By Daniel Margrain
In the famous anti-capitalist fable, a scorpion, eager to get to the other side of a stream and unable to swim, pleads with a frog to allow him to ride on the frog’s back, across the stream.“Certainly not,” said the frog. “You would kill me.”
“Preposterous!,” replied the scorpion. “If I stung you, it would kill the both of us.”
Thus assured, the frog invited the scorpion to climb aboard, and halfway across, sure enough, the scorpion delivered the fatal sting.
“Now why did you do that,” said the frog, “you’ve killed us both.”
“I am a scorpion,” he replied, “this is what I do.”
A century ago, developing the ideas of Karl Marx, the Russian Nicolai Bukharin argued that the growth of international corporations and their close association with national states hollows-out parliaments. The power of private lobbying money draws power upwards into the executive and non-elected parts of the state dominated by corporations leading to the death of democracy and, ultimately, the capitalist system itself. The impact on society that results from the growth of corporations, in other words, is akin to the role played by the scorpion.
What corporations do is strive to maximize the returns on the investments of their shareholders. As Milton Friedman put it, “The social responsibility of business is to increase profits.” Unfortunately, if corporations are unconstrained by law or regulation, they can, by simply “doing what they do”, suck the life out of the economy that sustains them. Like cancer cells, lethal parasites, and the scorpion, unconstrained corporations can destroy their “hosts,” without which they cannot survive, much less flourish.
Society to the corporation is what the frog is to the scorpion. The CEOs of the giant corporations compete against other, globally, for the limited resources of the planet. While the actions of the corporations are beneficial to their CEOs and shareholders, they have detrimental impacts for humanity and society as a whole.
In his analysis of the capitalist system over a century-and-a half ago, Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto articulated the processes that were to lead to the growth of the corporations: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere” he said. Marx describes, powerfully, the workings, impulses and aggressive dynamism of an economic system in which the units of production increase in size and where their ownership becomes increasingly concentrated.
It takes an effort on the reader’s part to remember that the passage quoted above was written before the search for oil absorbed the Middle East transforming it into a contemporary battlefield, or that globalization began stamping its mark on a thousand different cultures. The accuracy of Marx’s analysis exemplified in the exponential growth of the corporation in the century following his death, is a testament to his magnificent intellectual vigor and groundbreaking dialectical insight.
Where Marx’s analysis has yet to be realized is in terms of his expectation that the working class would become increasingly radical and ultimately revolutionary. What was impossible for him to predict was the emergence of broadcast media and, by extension, the capacity by which it has been able to disorientate the masses by redirecting revolutionary impulses into passive pursuits.
Also Marx’s analysis has not been borne out in terms of the extent to which workers have been coerced into an acceptance of capitalism by their economic dependence on employment and the repression of revolutionary movements that sought to overthrow the capitalist system. These workers have also been incorporated through their organizations into the political structures of capitalist societies, and are seduced by the flood of inexpensive imported goods often created by sweated labour, that capitalist production has provided.
As bad as the suffering is for many who endure poverty within the countries of the advanced capitalist states today, it is not sufficient enough in scale – as was the case in the 1930s, for example – to threaten the capitalist economic system. But although its true to say Marx’s expectation that oppressed and exploited workers would overthrow capitalism has not been borne out by events, this does not invalidate his analysis. Marx wasn’t deterministic. He viewed the working class from a position of what he perceived they were potentially capable of becoming in the right socioeconomic circumstances.
Contradictions of capitalism
In The Communist Manifesto Marx describes capitalism at its beginnings as a revolutionary system, because it creates, for the first time in human history, the potential for liberation from want. Through the development of industrial production, it became possible for every human being to be fed, clothed and housed. But as Marx recognized, even in his time, capitalism would never achieve this society of plenty for all, because of the way production is organized, with the means of production controlled by a tiny minority of society, the ruling class – more widely known today as “the one per cent”.
Marx described the ruling class as a “band of warring brothers” in constant competition with each other – giving the system a relentless drive to expand. As Marx wrote in Capital: “Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he (the capitalist) ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.” Capitalism’s insatiable drive, embodied in the growth of the corporation, has brought us in the 21st century to the edge of climate chaos and environmental destruction. This is the systems Achilles heel.
Marx’s dialectical understanding of how the capitalist system works, therefore, has contemporary relevance both in terms of explaining the growth of the corporation and its competitive drive to extract resources within the context of an environmentally finite planet. Left to it’s own devices, in the absence of any revolutionary struggle, the corporation will ultimately end up destroying its host – humanity and society. In such a scenario, the contradictions of the system couldn’t be more stark.
Prisoner’s Dilemma, altruism & game theory
It should be noted that both the frog/scorpion fable and the potential for capitalism to destroy the conditions upon which human life depends, does not portray a Prisoner’s Dilemma. In international political theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is often used to demonstrate the coherence of strategic realism, which holds that in international relations, all states (regardless of their internal policies or professed ideology), will act in their rational self-interest given international anarchy. A classic example is an arms race like the Cold War and similar conflicts.
During the Cold War the opposing alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact both had the choice to arm or disarm. From each side’s point of view, disarming whilst their opponent continued to arm would have led to military inferiority and possible annihilation. Conversely, arming whilst their opponent disarmed would have led to superiority. If both sides chose to arm, neither could afford to attack the other, but at the high cost of developing and maintaining a nuclear arsenal. If both sides chose to disarm, war would be avoided and there would be no costs.
In the frog/scorpion fable, the former had absolutely nothing to gain by carrying the scorpion to safety. From the perspective of the cynical outsider, the frog’s altruism is foolish because he would have lived had he not assisted the scorpion. Similarly, the corporation has nothing to gain by resisting the urge to damage the environment. Regulation impinges on profits. To some, altruistic acts are consistent with the adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
But of course this cynical perspective is predicated on their being no mutual trust between two parties. Because the frog believed the scorpion when he said it was irrational to kill him, any intention to find a way to deflect earlier than the scorpion, hadn’t formed a part of the frogs reasoning. The frog’s actions were based purely on good faith and the acceptance of basic norms of behaviour. A rational approach in which both parties were set to benefit was understood by the frog to be a given. The frog hadn’t accounted for the fact that the scorpion was compelled to act in the way he did.
Similarly, corporate capitalists are compelled to ‘externalize’ environmental costs in order to maximize profits. It is the corporation, like the scorpion, that pulls humanity down. This kind of reasoning applies to other related areas. In the field of international relations, for example, the concept of the Right to Protect (R2P) doctrine of ‘pre-emptive retaliation’, expresses nothing other than a strategy based on defecting early and decisively, even though such an action is highly irrational.
The rationale appears to be that any attempts at cooperative actions are, at some point, doomed to be beset by the actions that pertain to that of the scorpion. This presupposes that all potential and/or perceived foes act in a highly irrational manner akin to the pathological actions of psychopaths that lead to unnecessary harmful deflections instead of mutual cooperation that is beneficial to the greater good.
Game theory does not really take scorpions into account. It holds that people will defect because that is in their best interest – because the future has no shadow. Game theory fails as a tool when we are dealing with sociopathology or extreme denial. The human dilemma is that all progress ultimately fails or at least slides back, that anything once proven must be proven again a myriad of times; that there is nothing so well established that a fundamentalist (of any religion or stripe) cannot be found to deny it, and suffer the consequences, and then deny that he suffered the consequences.