Does a person have a soul? Is a corporation a person? those dumb questions are the starting point for this observation.
We are watching an extension of, the final campaign in, the war on the middle class. All those self-satisfied politicians, economists, and Captains of Industry who are so pleased to recommend austerity for the masses, are in no danger of tasting any of it themselves. I think they also believe they can buy enough air conditioning and water and food to survive global warming in their enclaves, and thus that won’t affect them either. This leads to questions of ethics versus profits, the starting point of today’s rant. (It is a rant; it is hard to be logical about the impending global famine, compounded by the impoverishment of the middle class to starvation wages, and not be somewhat emotionally involved – if you are a person, that is.)
The legality of making a corporation a person dates back to the legality of making a slave or ex-slave a person. Somehow the confounding of these two changes was possible when the second change was perceived as the more radical, more dangerous to the status quo, of the two new ideas.
Now a corporation can buy and sell influence. But it never goes to jail. A corporation can be responsible for deaths. But it is never sentenced to life imprisonment nor capital punishment. A corporation is, in fact, legally obliged to act in a manner most profitable for its shareholders, even if its actions are illegal. If the combination of fine size ($) and fine risk (probability) is acceptable, a probably-profitable action should be taken even if it is illegal. This is just another kind of risky investment, to a corporation.
You will note that no word based on “ethic” appears in the above paragraph. Ethics are irrelevant at the corporate level.
A wise critic, introducing H.G.Wells’ story, The Invisible Man, once pointed out that it was not power that corrupted – it was invulnerability. The Invisible Man was not specially powerful, but he could elude capture and thus responsibility. This, of course, corrupted him.
Imagine now that you are a director of a large, powerful, lobby-connected corporation. You make decisions based on profit. Some turn out badly, but in balance you are successful. Your company might occasionally pay a fine, but even that goes to the expense line and reduces taxes. You are invulnerable. You work in a soul-less enterprise. The result is inevitable. You will almost certainly be corrupted. From a person‘s point of view.
As C.S.Lewis so carefully explained in his essay, The Inner Ring, you will find yourself under subtle pressure to behave as your peers. “We always do this“.
Whether or not you believe a human being has a soul, I hope you will agree at this point that a corporation has a critical lack that makes it, and its actions, non-human. If you disagree, please comment on this blog entry. All coherent opinions will be moderated in.
Now for the other half of today’s topic, Sole.
Sole-sourcing is about monopoly. The book Information Feudalism exposes how the captains of industry arranged it so all countries (that matter) enforce patent and copyright protection. It goes on to show how this is used, via cross-licensing, to in fact fix prices and control markets. Large corporations buy up small ones. Depending purely on profit factors, perhaps shaded by political influence, jobs are moved about the world to suit only the corporation. There is no concept of social responsibility in a monopoly.
Boards of Directors act like corporations, in a way. The board appoints various committees including the executive compensation committee and the committee that nominates the candidates for the next board “election”. In most listed companies, shareholders only have the option of withholding their vote for a candidate; thus the nominating committee in effect names the next board. This only assumes that each nominee will get at least one vote. They have stock and can vote for themselves.
I think every citizen should buy perhaps one share in each of a few diverse companies, not as an investment, but to get on the shareholders’ report mailing list. It is fascinating to read who the board of directors are: they are pretty much all members of boards of other companies as well, in some cases with quite a bit of overlap. IBM board members showed up at CIBC, for example. Both companies seemed to have a member who was on the Bechtel board; I recall seeing many coincidences of this type.
My point here is, the board of directors is also sole-sourced. The elite know themselves, appoint themselves, lobby on behalf of themselves. Jon Stewart pointed out that Mitt Romney, defending his low tax rate, said he only paid what the law required. Stewart then pointed out that Romney’s company was one of those lobbying against the tax rate change a few years before. These people work in their own interest. They are an elite group intent on staying an elite group. The middle class, especially an influential middle class, is an inconvenience, a potentially dangerous enemy. They will want their share.
