Three decades ago, when I started sounding the alarm about the growth of corporate power, very few other writers or analysts seemed to share my concern. Perhaps it was because the corporations back then exercised their power much less openly and harmfully. They didn't have governments that served them so slavishly, media that eulogized them so profusely, or free trade agreements that extended their influence on a global scale. Their power was also constrained to some extent by government regulations and strong unions.
Today, the economic supremacy of corporations has surged to a level so extreme and intrusive that it can no longer be concealed. A great many writers and speakers are now exposing the dire effects of uncontrolled corporate power on our society, our political system, and on the environment.
I was especially struck by novelist Jane Smiley's essay on the devastating effects of deregulation, which removed most of the legislative constraints on corporate power. In her treatise, she accuses the largest business firms of crimes against humanity. She is as baffled as she is shocked by their indifference to the horrible consequences of their actions.
"Given what these big corporations routinely do," she writes, "we have to ask: are they filled and peopled from top to bottom by ruthless monsters who care nothing about others, and also nothing about the world we live in? Are these CEOs and managers and stockholders so beyond human that the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and the destitution of the farmers and the tumors and allergies of children, and the melting of the Greenland ice cap and the shifting of the Gulf Stream are, to them, just the cost of doing business? Or are they just beyond stupid and blind, so that they, alone among humans, have no understanding of the interconnectedness of all natural systems?"
This is a question that most of us have asked ourselves over the years as we witness the corporations ransack the planet's resources, contaminate the environment, mistreat workers, gouge consumers, prop up dictators, widen the gap between rich and poor, and make the planet increasingly less liveable.
It's a question, however, to which there probably is no single answer. More likely, the Big-Business Behemoth now laying waste to the planet is the outcome of several catalyzing events or forces. Here are some that I consider obvious:
Deregulation: An economic system driven primarily by greed is bound to get out of control if it has no checks or limits. The ones that were put in place to curb the 19th-century Robber Barons, then strengthened in the early post-World-War-II period, have now either been dismantled or nullified by lax enforcement. Add to this the collapse of Soviet-style communism, seen (mistakenly) as the only alternative to capitalism, and you have a formula for greed-run-amuck.
Globalization: International trade has freed the corporations from whatever national constraints were left. They now move their operations anywhere in the world where they can find the cheapest labour, the lowest taxes, and the least restrictive environmental laws. Countries have become bidders in a race-to-the-bottom global auction to attract corporate investment at any cost.
Technology: World-wide communications networks that can transfer money anywhere on Earth at the touch of a computer button have immensely empowered the banks and other financial institutions — and weakened any would-be regulators. The ability of these money moguls to blackmail nations with threats of capital strikes, or bribe them with promises of investment, gives them ultimate economic control. (And their abuse of this control, even though it precipitated the latest massive financial crisis, has been maintained by government bailouts.)
Rationalization: The CEOs, stockbrokers, and other business leaders are not monsters in their personal lives. They are, on the whole, model parents, neighbours and citizens.But they have apparently blocked out of their minds all of the negative aspects of the work they do. They have convinced themselves that the benefits of "free enterprise" far outweigh its shortcomings, and that, in any case, it's the only economic game in town, so what choice do they have?
Short-term thinking: Most people (including business leaders) seem genetically incapable of thinking more than a few years ahead, and usually no more than a few months. Unless they, or their pocketbooks, are imminently in danger, they delay protective measures. Global warming may or may not be catastrophic later in this century. The oil may run out, but only after we're dead. We still have some drinkable water and breathable air. Why worry about an uncertain future?
Science will find a way: Having seen the marvels of electronics and other gadgets that have enhanced our lives in recent decades, there's a tendency to believe that scientists and inventors will come up with ingenious solutions to all the terrible problems we face. Alternative fuels, purifying anti-pollutants, cures for cancer and other deadly diseases — surely these scientific breakthroughs will come to our rescue. (Well, maybe, but more likely not. Wishful thinking is no substitute for strong corrective measures.)
The juggernaut effect: Out-of-control capitalism has gained so much momentum that it's futile for any individual to yell, "Stop the world, I want to get off!" This applies to most business executives, too. Any CEO who suddenly developed a conscience and wanted to turn his company into an ethical, responsible, "good corporate citizen" would instead turn it into a vulnerable swimmer in a sea full of corporate sharks. He would be castigated by shareholders unwilling to forgo lower dividends, and his firm would become the target of a hostile takeover by a less scrupulous rival.
The death of democracy: The governments of most countries (some in Europe are exceptions) have become the political arms of big corporations. Elections and other trappings of democracy remain, but most politicians today see their role as facilitating business activities and removing barriers to their profit-making imperative. Deregulation, free trade, tax cuts, and lax environmental laws take precedence over the broader public welfare. Democracy has given way to plutocracy.
Religious fundamentalism: Hard as it is to credit, millions of people see all the economic, social, political, and environmental upheaval as part of God's preparations for Armageddon. I heard one of the 150 or so Christian-right preachers with a TV show in the U.S. tell his listeners not to be worried about these societal breakdowns, that they are all integral to the Creator's grand Second Coming, which is to coincide with the end of the world, coming soon. Hey, brothers and sisters, calm down. Jesus will lift you and all other true believers directly into Heaven. The Rapture will save you from the grisly fate set to befall the godless non-believers.
The eat-drink-and-be-merry syndrome: Given the transience and uncertainty of life, a sizeable segment of the population (no doubt including many corporate freebooters) decide to live as enjoyably as they can as long as they can. If this means grabbing and consuming the largest possible share of the world's resources, so be it: "All that matters is that I and my family live our lives in comfort. So I'm depriving others of their means of livelihood, including future generations. Tough, but it's a jungle out there, and if I'm not among the winners, my life will be miserable among the losers."
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If you have other explanations for our lemming-like march to the abyss of social collapse, economic chaos, ecological disaster, and perhaps even extinction, let's hear them. But I think I've covered the main ones. The death of true democracy is no doubt the key factor, because only governments have the potential to restrain the corporate rampage, as they did in the late-Victorian and post-Depression years. But these were governments that could legitimately be called democratic. Most governments today have been either subverted or intimidated by the corporations. They take their orders from Wall Street (or, in Canada, Bay Street), not Main Street.
Many NGOs and individual citizens are doing their best to restore democracy and compel their governments to govern once again in the public interest. It's a worthy effort that deserves support, and we mustn't lose hope that it will eventually succeed. But it's a race against time, and time is running out.
The reign of the corporations, of course, will not last indefinitely, in any case. Maybe not even more than another couple of decades. Their throne stands on a very shaky platform: a foundation largely consisting of oil — and the oil, too, is running out. This depletion of our main energy source is inevitable. It will bring the whole structure of global corporate rule crashing down — regardless of whether prior efforts to curb corporate pillage and pollution succeed or not.
A much preferable outcome, of course, would be for the corporations to be dethroned as global rulers by an uprising of citizens and voters, and for this to happen in time for the development of renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. For such a timely rebellion against corporate rule to be launched, however, many more people will first have to be jarred out of their present ignorance, complacency, or despair. The CCPA and other progressive NGOs – with the support of their members — are doing their best to provide the crucial facts, figures, and analyses that are needed for such an ambitious educational project.
Trying to topple the Big Business Empire is a formidable endeavour, granted. But the alternative is dooming future generations to a societal collapse that is much more likely to be bring planetary rupture than rapture.
(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)