There is a very old and venerable religion that enjoys considerable currency amongst the nation’s elite. It is the theology of the “economic mover,” the benevolent despot whose unsurpassed wisdom in economic affairs keeps the world spinning on its axis. If it were not for a pantheon of such gray-eyed men – and the odd woman or two – the international economy would cease to exist as we know it: markets would crash, stocks would plummet, and the human-race would be sent back into the Dark Ages. Like Atlas, these stern but publicly-minded demigods are the shoulders upon which modern life rests. With knowing forbearance they sort out the messes made by the rude, innumerate masses; the velocity of money can be divined with their crystal balls; inflation is kept in check through use of their mysterious spells; and excessive spending on the poor is disciplined with the iron rods of austerity and structural adjustment. Their names are embossed on public monuments, universities and buildings. “Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Stanford…” they are names that inspire awe as they slip off the tongue; names that are meant to be whispered, inscribed, praised, rather than simply spoken.
Today’s economic movers are found in the pages of Fortune 500. Rather than assuming the stiff demeanor of a Victorian banker they tend to wear the sleek, modish outfit of a tech entrepreneur, or, if more conservative, fitted suits with designer shoes. “Knight, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerman…” their names grace the pages of ‘The Wall Street Journal’; a few, such as Zuckerman and Jobs, have even gained mortality on the silver screen.
But the capitalist theology which they embody is ultimately a morally bankrupt one. It is a religion of dollars and cents, and a rather peculiar one at that. Instead of collecting money to help the poor, money is collected before being redistributed to the top – this being the core tenet of the capitalist creed: the accumulation of surplus value. And the forgotten masses are supposed to celebrate this state of unnatural inequality. (Though perhaps all the hoorah is part of a subconscious effort to salve their own consciences with white noise, to insulate them from the misery they are creating – like a separation wall – and buttress their delusions with evidence as artificial as the GMOs they peddle.) In a world of symbols, of dollars and cents, the “economic movers” are the symbols of modern capitalism; icons splashed across the agitprop of the corporate state; the essence of a system whose soul is thin as the paper money on which it is printed.
But the staying power of this propaganda should not be underestimated: after decades of increasing inequality and multiple recessions, producers of intelligent opinion still profess faith in the theology of the “economic mover”. If anything, however, the Great Recession has disproved the “economic mover” thesis in spades: the international economy was shaken not in spite of these “movers,” but because of their malfeasance and greed. Indeed, the past several years has shown that the main types of “movement” produced by these “movers” is the collapse of sweatshops (as in Bangladesh) onto workers, and the eviction of American families from their homes. And I would be remiss if not to mention the relentless “movement” of the nation’s wealth from the hands of the 99% to the tax havens, portfolios, and bank accounts of the 1%.
In Oregon, the theology of the economic mover is most ardently espoused by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. The Nike brand is a religion unto itself, its ubiquitous Swoosh likely enjoying more recognition than the cross in the post-Christian West. Besides being suffused with quasi-religious iconography, the company also has its own golden rule: “Just do it.” In 21st century America, this maxim translates as follows: buy, buy, buy. Thinking about what you purchase is, of course, unnecessary; it is the act itself that matters. With an “economic-mover” like Knight at the helm, the rest of society does not need to think; they just need to listen, to follow; to do as they are told. “Just do it.” Thus, with faintly Orwellian overtones, Nike sets out to capture markets, control the cheapest labor, and monopolize the industry. Its single-minded aim is victory – as its name implies – and if a few eggs are broken in the process, this is of no concern. After all, they have decided to “Just do it”.
What makes the case of Knight noteworthy, though, is his eagerness to play the part of the far-sighted mogul, the towering philanthropist whose uncanny insights and self-denial balm society’s ills and uplift the poor. His and his wife’s recent pledge of $500 million to cancer research – that is, if Oregonians can raise matching funds – is just one example of such staged self-sacrifice (or should we say self-adulation?). Just as with their famous shoes, the Knight’s love to advertise their philanthropy.
