There’s not one person reading this who could say they are not aware of the cancerous creep of death profits. Crapitalism aims to destroy life-support systems on the planet through a system of maximization of profit that seeks to replace vital parameters needed to support life itself. It used to work, maybe 10,000 years ago, but it’s been failing at an accelerating rate ever since social power became addicted to the destructive use of debt as a form of social control. People are being cut off from access to clean air, water, healthy food, from social systems designed to help individuals and societies flourish, that preserve the capabilities for life to continue within the systems in the natural world which brought us into existence.
People argue that health care is a “cost” instead of a necessity. People argue that money spent on pursuits of beauty, play, sport, arts and culture should be directed towards…acquisition of more money. Why? How did this creeping death come to invade all life on this planet? It’s easy to reduce the purpose of life to the single-minded pursuit of profit and reduce arguments of “success” and “progress” to the solipsistic, sociopathic colonization of every human transaction by submitting oneself to a system that promises wealth and safety, that promises the very things it is actually denying. All you have to do is convince yourself that you are not a living being, but even then you’re not safe. You will be scooped from the very rock under your feet and turned into a piece of garbage. You will be “monetized”.
People of the world are being invaded by a global financial system that is actually destroying the planet. The damage caused by the acquisition and processing of resources is done in such a way that it contributes to irreversible loss to vital systems that make life “worth” living. Erosive to attempts at squashing this monster have failed, and through force and propaganda, our dying western world threatens to bring all of life and its animals, elements and minerals into annihilation so that that a diminuating horde of greasy profit margins can be said to equal this loss…loss of our lives, our stake in the future of the living world. And if you disagree, do so within the vital parameters that sustain life, as defined here in this brilliant presentation by John McMurty and Martha Nussbaum.
I read this and I couldn’t sleep last night because I recognize this nightmare. I copied and pasted the document so it would exist somewhere else on the internet. After the article you can find the link. People don’t know how to fight the vampire squid.
This little blue ball in the vast emptiness of the cosmos is our home and it’s being depleted of its capability to sustain us. This is kind of the Big Picture that I’ve felt to exist, articulated with referenced sources by people who have committed decades of research to recognizing and deploying methods of action to pull us away from the very suicidal nature of capitalism, which exists as a form of cancer invading our societies that will if ignored, destroy us along with life upon the planet. Whew. This is the heaviness.
Journal of Philosophy of Life Vol.1, No.1 (March 2011):13-48
Your Money or Your Life
John McMurtry and Martha Nussbaum on the For-profit Assault upon
Philosophical reflections by John McMurtry and Martha Nussbaum are presented in this article qua
projections of the capabilities approach to life that has been developing in the humanities and social
sciences over the past twenty-five years. In particular, it is shown how both McMurtry and
Nussbaum reveal that human life is under attack not solely because of the eco-biological collapse
denounced by the world’s scientific community at its highest levels, but also in many of those
socially evolved civil commons that contribute to the flourishing of life’s capabilities and, in
essence, make life worth living. What is more, a common causal root is found behind this ongoing
two-pronged assault upon life capabilities, that is to say, the defining search for ever-increasing
profits of the global free-market economy.
1. Hans Jonas, an Opening Statement
[T]he “human condition” has been transforming… In the old days
religion told us that we were all sinners because of the original sin. Today
it is our planet’s ecology that accuses all of us of being sinners because of
the overexploitation of human ingenuity. Back in the old days, religion
terrified us with the Last Judgment at the end of times. Today our tortured
planet predicts the coming of that day without any divine intervention.
The final revelation… is the silent scream emerging from things
themselves, those things that we must endeavour to resolve to rein in our
powers over the world, or we shall die on this desolate Earth which used
to be the Creation (Jonas, 1993, pp. 48-49).
Such a grim picture of the human condition in a world altered by humanity’s
creative powers may appear extreme. Most ingenuous science-technology
would seem to have contributed enormously to the enhancement of
* Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Akureyri, Iceland
life-expectancy rates, agricultural productivity and other important dimensions
of organised human existence. Besides, in many parts of the planet, most people
have no problem whatsoever breathing fresh air, eating nourishing food, and
walking fearlessly under the sun. Why accuse “human ingenuity” in this way?
One reason may be that, in spite or maybe because of humanity’s
science-technology, many human beings now do encounter difficulty in
accessing unpolluted air (Aziz and Baiwa, 2008), uncontaminated or genuine
food (Loeppke, 2008; World Health Organisation, 2009), and face an increased
risk of developing melanoma because of excessive solar irradiation (Agar et al.,
2004). Analogously, “human ingenuity” does pose a threat to human survival in
at least two major and well-known potential forms, to which testifies an
extensive body of agreements aimed at binding the world’s nations: nuclear
annihilation and overexploitation of natural resources. Finally, heed should be
paid to the fact that the man who depicted the human condition in these
unpleasant terms was no suspect “radical”, but a conservative German-born
British and Israeli war hero, a pupil of Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann,
a long-time Alvin Johnson Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social
Research in New York City, a devout Jew, and one of the esteemed fathers of
modern bioethics: Hans Jonas. In truth, his worried statement about the
transformed human condition and “the silent scream emerging from things
themselves” could be regarded as his spiritual testament, for it was uttered in
1993, the year of his death.1
2. The United Nations
Since the 1990s, the scientific community has been at least as adamant as
Hans Jonas. The Union of Concerned Scientists—to name one representative
group of eminent researchers—asserted back in 1997: “Human activities inflict
harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources.
If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that
we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms” (para. 3).
1 Jonas’ preoccupation vis-à-vis the ecological devastation of the Earth was the concluding point of an
unusual intellectual itinerary, which: (a) started with the in-depth study of otherworldly Gnosticism;
(b) matured into the recovery and defence of the corporeal dimension as inherently sacred, in contrast
to the scientific and technological instrumentalist approach; and (c) peaked in the exposition of an
ecologically constructive ethics based upon the principle of responsibility (Baruchello, 2008b).
Once again, words like these may sound hyperbolic. Yet, to date, there has
been literally no fundamental aspect of our planet’s environment that has been
left unspoiled by those very ingenuous means of financing, extraction,
production, transportation, consumption and disposal of the items traded for
profit in the global free market (UN, 2002-10). If we look at the economic roots
and fruits of late-modern scientific and technological enterprises, many of the
very goods that should lead to growth and wellbeing have been rife with bad
outcomes. 2 These have varied enormously, from recurrent oil spills and
pollution-induced cancers (Boffetta, 2006) to global-insecurity-creating
securisation packages (Stiglitz, 2010).3 Invariably and without exception, the
planet’s ozone layer, its boreal and tropical forests, oceanic planktons and corals,
biosphere-wide hydrologic cycles, fresh water aquifers, humus-rich land, and the
diversity of both vegetal and animal populations have all been affected
negatively, whether by one of the for-profit processes mentioned above, or by
several of them jointly (UN, 2002-10).
