Conformity to the Corporate State

Conformity to the Corporate State

Frogs may just be smarter than we think.

I came across a story many years ago that seemed to make sense; it’s used to illustrate a common problem faced by humans. Placing a frog in a pot of room temperature water, so the story goes, and then boiling the water leads to the frog’s death. Because the frog’s body temperature adjusts to its surroundings, the frog doesn’t sense what’s happening until it’s too late. So, rather than attempt to escape its inevitable demise by boiling, the frog remains in the container of water, content and happy.

While the story seems to make good scientific sense, it’s not true. It seems frogs may be smarter than human beings after all. When it comes to climate change, and for that matter all of the rest of the things we’re doing to destroy the Earth system, we have a thing or two to learn from frogs.

The most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is being called a “code red”, and while that sounds pretty bad, we don’t seem to mind all that much. As intelligent, warm-blooded mammals, creatures who have the capacity to know better than frogs, we’re seeing the “code reds”, but seem either content, or perhaps too distracted to become outraged. The pot’s close to boiling, but we seem to be doing just fine.

The reason we’re living out the frog myth has to do with what I call “conformity to the corporate state”.

Most of us hear the word “corporation” and think about a business, one that is large and does great things, such as build and sell cars or computers. While this perception is true, the word corporation is not limited to just businesses. In fact, the word corporation derives from the Latin “corpus”, or “body”. In other words, a corporation is a body of people who’ve come together around something they hold in common. For a group of people to act as one body means they are acting as a corporation. While we have corporations that are businesses, the word equally applies to other entities wherein a group of people are acting of one mind and body.

In the way we organize things today, the corporate entity that holds the most sway is the one that provides many of us with the means to procure food, clothing and shelter: the business corporation.

As it is now and forever was – at least back to the days of the Enlightenment when capitalism was beginning to take shape – the state (another corporate form) charters, or gives legal standing to business corporations. In other words, to be legally considered a corporation necessitates an act by a ruling authority, or the state. Right from the get-go we have a conflation of state power and that of the business corporation.

To start, or charter a business, necessitates money, or capital. In our form of capitalism, the locus or seat of human power lies in an inextricable relationship between the power of the state and the power of capital (money). This is because, under capitalism, a business corporation will not have any power without capital, and for a business to become a business necessitates an act of state power.

While many exalt the wonders of capitalism and what they perceive to be “free markets”, there’s another side to the story, one that has its roots in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Back then Karl Marx put into words what many experienced as the flaws of capitalism. In Marx’s time, there were no laws against child labor; there was no legally binding definition of what constituted a standard work day, or any of the other myriad things that frame business practice today. Children worked in coal mines and other factories for hours on end, simply because they were small, poor and easily exploited. Charles Dickens, in his story, A Christmas Carol, does a nice job of portraying how many viewed capitalists in the late nineteenth century. By the way, it’s Scrooge’s character that represents the capitalist. The only thing governing the production of goods within the factory system of the nineteenth century was the law of profit taking.

The contours of history are nuanced, to be sure, and one ought to never suggest that those who came before us were less endowed with the human capacities for empathy and compassion. Aside from Marx, many viewed the factory system, and the capitalist framework that endowed it with power, as a moral outrage. How these folks, and the intellectuals who helped shape their perspectives, sought to ameliorate the injustices of the capitalist system is explained by the word, “corporatism”.

To understand corporatism as an intellectual framework necessitates understanding the importance the Western mind places on the right to private property. A foundational tenet of Enlightenment thinking is Locke’s and others’ perception of what governs human behavior. Although Jefferson, ever the philosopher, changed the words when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was Locke who defined a meaningful human existence in terms of “the pursuit of life, liberty and private property.”

Because private property was, and still is, held sacrosanct, leading nineteenth century intellectuals rejected notions of communal ownership. This rejection also has its roots in how Marx, who championed communal ownership, was perceived by those who held the moral high-ground in the 1800s. Marx was an avowed atheist and back then, Western culture remained largely rooted in the Christian moral context. Since Marx was an atheist, many of those who held the moral high-ground simply rejected his thinking out of hand. Never mind that the record clearly shows those who were the first Christians “held all things in common” (Acts 4).

So, instead of championing communal ownership, or democratizing the way in which decisions about the direction of capital flows are made, the intellectuals of the late 1800’s who sought to correct the injustices of capitalism came-up with what is now known as corporatism.

The corporatist model rests on a couple of principles, the first of which, as mentioned above, is that of the right to private property. On one side of the corporate aisle are those who “own the means of production”, or the private property – capital – necessary to build and equip factories. On the other side are the workers who rent their labor to those who own the factory. Those who amass sufficient capital, and are granted power by the state to form a corporation, own the means of production. The others, those who rent their labor to the capitalists, are granted the right to form a corporation that represents their interests. In this case, think of trade or labor unions. Corporatism is known as The Third Way: It’s not capitalism or socialism, but rather something in between.

