Swans Commentary » swans.com February 25, 2008  



A Critical Assessment Of Corporations


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - February 25, 2008)   "Ancient pagan rites were still practiced on the wooded hillside when Benedict arrived, but he smashed the idols and burned the sacred grove. As his final act of possession, he built an oratory to St. John where the altar of Apollo had stood.

"It was at Monte Cassino that Benedict codified the insights of a lifetime seeking his God. The result was the most popular manual for corporate success ever written, the Benedictine Rule." (1)

It is a commonplace to say that corporations control all the candidates in the presidential race, but what are corporations? The History of the Corporation by Bruce Brown offered surprising insight into their origins. As should be expected, they did not come into being all at once. Brown identifies a crucial moment as that when St. Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino. To me, that it took a pagan sacrilege and a razing of a temple of Apollo to do it is a poignant fact. According to Brown it was the weakening of Roman cultural forces that allowed Benedict to take the corporation in new and interesting directions.

Christian liturgy was full of vessels of the holy spirit (the wafer, the wine, the monstrance, etc.). Benedict took this idea one step further. His vessel was not an object, but a group of people actively working the will of God in the world. In other words, he created a vessel for God that was conceptual rather than physical, and active rather than inanimate.

More than that, he showed anyone who could read exactly how to achieve the same ends. The Benedictine Rule is a blueprint for incorporating the spirit of God. Hundreds of rules had been written before, but Benedict was the one who got it right. He was the first to craft a tolerable yoke for the corporation's human attendants and effectively harness their energies toward a collective goal.

Benedict replaced the ideal of St. Simeon Stylites, who spent 35 years living alone at the top of a narrow pillar with the ideal of physical moderation and coordinated labor. What sets Benedict's rule apart from others, like The Rule of the Master, is his emphasis on work in general as a road to personal salvation.

The idea was to form a new unity under the rule of the abbot, who corresponds to the CEO.

Benedict's fundamental aim was to destroy the independence, and with it the individuality, of the monks, so that they could be merged into the greater corporate persona. "Let no one presume to give or receive anything without leave of the abbot, or retain anything as his own. He should have nothing at all," the Benedictine Rule reads. "For indeed it is not allowed to the monks to have bodies or wills in their own power. But for all things necessary they must look to the abbot of the monastery."

It was through Benedictine corporate discipline that St. Augustine and his Benedictine group converted England, and St. Boniface converted Germany, to Christianity. The Benedictine corporate structure of monasteries was instrumental in the expansion of the Catholic Chuch's power and wealth. "By the end of the 14th century, the great religious corporations of the Catholic Church -- and the increasingly bold for-profit pilot fish darting among them -- were already employing all the basic practices of the modern corporate world, from leveraged buyouts to golden parachutes." Brown divides the age of the corporation into a first and a second age, separated by the age of revolution. In the first the corporation tried, with limited success, to incorporate the Christian God. Even though the age of revolution destroyed many of the old corporations, they flourished with even more verdant growth after the American Revolution.

America proved an exceptionally fruitful ground for the corporation, though. Within 200 years, a slicked-back new breed of American for-profit corporations multiplied until they numbered in the millions and controlled the physical wealth of not just the United States, the wealthiest nation on the globe, but most of the human species.

Today -- during the Second Dominion of the Corporation -- our corporate lords make no pretense to serving a higher good. They wear no artfully hung drapery. The great secular corporations of the Second Dominion like Wal-Mart and Microsoft do not strive to incorporate the spirit of God, but rather the spirit of mammon, which is to say unbounded greed and the free-floating will to dominate.

From Brown's persuasive perspective human beings have been at war with corporations since, roughly, the seventh century. The corporation is the best tool for defeating human freedom and enslaving someone to an external will, whether for a higher good or simply someone else's. It seems best suited for amassing wealth and power. From time to time, it appears, human beings become aware of their servitude and rebel. Thus the age of revolutions, and thus also St. Francis's rebellion against the corporate order of monasteries.

But how were corporations able to submerge the individual will into their will? What is their secret? The Benedictine monasteries succeeded because the corporation, the monastery, was supposed to represent the one God, and the monk submerged himself in the divine body. The abbot was supposed to represent the "person of Christ." (2) Thus he too has submerged his individual will into the corporation. The monk, by giving up his individual will, thought he was working towards his own salvation. Given the growing decay of the Roman social order at the time and the difficulty of living within it, this seems like a plausible trade.

The modern corporation, obviously, does not pretend to incorporate the divine presence. But it does retain an insistence that everyone, including the CEO, submerge his own individual will into the corporate will. Everyone is duty bound to a task that he has not given himself. Of course this task in not for the general good, but for the good of the shareholders or, more accurately, their investments. It is clearly not to the shareholders' benefit to pollute the world and make it uninhabitable, and yet such an outcome is of no true concern to a loyal corporate officer. A corporation's loyalty is to shareholders' investment, to preserve its value and bring a reasonable return on it, not really to the shareholder himself. Indeed it would not trouble the CEO of, say, Lockheed Martin if, in the course of use, one of its products killed a shareholder, just so long as his heir retained his investment in Lockheed Martin. A corporate officer will ignore his own moral scruples and comfortably follow the amoral will of the corporation to preserve and grow investment. Indeed, it is his obligation to do so.