As a result of the current economic crisis, doubts have begun to emerge in
high-level political bodies about the belief that growth should be pursued in the
way in which it has been pursued over the past few decades. Hence, whilst
massive life-depletion has been recognised by official emanations of the United
Nations (UN) on a number of occasions (Pachauri and Reisinger, 2007), the
failure in the received conception of economic growth has been denounced by
Ban Ki-moon (2009) himself, UN Secretary-General: “the economic and
financial turmoil sweeping the globe is a true wake-up call, sounding an alarm
about the need to improve upon old patterns of growth and make a transition to a
new era of greener, cleaner development.”
Statements like the one above reveal that something crucial is amiss, albeit
2 The environmental record of Soviet Union and its European satellites was far from positive (Deutsch,
Feschbach and Friendly Jr., 1968; Ziegler, 1990). After their demise, liberal capitalism was adopted in
all of these countries, yet without improvements vis-à-vis crucial vital parameters. On the contrary, the
Russian Federation experienced an unprecedented peacetime depopulation (Zagaitov and Yanovskii,
2007) and tuberculosis became a widespread threat due to the intervention of the International
Monetary Fund (IMF), whose chief aim was to restructure the banking sector and the new states’
public budgets along profitable lines, thus suffocating prevention programmes (Stuckler, King and
Basu, 2008) that had been commonplace in the days of real socialism or “bureaucratic” capitalism
3 In accordance with the superstitious (Oslington, 2008), non-falsifiable hypothesis of self-regulating
free markets, these packages were designed by highly paid mathematical wizards, whose unfettered
selfish pursuits should have generated the nations’ wealth, eventually and providentially, or at least
accrued the stockholders’ invested wealth (Wargo, Baglini, and Nelson, 2009). “Shock[ingly]”, neither
end was attained (Greenspan, 2009).
in rather general terms. Precisely, what lies behind such expressions of concern
is the etiological connection between the pursuit of profit-driven growth
defining today’s global free-market economy and multi-level bio-ecological loss.
Cautiously avoided by political leaders and mainstream economists, this
etiological connection has been debated in the works of “green” thinkers such as
John McMurtry (1998), David Korten (2001), Jennifer Sumner (2005) and Tim
Jackson (2009), but above all it is unmasked in ordinary public life each time the
business community or its political representation resist environmental and/or
health-and-safety regulation, and/or their effective enforcement. Typical reasons
for this resistance are money-measured “costs”, “fiscal unfriendliness”,
increased “rigidity”, or “competition” (Gaggi, 2008). Whichever reason is
preferred, this kind of resistance displays de facto blindness and/or eventual
indifference to non-money-measured losses and considerations, such as physical
and mental health, work and worklessness-related suicides, long-term
environmental viability, and children’s present and future welfare.
Competitiveness for profits is of ultimate value; vital parameters are not.4
Unless restraints are forced upon the very ingenuous means of financing,
extraction, production, transportation, consumption and disposal of the items
traded worldwide, there is nothing intrinsic within such a profit-oriented
mechanism that can overcome the merely instrumental attribution of value to
life, so as to acknowledge either the unique requirements of the living
(Baruchello, 2007a) or life’s intrinsic worth (Backer, 2010). This is shown
manifestly whenever members of the business community bypass existing
regulation by illicit behaviour and/or outsourcing of productive activities to
nations that have comparably less stringent life-protective measures (Glyn,
2006; International Labour Organisation, 2006). Once more, competitiveness for
profits is signalled to be of ultimate value, not vital parameters.5
4 Though addressed in the fifth section of this article, I have provided elsewhere a more thorough
examination of the technical roots of this life-blindness (Baruchello, 2007a, 2008a).
5 An iconic albeit tragic indication of the constitutive life-blindness of for-profit competition can be
traced in the recent wave of suicides recorded across small-scale entrepreneurs in Northern Italy. There,
many entrepreneurs who wanted to stay in business resorted to firing workers during a major recession,
thus condemning these workers and their families to unsettling uncertainty and likely poverty. (a)
Devoid of the ability for self-exculpating rationalisation (e.g. Malthusian determinism, Ricardian
equation of natural laws and economic laws, Thatcherite “TINA”), (b) indebted to profit-seeking
banks, (c) denied welfare alternatives and public subsidies by a government committed to free market
policies and budgetary austerity, and (d) endowed with elements of Christian morality, the
entrepreneurs who killed themselves could not bear the guilt stemming from their decision, which was
however the only one available to them qua rational agents in the “tough” capitalist system (“Di crisi
Equally significant is the fact that, over the past two years, nearly all the
countries suffering from the current economic crisis have been busy rescuing
with public money the profit-driven financial institutions that were responsible
or co-responsible for the crisis in the first place (Stiglitz, 2010). Often created by
central-bank fiat, these public resources had been long denied to, and are now
not being utilised to fund, life-protecting and life-enhancing institutions, such as
ambulance services, public hospitals, old-age pensions, university research,
international aid, or primary schools (Halimi, 2008). Quite the opposite, public
investments are being reduced across the board in order to secure the
money-measured value of existing assets, keep treasury bonds attractive to
institutional investors, and prevent inflation from mounting upwards (“Threat of
inflation”, 2009). Protecting existing money-measured wealth is proved thereby
to concern governments, their economic advisers and leading business elites
much more than preventing further environmental degradation, not to mention
securing the progressive realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, to
which most governments are legally bound (Baruchello and Johnstone, 2011).
Again, competitiveness for profits is of ultimate value; vital parameters are not,
even if they are enshrined in international covenants and charters.6
To counter well-established life-destructive trends and assist governments in
the fulfilment of their international obligations, the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has been operating since 2002
the world’s largest repository of information on sustainable development, The
Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS). These “systems” are defined as
A life support system is any natural or human-engineered (constructed or
made) system that furthers the life of the biosphere in a sustainable
fashion. The fundamental attribute of life support systems is that together
they provide all of the sustainable needs required for continuance of life.
These needs go far beyond biological requirements. Thus life support
systems encompass natural environmental systems as well as ancillary
social systems required to foster societal harmony, safety, nutrition,
si muore”, 2009; “Imprenditory suicidi”, 2010).
6 Zizek (2001) claims these tokens of international law to be as binding as the governments’ interests
allow them to be, for they are not backed by any non- and super-human source of authority, such as the
Biblical God of old.
medical care, economic standards, and the development of new
technology. The one common thread in all of these systems is that they
operate in partnership with the conservation of global natural resources.”
(“Definitions”, para. 2)
By defining “life support systems” in this manner, UNESCO acknowledges
that human life on Earth depends not solely on natural systems, but also on
socially created and maintained ones. Actually, if Jonas’ opening assessment is
correct, then the natural systems themselves might depend on us too, for
humanity has the power to keep at their destruction, or to cease it. In the
following pages, the works of John McMurtry and Martha Nussbaum are
presented in order to clarify how, in recent decades, the power of “human
ingenuity” has relentlessly achieved the former end and how, instead, it could
attain the latter.
