Friday, April 15, 2011

Fighting Back Against Corporatization Part 3-- Neutralizing the Psychopath

Last week, I wrote about how corporations as psychopaths because they lack empathy due to their profit motive and limited liability. Today's post will be on how to defend oneself against psychopaths. The ideas are taken from a presentation by John Clarke on "Workplace Psychopaths" and a book by Martha Stout entitled "The Psychopath Next Door."

Collective Action

A common tactic by workplace psychopaths is to identify victims' needs and to use these needs to cause emotional pain and manipulate the victim. Clarke's list of needs looks a lot like the basic needs that we have as human beings and are also preyed upon by corporations.

After prolonged exposure to the psychopath, the victim can develop physical symptoms as well, including stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, rashes, hair loss, anxiety attacks,  and chronic fatigue. A victim often feel like they are going crazy, because they often think they are the only ones undergoing this experience, one that defies the normal bounds of reason.

As a result, victims often feel like they are stuck and that nothing can be done. In truth, there are things that can be done.

If the victims banded together, they would not be alone. They could also gang up on the psychopath. But once they adopt this strategy, they must be completely committed to each other, because the psychopath could easily turn on them and the victims would be worse off than when they started.

Auditors can provide a check on psychopathic behavior, because they are more difficult to manipulate. They come from outside the psychopath's usual power hierarchy. They also use performance measures to evaluate people rather than subjective reports.

Both of these remedies provide useful lessons for how to defend against the bad behavior of psychopathic corporations: collective action, transparency, and oversight. Isn't it interesting that trade unions are getting slagged so badly these days?

Transparency and Accountability

One of Clarke's central arguments is that auditors are the natural enemy of workplace psychopaths, because they assess based on objective measures of performance, can see through impression management, and sit outside of the psychopath's usual power hierarchy. If we translate this over to corporations, we would need a way to generate objective measures; bypass public relations, marketing, and lobbying; and be independent.

Currently, corporations are evaluated solely on profit and loss. This isn't working very well for human beings who are more than shareholders or consumers. Measures of performance should cover factors such as labor relations, environmental impact, safety, and social responsibility. Organizations such as United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Standards Organization (ISO) have already started work on measurement regimes. I'm personally skeptical of balanced score cards. I'm sure corporations will find a way to manipulate these too, but maybe somebody who has a better grasp of game theory should design and implement them.

In order to calculate these measures, we'd need access to raw data from the companies, not just press releases or cleaned up data. We'd need to make it a legal requirement that companies release these figures.

The independent part basically rules out government at this point. Politicians need way too much money to get elected these days. It takes on average over $1.3 million to win a US congressional seat and over $8 million to win a senate seat. It's too hard to raise that much money without becoming beholden to someone. If it's not government, that basically leaves us. We are the ones who need to keep our collective eyes on corporate behavior.

Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism in the University of Texas at Austin has proposed a Citizen's Oath of Office. It is intended to be taken by every citizen on the same day that our elected representatives take their oaths of office. It states:
I do solemnly pledge that I will faithfully execute the office of citizen of the United States, and that I will, to the best of my ability, help create a truly democratic world by (1) going beyond mainstream corporate news media to seek out information about important political, economic, and social issues; (2) engaging fellow citizens, including those who disagree with me, in serious discussion and debate about those issues; (3) committing as much time, energy, and money as possible to help build [authentic] grassroots political organizations that can pressure politicians to put the interests of people over profit and power; and (4) connecting these efforts to global political and social movements fighting the U.S. empire abroad, where it does the most intense damage. I will continue to resist corporate control of the world, resist militarism, resist any roll-back of civil rights, and resist illegitimate authority in all its forms. [And I will commit to collective efforts in my local community to help build joyful alternatives to an unsustainable consumer society.]
 It strikes me that this oath would serve equally well for the purpose of resisting corporatization.

Token Economy

Clarke's third suggestion is to institute a token economy to reinforce good behavior and deter bad behavior. A token economy is a system of behavior modification that uses systematic positive reinforcement of target behavior using symbols or tokens. It is often used with children, mental institutions, and prisons. Privileges can be earned or lost based on choices made.

