Them Evil Corporations

This morning I posted some links which I thought pointed to an essential divide between left and right. It seems likely that exactly where the left places large corporations in its pantheon where the “bad things dwell” the right puts government. Avatar is just the latest in a long list of left leaning movies which trot out, nominally or at least normally, one dimensional villains acting on behalf of or at the behest of corporate (greed) and wickedness. The movie review of Avatar I had linked notes that that movie trots out three well worn left-wing cinema stereotypes: evil corporations and their stooges, dastardly military commanders (and mindless destructive soldiers), and the good simple native peoples (borrowed I guess from some Rousseau inspired fantasy). But I am digressing a bit, what I’m trying to concentrate on is the left/corporate-as-evil and the right/government-as-evil and compare and contrast these two, for I think they play similar roles for each side. So if you’re on the left (or the right) I’m suggesting where you put corporate evil the other side puts government and vice-versa.

I was starting to write that “There are just a few things wrong with viewing corporations as compared to government in this light” and to go into a point by point fisking of the the left wing point of view why government not corporations need curtailing (and now I’ve just deleted three paragraphs of that polemic). I’m not sure “argument” is the right way to go about this. The point is just as reflexively as the right points to the evils of government, so does the left point to corporate evil. The left points to how corporate money and influence corrupts government. The right points to how government power (in the marketplace) in the first place is what attracts corporations in turn to influence government in the first place.

What I don’t see is why the left consistently looks to the source of the problem as the “evil corporations,” when I suspect few if any of them work for what they would consider the same. Nameless corporate evil … greed and whatever. The whole “evil soldier” thing is a holdover from a caricatures of what the armed forces were like in the Vietnam conflict. But what is the origin of the continuing high place of corporations, especially when compared to government, in the pantheon of “bad things?”

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7 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    The whole “evil soldier” thing is a holdover from a caricatures of what the armed forces were like in the Vietnam conflict.

    Isn’t the ‘evil soldier’ by definition an agent of gov’t (either directly in the case of, say, movie nazi soldiers or the Empire of Star Wars or indirectly in say Dances with Wolves where the gov’t is so big and unwieldy it can’t properly control the power it wields)? (Now that we are on the topic, gov’t seems to be the main villian in the Harry Potter pics where the ‘Ministry of Magic’ is always either acting stupidly or is being captured by the forces of evil)

    But more to the point you ask “what is the origin of the continuing high place of corporations, especially when compared to government, in the pantheon of “bad things?”

    The answer is they are the same thing. Two sides of a coin. First corproations exist as creatures of gov’t. As a use of gov’t power they hold the promise of great benefits but the hold the danger of great abuse.

    Second corporations look like gov’ts. They are run by a huge number of people, they tend to have someone ‘at the top’ who is either perceived to be a gross fool or a tyrant with unlimited power. They tend to have a lots of bureaucracy. Of the major human institutions that have these traits, the only other items that come to mind are academia and the church. De Vinci Code aside, the Church is not a great candidate for action movies unless you’re setting them far in the past or in a fantasy world. Most people see academia as somewhat removed from the world of real power. I suppose you could make a movie about the evil Engish department head…but it doesn’t sound like a promising script.
    So the skepticism of corporations is really no different than skepticism of gov’t. The corp. of Avatar is effecitvely a foreign gov’t. They can amass huge amounts of power and strength. In terms of the ‘pantheon of bad things’, when you’re talking about human bad things they can only come from sources of human power. Homeless beggers may be annoying but don’t expect a convincing action movie starring ‘corporate man’ who fights them, and then sends them into the accounting dept. wearing suits and ties.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    They are run by a huge number of people, they tend to have someone ‘at the top’ who is either perceived to be a gross fool or a tyrant with unlimited power.

    Is that a fair description of the company for which you toil?

    So the scepticism of corporations is really no different than scepticism of gov’t.

    So, explain why the left has faith in the latter and holds the former as evil (when as noted the former causes so much more harm)?

    First corporations exist as creatures of gov’t.

    How is “Texaco” in the example noted a “creature of government?”

  3. Boonton says:

    Is that a fair description of the company for which you toil?

    A fair description of the perception most people have. Of my company? No. Nor do I think it’s a fair description of most governments or other large organizations.

    So, explain why the left has faith in the latter and holds the former as evil (when as noted the former causes so much more harm)?

    Are you going to get around to explaining how you derive this strawman from the ‘leftist’ pieces you quoted? I could also ask why the right seems to feel gov’t isn’t evil when it takes the form of a social worker or clerk at the unemployment office but when it takes the form of a cop or soldier they bend over backwards to make excuses for it. See for example the comments and questions from the right wing members of the SC in the recent case involving a public school which ordered a female student be strip searched because some other kid was caught with an unauthorized aspirin.

    How is “Texaco” in the example noted a “creature of government?”

    Texaco is chartered under the laws of incorporation. Through this it is able to amass and control capital as a ‘legal person’.

    There’s a lot of ‘two sides of the same coin’ going on here which your strawman analysis ignores. In both cases we have economies of scale at play. By being bigger, we are able to get more for less. This goes for both gov’t and corporations. (Examples, social security, national defense, wal-mart, cable TV). At the same time, the reasons to be skeptical of ‘bigness’ are basically the same. With bigness comes power and the opportunity for abuse. Bigness also brings with that special type of infuriating stupidity that only can exist in very large organizations.