3. John McMurtry
Consistently with Jonas’ assessment, UNESCO’s Honorary Theme Editor
John McMurtry (2009-10) connotes all planetary life support systems as “civil
commons” i.e. “social constructs which enable universal access to life goods”
(para. 5.34.10).7 The adjective “civil” is meant to highlight the social character
and the social aims of these commons/life support systems. In other words,
McMurtry revokes the distinction between natural and socially
created-and-maintained life support systems. If the Earth’s natural life support
systems are recognised and conceived of qua life support systems, then
humankind must somehow organise itself in order to protect and/or restore them.
Therefore, natural life support systems are turned into socially created—insofar
as we create conceptions—and maintained—insofar as we get organised for
their protection or rescue—life support systems, i.e. civil commons.
The revocation of the distinction between natural and socially
7 “Civil commons” is an original philosophical conception of McMurtry’s that has entered the
mainstream of contemporary Anglophone social and human sciences (cf. Ato, 2006; Baruchello and
Johnstone, 2011; Brownhill and Turner, 2001; Dickinson, Becerra, and Lewis, 2009; Finlay, 2000;
Florby, Shackleton, and Suhonen, 2009; Hodgson, 2001; Johnston, 2003; Johnston, Gismondi, and
Goodman, 2006; Jordan, 2004; Kaara, 2005; Mook and Sumner, 2008; Noonan, 2006; Scarfe, 2006;
Shurville, Brown, and Whitaker, 2009; Streeck, 2009; Sumner, 2005, 2008; Turner and Brownhill,
2004; Westhues, 2003).
created-and-maintained life support systems by the use of the adjective “civil”
implies as well that McMurtry is not thinking of the commons qua resources
available to all the members of a community without any form of regulation or
conscious guardianship. Rather, he thinks of the commons qua resources that the
community administers in order to support and possibly enhance the life of its
members across time.8
McMurtry (2009-10) identifies and explores three known modes of life’s
being: “thought”, “experience” (also “feeling” or “felt being”), and “action”
(also “biological movement” or “motility”). No ontological dualism or sharp
separation is implied: “Although we can distinguish the cognitive and feeling
capacities of any person, this does not mean dividing them into separate worlds
as has occurred in the traditional divisions between mind and body, reason and
the emotions. Life-value onto-axiology begins from their unity as the nature of
the human organism.” (para. 6.3; emphasis removed) As a consequence of this
synthetic approach to the phenomenon of life, genuine civil commons are
therefore those institutions that protect and enhance life in these three modes of
being, that is to say, as action (e.g. publicly subsidised provision of nourishing
food and guaranteed access to potable water), felt being (e.g. freedom from fear
via collective bargaining of employment contracts and/or legally enforced
standards for job security) and thought (e.g. increased access to higher education
by tuition waivers, extensive scholarship programmes, or direct public provision
of educational services).
With his comprehensive approach to life, McMurtry (2009-10) operates in
line with UNESCO’s definition of “life support systems” and the much older
UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR,
1966). Yet, there is much more to civil commons/life support systems than their
institutionalisation and instantiation by the UN. Historically, whether conceived
of as civil commons or not, humankind has set up a vast number of
life-protective and life-enabling social institutions, which step beyond the sole
field of 20th-century international legislation. McMurtry (1999) contains an
exemplary two-page inventory of just such life-protective and life-enabling
[U]niversal health plans, the world wide web, common sewers,
8 McMurtry’s civil commons should not be confused with Garrett Hardin’s (1968) unregulated
commons, the tragic doom of which justifies their appropriation for private ends.
international outrage over Vietnam or Ogoniland, sidewalks and footpaths,
the Chinese concept of jen, the Jubilee of Leviticus… water fountains,
Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest… effective pollution controls… music…
old age pensions, universal education, Sweden’s common forests… the
second commandment of Yeshua… the rule of law, child and women
shelters, parks, public broadcasting, clean water… the UN Declaration of
Human Rights, occupational health and safety standards, village and city
squares, the Brazilian rainforests, inoculation programmes, indigenous
story-telling, the Ozone Protocol, the Tao, the peace movement, death
rituals, animal rights agencies, community fish-habitats, food and drug
legislation, garbage collection, the ancient village commons before
enclosures. (pp. 206-7)
As a keener look at the etymology of common parlance can reveal, several
of the institutions listed above underpin “civil coexistence”, “civilisation” and
“civility”, i.e. that which makes human life possible in societies and social life
possibly humane. Together, these civil commons determine the scope of “the life
ground”, which McMurtry (2009-10) describes as follows: “Concretely, all that
is required to take the next breath; axiologically, all the life support systems
required for human life to reproduce or develop.” (Glossary)9
The technical context within which the notion of life ground is cast is value
theory (or axiology), for McMurtry attempts to demonstrate that all values rely
ultimately upon the life ground and derive their value from it: “Life support
systems – any natural or human-made system without which human beings
cannot live or live well – may or may not have value in themselves, but have
ultimate value so far as they are that without which human or other life cannot
exist or flourish.” (para. 6.2.1)10 Nevertheless, McMurtry’s conception has
ample implications and applications outside axiology, such as the revision of
forestry governance (Humphreys, 2003), the historical interpretation of
democratic institutions as civil commons (Noonan, 2006), or the life-grounded
9 Western philosophers have written little about the “life ground” as such, for they have largely taken
it for granted or focused on isolated aspects of the same (Allen and Baruchello, 2007; Baruchello,
2007b). As a consequence, I must refer recurrently to my own publications and those of other
10 Denying the ultimate value of the life ground leads to performative contradiction (Baruchello,
2009): even philosophical pessimists and spiritual religions have testified to its primacy (Baruchello,
understanding of human rights and their implementation (Baruchello and
In the perspective of an unusual “applied axiology”, McMurtry (2002) has
been developing a “Well-Being Index” (WBI) comprising all fundamental
“means of life” or “vital need[s]… for none can be deprived without reduction
of vital life capability.” (p. 156; emphasis removed) In its most recent
formulation (McMurtry, 2009-10, para. 10.10.4), the WBI lists seven vital goods
that refer to as many vital needs:
(1) the atmospheric goods of breathable air, open space and light;
(2) the bodily goods of clean water, nourishing goods and waste disposal;
(3) the home and habitat goods of shelter from the elements;
(4) the environmental good of natural and constructed elements all
contributing to the whole;
(5) the good of care through time by love, safety and health
(6) the good of human culture in music, language, art, play and sport; and
(7) the good of human vocation and social justice – that which enables and
obliges all people to contribute to the provision of these life goods
consistent with each’s enjoyment of them.
