Alec Dubro is senior editor of TomPaine.com.
Ralph Nader opened the Taming The Corporation conference with a somewhat gloomy and rueful assessment. He and his people had held a similar conference 35 years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim.
Much of the rest of the conference outlined, in more or less convincing detail, what most people in the U.S. already know: Corporations run the place. In fact, only 40 percent of Americans think corporations make a positive contribution to the public good. And as for public trust, as the McKinsey Quarterly told The New York Times, large global corporations are at “the bottom of the list — beneath nongovernmental organizations, small regional companies, the United Nations, labor unions and the media.”
And, as the conferees pointed out, the corporations earned this distrust. According to:
• James Brock, professor of economics at University of Miami Ohio, the antitrust law is a story of taxidermy. In short, it’s dead.
• Kathryn Mulvey of Corporate Accountability International, corporations are succeeding in their drive to make water a commodity rather than a public right.
• Andrew Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment and Center for Food Safety, by marketing genetically modified seeds that withstand certain chemicals, Monsanto has been able sell 120 million more tons of herbicides around the world.
• Ralph Nader, corporations have 38,000 full-time lobbyists in Washington who effectively control the government.
While the evidence of corporate misrule appeared overwhelming, the picture of America that emerged was, at the very least, incomplete, if not misleading. Speakers disagreed whether the U.S. was approaching fascism, or already had it. They did agree that rule by private interests was ascendant, and they enforced that rule by law and arms. If you didn’t actually walk out the door, you could imagine that the United States resembled Italy under Mussolini.
But one block away there’s a prosperous shopping street where there was an GLBT fund-raising barbecue in front of Whole Foods, across the street, people sat in open-air cafes, and pedestrians hauled bags of organic produce to both the richer and poorer sides of 14th Street. It’s not exactly the look of a dispirited population.
It’s true that the U.S. may be a police state – as anyone who protests against the WTO will find in out in short, ugly order – but it is not, for most people, a totalitarian state. People tolerate, or actively embrace, corporate rule not primarily because they’re cowed by the police, but because they aspire to the promised gifts of the program.
None of the conference speakers asked, or even mentioned: What do we get out of corporate rule? It must be a lot, and not all of it can be venal and soul-destroying. It’s true that you need money to participate, but a surprising number of people have plenty of money, easily absorbing, for instance, the much-decried price rise in gasoline and heating fuel. And with money and the right skin tone, most Americans have more personal freedom than most of them can profitably use, as you can easily observe by the range of bizarre, and frequently sinful, leisure-time activities that consume them.
So, to partially answer my own question, we get from corporate culture: big homes, comfortable cars, investment counselors, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, personal watercraft, beachfront condos, hundreds of TV channels, central air conditioning, cheap airplane flights, cheaper electronic gear, and pizza on demand. You and I may not cherish these things, but millions do, and are not anxious to give them up for a new, uncertain economic system to be named later.
Even many people with minimal money and little promise of advancement identify not with the opponents of corporate rule, but with its guardians. While the conference drew a few hundred people to an interesting and provocative discussion of the structure of U.S. political and economic culture, any decent motivational speaker can draw a paying audience of thousands who live from paycheck to paycheck, and who want to succeed within corporate boundaries.
These were not dreary people who spoke at the conference. Some were optimistic, and many were witty. But if any of them ever had any fun in America, they didn’t mention it.
We can’t compete with the corporations on the basis of material abundance, but we do have to offer more than struggle, the possibility of justice, and solar panels for all. People do sense that they don’t really need all that junk and the excess space to store it, but they can’t at the moment conceive of another vision for increasing their happiness.
The vision of a post-corporate America put forth at the conference was one in which security and equality reigned. But that left out what corporate state traffics in: the possibility of success. It’s what the conservatives misleadingly call freedom, but it’s not entirely a fraud. Lots of people want to do better, and we need their support.
The Taming the Corporation conference did a superb job of documenting and analyzing the problem. If it were just a matter of winning an ethical, moral or environmental case against corporations, we would have already overturned corporate rule. But we haven’t because we haven’t offered a plausible or demonstrable alternative that appeals to the people who walk around on a sunny weekend day having a pretty good time and not worrying too much about corporations.
Maybe the next series of conferences should ask progressive thinkers to dig around for the carrots, and not just brandish a stick at the corporations.