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Monday, April 26, 2002

Transnational Corporatism and the Rest of Us

By Howard Williams

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 The family farms that once fed our nation and others with organic food have been replaced by outdoor factories that mass-produce genetically and chemically altered consumer items.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 doesn't help.

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 prison population.

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 identities. Successfully.

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?