There is increasing talk recently about the emergence of “the terminator”, also known as the “singularity”, which is the point when computers become smarter than humans and develop self-awareness. Of course, at least until the machines can prevent it, this kind of terminator can be unplugged or disconnected from the internet to stop it from running amok. There is another kind of terminator already in place, however, using humans as its computing elements and existing in a business-cultural context: the corporation.
Corporations were defined, early on, as independent entities, and since then they’ve lobbied hard both in the United States and abroad to acquire status equal to that of individual human citizens. While at present they still don’t have the right to vote, their dominance of human culture and economics has become firmly established, as has their influence on politics.
Why don’t corporate terminators wage war on humanity like in the movies? The only thing that keeps corporations from declaring all out war on humans (as in the Terminator movies) is that they depend on people to make them work. For the corporate “terminator” to attack humans would be like the movie terminator, made of computing hardware as much as anything else, destroying its own chips and circuitry.
How much concern must corporations have for the individual? While corporations need humans to function, they can still control and harm people in the interest of profits. They really need only be concerned for the welfare of those humans who support them and take the actions that keep them functioning, and for the constraints placed on them by governments and their competitive environments. Within them few people have much power since even the CEO is beholden to the board of directors for his or her actions, and the board of directors, insulated from liability by the corporation’s legal shield, are in turn only beholden to the stockholders, among whom they are often the largest and most influential.
The power of large corporations is becoming harder and harder to assess. A large number of corporations have already amassed economic wealth far beyond that of most governments, and their influence on the political arena, while often subtle and “behind the scenes”, is powerful enough to cause the rise and fall of whole governments, manipulate voters, and even create terrible wars. In addition, corporations can employ large numbers of experts in a variety of disciplines for the sole purpose of gaining power over their customers, markets, and regulators. Such experts continue to devise ever more effective ways of hiding and preserving wealth, and tend to keep corporations perpetually ahead of their regulators, assisted in part by the “revolving door” of corporate officials and experts moving in and out of government positions.
The individual is already at the mercy of corporations. It is when the interests of the individual are in opposition to those of the corporations that the situation is at its worst for the general populace. Corporations have no incentive to support or add to the common good except in rare cases where they can identify increased profit from it. In fact, corporate profits by their very nature derive from sub-optimizing the common good or pushing the economic situation out of balance so they can make more money, all to the detriment of the customer and competition.
Corporations have no reason to create jobs to help the economy – they are NOT “job creators”. Adding jobs to the economy and fixing other economic and social problems is not perceived as being in the best interest of corporations. Keeping unemployment high means they can pay their employees less and have a larger pool of more skilled workers to choose from. Keeping their compliment of employees to a minimum and making them work longer hours keeps costs low and, correspondingly, profits higher.
Someday we will probably see a computer-based terminator emerge, which is a frightening thought, but it will probably be subservient to the corporate terminators that already exist. On the other hand, the purely-electronic terminator may overtake the corporate ones and either find a way to control them from behind the scenes or make them powerless except where theyprovide something the computer-terminator needs. This dynamic will be interesting to see, if it isn’t too subtle to be noticed or goes unreported by the (corporate) media.
Can government turn the balance of power back in favor of the individual? Given the pervasive influence and power of corporations it appears unlikely that governments, already mostly under the influence of corporations, will ever provide the kind of protection for the individual that we would like. There are too many countries operating under too many different forms of government, and with too little economic incentive to regulate business effectively, for any meaningful regulation of corporations to be put or kept in place. As long as corporations can increase profits by storing money in tiny tax shelter countries, for example, regulating them will be very difficult. When the top judicial body of a country (the U.S. Supreme Court, for example) is populated by judges who were previously career corporate attorneys, it is probable that laws that restrict or regulate corporations will be interpreted into impotency or negated outright.
The purpose of the corporation is, essentially, greed. Except in those very rare cases where a founder is still at the helm and influencing corporate policy in a more positive direction, corporations have only one goal – to make money – and all others are subservient to that aim. This is a systemic phenomenon driven by the financial structure of the economy, and the United States has probably done more to foster and promote systemic features that favor powerful corporations, worldwide, than any other government.
Is the growing imbalance of power a “failure of capitalism?” While capitalism is largely responsible for both our success and our looming problems as a species, it is the economic and legal architecture we’ve established in capitalism’s name that has enabled the explosion of corporate power in the 20th and 21st century, and the resulting decline in middle class purchasing power, for example.
Why are corporations unlikely to help with the problems of overpopulation? Now we are faced with a population explosion created as much by the economics of corporations as any other factor, but for which corporations have no incentive to provide remedies. In most cases more people just means larger markets and increased short term profits for corporations whose short future horizons are dominated by the stock market-based financial system and the desire for wealth of their stockholders.
What, me worry? My biggest concern may be that corporations have no apparent incentive to help mitigate humanity’s looming problems, and may actually work to make the situation worse, combined with the apparent ineffectiveness of government controls and the decreasing lack of concern in government for the rights of the individual. It is easy to say that the individual has legal rights but allow the legal system to place such high costs on anyone wishing to pursue legal remedies that very few individuals can afford them. It is also easy to put regulations and regulatory bodies in place and then deny funding for enforcement, thereby creating an appearance of populism that is actually “toothless”.
Perhaps the corporation IS “the terminator” and we just don’t realize it. Watch the news carefully and, in spite of tight corporate control of everything we see and hear, you will see repeated and often-glaring evidence that corporations are gaining every greater control of our national governments, economies, and human culture. The paradox is that we all need jobs to earn money to survive, and for almost all of us that means working for corporations. I don’t have an answer to this problem, but I am certainly going to continue working on it.
I hope this article has stimulated you to think more on this topic and make up your own mind. As always, I welcome your comments, and please share this article with others if you found it interesting. Thanks for reading — Tim