General · 7th September 2010
Today's corporations are under scrutiny as never before. This is because they have become so intertwined with the economic and social fabric of our modern world that they are inseparable from it. We can hardly examine any aspect of our lives without finding connections to corporations, a dilemma that affects our politics, our affluence, our material security and our environment.
The majority of our food, energy, transportation, manufacturing, retail, banking and military materiel is provided by corporations. They invent, then make and market most of our consumer products. They provide us with entertainment and structure our buying habits. Our cars, trucks, airplanes and ships are built by them. They are such an integral part of our culture and we identify with them so strongly that we even pay to wear their logos – it's called "branding". And when they fail, we come to their support with government aid.
Democratic processes and national security issues have become so entangled with corporate agendas that former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term "military industrial complex" to warn of the wholesale integration of corporate interests with national security . When the two become inseparable, then defence and even warfare become synonymous with economic prosperity. In a strange oxymoron, the machinery of war perpetuates itself under the guise of our collective wellbeing.
We see the same inseparability happening with environmental issues. The question is not so much what should we do to address the multitude of ecological challenges facing our planet, as what can we do that is compatible with the corporate economic structure upon which our material wellbeing depends. Pollution controls, carbon taxes, emission limits, product safety, reduced consumption and even recycling must all be sanctioned by corporate co-operation, approval and engagement. Without their endorsement, change is very difficult to implement.
Supervision of corporations also becomes difficult. If pharmaceutical companies are the only ones testing the efficacy of their drugs, how do we know they are safe? If agri-corporations are the only ones studying the health of their genetically modified crops, how do we know they are beneficial for people and farming? If oil companies are the only ones assuring us that their drilling practices are foolproof, how do we know? In many cases, only corporations have the money, expertise and the technical capabilities to judge the safety of the products they are marketing and the things they are doing.
Said Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commander who has been overseeing the US government's response to BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, "[The corporations] are necessarily the modality by which this is going to be solved" (Newsweek, June 7/10). In less fancy words, "They got us into this mess so they'll have to get us out." Put differently, "They are the problem so they'll have to be the solution."
This explains why the US government was slow to respond to the Deepwater Horizon's oil spill. Notes Newsweek, "Such government passivity may sound laughable, or tragic, in light of recent developments, but it underscores an uncomfortable truth about government regulation in the modern age. The government is dependent on industry for essential know-how. Government officials usually lack the technical expertise to understand the intricacies of complex systems and high-tech engineering. That's true not just in oil and gas but in the airline industry as well."
The same applies to the "arcane financial instruments" used in the financial world ‹ in some instances, those engaged in the transactions don't even understand the technicalities. "High frequency traders may have become the new villains of finance. But their computer-driven methods, which now account for upwards of 70 percent of all US equity volume, aren't going away. To a large degree, fundamental investment strategies – ie. buying and selling stocks based on a company's performance – have taken a back seat to algorithms hunting for inefficiencies. And the practice is beginning to spread from the US stock market into new areas (Europe, Canada, Brazil, India) and asset classes (bonds, futures, currencies). ...And every day, things are getting faster. Four years ago, executing a trade in a millisecond (one thousandth of a second) was considered fast; now the top firms are trading in microseconds. That's one millionth of a second." (Ibid).
We only have to glimpse the social havoc caused by the near global financial collapse in 2008 to realize that wealth can be considered communal property. So, too, is the planet's environment. Its oceans, lands and skies are the collective commons owned by everyone and everything in the world. What are we doing by transferring the right-of-use to corporations? This is a question asked by former SFU professor Robin Matthews (Island Tides, June 10/10). "Privatization is nearly always theft. If utilities are not profitable, why would corporations want them. If profitable, why should not that profit be for the public good? ...The balance between private and public wealth is breaking down," he said. The role of "government [is] increasingly becoming that of ensuring that private corporations operate without hindrance."
This issue is becoming one of the major political and environmental dilemmas of our time. It underlies the controversy about open net-pen salmon farming on BC's coast, the Northern Gateway pipeline project from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat, and the subsequent oil-bearing tankers that will ply our marine waters. It relates to our forest industry, run-of-river hydro projects, parks and energy production. If, as Professor Matthews declares, "The primary citizens of the 'free market' system are now corporations," what are we to do?