I find this idea appealing, because it's cute. I don't know how well it would work, but Clarke is an advocate and it has been used elsewhere successfully with recalcitrant populations. This idea also ties in well with the accountability measures discussed above. If you don't damage the environment, your charter can be extended. If you treat your workers well, your corporation is allowed to grow larger. If you're not socially responsible, we'll increase your tax rate. (I'm not crazy about this last one, because I think we should be simplifying our tax code, not making it more complex.)

Resist the Urge to Pity

"The Psychopath Next Door" by Stout has a chapter on 13 rules for dealing with psychopaths.  IMHO, it's the best part of the book.  I include two of them here.
9. Question your tendency to pity too easily.
Respect should be reserved for the kind and the morally courageous. Pity is another socially valuable response, and should be reserved for innocent people who are in genuine pain or who have fallen on misfortune. If, instead, you find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to one hundred percent that you are dealing with a sociopath.
In other words, don't feel sorry for corporations. When an automaker says that it's too difficult to meet new emissions or fuel efficiency standards, make them comply anyways. When a corporation complains that the taxes are too high, tell them that this is nonsense. When a mining corporation protests that safety regulations are too stringent, don't listen.

The last rule on her list is "Living well is the best revenge." I'll be writing about this in my next post.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fighting Back Against Corporatization Part 2-- Striking at the Roots

Last week, I wrote about the rationale behind the creation of corporations as legal entities. If these institutions are not serving us well, then let's change them. Today's post will be about some of the ideas afoot about how this might be done.

Limit the Scope of Corporations

In "The Story of Citizens United v. FEC,"Annie Leonard explained that in the 19th century, corporations were created to undertake short term projects, such as the construction of a bridge or railroad. Upon completion of the projects, the corporation would be dissolved. We could try going back to this model, by limiting the size or duration of a corporation. For instance, any corporation with a market capitalization greater than a certain number of dollars would be forced to divide itself into new competitive units. This would also eliminate the problem of some corporation, such as a bank or auto manufacturer, being too big to fail. Another option is to have expiry dates for corporate charters, for example, it can't last more than, say 6 years.

Limit Limited Liability

When a corporation causes some harm to people, through, for example, environmental damage, drugs with side effects, faulty products, or outright malfeasance, the victims and their survivors can only sue the corporation for its assets. Limited liability prevents them from suing the shareholders, owners, or managers of the corporation for their personal assets. Unfortunately, the value of the claims can often exceed the available assets and someone invariably gets the short end of the stick.

Michael Rozeff, a liberatarian, has argued for abolishing limited liability entirely, because the arrangement skews risk assessment and market valuations. Arguments in favor of abolishing limited liability have also come from progressives, such as the article in Mother Jones following the Union Carbide gas plant accident in Bhopal, India, and the spill of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

Less dramatic options exist as well. Shareholders could be made liable for their capitalization and any earnings that they have received. In other words, they could lose the value that they initially invested PLUS any dividends that they were paid. For example, someone who held shares of a high profitable tobacco company would have to return the money they made if it was needed to cover claims by victims or their survivors. Another option that is currently popular is to increase the personal  responsibility of executives.

Change the Tax Code

Currently, capital gains, i.e. income from an investment, is taxed at a lower rate than earned income. I see two problems with this. 1) It encourages people to buy shares and sit on their butts, rather than to use their money do work that increases other kinds of value. 2) It encourages creative accounting to move income from one category to another. It would be more beneficial to society for this creativity to be directed elsewhere. The simple solution is to simply remove the category of capital gains. Income is income. Investing in corporations would no longer be the default choice for making money grow and people would look closer at other options, such as supporting local projects.

Amend the Constitution

This proposal is specific to the US, because it addresses a uniquely American problem. The idea is to amend the constitution to explicitly state that corporations are not persons and subject to protections under the bill of rights. Much of the  outrage surrounding corporate personhood came to a boil last year after the Citizens United v. FEC case was decided by the US Supreme Court and limits on how much money corporations could contribute to political campaigns were removed. These limits, it was decided, were an infringement of corporations first amendment rights to free speech. Many people felt that this overstepped the bounds of reason and are mobilizing. Perhaps the most visible example is Stanford University law professor, Lawrence Lessig, and his root strikers project.