Much the same can be said about Knight’s favorite pet-project, the University of Oregon. As students face soaring tuition rates, classrooms fall apart, and teachers are sloughed off like a dead snake skin, Knight has channeled his money into what is obviously the most pressing issue at the school: building a new football operations center. The new facility boasts 64 television screens, a 45 foot ceiling and imported construction materials – and this is just the entrance. To “rid the body of waste-products,” twin 40-foot long pools were built (with variable water temperatures, of course) for the athletes; a 170-seat movie theater allows football players to engage in serious “study”; and a state-of-the-art kitchen with a chef-nutritionist caters to each player’s diet. Across the river, where actual students go to school, the campus faces $105 million in lagging maintenance costs. As Diane Dietz reports for ‘The Register-Guard,’ this sum will grow to $291 million within the next decade.
If one is inclined to dismiss such ostentation as an unusual lapse in Knight’s good judgment, it is worth remembering his last “contribution” to the university: the Jaqua Center, a study hall built exclusively for student athletes. The Jaqua Center – or the Taj Mahal, as it is referred to by the student majority who is forbidden from using it – has an entirely glass façade, Italian-leather sofas, and cost a cool $42 million to construct. According to ‘The Oregonian,’ this means that the building “cost about twice as much per square foot as Portland's priciest condo buildings”. Apparently student athletes were too good, delicate, or stupid for the preexisting study centers on campus. Within its first two years of operation the building already began to experience serious water damage. And there is no evidence that the building fulfills any service that is not rendered elsewhere on campus – that is, besides providing the local fowl a massive reflection pool to play in.
Recently, Knight has been playing the “economic mover” card with special insistence. In fact, sources claim that he was a driving force behind the creation of the newly inaugurated “independent” governing boards, semi-private school boards separate from the Oregon Board of Higher Education. Why would Knight lobby for more independent – i.e., private – influence over the University of Oregon? The answer is straightforward: he wants more control over how the university is run, instead of having to pay attention to the will of the pesky public. At present, public schools are, well, public. That means they are legally obligated to respect the wishes of Oregonians in general, rather than run by elite fiat. By adopting a governance system that is more open to private interference, however, Knight can more easily leverage his “philanthropy” in order get his policies of choice enacted – even over the will of the public.
This is disturbing for several reasons, not the least of which being the fact that most of the “contributions” Knight has made to the university have been motivated by thinly veiled self-interest. To Knight, the university is one big marketing scheme, a chance to immortalize his name and peddle the Nike brand. This is why every recent “contribution” has been to sports facilities – the basketball arena, football operations center, and Jaqua Center – which invariably use Nike products, and have obvious commercial value. Televised sports coverage allows the Swoosh to proselytize consumers across the country; the Swoosh has a prominent role in university publications; and through these avenues Nike corners a large chunk of the collegiate sports market.
Knight’s record exemplifies the tendency amongst “economic movers” to make “contributions” not on the basis of public need, but, rather, on the basis of narrow self-interest. This is one of the big flaws of the economic mover thesis. Economic movers generally fail to advocate coherent policies which help the public at large because their motives, priorities and vision are conditioned by the prejudices of their class. So while they may pour millions into pet projects, these projects are often of dubious value. The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, for instance, was famous for erecting libraries, but his libraries were often empty. His workers were forced to labor for such long stints – sometimes over 24 hours – they did not have time to read.
Much the same can be said of Knight. Movie theaters, Italian-leather sofas, and personal chefs are frivolous investments that do not benefit anyone except for the clique who uses them, and the interests whom they serve; that is, Knight Inc. That Knight did not foresee that such expenditures – during the Great Recession and a student debt crisis – were in very poor taste, is perhaps the strongest indicator of just how removed he is from the needs of the average student. Indeed, anyone who can convince themselves that they “deserve,” or are wise enough to handle $16.8 billion – Knight’s net worth – is either too foolish or conceited to be trusted with serious policy-making.
And it is worth asking how Knight came to be rolling in dough in the first place. The problem with the economic mover is the problem with capitalism: it relies on extracting more value from workers than what they are rewarded for their work. This is, in fact, what makes the principle of profit possible; if workers were fully rewarded for all the labor they put into their work then the accumulation of profit would be impossible. In practice, this has meant: one, squeezing the most labor power possible out of workers during working hours; two, deskilling work in order to make each worker easier to replace; and three, pushing wages down as low as possible by exploiting the most vulnerable labor pools (usually by “outsourcing”).
