This blog series is about US politics and its impact on the world. However, in the 21st century it makes little sense to talk about nations and nation power in the same sense that we would have done during, say the Second World War. This is because world power is no longer controlled by governments and countries. Today, corporations run the world. They are not loyal to any country or any population, and they have no concept of people other than as means to provide them with proft. Our food, entertainment, military, even our law makers are controlled by corporate interests. The vast majority of media in the US is controlled by only six corporations, the vast majority of its food supply is controlled by only ten corporations. But why is this necessarily a bad thing? Surely the free market would dictate that these companies would behave ethically and enrich the health of their employees and consumers, right?
Does any rationally thinking person really believe that?
In our first supplemental blog, which I intend to include between chapters, let us highlight the stranglehold that corporations have on the levers of power, the damage that they cause to communities across the world, and to address an important myth that has been perpetuated by the powers about their existence. We will then focus on a single corporation to serve as a typical illustrative example. We’ll conclude with some suggestions on how to fight them at the local level.
You have probably heard that corporations in the US are legally people. You may even have dismissed it as a claim to be so ridiculous that it cannot possibly be true. It is, however, completely true. It is called “corporate personhood” and has been part of US Law since the early 19th century. These “rights” of corporations have been exploited and expanded upon through the decades, culminating in two critical Supreme Court rulings in 1976 (Buckley v. Valeo) and 1978 (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti), which enabled corporations to spend money in US elections. This provided the legal framework for the corruption of every system of government in the US, which today, 40 years later, has reached totality (a topic of a later blog).
To say that corporations are people is actually an understatement. Legally speaking, they are superpeople in the sense that they have all the protections of citizens with none of the responsibilities or restrictions, such as obeying the law or paying tax. They also have a political voice (amazingly protected by the First Amendment) that is far louder than any individual citizen could ever hope to have.
The corporate sociopath
As mentioned in an earlier blog, if corporations are people then they are sociopaths. They have only a single goal: to maximise profit regardless of the damage wrought or the lives harmed and destroyed. In the US they actually have a fiduciary responsibility to maximise profit and will be punished by the system if they move in any other way. This report discusses a recent example where the fast food chain Chiptole had its credit rating downgraded because it increased the salaries of its workers. Decency and humanity simply do not factor into their methodology, and some corporations have open contempt for their customers with terms like “whales” used in the gaming industry, “heavy users” applied to regular patrons of McDonald’s stores, and Goldman Sachs’ “muppet” clients. The corporate sociopath brings you the opioid crisis courtesy of Big Pharma, the obesity epidemic courtesy of the fast food industry, the modern slave trade courtesy of the private prison industry, the slaughter of children coutesy of gun manufacturers, and the destruction of humanity as a species courtesy of Big Oil and the military industrial complex. The corporate sociopath will bribe government officials to remove regulation, pass on tax burdens to its customers and employees, destroy local and urban economies, pollute the food, air and water and will never stop demanding more tax breaks, lower regulations, and larger profits.
The corporate sociopath is Amazon, which has ambulances parked outside its warehouses because it refuses to pay for air conditioning for its workers as they work in the torturous heat. The corporate sociopath is Apple, which installed safety nets around its office buildings in China to prevent its workers from jumping to their deaths. It is Big Pharma, whose mass production and distribution of pain killers has led to the opioid crisis that kills over 65,000 Americans each year. It is the private prison industry which imprisons over 25% of the world’s inmates in a country with just 5% of the world’s population. It is Wells Fargo, which secretly issued credit cards in the names of its customers without their consent, illegally collecting fees from those customers. It is the Stock Market, which recently took a dive because it was worried that ordinary workers were going to get a wage increase. It is Goldman Sachs, which hoards futures of rice, wheat, corn, sugar, and livestock, and jacks up commodity prices on the global market causing people to starve, and it is Monsanto, which has genetically engineered sterile seeds to prevent people from growing their own food. And never forget the corporate psychopath Big Oil, which overthrows governments, destroys the air we breathe, the water we drink, and has created an environmental catastrophe that will likely lead to the annihilation of humanity as a species.
A typical example
Rather than speaking broadly about the wealth extracted from the working classes by all of the multinationals let us focus on a single corporation as a typical example; the retail giant Walmart. While it is not necessary to highlight this, please note that the practices discussed below are in no way unique to Walmart; many of these are standard for the multinationals.
The city of Alamogordo in New Mexico has a population of over 30,000. It has no butcher shop or farmer’s market, and the next decent-sized city is over an hour’s drive away. There are only two places at which one can purchase groceries: Walmart and Lowes. Essentially, if you want groceries, you must shop at Walmart.
Walmart’s commercial playbook is to undercut prices of goods to crush competing local businesses. Those businesses close down, forcing their workers and suppliers to deal with Walmart, thereby succumbing to its demands for lower prices, lower salaries and fewer benefits since, of course, Walmart is the only business left standing. The quality of goods and services drops, workers become more and more exploited and suppliers are brought to the brink of destruction. When they close down they often leave the town with nowhere to purchase its food.
Walmart has a history of extreme resistance to workers’ rights and has a history of illegally firing staff for striking. The anti-union propaganda that it puts out in multi-media training programs for its workers, one of which you can see here, is quite amusing. Documents released by Occupy Wall Street reveal demands on the “duty of loyalty” of managers to “support Walmart’s position on how we treat people” and to “report union activity to the Labor Relations Hotline” and it has been estimated that around 5000 lawsuits a year are filed from Walmart and Sam’s Club stores. It pays its workers salaries that are so low that an average worker is below the federal poverty line, and it classifies them as part-time, restricting their access to healthcare and other benefits provided to full-time workers. In some cases it does not pay its workers at all.
