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Issue #1798      October 11, 2017

The moral hazard of capitalism

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

As I write this, we have no word of a motive, or even of a final death toll, in the mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas.

And so, what can we say?

We offer our condolences – once again, in a ritual that has become as American as the flag – to the loved ones of those killed. To the injured, we send our best wishes for a quick recovery. To deliberately take, or attempt to take, a human life is a grievous thing.

And, once again, with our hands raised in mourning and our heads bowed in grief and introspection, we ask how and why such a thing can happen.

To answer that question, we do not need to know what particular loathsome whispers and poisonous thoughts introduced finger to trigger, and bullets to innocent flesh. It is enough to look ourselves, and our society, squarely in the face.

It happens because we learn more from bad examples than from good advice, and because we live in a society where life is cheaply held.

When we see that environmental wreckage, war, and displacement of populations can be justified by the value extracted for shareholders, what do we learn, except to rationalise suffering and explain away misery as the way of the world?

When we see rubber bullets, and tear gas grenades, and batons used to control protestors, what can we conclude, in our secret reasoning, except that violence is the price of order?

When we are told that health care is not a human right, what can we realise, except that health and sickness, respite and suffering, life and death are rationed out with property?

And when, finally, we are shown that the state bears no responsibility for the lives or welfare of its people; when the jobless and the homeless are thrown on the mercy of private charity; when the law protects the right of gun owners to shoot people that frighten them, and the right of drivers to run down protestors that inconvenience them, and the right of the rich to loot the funds set aside to help the poor, what lesson are we to draw?

Only this: that under capitalism, the decision to protect life or take it, to inflict suffering or to relieve it, is an individual decision about the use of property, to be made without the interference of the state.

In the law, the concept of “moral hazard” designates the danger of bad examples, the idea that allowing someone to get away with something sets a precedent for harmful behaviour.

The epidemic of mass shootings is evidence that we have disregarded the moral hazard of capitalism.

We have rubbed for so long against this perverse and inhuman system that the distinction between citizen and executioner, between order and violence, has been worn away.

And so gun control is good. And vigils against violence are good. And teaching love, and tolerance, and respect is good.

But in the end, as Dr King said, “the whole Jericho road must be transformed.”

As long as property rights include the right to deal violence, suffering, and death, we will recite the litany of condolences in an endless loop.

People’s World

Next article – Ten days that shook the world

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