CORPORATE ACTIVISM TARGETS
By Roland Watson
For the main target of social and environmental activism, it is obvious that it should be corporations. Of course, the media are also culpable (they are corporations, too!), and media and advertising activism will be considered in a later article. But as to markets, particularly financial markets, while by enforcing the profit motive they are in fact the foundation of the entire corporate system, of capitalism, they are not as effective as a target as corporations themselves. You cannot boycott a market. They can be regulated, though, to limit such things as investment and broker fraud, but in general they cannot be confronted as a means to reduce social ills. Specific financial institutions, which are also corporations, can be targeted, and some general leverage exists through the tactic of ethical investing, but for the most part financial markets are shielded from activism.
Having said this, though, it is worth mentioning a couple of exceptions. We have seen that financial markets and their participants have wreaked havoc in developing regions by lending capital without due consideration of the risks involved, and then withdrawing it at the first sign of trouble; and also through the destabilizing effects of currency speculation. In both of these cases, an argument can be made for implementing different types of capital controls, at least until the regions achieve a level of development and stability whereby they can endure such shocks. In effect, protectionism against the worst effects of globalization is justified. Of course, what the nations in these regions often do is abuse this power. Their leaders implement protectionist measures that preserve their own industrial holdings (while doing little to protect the general public), thereby earning retaliatory action from the developed nations. And, as is clear in the case of Japan, and also China, they also regularly maintain such protectionist measures long after they have served their purpose, leading to further recriminations from the West and also huge trade imbalances.
The tactic of using market activism, while valid for developing countries seeking to escape the ravages of globalization, is nonetheless too problematic to be our primary approach, and in any case it does not directly confront the corporate culprits.
Moving on to corporations, it is appropriate to distinguish those companies that sell to the public from all the others. The former are the sources of consumer brainwashing, and the latter contribute to the general social consequences of the system. But, while such a distinction is useful by way of developing activist strategies, as a fundamental difference it does not exist. All corporations are members of the same club, and, like the police, they stick together. Ethical corporations, and many companies generally are ethical, will regularly rise to the defense of the unethical. Of course, they may find this distasteful, but they view it as a necessary evil. The corporate system as a whole must be protected.
Corporations collude with each other through membership in trade and other associations, such as the Conference Board. They also cooperate in lobbying, for lowered corporate tax rates, indeed, for all manner of corporate welfare. Then there is the informal collusion that occurs through the "old-boy network." (They have to talk about something, on "the links.")
In addition, this collusion regularly transcends borders: corporations in one country cooperate with those in others. For example, this occurred with the NFTC in its lawsuit against Massachusetts. This group had the direct support of many European companies, and governments. Of course, they all said that they dislike the Burmese dictatorship, but they also said that that's not really the issue. The issue, apparently, is unfettered trade access, including to murderous dictatorships. (Oh, maybe it is the issue after all: they are perfectly happy to support that which they dislike.)
Similar collusion occurred in the earlier opposition of business to purchasing ordinances and economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
What this demonstrates is that to be effective, activists must also cooperate internationally, to at least the level practiced by business. And, to the extent that activists do not accomplish this, the oppressive behavior by corporations will be that much more severe.
In summary, our activist goals are:
- To redirect government: to realign it with our interests and get it to increase its activity against this new threat.
- To motivate consumers to exercise preferences, such as to boycott every company in the NFTC, and to encourage more people to become committed activists.
- To get the corporations to control and reform themselves.
- And, to do all of this internationally, in every country. We are, after all, fighting a global system.
As an example of the difficulty of achieving these goals, though, it unfortunately is not possible to organize a boycott of the companies in the NFTC. This is because we do not know who they are. The NFTC uses the tactic of secrecy to protect its members. The companies are afraid of boycotts, and they do not want their membership known. They know they are being unethical, but rather than change their ways and stop supporting the Burmese generals, they choose to continue their support, and cloak it in anonymity.
To begin with the government, in the U.S., recent steps to fight Microsoft's monopoly, particularly by state governments, are a good precedent and also evidence that the will that is required is starting to surface. (At least from some quarters: when the Wall Street Journal argues that Microsoft should be excused its predatory, monopolistic behavior, because Windows is a good product and computer usage is expanding rapidly, they are saying that the end justifies any means. Also, as an aside, the Journal is an excellent source of information about the unethical behavior of corporations. It provides a daily review of their most severe misdeeds - those that have been caught. Furthermore, it is unconscionable that the publication does not provide a deeper analysis of why such misdeeds are so prevalent, and what can and should be done about this.)
© Roland Watson 2016