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 his 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. Sure enough, halfway across, the scorpion delivered the fatal sting.
“Now why did you do that?” said the frog. “You’ve just signed our death warrants.”
“I am a scorpion,” he replied, “this is what I do.”
A century ago, 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.
The growing concentration and internationalization of capital causes economic rivalries among firms to spill over national borders and to become geopolitical contests in which the combatants call on the support of their respective states.
As professor Alex Callinicos put it:
“The… system embraces geopolitics as well as economics, and…the competitive processes….involve not merely the economic struggle for markets, but military and diplomatic rivalries among states.”
In refining Bukharin’s classical theory, Callinicos argues that capitalist imperialism is constituted by the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition which, if left unchallenged, will lead to the death of democracy and, ultimately, the capitalist system itself.
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.”
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 and the environment to the corporations are what the frog is to the scorpion. Corporate CEOs, together with governments, compete against each 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.
Marx and the contradictions of capitalism
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, insightfully and 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.
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.”
Marx’s dialectical understanding of how the capitalist system works, has contemporary relevance in terms of his explanation of the growth of the corporation and its competitive drive to extract resources. Left to it’s own devices, the corporation under capitalism, like the scorpion, will ultimately end up destroying its host.
In the frog/scorpion fable, the frog 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, society, the environment and, indeed, the planet have nothing to gain by being accommodating to the corporation.
To some, altruistic acts are consistent with the adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.” But this cynical perspective is predicated on a lack of 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 defect 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.
Just as the scorpion is compelled to kill the frog, there is a compulsion for corporations under capitalism to ‘externalize’ their costs onto the environment and society in order to maximize profits.
The frog and scorpion fable is sometimes portrayed as a Prisoner’s Dilemma. In international political theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is often used to demonstrate the coherence of strategic realism. This 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. 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.
This kind of reasoning in international relations also applies, for example, to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine of ‘pre-emptive retaliation’. This concept expresses nothing other than a strategy based on defecting early and decisively, even though such an action is highly irrational.
Zelensky’s recent provocation in which he urged NATO to pre-emptively attack Russia with nuclear weapons is an illustration of extreme irrational, psychopathic and narcissistic behaviour. Rather than indicating any willingness to negotiate a peaceful settlement, Zelensky appears compelled to want to destroy humanity.