The Corporate Coup Against Civil Society


Corporations: are they corrupt, socially corrosive, economically suicidal and hateful? Yes, they are. Are they doomed? Maybe.

Chris Hedges

With apologies for that Fox-News-like opening paragraph, those rather startling questions are already being asked and answered by others, at least in my little corner of the social-media world. Here’s what’s been getting around Facebook:

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Corporations are not concerned with the common good. They exploit, pollute, impoverish, repress, kill, and lie to make money. They throw poor people out of homes, let the uninsured die, wage useless wars for profit, poison and pollute the ecosystem, slash social assistance programs, gut public education, trash the global economy, plunder the U.S. Treasury and crush all popular movements that seek justice for working men and women. They worship money and power.

The quotation is from Chris Hedges, who is a serious man, widely read and greatly respected. As usual, he has this one right.

Does that mean it is not possible to run a corporation honorably? Does it mean that a fellow seeking to start a small business should not form a limited-liability corporation to protect himself? Of course not. It means that within the large, collectivized (the word is used advisedly) corporations that run most of the allegedly civilized world these days, a culture of corruption and irresponsibility has developed that threatens to destroy the global economy and, eventually, the corporations themselves.

To explain this, let’s start with the patent facts that pure social and political theories never work, because they are never put into effect, and that we see the stages of history clearly, if ever, only in retrospect. How history will see this stage, no one can yet say, but history will not judge that the America of the 21st century operated as a capitalist economy, except in the loosest terms, let alone as a democracy or a republic. It is a far safer bet to predict that we will be seen as a corporatocracy. The turn of the century may well be seen as the point where the corporate barons succeeded in their campaign to purchase both the government and the press, crush labor and rule the world unimpeded by the proletarian niceties of meaningful elections and the prying eyes of the great unwashed.

Wild rhetoric based on an emotional response to political current events? Researchers at Northwestern and Princeton don’t think so. They’ve concluded that the electorate, acting as independent, judicious voters, has little to say about the running of the country, and that we now resemble a corporatocracy or an oligarchy.

Saifedean Ammous of the Lebanese American University and Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia write that capitalism has given way to corporatism. (Benito Mussolini famously said — or maybe he didn’t — that fascism should be called corporatism, because it was the combination of state and corporate power.)

All that prestigious scholarship, though, only quantifies and confirms the obvious: that capitalism has been corrupted by corporate interests and no longer works to provide growth and opportunity for all. Consider a few facts.

Corporate Profits / via (Click to enlarge.)
Corporate Profits / via
(Click to enlarge.)

American corporate profits are at an all-time high, yet the “job creators” are destroying good jobs as fast as they can and hiring people part-time, at the lowest possible wages, to avoid paying benefits. This goes for big companies as well as small ones. People are producing more per hour, yet having to work more hours because their wages have stagnated or dropped while all the money goes to corporate profits and obscenely large executive compensation packages.

It’s possible to go on and on, but you get the picture. So, back to the thesis, here: corporations are bad to the bone. Quite a popular view, promoted by many prominent public figures these days, is that a corporation’s only responsibility is to its shareholders. This leaves out employees, retirees, communities and the larger society that lets them exist.

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The society does not have to let corporations exist, nor should society confuse capitalism with corporate structure. Corporations are one way to organize business. Others include employee ownership, partnerships, nonprofits, not-for-profits, foundations and government-owned companies, among others, some yet to be imagined.

Neither does capitalism have to exist. It is just one way to organize an economy, and not the only successful one. Capitalism succeeded mercantilism, and during the 19th century, assumed a hegemonic status in the world of trade and finance. Its excesses brought about a strong labor movement, which helped to bring about strong regulation, and for many years the labor movement and government softened the rougher edges of capitalism and helped it to survive by making millions prosper.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data / Chart via
Bureau of Labor Statistics data / Chart via

That era slipped into history 40 years ago, but many of its attributes, like upward mobility, survive as sweetly enticing, poisonous myth. Also in that category is the idea of corporate social responsibility. It’s still taught in business schools, but why? They don’t teach whalebone corset-making in trade schools.

Some of the problem is rooted in the idea of corporate “personhood,” a legal fiction, which is useful for some purposes, but which has been expanded to a point that makes corporations intolerably dangerous, especially to the political system. They’re “persons” when, but only when, it is to their advantage to be regarded that way.

The legal fiction could be rescinded, but at best it will take a long time. Meanwhile, the power of corporations over American life is not challenged — not by strong unions, not by a government that serves corporations first, not by an electorate that has realized its own impotence.

So, the revolution is coming? No, it’s already happened.