Interestingly, the origins of corporate personhood are murky at best. As Rushkoff wrote in Life Inc., the concept crept into law through dogged persistence on the part of corporations and a clerical "error."
The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, written to guarantee the rights of citizenship to former slaves, gave corporate lawyers the legal framework to make their cases. For reasons historians can't quite articulate, the Amendment uses the phrase "persons" instead of "natural persons." Corporations argued that this was because it was meant to include their own, non-natural personhood. In their opinions, justices repeatedly scolded corporate lawyers for attempting to exploit a law written on behalf of emancipated slaves. But the corporations had patience, and opportunistically sought out every leak and crack in the system.

Finally, in 1886, in a legal maneuver that has yet to be conclusively explained, a Supreme Court clerk with documented affinity for corporate interests incorrectly summarized an opinion in the headnotes of the decision on Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The clerk wrote, "The defendant corporations as persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution... which forbids a State to deny any persons within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." There was no legal basis for this statement, nor any discussion about it from the justices. From then on, however, corporations were free to claim the rights of personhood. The more precedents that were established, the more embedded the law became. Over the next twenty-five years, 307 Fourteenth Amendment cases went before the Supreme Court. Two hundred eighty-eight of them were brought by corporations claiming their rights as natural persons.
At present, is gathering signatures in support of three constitutional amendments, one of which is to "[f]irmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights." Their effort builds on the work of, which has written the following draft amendment. 
An Amendment to Preclude Corporations from Claiming Bill of Rights Protections

SECTION 1. The U.S. Constitution protects only the rights of living human beings.
SECTION 2. Corporations and other institutions granted the privilege to exist shall be subordinate to any and all laws enacted by citizens and their elected governments.
SECTION 3. Corporations and other for-profit institutions are prohibited from attempting to influence the outcome of elections, legislation or government policy through the use of aggregate resources or by rewarding or repaying employees or directors to exert such influence.
SECTION 4. Congress shall have power to implement this article by appropriate legislation.
Getting a constitutional amendment passed is not an easy task, especially in the face of opposition supposed and financed by corporations, but it is a very cool solution. If we get it done, it will be something to tell the grandkids about.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fighting Back Against Corporatization-- Taking on Consumerism

We're here at the end of a week of blog posts focused on corporatization and it's time to talk about how to get out of the rut that we're in. I had originally planned one more post on this topic, but I find that there so many options that these will be dribbling into next week.

Strategies for decreasing the corporatization in our lives emerge from looking at each of the characterizations that I have written about, and changing, challenging, or attacking each of them. To recap, the four characterizations that have used this week are: 1) an economic system that reduces us to consumers; 2) a legal entity that centralizes relationships; 3) psychopaths; and 4) colonizers.

Let's start with consumerism.

Buy less.

In a system that is designed to get us to buy more and more, the easiest solution is to buy less. Start with baby steps. Try to go one day without buying anything. Or to buy one less item on a shopping spree. Then, get more ambitious. Really question whether you need to get the next generation tech gadget. Wean yourself off retail therapy.

The point of this, at first anyways, is to get you thinking and to interrupt your habits as a consumer. As materialism wanes, there's a pretty good chance that your happiness will blossom. For one, you won't have to work as much to feed your shopping habit. For another, you'll spend less time organizing, cleaning, and culling your stuff. When you spend less time working, you can spend more time on other activities that you enjoy.

While this cycle is very zen, there's no need to take a vow of poverty or embrace an acetic lifestyle. Just buy less.

Make buying decisions based on factors other than price.

There's always a certain thrill in finding a good bargain, and I certainly wouldn't advise you to spend your money unwisely. But you get what you pay for. If you are paying the least you possibly can for a product, you are encouraging corporations to race to the bottom, through practices such as, outsourcing, running sweatshops, improper disposal of waste, and cutting corners on benefits. If a company is acting ethically or promoting social justice, support it by purchasing their products. Their products may cost more, but that just reflects the real cost of making it. You can also think about the price difference as a very efficient charitable donation.

If it's the the hunt that you love, consider buying second-hand goods or freecycling. Not only do you get what you want at a lower price, it keeps stuff out of landfill.

Cut out the intermediaries.
Make your supply chains shorter by purchasing directly from a producer or buying locally. Community supported agriculture and eating foods that are grown closer to home are easy ways to do this. You get produce that is fresher, the food doesn't have to travel as far (less fuel used, smaller carbon footprint), and the grower gets a bigger share of the retail price.

