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The American Dream of free enterprise and an economy free from government control has landed us in an era of corporate takeovers. It's every man for himself as corporations become the rule of law.

by Melissa Hostetler
Illustrations by Seth Friedman

1999-2000

A man made of fragments of other men. A creature envisioned by its maker to be a wondrous being, but in the end a figure so horrific that people will shudder to even think of it. A monster with a will of its own who, when released, will attempt to destroy its creator.

If this sounds like a fantastic science-fiction story -- it is. But the myth may have semblance to reality. The creature is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- a creature created in hope of saving humanity by preventing death. Frankenstein's creation, though indebted to his maker for his life, disregarded him and rose up to wreak havoc on those in his path. But is the story purely imagination? The story may be, but the analogy is not. Some have compared our economic system -- the market system -- to Frankenstein, claiming "the monster is running out of control," says Andrew Schmookler in his book The Illusion of Choice.

The common rebuttal to an analogy such as this states the market system is no monster -- "what can be monstrous about a system that is open to all and can create prosperity for so many?" they ask. The system may not have taken on such horrific connotations if it truly held these qualifications, but it does not.

Given, our system may be efficient, but in what ways? Does the market system efficiently create a community or preserve our environment? The market's only concern is with our pocketbooks and bank accounts. The market has given "selective attention" to our monetary acquisitions but has ignored all other things concerning human and social beings. Imagine if a survey were taken asking participants to decide between the values of a loving family and economic success. It may be a close race, but most (if not all) those surveyed would chose family over economic success. "To these questions, the market's answer is: Does not compute. And we, as children of the market society, learn to ignore what our system ignores," Schmookler says.

Thus, it is clear the market system has skewed our vision of our wants and needs. By assessing us only monetarily, the system denies us, or rather hides from our view, other needs crucial to our existence as human beings. These needs include family, love, peace of mind, and friendship -- all of which are subtly undermined by the value of the market system in its constant drive toward economic advancement. "(W)hatever shapes our society will thereby mold us as well," Schmookler says. The market economy is what drives our society, as will be seen below, and it is the market system that has shaped our values and thus our political society.

The driving force behind our market economy has been, and continues to be, the modern corporation. The modern corporation has become second only to government in power and authority, and some even argue the corporation is second to none. But, if the modern corporation is responsible only to a limited government, then who really has control over the modern corporation?

... if groups, sectional associations, are formed at the expense of the larger association, the will of each of these groups will become general in relation to its own members and private in relation to the state; we might then say that there are no longer as many votes as there are men but only as many votes as there are groups. The difference becomes less numerous and yield a result less general. Finally, when one of these groups becomes so large that it can outweigh the rest, the result is no longer the sum of many small differences, but one great divisive difference; then there ceases to be a general will, and the opinion which prevails is no more than a private opinion. from Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It was the modern corporation that became this "oversized" faction of American society. Some would even take it one step further to say there are only as many votes as there are groups with dollars. Once the modern corporation took its seat at the helm of America, the general will was subverted to the corporate world.

How exactly was American society led to believe in and trust the modern corporation? Many answers have been given, among those include vulnerability and necessity. Those are key factors in the birth of corporate domination of American society, but what author of Corporate Society: Class, Property, and Contemporary Capitalism, John McDermott calls "corporate form" was the major unifier of the corporate agenda. "In [corporate form] a small class of top managers use financial and policy instruments to guide a group of middle managers, technicians, and professionals who, largely by administrative and technological coercion, control a third group, the production workers who, increasingly, only carry out simple labor tasks." In effect, corporate form is a "social structure of production," McDermott says.

In creating a system of a few powerful bosses over many, society must admit and accept that the bosses had control and authority over themselves and the economic system. It was seen early in the history of the modern corporation as a credible coercion. American society saw the corporate leaders of the day mold and shape their resources into productive economic action. The increased profits of the corporation were the only proof that America needed to give the green light to further corporate action. The modern corporation heeded the signal and took off into a world of power and mass production.

The concept of authority is what produced this green light. "Authority, in its classical sense, signifies the possession of some status, quality, or claim that compels trust or obedience. As part of this ability to compel trust or obedience, authority signifies a potential to use force or persuasion, though paradoxically authority ends when either of these is openly employed," says author of The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Paul Starr. In other words, somewhere down the road we lost faith in the common person and vested our trust in the few innovators of the modern corporation. We failed to realize, though, these innovators had only their own best interests at heart. These interests were not made public, and were not asked to be disclosed. The ideals of authority and credibility preempted that. "The advantage of authority ... is that it makes unnecessary to elaborate the reasons for believing the subject, just as it dispenses with the use of force and the recalcitrant," Starr says.

The corporation's major claim to fame was its harnessing of technology. The corporate structure itself can be seen as technology, and it was only under this structure that all other technology could flourish. The means of production was placed in the hands of the two upper echelons -- bosses and managers -- that were then able to force the working class to adhere to its methods. Force may be a bit strong here. Workers were given a choice of not being employed or adhering to the new methods of work -- but, in actuality, this was really no choice at all. "These reserve powers [of the corporation] make subordinates dependent upon such authorities for their life, liberty, and livelihood; they create a strong basis for compliance, apart from any belief that subordinates may hold about the authorities' claim to obedience," Starr says.

Clearly, the "subordinates" are the modern workers. This was quite a change from just a few years before when workers controlled their own means of production and worked only to satisfy their own needs. The working class now had the needs of the upper classes to fulfill -- knowing full well that if he or she did not, he would not be afforded a paycheck or a job in the future. The working class was thus stripped of their traditional skills and self-determination by the modern corporation. The working class could now afford to be less educated -- in fact, the corporation promoted it. A less educated worker equaled a more submissive and obedient worker. Without an education, a worker would have no other alternative than to work for the modern corporation since it required no special skills only the ability to adhere and conform to its work ethic and strategy. To the corporation, the workers were only commodities able to be replaced at any second.

