Transnational Corporatism and the Rest of Us
One of the central tenets of the Hippie Ethos of the
1960s was an anti-institutionalism that deplored formal institutions –
such as labor unions – and informal ones such as the nuclear family. Of
all the remnants of the hippie creed, this belief has been the most
successful. Today, throughout American society every institution –
formal and informal – has been severely damaged. With one exception.
Our institutions have fallen beneath those of other
industrial nations and in many cases even below those of the second-tier
and the underdeveloped countries. Our families are wracked by a 50
percent divorce rate, and too often we read of persons murdered in their
homes by their closest relatives. In the past when children were
slaughtered by a parent, the killer was almost always the father. Now
mothers are killing their own children and earlier this month we read
that a boy and girl in Texas murdered their younger brother. There may
have been a time when such shocking news would have screamed at us from
the front page. Now that story was nestled in a back page. Such horrors
have simply become too common to gain the horrible attention they should
command. That this happened in a small town doesn't even faze us, as the
decline of the family has accompanied the deterioration of rural
America. The people of our farms and small towns once defined America,
and from Lexington and Concord to Tora Bora they have defended her. The
family farms that once fed our nation and others with organic food have
been replaced by outdoor factories that mass-produce genetically and
chemically altered consumer items.
Earlier this year a survey reported that participation
in America's religious houses had been decreasing even before the recent
Roman Catholic scandals became known. The fact that churches, mosques,
and synagogues continue to be targets of arsonists and vandals certainly
On our jobs, labor unions remain weak shadows of their
former selves. The working classes, from whose ranks emerged such
larger-than-life leaders as Cesar Chavez and John L. Lewis, now meekly
submit to urine tests and contract cutbacks.
The American public school system – once the envy of the
world – now sends 20 percent of its high school graduates to work or to
college with only elementary school reading levels. To combat this
problem, many "public" schools are inviting corporations into the
classrooms to advertise while "teaching." By 1992 Channel One's
advertising/teaching scheme was in 12,000 schools. Our colleges and
universities are often mired in battles over political correctness or
are serving as taxpayer-funded research departments for transnational
corporations. By the starkest of contrasts, we have the world's largest
American journalism has atrophied into a recitation of
press releases and official briefings. Investigative reporting is nearly
a lost art. Now it is a side item on most infotainment menus served by
the media conglomerates.
The decline is seen throughout our culture. Visual art
is more famous for offending religious sensibilities than for
confronting political and economic power. Literature struggles to stay
relevant in a society plugged into electronic communications devices.
Music is held hostage by what rapper Chuck D calls the corporate
"5-4-3-2-1 Boom!" Five corporations control retail; four are the record
labels; three radio networks own the stations; two networks dominate
music on TV; and as Chuck D reminds us, "You got one video outlet."
Sports rely more and more on artificial spectacles of sights and sounds
off the field. No wonder so many of our stars are prima donnas. Maybe
they're just trying to get our attention so we'll watch the game instead
of the fireworks and giant ads.
The deterioration of our political life is as
self-evident as it is lamentable. To sum it up, the Commander-in-Chief
of our armed forces is someone who avoided serving in Vietnam (a war
which he believed others should have fought in) and was everywhere on
September 11 except New York City and the Pentagon. He campaigned
for his office with a promise to re-dignify it, yet took it only after
the most corrupt election since 1876.
The free fall of our institutional life has been
accompanied by the decline of our own personal lives. Studies released
this year state that we are more obese, more rude, and more
sleep-deprived than ever. Electoral turnout has been declining since
1960, and among the world's democracies we are lowest in voter
participation. Adjusted for inflation, our incomes have fallen,
especially if we factor out the super-salaries of the mega-rich.
Wherever we look in American life we see only decadence and decline. The
hippie anti-institutionalism has triumphed everywhere.
With one exception.
For transnational corporations, the last 30 years have
been another Gilded Age, beyond the wildest fantasies of their loudest
boosters. The Dow Jones stock market index did not reach 1,000 until the
1980s. Since that "greed is good" decade, it has passed 11,000 and still
stands over 10,000. Corporate profits have soared beyond record levels,
along with CEO salaries and investor portfolios. Needless to say, this
wealth translates into even greater power. Corporations have power in
places never before associated with commercial activity. Among their
other activities, transnational corporations attach their logos to
sports uniforms and impose their names on stadiums; they operate prisons
and advertise in schools.
Because they have achieved such great success at the
expense of the rest of us, we have to ask if transnational corporations
are really American institutions or if they are something non-American.
First of all there's the term "transnational." Can we really convince
ourselves that a "transnational corporation" is something American? Is
it a fantasy of our imperialistic pretensions to call something both
"transnational" and "American"?
It is. A transnational is just that: something that is
beyond and not part of our national heritage and aspirations. To prove
this, we need only look at their words and their record. In his book
"When Corporations Rule the World," David Korten cites a statement by
Charles Exley, CEO of National Cash Register. Exley told the New York
Times: "National Cash Register is not a U.S. corporation. It is a world
corporation." Korten also quotes IBM Vice President C. Michael
Armstrong’s statement from 1990: "IBM, to some degree, has successfully
lost its American identity." When we remember that IBM, like General
Motors and other transnational corporations, actively did business with
Nazi Germany throughout World War II, then we are right to say that IBM
long ago "successfully" lost its American identity. And today as
transnational oil companies continue to do business with Saudi and Gulf
Arab sheikhs who finance Hamas and bin Laden, we are right to say that
these transnational corporations have also lost their American
Their needs are not our needs, and all too often their
victories are our defeats.
Transnational corporations cheapen our culture, dictate
the stories of our news media, control our science, trespass into our
children's classrooms, pollute our skies, poison our food ,and
prostitute our democracy. Through their ever-expanding promotion of
consumer "culture," corporations increasingly secularize us so that we
will no longer turn to the God Who heard the prayers of the civil rights
marchers in Selma and the farm workers in Delano.
If a foreign enemy did these things to us, we would
already be at war with them. Well, they are a foreign enemy. Why
aren’t we at war with them?