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Land of the Robots

Imagine living amongst a race of immortal, super-human creatures with superior intellect, abilities, resources and power. Further, imagine that these alien creatures enjoy all the same rights as citizens, but are burdened neither with the responsibilities that come with citizenship, nor a moral conscience that would give them some measure of forbearance from using their full power to their own advantage against us. What would it be like to live in such a world? It would no doubt be treacherous, fraught with an assortment of possibly life-threatening dangers.

Yet we needn't imagine it, for we live in such a world today -- right now -- in the United States of America. All we need do is open our eyes. The alien beings are technically known as "juristic persons," but they are better known as corporations.

For all intents and purposes, corporations have the same legal rights as you or I. While they cannot vote, they can use money to buy votes. They have the right to free speech (including advertising), they can buy and sell property, contribute their opinions to the political process (even though they are not citizens and in some cases are majority foreign owned), conduct business (obviously). They can own other corporations and sue other "persons" including lowly humans. However, unlike you or I, they have a different set of priorities. Human beings are multidimensional, sensitive mortal creatures with an inherent sense fairness and a variety of motivations for action. On the other hand, corporations are single minded in their pursuits. In fact, they are required by law to 1) maximize profits and 2) place the financial interests of their owners above all other competing interests. They have no conscience to interfere with these goals, and theoretically need never die.

If you knew a human like this, you most certainly wouldn't trust him, would probably fear him, and would definitely steer clear of him (if you knew what was good for you). Technically, he would be considered a sociopath. But most people rarely think of corporations in this way due to a lack of understanding of their true nature. Corporations have tremendous PR budgets to manipulate people - notably children - into thinking of them on their terms.

For more information, check this short clip from the Canadian film The Corporation. (10 minutes might be a bit long, so just watch the first two. You'll be hooked.)

Listen to Lucy, the corporate consultant, starting around 2:10: "Anywhere from 20% - 40% of purchases would not have occurred unless the child had nagged their parents. That is, we found that one quarter of all visits to theme parks wouldn't have occurred unless a child nagged their parents. Four out of ten visits to places like Chuck-E-Cheeze would not have occurred. And any parent would understand that. When I think of Chuck-E-Cheeze - oh my god, it is NOISE! And there are so many kids. Why would I want to spend 2 hours there? But if the child nags enough, you're going to go. We saw the same things with movies, with home videos, with fast food...You can manipulate consumers," she says cheerfully, "into wanting, and therefore buying your products. It - it's a game."

Do you like that game? Are you consciously aware of it? How do you feel about having that game played on you, or worse -- on your kids? Kids are not little adults. They're minds are not fully developed. And marketers play to those developmental vulnerabilities.

The consultant continues: "[Kids] are tomorrow's adult consumers. So, start talking with them now. Build that relationship when they're younger, and you've got them as an adult. Somebody asked me Lucy, 'is that ethical? You're essentially manipulating these children.' Well - is it ethical? Yeah, I don't know. But our role at Initiative is to move products. And if we know that you move products with a certain creative execution placed in a certain type of media vehicle, then we've done our job."

You can watch the entire documentary The Corporation on YouTube here.

The fact that corporations are required to maximize profit at all costs creates a peculiar characteristic: As part and parcel of maximizing profits, it is in their interest to externalize as many costs as possible. One result is that corporations will lie for profit. Is lying illegal? Not if you have a good enough lawyer, who can help you redefine what the definition of "is" is. But even more importantly, obeying the law isn't a matter of fear of punishment or moral obligation with a corporation. As Jim Hightower puts it in his most recent book, Swim Against the Tide - Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow, "The corporation itself has no feelings, no conscience, no heart, no soul, no morality, no shame - no butt to kick and no body to put it jail." Obeying the law is therefore a matter of cost/benefit analysis. If the penalty, weighed against the chances of being caught is less than the cost to comply, it is in the corporation's interest to break the law. It is simple, logical, calculating and cold. Nothing personal - just business. This is part of the reason that the list of corporate criminals is so long.

I say this not to be "mean" or to spite corporations -- nor would it do any good, since corporations have no feelings. This is simply an explanation of how these legal fictions are designed - it is embedded in their "corporate DNA." There is no question of evil or malevolence. Like robots, they follow orders to the letter - orders that have been programmed by our laws and judicial system.

Once upon a time, corporations were subordinate to human people and to the state. State governments granted charters to corporations for specific functions, and shareholders were liable for the actions of the corporation. Those days are long gone. The corporate form has now taken over and overwhelmed the society we live in. It is the dominant institution of our age, overshadowing and even controlling our government.

As Hightower continues:

Big corporations are purposefully structured to be hierarchical, autocratic, regimented, secretive, antidemocratic, extractive, exploitative, avaricious, self-aggrandizing, absentee organizations that are out to grab as much profit as quickly as possible. Not that their mission is to do intentional harm (whether by downsizing workers, polluting our air and water, cheating consumers, crushing competitors, deceiving shareholders, corrupting government, stiffing communities, or generally running roughshod over society at large). But such harm is as inevitable as it is prevalent, due to the inherently selfish nature of these giants. If anyone or anything happens to be standing between top executives and an extra dime in profit, the "corporate ethic" commands that the executives bolt for the dime. Tough luck for whoever and whatever gets caught in the stampede.

The corporate role in the subprime mess

Subprime mortgage originators (corporations) made quick, fleeting bucks by externalizing hundreds of billions of dollars in costs, which are now coming due. The originators were not interested in helping people achieve the dream of home ownership, though we know that many of them told customers they were. Nor were the originators interested in long-term relationships or future revenue streams, since they were going to package and sell the mortgages anyway. They were most interested in one thing: Short term profits.

This point has been made clear numerous times, and one question inevitably arises: Who is to blame? Was it the companies? The shareholders? The hapless borrowers themselves? The concept of securitization? The Fed? What I have never heard questioned is the corporate form itself. But is simply in the nature of the corporation to do such things. Now that there are greater costs to be paid - costs that were originally externalized - who can be held responsible? The salesmen and managers that originated the loans are long gone - they got laid off. The companies themselves are bankrupt. The "smart" shareholders sold out long ago to some new suckers who got stuck holding the bag. And now, both the federal government and the Federal Reserve are bailing the corporations out that created the mess.

Think we don't have a responsive government? Think again. It is simply that they respond to their constituency - the corporations. This means it will be you and I - the lowly humans, the foreclosed homeowners, and the decent taxpayers - who will be stuck footing the bill, yet AGAIN. The subprime crisis is not the first mess -- nor will it be the last -- that Corpgov (as George Ure of UrbanSurvival calls it) has created for us humans to clean up.

Growth is not - or should not be - an end in itself. Growth is a means to an end. The end is -- or at least should be -- a higher quality of life for us, the human persons. But somehow, growth has become the end for corporations, the juristic persons. They're just following their corporate orders, like robots. But they are using us to achieve their ends. The tragedy is that most of us also follow along, like robots, even though this strategy of growth at all costs is now reducing the quality of life for all of us.

It is time to rethink the role of corporations in our society and reign in what has become excessive power. In reality, corporations are nothing more than groups of individuals, bound together by contractual obligations. They are the ultimate special interest groups.

If you are interested in exploring this idea further and finding out how to preserve a sane, real life, please sign up to my low volume email announcement list. I will be discussing these issues further in the coming weeks and months.

* The title of this piece is borrowed from and inspired by a song by Remo Conscious from his latest album, Infliltraton

Any and all comments, observations and other feedback welcome here.

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