How is it that so many people are easily persuaded to sacrifice their individual wills and do things that, if they did them for their own sakes, they might find morally repugnant? To sacrifice one's will is not all that unusual, and people do so whenever they work for someone else or for the government. But when the sacrifice is to a human will, the boss, the actual owner, it is not as easy to commit atrocities. For then it is that person, the boss, who commits the atrocities and all those who work for him cannot avoid knowing that they work for a monster. Governments justify their atrocities with jingoistic claptrap. But when a corporation commits evil deeds it is nobody's fault. Everybody, even the CEO, is, as it were, following orders. The purpose is to increase the value of an investment, not commit atrocities. Any atrocities are unfortunate side effects, collateral damage, and, given one's loyalty to the investment, not really your concern, or anybody's.

It is for the same reason that a corporation can demand far more from its employees than can a sole proprietorship. When you work for a man you work for his benefit, and do so only insofar as it benefits yourself. There is always a clear understanding that your interests are not the same as his. If you do more you want more. But a corporation can demand far greater dedication. Everyone is in the same boat and every employee is part of this larger whole. You are not working for someone else, or directly for yourself, but for the good of the corporation, that is, the investment. Indeed, corporations, or "high-powered" corporations, tend to look askance at any employee who has interests other than those of the corporation, and certainly expect him to subsume them for the corporate good. All outside interests are suspect.

It seems plausible that one might make this sacrifice for the sake of divine salvation, but for the sake of growing investment? This purpose seems frankly inhuman, for it is certainly wrong for any corporate officer to even contemplate spending any of this investment for a human purpose. That is the province of the shareholder and the shareholder only, and he has no place in the corporation's decision making. The investment can only be used for a human purpose when it ceases being an investment. Yet it is to the growth of this investment that people give over their individual wills.

I suppose the easiest explanation for why people join corporations is that they need a job. It's where the money is. There are other jobs, but the really high-paying jobs are usually corporate. Without much thought, I suspect in most cases none, people give up their own sense of right and wrong, even their sense of who they are, to have a good job. In this view people give up their individual wills because these wills are so feeble and their stake in them so small that they feel they are giving up nothing of value in sacrificing them. Indeed, I suspect that in many cases people don't even notice they have sacrificed anything at all. It may even be that they felt their freedom was a burden and are grateful to the corporation for having taken it.

But I think this is not the whole story. The corporation unleashed an enormous amount of energy that was not previously available. It was through these monasteries and similarly organized nunneries that the Catholic Church converted Europe and became rich. There is also the tantalizing question of how the West, which had been on an equal footing with Islam, suddenly came to dominate in the Sixteenth Century. Perhaps corporations had something to do with it. Be that as it may, the new energy corporations unleashed is undeniable. Where does it come from?

People enter corporations not because they have to, but because they want to. People love the hundred hour workweeks, the ambition, the careers, the power, the ruthlessness. They willingly jettison the rest of their lives. What they sacrifice is something they long to be rid of. No young corporate lawyer would dare to suggest that a family obligation kept him from working overtime. Once within the corporation they are set free from the onerous obligation of deciding whether what they do is good or bad. They have a job to do and they do it. Everything is simplified so that they can maintain a sharp focus on the one true thing -- increasing the value of the investment. This sharp unambiguous focus is exhilarating. Corporations release human energy by directing it, focusing it, and relieving it of all the human concerns that might produce hesitation and thus divert energy and exhaust it. People join corporations to partake of this energy, to release it within themselves and to wield it on a grand stage. They love especially their exalted positions within the corporations and the respect they get from other corporation people. Partaking in the growth of investment is as attractive as partaking in the divine substance.

Looked at this way it is hard not to agree with Brown that the modern corporation is a worship of mammon. But it is a mistake to think that the corporate officer works to get rich. He may become fabulously wealthy, but this is a kind of joke on him. For this wealth is of no real value to him. He may own an enormous mansion, but he has no time to be there. He may take exotic vacations to his tropical second, third, or tenth home, but they will be short and full of worry about how someone is usurping his position at the office. For he knows only too well how the corporation chews up and spits out people who falter. His absence gives others opportunities. It is only when he retires that he might enjoy his wealth, but then he is sure to feel empty and useless. For he has given himself wholly to the corporation and has learned from the very start that all outside interests are suspect. So, if he is successful, he has none. The modern corporation, just like Benedict's monastery, demands everything.

The corporation is a structure dedicated to wealth for its own sake. Those who join it sacrifice everything for a position within this structure. If they leave it, it is only to join another similar structure, if possible in a higher position. The hierarchical structure is what allows it to organize its energies so powerfully, and provides it with its rewards. But these energies come from the freedom from all human values that allows a laser like focus on growing investment and a freedom from debilitating scruples.

