29 April 2011

Response to article on corporations

I ran across this article (http://www.newtimesslo.com/commentary/6002/beware-of-the-soulless-corporations/) in a weekly publication here called the "New Times." I wrote the following as a response. I even sent it to them in a moment of insanity. I think it is far too long to publish, which is good since I think it is also pretty flawed. I do not quite surround the point. I do not seem to follow up on the richness of the original article. I do not go into sufficient detail where detail is warranted, etc. The arguments themselves are incomplete.

In "Beware of the Soulless Corporations" (http://www.newtimesslo.com/commentary/6002/beware-of-the-soulless-corporations/) Jim Duenow suggests that corporations are amoral. I want to be clear that I agree in great part with the views put forth by Mr. Duenow and am grateful for such a clear, thoughtful point of view published in the "New Times." Understanding the status of the corporation as 'individual' and how that fits into various ideologies of individualism is a critical question of our time.

I agree with many of the points Mr. Duenow made in his thoughtful commentary, but disagree with basic premise that corporations are amoral. In the fourth paragraph of his commentary he basically describes a system of morality. Corporations, as such, subscribe to a morality and do so in an almost fundamentalist way. Profit itself becomes a moral imperative for the corporation as a whole and those of us participating in a global system of profit maximization and consolidation, which is almost all of us, as consumers, in the industrialized economies. The structures of this system strongly condition our thoughts and behaviors. One way we can see this is that when this morality of profit maximization and consolidation is violated there is militarized police action from nation states to 'correct' the violation. This is particularly striking when we also notice that such militarized police action does not take place with regards to things like clean water, famine, etc. This is not due to some corruption or hidden dynamic, though those are present. The dynamic is explicit. At the beginning of the past decade the World Bank released a report explicitly stating that the purpose of a modern nation state is to insure the conditions for a free market. Of course we may feel that profit maximization and consolidation are immoral. This is just an application of one morality to another.

One way to understand this is to consider George Lakoff's analysis of the morality underlying the 'progressive' and 'conservative' political agendas in the US. He suggests that there are two basic metaphors. One metaphor is the 'strong father' model. The other is the 'nurturing parent' model. These models variously emphasize different moral values, though results of such emphasis can be similar in some cases. There is a lot more to his theory including neurological analysis of these metaphors, supported by recent studies that show brain development correlated with political view, without ascribing cause. The findings of that study are that 'progressives' seem to have greater brain development in the areas of the brain used for processing complexity, interrelatedness, and ambiguity. "Conservatives" have a more developed amygdala, the purpose of which is to process threats and fear based learning. Such studies are always a bit 'iffy' in terms of use orientation, but they make no claim as to whether the brain development follows the belief or the reverse. They are merely noting a correlation.

In the 'strong father' metaphor the 'morally good' are prosperous. We learn to be 'morally good' in this model by being punished when we do something 'bad.' Lack of prosperity comes to represent such punishment. I put the moral values in quotes, but of course from within any particular model, such values seem self evident. They do not occur to the holder of the model as a model, but rather as the self evident truth of the matter. Of course this leads to moral attributions about the poor, in the case of the 'strong father' model. This is not exactly Calvinistic, but does reflect a the belief in a moral hierarchy in which it is felt that the prosperous should be honored. In extreme cases the implication is that the poor deserve their condition. The prosperous deserve what they have, even more so the poor. Many different forms of mythology surround this view including things like 'if you only work hard enough then...' The 'nurturing parent' model leads to similar moral attributions about the rich being 'evil.'

The 'risk' of viewing the corporation as amoral is the attendant belief that they can be morally regulated in some way. Consider what happens in the cases where we imagine one morality ruling or regulating another. What happens when the ruling morality is a morality of profit maximization and consolidation? Nation-states can no longer govern corporations. Indeed, toward the end of his life Lincoln observed that the lack of mechanism for governing corporate powers was a greater threat to the 'Union' than the Civil War itself and predicted a period of 'darkness' unless this was corrected. This inability is not simply corruption, though that is present. The globalized system in which the corporations function, and upon which the morality of profit maximization is based is delusional. It is delusional because it does not structurally match the environment or the dynamics of the environment in which it is actually taking place. This is not complex. The frame of the morality ignores simple conditions such as the carrying capacity of the planet, etc. In the case of such a delusional system, such as the universe circling the Earth, holders of the belief tend to increasingly complexify their own models and interpretations in order to sustain the belief. Our globalized system of economics, the morality of profit maximization, the ideology of 'free-markets' in which the corporations operate are all examples of this increasing degree of complexification.

Perhaps the greatest risks associated with Mr. Duenow's astute observations about the corporation as an 'individual' have to do with the survival dynamics that arise due to this. A corporation really only goes out of existence as a result of some expression of the morality having to do with profit maximization and consolidation. That is, a corporation cannot put itself out of existence for the sake of some other type of moral agenda or service. To do so would be immoral, from within the morality of profit maximization and consolidation. For the most part the corporation as an entity is not capable of considering the larger systemic conditions unless they are sense-able from within the morality of profit maximization and consolidation. Typically such systemic condition are not only unsense-able, but they are systematically deleted and distorted as non-meaningful, given the assumed morality of profit maximization and consolidation. The considerations of Corporate Social Responsibility, etc. are only taken from within the context of the morality of profit maximization and consolidation. Furthermore, the nature of this morality is historically one of winners and losers in a competitive zero sum game. If collaboration and cooperation can be understood as profitable then they are possible. If not, then they are not possible. This includes collaboration and responsibility with regard to the environment, society, and the planet as a whole. This zero sum competitive condition is taken as a given, within a larger set of assumptions about our relationship to the planet, interpretations of Darwin, etc. Interestingly the modern corporation started in the the 1600's in Italy as an innovation to mitigate risks associated with the longer voyages and larger cargoes of the time. Our current corporate structure is still fundamentally based on that, ignoring the larger category of planetary risk we are currently actively creating. If that risk were accurately understood and strategically accounted for, we would see a very different corporate structure emerging.

