A Polemic Against Corporatist Dehumanization
Rolf Auer, 1 December 2013
Believe it or not, avarice—the extreme striving for accumulation of wealth and/or property—is not a virtue. This is not a new idea. The essence of 1 Timothy 6:10 is, in part: “For the love of money is the root of all evil…” And at its core, avarice results from the love of money.
How did we end up here, where our society revolves around “the almighty dollar”? What are the causes of this too common modern malaise?
We live in a consumerist society. Television programming—a near mainstay of our culture—conditions us to consume. It bombards us with endless advertisements inveigling us to buy, Buy, BUY!
Try this simple experiment sometime. Visit a mall with plenty of stores. Walk around in it for an hour and see if you can come away empty-handed. The odds are heavily against you. Everywhere you turn, you are confronted by bargains, discounts, and sales galore cajoling you to open your wallet. If you exit unscathed (and yes, only buying a coffee does count!), you indeed possess a steely resolve.
Where did we go wrong? Could it have started as far back as the Phoenician empire, with its invention of currency? Or how about at the onset of the Industrial Revolution? (That is, was the real reason that Ned Ludd and his followers were so upset at the usurping of human endeavour by the “dark Satanic mills” because in these they could see the seeds of dehumanization from which would grow our age of insouciance?) Or was it at the fin de siècle of the nineteenth century when—by some insane trick of legal skullduggery—corporations were given the legal status of “persons before the law”? Probably all of these are incrementally responsible.
In the title of this polemic, by “corporatist dehumanization” I mean that at present workers are forced to operate in “survivalist mode,” constantly overshadowed by the dominant societal efficacies of the corporate motive of “profit at all costs.”
Is our inability to generationally improve our standard of living due to the consequences of the corporatist dehumanization which has long permeated our society?
Why don’t we care about mitigating the difficulties of securing stable worthwhile employment while at the same time we do care about buying goods and services at reasonable prices? Why don’t we care that CEOs “earn” more in one minute than average workers earn in one year? Why don’t we care that corporations are endlessly granted special privileges (e.g., as evidenced by our continually lowering their taxes or by our negotiating for them secret trade deals which are in actuality merely corporate bills of rights) while in return they do not create new jobs as promised and instead fight tooth and claw to have unions decertified?
Why don’t we care that over the past 40 years the effective working class wage rates remain the same while at the same time CEO salaries have skyrocketed? Why don’t we care that inequality has become so deeply entrenched in our society that homelessness is now unmitigated and widespread? Why don’t we care that approximately one out of every five children live in poverty, that they are too often members of obviously neglected minorities, that single parent families do not receive sufficient consideration compared with, say, the consideration accorded to the rich?
Why don’t we care enough about life-saving professions (such those of fire fighters or doctors or nurses, to name a few examples) to accord them appropriate remuneration (compared with, say, that accorded to relatively less useful professions such as those of sports players or movie celebrities or media personalities)? Why don’t we care that the slant of our culture—with its disproportionate emphasis on the cult of personality, on the “importance” of being rich, on the “importance” of achieving success (in the eyes of others)—is decidedly anti-intellectual? Why don’t we care that our news media feed us lies of omission, blatant censorship, and shameless sensationalist tripe?
Or perhaps we do care, deep down, yet we are afraid to speak out because of whatever the fear at that moment happens to be, such as ridicule or censorship or retaliation.
Perhaps we haven’t lost sight of our humanity, haven’t drifted so far off course from realizing our true selves (i.e. we are still able to emote, to empathize, to sympathize), in spite of the reckless and unchecked acceleration of the speed of modernization.
Perhaps the urge to manifest our humanity—occasionally well expressed by our enacting large scale human rights treaties or by our cooperating on environmentalist activities, to name a couple of examples—constantly wells up in us in the same manner as a sacred spring flows from the earth, a symbol of eternal youth and renewal. For are we not all basically young at heart? Do we not all fight against the callousing of our souls, the hardening of our personalities, the closing of our minds? We all have that much in common: it is the reason for our compassion, our inclination to rally around just causes, our readiness to respond to victims of large scale disasters. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
So, how did corporations—in addition to gaining economic powers equivalent to, or even exceeding, the economic clout of many countries—acquire legal status as “persons before the law”? This idea was proposed as early as 1793. In 1886, the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment (originally enacted to protect the rights of freed slaves) was modified to also apply to corporations. The purposes were (1) to transfer legal liability from the directors of the corporation to the corporation itself, so that the directors could no longer be held personally accountable (2) to put it on an “equal” footing with persons suing it (because beforehand legal judgments were skewed in favour of the human plaintiffs) (3) to allow for corporate ownership in perpetuity of property and monies, effectively making corporations “immortal persons.”