This is precisely how Nike managed to become a heavyweight in the textile industry. Like other clothing-makers, the company manufactures its clothes in countries where sweatshops are the norm. Here safety regulations are often disregarded and labor laws violated. Sometimes Nike has even paid private militias to protect its business interests. In short, the theme of Nike work is bad pay and bad conditions. As a ‘Labor Notes’ article (“Nike’s Love Affair with Sweatshops: Still Doing It”) on Gina Cano and Lowlee Urquía, two Honduran sweatshop workers, explains, the company breaks labor laws:
“The two women represented more than 1,700 workers who are owed $2.2 million in severance pay [after a sudden factory closure]. The workers are also owed health care premiums, which were deducted from their wages but never paid to the health care system. This meant that workers could not access health care in the four months before the closure. At least one worker, who had been receiving cancer treatment, died because of this denial of care, according to Cano and Urquía.”
The collapse of Rana Plaza and the Savar building site – the deadliest garment factory incident in history – this year, underscore the fact that the life of the modern garment worker is as bad as it has ever been. In an era of great wealth, when student athletes study on Italian leather sofas, there is no good reason for this to be the case. Besides raising ethical questions about capitalism in general, these developments pose another question: should the University of Oregon accept the “contributions” of Knight, a known human rights violator, since he “earned” this wealth by stealing it from poor people? And the reader should consider just how ridiculous the entire situation is: families are starved, brutalized, and broken so that Nike – a company that ironically champions sports participation in the Third World – can build garish monuments to the sacred Swoosh. As in the case of Carnegie’s libraries, Knight may give athletic equipment to the poor, but in the long-run his “contributions” are not helpful. After all, these children are too busy sewing the Swooshes in his sweatshops to have a childhood, let alone play sports.
Lastly, it is important to note that the crimes of Knight reflect the criminality of capitalism in general. One can spend all day (rightly) chiding Knight for his misplaced priorities, but the capitalist system within which we all live is based on similar distortions. It is a system that reduces human life to a brute means to an end, and puts the accumulation of profit over the well-being of the planet. It is one which reveres money – a literal “means” of exchange – as the ultimate “end,” even over the well-being of humanity, the “end” it is supposed to serve. This is ironic, and in bad taste, seeing as the value of money only comes from human labor; in other words, humanity is the real “end” or source of value, even if we are to use capitalism’s confused logic. The problem we face is thus one of disconnect, blindness; to forget that the economy is meant to serve humans, not humans the economy.
In a world of misplaced priorities, it is thus important to redeem the truths that have been hidden and to reevaluate our priorities; to rectify the language. The first step towards this goal is to take back the philosophical truths that capitalists have hidden, distorted or perverted for their own. In the West, for example, Christianity has long been used to justify capitalism, despite the fact that the teachings of Jesus are inimical to the status quo. There are several basic points that I would like to emphasize along this vein:
Firstly, the Bible is emphatic about the injustice of poverty, and the corruption that great wealth engenders. For conservative “Christians” to blame the poor for their poverty is not only stupid – the idea is a tautology – but to deny the Bible itself. Ecclesiastes chapter five, for example, directly links the suffering of the poor to the greed of the rich, noting that “If you see the poor oppressed… and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised”. The chapter goes on to explain that “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless,” before noting “a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded”. For “Christians” to suppose that the poor are less morally fit is consequently unchristian. After all, Jesus was born into poverty and stayed poor his entire life. The people he ridiculed in his teachings were usually the Pharisees and religious elite – in other words, the rich people.
Secondly, the predatory lending schemes and debt bondage that exist today are unbiblical. In other words, the modern financial system – one marked by hedge funds, predatory lending, and the spread of debt-based securities – should be opposed by Christians. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to forgive each other their debts every seven years, and Psalms 15 notes that the person who follows God “lends his [or her] money without usury.” It is also worth noting that the only time Jesus is recorded as using force is when he drives the money-lenders out of the temple.
The existence of financial institutions like the Word Bank and IMF, which lend money to poor countries on onerous terms, makes God sick. It is worth noting that the raison d’être of these institutions is to provide financial support and liquidity to poor countries, yet they still choose to operate for a profit. In other words, they choose to benefit from the suffering of the most vulnerable members of human society. Almost half of the national budget of countries like the Philippines, for instance, has gone to paying just the interest on such debts. And most of the time the “structural adjustment” plans agreed upon as a precondition for these loans is based on the exploitation of cheap labor with foreign capital. Put another way, the “development” plans take advantage of poverty, i.e., low wage levels. Poverty is built into the system. And, of course, many of these countries – like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Honduras – are poor because of the legacy of Western imperialism. In other words, they are penalized for having been exploited in the past – by the very same people.