  4. I’m also perplexed at the notion that “leftists” have a reflexive faith in unlimited government (ACLU, anyone?). In my post, for example, I was responding to an argument that Avatar was a libertarian manifesto, by noting that the real message of the movie is — given sufficient power — corporations are as likely as government to ignore such niceties as contract law and property rights. I specifically analogize it to China (which dislikes Avatar because “it threatens their exploitative ideology just as much as it would Texaco’s”). Replacing government power with corporate power just means a different entity will abuse us; that hardly suggests that government cannot be an abuser as well. It’s just a question of which one has greater power in a given circumstance, and, given a choice of evils, what type of institution is more amenable to being checked in the exercise of its power.

    It is certainly true that the gravest abuses of human rights have historically come from government, not corporations. That makes perfect sense, given : governments have been around much longer than corporations (the corporate form didn’t really get off the ground until the late 19th century), and locations with enough resources and social capital to support large corporations generally also support even larger and stronger governments (so we rarely see the situation where corporations can “out-muscle” the government). There is no evidence suggesting (and quite a bit contradicting) the notion that if corporations did gain that level of power, they’d be “nicer” with it than governments. It is only quite recently that the rise in MNCs has given corporations based out of a powerful nation the latitude to reach into areas where they genuinely do seem to outstrip local government power (my Ecuador example); unsurprisingly, these are the areas where corporations tend to be at the fore of massive human rights abuses.

    Institutions are generally only good at protecting their constituents. For autocracies, that’s the ruling class. For corporations, that’s the stockholders (corporations have a fiduciary duty to their stockholders, with limited exceptions they don’t have one to anyone else, much less “the public”). For democracies, that’s the voting populace of the state in question. Democracies aren’t that effective at protecting the rights of non-constituents from their own predations (i.e., the people of other countries, or people they don’t allow to vote), but they are reasonably good at protecting the rights of those who have voting power (which is why expansive democratic participation is important). And that’s true of corporations and autocracies too — the problem is that both have far narrower constituent bodies, so the proportion of people we can expect them to protect versus exploit is drastically worse vis-a-vis democracies.

    At the end of the day, the claim is reasonably simple: I don’t blindly trust the government with power. I do believe that there are more and more effective avenues for checking democratic government power than other potential competitors. And since (absent anarchy) somebody needs to have ultimate power, I prefer that institution to be a democratic government than, say, a corporation or an autocracy, precisely because that power is more amenable to popular checks.

  5. Boonton says:

    Reading a book on the Dryfuss Affair has lead me to suspect that we tend to ignore French History a bit too much. France seems like a worthy object of study because it is both very much like the US in its history (founded on a revolution that rejected monarchy and embraced popular liberty) and very much unlike US history.

    On interesting concept that I was reminded of in this book was ‘estates’. Namely society was divided into three estates. At the top was the clergy, the second was the nobility, and the third was the luckless ‘common people’. What is interesting is on both the left and right our worldview is now entirely inverted. We think of ‘the people’ as the most important members of society, not holding the 3rd place. Yet after the Revolution this was a major part of the debate between left and right with the right arguing that society had to be run from ‘the top’ with a monarch who fully supported and was loyal to a Catholic clergy.

    Anyway, nowhere in this thought do corporations enter the picture. The sudden and dramatic rise of corporate power is relatively new to the scene. And the power of the nobility and clergy, which was a fact of life for tens of millennium is now gone. Monarchists, if any serious ones still exist, are a rare curiosity. Nowhere in the Christian world is a clerical view still taken seriously. Only in a few parts of the Islamic world (although Islam’s ‘clergy’ isn’t exactly the same as the formal clergy that dominated Europe for much of its post-Roman history).

    But at the base of all of this is the left wing idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The insanely powerful ‘ubercorporation’ that is a stock idea in a lot of sci-fi from Robocop to Alien to Avatar remains true to the idea that absolute power should be taken with a large degree of skepticism. David’s original post demonstrated this by point out that while there are no corporations that can be said to be more powerful than the US gov’t, there are times when powerful corporations confront developing nations with the upper hand and when they do abuses happen. Granted not with the special effects sci-fi tends to give us.

  6. Mark says:

    David,
    Sorry it took a little time for me to respond. I”m confused, I took two posts and drew a parallel between them finding that they suggested to me that the “place” where the right sees government “as evil” the left sees corporations. How you get from there to “reflexive faith in government” is unclear to me.

    Are you suggesting that in the 20th century the only reason that corporations didn’t kill hundreds of millions of people is that governments have a 12,000 year head start on gathering power?

    I also disagree that the constituent for corporations is “the shareholders.” I don’t think the power/responsibility linkage between stockholders and corporate decision making is that simple and that shareholders have a less significant role than you pretend. I’d also question whether Texaco (from your example) causes more harm to the Ecuadorean people than their own government. I’m not cognizent of the details, but unless Ecuador is a shining example in the midst of a South American panoply of regrettable governance, their own state has more to answer to than one multinational corporation.

    I don’t blindly trust the government with power.

    ??? Huh. Who said you did?

  7. Boonton says:

    I also disagree that the constituent for corporations is “the shareholders.” I don’t think the power/responsibility linkage between stockholders and corporate decision making is that simple and that shareholders have a less significant role than you pretend.

    I agree with this very much but ironically you seem blind to its implications. This is exactly what justifies skepticism in corporate power. Corporations are not just ‘representative bodies’ of shareholders but powers unto themselves. Texaco’s shareholders did not authorize and probably weren’t even aware of its actions in Ecuador. The structure of corporations gives them a life of their own where managers and employees accumulate and protect power.

    The sci-fi cliche of the uber-corporation answerable to no gov’t and violating peoples’ rights therefore is no more unrealistic than the uber-gov’t of Animal Farm or 1984. In fact, it is as I said, two sides of the same coin.