Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Are Corporations to Blame?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 01, 2003

Stephen Talbott wrote,

I am more and more convinced that the chief weakness of many green and social justice movements is their predilection for blaming every ill upon "capitalistic corporate greed" rather than upon themselves.

This is a caricature and not even remotely based in fact. The entire recycling movement, for example, is based on individual responsibility. Additionally, campaigns to convince people to buy smaller cars, to use public transit, and similar initiatives, all focus on the need for - and responsibility for - individual action. Other campaigns stress the need to purchase ethical funds, to avoid purchasing sweatshop products, and more, much more.

The companion weakness, of course, is that they seek remedy for every ill from the government instead of relying upon their own resources and those of their communities and fellow citizens.

As above, this is a caricature and not based in fact.

Yes, there is a significant amount of attention paid to corporate and government activities, mostly because these two sectors make up something like three quarters of the economic activity, contribute to a large percentage of global pollutants, and have direct responsibility over many areas involving social justice such as welfare systems, health, education and more. This is a political and economic fact, not some stance taken on by members of these movements.

But that said, any city (and many rural areas) you care to name is the site of numerous individual and community initiatives, from parent-supported after-school daycare to playground reclamation to river valley clean-up projects. The number of NGOs dedicated to the environment and social justice numbers in the thousands. And the vast bulk of initiatives are undertaken despite numerous obstacles, and sometimes outright opposition, from governments and corporations.

When the first paragraph of an article is based on such an obvious and biased caricature, I shudder to think of what follows...

It is certainly true that we need changes in the legal structure of corporations, and I personally would like nothing more than to see an energetic push in this direction. But the changes will require careful experimentation over a long period. Meanwhile, why downplay the fact that we already have everything we need to bring about one revolution after another? We have, after all, our own purchasing power.

We all have purchasing power, true.

But a great many of us do not have very much purchasing power. Virtually none, in fact, when compared to someone like Bill Gates. And in the aggregate, corporations have about 70 percent of the purchasing power in society (even more in less developed nations). Which means that even if we all agreed, the corporations would still get their way.

You need to explain why "voting with one's dollar" is more effective, more efficient, or more fair than "voting with one's vote." Given that we have such an inequitable distribution in our society, and globally, it seems to be that an advocacy of "voting with one's dollar" is to essentially abdicate any infleunce on governance that one has.


Yes, but where does the power come from? What would become of their power if we did not fuel it with our purchases and lifestyle? And what do we mean by "the corporation" if not the employees and stockholders -- people like you and me? The problem arises when all of us, including those at the very top (who in some ways can least escape this destiny) allow themselves to become mere cogs in a vast computational system that runs by itself -- a system whose primary business is to calculate the bottom line.

The vast bulk of economic activity in any industrialized society is business- to-business. For almost any product - from milk (yes, milk, only a small percentage of which is sold in cartons in the grocery) to nickel to oil to flax) - the primary market is a corporate market.

The products sold directly to consumers are for the most part highly processed, combining raw materials and products from a multitude of corporations. In many cases, the product sold to consumers - such as a service - doesn't contain any product at all, though a great deal of product was consumed in the process.

Suppose you buy insurance, for example. The company that produced this service purchased oil from a large oil company, paper from a clear-cutter, paper-clips from a stationary supplier (which in turned used tin from a sweatshop mine in Nigeria), and so on and on. Against this vast array of purchasing power - all to provide you with a service, and not a product at all - your household purchases of some gas, some paper, some paperclips, etc., carry no weight whatsoever.

It is simply not possible to execute ethical consumption at this level. No insurance company will ever offer 'labour friendly policies' because no insurance company could ever swear that its paper wasn't clearcut, its oil wasn't pumped from Nigeria, its paperclips weren't from ore mined in Bolivia. Such decisions are made deep within the B2B chain, far from the eyes and the influence of consumers.

It is ridiculous, in the face of such a system to think of individuals casting 'votes' with their 'buying power'. Sure, some token cases may be made, such as when purchasers of consumer tissues from Scott Paper (a small percentage of sales (most of which goes to the restaurant and hospitality industry, but significant) boycotted their products in order to protest the actions of their sole supplier (a rarity), AlPac, for clearcutting practices. But such cases are the rare exception, not the norm, and are invariably met with criticism from the corporate sector for 'unfairly punishing one person (Scott paper) for the actions of another (AlPac).'