If these goods are not provided, then vital needs are not met; and if these
needs are not met, then human capabilities dissipate, to the eventual point of
individual and/or social non-existence. If instead these needs are met, then
human capabilities do not only continue to be: they can “flourish” into the good
life, individual as well as social (McMurtry, 2002, p. 156).11
Grounding the WBI in “need” as a fundamental criterion, McMurtry has
always had to be clear and strict about what may count as genuine need and
what, upon closer examination, appears to be nothing but sheer desire. Thus, he
builds the WBI upon a vast collection of empirical data from all the sciences
(McMurtry, 1998, 1999, 2002) and a precise definition: “‘n’ is a need if and only
if, and to the extent that, deprivation of n always leads to a reduction of organic
capacity.” (McMurtry, 1998, p. 164; emphasis added) Only that without which
11 In his works, McMurtry writes more about “life capacities” than “life capabilities”. He thereby
chooses to focus upon the ontological ground out of which emerge the life-capabilities responsible for
life capacity is harmed counts as need; the rest does not. We can live, and
possibly live well, without motorcycles and videogames, but we cannot live, and
certainly not live well, if nourishing food, shelter, rest, meaningful
self-expression and social interaction are denied to us.12
In the course of the last decade, McMurtry has offered slightly different
versions of the WBI. Jordan (2004) has argued that the WBI is bound to be
undecided, because biological needs are invariant, whilst the emotional and
intellectual ones are not. Probably, as countered by Rubino (2010), Jordan
confuses invariant emotional and intellectual needs with the varying awareness
of them that we possess, as well as with the varying means available for their
satisfaction. In addition, Jordan (2004) fails to appreciate the openness of the
WBI to empirical rectification and theoretical clarification (Rubino, 2010). What
is most important, though, is that the WBI does undoubtedly identify actual vital
needs, the missed satisfaction of which would eventually disintegrate any
individual and/or collective life by compounding physical and mental
deficiencies. Who would reasonably and in good conscience ever assert that the
prolonged absence of breathable air, clean water, adequate shelter,
non-alienating surroundings, human affection, spontaneous interaction, or secure
and humane employment does not generate devastating life-disruption, whether
in the form of irreparable psychosis, physical illness, or even of the most
McMurtry’s WBI is his most ostensible contribution to the development of
standards for the measurement of human wellbeing, so that growth and decline
may be interpreted in ways that mainstream economic criteria neglect or fail to
ascertain (Sen and Nussbaum, 1993; Shackman, 2006-9). The importance of
12 Noonan (2006) adds to this understanding of human needs the notion that they balance mutually.
For example, the need for water is balanced out by the need to urinate; whilst the need to be educated
can only turn into pathological solipsism if it is not balanced out by the needs to rest and socialise.
Needs are satiable, unlike standard economics’ desires or preferences, which can be distinguished
sharply from true needs. First of all, “deprivation of needs always leads to harm whereas deprivation
of wants is only harmful in light of revisable self-interpretation.” (p. xiv). Secondly, “needs are
satiable whereas wants are not” (p. 57).
13 Philosophers have often focussed upon abstract issues, whether mental or linguistic in nature, and
failed to address the life ground making their speculations possible (Allen and Baruchello, 2007;
Baruchello, 2007b). They and other scholars may still toy with the conceptual analysis of “life
capability”, thus avoiding more substantive issues; or reduce “need” to linguistic statements, i.e.
without any deeper objective ground to discriminate amongst different usages of words (Doyal and
Goug, 1991). Yet, all these philosophers and scholars can do so because their needs have been met and
their life capabilities expressed in reality (Baruchello, 2009). She who denies the import of the life
ground can do so because she stands upon it (Baruchello, 2005, 2007b).
determining novel standards and indicators is considerable. First of all, it has
already been highlighted how the type of growth conceptualised and pursued in
today’s global market reality has had systemic negative implications upon life at
many levels, such as human health, social cohesion, and the environmental
conditions of planetary survival (McMurtry, 2009-10; Stiglitz, 2010; UN,
2002-10; Worldwatch Institute, 2009). Secondly, in the wake of the current
economic crisis, the same global reality has also been proved unable to attain
growth even on its own terms (“Major Global Downturn”, 2008; Putin, 2009;
Regarding the systemic negative implications of this global reality,
McMurtry (1999) is famous for analysing the causal connection between
late-modern for-profit economic activity and life-depletion, both natural and
social, as cancerous:
1. In their defining, endless quest for ever-growing gains,
life-disconnected pursuits of profit replicate themselves across Earth’s
societies through sequences of investment and returns that should proceed
theoretically ad infinitum. Homo oeconomicus’ desires are non-satiable ex
definitio: according to standard economic theory, each sentient economic
agent is a self-maximising pleasure-machine (non-sentient ones
self-maximise too, but for the sake of their shareholders’ pleasure). In
their pattern of action, life-disconnected pursuits of profit mimic the
life-disconnected self-replication of cancerous cells within a host body.15
2. The effects of this theoretically endless, non-satiable self-replication are
analogous in practice too. As any oncological record can illustrate, the
sprawling of cancerous cells leads eventually to loss of organic capacity,
down to the very point of killing the host, whose demise implies also the
demise of the cancerous cells within it. Similarly, the profit-pursuing
sequences of investment and returns in the global economy have been
producing life-losses on a massive scale by stripping the Earth’s life
support systems and societies’ civil commons, such as: agribusiness’
contamination of underground aquifers (“Troppi pesticidi”, 2008); cuts to
14 Pace the dogma of better-knowing markets’ self-correction, this reality has been requiring waves of
combined State “interference” in order to continue to operate, whether desirable or not (Stiglitz, 2010).
15 McMurtry scholar John Barry (2009) speaks in this respect of “growthmania” (p. 93).
cultural (“Budget cuts”, 2008), educational (“Allarme mense”, 2008) and
healthcare provision (Stuckler, King, and Basu, 2008); less-inclusive
privatised policing (Sheptycki, 2002) and pension schemes (Elliott and
Atkinson, 2008); and longer working hours (Bunting, 2004).
3. Finally, many of societies’ long-established protective civil commons
(e.g. democratic governments, universities, central banks qua socially
responsible monitoring bodies) have been blind and unresponsive to the
ongoing assault upon life-capabilities. Regularly, they have not even
recognised it for what it is, that is to say, an assault on life-capabilities. On
the contrary, they have pro-actively cooperated with its diffusion, e.g. by
treating public investments in healthcare as costs, abolishing or
marginalising ethics in the curricula of business schools, dismantling
currency trade regulations, and fostering the privatisation of public banks
and other public assets that guaranteed a steady flow of revenues to public
bodies (Florio, 2004; Glyn, 2006; Stiglitz, 2003, 2010). By this sort of
recurrent behaviour, many of societies’ long-established protective civil
commons have acted analogously to the immune defences of a living
organism that failed to individuate its cancerous cells as harbingers of
death and kept facilitating their replication.16
As far as this cancerous pathology is concerned, David Humphreys (2003)
argues that David Korten and John McMurtry are the only scholars who have
taken the carcinogenic paradigm beyond the level of mere metaphor or analogy.
