The doctrine of inevitability - what Francis Fukuyama refers to as the end of history, and what Margaret Thatcher inadvertently christened the TINA Principle (There Is No Alternative) - is crushing to human freedom. We are told that the hands of the market mold our world more than any person, group or government could, and that our attempts to meddle with such natural laws would be doomed to failure. This certainly serves the interests of our rulers, but it's demonstrably false.
Every decent, humane thing a government has ever done, it has done reluctantly, after much lying, obfuscating, excuses, and often outright hostility. Governments only ever do the right thing to the extent that they are prodded, browbeaten and shamed into it by their citizens. If citizens sit back and simply accept that governments can't or won't behave responsibly and ethically, then governments are freed up to shamelessly follow money and power. If, however, citizens refuse to be ignored and marginalized, then governments sometimes respond decently. It happened earlier this year when, after the US government (under pressure from the American pharmaceutical industry) sued South Africa and Brazil through the WTO for making generic (and affordable) AIDS drugs, widespread popular condemnation shamed the US government into backing down, against the shrill cries of Merck and Pfizer. It happened earlier this decade when overwhelming public protest and disapproval brought the MAI negotiations to an ignoble close, in spite of a half decade of secrecy, lies, denials and then gross propaganda from governments and transnational corporations. It happened in Ontario in the 1840s when a bunch of poor farmers took up arms to force the Crown to make public education a core principle of the British North America act, against the will of the aristocrats who believed that educating farmers was a waste of money. It happened in Paris through the second half of the 19th century when the citizenry finally goaded the government into introducing indoor plumbing - a measure that was cost-effective, helped clean the city and dramatically reduced infectious diseases - against the strident will of the landlords and business owners, who didn't want to have to help pay for it. It happened in 1970 in Canada, when the overwhelming support of the public prodded the federal government into introducing public health care over the hysterical opposition of doctors' associations and insurance companies.
Corporations were only invented a couple of hundred years ago, and have evolved quite a bit in that short time. They cannot be said to have 'rights' in any except the narrowest legal sense. Certainly there is no moral or ethical imperative to respect corporations as persons; we need respect only the human beings who own, work for, and buy from them. It can be argued that giving corporations rights protects their shareholders, but it does not protect their employees or their customers. It makes much more sense to locate those shareholder rights in a more basic framework, one that encompasses all the humans connected with them. A corporation is only a sophisticated mechanism, nothing more. What we call a corporation is the structure of an agreement among wealth owners to pool their resources in a business enterprise. By pooling their wealth, they are able to enjoy economies of scale in purchasing, production and distribution, the competitive benefits of cooperation (i.e. less competition so less downward pressure on prices), and easier access to financing. That's it. There's nothing in this to suggest that the corporations themselves ought to be accorded the legal status of persons, any more than a trade union (which is what we call the structure of an agreement among workers to pool their resources) ought to have the legal status of a person (something that, in any case, governments would never grant in a million years). To say that corporations have rights is like saying my television has rights - for example, to be left on all day. It's nonsense, but it does serve a purpose to which I will return shortly.
Corporations are strictly utilitarian. Decisions are made based purely on what will bring the most return on investment. Corporations are law abiding only when it is more cost-effective to obey the law than to break it. Corporations are 'good citizens' only to the extent that the publicity will help to sell more product. Non-instrumental values are reduced to variables in a cost-benefit analysis. A corporation will spend $10 million to create the illusion of improved working conditions before it spends $11 million actually improving those conditions. A corporation will let people die from a faulty part if it is cheaper to pay out the death benefits than to replace the part. Corporations will attempt to have laws changed or repealed to make them less restrictive on corporate activities, regardless of whether the laws are just or unjust. Corporations will attempt to influence politicians, populate newspapers and journals, and foster a favourable public opinion, all in order to make the regulatory framework in which they operate more conducive to their goals.
Note that I am not making an appeal to conspiracy theory, but to prudent business practice. All of these actions have been taken and are being taken by corporations in their attempts to maximize shareholder return. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, but it certainly strains the notion that corporations ought to have rights. Humans are considered to have rights only to the extent that we in turn respect the rights of other people. When we demonstrably scorn the rights of others, our own rights are stripped of us and we are incarcerated. Rights are thus reflexive - they are shared understandings among people. Corporations do not respect rights, and they do not share understandings with people; they merely weigh costs and benefits and take the most profitable route. While this may satisfy the likes of Ayn Rand, most people believe that human society is more than just a collection of self interests. Clearly, humans avoid doing certain things not because it's purely in their interest, but because those things are considered to be wrong in and of themselves - regardless of costs or benefits. Corporations can make no such ethical decisions, and if their employees try to introduce ethics into the decision making process, they are neutralized and often terminated by the bean counters, who have the final say. As a result, people who are willing to suspend their ethics tend to move upwards through corporate heirarchies while people who cannot or will not do this never arrive at positions in which they are able to influence policy.
