By Karine Vann for Boston Compass (#125)
April 10, 2020
I started this column based on the belief that the unfettered growth of massive, profit-seeking, industrial corporations is one of the most damning phenomena taking place in the world today. I am an anti-corporatist, and I want to dig into that because it means a lot of things.
I believe corporatism is not just a way of doing business; it is a manner of structuring society that is manipulative and exploitative at its core. It is a phenomenon out of which I’d argue nearly all subsequent societal ailments stem.
For example, when we protest structural inequality and racism in this country, we often point a finger at colonialism, which we view as a problem independent of corporatism. But in fact, colonies like Virginia and Massachusetts were founded as literal corporations. As profit-driven enterprises, they even had charters granted to stockholders by the king. Make no mistake, colonialism was the predecessor to today’s corporate capitalism, and slavery is perhaps the most infamous and cruel example of how much the free market is willing to overlook while kneeling at the altar of growth.
I believe corporatism is not just a way of doing business; it is a manner of structuring society that is manipulative and exploitative at its core.
The idea behind the colonial (and now corporate) mindset is not to live harmoniously with one’s surroundings. It’s to use people and places until they’re no longer profitable.
Yet as Americans, we delude ourselves into believing big business is on our side. Instead of demanding higher wages so we can afford to pay a fair price for the items we own, we cheer for those who are able to use their economies of scale to bully less powerful actors in the market into securing “deals” and “bargains” for the low-waged American consumer, brands like Dunkin Donuts and Walmart. We don’t care what these companies have to do, the corners they have to cut, the environments they destroy doing it, or the families in developing countries that have to get by on $5 a day because of it—until maybe we find out about it. Then wealthier consumers will boycott those companies in favor of ones which do things slightly more fairly. But everyone else will keep buying what’s affordable because we can’t afford not to. And because we feel a misplaced sense of kinship to these brands, which is doubly sad, but also somewhat understandable. After all, these corporations employ large swathes of the population, which is a virtue isn’t it? Even if those types of jobs are often mind-numbing, low-paid, and deeply disempowering—thanks, Amazon.
I’d argue part of the reason there are so many people, especially people of color, living in poverty across this country and lacking access to basic opportunities like education isn’t just because there are still racist white people; it’s because after a century of putting our faith in corporations as vehicles of progress, we almost do not have a public sector in this country anymore to do anything about it or make the necessary reparations. Rather than dealing with our race problems in a real way, we let business become the great equalizer. This is how America deals with its marginalized communities. Being racist and sexist is bad for business! The market regulates itself! But we’re seeing now the shortcomings in this surface-level approach (though we continue to apply it).
...after a century of putting our faith in corporations as vehicles of progress, we almost do not have a public sector in this country anymore to do anything about it or make the necessary reparations.
Perhaps more importantly, we have totally lost sight of who the enemy actually is. Anyone who’s perused Twitter lately (another corporation that incentivizes outrage and profits immensely from our divisions) will see that American political discourse is where critical thought goes to die. Truth is, this isn’t a fight that needs to be waged between left versus right; it’s between big versus small. And I’d argue that any narrative pitting working classes against one another (which is what we’re seeing unfold over social media with the left-right wing dichotomy) deserves a hefty serving of skepticism.
It’s convenient that the same media outlets that pit us against one another always tiptoe around the larger elephant in the room. Maybe the problem isn’t that some poor white guy from a collapsed mining town in Pennsylvania voted for Donald Trump. The problem is that big business that keeps getting bigger, while workers just can’t seem to catch a break. It’s rare that you’ll hear anything that unifying from Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN. Maybe it’s because they, too, are corporate goliaths who stir up the kind of controversy that will drive ratings, but not the kind that will result in actual change.
It’s brilliant political maneuvering if you think about it. If PepsiCo, the multinational corporation that owns Aunt Jemima, changes the racist label on its bottle, which co-opts the image of a black woman, then we’ll probably ignore its contents, which are equally immoral. Here are the actual ingredients in a bottle of Aunt Jemima: CORN SYRUP, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, WATER, CELLULOSE GUM, CARAMEL COLOR, SALT, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, SODIUM BENZOATE AND SORBIC ACID (PRESERVATIVES), SODIUM HEXAMETAPHOSPHATE.
Aunt Jemima is not just masquerading as a black woman; she’s masquerading as actual food.
Why not leverage this opportunity to change not just the logo on the bottle, but what’s inside, too? Why do we always stop short of demanding the substantive change we deserve? What is the actual agenda here?
Despite the protests unfolding around the country, I have yet to see any organization or public official—save for those on the absolute fringe—even hint at the enormous role corporatism plays in maintaining the status quo. Instead, I see a well of idiotic Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives opening up beneath all of our feet, sucking us deeper into this web of political inertia, ensuring as little as possible actually changes.
The joke’s on them.