Adam Ash

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Deep Thoughts: Christianity and our Corpocracy

Christianity, Capitalism, Corporations, and the Myth of Dominion -- by Norman Council

The ancient religious doctrine of dominion, supported by modern concepts of corporate entitlement today validates approaches to resource management that have led economist Herman Daly to observe that we "…treat the earth as if it was a business in liquidation."

"Then God said 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'"
(Genesis 1:26, King James Version)

This passage and others in the Bible have established a mindset that is now so ingrained in the being the modern democratic capitalist, that it seems a function of heredity. The ancient religious doctrine of dominion, supported by modern concepts of corporate entitlement today validates approaches to resource management that have led economist Herman Daly to observe that we "…treat the earth as if it was a business in liquidation."

Since the founding of the oldest (and still surviving) corporation, the Benedictine Order of the Catholic Church, circa 529 A.D., the economics of exploitation is inextricably linked to the development of the Christian church and its relationship to Western political and economic development; indeed in many cases the church itself was the reason for the exploitation.

The Accumulation of Wealth and the Favored Of God

Controversy over the relationship between religion and capitalism dates back to the publication of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism a century ago. Weber argued that capitalism developed as a result of a religious movement, Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, a religious doctrine that arose from John Calvin's assertion in the 16th century that God eternally decreed the salvation of some and the damnation of others, not because of the good or evil deeds they would do, but simply because he willed it.

This idea of predestination forced the Calvinist to reconsider the context of personal salvation and eternal life. This reconsideration led the Calvinist (according to Weber) to seek reassurance by attempting to succeed in their economic (and other) undertakings, in the belief that God signifies his favor by giving prosperity to the undertakings of the "elect" (those predestined to spend eternity in heaven.)

Added to this religiously engendered drive for achievement was the fact that it was considered unseemly for the Calvinist to spend his money on self-indulgence. This left little option but to but reinvest wealth into the business. Employees, being Calvinists also, were instructed to see their jobs as 'callings' to be done well for small earthly reward out of religious duty. Thus was formed what Weber called the "Protestant ethic" - the drive for economic success, the will to work hard, the habit of not spending on frivolous self-indulgence. This ethic provided a spiritual base for capitalism according to Weber; the set of motivations and attitudes that led to modern capitalist approaches to enterprise.

But the larger story of the interaction between religion and the accumulation of wealth, as it relates to environmentalism, goes to events occurring in the same era as John Calvin, but originating from an entirely different religious source - the Pope.

The capture of the Middle East and the gateways to the land routes of the spice trade by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century forced Europeans into the sea in search of routes for trade. The initial leaders in this movement were Spain and Portugal.

Because of the wealth associated with Europe's new found dependence on spices like pepper, cloves and nutmeg, Spain and Portugal were rivals. Both were eager to get control of commerce with the Far East -- especially with the Spice Islands of the Indies (Indonesia). In order to keep the two nations from fighting each other, on June 7, 1494, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, Pope Alexander VI divided the world in half "giving" Spain and Portugal each one half of it. Following on the heals of Columbus's "discovery" of the "West" Indies in 1492, it is not coincidental that Alexander-a Spaniard, born Rodrigo de Borja, near Valencia-bestowed the western hemisphere, in which Columbus promised the existence of immeasurable quantities of golf, on Spain, and the eastern hemisphere on Portugal.

Alexander VI was a lawyer by training. He assumed the Borgia name when his maternal uncle, Alfonso Borgia, began his brief reign as Pope Callistus III and as his lineage suggests, was a rather secular pope. He was among the wealthiest and most ambitious men in Europe, fond of his many mistresses and his illegitimate offspring. He indulged his worldly tastes with great vigor and was one of the most corrupt and secular popes of the Renaissance period. Alexander is perhaps best remembered as the patron of the Banquet of Chestnuts, known more properly as the "Ballet of Chestnuts" in which fifty courtesans crawled naked on the floor collecting chestnuts that had been strewn on the floor of the papal apartments after the meal had been eaten, following which was the obligatory orgy.

In the name of God and operating within the full context of the biblical understanding that God had given the earth to man, this foul and corrupt man "gave" the world to two small European countries. The arrogance of this action was stupendous and it facilitated the plundering of the civilizations and resources of the lands for centuries to come, but what is remarkable here however, is not Alexander VI's arrogance, it is the fact that his actions were nothing if not simply consistent with the thinking of all Europeans: God gave the earth to men to exploit. A man made expansion of this concept soon included the indigenous people of the earth as well.

