We Have Met the Corporation and It Is Us
By Al Giordano
One of the more annoying traits of many of the aspiring Health Care “bill killers” on the US left that we’ve heard from of late is that they act as if the control by multinational corporations over all aspects of human existence (including governments) is somehow this big new surprise and development. Fact is, it has been an evident part of our species’ reality for decades already.
Richard Barnet and Ronald Mueller published Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations in 1976 (Touchstone Books) and 33 years later a certain political tendency among some college educated self-described progressives carries the whiff of the freshly converted. OMG! Corporations are evil! Daddy government should do something!
Meanwhile, any actual progress in improving the lives of the poor and and the working class must be, according to them, halted, even demonized, if it doesn’t simultaneously and immediately overturn the existing reality of corporate domination of our world.
The December 18 edition of the Bill Moyers’ Journal television program offered a fairly representative example of the incoherence of this position. Moyers opened a panel discussion with this question to Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi:
“Let's start with some news. Some of the big insurance companies, Well Point, Cigna, United Health, all surged to a 52 week high in their share prices this week when it was clear there'd be no public option in the health care bill going through Congress right now. What does that tell you, Matt?”
Moyers’ first and central “concern” was not how health care reform might affect the lives of real people, but over whether it causes corporation stocks to rise.
Taibbi’s response contained the same myopic focus:
“Well, I think what most people should take away from this is that the massive subsidies for health insurance companies have been preserved while it's also expanded their customer base because there's an individual mandate in the bill that's going to provide all these companies with the, you know, 25 or 30 million new people who are going to be paying for health insurance. So, it's, obviously, a huge boon to that industry. And I think Wall Street correctly read what the health care effort is all about.”
In both – question and response – there was zero consideration of what happens to the folks down below. Their eyes are raised - blinders attached - only to view the circus up above. And it is precisely the corporate mass media that has programmed them and others to obsess that way.
As one who has spent the past 35 years organizing and writing against corporate power - with some concrete successes, some notable failures, and a lot of trial and error - it remains a central goal of my life’s work to dismantle the “uber-State” of corporate power, which means replacing the capitalist system with, well, “something else.” (I do have a more developed view of what "something else" could be, but it is a conversation mostly worth having with those who are already thinking that far ahead. I will offer, below, some general thoughts.)
The born again anti-corporatists, however, almost universally stop short of acknowledging that capitalism is the root problem. Moyers prefaced his question with this very denial: “This is not capitalism at work. It's capital. Raw money, mounds of it, buying politicians and policy as if they were futures on the hog market.”
Sorry, Bill, but, yes, that is precisely what defines capitalism at work.
And it is how capitalism has functioned for a very long time.
As Barnet and Mueller predicted back in the seventies, wealth has increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few and, with it, corporate power over people and their governments.
The cadre of progressive bloggers who share Moyers’ half-developed vision – that corporate power must be stopped but who don’t offer a shred of suggestion or vision about what to replace it with – type their denouncements furiously on computer systems produced by Microsoft or Apple. (True, some nobly use Linux and free software, but nonetheless on components made by corporations in non-unionized sweatshops in developing world countries.) Their demands for anti-corporate purity from others are patently hypocritical from the get-go.
A case in point: Keith Olbermann – who of late has shared this born again anti-corporatism tendency - issues his ranted communiqués from the studios of General Electric-owned NBC. If we were to apply Olbermann's own yardstick honestly to him, we would ignore anything he says and simply report how GE stock rises or falls corresponding to each of Keith’s televised speeches. Ah, but that would make us as silly as the caricature of himself he has invented.
The unspoken truth is that college educated North Americans are not yet ready or prepared to live and work in a post-capitalist society. They have become weak and deformed around the corporate produced technologies and luxuries to which they have become accustomed and dependent. And so there is a vague call from these quarters for government to provide them these luxuries and technologies instead. Yet coming just two decades on the heels of the failed Soviet experiment one sees little evidence that those making the call have thought through how exactly state run health care, for example, would be operated much differently, qualitatively, than corporate run health care today.
Alternatives like workplace democracy (in which the workers collectively appropriate the means of production) have proved difficult-to-impossible to sustain in such an individualist society as the USA. Post-sixties back-to-the-landers on the hippie left and post-eighties survivalists on the Christian right both pretty much failed to develop sustainable models of getting off the grid of corporate capitalism. Despite their attempted indoctrinations and home schoolings of their spawn, both found themselves abandoned and rejected by their own children in a single generation.
