Fighting the Instincts of Self-Destruction

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By Madronna Holden

A good culture fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

—-Chinua Achebe

Lessons from an indigenous society

Among particular US Plains Indians, the traditional position of chief was based strictly on service rather than privilege. If other tribal members were hungry, it was the chief’s duty to feed them before he fed himself or his family. The chief’s teepee served as refuge for those embroiled in conflicts—and should those conflicts come to battle, his body was the first on the battle line.

The service required of the chief was so arduous that this position sometimes went vacant.

There are lessons in the undercutting of privilege in enduring human cultures like those above. I like to imagine the homes of our wealthy filled with those they are obligated to feed—a society in which wealth creates a duty to care for others rather setting privilege in the hands of a few.

And certainly contemporary warfare would take a cut if those who declared it were required to place their own bodies first on the battle lines.

No one had to inform these Plains societies of the ways in which privilege could undermine their society. For those who inappropriately tried to parlay leadership into privilege, they also had a remedy. A chief who misused his authority was liable to wake up alone on the Plains, where he would be chief of nobody after his people had abandoned him.

This is not a bad strategy today in the face of corporate privilege. Small communities all over the US are turning their backs on a Congress that caters to what money can buy to go about the business of caring for their communities—prohibiting pesticide use (as did a town in Maine), regulating or prohibiting the growing of genetically engineered seed to protect local farmers’ crops (in Santa Cruz County, Trinity County, Marin County, Mendocino County, and Humboldt County in California, San Juan County in Washington, Maui County and Hawaii County in Hawaii and Jackson County in Oregon) — or creating standards of carbon emissions to address climate change (in California, Oregon, and Washington—and north of the US in British Columbia).

Corporations well understand what such community moves mean to their privilege. Thus those bent on oil drilling are suing to put down a New Mexico community ordinance prohibiting fracking to protect local ranches – and Monsanto, along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is suing Vermont for its legislation labeling genetically engineered food.

These will not be easily won battles—it is no simple thing to confront privilege in the modern world where money buys so much. But in the end the largest international corporations are no more without their community base than a chief’s teepee alone on the Plains. Social privilege derives from society just as economic wealth is extracted from society– and society can revoke either of these.

We can choose where to spend our dollars—and thus reward corporations whose actions help to create what most of us actually want– a more just and environmentally sustainable world. At the same time we can stop rewarding those on a societal level whose actions create wealth for themselves and a diminished and dangerous world for our children.

Modern corporations know such choices are not small gestures, as indicated by the money they spend on “greenwashing” or “humanewashing” campaigns, which play on citizens’ desires to support ethical and environmentally sustainable businesses.

These corporations might benefit from dropping the semblance and simply acting according to standards their communities can support.

Take the case of Forrest Paint, a family-owned business in Eugene, Oregon. When the Eugene Toxics Right to Know ordinance was passed, it required them to publically list the toxics used and emitted in their business—and to be taxed accordingly.

At first Forrest Paint attacked that ordinance, joining a legal suit along with other businesses to strike it down. But after a year or two of battling on, they got smarter. Forrest Paint installed an innovative state of the art recovery process for its chemicals. It has now become a national leader in non-toxic paint manufacturing.

Instincts of Self-Destruction

All communities need elders, mediators, and grandparents whose wisdom and presence serve as refuge for the vulnerable and guides for the future. Today we also need business leaders like Seventh Generation Chairman and “Chief Inspired Protagonist” Jeffrey Hollender and Fortune 500 CEO Max DePree—and the Forrest family– to keep our economy running.

Yet as the Chehalis Indians observed, power is just as dangerous as it is powerful. Authority can easily get out of hand. Thus enduring societies have mechanisms with which to direct and guide the power they allocate to any individual or group of individuals. Hollender (“Regulate Me, Please”) reminds us a society that operates in economic free fall with its dictum of “internalizing benefits” (keeping profits for oneself) and “externalizing costs” (passing them off to others) supports those who create what few of us want.