Christian Exploitation

The imperial expansion of Western Europe was based on the "doctrine of discovery" or "terra nullius," an idea that was originally intended to support the right of sovereignty over unoccupied lands, which explorers discovered at great expense to their sponsor. As time and circumstances progressed however, the term changed in English law to say that sovereignty could be acquired if the indigenous peoples of a territory were considered to be too primitive so as to not require recognition of their sovereignty and jurisdiction by the British Crown. The following passage from the sermon of a Puritan preacher in New England in 1609 captures the essence of this re-interpretation of the idea of land empty of civilized human habitation:

Some affirm, and it is likely to be true, that these savages have no particular property in any part or parcel of that country, but only a general residency there, as wild beasts in the forest; for they range and wander up and down the country without any law or government, being led only by their own lusts and sensuality. There is not meum and teum [mine and thine] amongst them. So that if the whole land should be taken from them, there is not a man that can complain of any particular wrong done unto him.
Terre nullius was broadly applied not just in the western hemisphere, but throughout the world. As Chief Justice John Marshall put it, the concept was "acknowledged by all Europeans, because it was in the interest of all to acknowledge it."

Later in America's history terra nullius morphed into the concept of "Manifest Destiny," which John L. O'Sullivan articulated as the right to "over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us." In God's name and with the blessings of his minions here on earth, we sent millions of homesteaders, soldiers and prospectors into the West.

The context of this expansion, indeed its very purpose, was the exploitation of the natural resources that roamed or grew on the earth's surface or lay within its dark recesses for the purpose of the enrichment of men (the gender here is used advisedly). Indigenous people were to be eliminated because of their inconvenient insistence that they already possessed that which God had "given" the invaders. There was no appreciation of this bounty, no concept of preservation existed, it belonged to us, it was our divine right, it could not, it should not be denied us.

This idea was not restricted to the continental United States, the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were brutal in their impact on people and lands that they discovered. The British and the Dutch, protestant inheritors of the drive for colonization, were no better.

A typical tragedy is to be found in the history of the Congo. "Discovered" by the Portuguese, in the 15th century, Congo's history illustrates the complex relationship between religion, politics and economics. The original forays into the Congo were not "colonial" in nature. These initial efforts had two goals: trade and the introduction of Christianity. Interestingly Congo was attractive because it was then known as The Kingdom of the Congo and was a strong unified state renowned for its advanced working of copper and iron. The Congo king welcomed Portuguese traders, artisans, and missionaries.

What destroyed the Congo was trade in another commodity: slaves. Prior to its "discovery", slavery existed in the Congo, but was usually restricted to war captives, criminals, or debtors who could eventually earn back their freedom. The introduction of the Portuguese traders into this system turned these slaves into a commodity and the slave trade eventually depopulated the Congo to the point that, by the mid 19th century is was listed as "unexplored" on European maps.

Eventually the Congo ended up in the hands of Belgium, a European country renowned for its grace and civility. The Belgian King, Leopold II, turned the country into a forced labor camp and used his private army, the Force Publique, to terrorize its people. It is estimated that between 8 and 10 million people were killed during Leopold's reign as "Sovereign" of the "Congo Free State."

The Congo finally became independent in 1960, but, due in part to significant interference in its political affairs by the United States, who feared it would become a socialist state, its government ended up in the hands of dictator Joseph Mobutu, who, like Leopold II ruthlessly exploited the people of the Congo in pursuit of the wealth to be derived from Congo's copper, diamonds, oil, uranium, and other mineral deposits.

In its effect, the introduction of Western Culture, religion and traditions into other countries and environments is best seen as a virus. Wherever contact is made, local peoples, cultures and environments are destroyed.

What has empowered this process is the proselytizing by the church that there was not just a right to overrun occupied lands, it was the duty of Christians to convert and "civilize" these captured cultures, this agenda was variously pretext and subtext for colonial and economic imperialism (indeed, there is strong evidence that "missionary" work served as cover for the covert operations of governments seeking to undermine and destroy existing governments in as yet unoccupied lands.)

This sense of "duty" was crystallized in Rudyard Kipling's "The White Man's Burden," published in 1899 as an appeal to the United States to assume the task of developing the Philippines, a "territory" it had recently won in the Spanish-American War. Kipling's exhortation for civilized societies to "Send forth the best ye breed" to "To serve your captives' need" and save "Your new-caught, sullen peoples/Half-devil and half-child," effectively captured the arrogance of Western civilization as it approached indigenous cultures in its colonies.

Interestingly, in "The Black Man's Burden" E. D. Morel predicted the handoff of the politics of exploitation from the church and the nation state to the capitalist corporation that had been spawned by their interaction. Though writing in 1903, Morel proved eerily prescient work in his capacity to foresee the impact of capitalism on non-industrial cultures.

