Sunday, February 4, 2001

Wresting Away
Corporations' Collective Might

By W. David Kubiak, Special to the Telegram
Insight Section, Maine Sunday Telegram, 2/4/01

Returning to my native Kennebunkport after nearly 20 years in Kyoto, Japan, I find the body politic here beset by some eerily familiar afflictions – ravaged forests, extortionate drug pricing, dioxin/mercury/agrotoxin-flavored waters, coin-operated politicians, petro-profiteering, sprawl and media-nurtured fat, apathy and consumptive addictions. Since there are so few cultural or historic resemblances between Maine and Japan, these shared symptoms of eco-social distress should have been astonishing. Unhappily, so many "advanced" cultures now report similar clusters of malaise that a "damn, here too?" depression soon overtakes surprise.

My Japanese experience did yield some startling perspectives on these epidemics, however, and a new diagnostic vision. While working there as a journalist and media activist, I noticed citizens were starting to trace their diverse maladies to a singular source: the collective might of modern mega-corporations, or Big Bodies as we called them in Japan. This insight itself is not peculiar to the East.

As far west as Texas, populist Jim Hightower recently observed: "It is not that corporation over there or this one over here that is the enemy. It is not one industry's contamination of our drinking water or another's perversion of our lawmaking that is the problem – rather it is the corporation itself that must be addressed if we are to be a free people. . . . The piecemeal approach to fighting corporate abuses keeps us spread thin, separated, on the defensive, riveted on the minutiae, and fighting on their terms. . . . It's time for our strategic emphasis to shift to the offensive, raising what I believe to be the central political issue for the new century: Who the hell is in charge here?"

If the answer to that seems morbidly obvious, Asian intuition appears to compound our woes by insisting that Big Bodies not only rule, they are in every meaningful sense alive. They are in scientific parlance "living systems" that satisfy all our accepted definitions of life: They consume/process/excrete substances, grow, learn, affect their environs, communicate, behave and die.

More to the point, these huge superorganisms appear to be truly pathological. Not only are they clearly responsible for the laundry list of local symptoms bemoaned above, their spew of weapons, toxins and consumptive values has crippled traditional cultures and eco-systems worldwide. Big Bodies essentially dis-ease society and the biosphere in three ways. They are driven by insatiable appetites, informed by totalitarian values, and guided by a literally senseless view of the neighborhood.


Though often technologically complex, Big Bodies are as simple at heart as a tumor. Their only animating objective is endless expansion, any slowing of which is felt as pain and the onset of death. Unlike other natural systems, Big Bodies know no size limits or inborn checks on consumption. Although corporations usually start out small and focused upon a valid societal need, a few always seem to turn cancerous and abandon benign utility for a malignant career of promiscuous growth. (Recall, for example, the CEO of US Steel defending its 1982 decision to buy Marathon Oil instead of modernizing its outdated plants: "The business of US Steel is not steel, the business of US Steel is business!" Or more recently, consider's rapid mutation from a deft online book shop to an indiscriminate "waddya want?" purveyor of Barbie dolls, lard drugs and pet food.) As they swell, shall ye know them . . .


Big Body hierarchy and centralized control are by definition noxious to democratic society. Within corporate membranes, Bill of Rights protections dissolve, and insiders routinely forswear their rights to free expression, free association, even the privacy of their bloodstreams and bladders. Since synchronized collective function can be paralyzed by resistance or opposition, Big Bodies rationally demand reflexive obedience and unquestioning "team spirit" from all members. These are the last habits we require to defend or develop democracy, yet they remain the most celebrated virtues among our dominant employers. So how should our schools be educating children today – for sovereign citizenship or subservient employment, for independence or terminal incorporation? Let the record show . . .

Since Big Bodies can only behold their environment with crude economic sensors, they are blind to the wider spectrum of human concerns that make life rich and democracy feasible. Individual humans rightfully consider aesthetic, ecological, familial or religious factors when voting on public policies. When incorporated, however, these same people are barred by statute and investor ire from letting any of these values outweigh shareholder profits. In other words, while you as a person might naturally calculate how a collective action will ultimately affect your land, health, cultural traditions, spiritual growth or children's future, Big Bodies can legally only evaluate an act's effects on their growth and bottom line. The question then becomes: Aren't entities that perceive reality only in red and black ciphers too primitive and one-dimensional to deserve any voice at all in civil society, let alone predominant power?

Ralph Nader calls Big Bodies' paramount influence over society and politics our "permanent corporate government." Asian systems thinking goes further, however, and contends this takeover is not simply a political or economic usurpation but a far more fateful evolutionary coup.


In this view, humankind is facing a variously predatory and parasitic new collective life form that lacks our scruples, sensuality and dreams, yet is competing with us head-to-headquarters for the evolutionary future. At the moment we are clearly the underdog species. A few thousand Big Bodies now control half our world's trade, two thirds of its resources, four-fifths of its wealth, 95 percent of its media, and both our ruling political parties.

This dominance does not end with simple ownership, however. Big Bodies are aggressively reprogramming the natural and social surround to consolidate their control. Just as humanity imposed agriculture, fencing and concrete laminates on the environment to render it more serviceable to our kind, Big Bodies have reshaped their ambient ecology with new value systems, economic regimes, and legal infrastructure more favorable to corporate life.

This collegial effort has fabricated protective camouflage like corporate "personhood," covert channels to the public purse, and democracy-proof edifices like Nafta and the World Trade Organization. Their enterprise also reaches into our very souls as co-inhabitants of corporate society. Big Bodies now collectively spend a half trillion dollars annually on public relations, promotions and ad campaigns to saturate popular consciousness with consumptive creeds and brand veneration. (To appreciate the magnitude of this investment: If you were to spend a million dollars each day to make friends and influence people, one year's corporate budget would last you more than 1,300 years.)

Once our assorted single-issue groups wake up to the common corporate denominator of their miseries, we may finally see some productive synergy from their fractionated ranks. At least they might then recognize their mutual need for new broad-spectrum tactics to downsize, localize and democratize Big Bodies across the board.

One such remedy now being field tested in California is referendum-based repudiation of corporate claims to "personhood" and all the Constitutional protections it confers. Since personhood now guarantees Big Bodies "free speech" (permitting unlimited spending on elections, plebiscites and legislative lobbying), rescinding this "right" alone would achieve all the principal aims of campaign finance reform. Other initiatives to watch or join this year include Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel's Philadelphia II, a movement to expand our direct democratic rights and ban Big Bodies from politics, and Jim Hightower's launch of a nationwide chautauqua campaign to challenge the corporate coup d'état. Still other groups are exploring coalition efforts to staunch corporate welfare, restore Bill of Rights protections to incorporated workers, and re-impose time limits on corporate charters. The tactics are fresh and diverse, but the strategic prescription is singular: Return the balance of political power – a.k.a. sovereignty – from Big Bodies' grip to human hands for once and for all.

In any event, the battle against corporate dis-ease and dominion has just begun in both hemispheres. To join the fray yourself requires only a little imagination and, of course, the courage to think Big.

W. David Kubiak is director of Big Medicine, a Maine-based nonprofit "researching eco-social disease and large-scale corporate pathology." His e-mail address is:

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