Another option is to buy from individuals or small businesses. I'm a big fan of (it's like an ebay for crafts, but without the auctions). Rather than buying an item, such as a necklace or toddler car seat cover, from a department store, I pick it up on etsy. I'm supporting a small business, usually run by a woman out of her home, and encouraging the propagation of craft skills. I really like the idea that an item was made specifically for me and that my shopping is subversive.

Barter and trade.

My final suggestion is to not use money, but to barter or trade for your goods instead.  Trade time, skills, or goods rather than paying. Our family has traded babysitting, and woodworking for food with our neighbors. I use websites such as and to exchange books and DVDs for ones I haven't see or read yet.

Rushkoff spends the last chapter of Life Inc. on how to take back our lives from corporations and focuses on these kinds of solutions. They didn't seem especially strong to me. (Others probably made the same comment and the paperback version of the book has a new, large section consisting of successful projects. These case studies are far more diverse and interesting.) The most interesting idea was the creation of local currencies, i.e. money that could exchanged for goods and services withing a local community. This idea was particularly clever, because it even avoids centralized currency, further strengthening the local community and person-to-person relationships.

So, these are the ideas that I have read about or come up with. Do you have any to add? Have you used any of these strategies? How have they worked for you?

Colonized without Our Consent

  ARTHUR:  How do you do, good lady.  I am Arthur, King of the Britons.
      Who's castle is that?
  WOMAN:  King of the who?
  ARTHUR:  The Britons.
  WOMAN:  Who are the Britons?
  ARTHUR:  Well, we all are. we're all Britons and I am your king.
  WOMAN:  I didn't know we had a king.  I thought we were an autonomous
  DENNIS:  You're fooling yourself.  We're living in a dictatorship.
      A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--
  WOMAN:  Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.
  DENNIS:  That's what it's all about if only people would--
  ARTHUR:  Please, please good people.  I am in haste.  Who lives
      in that castle?
  WOMAN:  No one live there.
  ARTHUR:  Then who is your lord?
  WOMAN:  We don't have a lord.
  ARTHUR:  What?
 Excerpt from Scene 3 from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

In Tuesday's post, I wrote about how corporations came into existence to allow aristocrats with property but no skills to participate in the mercantilist economy. Yesterday, I went further into the two characteristics of corporations, the profit motive and limited liability. Today, I'll get into the third characteristic, the imposition of a central authority into otherwise unregulated affairs.

The clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail perfectly illustrates process of subjugation, or more broadly, colonization. Dennis and Woman are peasants, who didn't even know they had a king, let alone agreed to be subjects. Their village (or anarcho-syndicalist commune) had it's own organization, that worked just fine before Arthur came along. The imposition of centralized authority from outside turned them into subjects, or subjugated them. The process is the same when a corporation inserts itself into existing person-to-person, lateral relationships. But here, the process is called colonization.

What exactly is colonization?

From Nebraska Invasive Species Project
Biologically speaking, colonization is the process of a species coming to inhabit an area. The species populates and cultivates the area for its own purposes, and usually changes the biogeography as a result. Think invasive species. Human colonization is similar in that settlers are going into a region with existing inhabits and the settlers are imposing themselves on the people, geography, governance, and social order.

Scholars in science and technology studies use the concept in a more abstract way (surprise!). Colonization occurs when people impose an order on an existing phenomenon. For example, physicists colonize the building blocks of matter when they invent categories such as "atoms," "forces," and "quarks." In this view, geography is the not the only thing that can be colonized. Cultural practices and social arrangements can as well. For example, for-profit companies have colonized the open source software movement.

What does this have to do with corporations?

More than just dominating a geography, corporations inject themselves into existing social and cultural arrangements, and they centralize our economy. One example of how our lives have been colonized by corporations is the nuclear family.

Prior to the industrial revolution, people lived primarily in rural areas with an agrarian lifestyle. Goods were produced on a small scale by cottage industries. Customers and producers were typically members of the same community and had relationships outside of commerce. Corporations built ever larger factories that allowed them to take advantage of large steam plants, scale up production, and use less skilled workers in assembly lines. Workers were required to live in the city, away from their families, because machines and corporations required them to do so. Young people living in the city fall in love, as they are wont to do, get married, and have babies. Thus, we have nuclear families, consisting of a only parents and children, living far away from other relatives. To be clear, a corporation didn't decide that nuclear families should exist, only that it was in their economic best interest to have workers living near the factories.