As recounted in his visionary 2004 book, The Corporation, author Joel Bakan classifies corporations as pathologically psychopathic in nature. He asks, “If corporations are ‘persons before the law,’ what kind of persons are they?” He answers that they are identical to human psychopaths in that: they are irresponsible, because in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk; they are grandiose, always insisting, “we’re the best.”; they exhibit a lack of empathy and asocial tendencies: “their behaviour indicates they don’t really concern themselves with their victims.”; they often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse: “if they get caught breaking the law, they pay big fines, and continue doing what they were doing before.”; and, they relate to others superficially: they present themselves to the public in an appealing way, but may not actually be representative of what they really are.
We sense this to be true. We have enough real world examples to justify this reasoning. Take, as one example of this behaviour, the corporate destruction of our planet. Case in point: fracking.
Fracking extracts natural gas from shale or coal deposits. However, during its course, water tables are destroyed, i.e. water is rendered undrinkable. It can be so bad, in fact, that sometimes one can put a match to the contaminated drinking water and set it on fire!
Our skewed priorities are such that the psychopathic activity of destroying our planet is protected by the authorities, while at the same time people who correctly object to this (as is currently happening in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick) are oppressed by the authorities. Furthermore, reporting by the news media in such situations is either abjectly inadequate, or is deliberately slanted in favour of the authorities.
Ignorance is bliss? “Ignorance is strength”? I don’t think so! Ignorance is no excuse, for we have brought it upon ourselves, if not wilfully, then by tacit compliance with the status quo, which is to say, with whatever best agrees with our corporatocracy cum neofeudalist technocracy. (I rather think it is more the former because whiffs of fascism already are apparent, as one might well expect since corporatism is rotting our democracies. Consider: when the police protect corporate interests instead of people and/or our planet (Elsipogtog), what does that smell like to you?)
If corporations are psychopathic, what is their attitude regarding jobs? As could be expected, people are of no concern. They are sacrificed to the corporate bottom line of “profit before all else.” A terrifying example of this can be found in one of Michael Moore’s early films, Roger & Me. In Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, USA, General Motors—which makes billions each year in profits—shut down a number of plants and moved the jobs to the maquiladoras of Mexico, where labour and manufacturing cost less. Thirty thousand jobs were lost and Flint spiraled into a catastrophically severe economic decline. (The scenes in the movie of the devastating economic desolation which beset Flint are heartrending.) That in itself would be enough of an indication as to what importance corporations allot to providing jobs, i.e. none (provided, of course, that you accept that this attitude is common to all corporations). However, the epitome of this attitude, in my view, occurred when “Moore also turns his camera to the residents of the more affluent suburbs such as Grand Blanc, who display rather classist and naïve attitudes when it comes to the economic hardships of the city (at a Roaring 20’s themed party they are hosting, Moore takes note when they hire laid off workers to be Human Statues).” (boldface mine, quotation is from IMDB.com) Strangely enough, though, one can picture that the party organizers actually were trying to be helpful albeit in the only way they knew how. Such is the inherent limitation of the aforementioned status quo of our society.
In 1934, President Roosevelt brought in the New Deal as his response to the economic ravages of the Great Depression. As one result, the powers and influences of corporations were restricted. Subsequently, Keynesian economics—whereby government is utilized in economic management, particularly is setting fiscal policy to ensure best possible employment, and in limiting government reliance on free-market forces. (A Dictionary of Canadian Economics, David Crane, 1980, p. 193)—became the order of the day. From 1950 to 1970, corporations felt the yoke of this economic ideology and, still chafing from the “oppressive” New Deal policies, sought ways to “free” themselves from Keynesianism so that they could operate unhindered. Enter economist Milton Friedman and his new baby, neoliberalism. This consisted of privatization, deregulation/free trade and drastic cuts to government spending (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein, 2007, pp.194-5). I presume the primary reason neoliberalism appealed to those who had then attained government power (Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney) was that it advocated government spending cuts at a time when such spending seemed to be out of control. However, I’m not ruling out that these three were mere corporate puppets purposely fostering the growth of corporatism (a distinct possibility especially when one considers the suspect results of recent federal elections (manipulated by whom and/or by what and for what reasons?)).