Modern industrial employment "is a world in which most of us must put aside our ideas of equality, rights, and so on and accept the dictatorship, pure and simple, of the boss," McDermott says. Our acceptance of this "dictatorship," whether it be by necessity or not, becomes a dominant factor in our society. By accepting the corporations' economic structure, America is more susceptible to the corporation's social ideals. I am speaking mainly of consumerism. America's seeming necessity to consume more and more corporate products only places her tighter in the grips of the modern corporation.

It can be maintained with justification that all economic activity produced symbolic as well as material goods. In fact, the two are generally inseparable. An automobile, in addition to being a vehicle of transport, is also a striking assemblage of symbols and provides a rich symbolic menu to its owner or aspiring purchaser. A pair of shoes is often much more than foot coverage and protection.

In his book Culture Inc., Herbert Schiller goes on to state that "a community's economic life cannot be separated from its symbolic content. Together they represent the totality of a culture." If corporate products can be translated into symbols then the modern corporation is America's cultural authority. By relating to and taking to heart these symbols we are thus embracing the corporate agenda. In effect, we are supporting an agenda concerned only with economic advancement at any cost -- even if the cost is our own.

The heavy consumption of cultural products and services and the contexts in which most of them are provided represent a daily, if not hourly, diet of systemic values, spooned out to whichever public happens to be engaged.

The "spooning" is done through advertising and media. Since the television has become our dominant source of information, we have been subjected to 15-second spots of eye-candy produced by whom else but the modern corporation. Images and ideas come at us left and right everywhere we go -- in the grocery store, our newspapers, the television, magazines, sporting events, and even the clothes we wear -- enforcing the materialistic ideal the corporation hopes we embrace. There are increasingly fewer places we can duck for cover.

Modern corporations have employed methods like place-based advertising, sponsorship, and cross-promotion to sell their products to the world. The bottom line for the modern corporation is selling their products and often "the techniques used to sell their products have social effects that go beyond selling" says Matthew McAllister in his book The Commercialization of American Culture.

For example, with place-based advertising the medium for the message is specifically tailored to the demographics of the viewer or reader. Place-based advertisements can be found in health clubs or schools speaking directly to the audience that frequents these locations. In effect, the advertiser will attempt to exert as much control over the place or event as possible and if the advertiser succeeds, the place itself will become a symbol for the advertiser.

Sponsorship has the same effect. Corporations have been known to sponsor sporting events, art and cultural exhibits, and public (free) media. The sponsor will often attempt to influence, through economics, the event as much as possible. This affects the actual programs or events. Sponsors will also use their economic power to decide which events gain sponsorship. More than likely, a sponsored event will be conservative and hold no dissenting viewpoints to the corporation or its ideal of consumerism. "Much of what is becoming sponsored is a vital part of our society's democratic functioning. Much of what is becoming sponsored could contribute to our democratic notion of a public sphere," says McAllister.

Corporations use cross-promotion to eliminate competition and make the market more profitable for themselves. Impressions are the key to this strategy. Impressions represent the number of times a consumer is subjected to an advertiser's ad or logo – the more impressions, the more pervasive the campaign. Commercials and advertisements take the shape of cereal boxes or keychains and follow the consumer wherever he or she goes. Cross-promotion also has the effect of limiting diversity of ideas in our democratic society.

One thing democracy depends on is diversity of information, sources, social positions, and viewpoints. Without such diversity, the decisions democratic participants will make will not be the best-informed decisions. An ideal democracy, then, has a balance available in its diversity that citizens may access.

Advertising is the loudest voice in society, and the only thing that voice promotes is consumerism and the corporation. Schmookler asks, "Has there ever been so powerful a cultural institution to whom the human beings it molded were so much merely a means to an end – the end being their surrendering their money – and so little end in themselves?"

America has come to accept corporate idealism (read, "consumerism") as natural. It is in blindly accepting these ideals that society subverts its freedom of choice. American workers have become docile and have simply accepted the fate that befalls them.

The authority that society has endowed upon the modern corporation has tricked them into submission. But now that we know this, what can be done? A better question might be, are we willing to do anything about it? Schmookler argues that, "it is for lack of any vision of another way to go that we continue, as if on automatic pilot." It is time that we switch off the automatic pilot. First and foremost, we must educate ourselves about the ways of the market and the corporations that dominate it. We must begin to understand that it is our consumerism and adherence to the corporate message that allows these behaviors to continue.

Our power lies within our pocketbooks. Every time we pass a dollar over the counter, we are giving our approval to the corporation whose product we are purchasing. We must make the modern corporation responsible for its actions and the only way to accomplish this is through denying the ideal of consumerism and refusing to support an institution that undermines our democratic freedoms.

Our power is also in our numbers. Alone we can only make a small dent in the corporate domination of our society, but together we are much more that a ripple in the pond. Though the dollars in each pocket may be few, together they are great. Since the modern corporation's main objective is to obtain these dollars we must make it become socially responsible. We have the power to do just that.

Only when this understanding creates movement toward actual institutional change, however, can we begin to gain real control over our destiny. Without such changes, in so long as we live in the field of the system's magnetic force ... we will, continue to "choose" to embrace it. We will embrace a world in which human needs, rather than being the principle ground around which society is organized, are bent to serve the system's requirements.
from The Illusion of Choice by Andrew Schmookler




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