This post is about citizen action, public protest, and being a trim tab. It’s about how the common citizen wields more power than ever before in human history. I’ll get to that. But first I’m going to take a quick look at history from the perspective of the commoner vs. the sociopathic elite.
Five Waves of Coercive Power
One way to look at history is as a series of power struggles between the hoi polloi (the common folk who tend to treat each other decently) and “masters of the universe” powermongers (the far smaller group who tend to be more sociopathic/less empathetic by nature).
The latter group has taken on different manifestations throughout the ages, depending on what kinds of (coercive) power are effective, and who has the subset of skills to accumulate that kind of power.
Warlords, for example, inspire the loyalty of armed strongmen and terrorize the common folk into paralysis and submission.
Somewhat later in history (with much overlap; warlords still exist today), monarchs acquired and hoarded power via feudal rule (with knights and samurai as playground bullies), familial inheritance of gold, land, and title, and to some extent protection of the common folk from barbarian hordes (aka the armies of other monarchs). Some charismatic monarchs inspired romantic loyalty among the commoners (especially if taxes weren’t too high and executions infrequent). Monarch warlords, such as Alexander of Macedon, expanded their territory (and sometimes national borders) in great swaths via epic military campaigns.
Wave three of sociopathic powermongers takes the form of The Church (not the saints and luminaries who have legitimate spiritual awakenings and dedicate their lives to inspiring and helping others, but rather the institutions that ossify philosophy into dogma, punish those who stray from doctrine, suppress knowledge and discovery, and rule by fear). The Catholic Inquisition is the most iconic example of abuse of power by a religious institution, but no religion is exempt. Possessing the official moral high ground is an ideal platform for perpetrating abuse.
Wave four is fascism, which is not a political system but rather a political pathology that occurs when sociopaths within a government consolidate power and attempt to destroy their detractors. The tools of fascism are surveillance (of known enemies, and everybody else to discover unknown enemies), the encouragement of xenophobia, violent suppression of political protests, covert assassinations, and constant war. Fascism can manifest within communist states, democracies, and republics alike (no doubt libertarian or anarchist states could also exhibit fascist tendencies, if such states existed). A total descent into fascism results in a dictatorship (Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, etc.), but “free democratic societies” also oscillate across the fascism spectrum (extreme examples in the United States include McCarthyism, violent suppression of the Civil Rights Movement, covert support of military dictatorships in Central and South America, and NSA surveillance of citizens).
Wave five of power consolidation by the sociopathic elite is corporatocracy, which is not the simple existence of the corporation as a legal business entity, but rather the perversion of the corporate entity into a tool for extracting wealth and labor from the poor, raiding the commons, evading taxation, avoiding personal responsibility for criminal activities, manipulating governments, screwing the consumer, and other shenanigans. Not all corporations do these bad things, and most people who work for corporations are good people. Still, controlling the state via corporate power is the current method of choice for the modern wave of sociopathic elites.
A corporatocracy works in the economic context of capitalism. Picketty points out that unmitigated capitalism is unsustainable, but so is any other form of unchecked power and resource hoarding by the sociopathic elite. The hoi polloi eventually realize what’s going on and claw back most of the power (with institutions like democracy, rule of law, human rights, public services, asset taxation, and distributing power among different branches of government). We’re slower, dumber, and less motivated than the sociopathic elite, but there are far more of us and we work together well once we’ve reached our limit of being abused and exploited.
I think the influence of corporations on government (especially investment banks), at least in the U.S., peaked in 2011. Occupy Wall Street, if it did nothing else, made it clear to the hoi polloi who the elite were (Wall Street investment bankers, mostly). While the investment bankers drank champagne and laughed at the raggedy protestors from their balconies (literally — see image above), OWS paved the way for federal investigation and prosecution of bank fraud, more progressive income and capital gains taxation, and stricter banking regulations.
The Glass-Jawed Enemy
As enemies of the commoners go, corporations-gone-bad are the easiest opponents so far. Compared to standing up to Genghis Khan, the Vikings, The Inquisition, or the Stasi, fighting corporations is easy!
