My mother died of cancer five years ago. While most of the cells in her body grew and reproduced at a rate that merely kept her alive, there were a few rogue cells that mutated and changed — reprogramming themselves as greedy individuals who cared about nothing except rapid growth and exploitation of the body’s natural reserves.
As these cancerous cells spread throughout her body, they replaced the healthy functioning of the immune system with their own logic. And this led to her eventual death.
We fear cancer for important reasons. One is that it is a natural risk for any cooperative being — as some individuals within the larger collective could at any time “go rogue” and exploit the shared resources for personal gain. My mother had a small number of cells in her breast that behaved in this way.
Another is that these rogue individuals use the very systems of immunity that keep the host alive to ensure their own survival. Eventually the mutant breast cells spread to her lymph nodes where they found a vast transportation network enabling them to spread throughout her entire body.
Cancer is scary because it uses the very same life supports that make multicellular organisms possible to bring about an incredibly resilient disease often leading to suffering and eventual death of the organism.
A frightening parallel can be seen when we think about global capitalism. As I’ve written elsewhere, the central logic of this economic system is to extract wealth from the productive activities of others and hoard it for personal gain. This creates a system that is eerily like cancer — as endless economic growth becomes the primary purpose for greedy individuals who are structurally incapable of ever having enough. When they became millionaires, it was necessary to infiltrate the political process to secure even more.
Until the whole system unravels and collapses…
We have watched as capitalism encroached on the land rights of 16th Century peasants. It spread with colonialism to extract natural resources from the African continent and the Americas. Now there is a vast globalized system of wealth extraction that applies the logic of cancerous growth to the entire planet. This is how poverty is created. It is what leads to inequality. And it is destroying the life supports of the Earth by creating global warming, top-soil losses, ocean acidification, nitrogen poisoning of waterways, and the mass extinction we are now in.
Capitalism is a cancer and it is killing us.
In this knowledge comes hope. If capitalism is a cancer we can apply what is known about treating this deadly disease to the political and economic systems that nurtured it into being. Cancer — at its core — is a process of deregulation for life-giving functions in the body. Programmed cell death tells the individual cells of the body that they have lived out their usefulness. Timing is key for matching the replacement of tissues with different cell types, some growing quickly and others more slowly.
There are networks of regulatory function within the body that enable it achieve the massive cooperation for a trillion cells. These networks communicate continuously to achieve harmonic balance across roughly 200 different kinds of cells in this vastly complex system.
If a biological metaphor gave rise to the deadly economic system of today, its replacement should also be inspired by the nature of living systems. And just such a metaphor exists — homeostasis.
Homeostasis is an organism’s ability to keep critical parameters (temperature, metabolism, acidity, and so forth) within a safe operating range. It is thoroughly studied by medical researchers, neuroscientists, and biologists in many fields. A lot is known about it.
Here are a few operating principles for achieving homeostasis:
- Recognize the feedbacks between scales of organization. Local entities are nested within larger collectives, which are nested within yet larger systems. Cells make up tissue. Tissue makes up organs. Organs make up organ systems.
- See how the parts work together. The different functions of the body are able to partially govern themselves (responding in the moment to local changes) yet are part of “whole body” communication systems that they respond to diligently (like changes in blood chemistry from hormones released elsewhere in the body).
- Note how the purpose of the organism is to continue living so it can reproduce itself. Living things seek to continue living. Their systems of governance select for those properties that enable this to happen.
- Cooperation rules the day. While competition for resources must take place to some extent, the overall organization of the body is biased toward shared purpose and emergent collective functions.
These operating principles are what keeps cancer at bay. They enable the body to be locally responsive and decentralized for many key functions. Yet there is a centralized (or rather, a “whole body”) system of governance that gives coherence and purpose to the body overall.
We can already see elements of homeostasis in real-world economic systems. The diversity of local craft and trade sectors in different parts of the world function like cells and tissues. Our social infrastructure build through shared investments give rise to the bones and arteries that enable the economy to work across regions and scales.
And yet the “financialization” of the economy — making everything about money while building up a parasitic web of extractive investment practices — shows where the logic of cancer enters the system. A few rogue capitalists back in the day discovered ways to partner with lawmakers so they could grab land from peasants, close off their shared resources, and extract rent by selling it back to them.
A similar process has been replicated in every other sector of society between then and now. Our task is to reverse this. We must re-establish the social norms and practices that bring life-affirming ethics to the politics and economics that govern our world.
Doing so requires a replacement of one metaphor with another — away from cancer and into homeostasis. Economies are biological organisms. They need to be capable of self-regulation in service of life. No other logic could possibly be sustainable.
Onward, fellow humans.
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