Where is a corporation?
It’s easy to see corporations in their physical assets: skyscrapers, vehicle fleets, cargo ships, big box stores. But these are the things corporations own, only. If we follow this idea down its rabbit hole, we will pass these physical edifices; then perhaps make a stop with the legal department, where all the documents that justify a corporation’s existence reside, but these are not really the corporation either, just its paper trail; eventually we will end up with the people creating those documents. Are the people the corporation? The mail-room workers, the mid-level managers, the shareholders, the executive officers, the legislators who wrote it into law? No one of them, we will say, is really a corporation, and neither is the corporation them. The corporation is not the objects, the documentation, its employees or its owners. It is nowhere. Except as an idea.
Like many such things – nations, borders, other institutions – we made them up. Corporations seem to take up space – when I think of them, they seem like great vague clouds that move monstrous on the horizon, shifting, half-solid, implacable, elemental in size and menace, their intentions divined like deities, their true workings inscrutable. They are Lovecraftian in their immensity, their threat to sanity. I must recognize however that this is my mental landscape. The corporation is an idea, but perhaps the worst kind: a thought-virus.
How often we decry the way corporations are treated as people, given the rights that only individuals ought to have. Corporations are not people! we scream. And it’s true. Corporations are not people. They are alive, however. Or half-alive, the way a virus inhabits that liminal zone between life and non-life.
Like a virus, a corporation will spread endlessly as long as there is a host. It will infect as many as it can, in whatever way it can. A corporation has been designed to act in its own self-interest. It has no morality, or rather its morals are perfectly narcissistic. Perpetuation of the corporate organism is the only measure of the good.
In the recent Hobby Lobby supreme court case, we seem to see an effort by the owners of a corporation to push their beliefs on others, or if you’re on the other side of the debate, to live by their morals, in business as otherwise. As Molly Redden pointed out in Mother Jones, however, Hobby Lobby has invested quite heavily in companies that produce the very contraceptives to which its owners supposedly object. Laying aside the Green family’s less-than-logical arguments against family planning, the bald fact that they profit from it in other spheres would make them highly cynical.
At the risk of not giving the Greens their due, I must say I think they are not so much cynical as their corporation is cynical. The corporation is the crystalline example of cynicism: more than believing in a humanity lacking authenticity and motivated by self-interest, it perpetuates that situation for its own profit, a kind of mobius strip of cynicism.
The Greens have been infected by the thought-virus of the corporation, as have the supreme court justices. This is what allows them to live with the cognitive dissonance that must afflict some lonely and unheeded part of themselves. Behind their ostensible belief that what they are doing is religiously correct lies the motivation of self-interest, and yet, still further behind, there lies the self-interest of the corporation. The Affordable Care Act is bad for the profits of corporations, so corporations are eroding it any way they can. If that means manipulating religious sentiment, corporations have no moral compunctions about it.
If we are surprised by this, we ought to take a step back and look at the broader context. Corporations have been violently extracting wealth from nature and its people ever since they were first created. If modern times, from the colonial era onwards, can be defined by the profit motive, that places the corporation front and center. Colonists carried mental as well as physical pathogens to their new-found, resource-laden lands. From corporations we get the horrors of factory farming, both animal and plant, too numerous to list, and unconditionally terrible for all involved, human and non-human. We get pit mining and fracking, clear cuts and empty seas. The only real beneficiary is the corporation.
At present, questioning the legal standing of corporations on this or that issue is about as far as we get. Corporations are not people! They shouldn’t have rights like free speech or blah blah blah … We howl at the void. The corporations are not listening. We cannot appeal to them; they are beyond our ken. Try appealing to a cancer cell.
Likewise, they have insinuated themselves into every level of our (consumer) culture. We are hard pressed these days to find some sector of our lives unmediated by a corporation. This is by design.
We often lay the blame at the feet of the wealthiest of us, who supposedly run these corporations. It’s true, they do wield undo influence. A recent study concluded the United States can no longer be considered a democracy, the imbalance is so extreme. At once, those who benefit the most from corporate culture are, firstly, just lucky, and secondly, good at doing what corporations ask of them. They are the ones who have been the most thoroughly infected. Meanwhile, they broadcast to the rest of us the supposed benefits of the corporation, the things most people wish they had: leisure, luxury, influence. They are like the ant ridden with cortyceps fungus, made to climb up a stalk of grass by mind-control, so the fruiting body can burst from the ant’s head and infect all the others in the region. They are the Typhoid Marys of the corporation.
In one section of the novel Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell imagines a future world ruled by a corporate religion. In an admixture of uber-capitalism and mind-twisting totalitarianism a la North Korea, catechisms are recited promoting the virtues of consumption and investment, and everyone has a certain quota of their earnings they are required to spend. People are produced like machines, bought and sold. Surveillance is ubiquitous. Resistance to said system is brutally suppressed, considered deeply immoral, and the very idea of questioning doesn't enter most minds. The adherents of corpocracy believe that, contrary to all precedent, this is the only human system that can last forever.
Though the fictional world is full of people grown in vats, megacities abutted by uninhabitable wastelands, and other elements of the speculative dystopian genre, like all good science fiction it holds up a mirror up the present. In this slightly distorted image we might notice that we are not in a dissimilar position.
Another staple of the genre is the danger presented by an artificial intelligence, one that only cares about humans as they relate to its own ends. In The Matrix and Terminator we see insectile consciousnesses calculating how best to turn humans into batteries or manipulate them to their will or simply sweep them out of the way. We may, however, already be living in that future, without recognizing it. Corporations have almost unbounded influence the world over. They are ubiquitous, they exist in us and nowhere at once, they are supremely self-interested. It is an ugly irony that they must have profited so greatly from the above films without most of us seeing the connection.
To compound our problem, thought-viruses are not as easily eradicated as physical pathogens. You would have trouble convincing anyone that small pox is good for them. Argue that we ought to inoculate ourselves against contracting a corporation, though, and see how hard your opponents fight for their dearly-held beliefs. Sometimes the arguments take the form of dismissive head-shaking, as they wearily describe doing away with corporations as a simple-minded fantasy, and that all the costs associated with corpocracy are just what it takes to do business. But we have to call out the lie. We have to say that a head-long rush toward ecocide is not ‘just business’ – it is the result of diseased thinking.