Using it as a powerful hermeneutical perspective, McMurtry (1999) is said to
have applied it thoroughly and coherently to contemporary economic reality, in
order to ascertain its multi-level life-destructiveness and the lack of recognition
and defensive response by public institutions, including academic ones. As other
commentators have also acknowledged (Barry, 2009; Noonan, 2006),
McMurtry’s work exemplifies philosophy qua civil commons of Socratic
16 Henrich (2003) argues the free market’s quest for ever-higher profits to constitute a “war against
nature” and criticises McMurtry’s oncological paradigm for failing to stress the element of wilful
violence of this quest. However, McMurtry’s oncological paradigm applies to social bodies rather than
biological bodies, hence to choices that are made by human beings regarding how to organise and
regulate communities; de- or re-regulate economies; respond to or cooperate with for-profit pursuits,
including by means of police brutality and other forms of State violence aimed at quashing protestors
and silencing opposition.
questioning of received views, empirically backed critical reflection, and
creative envisioning of alternative understandings, especially as economic
theory and the economy are concerned.
4. Martha Nussbaum
Humphreys’ correct observation notwithstanding, it is interesting to read the
opening lines of Martha Nussbaum’s (2010) latest book—significantly entitled
Not for Profit—and discover that she too refers to the ongoing “world-wide
crisis in education” as “a cancer” (pp. 1-2). Possibly unaware of McMurtry’s
work, Nussbaum shows that the social body is capable of pathology recognition
via its immune system of historically evolved civil commons. Such are in fact
the public educational system and the humanities, out of which Nussbaum’s own
work originates, and which she wishes to defend and revive in their life-serving
According to Nussbaum (2010): “the humanistic aspects of science and
social science—the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous
critical thought—are… losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term
profit… and skills suited to profit-making.” (p. 2) The emphasis on
money-returns for private investors is so strong in today’s educational and
academic environment that, in Nussbaum’s view, what is at stake is the very
survival of humanistic education in all of its complex forms, given their regular,
growing, and prolonged underfunding, marginalisation and outright “fear” in the
world’s schools and universities (p. 23).
Perplexingly, as Nussbaum notes, many parents are worried and sometimes
even ashamed if their children decide to pursue soul-enriching humanistic
studies; whilst much more rare is to encounter parents who are worried about, or
ashamed of, children that have opted for a wallet-enriching career in the
notorious world of high finance. Thus, “at a time when nations must cut away all
useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they [the
humanities] are rapidly losing place in curricula, and also in the minds and
hearts of parents and children.” (p. 2; emphasis added)
Nussbaum’s chief preoccupation is not about the perception of humanistic
studies, though. Rather, she thinks that human life is going to suffer immensely
if this long-lived educational tradition perishes. As she remarks over and over in
her latest book, humanistic education is not an ivory-tower endeavour, but an
eminently civil one, for humanistic education has sustained for centuries
“citizenship… employment and… meaningful lives” (p. 9; emphasis added).
Also, humanistic education has played an essential role in “cultivating
humanity”—the title of her 1997 book—within sufficiently cohesive national
communities delivering “health, education, a decrease in social and economic
inequality… political liberty… democracy.” (Nussbaum, 2010, p. 15)
In particular, the humanities and the humanistic component of education at
large nurture “skills that we all badly need to keep democracies vital, respectful,
and accountable” (p. 77) and “provide a useful foundation for the public debates
that we must have if we are to cooperate in solving major human problems” (p.
94). According to Nussbaum’s analysis of Western intellectual and
socio-political history, humanistic education has contributed in a fundamental
way to those emotional and intellectual elements expressed by institutions
looking after the community-wide, long-term protection and enhancement of life
capabilities. In her view, “[a]chievements in health and education, for example,
are very poorly correlated with economic growth.” (p. 15) Life-beneficial
progresses of this kind depend primarily upon the culture and dispositions that
emerge from the cultivation of proper “moral emotions” across the community’s
youth (p. 27).
In contrast, today’s pervasive profit-driven ethos offers merely “thin norms
of market exchange in which human lives are seen primarily as instruments for
gain.” (p. 80) If the youth’s mental horizon and heart are deprived of those
sympathetic sentiments that Adam Smith himself (1759) depicted as the healthy
counterforce to capitalism’s inherent callousness, then it is inevitable that human
communities become—and according to both McMurtry (1991, 2002) and
Nussbaum have already become17—more unequal, more brutal, and filled with
“greedy desire, aggression… narcissistic anxiety… enslavement and
subordination… fear and hate” (Nussbaum, 2010, pp. 29, 38 and 43).18
In Smith’s century, it was thought that a society based upon for-profit trade
17 Echoing McMurtry (1999) on the failed response of civil commons institutions to pathological
conditions and Nussbaum’s (2010) concern vis-à-vis the unstopped depletion of basic moral
propensities and social skills, neuroeconomists Wargo, Baglini and Nelson (2009) have concluded that
the financial collapse kick-starting today’s ongoing economic crisis was due to “greed, moral
meltdown, and public policy disasters.” (p. 1)
18 Sukys (2009) describes this process of “dehumanization” as “an inescapable enslavement to market
values and quantified judgments.” (p. 3)
would foster politeness, civility and human solidarity. The martial ethos and
policies of early-modern Europe would wane, replaced by the much “softer”
ethos and policies of persons preferring the merchant’s quieter competition for
material gains to the conqueror’s bloody warfare. Instead of pitting man against
man, “commerce” would actually “get man closer to man” (Verri, 1771, p. 149).
In the 21st century, Nussbaum (2010) testifies to a subtle, unforeseen
recrudescence of cruelty that had not been envisioned in the age of
Politeness, civility and human solidarity may have been fostered centuries
ago by for-profit trade, but only as instruments of for-profit trade. If more profit
can be made today by impoliteness, incivility and pitilessness, then humanity
itself can be discarded, especially if no counterforce (e.g. religious self-restraint,
trade unions, popular protest) intervenes to halt trade and its accessory political
and military means of affirmation. Even the conqueror’s bloody warfare has
been increasingly privatised in recent years so as to generate conspicuous profits
(Avant, 2005). This is no life-serving commerce, it should be noted, but rather
life serving commerce—and life’s obliteration in particular. Under these
emblematic circumstances, for-profit trade’s possible function qua civil
commons is forgotten and betrayed, for it is lost in the most dramatic
instantiation of for-profit life-blindness: intentional killing of human beings
benefiting maximally money investors and/or managers.19
Roessler (2010) criticises Nussbaum’s (2010) dramatic assessment as the
“jeremiad” of an anachronistic elitist. On his part, Jollimore (2010) connotes it
as the true picture of the sad state of the university system of the United States
of America (USA), in which the vast majority of students are being offered
worse and worse higher education. However, Nussbaum (2010) sounds much
more like the outraged forewarning of an honest believer in human liberty,
which all communities ought to cherish.
