Nothing quite exemplifies American corporatism as does the almost cartoonish CEO visage of Mitt Romney. A man of many mansions and $150 ties purchased by his questionably–gotten millions, he now hopes to become the president who will complete the Wall Street purchase of American government. Romney’s mantra, should he become the fractured Republican Party’s nominee, has already found his sound-bite that Barack Obama is a “big government socialist” who is out to ruin the great capitalistic free enterprise system that made America great.
Capitalism, as we well know, is America’s other religion. Christianity will provide eternal salvation, but capitalism will make it comfortable getting there. [see also 72. 5: Christianity and Capitalism: Scenes from a Marriage (Revised) 8.29.2011]. But whether Romney will make it or not will depend to some degree on what version of “the capitalism is great/government sucks” right wing proverb can gather sufficient support.
Currently there are three distinguishable versions of this. There is first Romney’s Wall Street version that blesses the big money manipulators and the industrial arbitrageurs like himself as the essential pantheon of manipulators of who profits and loses in the great marketplace. He is, in his own terms, a man to be “envied.”
Version two is more than the libertarian middle-class model expounded by Ron Paul. Paul’s Ayn Randian version of capitalism appeals to those who have already enjoyed some degree of success and simply do not want government taxes taking any part of it. It’s simplemindedness is especially appealing to a segment of the youth who require everything compressed to Twitter length.
Neither of the first two versions of capitalism care very much for the Tea Party version that represents those closer to the socio-economic bottom. Indeed, it is this last group whose prospects are made much better off by a government that is highly active in the regulation of the marketplace as well as the provider of economic and social services that have already proven more advantageous than the putative beneficence of “trickle-down.” This third version is Gingrich’s territory. He plays to it by asserting that people don’t want food stamps, they want jobs and, not all that obliquely, referring to racial minorities as the great sponge of socialist government handouts.
But all versions profess that the corporation is the answer to America’s economic woes and, not only that government is not the answer, it is the bane of American business. Each in their way accept some Darwinian version of the marketplace with those at the bottom still willing to hold onto the ideology of unfettered capitalism while jobs continue to be and the Wall Street boys are socking away what used to be workers health plans, pensions and 401(k)s in the Caymans.
Thanks to the imaginations of a majority of the United States Supreme Court justices corporations are now regarded as “persons” with First Amendment rights. The Citizens United decision unleashed a large number of corporate-financed “super pacs” into the political electoral process, as well as a considerable number of jokes engendered by the notion of corporate personhood. Among them was what one wag offered that he or she would believe that corporations are indeed persons when Texas executed one of them. The other right wing notion that fetuses are “persons” might not be too far off. Following the logic that two things equal the same thing are equal to each other, fetuses might soon be corporations. (But that’s another dimension of the American dementia.)
The reification of the corporate metaphor (corpus, L., body) is simply the latest step in the process designed to insulate the actual persons who operate America’s corporations from responsibility for their actions; for example, where corporations might be sued for malfeasance while their CEOs and boards of directors are indemnified. Notice that not a single one of them is keeping Bernie Madoff company.
Corporations are, of course, nothing without the people who own and operate them. They are products of human values and they exhibit their own values: competitiveness, innovation, territoriality, productivity, and insatiable acquisitiveness. They are like persons, but they are not persons. They are born, they grow, they mature, they have prosperity and loss, and they die; but they are not persons. In the past however, when they were heavy and wedded to the land, they were homebound; but the new corporations, whose products are composed of plastic and silicon, or that are composed of computer clicks that move capital around the globe in an instant. Our new corporate “persons” are jetsetters and ex-pats.
Part of the mythology that has come to be attached to this notion of corporate personhood is that they actually behave like people. Take, for example, the notion of corporate competition. It is often seen as a sort of “fair play” between and among suppliers of similar products or services that results in their improvement and in a lowest cost to the consumer. Such a situation might exist in some quasi-corporate circumstances such as the National Football League, wherein teams were least successful last season are allowed to draft first from a pool of the best collegiate recruits. This of course is to maintain a level of competitiveness that makes football games interesting. But corporations are not interested in being interesting, they are interested in monopolization, maximizing market share and the ability to control pricing that comes with it. Moreover, they are not interested in creating jobs; they are interested in creating profit. They are not interested in distributing wealth; they are interested in appreciating the wealth of the owners of capital.
This fact makes it particularly galling to hear the rhetorical conjunction of capitalism and patriotism. Politicians on the political right might easily be convincing by portraying capitalism as American as apple pie, but increasingly that pie is being baked elsewhere. The irony is not even lost on the President who has engaged General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to chair his counsel on work and competitiveness while Immelt continues to offshore GE jobs. The company has already invested $2 billion in China and recently announced another half billion expansion in placing its R & D facilities there. Even beloved Apple Computer has far more Chinese employees, assembling those iPhones and iPads, than it has in America. The reasons are fairly self-evident: production costs from cheap labor puts greater profits into the pockets of the shareholders, and it is to the shareholders––not the American worker––to whom these icons of capitalism are beholden.
Amazingly, there are Americans who lost their jobs and their homes to the manipulation of capitalism for shareholder profit, and who yet want to turn everything over to American business. In their view there is no longer a need for public schools, public universities, other public services, even the military. All of these they think can be run better and more efficiently if they are turned over to the “business ethos.” These are jobs that would be more difficult to offshore (although the computer and accounting functions of my city are carried out in Bangalore”) but there would be few protections that would remain for erstwhile public workers who would become wage slaves for the corporations to whom we have turned over responsibility for the quality of our civic life, and those who they serve will have their status as citizens degraded to that as “customer.”[See DCJ Archives 43. 6: The Case For Government 7.26.2007]
It is rather interesting that the political party that most closely conjoins Capitalism and Christianity seems more concerned with the values of the former than the latter when it comes to a fair and equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth. Whatever happened to that guy who threw the money-changers out of the Temple?
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.28.2012)