Someone might insist on a more nuanced picture of corporations. Yes they do direct energies towards this inhuman goal, but in the process produce much of benefit to humankind. What about all those goods and services? Corporations do produce goods and services, but only by accident, as a necessary byproduct of increasing investment. Cheap goods and fraudulent services will work just as well as honest ones, provided only that people will buy them. The idea that consumers will demand quality because they are "rational actors" is a fraud. That the automobile industry was able to conceal for so long just how unsafe their product was is enough to refute the idea of a rational consumer. Indeed, what is advertising for if not to subvert the rationality of consumers? The corporate purpose is to extract wealth in any possible way. Corporations will happily produce unsafe automobiles, untested drugs, unhealthy fast foods, deceptive mortgages, and bad investment advice just as long as people will pay. Since bad goods are cheaper to produce than good ones, they will produce bad goods whenever they can get away with it. Nor can we say that corporations have produced the wealth we now enjoy. The growth of corporations has coincided with the growth of the use of fossil fuels and no one can now tell what part of our present wealth came from which cause.

But even if we admit some good in the corporate ledger, it is hard to see how it can even begin to outweigh the bad. For corporations change people into corporate officers who act for the sake of investment, not for the sake of the human good. What is good for them is not what is good for ordinary people. The great debate over global warming reveals this clearly. We must choose to either allow business as usual to increase profits while making the planet less inhabitable or reduce greenhouse gasses for the sake of something other than profits. There can be no doubt that within this debate corporations are indifferent to human life itself.

From my perspective corporations are not artificial persons, but another form of life parasitic upon human life. It is a commonplace to say that a corporation is an artificial person, but there are important differences. Corporations are potentially immortal, and the law has much less control over them. They can't be thrown into jail, deprived of love, tortured, or threatened with death. They can vanish and reappear in another country to avoid taxes. If things go really badly, so that the corporate name is besmirched, investors can withdraw the investment, allow the corporation to go bankrupt, and reinvest in a new corporation with a new clean name. What dies is only a husk out of which the investment, the corporation's reality, has escaped like a cicada. Unlike a person a legal investment has no identifying characteristics. On the other hand a new corporation can buy the name of an old respected one, and thus attain instant respectability itself. But most importantly, corporations do not have the obligations that people have. Corporations replace mortal human desires, needs, hopes, fears, scruples, and emotions with laser-like focus on their one inhuman goal. Human beings are not potentially immortal, so human life is never about something like investment. Whatever investment there is must be spent -- on something. A human life is something, or is about something, or can be made into something. It is not an instrument in the service of something else such as an investment. Even those who believe they serve God, believe he loves them as human beings and does not use them like a tool in a toolbox. If human beings treat others as worthless what guarantees their own value? Corporate man knows he is of value only insofar as he increases the investment, and increases it faster than anyone else might in his place. At any moment he might be thrown out, discarded, and he has to think this is quite correct.

Mammon is as good a name as any for this form of life, if it is a form of life. For it seems more like death itself. Through music, visuals, drugs, and words it has penetrated our consciousness and titillated our pleasure centers so that we give it our energies in return for the satisfaction of new desires the corporations themselves have teased out of our brains. No, they do not satisfy these new desires so much as skillfully pretend to, leaving them always unsatisfied. How is this different from selling heroin? Perhaps the biggest such desire is the desire to be part of, and rise within, the corporation itself. The ultimate corporate product is the man in the suit, corporate man himself, drained of human desires, filled with self-importance, and ready to give all his energy to the corporation. Is this a caricature? No, it falls short only to the extent that human beings fall short in sacrificing their lives to the corporation. To increase the investment we disembowel the planet, scrape the soil into the sea, poison the land, and waste all the water. The corporations endow dazzling university departments that give courses that obscure what is right before our faces. Think tankers make specious arguments to hide corporate activity and entice us into its cotton candy web of desires. Corporations corrupt science, distort history, and debase art. Corporate media chatter drowns out the simple truth: that for the sake of the investment, all else, including human life on earth, will be sacrificed. Yes, it looks like death worship to me.

This may be how it is, but we have to think that it wasn't always so. Brown tells us that the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fought not only against governments, but against corporations as well. Periodically, it seems, human beings notice that the corporations have diverted their energies to a purpose not their own, and they rebel. Is this rebellious human being who wants to retain his autonomy the healthy one, or is it the other, corporate officer? Whatever we decide we have to admit that the latter is only a part of something larger, an expendable part, often a part of no value. Unlike monasteries, corporations have no compunction about jettisoning superfluous employees, even CEOs. Human life, from a corporate viewpoint, is a resource like any other, to be used up and thrown away. Only the investment has real life.

Of course my vote is for the free person. I do not claim he is unique. More than likely he is pretty much like everybody else. But at least he has a life of his own. What is certainly clear is that presidential candidates controlled by corporations will act to increase investments at the expense of human life. Clearly they will not free us from the corporate death embrace.




1.  http://www.astonisher.com/archives/corporation/corporation_ch2.html  (back)

2.  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/gregory/life_rule.iv.iii.html (chapter II)  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published February 25, 2008