What Nussbaum (2010) calls “the collapse of the Socratic ideal” (p. 77), i.e.
the humanistic cultivation of open-minded inquiry and inclusively constructive
dialogue, is in fact observable worldwide, not just in the USA. From Canada to
Singapore, over the last three decades, governments and corporate sponsors have
been pursuing incessantly the transformation of public universities and research
centres into means for the eventual generation of profit for private money
19 Certainly less dramatic, but equally exemplary is the regular association on stock exchange markets
of substantial layoffs in for-profit companies and the increased value of the stock of these companies.
investors and/or managers. In an egregious case of self-contradiction, even the
world’s leading Finnish educational system (PISA, 1997-2010) has been
criticised of late by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD) for not being adequately efficient, i.e. conducive to
higher profits, as though that were the essential aim of education (OECD, 2010).
Given the premises, today’s OECD should be pleased with the record of
many other countries, despite their much lower PISA-based achievements. The
policies implemented worldwide within academic settings over the past three
decades display unvaryingly a prolonged tendency to make these settings
profitable, as recorded by both McMurtry (1991, 1998, 1999, 2002) and
Nussbaum (2010). The former is particularly clear on the relentless corporate
takeover of educational institutions, insofar as private-public “partnership” in
research and teaching has been promoted as a way to: facilitate exchanges
between universities and the business world; get students closer to potential
employers and vice versa; and externalise the research costs of private
enterprises onto public institutions and, ultimately, tax-payers. Sometimes,
governments have proceeded to the outright privatisation of educational
institutions, whether in toto or selectively (e.g. management, teaching, research
positions, catering). Less blatant but even more pervasive has been the
market-oriented selection of research programmes and curricula; as well as the
inculcation and implementation of top-down corporate command structures,
both mental and administrative (e.g. no bottom-up consultation in faculty
restructuring, increased pay for top management and decreased free access to
education, faculty’s ability to attract private sponsorships as promotion
As for Nussbaum (2010), she reports that in the United Kingdom, despite its
long-established academic and parliamentary traditions, educational institutions
have been required to “justify themselves to the government… by showing how
their research and teaching contribute to economic profitability.” (p. 127)
According to her, any profit-driven assessment of the sort introduced in Great
Britain and Northern Ireland fails completely to see how democracy and,
20 Within such mental and administrative command structures, scholars, schools, campuses and their
inhabitants are seen as business opportunities and/or costs. They are no longer perceived qua civilising
forces, centres of human excellence, or foundational rocks of democratic liberty (Nussbaum,
2010)—all of which are things that scholars, schools, campuses and their inhabitants have been able to
instantiate in their long history, from Bruno’s defiance of religious dogmatism to young students’
protests against the Vietnam War, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), or the Iranian
probably, the economy’s own profits have been made possible by an underlying
layer of emotional and intellectual learning evolved by, and enshrined within,
humanistic education. This is no novel insight, nor a politically “radical” one.
Edmund Burke himself (1791) had already observed long ago: “Even commerce,
and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our economical politicians, are…
themselves but effects, which as first causes, we choose to worship. They
certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished. They too may
decay with their natural protecting principles.” (para. 134)21
Nussbaum’s worried remarks upon the fate of humanistic learning and its
function in promoting life-capabilities are part of her broader study of authentic
human life and substantive freedom, i.e. the public provision of resources and
opportunities for the actual enjoyment of the formal freedoms applying to each
citizen of a liberal democracy. In this, Nussbaum follows a traditional liberal
conception, which found a powerful expression in the words of Isaiah Berlin
(1969): “It is true that to offer political rights, or safeguards against intervention
by the state, to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to
mock their condition… What is freedom to those who cannot make use of it?
Without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of
freedom? […] First things come first… individual freedom is not everyone’s
primary need.” (p. 124)
Although Berlin was never as exact as Nussbaum on the liberticidal
implications of for-profit activities, he was familiar with enough economic
history as to add: “[T]he minority who possess it [liberty] have gained it by
exploiting, or, at least, averting their gaze from, the vast majority who do not…
[Hence] [i]f my brothers are to remain in poverty, squalor, and chains—then I do
not want it [liberty] for myself… To avoid glaring inequality or widespread
misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom… I should be
guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not.” (p. 125)
Analogous positions have been articulated in recent decades by
Nobel-prize-winner Amartya Sen (1992, 1999), with whom Nussbaum co-edited
a book in 1993 that established firmly in both human and social sciences what is
“now widely known as the ‘capabilities approach’… [Whereby] we should focus
21 It should be added that for Burke, religion was also very important as part of the substratum of
learning and proper moral dispositions that made society and a fortiori commerce possible. Nussbaum
(2010) is more sceptical on this point, particularly as she draws from R. Tagore’s assessment of
religious conflict in India.
on… What are the people of the group or country in question actually able to do
and be?” rather than “opulence (say, GNP per capita)” (Nussbaum, 1999, p. 34;
emphasis added). Nussbaum (1999) appreciates this approach because it
considers people individually and it reflects an ancient Aristotelian spirit, since it
wonders about the “activities characteristically performed by human beings
[that] are… definitive of a life that is truly human” (p. 39). Nussbaum’s
privileged approach wishes to ascertain not solely those “changes or
transitions… compatible with the continued existence of a being as a member of
the human kind”, but also the “functions… [that] must be there if we are going
to acknowledge that a given life is human” (pp. 39-40). In connection with this
twofold focus, she lists a set of life-capabilities to be protected and/or promoted
(Nussbaum, 1999, pp. 41-42):
1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length…
2. Bodily health and integrity. Being able to have good health… being
adequately nourished; being able to have adequate shelter
3. Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; being
able to be secure against violent assault… having opportunities for sexual
satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction
4. Senses, imagination, thought. Being able to use the senses; being able
to imagine, to think, and to reason… in a ‘truly human way’, a way
informed and cultivated by an adequate education… in ways protected by
guarantees of freedom of expression… being able to have pleasurable
experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain
5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside
ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to
grieve at their absence… to experience longing, gratitude, and justified
anger; not having one’s emotional developing blighted by fear or
6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to
engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life…
7. Affiliation… Being able to live for and in relation to others, to
recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various
forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another
and to have compassion for that situation; having the capability for both
justice and friendship… being able to be treated as a dignified being
whose worth is equal to that of others…
8. Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to
animals, plants, and the world of nature
9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities
10. Control over one’s environment… Political… Material… having the
right to seek employment on an equal basis with others…
Nussbaum (1999) further classifies these life-capabilities into three
1. “Basic capabilities” constitute “the necessary basis for developing the
more advanced capability.” (p. 44) Although glimmers of life-capability
may be observable since people’s earliest childhood, it is only through
much parental care, social interaction, and prolonged schooling that
children develop any of them into significant features of their life.
