Monday, August 12, 2013

The Return of Alien vs. Predator, or, Why Liberals Lose When They Take on Corporate Power: Part II

On August 2, I wrote, "Modern liberals use state power to check and constrain the power of capitalism, which they see as posing the greatest threat to our ability to live free and flourish....

Does the strategy of posing state power against corporate power work? Only if we control the state AND state power is stronger than the power of capitalism. But neither of these is true."

If you want to re-read Edward S. Greenberg's arguments demonstrating that elections don't keep elected leaders faithful to the wishes of the people, go back to August 2. But I think the point that corporations often escape government control is obvious if you've been reading the headlines for the last decade. Enron. Halliburton. Qwest. Arthur Anderssen. Global Crossing. In Massachusetts, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which gave us leaky tunnels years after Bechtel gave us Iran-Contra criminals Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz. And these are just the ones that have gotten caught.

One of the biggest employers in America, Wal-Mart, has repeatedly been fined for paying workers less than minimum wage, making them work longer than legal hours, and allowing sexual harassment in the workplace but refusing to allow union organizing. They just pay the fines and keep on doing it. Some of the biggest financial institutions in the country knowingly lent money to people they knew could not afford to pay it back, then sold the loans to investors, creating the housing crash and the Great Recession.  And the conservatives complain we're an over-regulated society!

This all goes to the second reason the liberal strategy is just not enough to rein in corporate power. Government is frequently NOT stronger than corporations. Here are some of the reasons:

* Government officials rely on corporate money to run their election campaigns. It buys "access," which means the chance for the corporate leaders to explain what they want and, if the elected officials don't give it to them, to know the reason why.

* Government officials often ARE corporate leaders. They take a turn "serving their country" before going back to "making a profit"--but all too often the way they think and act in the two roles is exactly the same!

* If government creates rules or imposes taxes that corporate capitalists don't want to live with, they can do the big money equivalent of taking their ball and going home: namely, they can stop investing for a while and go on "capital strike." Alternatively, they can move their money to investments in other countries. Then, jobs will disappear, wages will decline, and "the economy" will be bad (in that phrase we use without thinking about it to describe what affects rich people--we never use "the economy" to mean the minimum wage, for example!). Without their overtly making it happen, corporations will exert power over government, using us as their tool. Politicians will come under public pressure to do something about "the economy"--with the public never realizing that it's "the economy" which is doing something nasty to them!

* For more than a hundred years, we have been taught that freedom = "free enterprise," meaning corporate power goes unchecked by democratic political power. Every law, regulation, and enforcement action is defined as a threat against freedom. It's ingrained in us to think government power used against Microsoft or McDonald's is power that could turn against you and me. So we give away our power in the name of a freedom that only other people enjoy.

And yet, and still...sometimes, in limited ways, government can force corporate business to act in the public interest. It's worth using the liberal approach, if not as a strategy, at least as one tactic, one tool, one finger in the dike to stop the flood from rising further. Moving people who haven't ever understood why you would WANT government regulation is a worthwhile endeavor, too.

It's simply not enough. It never will be enough. It doesn't change the underlying structure of power. Without that, we can count on seeing things get worse and worse. That's why I cheer and applaud my liberal friends, and at the same time, I encourage them to think deeper--more radically--about what it will take really to make things better.

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