Consumer-facing corporations often go down after one punch. Michael Moore realized this when he pressured Kmart to stop selling ammunition back in 2001, and succeeded.
These days consumer-facing corporations can be swayed with a few letters or tweets. Target recently reversed positions on customers carrying guns into stores, thanks in part to Twitter campaigns like this one. Target wants moms to shop at Target. If moms don’t want guns in Target, Target says no to guns in the store. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Corporations that don’t deal directly with consumers, like mining companies and investment banking firms, are less likely to yield to public pressure and social media campaigns. So are companies with their backs against the wall, like SeaWorld (the recent documentary Blackfish clearly demonstrated the horrors of keeping orcas in captivity, but without captive cetaceans SeaWorld has no business). But even in these cases, public (or employee) outcry eventually leads to legal investigations, increased regulations, fines, and audits, which for fraudulent companies leads to bankruptcy and dissolution.
To reiterate, corporations are not the enemy of the people. The corporate entity in the context of well-regulated capitalism is an engine of wealth creation, a golden goose that generates marvelous gadgets, streaming entertainment, cheap energy, the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, and other modern wonders. The enemy are the sociopathic elite who use the corporate entity to steal, exploit, destroy the environment, evade social responsibility, and generally be evil.
Tough and Evil
The non-consumer facing, privately controlled corporation (invulnerable to both shareholder pressure and consumer sentiment) is the strongest haven of the sociopathic elite. In this group we find Bechtel, Koch Industries, and Cargill, corporate actors who seem to openly delight in destroying the environment, exploiting the poor, and endangering the public.
Organized crime syndicates that function like corporations (and in many cases are tightly interwoven with real corporations) also generally don’t care about public opinion and social media.
But even those corporations and corporate fronts must operate within the context of nation states and their legal systems. Despite the Koch war against the minimum wage, the minimum wage is going nowhere but up. Cargill may keep ignoring safety and environmental regulations forever, but they will also keep getting sued and fined.
Why not a “three strikes and you’re out” law for law-breaking corporations? Keeping a corporate charter should be a privilege dependent on good corporate citizenship.
Keep Fighting the Good Fight
The important thing to remember when fighting for justice, the environment, and human rights is that corporations are made up of mostly good people who generally want to keep their jobs, cover their asses, and not work too hard. This makes corporations vulnerable and easy to manipulate (even privately held corporations).
For example, if we, the hoi polloi, make it more difficult for corporations to sell products containing bee-killing neonics than not selling them, the corporations are going to go with the path of least resistance. It’s only a matter of time.
Will the Sociopathic Elite Always Rule the World?
Yes, probably. But this isn’t necessarily bad news.
Even in a free democracy that values human rights, individuals who rate highly for traits like narcissism, self-importance, callous disregard for other people’s feelings, and a desire for power will probably end up in positions wielding political and/or economic power. Who else would want these jobs?
It’s the job of the hoi polloi to make sure that no single position or agency has too much power, and that institutions and entities that are ripe for the abuse (lightly regulated corporations) are constrained by law to protect the environment, worker, community, consumer, and general public, and to play fairly against other market entities.
Corporations won’t always be the preferred tool of the sociopathic elite. Eventually the crackdown on corporate bad behavior will be too wearisome to deal with, and the sociopathic elite will find a new entity or institution to abuse. Personally I think it will probably have to do with the abuse of artificial intelligence and/or cryptography (perhaps the sociopathic elite will use BitCoin or similar to avoid taxation and gain unfair market advantages).
Even if there is a macro trend towards the hoi polloi clawing back power from the sociopathic elite with each wave of coercive power, corporate abuses may still get worse before they get better. The outcome depends on citizen action (voting, letter writing, protests, exerting pressure via social media) and the subsequent reactions by our lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and courts. The outcome is not written.
So if you witness a corporation behaving badly, do something about it. You may find the fight to be easier than expected.
If you have a story about pushing back against bad corporate behavior, please share below.