Of course, if the system runs *absolutely* by itself, like a mechanism, then you and I are irrelevant and the battle is over. We can't speak of blame at all in this case; mechanisms are not morally responsible.

This is a straw man. Nobody claims this.

But if, on the other hand, we can work meaningfully for change, then we will do so only by recognizing the countless invisible threads binding us to the system, and by learning step by step -- with an imaginative eye for the overall organic pattern of things -- to work with each other in re- weaving those threads. Thankfully, a great deal of this work is now going on, even if it has hardly galvanized the mainstream media.

The best and most direct means of impacting B2B transactions is to lobby corporations directly (if ineffectually) and to lobby government for legislation governing these transactions.

Think about it. Who did your insurance company but its paper from? It's not merely that it's difficult to find out, it's *not* possible.

It does not hurt to keep in mind -- especially in our time -- that overly ambitious efforts to hinder the corporate pursuit of debased values will put in place mechanisms equally effective for hindering the pursuit of exalted values. Or, putting it a little differently: if you distrust (with good reason) the power at the top of large organizations, it doesn't make much sense to vest your hope in the power at the top of the largest organization of all -- the government.

There is a significant difference between the government and large corporations. We can change governments. Governments respond - where corporations do not - to votes. Governments are also much more sensitive to other forms of political, including protests, letter-writing campaigns, exposure, and more.

Certainly government must play an essential role in any vital society -- but it can do so only if its power and wisdom emerge from below. There is no alternative to our own cultivation of healthy values, and to the social nurturing of these values through supporting community structures, a richly humane education, ennobling cultural habits, and so on.

In this I agree. This is where the community-based initiatives I described at the start of this email come into play. A government is slightly influenced by a protest, more infleunced by a slew of letters, and very influenced by a grassroots playground reclamation campaign. Politicians judge not only the sentiment but also the degree of committment behind the sentiment. People who work very hard to rehabilitate a playground are more likely to work very hard to unseat a politician, should the need arise.

Political activism is hard work, and generally thankless work. It is certainly unseen work, as your caricature at the beginning of this item displays. But if you would only *look* you would see a mass of people working very hard against very long odds. Nobody believes anymore, as they did in the sixties, that you can change society merely by complaining about it. Nobody.

A hopeless task when you look at what's going on in the world around us, right? Yet none of us really believes himself to be trapped in a debased condition without hope of improvement. Why then should we believe it of others? Or why should we believe it of the system as a whole so long as we retain any freedom at all to re-weave those threads? The problem with blaming the corporations is that it distracts us from this creative task -- a task we are in any case carrying out, for good or ill, with every purchase we make.

The truth of the matter is that I can have a lot more impact on a corporation by agitating against that corporation than I can by merely not purchasing its products. Because by agitating, I can have an impact on its entire value chain, not the small (and almost token) bit of it I directly control.

It would be insane for me to give up my position of advantage - via an elected government, for which I have a vote equal to everyone else's, and instead adopt a position of significant disadvantage.

Let me bring this home with one final argument. I see that you work for O'Reilly, which means that you are part of a company that supports open source and is moving toward open content.

Because of your company's stance, I purchased several of your books, in preference to some from competing publishers, and even the CD-ROM set. You probably didn't notice.

My observation, though, is that the vast bulk of both software and published content is purchased by corporate and government agencies. The consumer market for these is small in comparison.

Most governments and most companies pay large sums of money for Microsoft software, and they pay premium prices for subscriptions and other content purchases. Indeed, they form the bulk of the market for these distributors. They 'vote' with their dollars to support a proprietary and closed-market system.

It would have a much greater impact on the market if i could persuade, say, universities to cease paying for journal subscriptions and to instead encourage their professors to read and publish in open access journals. It would have a much greater impact to convince government to use Linux than it would be to swear off Windows at home. It would have a much greater impact to have government fund open content publishers to produce work for public use than to subsidize subscription based publishers through subsidies and over-priced subscriptions.

It would be absurd for me not to do these things. Indeed, even if I ran Microsoft products at home, it would make sense to convince government and business to use Linux. Their doing so would make it much easier for me to switch!

It is unreasonable to expect people to turn away from the tactics that are the most effective, and to spend time employing tactics that are less effective.

And one wonders why any pundit would recommend such a strategy. Must wonder why indeed.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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