If corporations were truly amoral, then a moral leadership in a corporation would make a difference in these regards, but it does not. Leadership holding an alternative morality that in any way is seen to constrain or conflict with the moral imperative of profit maximization and consolidation is simply replaced, particularly in the case where something about that profitability seems threatened. In such a case the survival of the corporate entity is deemed to be threatened. To what lengths would such an entity go in order to insure its survival? Whether actual, or itself a mythological construct of a morality of profit maximization and consolidation, the global condition is one in which many corporations feel that their survival is threatened. It is important to understand that this means they feel that their ability to maximize and consolidate profit feels constrained and that this is a moral violation. The maximization of profit is based on a model of infinite, linear growth, ultimately dissociated from the actual conditions in which such growth is occurring. This means that a decrease in the growth profile, or rate of growth, is a threat and moral violation and corporations will act accordingly. The credo is 'grow or die' where growth also applies to the rate of growth itself. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions and often temporary 'bubbles.' Of course there are already new models of organization and commerce emerging, often in a way that is invisible to the existing economic frames and perceptions.

It is clear from this that a new economics and social contract are required. Historical examples are not a basis for future success given the degree of change now taking place on the planet as a whole. This is well known in most international policy debates. We are no longer in separate 'niches' and have not been for some time. We are all of us now 'face-to-face' on the planet. The historical economic models and social contracts do not account for this condition. The morality of profit maximization and consolidation is, not surprisingly, profiting from this condition, at the expense of the majority of the people on the planet and the well-being of the planet as a whole. We are entering a new geological era and our structures of economy and society no longer match the basic structures of the planetary reality. This is well recognized in corporate strategy. Most corporations have explicit strategies in place for how they will profit from the changes currently taking place, whether those changes are climate change or institutionalized famine. Nation-state policy is for the most part guided by this morality of profit maximization and consolidation. From within various other moralities this occurs as 'evil' or corrupt. From within the morality of profit maximization and consolidation it occurs as a moral, survival-based imperative. It is important to come to terms with this in order to work with it. Because of this dynamic the existing moral debate, including the suggestion that corporations are amoral, cannot address the planetary consequences of a thoroughly socialized and institutionalized morality of profit maximization and consolidation. That dynamic, and the existing moralizing about it, must be transcended, individually and collectively. Such a transcendence requires both responsibly including and setting aside the 'either/or' moralities of a past age. That is a difficult process, particularly to the extent that we ourselves might be identified with experience ourselves as dependent upon the existence and operation of corporations and the morality of profit maximization and consolidation.


  1. As I observe myself, I have been relating to people who enact the morality of profit-maximisation and the punish and award mechanism justified thereupon as if they are immoral, and feeling very justified in my resentment and the expressions of it. The more I try not to do this, the more intensely such expressions overtakes me. I feel this movement coincides with my imagining that I have changed, awakened from the unconsciousness of the violent dynamic of "morality" , but fundamentally, i feel i am a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other.

  2. Hi Serena,

    What are the extremes?

    I feel a lot of people get caught between "fuck the man," (a US 1960's expression referring to the established power structure as 'the man') and being a knowing or unknowing participant in the global corporate system. Some people do both... "'fuck the man,' where should I park my BMW."

    This seems unecessary to me. We are defined by our resistance as thoroughly as by our participation, and neither is really the creation or enactment of an alternative, it seems to me. Often it seems to me that we are not even doing these things consciously, whether such unconsciousness is authentic or strategic in nature. This is my difficulty with Marx after the 'Paris Manuscripts.' It is my own feeling that we must place our attention elsewhere, while also accounting for the effects of and historical responsibilities associated with the industrial and corporate eras... To me this means that we have to work with conflict, but primarily as a way of revealing structure. Then we must work with those structures. I think maybe Yunus approaches matters in this way. Ultimately though the dynamics we are working with are those of impermanence and consciousness.

    I am often penduluming around between things as well. I often feel a thoroughly unseeing person in an already dark room full of changing shapes and form. I don't imagine that my emotional or cognitive state, processes or perception really match what is happening, or are even a particularly good indicator of the room itself.. They do indicate things sometimes though. For instance, are you the only one who experiences this kind of pendulum? Not just about the particular content of corporations, but the structure of your attention and state related to the pendulum. Are you the only one doing that, or are there others here and there about also experiencing something about that pendulum, generally and specific to the same content for it that you have?

    One way to consider the pendulum is to consider impermanence - all things come into and go out of existence. I suppose that could be considered a pretty extreme pendulum at the basic structural level of things. As I understand it, in some practices that awareness is part of the basis for practice.

    Hope you are well Serena. -roger