This process also unfairly taxes those who would do the right thing, since it costs ethical business more than those who don’t abide by environmental or social justice considerations. In the contemporary world this has left us with climate change, an escalating cancer epidemic caused by environmental contaminants and a society in which one per cent of the population controls 99 per cent of its wealth.

A working democracy needs another tact. Indeed, a surviving society needs a another tact.

The founders of the US knew such regulation was necessary. In order to earn their license to operate, the first US corporations had to prove they provided service to their communities—and they had to continue to do so. Their licenses were only renewed on condition of their continuing good conduct.

“The best societies”, says Nobel Prize winning novelist Chinua Achebe, “fight the instincts of self-destruction”. A key “impulse of self-destruction” is the impulse to dominate others. Achebe illustrates with an historical example from his Igbo (Nigerian) tradition. The Igbo knew themselves well—they knew that each man among them wished to be king. They limited this impulse by structuring their society as a constellation of small face to face communities—villages in which power could be asserted in socially constructive ways and the abuse of power thwarted.

The Igbo were well aware there were other possibilities for structuring society—such as the nations the British deemed more “civilized”. But they kept to their villages because they knew themselves– and thus devised this way to “fight their instincts of self-destruction”.

Cultural Deregulation

When British colonialism supplanted the traditional Igbo social structure, 600 Igbo villages suddenly had kings vying to rule over their fellows. As depicted in Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, individuals with a strong impulse toward leadership—who might have made positive contributions and been honored for them in the cultural context that regulated and directed their power—were left in the lurch.

Their actions not only tore their societies apart, but bled any sense of meaning from their own lives.

Jeffrey Hollender lends contemporary perspective to this dynamic in his essay, “Regulate Me, Please” which lays out the logic of ground rules to guide business activities toward creating what most of us want: clean and just and sustainable communities. The cooperative stance of unions and auto makers in Germany is an example of the positive outcomes of a regulatory environment in which human dignity and economic well-being are linked.

It is the responsibility of a community that assigns power to any individual or group of individuals to offer guidance and direction along with that power—lest what might otherwise serve society tear it apart. Without such regulation, as Hollender asserts, “business is eventually doomed to eat itself”—to erode the social and environmental ground that allows it to flourish.

Without regulation, power easily becomes privilege—setting loose the impulses of self-destruction that today threaten the very survival of life on our precious planet.

Becoming a “good culture”

To be a thriving culture we need to know ourselves well. We need to understand our own impulses—and also how to best use these—to guide them so that they do not become self-destructive.

We need to understand our responsibility—as individuals and members of our communities—to shape and guide the power we license. To Thomas Jefferson’s observation that we cannot find too many ways to divide power, we might add that we cannot find too many ways to educate ourselves about the results of our actions—or too many ways to reward actions that result in the society we want—and inhibit those that do not.

Achebe’s perspective tells us that there are no perfect human beings—anymore than there are perfect human societies.

But as we face the challenge of repairing a world in which every natural system is currently in decline and wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we have both the capability and the imperative of becoming one of those good cultures that “fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

The Elephant in our Living Room, the BP Oil Spill, and Albert Einstein

By Madronna Holden

Shortly after the end of World War II, Albert Einstein wrote an essay in which he predicted the unhappy future of “pure capitalism” or “economic anarchy”. as he called it.[1] He observed that the system based on individual competition for profit derives from a history of conquest.  As such, it expresses the “predatory stage” of human development which we must transcend if we are to survive.

A worldview which teaches us to value individual profit-taking at the expense of our fellows causes us to resent the society we inevitably also rely on—and anyone’s telling us what to do with our money is considered a major affront.  This is the logic of those who opposed a national health plan on the grounds that they might have to join it—even if it meant their families would have security from health catastrophes that can easily become economies catastrophes.

In this perspective, government is perceived as bad, since it is social. There is no sense that it might actually do something good for us. This worldview also leads us to declare hands off the money makers, who are supposed to be doing something good and essential for society.

