Every religious tradition stands in some tension with its society, legitimizing some things in terms of a larger eternal context, but in the process challenging others, sometimes deeply.  As NeoPagan religions increase in America this same pattern is developing. This essay explores how the logic of Pagan religion leads us to question the legitimacy of some important contemporary institutions, particularly the joint stock corporation, and with this questioning, the way our society views the world. 

More deeply than most religions, NeoPagans legitimize and honor the goodness of this world, the sacred immanence that shines through all things.  Consequently, from a Pagan perspective living well in our world requires observing appropriate ethical and moral relationships.  This insight cannot help but lead us to criticize attitudes treating this world as noting but a means for human ends.

Our society’s institutional and legal core views the world as without value beyond its use to us.  A mountain or forest has no more intrinsic value than a crumpled wad of paper.  Our economic system in particular is only able to relate to the world on these terms. Its signature institution, the joint stock corporation, is created so treat everything it encounters as either a resource for attaining its goal of making money, a threat to that goal, or irrelevant. By understanding what is defective about a corporation we can better appreciate what Pagan insights add to our world.

A corporation selects its leaders through voting based on how many shares an owner owns.  The more money a person invests, the more votes they control,  guaranteeing as much as any human institution can that values inhibiting making money will be ignored.  If a CEO sacrifices share value to anything else, he or she will likely be ousted.  Consequently, CEOs who care only for making money will have a competitive edge over men and women with a wider and deeper sense of what it is to be a decent human being.  Corporations select for sociopathic leadership, and often they succeed. 

The problem gets worse. Most share holders are normal human beings with a normal range of values. Doing well is one of them, but other values also matter. Many are too busy to spend a great deal of their lives pouring over comparative performance and forecast reports to determine what shares to buy or sell. So they hire others to do it for them.  These “others” are usually mutual funds. Most investors will not even know what corporations they “own” a part of. They own shares in the funds.

Fund managers are legally required to seek the maximum income for their clients.  Unless they are “green funds” mutual funds remove human values one additional step from influencing economic decision-making.

As decisions about investments are increasingly removed from the complex values motivating human beings to the one dimensional world of seeking money over everything else a strange transformation takes place.  In my terms it is the transition from a market economy based on private ownership to capitalism and the abolition of what we usually describe as private ownership of the means of production. 

The end of ownership

To own something is to control it and to be responsible for it.  But most shareholders do not control the corporation of which they ‘own’ a part.  Nor are they responsible for its actions.  If a corporation commits a crime, shareholders are not responsible.  But the problem is deeper than that. 

Suppose I discover a corporation in which I have invested is doing something morally objectionable.  I protest. They respond their policies are “good business.” I sell my shares in protest.  They are then bought by someone who is either not aware of why I sold, or does not care.

What happened?  The shares are now owned by someone without my moral objections. If bad actions increase the corporation’s profits, they benefit. If I break off my involvement with wrong behavior, those who approve it will benefit.  Whatever this is, it is not ownership. It has no resemblance to the small business created and owned by an entrepreneur and reflecting his or her values. 

In reality capitalism ‘owns’ the companies and share ‘owners’ receive a dividend depending on how well they invest their resources to serve capitalism in making as much money as it can.  Share ‘owners’ are only rewarded when they serve capitalist values. When they do not serve capitalism’s values  their shares dwindle in value or are sold, and they are excluded from influence.  In a sense they are laid off. 

Share holders work for capitalism rather than capitalism working for them.  If they are good at it they do well, but it is a mistake to think of them as anything but  subordinates. At this level they are akin to state socialism where the state owns the industries and pays managers to run them, giving bonuses to those who run them well. Capitalism is more efficient than state socialism, but the role of human values and freedom in both cases is subordinated to power.

There is a great irony in conservatives worrying about government taking over private property but having no objection to corporate capitalism. To the extent it is corporate the business world has already expropriated  private property. It happened not through laws taking rights away but by capitalism fundamentally changing the context in which those rights exist, so that the most important of them disappeared from practical economic impact. ‘Owners’ remain, but they receive income depending on how well they serve capitalism. If they object and leave, their oversight in service to capitalism is transferred to someone more willing to do the job.

