In my previous blog entry, I talked about my definition of a Real Life Supervillain and listed three broad categories that I would group them into: corporations and their executives, governments and their officials, and private fanatics and their supporters. Now, I’d like to talk about the most prevalent, and arguably the most powerful, of these Real Life Supervillains: namely, The Corporation.
As I mentioned earlier, there is an excellent documentary on the subject called The Corporation. This film offers an overview of the history of the corporation as a legal structure and its growing influence in the United States and the rest of the world. One of the best things about this film is that it’s thoroughly entertaining, yet also introduces the viewer to plenty of important background information along the way.
If you haven’t seen this film, I highly encourage you to check it out. If you can’t afford the DVD, you can check out the official free version of The Corporation on YouTube. Whether you’ve seen it or not, though, here’s my perspective on the issue.
Corporations as they exist today are relatively new and bizarre institutions. In the United States, they are viewed as “legal persons.” As such, they have been granted most if not all of the same rights as “natural persons” like you and me.
At first, this may sound like a strange but relatively harmless legal construct. And really, for most non-profits and some small for-profits, that’s all that it is.
But in the hands of people who understand their true nature and power, corporations are like mecha — enormous walking war machines that can lay waste to whole cities, or even entire nations. These Corporate Mecha march unchecked across our landscape to feed their hunger for infinite profit at any cost. They exhaust our resources, consume our labor, poison our bodies and our land, and bend our political system to their will. The logos of the corporations are like battle flags, plastered on every surface and raised high on steel poles to mark the territory that they’ve claimed. They enjoy all of the legal protections and benefits of “natural persons,” but they cannot be jailed, they cannot be killed, and they know no compassion or mercy in their relentless search for profit. In fact, executives who fail to value profit over ecological and social justice can be prosecuted for failure to uphold their fiduciary duties.
I wish that this poetic rant were a work of pure fiction. I wish that my objections to the Corporation were purely hypothetical. I wish that your friendly neighborhood chain store, chain restaurant, and other corporate outlets were really as friendly and neighborly as they make themselves out to be. However, these organizations really have had a tremendous and largely negative impact on our society and world — and their influence and power is only growing.
The most destructive of these corporations pose at least two types of threats: material threats to our people and resources, and political threats to our freedom and democracy.
In the short term, and on the surface, a corporate chain store or restaurant can seem like a blessing to a community. They offer temporary jobs in construction or renovation, “permanent” jobs in retail, and maybe even a new type of product or service that the community didn’t have before. In the long term, though, these corporate chains are destructive both locally and globally.
Locally, they strongarm city governments into providing tax breaks and other subsidies for the privilege of having a new corporate chain open in their city. Once they’re in a community, they drive local businesses out of business using the leverage provided to them by their parent corporation, then proceed to funnel an endless stream of money out of the community to the parent corporation. Then, if profits fluctuate or tax breaks run out, they will abandon the community at the drop of a hat, leaving a gaping hole in the local economy.
Globally, they are a menace to the societies in which they operate. They move any labor-intensive operations such as manufacturing and resource extraction to developing nations with few or no environmental or human rights regulations. They regularly push the boundaries of legality in terms of how they treat their workers, their communities, and the land — and if it’s cheaper to pay a fine than to comply with the law, they will break the law, time and again.
There are far too many corporations behaving in this way for me to cite them all individually. If you’re curious for details on your favorite big corporation, you can go to CorpWatch or Crocodyl: Collaborative Research on Corporations and search for the corporation’s name. Here are just a few examples of corporations that have gone above and beyond the call of duty in their role as Real Life Supervillains:
The overall effect of these and other menacing corporations on our society is a concentration of wealth into the hands of a very small group of people, and the distribution of tremendous harm (“externalities” such as pollution, sickness, and poverty) over a very large group of people.
These crimes alone — and the institutional logic of a for-profit corporation that makes these crimes virtually inevitable — are reason enough to rethink the corporation’s role in our society. But worse than all of these material threats is the threat that these corporations pose to our very freedom and democracy.
Since corporations are considered “legal persons” by the government, they are allowed to interact with government officials and candidates in many of the ways that we as citizens do. They can lobby representatives; they can buy or run political ad campaigns; they can even give money to candidates or the committees to elect the candidates. And a recent Supreme Court decision stated that there should be no limits on how much money corporations can donate to candidates and their campaigns. This decision not only opens the way for further corruption in terms of corporations buying off candidates by funding their campaigns, but also creates an entirely new threat to our democracy by potentially allowing individuals, governments, or corporations to secretly fund candidates and tamper with elections.
This is more than just a partisan debate over a particular policy. This is a real and serious threat to our freedom, our democracy, and the future of our nation and our planet. Some of these corporations have more money and power than entire nations. They’re using this influence not only to extract a private profit at great social and ecological expense, but also to tamper with the democratic process itself.
These corporations are arguably the closest things to Real Life Supervillains that I’ve ever seen. Their power is immense, and the threat that they pose is almost incomprehensible. But the power of the people is also immense, and our potential to do good in the world by working together in a cooperative and strategic manner is virtually unlimited.
We must stand up for our freedom, and for our democracy, and for the very survival of life as we know it. We must drive these corporations out of our society, and we must create our own local and cooperative businesses and institutions and support networks to replace the products and services of the corporations. If we don’t, I shudder to think what horrors we may see in our own lifetime, and what sort of world we may leave for future generations.