To say that anti-corporate rhetoric in the modern world is cliched is to state the blaringly obvious. I am 23 years old, I attended college at the supremely left University of Colorado at Boulder, and I freely engage in political debate and constantly keep my ears tuned to the political prater that floats in the background of everyday life. These facts may explain why I feel surrounded by anti-corporatism. Furthermore, I live a divergent lifestyle – musician, philosopher, “indie-rocker” – that finds me nearly perpetually surrounded by groups of young, idealistic, coffee shop denizens who purposefully make contrarianism a method of living and non-conformity a reason for being.
However, I do not feel my interest in the topic, my iconoclastic political viewpoints and the company I keep adequately explain why I feel that such simple-minded, anti-corporate leftism pervades modern life. I think this is best explained by the fact that simple-minded, anti-corporate leftism does pervade modern life.
And, to put it quite plainly, it sickens me. In addition, it intrigues me, befuddles me, and demands an explanation. This essay – in which I will try, with every progressive philosophical bone in my body, to keep from being an incensed rant – will attempt to provide an explanation.
To attempt to reconstruct the position which I am attacking in a succinct philosophical argument is doomed to failure. This position – although held in a somewhat more philosophically cogent manner by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenrich or Michael Moore – is not usually represented by such thinkers. Instead, these opinions are usually voiced in a half-assed manner by equally half-assed people: rhetorical questions, vivid appeals to anecdotal stories, name-calling, and absurd moral reductionism. In the latter, the categories are made clear; the rich are evil, the poor are good; the bosses are exploitive, the workers are victims. I am, however, getting ahead of myself. Back to the simple problem of anti-corporatism.
In this form, anti-corporatism often seems to be a knee-jerk response. First of all, corporations are not judged as distinct entities each deserving to be praised or damned on their own accords. All corporations are bad. It seems that a business only need to cross an evanescent line of popularity and all bets are off. Once Starbucks moved from being a local, well-loved Seattle coffee shop to being a national powerhouse with an ubiquitous presence its moral status was downgraded. The same fate will hold for Berkeley’s “Pete’s Coffee,” which now can be found in most national grocery stores.
Damn these businesses. Damn them for succeeding in supplying affordable, high-quality goods. They used to only make a small number of people happy. Now they’ve gone and spread that happiness to the country and, perhaps, the world.
I am clearly being facetious. However, the idiosyncratic person who reached an esoteric pinnacle by “discovering them first” would never hold this enlightened world-view. No, they want it for themselves, and perhaps a few others who “deserve” to be a part of their exclusive coterie.
In the last five years anti-corporatism has received a significant amount of fuel to its fire. Enron, WorldCom, and the other corporate scandals seemed to prove their “evilness” by demonstrating what the activists had always known; corporations don’t care about anything or anyone but themselves. Furthermore, corporations will stop at nothing to make money. This essay is not about why corporations are great (that is for another essay) it is about why people hate corporations so much. However, it is worth mentioning that I don’t think Enron and the others indict all corporations anymore than Ted Bundy and Adolph Hitler indict all humanity. Also, it is worth saying that the recent corporate scandals are certainly not why people hate corporations so much. This belief existed before the scandals and would be just as prevalent if no corporate scandal ever happened.
I will make myself as clear as possible: one of the central cruxes of anti-corporate rhetoric is the belief that corporations are able to make people want things they don’t want, need things they don’t need, and eventually buy things they don’t really want or need to buy. The emphasis on “make” is essential. In order for such rhetoric to make sense a high level of invasive, omnipresent, and nearly complete control must be assumed. If such choices (things to buy) resulted from free people simply choosing what appealed to them, buying that thing, and proceeding on in a happy and fulfilling existence then it is hard to see how anyone would have a problem with whatever entity sold the product. The business simply supplied a justly needed and desired product. Heck, they were just making someone happy.
Values and Desert
This discussion of such ideological slants is no different than any other. In the end I am talking about our sense of Justice; that transcendent gossamer of a thread that connects so many of our daily discussions. Specifically, these debates boil down to our ideas of desert and value. Do you have what you deserve? Do others have what they deserve? Do the non-deserving keep things from the deserving? And secondly, is what you have valuable? Do you value what you have and don’t have correctly?
The latter question is incredibly important to the matter at hand. Although the question is quite strange, it is one that all of us, in one form or another, continually ask ourselves. We criticize others based on the answers we form to this question. In many ways much of our internally constructed hierarchies of individual moral worth are built on our inner dealings with the questions: what are the correct things to value, what are the incorrect things to value, how can we make decisions that create proper valuing, and how can we demonstrate to others that we value correctly?
I’ve opened a huge bag of intellectual statements here. To simplify: If a friend comes up to you and tells you that she recently purchased a fifty thousand dollar food processor you (and certainly I) would probably roll your eyes and feign excitement for her bizarre choice of expenditure all the while wondering if this action is sufficient grounds for beginning commitment hearings. Why does she value so incorrectly? Another friend tells you that his kitchen is simply not big enough so he has decided to form a small militia group in order to invade and forcefully annex his neighbor’s property thereby increasing the available space for his kitchen. What is wrong with his system of values? He has decided that the size of his kitchen is more important than the sanctity of personal property, the importance of privacy and desert, and possibly his neighbor’s lives?