Thirdly, the Bible does not support a laissez-faire approach to poverty, especially if this means killing government programs that would help the poor. The current notion – much in vogue – that poverty should be left to the private sector or churches is not only unpractical but unbiblical. In Deuteronomy, for instance, the Israelites are commanded to levy a tax in support of the poor. It is also clear that Jesus would not see the tax obligations of the rich as unduly burdensome. This is a significant point because many self-identified “Christians” claim that the rich should only be taxed the same percentage of their income as the working-class. In fact, Jesus explicitly states that the contributions of the less wealthy, even if smaller, are greater than those of the rich. Because this is a sensitive point, it is worth citing the relevant passage at length:
“As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:1-4).
Since Jesus states that the lady who gave “out of… poverty” gave “more” than the rich, the notion that the rich assume an undue share of the tax burden seems wrong. For Obama and the nation’s political elite to champion the principle of “shared sacrifice” may very well be unchristian. In Jesus’ eyes, at least, a sacrifice is hardly “shared” if some people are forced to give “out of… poverty” while the “sacrifice” of others only amounts to shifting around some numbers in their checkbook. One person feels their “sacrifice” in the form of hunger pains, insecurity and hopelessness. The other person just gets peeved – that is, if they even learn of the difference.
And lastly, rich people who claim to be Christians are commanded to share their wealth. The idea of the “economic mover” is not biblical, and, in fact, the Bible has far more warnings against the trappings of wealth than perhaps any other evil. 1 Timothy 6:9-10 states that “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…” Later in the chapter, Paul tells Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth…. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” The idea that the rich are somehow more deserving or far-sighted than the poor is completely foreign to Christian philosophy.
Christianity is an anti-Establishment religion. It teaches that the world is divided by sin, the powerful are usually corrupt, and the poor are always exploited. If the status quo is screwed up, as the Bible claims, then it seems decidedly unchristian for “Christians” to champion the system that is, in fact, the status quo. Instead, Christians should be very skeptical of capitalism, with its theology of the “economic mover” and sublimation of greed. Above all, they should fight for the poor, and be willing to give what they have to help those in need. What they have is not their own, it is God’s, so they better be wise about how they use it.
The hero worship and corporate allegiance that accompanies capitalism is interesting to behold. Commercials pop-up on the television screen and tell you what to buy; they dot the computer screen and tell you what you need to be happy; they fill the air-waves and even line the roads, overwhelming the senses until you don’t even notice them anymore. They become a part of you. “Are you a Mac or a PC?” they ask. Which corporation will you sell your soul too? They both are congenital polluters, wage-slavers, and poverty-makers, but oh, they are so different! Which one is bigger, better, sleeker, more youthful, sexier, intelligent… So which one are you?
And there are so many choices to make. There is no time to think, only time to do; to react. “Just do it.” Mildly amused, the parents watch their children run about in childhood bliss. Their rock collections, trading cards, postcards all seem so insignificant to the grown-ups. The adults, of course, have matured: they have dedicated their lives to collecting green paper, the more the better. Some will even kill for it. They have chosen. Or perhaps most has been chosen for them. Born into poverty, the dollar acquires different significance: the difference between a meal and going hungry, keeping your home or losing it, taking the baby to the doctor or…
Rising from the bottom to the top, we encounter the knowers, the economic movers, those rich enough to live out their own delusions. They enjoy charades. The poor are poor because they are poor; they want to stay that way. Welfare aid (aside: welfare is, by definition, meant to provide aid to those without work) should only go to those who are working. If they don’t work they should not get aid for those who don’t work. It’s simple math, we are proportionally smarter and harder working than everyone else and deserve to be compensated accordingly. Yes, even if our salaries are three-hundred times that of our workers. Of course we work three-hundred times harder!
Oh, it’s time for my meeting with the chamber of commerce. We’ve got to prevent those communists from trying to unionize downtown. “Family wage” my ***! If they are so poor they just shouldn’t have babies. They’re like rats you know…