More success has been enjoyed in the so-called Third World, and particularly here in Latin America where various alternative models – from Zapatista autonomy in Chiapas to Venezuela’s twenty-first century socialism to Bolivia’s indigenous-infused variations on the Venezuelan model – have emerged over the past couple of decades. I’ve considered it important work to document their successes and expose the efforts of capitalism and its empires to squash them. Still, while these models have provided glimmers of hope, it would be a terrible exaggeration to claim that utopia has surged from any of it so far.
It is almost impossible for me to imagine so many United States citizens being able to make the individual sacrifices necessary for the common good that are made in those lands. The human species, in developed world societies, has devolved far too dependently on the corporate systems and technologies to be able to unhook from them successfully, at least not very rapidly. And so, as substitution for almost any proposed models of reorganizing US society from the college educated progressives, we get these vague, mostly incoherent, demands for things like “single payer” or a “public option” on health care which would not demonstrably do things much differently than corporate insurers, except that it would be the very debilitated US State – with its own problems of bureaucracy and authoritarianism - doing these things instead.
Would single-payer and public-options still be preferable? Yes, but with the proviso that the improvement would be at the margins, and they, too, would create new problems to solve. I have yet to see a single-payer health proposal, for example, that honestly admits that removing insurance corporations altogether would cause hundreds of thousands of Americans that work for them to become unemployed. Where is the necessary plan to retrain, retool and provide jobs for those workers? Who has even mentioned it, much less developed a plan or a proposal?
In seeking to dismantle the military-industrial complex, for example, the peace organizations, think tanks and labor unions have at least paid a bit of attention to the idea that the same factories that make jet fighters could be producing mass transit systems and solar collectors and such. But in a society that needs to reduce its paper pushing and bureaucracy to reduce costs, what can be done with a class of non-unionized workers that is trained in nothing except menial paperwork? (The same considerations need to be raised for the financial services industry: the calls over the past year to stop bailouts and allow those companies to crash and burn have not included the necessary answers to the question: And what then happens to the workers in the banking and financial sectors? They’re really not trained to do much else.)
In lieu of any real plan, we are offered “feel good” solutions of lashing out against corporations. Lost in that discourse: the people down below. That is what has defined the health care debate on parts of the blogosphere. It doesn’t matter to some that 30 million people who don’t have any health insurance at all will now have theirs subsidized. To them, if the insurance corporations also benefit from it, then it is a moral “evil” that must be stopped.
Also forgotten in this born-again anti-corporatism is what Alinksy, Gandhi and others have demonstrated: To create and sustain successful political movements and revolutions, you have to turn small triumphs into ever increasing larger ones. If you don’t have victories along the way and call them that, the people lose hope and motivation to back any movement or revolt.
And yet that is precisely what the bill-killer tendency (and we will surely see them behave the same incoherent way on future battles: immigration reform will be next) is pushing: This sense that nothing is progress, nothing can be defined as a win, and that winning itself is evil if it doesn’t overturn everything. Even that might be understandable if they had a coherent plan for what winning would really look like, for what kind of society and system they would build to replace corporate capitalism. But they don't have even a skeletal blueprint yet.
My own view after a lifetime of study and praxis is that capitalism must and can be replaced not by “one big idea” or system, but by many different decentralized systems, designed by their participants, that reflect and protect the character of the different cultures on the planet on the most local level possible. Each must respect the autonomy of the other. In most, direct worker ownership of the means of production would probably be the silver bullet that replaces savage capitalism: What the anarcho-syndicalists, Situationists and others once called a society based on Workers Councils.
Are North Americans ready for that? I don’t think so. Not yet. Could you imagine Keith Olbermann as an equal member of a collective workers’ ownership of GE? Or Arianna Huffington bringing workplace democracy to her online newspaper? How many days do you think they would last as peers of equal co-workers? I don’t mean to single them out. They’re emblematic of a larger group of people that are too programmed to whine and pout and offer tantrums instead of hard work.
And so I continue in this South of the Border laboratory, learning what can be learned from movements that are more successful in defeating or at least limiting the control by the corporate uber-State, documenting and reporting their advances, recruiting and training like-minded workers of authentic journalism to do the same, waiting and hoping that someday my compatriots up North will stop thinking that bitching is itself a political stance and get to work on the heavy lifting of building the new society out of the ashes of the old.
In the meantime, I think the only way to nudge them in that direction is with incremental victories, like the one pending on health care, and the upcoming one on immigration reform, where the usual suspects will whine anew all over again (the proverbial making of perfection into the enemy of the good) and the newly resurgent multi-racial working class of the US left will be knocking on doors, putting together phone banks, and organizing instead of ranting.
There is actually a lot of progress going on in the United States, but it is hard to see amidst the smokescreens and media distortions, and even harder to hear above the din of what is now a mechanized industry of poutrage that has created its own market niche inside the capitalist system. That tendency's credo ought to be: We have met the corporation and it is us.