Walmart’s contempt for its workers was so great that it actually took out life insurance policies on them without their knowledge and then collected on that insurance when they passed away. This article states that it collected almost $10 million this way in a practice disgustingly referred to as “dead peasant’s insurance“. We should point out that Walmart is not the only corporation participating in this loathsome practice. As of the early 2000s, millions of current and former workers at hundreds of large corporations had life insurance policies taken out without their knowledge, which are often maintained even after the worker had left the employ of the corporation. The list shown here reveals that at least 200 of them were participating in the practice as recently as 2014; examples include Wells Fargo, Coca-Cola, JP Morgan Chase, Nestle, and Disney. Wal-Mart is included in this list despite its claim to have canceled the policies in 2000.
Walmart enjoys a variety of tax benefits despite its annual profits in the tens of billions of dollars. It further receives subsidies from the American tax payer by passing on their security expenses to the local police force, and their salary cuts are subsidised by the tax payer in the form of food stamps, school lunches, housing assistance, Title 1 expenses, and low income energy assistance. This article demonstrates how a just single Walmart supercenter costs taxpayers between $905K and $1.75M in public assistance money.
Among its illegal and dodgy practices, Walmart has been linked to illegal logging, hiring undocumented workers, and over 50% of its merchandise is purchased from overseas. Its overseas policies involve deplorable working conditions, and have have even been linked to child and slave labour.
The primary owner of Walmart, the Walton family, is the richest family in America with a net worth of some $140 billion. This one family has the equivalent wealth of the bottom 150 million Americans combined. It had a profit of almost $25 billion in 2015. It has around 4600 stores across the US, over 1.5 times the number of US cities with a population of more than 10,000. Hillary Clinton was a board member of Walmart for six years and the connection between the corporation and the Clinton family remains strong.
Dispelling an important myth
When the public speaks out against corporate entities the most common retort offered by the powers that be is that removing the corporations will cost jobs and deny goods and services from the local economy. The truth is exactly the opposite – it is the corporation that suppresses jobs and crushes local economies. We would still get our burgers if McDonalds did not exist, we would still get our coffee if Starbucks didn’t exist. Those burger and coffee outlets would tend to source their produce locally, collectively hire more people, and treat their employees better than their corporate counterparts. Consumers would benefit from a higher quality of product and greater variety, and the money spent in those outlets would remain local, as stock is purchased locally by those outlets, and so on.
How to fight them
Before going into the means at our disposal to fight the corporate giants it is important to emphasise that one should not feel guilty if one feels they are not doing enough to fight them. We live in a system in which the corporation is firmly entrenched in ways that we may not even be consciously aware of. It is counter-productive to feel guilty about a system of which we are all victims.
With that said, because of the single-minded nature of the corporation it is relatively easy to fight them; hurt their bottom line. The easiest way to do this is to refuse to consume their products and services. This is not always as easy as it sounds, particularly in the case of food. You may feel like you are fighting the Man by purchasing “Quaker” brand oats. What could be more anti-corporate than the Quakers, right? The company has been owned by Pepsi since 2001. How about some fresh orange juice? “Simply Orange” is tasty and organic, right? It is owned by Coca Cola. Did you fancy buying some organic seeds from “Seeds of Change” to grow your own food? They’re owned by the confectionary giant Mars. Corporations realise that many customers who purchase these brands do so under the belief that they are trying to avoid those corporations, and so they hide their ties to the product. If one were to go to the Green & Black’s website, for example, one can read all about their ethical cocoa sourcing principles and their humble beginnings in London, but nowhere is there a mention of their parent company Mondolez International (formally Kraft Foods).
Research is therefore needed when making a choice of which products to consume. A Google search can usually do it – search for “Who owns <brand name>”. In many cases even the Wikipedia entry will tell you in the first paragraph. Try to find a brand that is not connected with a large multinational, if it is even possible. Can you source your produce locally from farmer’s markets? Maybe someone on your way to work has chickens and are selling eggs; there’s nothing quite like being able to meet the chickens who are giving you your eggs to guarantee freshness and confirm that they are not battery farmed.
Additionally, if you are ever given an option to allow a large corporation into your neighbourhood always do what you can to fight it. That bag of apples from Walmart may appear to be cheaper on the shelf, but the real cost is vastly higher than the locally-sourced bag of apples that you used to buy. It can be done. To give one positive example, when Walmart came to Boulder Colorado the locals refused to shop there, and it left after less than four years in operation.
Finally, always be suspicious of the corporate media. This does not mean to blindly reject everything they put out, but always consider the commercial and political motivations behind their stories. Their stories may be factually accurate but the whole story is not given. Some stories are ignored. You will never see the mainstream media publish a story that favours pacifism, socialism or anti-consumerism, for example. Stories on climate change are always presented as if the fact of climate change is still in question. I even saw one CNN anchor who argued against de-escalating the war in Yemen because “there are alot of jobs at stake“. A great alternative is Democracy Now. The Young Turks is too mainstream to be of much value these days, but some of its satellite shows are still valuable. These include Secular Talk, the Humanist Report, and the Jimmy Dore Show. RT and al Jazeera are helpful places to find the counter-US view, even though they have other biases. Like with nutrition, a balanced diet of news is also very healthy.