A personal example

A concrete example might help nail down an abstract argument. For many years I made my living as an artist, and the stationery and cards I designed and sold paid for my Ph.D. and sometimes supported me for years afterwards.  I wholesaled over much of the US and met a pay roll.  Ultimately email began reducing demand, and I closed it down. (How many letters do you write every year?)

Suppose that had not happened and my business grew and grew.  At some point I might have chosen what many business people do when they are successful, and tried to take it public, becoming a joint stock corporation in order to raise capital and grow more. Had I done so control would have shifted from me to shareholders.  I would have become an employee, a hired manager.  If I had made decisions that negatively affected total money profit the shareholders would have been justified in firing me and hiring someone more money driven. And as I explained, share holding tends to go towards those motivated only by money in these decisions. 

When I ran my business I made many decisions that limited my profits over what they otherwise would have been, such as using recycled paper even though it cost more, providing “Pagan discounts,”  and giving products away for charitable purposes even though I received no recognition (and so free advertising) for doing so.  I often over paid employees compared to what I likely would have needed to if only money mattered.

None of these practices would have been justified under the new regime unless they resulted in greater profits.

Capitalism and Nature

The deathly logic of capitalism extends to living beings.

Bernard Rollins described the following event in his ethics column in the Canadian Veterinary Journal: (reported in The Land report, no. 74, summer, 2004.)

You [as a veterinarian] are called to a 500-sow farrow-to-finish swine operation . . .  As you examine several sows in the crated gestation unit, you notice one with a hind leg at an unusual angle and inquire about her status.  You are told “She broke her leg yesterday and she’s due to farrow next week.  We’ll let her farrow in here, and then we’ll shoot her and foster off her pigs.”  Is it ethically correct to leave the sow with a broken leg for a week while you await her farrowing?

When the visiting vet offered to splint the sow’s leg for free, he was told profit margins were so tight they could not afford the time to care for her.

This was not a unique event. When one of Rollins’ colleagues’ son-in-law was working in an industrial hog “farm” he noticed some of the pigs were sick and, being familiar with the disease, offered to treat it.  “’We don’t treat sick animals’ he was told, ‘We kill them by knocking them over the head with a crowbar.’”  The man treated them anyway and was fired for his efforts, until he told management he had done so with his own money.  He was re-hired “with a reprimand and warning.”

A Pagan connection

For years the family-held Pacific Lumber Company had logged profitably in Northern California while being popular with environmentalists due to their wise practices.  They decided to go public to raise more money.  When they did corporate raiders from Texas decided their shares were “under valued” because if they were more ruthless in their logging they would be able to make more money.  They took it over using borrowed cash, or junk bonds, greatly increased the rate of cutting, inflicted untold environmental damage on land they owned as well as land and people living downstream from the landslides they caused, and triggered the timber wars that tore apart Northern California’s social fabric for years.  Essentially Wall Street was waging war  against the people, land, and waters of northern California’s redwood forests. No clearer example of the conflict between capitalism and human values could be described (although there are many others as clear).    

 People protested this destruction. The protests were dramatically and firmly supported by Reclaiming, one of the largest Pagan organizations in the country. Witches helped raise money and offered other support for Earth First!  in its efforts to defeat the capitalists.  Ultimately they succeeded, as California adopted regulations requiring wiser logging practices, and when they became law the Texas vandals could not make money and the company went bankrupt. 

The issue here was not people making use of the land.  The issue was people using the land as if it had no value other than its service to some, and as that logic worked itself out, no value other than  its service to capitalism. Kiowa writer Scott Momaday’s observation captures a Pagan point of view: “You say I use the land, and I reply, yes it is true; but it is not the first truth.  The first truth is that I love the land; I see that it is beautiful.  I delight in it; I am alive in it.” 

From a Pagan perspective what is happening is a moral failing in many ways as complete and catastrophic as the millennial old acceptance of slavery.  Despite its horrors slavery was accepted by Pagans, Christians and others alike.  It only became vulnerable to abolition when some people developed sufficient moral awareness to see its wrongness while recognizing alternatives to it on a more ‘practical’ level. 

Do we have practical  alternatives available that can free us from capitalism and enable people to be able to act in a morally and ethically deeper way towards the rest of the world?

The answer is yes. My next post will describe the most inspiring alternative about which I know.