issue 246 - August 1993
Simply... Tower of power
The corporate world is fortified by a complex web of factories, workers,
machinery and money - all dedicated to producing a return on the
investment of owners and stock-holders. To reach that goal all
corporations share similar values and follow similar rules.
Make a buck
Corporations define success in two fundamental ways: by the growth of assets and the rate of profit. These two goals take precedence over concerns of the community or nation in which the corporation does business. There is a strong tension between the corporation's desire for profits and the demands of workers for a decent living wage. The growth imperative also spurs the relentless consumption of finite natural resources. There is a clear and growing gap between the needs of private corporations for economic growth and the planet's need for environmental stewardship.
Successfully climbing the corporate ladder means being both aggressive and competitive. Colleagues compete fiercely with each other for promotions; workers are encouraged to compete with each other through special awards (eg top assembly-line operator of the month) in order to increase productivity and profits. The Japanese labour-management approach of 'teamwork' in the plant merely shifts competition from individual workers to groups of workers. This urge to compete is now seen as basic human nature; so much so that values needed to make the world more just and compassionate, like cooperation and sharing, are fast fading.
Look after number one
Decision-making within a corporation is ruled by the bottom line. In practice this means the interests of the corporation and the interests of the community only overlap when it serves the corporation's purpose. A company may sponsor a baseball team, donate money to a hospital or underwrite a community orchestra. But corporate altruism is usually more public relations than community spirit. The fight to make corporations socially reponsible will always be an uphill battle since corporations are inherently selfish. Their essential responsibility is to their own financial survival, not to the welfare of the public.
The organizational structure of the corporate world is based on a strict pecking-order. There is a hierarchy of command and control that extends from the Board of Directors and Chief Executive Officer at the top to the lowliest workers at the bottom. Your place in the pecking-order determines your power, your rewards and your privileges. Orders flow from the top down as they do in other large institutions that use a strict hierarchy - like the military and the government. Notions of hierarchy and status within the corporate world tend to reinforce the idea that inequality and conformity are natural: the world is made of leaders and followers and there is little we can do to change this fact of life.
The modern corporation is both a creature and a captive of technology. Companies are engaged in a restless search for technological innovation in order to boost efficiency (ie to increase production with less labour and capital). The result is that all technologies are con-sidered benign and objective. In fact modern technologies are biased towards the technocratic worldview that produces them. This is essentially a materialist view based on linear thinking and the tendency to segment and quantify problems. Because corporations are fascinated by technology they have a hard time dealing with non-material values. Old-growth forests are so many board-feet of lumber. Toxic wastes are subject to cost-benefit analysis. Workers fighting for improved working conditions are seen as threats to profitability.
Join the crowd
Corporations view the world as one big market; social relationships are defined in terms of buying and selling and human activity is seen as a straightforward battle to gain advantage over your neighbour. The result of this market vision is that human happiness and satisfaction are defined in terms of what we buy. Multinational corporations have been remarkably successful in spreading their attitudes and values around the globe. Television, advertising and films carry the corporate market view everywhere, steamrollering local culture in the process. This growing homogenization destroys opposition to the 'consumer society', obliterates cultural diversity and accelerates the destruction of natural resources.
Don't look back
Corporations have no allegiance to the present because they are riveted on the future and the need to grow. This consuming passion effectively removes them from the day-to-day concerns of the local community. With their eyes fixed firmly on tomorrow, corporations have little commitment to solving the mundane problems of everyday life. Staying flexible in order to be profitable means multinationals can and do pack up and move at the drop of a hat. Inside the corporation life is highly-structured and geared to the clock. Yet corporations can be strangely ephemeral. The future is possibility; the present merely a viewpoint; and the past irrelevant: this operating principle undercuts the search for social stability.
Despite the attempt by corporate management to jump on the environmental bandwagon, it's not easy for corporations to be green. That's because corporate activities and the natural world are fundamentally at odds. Manufacturing goods to be bought and sold in the marketplace is essentially a process of transforming raw materials extracted from nature into commodities. This exploitation of the environment is ingrained in corporate behaviour; even service and financial corporations depend indirectly on the conquest of nature. As consumerism spreads around the globe the search for raw materials accelerates and the ravaging of nature quickens. In an attempt to absorb criticism from environmentalists, multinationals have wrapped themselves in green. Yet any serious attempt to challenge the underlying consumerist credo is still dismissed as subversive - which in essence it is.
Adapted from In the Absence of the Sacred, (Chapter 7, 'Corporations as Machines') by Jerry Mander, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1991.