Speak no evil

Corporate greed is evil, whether we call it that or not

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There was a time when you could call something evil and people knew what you meant. They understood that you were not speaking in hyperbole. They understood that evil is one of the central players in the human drama, a thing that will not perish from the earth. Nowadays, to call something evil is to invite scorn and a sniggering assumption of provincialism. To be labelled as “religious” or “spiritual,” words which have of late gained a patina of ironic contempt.

The slow-motion disaster that has been our culture’s embrace of post-modernism, in which no viewpoint enjoys special privilege or validity, has robbed us of the language needed to discuss even the concept of evil, which presumes certain immutable truths. What we do not discuss, we are prone to forget exists. Men who do not believe in evil cannot believe that they (or anyone) serve it. They are perhaps the most likely to do evil.

The artistic (and thus spiritual) embrace of postmodernism has been accompanied by widespread implementation of the principles of globalization in economics. The currently under negotiation Trans-Pacific Partnership, once adopted, will be the most advanced manifestation of this system yet realized. It will be a crystallization of trends which see the bleeding of the poor of money, jobs, and dignity for the sake of increasing the wealth of the few.

Like postmodernism, globalization is empty of moral values or judgements. Human ideals are cast aside, and the poverty and economic inequality resulting from this system are accepted because no moral caveats are placed on the accumulation of capital through profit.

Together, postmodernism and globalization give birth to neoliberalism. This is a fearsome system that refuses the validity of moral criticism – it could be called evil, if we still accepted as a culture that things can be evil. A system is not conscious; by itself it cannot be evil. But there are men behind the corporations, those entities which are the chief beneficiaries of neoliberalism. Despite unnerving legal arguments to the contrary, a corporation is not a person. It cannot be evil. But the men who make decisions for that corporation certainly can be.

Consider what is no more than a particularly glaring recent example of corporate malfeasance: the rigging of cars by Volkswagen with software designed to deceive regulators during fuel emissions tests, thus allowing cars that pollute much more than the legal amount of emissions to be sold. The justification? None has been offered so far, but the reason for this cannot be anything but pure greed on the part of decision makers within the company. For the sake of increasing their already obscene wealth, they purposefully deceived regulators and purposefully increased their role in polluting an already weakened planet. Harming the collective good for the sake of their own wealth. Mammon, that used to be called, in a time when men could recognize specific forms of evil.

The CEO of Volkswagen has apologized. “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” he said, as if the crime was a misunderstanding and not something that could not have been done without malice aforethought.

It is hardly the mea culpa that human decency would demand. It has all the insincerity of a child apologizing for stealing a cookie. What is the lesson learned when evil exposed is so easily excused? That evil no longer needs to bother about staying hidden.

We are entering into a time when evil can be openly done with near impunity. The economic and cultural system we live under has no energy, will, or desire to punish it. General Motors (GM) was recently found guilty of selling cars with a known defect that has killed at least 174 people. Again, what could be GM’s motive but profit? How can we describe people who make decisions which permit human deaths as collateral to profit, and then lie to investigators in an attempt to hide this, except as evil? But still, that word is not even whispered; no GM executive will face jail time.

GM and Volkswagen exist as logos; we think of them as a whole, as personalities – what they would call their branding. One undeniable result of this is that the sins of the corporation do not accrue, in the minds of the public, on individuals, no matter how great their personal involvement in offences.

Lesser-known corporations and firms cannot offer this cloak of anonymity, leaving specific individuals in full sight, exposed for what they are. Thus it is that the scorn of the world is focused on one Martin Shkreli.

Shkreli is the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which recently acquired the right to produce Daraprim, used to treat toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection which is deadly for individuals with compromised immune systems – especially people suffering from HIV. Under Shkreli, Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the price of Daraprim from US$13.50 per pill to US$750 per pill. Without a well-known corporate avatar to hide behind, Shkreli must defend his own actions in the court of public opinion. He does not seem particularly worried about negative verdict. It is clear he recognizes nothing wrong in his actions.

Shkreli has appeared in video interviews defending this price increase, and thus we are treated to the expressions of his face as he claims “The drug was unprofitable at the former price, so any company producing it would be losing money. At this price, it’s a reasonable profit, not excessive at all.” The drug has been produced since 1953 under freewheeling capitalism; one assumes a profit was being made. After the interviewer asks “you see how greedy this move looks?” he responds with “Yeah, I could see how it looks greedy. But I think there’s a lot of altruistic properties to it.” He then flashes a tight smile that comes nowhere close to reaching his eyes.

“And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,” Edgar Allen Poe said of a certain bird of ill-omen. There is an emptiness there behind his eyes. His pale face seems almost lit by the sickly light of a golden calf. After a few moments of watching Shkreli’s face, it hits you – the man is evil. Not possessed-by-the-devil evil. But he believes what he’s saying, and what he’s saying is evil.

If it seems hyperbolic to call another human evil, then I would observe that a healthy dog will recognize a rabid dog. Shkreli honestly believes that increasing the price of a drug people need to stay alive by more than 5,000 per cent is perfectly fine, if it is justified in terms of profits. There is no ulterior motive. No grand conspiracy. It’s out in the open, and it has no shame at its nakedness.

If only poetry can suffice to describe the empty windows into Shkreli’s soul, nothing else but poetry can capture the cruelty and the horror of the system which produced such a man. Though he has suddenly become the most visible face of that system, he is not unique. He is one of a growing number of vessels for the emptiness Allen Ginsberg describes in “Howl”:  “With the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies” such men are, and their kingdom is “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!”

It terrifies me that such men walk the earth.