In other words, our lives have been twisted around to suit a corporation's bottom line. They turn human beings into investors, workers, consumers, etc., which ignores their agency as family members, citizens, and stewards of the environment.

Is colonization still happening?

These days, countries aren't colonized by invaders anymore. (This is not to say that invasions don't happen, just that colonization through settlers and military force doesn't happen any more.) It's too expensive, not cool, and not necessary. Colonization now occurs through economic means. Why bother taking over the government, when you can take over Main Street AND make money? If citizens are drinking Starbucks, watching Hollywood movies, and listening to Lady Gaga, then what does it matter who is the Prime Minister or President?

Furthermore, the scale of colonization continues to grow. Living in a dominant culture in the USA, it's hard to see the colonization in our own lives. Perspectives from the periphery, such as the global South and developing nations, can be very enlightening. Firoze Manji, a Kenyan, is the editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News, an open-access, pan-African newsletter. In an interview, he was argued that the emphasis should be on emancipation, rather than economic development. He said:

I don't think the idea of development as the new name of colonialism is new: Nkrumah and others wrote about the process of neocolonialism – and the aid industry is very much part of the infrastructure of neocolonialism. What I think we should be outraged about is that what is called 'development' is in fact the use of public funds to subsidise and facilitate the work of the oligopolies, the transnational corporations who are the principal beneficiaries of functioning 'development'.

But I don't think this is colonialism: this is a form of imperialism, a way of extracting wealth from our countries, subsidised by public taxes. Imperialism has evolved over the last hundred years, and the accelerated financialisation of capital has created conditions in which there is a frantic drive for accumulation by dispossession. That is fundamentally what is going on.

And the aid industry is providing the oil to make that machinery work effectively in the interest of capital. Instead of using euphemisms like 'development', we should be calling it what it really is: Capitalism in the peripheries in the age of financialisation and the centralisation of capital on a global scale. This is important, because it allows clarity about what is going on, and at the same time poses the question: If accelerated pauperisation of the many is a characteristic of capitalism in the peripheries, what then should be the anti-capitalist alternative?

It seems that pauperisation doesn't occur only in the geographic peripheries, it's happening here to people who are on the periphery in other ways, such as wage, education, race, access to health care. What then should be the anti-corporatization alternatives? I'll be writing about those tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Profit motive + limited liability == lack of empathy == psychopathic corporations

In yesterday's post, I talked about the three design principles behind the invention of the corporation-- the profit motive, limited liability, and centralization of existing person-to-person relations. In today's post, I'm going to further examine the implications of the first two.

Profit Motive

The desire to make money in and of itself is not a bad thing. It's a fact of life in our industrialized, urbanized lifestyle that we operate on a currency-based economy. Besides, who wouldn't want lots of money to spend on a big house, fancy vacations, and a top-of-the-line iPad 2. When money becomes the highest or even the only priority, the profit motive becomes problematic.  Some words that we would use to describe a person driven only by the profit motive include: greedy, materialistic, shallow, miserly. I, for one, wouldn't be eager to make friends with someone like this.

The situation is the same for corporations. The profit motive is not necessarily bad, but when coupled with an insensitivity to all other priorities it becomes downright evil.

Limited Liability

The intent of limited liability is to encourage new enterprise and innovation. The scheme helps corporations to locate capital, because the liability of the shareholders are limited to the amount that they contributed. In other words, members of the corporation can lose their initial stake, but they won't lose their other assets. This not entirely unreasonable, because large projects can have large risks, but are nonetheless worthwhile undertaking.

The problem with limited liability is it further exacerbates the negative consequences of the unfettered profit motive and further shields the corporation pressures to be more empathic to people. Limited liability is essentially a license for "one person to damage another person with impunity." Consequently, corporations can make as much profit as possible, with no regard for harm. To my knowledge, no such license is granted anywhere else in society. Even police, the military, and intelligence services are granted such license on an exceptional basis and under civilian oversight. Shareholders could provide similar oversight, but limited liability means that they don't have to. The worst thing that could happen (losing their initial investment) is not that bad, and best thing that could happen (limitless wealth) is pretty fabulous.

Lack of Empathy

The combination of profit motive and limited liability means that corporations are largely insensitive to priorities other than making money. Without pesky shareholders to keep corporate feet to the fire of a human conscience, corporations have no pressure to be socially responsible or do more than the bare minimum to be in compliance with environmental or product safety regulations. 