It is this worldview that underlies the declaration of corporations as legal “persons”. The Supreme Court recently asserted such corporate “persons” had the protections of the first amendment to free speech—and could thus spend as much as they wished on advertising in political campaigns.

This decision brings us closer to Einstein’s prediction that “private capitalists” would inevitably “come to control… the main sources of information (press, radio, education).”  Corporate “freedom of speech” also extends to advertising pharmaceuticals on television in the US—and a growing push to allow this in other countries such as Britain.  Today US television networks, news media, newspapers, book publishers and even phone and internet delivery systems are owned by a handful of corporate entities, which increasingly control not only advertising, but news and other program content.

However, these corporate “persons” don’t follow the rules that human persons have to. In their application for offshore drilling permits, BP was excused from submitting an emergency plan to deal with an accident like the one currently fouling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The oil gushing into the Gulf is every bit as visible as the proverbial elephant in the living room as a wake up call that we need to change course. Yet in the month since the oil began gushing out of BP’s deep wells, regulators have approved 27 more offshore drilling projects, including 2 for BP. 26 of these received environmental exemptions.

Further, this comes in the wake of revelations of sex, drug use, and graft among Interior Department regulators.

If an individual human paid officials for the privilege of ignoring traffic signals on a busy street, we would be rightly outraged. We would be even more outraged if their exemption from the law resulted in the deaths of eleven individuals and uncounted members of other species.

So why do we excuse corporate “persons” from culpability here?  The answer can only be Einstein’s:  when we live in a capitalist society in which profit-making rules the day, we give unthinking leeway to those making the profits.

For instance, we have a “revolving door” through which corporate executives go to and from the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. This was the subject of an exposé in the Ecologist—though the issue in which this exposé was to appear was quashed in press after legal threats from Monsanto.

The “revolving door” is exemplified by George Bush’s appointment of Linda Fisher, a former executive vice president at Monsanto, as deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. The documentary, The Future of Food, notes that Fisher has been back and forth between Monsanto and the EPA three times.

It is no surprise that under such leadership The Union of Concerned Scientists found that researchers in federal regulatory agencies are consistently pressured by their superiors to hide their research findings if they are unfavorable to industry.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the Union as well as “Integrity in Science” for revealing the funding sources of contemporary researchers– facing head on the question of just how independent scientific research can be when it is funded by pharmaceuticals or agribusiness.

In his article, Einstein laments the way our educational system stokes the “exaggerated competitive attitude” in its students, who are  “trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for future careers”.  In a follow up comment to the post in which former gmo researcher speaks out about the shaky scientific standards of that research, he observes this process firsthand: “They may think the company is totally evil and a threat to the planet, but when their bank account starts filling up, the next thing you know, they’re in a suit at a board meeting discussing profit objectives for the next quarter.”

The biotech, pharmaceutical and chemical industries (many of which share board members) not only hire researchers but bribe them outright.  They have blatantly tampered with the scientific peer review process, paying researchers to write articles and even draw up experiments in support of their products whose resulted are fudged.  In one case, Merck published an entire fake academic journal.

There are still the independent scientists worthy of the name.  The data they developed has led particular chemicals to be listed by the EPA as known, probable or suspected carcinogens. However, these chemicals are still marketed in the US—if not in the EU, where their regulatory system prioritizes human health over profit.

Our own lack of regulation here illustrates what happens when an economy is at odds with the well being of its people. Put through the wringer of the competitive profit motive, the laudable idea of freedom for all ends up as privilege for the few.

Take, for instance, the case of one of the hundreds of farmers sued by Monsanto for having genetically engineered seeds in their field as a result of wind drift.  In the Future of Food one of these farmers observes that once upon a time  if your cow trampled your neighbor’s field, you were responsible for the damage since you were responsible for the fence to keep your cow  confined. But in the context of current corporate privilege, the farmer is responsible not only for keeping genetically engineered seed out of his field, but sued for the privilege of having it trample his crop.

In a society in which competitive profit-making rules, the profits of a few inevitably wind up trumping the costs to the many. The President’s Cancer Panel notes the health care expenses for those who contract cancer from environmental causes, for instance.

