive speculation instead of job-creating enterprises; attacking national currencies by speculative buying and selling in multi-billion-dollar profit accumulations that create no use value and cripple social and economic orders overnight; operating high-interest savings and loan banks so that their principals can expropriate up to $500 billion from taxpayers to pay for their money-into-more-money amassments; shifting tax obligations from banking and financial institutions to productive members of society who have less and less income to extract; and channelling vast pension and mutual funds into stock speculation transactions. Everywhere the channels of money investment are systemically and progressively converted into the metabolism of money for more money instead of into commitments to social life functions.

At this stage of money capital’s development, we clearly confront an unprecedented disease challenge to the survival of its social and planetary life-hosts. Indicative of the classic pattern of cancer mutation and spread are the synergistic effect of money capital’s cumulative destruction of the planet’s basic conditions of life (air, sunlight, water, soil, and biodiversity), its increasingly aggressive invasions and assaults on social infrastructures and self-protective systems of life sustenance and circulation, its systemic intolerance of bearing the costs of maintaining social and environmental carrying and defense capacities, and its rapidly escalating, autonomous self-multiplication that is no longer subordinated to any requirement of life-organization.

The essential problem of any life-threatening cancer is that the host body’s immune system does not effectively recognize or respond to the cancer’s challenge and advance. This failure of our social immune system to recognize and respond to the cancerous form of capitalism is understandable once we realize that the surveillance and communication organs of host social bodies across the world, as they now function, are incapable of recognizing the nature and patterns of the disease. That is, capitalist-organized media and information systems select for dissemination only messages that do not contradict the capitalist organization of social bodies.

Consequently, whatever exposes the systemic disorder of this social organization’s structure (such as this essay) is normally refused transmission through its communications media. In this way, our social immune system has been gravely compromised by the accelerating control of multinational capital conglomerates over most of the recorded information produced and exchanged around the world–mass communications, the production of textbooks and educational resources for higher learning, and the biotechnology for reproducing and adapting life-forms themselves.

Because of this subordination of social systems of research and communication to transnational capital control, whatever does recognize the capitalist cancer is normally rejected. This social immune suppression is now global, with over 90% of all foreign news output, for example, controlled by five U.S. and European multinational news agencies. Cancerous takeovers of life-systems only prevail if they are not recognized by their hosts. This is our predicament today.

Life-bodies recover when the immune system recognizes and responds to the systemic disease that is attacking them. At this stage of money capital’s mutation and invasion, signs of disease are increasingly evident. Even capitalist-organized mass media display the life-danger in sporadic, partial recognitions of biospheric and social-structural breakdowns, and even the decoupling of money-capital circuits from productive life functions. These eruptions, however, are not linked to the underlying disease pattern.

As on any level of complex life-organization, the social immune system must recognize the disease agent before it can effectively respond to its invasion. Only when this recognition is clear can an effective defense be mounted. On the macro-level of carcinogenic invasion, effective response now minimally requires a global determination to resist, regulate and beat back the lethal, uncontrolled growth and metastasis of cancerous capitalism. This could be a transformation of the world’s now failing political and economic systems which nothing short of a global cancer could effectively bring about.


John McMurtry, professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, uses the metaphor of modern capitalism as a cancer to describe the recent uncontrolled spread of global capitalism. Its invasive growth, he argues, threatens to break down our society’s immune system and–if not soon restrained–could reverse all the progress that has been made toward social equity and stability. This essay is a condensed version of an article Prof. McMurtry wrote for the American journal “Social Justice.”

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