(An aside: In 1976, Friedman was awarded a type of Nobel Prize in Economics for his efforts. His acceptance speech was revealing, as illustrated by this excerpt: “Delighted as I am with the award, I must confess that the past eight weeks have impressed on me that not only is there no free lunch, there is no free prize. It is a tribute to the world-wide repute of the Nobel awards that the announcement of an award converts its recipient into an instant expert on all and sundry, and unleashes hordes of ravenous newsmen and photographers from journals and T.V. stations around the world. I myself have been asked my opinion on everything from a cure for the common cold to the market value of a letter signed by John F. Kennedy. Needless to say, the attention is flattering, but also corrupting. Somehow, we badly need an antidote for both the inflated attention granted a Nobel Laureate in areas outside his competence and the inflated ego each of us is in so much danger of acquiring. My own field suggests one obvious antidote: competition through the establishment of many more such awards. But a product that has been so successful is not easy to displace. Hence, I suspect that our inflated egos are safe for a good long time to come.” (boldface mine) Here, Friedman manages to slip a nugget of his personal philosophy into his banquet speech, namely, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Ironically, his speech and the presentation of his award took place on 10 December 1976, the 28th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. Its Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” It is the very antithesis of the founding principles of the economic ideology of neoliberalism, which Friedman developed and studied, and which was subsequently adopted—due to prevailing corporatist economic pressures—by governments all over the world.)
In their ruthless and pathological pursuits of profits, corporations are intent on eliminating all impediments to such ends, by for example lowering wages. This latter action includes fighting the influence of unions, which by their very presence raise average wage rates.
The result is that for today’s potential employees, desperation taints their search for gainful permanent employment. They are not happy campers. To reiterate, this is what I mean in the title of this polemic by “corporatist dehumanization”: That today’s employees should have to operate in survivalist mode, bowing to the dominant corporate motive of “profit at all costs.” Because of this latter, a race to the bottom (in terms of workers’ wages, rights, benefits, privileges, etc.) has ensued over the past 25 years, so that now two-income families are not uncommon. That is to say, in order to keep the same standard of living as their parents had (with its nuclear-family, one-breadwinner structure), both heads of the family are now forced to work, with the concomitant result of degradation of quality of family life.
On the one hand, wages for the average worker are not keeping pace with progress. On the other hand, wages for heads of corporations, CEOs, have skyrocketed. (At one point during this corporatist madness, CEOs were being rewarded for slashing jobs. (Google “Chainsaw Al.”) Not exactly meeting their promises to create more jobs in return for the lowering of their taxes and the accordance to them of other special privileges.)
“Somewhere nearby a woman was dying in an abandoned car. The shadows were full of her bruises, of the weeping flesh and bloody shirts of the dispossessed, of eyes fixed on ghosts. I know that for each of these desolate souls there are millions more, and that we have no faith or conviction, no theory or compassion, nothing to improve their lot. The truth is we live in a mental ruin. Tourists or beggars, security personnel administering an abandoned archeological site, a Palenque or Tikal, we dream our frenzied dreams of Progress and Profit, of Efficiency and the Free Market, all that dead wood from the nineteenth century. (italics mine) The voters sense that. We all know that Mulroney, Bush, Thatcher, the whole dreary crew are merely branch-plant managers in the bankrupt Empire of Usury.” (Gentleman Death, Graeme Gibson, 1993, p. 76)
An economic system which promotes the degradation and exploitation of workers in foreign countries is not fair. It betrays our humanity. We should en masse organize as much as possible to boycott goods manufactured in countries which condone child labour, unsafe factories, poor working conditions, subsistence wages, and all other accompanying violations of human rights, until such time as these countries enact and enforce labour standards at least equivalent to our own. To not do so makes us willing participants in the lowering—by corporations—of moral standards.
Corporatism is not sustainable. It drastically needs reforms. At one time, I thought that ripping out corporations’ legal definition as “persons before the law” would start the ball rolling. However, the corruption by them of our democracies has proceeded too far for this alone to suffice. We need to enact legislation to force the redistribution of some of their massive wealth to real people who are less fortunate than most, and to force the separation of corporate influences and the state. Anything less will not work.