Remarks: _The Corporation_ by Joel Bakan, Free Press 2004

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power is more a pamphlet than a book (166 pages), written for a popular audience. Bakan outlines the birth and growth of the legal entities we call corporations. How did it come to be that democratic governments have a rival in terms of power -- multinational corporations? The Corporation is the story of postmodern capitalism, a way of ordering the material world of men within the narrow pursuit of profit and individual self-interest. The pamphlet is a cautionary tale that shows us the harms of the corporation-as-legal-entity and suggests steps to limit their power.

After reading the book, I am less fearful of corporate power, because The Corporation makes it clear that if anything acts rationally (i.e. in the pursuit of self-interest) these days, it is a corporation. Cost/benefit analyses that put Chinese lead paint in children's mouths are predictable, industrial explosions are predictable, real estate and banking bubbles and bursts are predictable. In my own life, it is unsurprising that a corporation would choose to slash my pay and remove my job security and benefits and keep me working with the same amount of labor. It's capitalism, the way of our world, and it is up to me to adjust and act rationally in response.

The corporation and its managers act rationally, squeezing profits out of the earth and human sweat and blood. They market their products, made from exploiting labor and natural resources, with deception. They put out anti-government propaganda in order to protect the corporation from the inherent threat of democratic rule, and undercut the very notion that people are citizens first, not consumers.

These are facts, but in better understanding the truth of the American economic reality, I find myself a little happier, more reassured, better prepared to fashion a livelihood in what is sure to be a volatile world during my lifetime. As Bakan points out, corporations only exist because democratic governments created them.

Overall, however, the state's power has not been reduced. It has been redistributed, more tightly connected to the needs and interest of corporations and less so to the public interest. Thus, it is only partly true to say, as Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw do in The Commanding Heights, that "the general movement away from traditional state control of the commanding heights [of the economy] continues, leaving it more to the realm of the market." While that satement captures the diminishing role of the state in protecting citizens from corporations, it ignores the expanding role of the state in protecting corporations from citizens. (154)

Most important, we must remember the most subversive truth of all: that corporations are our creations. They have no lives, no powers, no capacities beyond what we, through our governments, give them. (164)
I will still dislike Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Blackwater, and any number of corporations that represent the worst in greed and exploitation. But in reading The Corporation, I can see that it's more than possible to fashion a life of humanism in an era of greed. It takes understanding and the courage to stand outside public opinion, to critique the propaganda, and against wars of empire fought in our name with our money. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's like my guy Jesus said in Matthew 10:16:

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

(Book cover)


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