2. “Internal capabilities” are those “states of the person” that establish
“sufficient conditions for the exercise of the requisite functions.” (p. 44)
3. Finally, “combined capabilities” are the internal capabilities endowed
with the institutions that allow for the expression of the internal
capabilities of each as a genuine option in life. (p. 44)
Since it is assumed that “all, just by being human, are of equal dignity and
worth” (p. 57), Nussbaum believes governments and public bodies to be morally
bound—not just legally or politically—to the universal fostering of combined
capabilities. Accordingly, governments and public bodies ought to pursue
steadfastly the promotion of life-capabilities by establishing, maintaining and
expanding societies’ life support systems or, as McMurtry (1999) defines them,
Nussbaum’s (1999) list of life-capabilities is insightful and
thought-provoking. To some extent, it points toward McMurtry’s later WBI and
the underlying three ontological modes of life that he identifies throughout his
philosophical production (McMurtry, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2009-10). Still,
Nussbaum’s list appears somewhat rhapsodic compared to McMurtry’s WBI,
which is organised precisely and consistently around the fundamental criterion
of human life need(s) and the corresponding good(s), without provision of which
life capacity is always reduced. To be exact, McMurtry’s WBI is grounded in a
universal onto-axiology of life-value that applies to all individuals and cultures.
Contrastingly, Nussbaum’s own list might possibly be shown via transcendental
deduction to presuppose such a life ground, which is nowhere recognised in her
work as an ontological or ethical ground. As a result, her selection is at risk of
being subject to the endless relativisation of opinion on what is good for people
with no underlying objective and self-evident foundation. Contrary to the
life-grounded principle of universal vital needs and goods, Nussbaum’s list is
more likely to be reduced to the subjective notions of “desire”, “preference”, or
“want” that constitute the psychological given of standard economic and
psychological anthropology. At the same time, her focus on what the individual
can do—indeed the capabilities approach itself—loses sight of what is required
for the individual’s doing to be possible in the first place. As a consequence,
although the capabilities approach does aim at promoting life-enhancing
institutions as humanity’s moral duty, it too can ironically contribute to today’s
widespread blindness to social and natural life support systems beneath the
“separate individual” that she regards as the fundamental fact of ethics
(Nussbaum, 1999, p. 62).
Also, Nussbaum’s position points toward the already-cited ICESCR (1966),
which pursues “the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear or
want” and requires States “to take steps, individually and through international
assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum
of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full
realization of the rights” (article 2(1)).22 Life-considerations are at the heart of
this covenant as much as they are at the heart of Nussbaum’s work, for no
“freedom, justice and peace” are said to be attainable if States fail in this task
(Preamble). These rights are so important that individuals themselves are said to
be morally bound by them:
The State Parties to the present Covenant… realiz[e] that the individual,
having duties to other individuals and to the community to which he
belongs, is under a responsibility to strive for the promotion and
observance of the rights recognized in the present Covenant. (Preamble)
22 Via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the ICESCR draws on the 1941 “four
freedoms” speech by F.D. Roosevelt (Whelan and Donnelly, 2007).
Then, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, her concern for people’s
substantive freedom, and her denunciation of the ongoing for-profit assault upon
learning and humanity are no idle speculation by an elitist armchair philosopher.
Quite the opposite, they reverberate, articulate and further substantiate (a) the
genuine aim of international law in its highest form;23 (b) as well as the
observable failure in adequately securing this aim forty-four years after the
ICESCR was opened for signature by the convened representatives of the
5. Your Money or Your Life
Often, within the de-humanised academic environment denounced by
Nussbaum (2010), the authors who have addressed the fundamental
contradiction between life-requisites and for-profit activity have been neglected,
marginalised, if not even derided as “nostalgic communists”, “radicals”,
“leftists”, or other “-ists”, depending on which disqualifying predicate was in
fashion at a given time in each given rhetorical setting. Clearly indifferent to the
importance of dissent and “the Socratic ideal” commended by Nussbaum (2010),
entire disciplinary sectors would appear to have been cleansed of alternative
conceptions, the lack of which has even been blamed by official State bodies
vis-à-vis the current economic crisis (Alþingi, 2010). Representative of this
un-Socratic indifference, Foreign Affairs contributor Jagdish Bhagwati wrote
sneeringly back in 2002: “The disappearance of alternative models of
development provoked anguished reactions from the old anticapitalists of the
postwar era… from socialists to revolutionaries… captive to a nostalgia for their
vanished dreams… in fields other than economics. English, comparative
literature, and sociology are all fertile breeding grounds for such dissent” (pp.
2-3; emphasis added).
From a life-grounded perspective, this rhetorical use of disparaging terms
makes hardly any sense. For one, the particular economic model in place is not
23 The ICESCR, together with the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(ICCPR), form what legal scholars call “the International Bill of Rights”.
24 Given its life-protective and life-enhancing aims, the ICESCR is also another example of civil
commons, the proper functioning of which is hampered by unrestrained for-profit activity (Baruchello
and Johnstone, 2011).
of crucial importance. What matters, instead, is that human needs be met and
that life-capabilities be protected and promoted. If forcibly regulated in a
life-grounded perspective, for-profit trade itself might actually be able to secure
at least some of those results that Swedish defender of global capitalism Johan
Norberg (2003) connotes as “the important things in life—love, family,
friendship, one’s own way of life” (p. 17). Profit, it should be noted, is not cited
amongst them, for profit ought to be a means, not an end. In this sense, the
plausible civil-commons function of intelligently steered for-profit trade had
already been acknowledged long ago by Sang Hongyang, who claimed that
“crafts and commerce” have to be encouraged so that “people” be no longer
“poorly fed” (as cited in He et al., 1991, p. 186).
Still, from this life-grounded reconsideration of economic activity, it follows
too that if public endowments are routinely privatised (Florio, 2004) and the
existing civil commons turned into money-making devices—e.g. Nussbaum
(2010) vis-à-vis public universities—then it is of the essence that such devices
serve human needs and spur life-capability regularly and widely, in both space
and time. If vital needs are not met and if life-capability is spurred in no such
way, then alternatives must be sought and implemented, embracing economic
pluralism, re-regulating life-detrimental de-regulated economies (Sarkozy, 2010),
and rejecting un-Socratic intolerant orthodoxy, including so-called “market
fundamentalism” (Soros, 1998).25
Under the perspective of the life ground, life alone can be paramount;
nothing else should carry as much weight, or more. Consistently with this
axiological axiom, a life-grounded reconsideration of economic activity is bound
to discard stances that make life secondary. Stances of this kind are far from rare
in theory or uninfluential in practice. As the former is concerned, neo-liberal
guru Robert Nozick (1974) wrote famously:
[A] right to life is not a right to whatever one needs to live; other people
may have rights over these other things. At most, a right to life would be a
right to have or strive for whatever one needs to live, provided that having
it does not violate anyone else’s rights. (p. 179)
25 On this matter, John Kenneth Galbraith (1967, 1977) advocated long ago the nationalisation of
“too-big-to-fail” private companies that constitute de facto market-distorting oligopolies, for they
generate private profits irrespective of actual competition and socialise their losses at will.
As the latter is concerned, in its review of the report about Hong Kong in
2001, the UN’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee (ESCR, 2002)
stated that the region’s “philosophy of ‘positive non-interventionism’” was
hampering the implementation of the ICESCR, to which they are party (para.
