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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Produce of Their Labor (p. 363)

From chapter "Production"

It would be just as much of a mistake to think Carbide is the only company that has killed people in the name of production. I could just as easily write about Freeport-McMoRan, an American-based mining company committing genocide in southeastern Asia by destroying the environment of native cultures, dispossessing natives of their land, and mowing down with machine-gun fire those who resist. Or I could write about RTZ committing genocide in South America by destroying the environment of native cultures, dispossessing natives of their land, and mowing down with machine-gun fire those who resist. Or I could write about Shell, a Dutch-based oil company committing genocide in Africa by destroying the environment of native cultures, dispossessing natives of their land, and having hanged those who resist. Or I could write about the routine atrocities committed in the insatiable pursuit of profits by Cargill, Exxon, Monsanto, Weyerhaeuser, RJ Reynolds, General Electric, Tyson, Maxxam, or any other large corporation.

Corporations, like pieces of art, religions, or other human artifacts, beliefs, or institutions, are manifestations of cultural desire. Any human construct arises in its precise form only within the specific culture that creates it. The music of Jimi Hendrix could not have happened in the 1920s, and the art of Picasso could not have been created and nourished by twelfth-century Normans. Christianity arose within the specific historical-geographical context of the Judeo-Roman Middle East; Taoism at the ancient boundary between civilized and indigenous China; Christianity could not have arisen two thousand years ago in what is now the Pacific Northwest of the United States; nor could primal Taoism originate in modern Asia. American Indians did not create corporations. Only our culture has done that.

Corporations such as DeBeers, Union Carbide, Freeport McMoRan, and any others you care to name are fruits of our modern, civilized, industrialized society. What cultural desires manifest themselves in these institutions?

It’s not just corporations. Think about a number I mentioned in passing a few pages ago. More than half of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending goes to the military, to war. This country is the largest exporter of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. The United States is the largest user of weapons, including, once again, weapons of mass destruction. It is also the largest producer of instruments of torture.

Consider the B-2 bomber. We can conservatively estimate that each B-2 bomber costs $2.4 billion. Since each plane weighs between 130 and 135 tons, these planes cost the American public over $500 an ounce, more than the price of gold or platinum and one hundred times the price of silver. The bombers cost considerably more to those whose lives are most intimately affected by them: their targets, the people of Iraq, Serbia, and anywhere else the United States decides to flex its muscles, in support of industrial production.

In a finite world, every resource expended for one purpose is unavailable for any other purpose. If you eat a salmon, I cannot eat that particular salmon. If one eats or otherwise kills all of the salmon, no one will ever eat salmon again. The same principle works in economics. Every dollar spent building a B-2 bomber is unavailable to pay for immunization and food that a child needs to survive. Every human-hour used is unavailable to rehabilitate damaged streams, to create music or poetry, to play with children, or to teach people how to read. Every gigawatt of electricity consumed is unavailable to run hospitals or schools, or to take down the ecologically destructive dams that may have generated the electricity (although the wattage more likely came from fossil fuels). Since no one in her right mind wishes to kill people by dropping bombs on them, the best any of us can sanely hope for is that every resource used in the construction of these bombers will be wasted. The alternative is that the bombers will be used for their designated purpose, which is to destroy. What cultural rootstock would put its resources into yielding such fruit as this? What cultural consciousness would engender such choices?

A couple of thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth said, “By their fruits shall ye know them.” Not by their words. Not by their stated intent. By the actual produce of their labor. Corporations that consistently kill in the name of production, and governments that use the full power of the state to back them up. Pesticides. Dewatered rivers. Silicosis. B-2 bombers. Nuclear weapons delivery systems. What do the existence of these artifacts say about our culture? We study paintings on the walls of the Lascaux caves and ask ourselves what those artifacts say about the culture that created them. We study masks of indigenous peoples of Central America to learn about their cultures. We fully recognize that the music of Jimi Hendrix provides a clue to the cultural texture of Britain and America in the 1960s. Is it so great a leap to ask what clues the stories of Union Carbide and other corporations reveal about the inner workings of our culture?

The cultural consciousness in which we find ourselves immersed is creating artifacts and institutions that are destroying life on this planet. They are destroying cultures, uprooting and eliminating ways of life. They are ripping apart communities. They are taking the lives of individuals, quickly, by killing them, and, slowly, by eliminating any alternative to the wage economy.

There is a difference between putting on a white robe and calling someone a nigger, then castrating and lynching him, and sitting behind a desk, calling someone a worker, then profiting from his labor and poisoning him. But there are clearly more similarities than we care to think about. Or than we care to think about clearly.