Now you might claim, of course every one works only for one’s own self. This is demonstrably incorrect. I am a non-Catholic giving two mornings a week to a Catholic charity. I was once an Application Architect charged with making a development project a success. Even a selfish architect must realize his parasitic need for his development team. A smart one makes them as successful as possible. We will meet again: in another project, in an accidental reference question, at a dinner party. A generous one might risk a tiny bit of mentoring.
All of this reinforces W.D.Hamilton’s view that altruism is, in even a limited social setting, beneficial. Yet no matter how you intellectualize it as calculation, real human beings react nicely because they are, simply, real human beings.
If you want one group to treat another group badly, you have only to create a difference between them, and make it an issue. W.D.Hamilton mentions this in the introduction to volume 2 of his papers collection, The Narrow Roads of Gene Land. Philip Zimbardo proved this in the Stanford Prison Experiment. One of his books, The Lucifer Effect, deals with this and related studies. The point here is, we-versus-they can be enough to motivate atrocious interpersonal actions.
So, if I were designing an imaginary planet to have maximum misery and inequality, I would ensure that it contained the following:
- Corporations – with rights exceeding persons
- Economic/Political Elite – a minority holding most of the economy’s value
- A System (patent/copyright) protecting sources of value (Sole Source)
- Everyone Else
I am reminded of something in The Masks of God, by Joseph Campbell. When the first city-state appears, it appears with several new features that go with it wherever it later develops, presumably by migration. The key elements of “civilization” at this level include:
- The creation of four classes: Priests, Warriors, Merchants, Other.
- The ziggurat. Mesopotamian ones look like Chichen Itza.
- Writing. Laws need to be recorded, as do business deals.
- The programmatic extension of control by men over other men.
The last point deserves clarification. Before the city state, a tribe might attack another tribe for various reasons: revenge, territory, food, women, slaves. A city state might attack a neighbouring area, but would do so in order to control its people.
A final observation from Campbell: at this point, another factor enters human history: greed for more than one’s share. Apparently there is a single word in Greek for this concept.
You will note the parallels between an early city-state and our so-called economy. The priests have been replaced by politicians, the warriors by the military-industrial complex, the merchants by corporations, lobbyists, and boards of directors, and everybody else by, well, that’s us.
The ziggurat? That’s where the priest tells everyone lower how the world works. We call this the media, and it is mostly controlled by the state and by the corporations.
What to do? I write poetry, volunteer, hack away at a blog. Not enough. We need another quiet uprising of the 99.8 percent, this time with a leader who is both one of us and a leader.
I note there have been failures in this arena in the past. The Unabomber, no matter how repugnant his methods, did understand the central problem. We remained unmoved. The financial wizards created a Ponzi scheme over thirty, perhaps forty years, with ever more aggressive ways to capture money made in the system, apparently, out of thin air (nobody can find most of the money lost, where did it go?). We let them continue their control.
I suggest to the religious that you first pray, then decide to act, even if in some minor way, to begin a groundswell of opinion. In a democracy, there should be a candidate that will do the right thing – but they too are sole-sourced from their own influence cartel. I don’t think the political process is, on its own, capable of getting us out of this impending catastrophe of poverty. It has already proven itself incapable of attempting to mitigate global warming, another impending catastrophe of famine and extreme weather changes.
There is a scene in Mark Twain’s story, The Mysterious Stranger, where a boyish Satan laughs at the three (human) boys after they participated in an atrocious act because they believed that everyone else was participating freely (they were almost all suffering from the same incorrect impression). My point here is, if we all let each other know we are willing to do something, then we will have the power which our numbers should give us. We are, after all, the majority.
I suggest to the non-religious that you may or may not skip step one, and then do as above.
An avalanche begins with a single grain. We need to get our system to a tipping point and tip it in our favour. Our sole hope is in ourselves.