What remains in the corporate system is the conflation of state power and that of capital. Although workers are given the right to organize, and petition for change, they remain beholden to the power of capital. The food, clothing and shelter the worker is able to procure derive from the pay he or she receives from the capitalist. And since the state has a vested interest in keeping the peace, it is motivated to keep people employed. When folks are out on the street, with no food, clothing or shelter, they tend to get angry. So, what’s good for GM is good for America. It should not come as a surprise, then, that in this “free” enterprise system, those corporations that own the means of production are, ipso facto, organs of the state.

It can certainly be argued that corporatism, as a framework for organizing actors within a system, served us reasonably well. The system held a tenuous balance of power between the owners of the means of production, and those who were able to form unions and could collectively bargain for fair and just wages.

In the late 1960s, however, a sea change took place, one that saw power move decidedly toward those who owned the means of production. This turning point is marked by Milton Friedman’s “theory of shareholder primacy” and the memo soon to be Supreme Court Justice, Lewis M. Powell wrote in 1970 to a representative of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Friedman’s theory, for multiple reasons (not the least of which was his persuasive speaking skills) was adopted by just about every business school on the planet and taught as if written on stone tablets. The theory of shareholder primacy holds that the moral and social obligations of any business is to “maximize profit”. It’s not hard to see that this is simply a recapitulation of what dominated thinking in the late 1800s. That it was taught to mostly young people, a good number of whom wound-up running America’s large corporations, is as much a moral outrage as is employing children to mine coal. Friedman’s theory marks the birth of what many call “neoliberalism”. The word derives from “neo”, meaning new and “liberal”. The word liberal, however, is not the fuzzy-headed, tree-hugging variety, but rather the “liberalization” brought about by the Enlightenment thinkers and the freeing-up of the market brought about by capitalism.

Powell’s memorandum is what I characterize as a delusional portrayal of “threats to the American enterprise system”. What Powell saw in the campus protests of the 1960s were for him, and those who bought into his thinking, a threat to the established orders of power. Convinced that many college students were being brain-washed by socialist professors, Powell articulated a “game plan” of sorts designed to protect and preserve the American enterprise system. What he did was undermine the notion of the academe and set in motion the miasma of nonprofits and think tanks with which we struggle today.

What the neoliberalists attempted was to save us from the perils of socialism, and all the ills that go along with it: overreach of government, loss of freedom and abysmal standards of living. While many argue this was a good thing, I and others argue from a different perspective:  What neoliberalism unleashed is grotesque wealth and power aggregation.

Consider this statistic from the Small Business Administration (SBA): While 99.9% of all businesses in the US are considered small by census standards (i.e., under 500 employees), they employ 47.3% of the nation’s population of workers. This means that just 0.1% of the businesses legally recognized as such, employ 52.7%, or a slight majority of the nation’s workers. This is but one clear indicator of just how much power has been concentrated among a very small number of people. To suggest this is anything but undemocratic is foolish in the least.

Considering these statistics, and the large numbers of folks who work for a relatively small number of large corporations, that many of these same businesses are free of any tax burden whatsoever should not come as a surprise. These corporations have amassed sufficient power to manipulate the system in their favor. Of course, the rest of us were duped into believing tax breaks would lead to good paying American jobs. Never mind what happened to all of the factory jobs that went to low-cost labor markets. This is just the result, or so we’re told, of the “creative destruction” the capitalist system encourages so well.

Considering the foregoing from the perspective of the sole proprietor, or entrepreneur, one is compelled to ask whether either of them can get away without paying taxes. I don’t think so.

Sheldon Wolin’s, Democracy Incorporated, puts into stark perspective how it is power has been aggregated into what he calls the “corporate state”. The corporate state is constituted by a blending of private, corporate power and that of the state, to the point wherein power becomes ubiquitous. The corporate state is totalizing in its power, but next to impossible to locate. Wolin uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” to characterize the corporate state and the nature of our current political, economic and social systems. The word totalitarian is appropriate because the power is total; that it is inverted speaks to the notion that power is not concentrated in the state, as it was under Hitler or Mussolini, but rather in the economic. Power is spread across a relatively small number of people who have amassed sufficient wealth to do “as they please”, buy politicians and exert control over the organs of governance and other corporations, such as the foundations that fund nonprofits.

The power of the corporate state is totalizing, manipulative and narrowly focused. It is not concerned with you or me, because we haven’t the means to exercise control over it, as would be the case in a healthy democracy. Those who desire to bring about some modicum of justice, and put bread on the table, are left to start non-profits and beg foundations for money. And while this seems to the untrained observer as a good, free market solution, one must look deeper. Obtaining funding for a non-profit means being conformed to the whims and desires of those who run the foundations. The Revolution will Not Be Funded is an excellent source for a deeper dive into these ideas, so, too, is the writing of former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. In the end, whether one works for a for profit corporation, a non-profit, or for him or herself, all of us serve those who retain control of the capital.