176). This business-centred philosophy “had a negative impact on the realization
and enjoyment of the economic, social and cultural rights of Hong Kong’s
inhabitants, which has been exacerbated by globalization.” (para. 176)
From a life-grounded perspective, the ends are the obligation; the means can
vary. If life-capabilities-enabling substantive freedom is to occur, then it can
reasonably happen that some degree of positive interventionism must be
accepted, whether in the form of progressive taxation, public investment, or else.
Political and economic doctrines can and should be reviewed, revised, and
rejected, if they cause non-beneficial life-depletion. Fundamentally, from a
life-grounded perspective, any “economy succeeds or fails to the extent to which
it provides or does not provide its members with th[e] means of life severally
and as a whole” (McMurtry, 2002, p. 156).
In accordance with this statement, not any for-profit commodity counts
towards the generation of genuine, life-consistent wealth: “Claimed ‘economic
goods’ which disable or do not enable life abilities are not means of life; they are
economic ‘bads’” (McMurtry, 2005). Kalashnikovs, addictive cigarettes, actual
toxic pesticides and virtual “toxic assets” are not good. They may engross a
firm’s or an individual’s profits but, like slaves or DDT in the past, they are bad,
for they harm life-capabilities. Puzzlingly, the jargon of standard economic
theory and the practice of ongoing economic activity refer indiscriminately to all
traded items as “goods”. In fact, they all count towards wealth “creation”,
despite their destructive impact upon God’s creation, the survival of which so
deeply concerned Hans Jonas (1993).
This surprising yet ordinary inability to perceive the successful/failed
civil-commons function of for-profit trade is due to the technical jargon’s almost
complete lack of effectively life-grounded criteria for the adequate
conceptualisation of the living, and henceforth of what is actually good
(Baruchello, 2007a, 2008a). Given the jargon of standard economic theory and
the observable practice of ongoing economic activity, life support systems,
life-capabilities, and living beings themselves are sheer economic “externalities”
until, say, labour costs, carbon trade parameters, pharmaceutical research, and
the purchase of land by climate-change-doomed archipelagos make them
economically “visible”, either qua business opportunities or qua possible costs
(“Le Maldive”, 2008).
The social science of economics, which so much sway has enjoyed in
late-modern policy-making, is quite simply unequipped to conceive of and
tackle life per se. If economic activity is blind to life de facto, mainstream
economic theory is so de iure. The life ground is presupposed throughout its
conceptualisations and operations, but it cannot be grasped by its standard
categories of thought (Baruchello, 2007a, 2008a). To such categories of thought,
a biodiversity-rich virgin patch of boreal forest is uneconomic, whilst its
transformation into a “coniferous monoculture” makes utmost sense (Felton et
Unsurprisingly, the policies guided by these categories of thought have been
often most harmful to life-capabilities. In South America, one of Argentina’s
leading experts in medical science recently remarked:
According to neoliberal dogma, the market is the perfect allocator of
resources and the ideal arbiter of priorities and policies. Beginning in the
unfortunate decade of the 80’s, the market, in both general society and in
health, weakened labor, increased unemployment, dismantled universal
social coverage, lowered salaries, reduced public health expenditures,
privatized services, mandated user fees, and decreased supervision of
private health care providers and of the pharmaceutical industry. All these
initiatives deteriorated the collective physical health. As to mental health,
the replacement of more or less predictable individual lives with the
uncertainties and unpredictability of unchecked market forces quite
clearly deteriorated it (Escudero, 2009, p. 183).
In North America, Lawrence Summers, former economic advisor to US
President Barack Obama and Chief Economist of the World Bank, crystallised
the life-blindness of both mainstream economic theory and dominant economic
praxes in a succinct and poignant statement: “the economic logic behind
dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we
should face up to that” (as cited in Smith, 2007; emphasis added).
6. Concluding Observations
The conceptual vacuum acknowledged by Lawrence Summers is yet to be
filled in any serious way within dissent-cleansed economic theory and economic
activity. Certainly, environmental economics, empirical studies in human
happiness, and alternative views of development and growth have been
emerging visibly over the past years. This growth notwithstanding, they remain
marginal both within and, above all, outside academia (Baruchello and Lintner,
2009). Indeed, the dominant conceptual apparatus available to major advisers
and major advisees is still so limited vis-à-vis vital issues that a bizarre though
emblematic argument is commonly heard today amongst central bankers.
According to it, the countries affected less dramatically by the “credit crunch” of
2008 were somehow shielded by “backward” tightly regulated banking systems
and legal impediments to innovative financial activities (Draghi, 2008). Instead
of recognising such regulation and impediments as appropriate, these appear to
the economic expert like some sort of defiant archaeological specimen from an
In a parallel fashion, despite the ongoing crisis and its blatant origin in
de-regulated for-profit finance, life-enabling economic, social and cultural rights
have been surrendered to its recovery, insofar as States have secured private
pecuniary returns by reducing public investments, from decreased parental leave
in crisis-hit Iceland (Law no. 173/2008, article 7; Law no. 70/2009, article 18) to
cheaper, lower-quality meals in Italy’s State-run primary schools (“Allarme
mense”, 2008). To a conceptual apparatus that cannot discriminate between
universally needed sources of nourishing carbohydrates and the unnecessary
means of financial speculation upon the same that make these sources less
available and yet capable at the same time of “wealth creation”, the prioritisation
of private pecuniary returns over life-enabling economic, social and cultural
rights is truly an impeccable logical option (“RFA tracks increased speculation”,
26 Mario Draghi is not only the governor of Italy’s central bank, but also the chairman of the Financial
Stability Board established in 2009 by the G-20 to re-regulate international banking and prevent
another global financial crisis like the one started in 2008, the shockwaves of which are still being felt
Given such a logic, Jonas’ (1993) opening statement does not appear at all
hyperbolic, but rather like the reasonable fear arising from a prolonged process
of global life-destruction that has been perpetuated by a widely accepted
life-blind conceptual apparatus that is incapable of comprehending anything that
is not “growth-directed”, whether 19th-century industrial workers’ demand for
free time (Noonan, 2006) or the “liberal arts model” of the American
educational system (Nussbaum, 2010, p.17). If the life-capabilities praised by
McMurtry and Nussbaum are ever to become the true goal for collective action,
then the experts and the policies of those who seek their counsel must change
Unfortunately, in the wake of the current crisis and of most nations’
responses to it, that which Finnish jurist Aulis Aarnio stated in 1991 stands true
today: “Environmental values and economic values often clash, as in the
protection of the forests and waterways. Almost without exception, the values
that have prevailed have been economic.” (p. 131)27 Apart from showing further
the paradoxical understanding of the economy in today’s received forms of
consciousness—such that for-profit processes destroying their own ontological
preconditions are claimed to be “economic”—this quote refuels Jonas’ concern
that an overly ingenious humankind may actually “die on this desolate Earth
which used to be the Creation” (p. 49).28
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be the financial heart of the world” (as cited in Cavalera, 2010).
28 McMurtry (1999) invoked a “paradigm shift” prioritising life capital over money capital (p. 132).
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