In "The Story of Citizens United vs. FEC," Annie Leonard described the lack of empathy this way:
Unlike people, who are driven by all kinds of motivations doing the right thing, love for family their country, the planet, publicly traded corporations are required by law and markets to do one thing above all others: maximize value to shareholders, make as much profit as possible. That's it. ...Yes, it is people running these corporations. But their human motivations come second. If they prioritize anything at all above making profits, they're out of there. Can corporate leaders do good things like give to charities or try be more green? Sure, but not if it conflicts with maximum profits.
When people act without regard to the feelings and needs of other people, we hear terms like  insensitive, callous, and remorseless. Yet when corporations do this, we hear terms like job creation, economic boost, fiscally responsible, and fiduciary duty.

But to be completely accurate, the lack of empathy doesn't extend to all human beings. Last year in the US, CEO pay increased 27%, while worker's wages rose only 2.1%, barely keeping pace with inflation. The median CEO pay is $9 million, which is more than 280 times the approximately $32 000 earned by the average worker last year.


In psychiatry, there is a term for people who don't feel empathy and that's "psychopath," sometimes referred to as intraspecies predators. Yes, this is the same label that they apply to serial killers. Not all psychopaths become serial killers. For that matter, not all become violent offenders. About 1-3% of adult males and 0.5-1% of adult females are estimated to be psychopaths. Both figures are believed to be underestimates. Some researchers have pointed out that corporations are also psychopaths, because they lack empathy.

Psychopathy is a psychological defect with a biological basis. The part of the brain responsible for empathy is absent or badly malformed. In contrast, mental illness, such as depression, is like a cold, meaning that it's transient and someone can get over it. Psychopathy is permanent and possibly not treatable. I once dated a psychopath and a professional told me that the only thing to do was to stay away from him. Wikipedia characterizes psychopathy as follows:
Psychopaths gain satisfaction through antisocial behavior, and do not experience shame, guilt, or remorse for their actions.[12][13][14] Psychopaths lack a sense of guilt or remorse for any harm they may have caused others, instead rationalizing the behavior, blaming someone else, or denying it outright.[15] Psychopaths also lack empathy towards others in general, resulting in tactlessness, insensitivity, and contemptuousness. All of this hampers their tendency to make a likable first impression; psychopaths have a superficial charm about them, enabled by a willingness to say anything to anyone without concern for accuracy or truth.
Currently, we have psychopathic corporations tell us who we should be electing (unprincipled politicians), what is valuable (knick-knacks at gift shops), and how we should be spending our time (watching TV, where they show ads). This is crazypants.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why corporations exist

Corporations, as a concept, came into existence for three reasons:
  1. to make a profit, 
  2. to shield the partners from risk, and 
  3. to inject a central authority into person-to-person (lateral) relations.
According to Life Inc., corporations came into existence because the ruling class needed needed a way for their inert property (usually land or gold) to participate in a new mercantile economy. As Europe made its way out of the Dark Ages, a new social class emerged: merchants. Previously, commerce was conducted primarily on market day, under the careful watch of the local noble, so he could tax transactions. As prosperity increased, as did demand for goods and the need to do commerce on non-market days. Merchants satisfied this demand by buying from artisans, transporting the goods to customers, and re-selling at a profit. They didn't actually make anything, they made all their money by facilitating trade. The aristocracy was increasingly excluded from these transactions, especially when merchants crossed territorial boundaries, which was only exacerbated by the age of sail.

The nobles needed a way to get in on the game, without risking their reputation or their velvet tunics. Their wealth was tied to the land and was not increasing. At the same time, merchants needed larger sums of money to initiate more ambitious projects, such as longer journeys of exploration and more ambitious settlement or resource extraction projects.

So, the corporation was born. As Rushkoff wrote:
The corporation was not a business or a government entity, but a combination of the two.
Its government supporters-- the monarchs-- had the authority to write the trade laws and grant monopolies; its business participants-- the chartered companies-- would enjoy the exclusive right to exploit them.
Here we arrive at the first two reasons for corporations to exist: to make money for investors, who are people who do nothing more than contribute some capital, do no other work, and whose liability is limited to only their initial investment when things go wrong.