What the partial occupation of his soil by the white man has failed to do; what the mapping out of European political 'spheres of influence' has failed to do; what the Maxim and the rifle, the slave gang, labour in the bowels of the earth and the lash, have failed to do; what imported measles, smallpox and syphilis have failed to do; whatever the overseas slave trade failed to do, the power of modern capitalistic exploitation, assisted by modern engines of destruction, may yet succeed in accomplishing.
Morel, having spent much time in Africa, understood that the circumstances of other cultures and environments could not be made to fit within the conceptualizations of the modern capitalist and his or her approach to production:

To reduce all the varied and picturesque and stimulating episodes in savage life to a dull routine of endless toil for uncomprehended ends, to dislocate social ties and disrupt social institutions; to stifle nascent desires and crush mental development; to graft upon primitive passions the annihilating evils of scientific slavery, and the bestial imaginings of civilized man, unrestrained by convention or law; in fine, to kill the soul in a people-this is a crime which transcends physical murder.

Exploitation and Democratic Capitalism

Following the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet expansion after WWII, the pressure to develop "third world" cultures took on a new tone, for the new missionary claim began to be one in which "freedom" and "democracy" was added to the menu of things that the West would grace these "savage" cultures with. As was the case in the Congo, neither freedom nor democracy have generally been the outcome.

With the end of the Cold War in 1989, the Western mission to control the resources of the world was approached with even greater zeal, based on the assumption that the "defeat" of communism sealed the position of democratic capitalism as the only legitimate form of "civilized" society. In the aftermath of the battle "globalization" has become the new religion and its primary progenitors and advocates are not churches or the nations that replaced them in the process of empire building.

That there has been a shift in the driving engine of cultural and environmental imperialism, however, does not mean that the basic premises have changed. Corporations, empowered with a sense of divine right engendered by the fall of communism, have taken on the world and seem intent on - in the words of Robert Kennedy Jr.-''liquidating its natural resources to turn them into cash".

The kernel consistent to all of this is the sense of entitlement that arises from the Western/Christian belief that the earth was given to man by God and that he has dominion over it. The language has changed of course. No longer do these missionaries speak of God and salvation. The new language is about "open markets," and "free trade," but the agenda is much the same. But, just as the Catholic church supported the conquistadors and blessed their mission to "convert" the people of the Americas as a pretext for the raw pursuit of gold, the modern corporation exploits the concepts of open markets and free trade to knock down parochial barriers to resources so that they can be exploited purely to enhance the wealth of the owners of the corporations. They have been aided in this by a revolutionary government in the United States which seeks, like none before it, to spread the influence of American democratic capitalism around the world. It frequently uses the language of religion to do that.

The most significant danger to the environment today arises from the fact that few people in America believe that the current administration's revolutionary radicalism is real. Most, as Paul Krugman puts in his book "The Unraveling of America", believe that the outrageous proposals that come from the executive branch are nothing more than opening negotiating positions. In fact, the most frightening thing about the radical's agenda to date is that it is but the tip of the iceberg, the opening salvo of their war on American institutions of society and government.

At the heart of both foreign and domestic policy, including environmental policy is the cancer of fundamentalism that I have addressed in a previous issue of Newtopia Magazine ( Here it is important to note that fundamentalism has had a specifically negative effect in environmental policy due to its inherent anti-scientific stance.

The Fundamentalist War on Science

Fundamentalism is viewed as a conservative stance because it seeks to preserve or return to a primary and principal relationship with the deity. Because of this, fundamentalists shun change, in many cases they attack change with labels such as heresy or blasphemy. This attitude derives from the belief that anything which detracts from or draws the person away from their relationship with the deity is not just bad, it is sinful.

In the view of the fundamentalist, one of the greatest sources of sin is science and technology, primarily because science seeks to understand the world we live in scientific as opposed to divine terms. Technology springs from science and is thus implicated as sinful by association.

The history of religion is replete with conflicts with science, which, in the early years, religion mostly won. From the printing press (which took the interpretation of the bible out of the hands of the priests) to the rejection of the Copernican concept of the solar system (which determined that the earth was not the center of the universe) to the continuing 120 year old battle over Darwinian concepts of evolution (which implies that humans were not created from dust and did not descend from Adam and Eve some 6000 years ago), the position of religious leaders and present day Christian fundamentalists is that science is trying to move people away from the true nature of God.

Gallup polls indicate that about 45% of Americans classify themselves as "born again" (the fundamentalist language for dedicating one's faith in Christ as the son of God and the single pathway to heaven). This is a significant increase from 1992, when only 32% of Americans classified themselves as such.

Along with this faith is a corresponding rejection or suspiciousness of science. For example, Americans favor teaching creationism in the public schools, along with evolution, by a margin of 68% to 29% (although 55% say they would oppose replacing evolution with creationism, the truly frightening fact is that 40% would not oppose such a move). Within this group of those who are willing to consider creationism as valid "science," are the 47% of Americans who believe that God created human beings at one time and within the last 10,000 years pretty much in their present form. A 2001 Gallup survey indicated that only 12% of Americans indicated a belief in the Darwinian model of evolution, not driven by a deity.

