Monday, February 20, 2012

Corporate Idiocy

This article by Robert Cruickshank, a Californian political activist, is a great discussion of corporate narcissistic pathology: Apple constructs its products in mass sweatshops in China and elsewhere, rather than in the United States, under working conditions are so horrible that workers have threatened to commit mass suicide -- despite the fact that they would make a huge profits otherwise. “[P]aying American wages would add up to $65 to each iPhone’s expense. Since Apple’s profits are often hundreds of dollars per phone, building domestically, in theory, would still give the company a healthy reward.” (Cruickshank discloses, as do I, that we use Apple products to compute because they are reliable, but that since we are moral beings we nonetheless want better working conditions in the production process.)

Why would a company like Apple do this?
“Apple builds in China in large part because they have a narrow focus on their products and their profits, and disdain wider concerns for the good of society. When an unnamed Apple executive was asked about their role in addressing America’s economic problems, their response was revealing:
...
“‘We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,’ a current Apple executive said. ‘We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.’”
Wrong. The ancient Greeks, inventors of democracy, had a word for people who ignored their public responsibilities. That word was idiote -- and while it meant something more like “useless person” rather than “stupid person,” both meanings apply to selfish people and organizations. 

Corporations must follow rules just like every other individual and every other organization. First, corporations are subject to the basic rule of law despite their childish resistance to rational regulation: they must follow national and international laws, and publics that demand that business, in principle, must be subject to the rule of law are only demanding that which everyone else is equally subject to. No one is exempt from the law. Second, corporations also have moral obligations to their localities, countries, and to the global society, because they benefit from being a part of society and operate under its protection. Trade and commerce, especially of the scale and complexity that occurs in the modern world, are only possible in a social and political context that make it possible and promote it. If you are a businessman, know this: you owe us. You owe all the rest of us, for keeping the peace that is a prerequisite for commerce, for building the roads and power plants and schools that make your profits possible, for maintaining a currency in which you collect them, and for creating and enforcing the laws and other rules of commerce by which your sales are conducted. Furthermore, there are basic rules of human decency and dignity to which ALL are subject whether they gain from them or not -- basic rules like not driving masses of people to suicide with sweatshop misery. You DO have obligations to the society in which you are embedded and to humanity as a whole, and when you dishonorably do not live up to those obligations we have the right to impose them upon you.
Everywhere around the world corporations are legally chartered by governments, and are subordinate creatures thereof. In America they are usually chartered by the states, ostensibly to serve a public purpose, namely to create economic activity, both by providing goods AND by providing employment in the form of jobs for the constituents of those governments. In the early eighteenth century corporations would be chartered for a few years for limited purposes, say, to build a bridge or a road. Gradually the length of charters was extended until corporations gained an indefinite lifespan, and then corporations started using capital flight to evade their responsibilities to those who granted their very existence in the first place. Today corporate executives, economists, and the business press parrot Milton Friedman's ridiculous argument in "Capitalism and Freedom"  that corporations have no social responsibilities at all except to make a profit for shareholders. How convenient. The solution again is democratic socialism -- democratic worker control -- in a context of participatory economics or parecon -- combinations of worker and community councils to guide economic activity.  This would make it entirely clear that the corporation is a creature of, by, and for the public. It is created by the public, made up of the regular working people who built it, and they should control it. Period.

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