In the 17th century, aristocrats started granting charters to bestow exclusive rights to trade within a geographical region in the new world. The Hudson's Bay Company and the British East India Company are well-known examples of these. Thus, rulers were parlaying their sovereignty and initial stake in a voyage into central control of a monopoly and a share of future profits. Rushkoff again,
The chartered corporation was a bold grasp for permanent rule and permanent wealth that constituted a stalemate between the two groups. The contracts that monarchs and mercantilists wrote not only stopped their own decline from power; they stopped time, locking in place a set of corporatist priorities that to this day have not changed. Instead, these priorities work to change the world and its people to conform to the rules of central control.

People who had always engaged in business with one another would now be required to do so through monopoly powers. All lateral contact between people and businesses would not be mediated through central authorities. Any creation or exchange of value would have to be run through these centrally mandated companies, in a system enforced by law, controlled, by currency, and perpetuated through the erosion of all other connections between people and their world. Moreover, the emphasis of business would shift from the creation of value by people to the extraction of value by corporations.
This is the third reason why corporations exist. If they did not inject themselves into existing human relations, there would be no profit to be made. If a mercantile relationship didn't previously exist, they'd invent one.

To me the first two reasons are problematic, but defensible. Some projects are too large to be shouldered by a single person, but are worthwhile. People have different skills, all of which are needed to make the world turn around. But this third reason is the most despicable of all. A central authority is insinuating itself into relations between people and requiring them to organize their lives differently against their will, undemocratically, and without any accountability. This to me seems to be a violation of human rights.

Photo credits. Hudson's Bay Company graphic from Hudson's Bay Company Archives via Jeff Chapman, AVOC on a canon by zampano!!! on flickr, official seal of the Muscovy Company by the British Museum

Monday, April 4, 2011

Special This Week: Series on Corporatization

This week I will be writing a series of posts on corporatization and its effects on our social lives. This series is an experiment in a number of ways.

One, it's series of posts on a single topic. Normally, posts are on whatever tickles my fancy at the moment.  There are themes that I return to, but this is the first time that I've focused on a topic for multiple posts in sequence. Two, I'm going to be posting every day for a week. Normally, posts appear when I have time, but taxes are coming up and my urge to procrastinate has been especially stoked. Three, I'm aiming to have these posts be shorter than usual.

I haven't always been anti-corporation. I thought of them as a necessary evil at worst and part of the landscape at best. Over the last month or so, current events, a book, articles, and some videos have solidified my opinion that corporations are bad for us. Corporations have changed our culture and political systems in undesirable ways. We need to get them out. I'm not one for complaining without providing a solution, so at the end of the series I'll discuss some interesting ideas and experiments in removing corporate interference in our lives.

The source that has been most influential to me on corporatization is Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff. (To be completely accurate, I listened to it as an audiobook.) It was one of the most amazing books that I've read in quite some time. In it, Rushkoff gives a history of the corporation and how it has insinuated itself, not just into commercial transactions, but our assumptions about how we should live and our relations with each other. By doing so, the book sheds new light on why I always feel like I have to resist being put into the neat containers. I always thought this was social-cultural pressure. Well, it is, but the root cause of this configuration of social-cultural pressure is corporatization.

A series of videos by Annie Leonard called "The Story of Stuff" has been a lot of fun to watch. It's a series of short videos featuring Leonard narrating animated stick figures that is both educational and entertaining. It's the latest installment in the series takes on "The Story of Citizens United vs. FEC," the case where the US Supreme Court rule that corporations could spend as much as the wanted in political advertising.

Add to this some articles on the psychopathic tendencies of corporations and a presentation by Lawrence Lessig on the need for citizens to take democracy back from corporations. If it was just one essay or video, I'd be less persuaded, but I am seeing a preponderance of evidence. 

The solutions to corporatization typically involve fostering local person-to-person relationships, different arrangements for commerce, activism, and activism. We can resist at a personal level by buying less or choosing to buy more ethically. We can also scale up our resistance by supporting an Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, stating that corporations are not persons. Resourceful people all around us are coming up with creative solutions.

I'll be interested in hearing your feedback from the experiment-- what's good, what's bad, what to keep, what to throw away.

