Corporate Capitalism – A Structure of Sin

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 37, Pentecost 2006
by Robert Consedine

The Enron scandal is a wake-up call to any with a sense of social justice. Any notion of the common good being enhanced or protected or even recognised simply doesn’t exist any longer within the structures of corporate capitalism. It is a worldwide economic system which has made the god of profit far bigger than any Israelite golden calf.

Many commentators suggested that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay lied about everything during the Enron trial. I suggest that he told the truth about at least one thing – his understanding of how the capitalist system works. In the accompanying quote, which he gave to a worldwide media audience after the verdicts, he hit the nail exactly on the head in his assessment of global capitalism. ‘The whole system must be wrong,’ he says. Unbeknown to him, he was echoing Dorothy Day who seventy years earlier repeatedly called capitalism ‘this filthy rotten system.’

The Enron trial showed over four months just how ‘wrong’ and anti-people corporate capitalism has become. The company’s demise came about through the fraudulent creation of off-balance sheet companies which were used to hide debt and inflate profits. Enron’s demise took with it more than $US60 billion ($NZ96 billion) in market value, almost $US2.1 billion in pension plans and 5600 jobs. Company founder Kenneth Lay, Kenny Boy to his friend President George W. Bush, oversaw much of this fraud.

It used to be a given that large parts of the economy would be owned and run by the state, that the wealthy would pay more tax than the poor and that governments would prevent individuals playing the money markets internationally and making profits out of nothing. The Thatcher government pioneered the abolition of these safeguards in the 1980s and the world has poured through her breach in the dyke.

Take Russia, for example. Twenty years ago there were no super-rich Russians and the state owned and controlled the major social services. Most of these have now been privatised. ‘Now there are 500 super-rich Russians with assets of more than $300 million, another 5000 with assets of up to $30 million, most of it already moved abroad, and as many as 115 000 million-dollar households. For a country that is spending only $85 per person on healthcare, it is a staggering concentration of wealth in a few hands in the space of a single generation.’1

Or the Philippines. The opening of their economy to global markets which began in 1994, turned the Philippines from a net exporter of food into an importer, with distressing effects on rural communities which included 440 000 jobs lost between 1994 and 2001. And India. Afsar Jafri, Indian commentator, states that ‘India is facing a deep agrarian crisis, where more than half its farmers are indebted, and more than 25 000 have committed suicide since 1995.’ He considers that this crisis is due to a move to corporate agribusiness and export-orientated agriculture, plus removal of import barriers. These have led to a steep fall in prices at the farm gate.2

Corporate capitalism has attempted to divinise greed, acquisition, material possessions, status and position and is trying to dominate the entire world. Through the corporate media (generally owned by the same small cartel of people – all peas from the same pod), it consistently displays its produce as being life fulfilling and worthy of pursuit. In reality, the opposite is the case. It spells death and disillusionment for millions, not just in the so-called under-developed countries but now also in the West.

In this country the signs are everywhere. Our youth suicide rates, the widespread use of recreational drugs (145kg of illegal methamphetamines intercepted in Auckland in May), our pre-occupation with celebrities and the celebrity culture, the scandalous $1 million plus salaries paid to some leading executives while domestics, carers, cleaners, labourers, shop assistants and thousands of others work for a pittance, are simple indicators of the fact that as a nation we have lost our moral and spiritual bearings and that corporate capitalism rules. We will continue to pay a huge social price for our folly.

The Teachings of Christ

Where does this leave Christians, those who hold to the teachings of Christ? As long ago as the 4th century, St Basil, the great Church leader, gave very clear teachings about the distribution of the world’s resources. As Robert Ellsberg writes, ‘he demanded a basic redistribution of wealth as a demand of justice. In effect, he taught that the needs of the poor held a social mortgage on the superfluous holdings of the rich.’ St Basil writes:

Are you not a robber, you who consider your own that which has been given you solely to distribute to others? This bread which you have set aside is the bread of the hungry; this garment you have locked away is the clothing of the naked; those shoes which you let rot are the shoes of him who is barefoot; those riches you have hoarded are the riches of the poor. (All Saints, 1999)

We cannot stand by while the values of corporate capitalism – greed, materialism, violence, million dollar plus salaries – take over our culture, while at the same time 30 000 children die from preventable deaths every day. That’s a mini-holocaust every day! At the same time as war is waged and thousands killed for oil and mineral resources. At the same time as countries are reduced to rubble, fuelled by the biggest industry of all, the arms industry. At the same time millions go to bed hungry every night in a world of mass food production but rotten distribution systems. What sort of Christians would that make us? We would be worshippers of the golden calf.

The Second Vatican Council (Church in the Modern World, 78) clearly teaches ‘to wage war on misery and to struggle against injustice is to promote, along with improved conditions, the human and spiritual progress of all, and therefore the common good of humanity.’ If corporate capitalism is anything like the Enron trial revealed, then clearly it is the antithesis of what produces the common good. It is the common good and not individualism which sits at the heart of the Church’s social teachings.

In his last great social encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988), Pope John Paul II clearly condemned liberal capitalism because of the inherent injustices contained within it. In the same letter he wrote that ‘in as much as structures interfere with the will of the Triune God’ they may be deemed ‘structures of sin.’ Corporate capitalism clearly fits this description. It is a structure of sin.

Yet we are all part of it. It has seeped into every part of our culture. It screams at us from every billboard, from most of our sweaters and track suits, on our TVs, everything seems to carry a corporate message. We live in a new empire of consumerism, equally as impacting as previous geographic empires.

Yet a truly Christian response is rarely easy. To a degree we are all complicit in this ‘structure of sin’. We help hold it together. For example, inasmuch as we purchase goods made by dirt-cheap labour in Taiwan, China, Vietnam or any one of a dozen other Asian or Latin American countries, we are complicit. Inasmuch as we sit idly by and watch without protest multi-nationals taking over our own economy, we are complicit. Every time we eat at McDonalds, KFC or any other multi-national food takeaway, we support corporate capitalism. The list is long and expanding.

But there are ways of subverting this expanding consumption empire. Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, called for smaller economic social units including small farms, the practice of personalism, the promotion of ‘useful’ work, a connection between what is produced and the user.

It is not too late for people to take personal stands against the corporate spirit engulfing us. Money is not their god. Thousands in this country already refuse to buy cheap overseas imports or use non-bio-degradable products. Recycling is widespread. The movement to gardening at home is still strong and undermines some of the corporate culture’s push to buy manufactured goods. Our Catholic Worker farms and many others still promote alternative ways of growing and eating and working. There are a huge number of good ideas of how to be alternative within the current global reality.

But we have to make the choices. Fifty years ago, the Vatican Council declared, ‘Peace is something that is built up day after day in pursuit of an order intended by God, which implies a more perfect form of justice among people.’

The Enron collapse was a high profile indicator of how rotten corporate capitalism really is. The amount of our own personal involvement with it will help determine how much of the rot will infect each of us. As Christians we are called to build God’s Kingdom in our time – one of justice, love and peace. This means that living alternative values to those of corporate capitalism is an imperative for followers of Christ.

CW highly recommends the 2005 documentary Enron – the Smartest Guys in the Room.
Robert Consedine is the director of Waitangi Associates, which has a primary focus on Treaty of Waitangi education.

1 Guardian Weekly, 28 April – 4 May 2006

2 The Press, 11 January 2006

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