Saturday, May 16, 2015

Governments or corporations- which should rule the world?

The answer to which will rule the world, according to most science fiction novels, is corporations, e.g. Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash," in which the U.S. government has been reduced to the Federal Building in West L.A., or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where Henry Ford is the icon of the corporate state.  Both stories are combination utopian/dystopian visions, “Snow Crash” with its exhilarating free enterprise (e.g. pizza delivery boys on jet-powered skateboards) versus its frightening chaos,  “Brave New World” with its freedom from social anxiety versus its total control of the citizen’s emotional state.  

There is no science fiction book I can think of in which the future maintains the current nation-state system; our visionary writers do not see countries and traditional government surviving the current crises.  The corporate state, just by virtue of its being untested, is the natural next candidate (through a similar process, we may see the rise of female power, simply because it hasn’t had a chance to screw up yet).

As for which should rule the world, corporations or governments, that’s one of those high school debate topics chosen because it cannot be answered, in spite of or because of the ample evidence on both sides. 

Arguing in the negation for both state rule and rule by corporations, consider President Obama’s end- run around the government he heads during last month's consideration by Congress of the Administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, apparently heavily influenced by corporations.  A key disputed provision involves the “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) mechanism.  Per the Huffington Post (, “ISDS gives foreign corporations the right to bring private lawsuits through secretive supra-national tribunals when governments pass laws that protect the public interest but might harm profits.”  Senator Elizabeth Warren, playing a role many would have liked Hillary Clinton to play, led the charge against TPP and ISDS.  The charge failed and the TPP passed, after one of those "extended negotiations" our government indulges in to give opponents the impression they had a voice.

Is the conclusion for reasonable people that both governments and corporations are unfit to lead us?

We might consider avoiding the “Manichean” route, so-called from the third century Persian prophet Mani, who described the universe as a struggle between light and darkness, metaphors for good and evil.  We are accustomed to Manichaeism as an organizing social principal.  If we are for charter schools then we’re against public, and vice versa.  If we’re for capitalism we’re opposed to communism.  There’s no crossover between positions in most public discourse, no Venn Diagram overlap.  Manichaeism puts people into easily manageable groups.  But it doesn’t always reflect reality.

As I walk through my house, I see numerous wonderful things that were developed and made affordable by corporations: a TV that shows any movies or programs I want, a microwave oven, the computer I’m writing on, my car, my cell phone which is a portable computer, not to mention my family’s health, served from the private sector by the pharmaceutical industry and giant medical groups.  If the corporate world were the darkness opposed by Mani, middle-class life in America would be much worse than it is. 

Likewise I see the benefits of government everywhere: My house is supplied with ample, relatively cheap and dependable water and electricity through state controlled utilities.  Robbers and others with malign intent are kept at bay by police.  If there’s a fire or earthquake, appropriate state agencies do, or at least usually try to do, an excellent job of responding.  If rule by government emanated from Mani’s darkness, modern American life would be much more difficult.

On the other side, there’s no denying the vast abuses of corporations (e.g.much of the food industry is poisoning us for money) and governments (e.g. a stolen car destroyed by a fallen tree branch sat for over a month in my neighborhood without any Los Angeles agency responding to repeated calls), but that does not prove Manichaeism, which requires absolute light or darkness.  

Once you’ve abandoned the idea that your side is light and the other darkness, you’ve got a mobilization problem.  People don’t respond readily to dry analytics.  They want “action,” which can be loosely defined as conflict, with its adrenaline rush.  People crave that rush, which is how governments trick populations into going to war.  It’s simply exhilarating- until it isn’t.

Giving up Manichaeism is a humbling experience.  Instead of being part of a group expression of righteous fury, you’re limited to your own rationally thought out actions, like not buying a specific product, or declining to vote in 2016.  It’s a quiet sort of rebellion, but effective if it spreads.