Some times, corporations go out into the world to act on behalf of the governments that sponsor them - for example, the British East India company. Other times, governments go out into the world to act on behalf of the corporations that sponsor them - for example, Britain in the Boer war, or the CIA in the 1973 Chilean coup. Both of these arrangements reflect the close relationship of business and government, and demonstrate a profound expression of the principle "Profits before People." Indeed, the second arrangement is best summed up by senior American policy planner George Kennan who, in 1948, was able to write
We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. ... Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity..... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.... We should cease to talk about vague and ... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better. (Policy Planning Study 23 - declassified)
Adam Smith, widely considered to be the father of modern capitalism, stridently warned against both joint-stock companies (corporations) and multinational companies that colluded with governments, because he recognized that the needs of humans, which he believed could be best served through liberal markets, would quickly be sacrificed to protect the incorporations. When the public sits quietly in the face of such activities - or even supports a distorted representation of what they entails - then the principle "Profits before People" is always and everywhere detrimental to the people subject to its expression. It is only when sustained public outcry demands that people be placed before profits that the output of commerce can be used to improve our livelihoods. Markets are supposed to provide for material human needs. That is, they are supposed to be mechanisms for making our lives better, or easier, or more secure. They do not provide us with liberty or civility. Only we can provide that for ourselves by participating meaningfully in our society and by demanding that the governments that claim to serve us actually do their job.
It is because of good public education, a vigorous health care system, regulated utilities, food and water inspection, and so on that I have as comfortable a life as I do. Those services exist because citizens demanded them, not because the market provided them. In fact, they are generally provided in spite of the market, and in all cases market forces are being used to undermine and scale back those services. The toys I buy in the marketplace are just that - silly distractions that sometimes provide a welcome diversion and sometimes draw me away from the things that are important to me. They, and the companies that make them, are not the guarantors of my well-being. For all the hue and cry that governments are always and everywhere big, stupid, inefficient and counterproductive, if we finally do get the kind of minimalist, neo-liberal government that the Milton Friedmans, Friedrich Hayeks, Terence Corcorans, Barbara Amiels, etc., have been calling for, we will have a society and a bounty in which the largest portion of people will not be able to share. If you doubt me, consider London, circa 1830. We introduced these things after decades of struggle and backpedaling because so many people - even among the ruling classes - were appalled at the inequality and the horrible waste of human ability. Perhaps in some cases the government has taken on too much, but its biggest detractors don't want to balance the system, they want to reform it, that is, dismantle it.
I promised to return to the purpose of the corporate mystique, so here I am. I said that markets do not provide us with liberty or civility. I will go one farther and say that if held up as ends in themselves and not means to an end (material comfort), the logic of markets can be destructive to liberty and civility. Indeed, governments and corporations today are using the logic of markets to circumscribe the civil liberties - and social advances - they claim to respect. It becomes clear after penetrating some of today's market rhetoric that the whole elaborate ideology of corporatism boils down to the most recent incarnation of Plato's Noble Lie. 2400 years ago, Plato argued that the ruling classes need to promulgate a lie among the rabble that the hearts of leaders are made of gold and the hearts of workers and farmers are made of base materials. Plato knew it was a lie, but believed that it would help the rulers to quell dissent by convincing people that the state of affairs obeyed some purpose or principle deeper than what George Kennan would call "straight power concepts." Today, the platonics among us argue that we need to cut funding for public education, or raise interest rates, or support this dictator, or cut unemployment insurance, and so on, not to fatten the pockets of the ruling class, but to adhere to the deep principles of the market. To do differently, we are told, is to fight nature. Giving welfare to poor people actually harms them (we are told) because their hearts are made of base metal and the free money makes them lazy.
If you want to get closer to the truth, listen to what the members of our ruling classes say to each other, not what they say to the public. Read George Kennan's planning document, or Truman's defence of his support for brutal dictators in saying "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." Examples abound, and we live in a free country, so you can still access this stuff. The newspapers might be turning into Pravda (consider the new editorial policy of the Southam chain, over which journalists are already being blackballed and resigning in protest), but you can still dig this stuff up.
This imbalance among the classes, while enjoying a fresh twist in market rhetoric, is as old as western civilization itself. In the past, people were able to rally around principles that were simple, elegant and resonant. Read Common Sense by Tom Paine; it's about as clear and simple a cry for liberty as I can imagine. People read and heard these things, and they struggled, suffered and in many cases died for the principles of freedom, association, and representation they believed in. Sometimes people were able to influence their governments to become more civil, more respectful of human rights, through gradual reform. Other times, reform seemed too slow and compromising, and movements overthrew corrupt governments entirely. Usually, those revolutions produced new governments that were as bad as or worse than the old ones. That is, they represented less a social advance than a change in personnel. Sometimes it happened very quickly, as in the case of France under Napoleon or Russia under Stalin, and other times it happened more slowly, as in the case of the United States. Jefferson warned that if the country was taken from the people and handed over to the aristocrats and bankers, the revolution would have been lost after all. What would he think of America today?
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