Friday, March 6, 2009

The Structures That Divide Us

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago. Today it seems more relevant than when I wrote it. I hope to post "Divide and Rule" later - I wrote this for the now-defunct Donkephant blog that I shared with Cyberotter. I'm working on the link.

My friend Cyberotter, in his article, "Divide and Rule the Polarization of America," outlined a series of ideas that we see at work dividing this country in the extremely polarized manner that has become politics as we know it. It is important, we think, to understand these ideas; it is also important to understand who benefits from this divisive spirit. To answer that question, I will now examine the nature of one of the largest structures in our country, that is, in fact, a global structure, a worldwide phenomena, that in a very short time, historically, has changed the face of both this country and the world.

The structure I refer to is the corporation, specifically, the for-profit, publicly held corporation. I contend that, while there are obviously many other forces we could - and will, in time - examine, this corporate form, by its very nature, poses a threat to democracy in the United States and elsewhere.

It should be obvious, first of all, that the modern corporation is probably the most undemocratic structure in any country it operates in. Many of us have heard, repeatedly, in our places of employment, that this or that company is not a democracy. Corporations are, on the whole, top-down organizations; people on the upper levels of the corporation have the power to hire and fire those below. And while this may seen normal, even right, to those of us within these structures, it is important to stop a moment and realize that this is not a democratic structure. In fact, if anything, this structure more resembles a totalitarian structure. Are employees free to speak up as they wish without fear of reprisal? You know the answer yourself. Since most of us spend the majority of our waking hours either at work or going to and from work, the effect on our individual and collective psyches cannot be overestimated. It should be no surprise that those of us who have such a high investment, both in time, energy and commitment to a form that is anti-democratic, feel little zeal when it comes to civic responsibilities. And, most importantly, we feel a high degree of resistance to speaking up; we have been trained from 9 to 5 not to speak up.

The overt form of the corporation serves one end, and one end only: to make profits for the stockholders. While corporations may espouse other motives, as a matter of law they must only make profits. All business decisions must serve this end. Employees are encouraged to do whatever is necessary to support the bottom line, including acting in ways that would be considered antisocial in normal relationships. Additionally, the corporate form makes an additional demand: not only that it makes profits, but the rate of profitability must grow, must accelerate. Five percent profit this year does not mean that five percent next year is acceptable; no, six percent is next years' goal, ad nauseum. Unlimited growth is the corporate mantra.

This form, that demands continual and unlimited growth, creates certain problems for the rest of us. Obviously, for any company to continue to grow, someone must continue to buy their product, and enough of us must either buy more of this product or more people must buy the product, or some combination of both. It should be no surprise that corporations do all in their power to induce us to buy their products. It is their nature.

This creates numerous side effects. While some corporations actually do supply products we need, such as food and shelter, more often than not corporations sell things we want, whether we need them or not. Through the use of advertising, corporations attempt, and often succeed, to confuse us - to get us to believe we need what they sell, to confuse what we need with what we want. While our needs are finite, our desires aren't; and if corporations can successfully convince us that we want what they sell, if they can induce us to desire what they sell, and more of it, they are then able to grow indefinitely.

It is important to remember how very quickly all of this has taken place. If we simply go back about 150 years ago to the Civil War period, most of these mechanisms didn't exist. Corporations then could not hold assets in perpetuity. They did not have the status as "persons" under the law and had no protection by the Bill of Rights for free speech, i.e., advertising. Corporations had a limited lifespan. That all changed in the late 1800's. Within a little over a hundred years, corporations changed from having a far more limited role in society to one where it seems they have virtually unlimited influence - particularly in relationship to the far more limited influence we have individually.

This fact cannot be overemphasized. The profit imperative, in connection with the gradual but inexorable development of increasingly sophisticated advertising and marketing techniques has allowed corporations - and the lifestyle that unlimited growth of profits demands - to seduce Americans - and now, the entire world - into accepting as normal what was once viewed as abnormal, even deviant.

Many of us can remember a time where credit cards were virtually nonexistent - or at least were used infrequently, if our families had them. Prior to the Depression, one of the main platforms of the union movement, along with the gradual reduction of the workday toward eight hours, was a strong anti-consumer worldview. Union leaders viewed consumerism as the easiest way to enslave workers to the same degree that the 12 hour workday did. After all, if workers became consumers, they'd have to work more to buy all those nice things...leading to their working 12 hour days...does that sound familiar?? Union leaders accurately understood that a person who defined himself as a consumer would be as enslaved to his job - voluntarily - as a person who was forced to work 12 hours a day just to keep a job.

There was a point not that long ago where being in debt was looked upon with shame. Now it's an odd day when we don't get something in the mail offering us yet more opportunities to go into debt. Can't spend it fast enough using your credit card? No problem - we'll just send you these nifty checks, which you can use right up to your $20,000 limit....

The fact is that every for-profit, publicly held corporation on earth has a vested interest in seeing us go further and further into debt. That vested interest is very simple: the bottom line. For-profit corporations are bound by law to make and increase profit. It is no accident that, for both Ford and GMAC, their money loaning businesses are bigger businesses than their actual auto sales! They not only want to get us to borrow as much money as possible, perhaps even from them, but to also feel the need to buy more - another car, a house, another TV, a better TV, a flat screen TV, ad nauseum...

Additionally, and significantly, corporations, by virtue of tax laws, gain many advantages as persons under the law that we as individuals will never be able to compete with. Just think for a moment about how difficult it is, relative to corporations, to gain influence in the halls of government. Corporations hire lobbyists, who get paid to do nothing but try to influence matters to their advantage, on the federal, state and local level. More importantly, corporations get to write the cost of such lobbying off as a business expense, lowering what they pay on taxes at the end of the year. We individual citizens could choose to do the same thing - assuming we can afford to! Can we write the cost of such lobbying efforts off our taxes? I'm looking for that line on my 1040..... It should be obvious to anyone that this is far from equitable. Corporations have a heavily weighted advantage in their efforts to buy - literally or otherwise - influence that individual citizens will never have.

We must ask ourselves how this affects our involvement in our democracy as citizens. It should not be surprising that this force, the force of corporate culture, discourages participatory democracy. We can certainly argue about whether this structure and its effect on democracy is accidental or purposeful. One way or another, however, the net effect is still the same. The advancement of these ideas has been terribly harmful to democratic ideals. Until we begin to wrap our minds around these facts, we will not be able to imagine an alternative.

Corporations are legal fictions. They do not exist beyond what we allow under the law. Were we, via some fantastic means, able to outlaw for-profit companies tomorrow, they would simply cease to exist. They exist as an abstract construct only by our permission. Likewise the notion of a "global economy." There is no such thing without the existence of corporations operating on a global scale - the mechanism by which this "global economy" is manifested. It is the fictional offspring of this fictional person - the corporation. We, as citizens of this country, will not begin to take back what we have allowed to be taken away from us until we begin to see this structure as it is, and then begin to imagine things differently.

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