This basic misunderstanding of the workings of the biological world is indicative of a larger and deeper ignorance of what science is telling us about the destruction of the earth. For instance, nearly 47% of Americans now say they worry "only a little" or "not at all" about global warming and the issue ranks ninth in the list of environmental issues that Americans show concern for.

We can look to our leaders to understand why this state of affairs continues to exist. Despite the fact that his father, George H. W. Bush stated that "[n]ow more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research . . . government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance," the current Bush administration has fully politicized the scientific advisory process by manipulating scientific advisory committees, distorting and suppressing scientific information and by interfering with scientific research and analysis.

Last year Henry Waxman released a study that identified 21 separate areas in which the Bush administration has distorted censored or suppressed inconvenient science, included in these were the suppression of reports by the Environmental Protection Agency on the risks of climate change and the withholding of comments from scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service on the destructive impacts of proposed regulatory changes.

In February of this year, 62 of our nation's leading scientists - including 20 Nobel laureates and 19 recipients of the National Medal of Science - endorsed a report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that again accused the administration of misusing scientific data for political purposes. The UCS report included evidence that the administration distorted or suppressed data concerning global change, the health hazards of mercury and airborne bacteria from farm waste and proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act.

Why would an administration in a country with a long history of support for the sciences do these things? Why would an administration use technology (computers and the internet) whose very existence is based on theories of physics and quantum mechanics that define unscientific interpretations of our origins as myth and superstition, to disseminate information that is in direct conflict with what science knows to be true?

There are two answers. The first, as discussed above, is fundamentalism and concomitant a cynical appeal to voters who subscribe to that system of belief. The second however is this administration's unholy alliance with the corporate metastructure.

President Bush has put together a cabinet of CEOs and millionaires; he routinely appoints former executives and industry lobbyists for the greatest polluting industries as directors of agencies whose function is to regulate those industries. He has, to follow Paul Krugman's logic, empowered a revolutionary process. The function of that process is to return America - to return the world - to a feudalistic society in which corporate barons make all decisions and derive the primary benefits of their unhindered exploitation of the natural and human resources a of the earth.

As it has throughout history, religion, in this case the fundamentalist Christian Church and its doctrines, is greasing the wheels for this process.

Coexistence or Capitulation

We are faced with a new imperialism, driven by the Cheney doctrine of Pax Americana and avaricious corporations empowered by the concepts of globalization. With control over both the Congress and the White House and with its eyes set on control of the judiciary, the Bush administration has a mainly disinterested or largely supportive people to contend with. Given its religious biases and entitlements, its anti-scientific policies and its seemingly unending capacity to lie and distort the truth for a gullible public, there is little light on the horizon for those who would like to preserve the earth.

Can Christianity, corporations and capitalism co-exist with the earth rather than see it a God given teat to suck on until it is flaccid? Some seek to remain optimistic and couch that optimism in the language of "sustainable development." But sustainable development, a catchphrase now co-opted by corporations to support their ideas for continued and unsustainable growth, is not a functional construct in a world in which the destruction and abuse of human, natural and social capital is seen as an acceptable price for the purpose of creating human-made capital.

Efforts have been made to reconcile the split between science and religion on the issue of the environment, most notably in the 1992 "Joint Appeal by Science and Religion on the Environment" led by eminent scientists and hosted by Senator Al Gore. But these efforts failed in part because of the inherent conflict between belief systems that on the one hand see no "purpose" for the universe and, on the other, see God's purpose in all things. In addition, there was a bit of disingenuousness in an effort by scientists to recruit religious people into a mission that the scientists themselves denied a rationale for: saving the earth because it conflicts with God's purpose to destroy it. There has been little progress toward reconciliation since that time; indeed it seems clear at this point that science is once again being suppressed in favor of an exploitive orthodoxy that supports only the accumulation of wealth.

Economist Herman E. Daly expresses the belief that, despite the philosophical problems, we are facing a reality in which real limits will be placed on prosperity not by the lack of man-made capital but the lack of natural capital. Daly points out that the limits to increased fish harvests are not a lack of fishing vessels, but productive fisheries; irrigation is limited not by a lack of equipment, but the loss of viable aquifers; the limits to pulp and lumber production are not sawmills, but plentiful forests.

In short, a capitalism that continues to operate as if it is entitled to unrestricted dominion over the earth will eventually destroy the substrate of its own (and our) existence. Only a secular and scientific policy that denies dominion and values ultimate survival over unending consumption and growth will prevent that from happening.

(Norman Council is a behavioral healthcare administration professional, an assistant professor, elected representative in his hometown of Lansdowne Pennsylvania and a freelance writer of fiction, poetry and political commentary. His commentary pieces have been published by NPR, the Philadelphia Inquirer and several smaller periodicals.)


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