To ensure the corporate state functions and power remains concentrated among the few necessitates mass manipulation. The totalizing power of the corporate state infects everything, including “the books you read, the songs you sing and the pictures that give pleasure to your eyes”. Mass manipulation is simply another product of capitalist-state power, one made necessary by the need to keep the masses – you, me and the rest of us – in-line, peaceful and happily pursuing “life, liberty and private property”.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s, Manufacturing Consent, captures the problem of mass manipulation. That it was written in 1988, well before the advent of smartphones and social media, ought to set-off alarm bells. With today’s technological marvels that track what stores we visit, what we buy, what we post on social media platforms, and a host of other, personal data, mass manipulation has gone from a largely crude undertaking to one that makes micro-surgery look inexact. Because what we see on mass and social media is largely driven by corporate profit taking, mass manipulation is inextricably linked with the totalizing power of the corporate state.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of mass and social media manipulation is what Chomsky calls, “the problem of concision”.

In the 1980s, commercial television was the dominant communicative force. Concision demanded that messages fit between commercial breaks. This meant ideas considered subversive, such as the notion that corporations may have a social obligation to maintain domestic employment, had to be articulated in roughly 700 words or less, otherwise they would take too long to get out and wouldn’t fit between commercial breaks. As Chomsky notes, articulating a subversive or jarring idea takes quite a bit more context building than an idea that lines up with the dominant narratives. For example, if I was to say, “The distribution of wealth through foundations is undemocratic”, I would need quite a bit more time to get-out the context behind the statement, time that’s just not available on commercial TV.

The problem of concision means ideas considered antithetical, or non-conforming, are made difficult to come-by. In the 80s, when all we had was cable TV, one may have been able to hear subversive ideas late at night, or on Sunday mornings, but there was little likelihood of hearing them on the evening’s thirty-minute news show. Of course, hearing, and more importantly, discussing ideas considered outside the dominant viewpoint is foundational to a deeper grasp of the human condition, and depending on the nature of the ideas, bringing about greater justice. That we live in a world dominated by Tweets, which are constrained to roughly 280 characters, is an example of just how grotesque the problem of concision has become.

Is this meant to suggest that we do not have access to subversive ideas?

The advent of the Internet, and the technology that undergirds search engines such as Google, has opened-up an astounding array of information and knowledge to the scholar and non-scholar alike. The fact that you’re reading this piece, and have made it to this point, is a testimonial to the reality that subversive ideas are available to us. It’s not a matter of one or two people, however, or even one million, for that matter. The thing with which we are concerned is what the masses are led to think and believe, because they must act in concert, either to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the corporate state, or change things to bring about a greater level of justice.

This brings us back to boiling frogs, climate change and what we’re doing about it.

We’ve been hearing quite a bit about the trillions of dollars necessary to enact the White House’s, “Build Back Better” program. There’s plenty of talk about repairing the nation’s long neglected infrastructure. This means rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, so we’ll be able to easily drive new electric cars made of steel and petroleum sourced plastic. Build Back Better also means plenty of those “good paying” union jobs. It all sounds too good to be true! Thank God we’ve finally some sanity in the White House!

This, of course, is what the dominant and concision constrained mass and social media would have us believe: Build Back Better is the answer. But is it really?

According to the most recent IPCC report, if we’re to even have a chance of avoiding the potential collapse of the entire Earth system, and with it our extinction, we need to cut worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by 45% over the next nine years. The report also points out that if we simply maintain what we’re doing, carbon dioxide emissions are on track to increase by 16% over the same time period. Yet, in all the talk of rebuilding our infrastructure, so we can buy and drive more cars, is there any mention of the carbon impact this rebuilding and continual automobile production will have?

To put this in perspective, concrete production comprises roughly 7 to 8% of global carbon dioxide output; if concrete was a country, it would rank third in carbon dioxide output behind China and the US. The production of steel comprises a whopping 24% of all industrial carbon dioxide output. Making bridges and reinforced concrete requires steel. Building more cars, especially the ones we throw away after about five years or so, necessitates lots of steel, too. I won’t get into the problems with strip-mining for the lithium that will go into all the batteries that will power the cars we’ll be driving.

There are clearly serious incongruities in the narratives coming out of Washington these days. While I sincerely believe most who commit themselves to running for and holding political office think they’re advancing the common good, I’m afraid conformity to the corporate state is something few of them can overcome. It’s not as if these folks are not intelligent and reasonable human beings: They’re simply caught-up in the same system of mass manipulation and confusion as the rest of us. The problem is there’s no second chance on this stuff. If we do not get this right, and reverse the damage we are doing to the Earth system, we will commit what amounts to global genocide.

There is no magic pill for this; we can’t just pull-up to a drive-through window and order an implementable solution. We must return to what E.F. Schumacher calls “human scale”. We need to get out from under the corporate state and take those much-needed deep breaths, paying attention to how our bodies are moving as we do so.

We need to pull back from the constant onrush of media content. We need to make time to sit with one another in face-to-face dialogue. This is small scale but widespread in scope. We need to start having a lot more conversations with our neighbors; we need to start by talking about what we share in common, such as love for family and then go from there. It’s not on-line; it’s not a social media post, or Tik-Tok video. It’s difficult and arduous but absolutely necessary. The only way we’re going to build back better is by reclaiming our democracy, and to do that starts with dialogue – face to face, dignified, respectful, and most important of all, loving. The good thing about this build back better program is that it has a very affordable price tag: $0.

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