EVOLUTION OF CORPORATE BEHAVIOR
By Roland Watson
Corporations are the most perfect vehicle yet invented by men to exercise power over others and to pursue raw ambition and greed. They are better adapted than, and have superseded, governments, armies and organized religions. Their domination extends to every aspect of our lives, and it is far more subtle. In many cases we do not even recognize that it exists at all. (It is worth recalling that the greatest addict is the person who does not even realize that he or she is addicted.)
Where corporate activism is concerned, a good place to start is the question of whether or not this has always been the case: if corporations have always behaved this way. In this regard, I want to make it clear that by corporations I for all intents and purposes mean business, any business.
In the years following World War II, many businesses did fulfill their social responsibilities. Their executives were viewed, and saw themselves, as corporate statesmen. They understood the wide range of consequences that their companies could have, not just those on customers and suppliers. In this period, when western society, after its success in the war, was extremely cohesive, such businesses and executives sought to emulate the recent success of the government and army. With the defeat of military aggression, they would lead the way in the battle for social prosperity.
But like their government peers, who turned into politicians, in the intervening years the economic system matured, and companies and their executives evolved as well. With the development of more efficient markets, competition increased and any concern other than profit fell by the wayside. And with this competition deeper, more primitive human traits surfaced, selfishness and greed reasserted themselves, and over time grew dominant, and the situation we have today, fifty years later, is the long-term result. Given the basic goal of business to make profits, and instinctual human selfishness, modern economic and social systems will always evolve this way.
Indeed, the beginning of the industrial revolution quickly led to mass exploitation, as chronicled by Charles Dickens and Marx and Engels. Communism did not rise out of a vacuum. Social conditions for the bulk of the European population in the nineteenth century were oppressive, and this was due to the centralization of economic power.
And, while some reform was accomplished - this was the origin of today's widespread socialism in European nations - the same trends manifested themselves again, in the United States, in the early decades of the twentieth century in the form of business trusts. But government at that time fulfilled its protective role. It passed numerous laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act, and broke up the various monopolies.
The consequence of this history for activism, then, is that corporations, with regard to fulfilling their social responsibilities, will always fail. Without an effective barrier, they will always seek to exploit. They are compelled to. It even raises the question whether or not it is appropriate to assign them blame.
"The corporation is a creation of law. It does not exist in nature. ... Do not blame corporations and their top executives. They are behaving exactly as they are organized to behave."
- Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, International Herald Tribune, June 5, 1996
This is a nice apology, but again, it is spurious. When corporations argue that markets demand that they destroy the environment, exploit labor, pay bribes, and work with dictators, they know this is completely self-serving. Corporate executives are people, too. They understand what the outcomes are. They just do not care. As we have seen, they have their own neighborhoods, houses and clubs: they are protected from it all.
And they want to keep these things, too. They want to maintain their positions of privilege, and they seek to accomplish this as proactively as possible. When a corporate CEO, or a brainwashed manager or supervisor, argues against the above conclusions, they are not engaged in an impersonal debate. Their entire purpose is to protect and perpetuate what they have, even if, as for the lower-level employees, it is a state of submission. And, as we have also already seen, the consequences of corporate behavior are still objectionable even when the behavior is not conscious or premeditated.
© Roland Watson 2016