Many of you may be thinking that the hypothetical crazy people mentioned above wouldn’t even be your friends; therefore you would never have to deal with these contrived problems. This is probably true. However, the pertinent question is why they wouldn’t be your friends. Personally, they wouldn’t be my friends because they clearly have a skewed system of values that is difficult, if not impossible, for me to understand and even harder for me to forgive. If such people have shown such a blatant misunderstanding of the correct values and how to act on those values they couldn’t be any sort of friend who would be deserving of my friendship.
And here we have it. Imbedded in this specific discussion of individual people valuing incorrectly we find a near constant connection between the concepts of value and desert. If you donÔø?t value correctly you donÔø?t deserve; or perhaps, you deserve bad things. If you kill because you don’t value human life then you deserve to die; you do not deserve a massage and a box of chocolates.
Corporations and Values
Several hundred words ago I was writing about anti-corporatism. I stated the contention that much of anti-corporation leftism hinges on the belief that corporations make their customers buy things they don’t actually want or need. This is the oft-mentioned idea of “sheep.” Anti-corporate ideologues will often refer to the masses as “sheep” who are under the yoke of a domineering corporate/government structure that controls their desires and needs. Advertising is an insipid and hidden hegemonic device that manipulates the “sheep’s” brains into desiring falsely and valuing incorrectly. If you value incorrectly you don’t deserve. Furthermore, the suppliers of what you value do not deserve the rewards they get.
Who actually wants a new workout machine? Who really needs a new SUV that can conquer the roughest mountain terrain? Who actually wants the new Britney Spears CD? Sometimes they seem like commands: a refreshing can of Coke, “Enjoy.” “Fly the friendly skies.” “Drivers wanted.”
Iconoclastic corporation haters scoff at these people. They realize that there are large amounts of people who value in an entirely different way than they do. These people want gilt candlesticks from Pottery Barn, not a Chinese rock garden. They want leather couches, SUV’s, and the new John Grisham book; not beanbags, Jettas, and a copy of the Tao Te Ching. After this sort of values dissonance is realized it must be account for in some fashion.
To return to some previous statements: imagine a world without such strongly stated and codified values dissonance. In this world we are all okay with others choices and let them proceed with such choices unimpeded. Of course, this world is unthinkable and countermands certain basic human qualities. However, the thought experiment is valuable. Imagine a corporation that succeeded by providing genuinely good products that many people want. They advertised to tell people about what they have. The possible consumers justly examined their monetary status and the possible trade-offs of their purchases. Then they decided to make the purchase and became genuinely happier because of it. In a world without intense, interpersonal values disagreement there would be little room for criticism of the consumer’s actions. As stated before: if such choices (things to buy) resulted from free people simply choosing what appealed to them, buying that thing, and proceeding on in a happy and fulfilling existence then it is hard to see how anyone would have a problem with whatever entity sold the product.
Such problems develop after some of the descriptions of the situation above are the objects of disagreement. Do the people “really” want what the corporation offers? Did the advertisement unjustly affect their opinions? Did they understand their monetary status and the trade-offs involved? Did they become “genuinely” happier because they made their purchase? An indictment of the corporation may be justified if such questions are answered skeptically.
Perhaps one can simply accuse the corporation of the crime of providing “worthless shit” and move on. However, we have come upon an important line. The difference between believing a corporation offers “worthless shit” and deciding not to personally support the business and believing that the corporation offers “worthless shit” and believing no one should be allowed to support such insignificant and non-contributing aspect of society is huge. It is the difference between honest, liberal pluralism and dominating totalitarianism.
Once again, repeat readers of my essays may find a common vain. My personal political and moral philosophy centers on the importance of personal choice. If an individual’s ability to make choices is to be curtailed then the onus of proof is upon the person wishing to impede that ability. I don’t believe in anarchistic freedom. I believe that the best society is one that has the highest level of the individual’s ability to make choices that make him/her happier. I also believe that those choices are always best left to the individual in question. All of these statements exist within rational parameters (such as controlling the choices of children and the mentally handicapped who may not know what is best for them) but can at least be illustrative of where I am coming from.
I am not a corporate drone. Personally, I find much distaste with the quality and desirability of most corporate goods i.e. music, clothes, books and art. I don’t understand the “Abercrombie and Fitch crowd” and I am not a part of it. However, I have absolutely no desire to curtail others choices to be more like mine. These people have made the best choices they can about what makes them happy – just as I have done with my choices. What sort of elitist asshole would I be to call their happiness “ungenuine” their choices “inauthentic” and the corporations that supplied the goods not as companies that found a demand and filled a desire in people’s lives, but companies that manufactured the demand and made the weak-minded members of society purchase their “worthless shit?” I may be an elitist but I am far from being able to cross that line.