No less than the father of capitalist theory, Adam Smith, chronicled his worry that capitalism would set societies adrift in the valueless “economic anarchy” that Einstein predicted.  Smith resolved this dilemma with the idea that free markets would express social “preferences” and thus exert ethical constraints on doing business.

Frances Moore Lappé’s response to the idea that free markets enforce social ethics is like Gandhi’s response to Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea”.

She notes that the free markets are a fiction:  they don’t respond to social preferences– they respond to money.  At a talk at Linfield College, she noted that “eating is right up there in terms of human preferences”, but when the numbers of hungry people are growing worldwide, it is obvious the current market system is not responding to human preferences.

Neither is the market for employment. The market in which we sell our labor is not determined by the usefulness of our work to society or its satisfaction to ourselves— but by the ability of our employers to make money.  The handful of US corporations currently controlling the production, transportation, processing, and marketing of food argue that they are doing something useful to society. They are feeding us. But they are feeding us junk food that is unsustainably raised using inhumane practices for farm workers as well as for farm animals.

The argument that large corporations are doing something essential because they are making a profit ignores the elephants they themselves are riding on:  their workers and the natural world.  If we don’t care for these, we will have no economy, growth or no growth, innovation or no innovation.

To do otherwise is following the logic of a bank robber who tells us if we don’t hand over the money, the system will collapse.  If we don’t turn over the money, it will certainly collapse for the bank robber.  But there is economic blackmail that makes it harder for us to respond to this as we should. The weapon large corporations are holding on us is our ability to hold down a job and to feed ourselves and our families.

But the idea that these corporations are “too big to fail” only holds if there is no alternative. It only hold, that is, if we assume they have a  monopoly on  providing for our needs–if there is no other way to get jobs or food but through them.

But this doesn’t jive with the facts. The folks at Good Jobs First have researched the ways in which subsidies for corporations result in economic losses for communities that hand them over. Notably, communities that have the most stringent environmental and labor regulations also have the best family wage jobs.  In “Regulate Me, Please”, on CSwire’s responsible business forum, CEO Jeffrey Hollender argues the case that “regulation is good for business”.

Political democracy entails economic democracy, in which we have regulations that level the playing field so that the power of one person/one vote is not subverted by the money behind a corporate “person’s” vote.

Regulation is not a dirty word. But blackmail—economic or political—is.  So are poverty, pollution, addiction, obesity, and cancer.

Einstein made some dire predictions for the future of “pure” capitalism.  But he also had a vision, based on the cross-cultural history of humankind which tells us how adaptable and creative we are.

Once we acknowledge the elephant in our living room, we can send it back to the jungle and busy ourselves creating a society based on care,  justice and sustainability–  in which we celebrate both our individual potential and our connections to one another.


Here are some suggestions as to what can individuals do to change the corporate power that is currently undermining our democracy.

  1. We can follow our political process carefully and support efforts to place limits on campaign spending –or publicly fund elections—and to reveal sources of funding for candidates or initiatives.
  2. We can support community job creation, “microenterprises” on the model of the Grameen Bank, which won the 2006 Nobel Prize for fostering development from the ground up.
  3. We can support small farmers and organics and community co-ops that do labor exchanges, seed saving, sustainable farming and urban gardening.
  4. We can buy products –and only those products– that are good for us, the environment, and our children.
  5. We can lend our support to alternatives that undermine the idea of profit first not only with the dollars we spend, but with our interest and personal presence, our intelligence and creativity.
  6. We can do whatever possible to change our society from an egoistical one to a caring one in our daily choices.

In short, we can design as many ways as possible in which we refuse to be bought.


For an update of the millions-strong movements all over the US to “turn anger into action” in response to the oil spill, check out this essay in Sarah van Gelder’s blog for YES magazine.


[1] I want to acknowledge Molly Saranpaa, who sent me a copy of Einstein’s article just as I was developing this essay on the same topic.