Why does tourist attraction == gift shop? Hint: Corporations think human being == wallet

Old Faithful Village Shop in Yellowstone National Park
by TGIGreeny on Flickr CC-AA-NC-SA
The weirdest place that I saw a gift shop was at a trail head near Banff in the Canadian Rockies. I'm out there for a invigorating walk and I'm supposed to buy something to commemorate it? Whatever happened to just having a good time and creating fond memories?

There are other tourist attractions, such as Granville Island in Vancouver or Pier 21 in Halifax, that consist almost entire of shops and restaurants. Occasionally, you can exchange money for an experience, such as a midway ride or a game of chance. But there's nothing to do there that doesn't involve money. This raises the figure of a tourist as consisting of a wallet, a stomach, and an empty bag. What happened to enjoying the scenery? Or activities that don't involve money, such as walking or building sand castles? The obvious answer is there's no profit in this, so no one is going to organize the space to promote such activities. Consequently, spending money becomes that only way to fully experience a location that has historical significance.
garryknight on Flickr CC-A

Why does a gift shop as a category of store even exist?

Think about it. A gift shop is a store where you buy gifts. What kinds of things constitute gifts? Not things that you need, like groceries, or even things that you would keep for yourself. So, this is an entire store full of things that have no purpose other than to be given away. It used to be that gifts were meaningful and infrequent, because we had less expendable income and knick-knacks from China were not a dime a dozen. What happened to choosing a gift by thinking about the person what s/he might need? Instead, the choice is made by browsing thousands of random items and deciding which one would be most suitable for a distant cousin whom you never talk to outside of family gatherings. Tese so-called gifts are really things that have taken on emotional meaning far beyond their due proportion. This proliferation of stuff has led to an entire industry of organizers, books on de-cluttering, and television shows about hoarding. Not to mention, this habit of acquisition is not good for the planet.

So, how to resist gift shops? 

Resist by exercising other aspects of being human, not just a cost center, customer, or other kind of economic unit. Let me illustrate by way of a story.

There is an old science fiction short story by Terry Bisson called "They're Made of Meat." The story, which appeared in Omni magazine in 1991, consists entirely of dialogue. We infer from the content and context, that these are two advanced aliens talking about the discovery of humans. A field agent reporting back is having a hard time convincing central command that an intelligent life form could be based entirely on flesh. The field agent drives home the enormity of the situation by emphasizing that this species undertakes all the activities that persons of note undertake using entirely meat.
"So ... what does the thinking?"
     "You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."
     "Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"
     "Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"
     "Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat." 
Resist by taking back your humanity, by being thinking meat, conscious meat, loving meat, dreaming meat. Be more than just a wallet. Don't take the easy way out.

By loungerie on Flickr CC-A-NC- SA

Where is the strangest place that you have seen a gift shop? Do you need souvenirs to help commemorate a visit? Have you found ways to not exit through the gift shop?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Hans Rosling explains why I have a hard time choosing a cause to support

 For those who follow TED talks, Hans Rosling is a magician with statistics. This seemingly bookish Swedish professor of public health possesses a sharp wit and a showman's understanding of the power of infographics. His talks are captivating.

I found the following talk through Stumble Upon the other day. It helped explain to me why I have been having such a hard time choosing a cause or project to support. For quite some time, I have been looking for a charity or NGO to become involved with, seriously involved with. But it's been difficult to choose. Local or global? Hands on or advocacy? Women's rights or feeding hungry children? The choices are endless.

Around 14:30, a Rosling shows a list of dimensions for development. First, he points out that all of them are necessary to achieve a comfortable life, which explains the impossibility (for me) of choosing one cause above all else. Then, he analyzes their effectiveness as means vs. goals.

Human rights are especially dear to my heart as a member of multiple minorities. They are a great goal, but a lousy means for development; just because I have rights, it doesn't mean I'm any less hungry. Economic growth doesn't seem as exciting to me, as I associate it with business, finance, corporation, globalization, trade, and other things that make me go squick. It is a fantastic means, but money is a lousy goal in life; I can eat well and still not have self determination.

In one slide, Rosling has explained why I have been having a hard time choosing. At the same time, it suggests a way out: work on human rights in the developed world and work on economic growth in the developing world. For best effect in the developing world, support organizations that advocate for women's rights. In the USA, these are organizations such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and National Organization for Women. For the developing world, support economic growth organizations. Some examples include micro-credit lenders, World Vision, and Plan International (no relation to Planned Parenthood).