Posts Tagged ‘ Jim Rigby

Multinational Corporations: The Roving Band of Armed Thugs Argument Writ Large

I’ve introduced Jim Rigby in a post before. He’s a thought provoking writer and an open-minded conversationalist. He posted recently in support of a Noam Chomsky article. I responded to the shared post on Facebook (I think it’s a public post). In short, I’m responding to Chomsky’s point, reiterated in Jim’s article, that the state is the correct means to keep corporate power in check:

. . . the idea that increasing the power of the state would somehow decrease the power of the corporations that are protected and funded by the state requires some explanation at the least. To imagine that by voting, petitioning, protesting, etc., the government can be made to protect people from concentrations of capital and privilege requires deviating from all historical precedent . . .

Skipping down a bit to where Jim responds, with his usual politeness:

Jad, I am certainly happy to discuss where we disagree. I just didn’t want seem like your excellent arguments were unwelcome. I see corporations as concentrated private power. They are undemocratic and so unaccountable to the people. The state may create the legal definition of a corporation, but those private powers would still exist if we were to shut down the US government tonight. It is true that a corporation like Monsanto would not have to go through the charade of getting around government regulations, and they wouldn’t get government funding were there no government, but they wouldn’t not whither and die in my opinion. I believe they would simply take what they want as they do all over the world where governments are weak and cannot protect their people. If like some foreign corporations they hire their own private army, there would nothing to stand against them. However bad our situation is in the States, it is infinitely worse in nations where corporations are stronger than the local governments. The smaller the government the more tactics like capital flight make it impossible for people to collectively stand against corporate tyranny.

Here beginneth the actual post:

The power of concentrated corporate wealth is astounding, terrifying, and is a daily menace to the well being of humans all across the globe. No informed person with any empathy or degree of integrity can defend the existence of these behemoths who are, as you rightly note, undemocratic and unaccountable to . . . well, anybody–other than, perhaps a heavily invested shareholder.

It’s true, as well, that, were the United States government shut down tonight, Monsanto wouldn’t simply go away. But it would begin a very rapid decline. Contrariwise, since the US government isn’t likely to shut down any time soon, Monsanto will continue to grow in size and strength. Even if GMO’s fall out of favor, Monsanto has reinvented itself before (after DDT and PCBs became unpopular). It’s essential to understand that the unimaginable amounts of capital that Monsanto and the few thousand largest corporations have gathered didn’t come to them overnight. It’s been assembled, almost entirely through political means and specifically war profiteering, over the last 100 years.

One paragraph, super-brief history: After it’s founding at the turn of the 20th century, Monsanto grew rapidly as the fledgling American Empire found the need to assemble and enshrine a domestic chemical manufacturing base as it faced war with its suppliers in Europe. As the American war machine grew and spread around the world, Monsanto was contracted by the United States government to help develop the nuclear bomb and build the cold war nuclear arsenal. They also made a fortune selling DDT which the US military sprayed all over in Europe and the South Pacific to protect invading soldiers from disease. Monsanto was also an important manufacturer of Agent Orange during Vietnam. Despite not having almost no success in creating products for consumers, Monsanto has become one of the largest concentrations of wealth on the planet.

Besides channeling wealth from the working class to the war profiteers, the federal government provides key protections without which Monsanto and its ilk would quickly disintegrate. Perhaps the most important is protection for intellectual property. The United States legal system and enforcement apparatus recognizes Monsanto’s absolute ownership of certain genetic patterns. Independent farmers using non-GMO seeds are sued and have their land and products seized when Monsanto crops cross-pollinate. Other farmers who choose to stay out of the Monsanto GMO supply chain face a constant threat of losing their livelihood should an unfortunate wind blow.

The decisions of legal system are enforced, not by the private armies that you fear, but by federal agents. US corporations get their private armies, intelligence services (CIA) and diplomatic corps (State Department) without even having to pay for them. The relevant power dynamic isn’t between the corporation and the weak national governments, as you mention above, but between the weak national governments and the US government. Monsanto has an “in” anywhere around the world where the US government has influence over the local government. This global enforcement of “free trade” is paid for by the working class here at home, while the corporations reap the profits and the poor around the world suffer the side-effects.

Click to enlarge: An unweildy but informative graphic showing the degree of “regulatory capture” Monsanto holds over the Federal state.

Corporate concentrations of capital and power do not obtain despite government interference; they would not have been achieved without government interference. Precisely the same is true for most of the monstrosities that sit astride the chest of humanity: GE, Dow Chemical (very similar trajectory to Monsanto), Exxon, Shell, General Motors, and so on.

This is not to say that everything produced by chemical processes and industrial manufacture is a priori bad. The organic nature of production for things of general (accountable, democratic) use to humanity is extraordinarily decentralized. This is wonderful for consumers, who can hold small, localized entities to account, but terrible for a centralized, militarized state, who needs single points of audit and control to drive industry in particular ways.

Gabriel Kolko demonstrates this rigorously in The Triumph of Conservatism. His evidence was among the most important in convincing me that there was no golden age of government regulation. The history of regulation is the history of eliminating small, local businesses and manufacture to assist in the ascendency of todays awful multi-national corporations.

If you’ve read this far looking for a reference to The Roving Band of Armed Thugs Argument, there it is. In short, a common argument for the necessity of a centralized, powerful monopoly on violence is that, without it, we’d be overwhelmed by crudely armed bad actors (roving bands of armed thugs). Because of that abstract (and fairly absurd theory), most folks put up with, encourage and pay for roving bands of armed thugs which actually are a plague in most metropolitan area (the police) and around the world (the US military). Similarly, in the name of preventing unaccountable accumulations of private wealth, most folks put up with encourage and pay for an agency of force that expropriates or destroys small accumulations of wealth and channels the resources, protections, and patronage into a few hands. Thus, in both cases, people are bamboozled into accepting something precisely the opposite of the actual solution to the problem they imagine.

Selfishness, the Individual, and the Collective

This post was inspired by a conversation with Jim Rigby who I follow on facebook. It started with a short conversation-provoking post, and the follow up highlights the resulting discussion. I recommend following Jim (on facebook, not in real life) and/or reading his blog, he’s a thoughtful and stereotype busting guy and never shies away from debate.

“We must stop thinking of the individual and start thinking about what is best for society.”

I recently learned of this old quote from Hillary Clinton (circa 1993). At first glance, it seems to follow the aesthetically pleasing moral’ish guideline of “don’t be a greedy bastard, there are other people to think about.” Reminders to put perspective on one’s own wants and desires and to balance them with the wants and desires of your fellow human beings are all to the good, in my opinion.

But notice, that’s not really what’s being said. The quote doesn’t read, “stop thinking of yourself and start thinking about what is best for society.” The purpose of the quote isn’t to check the listeners greed, it’s to check the listeners concern for other individually recognizable people.

All of us humans have a subjective experience of being part of a larger whole. In a physical, this is clearly the case. Every physical part of our body is interacting with every other material object in the universe; we absorb and exchange material from all around us; we are literally composed of star dust; and every physical speck of each one of us will exist until the end of . . . well, existence.

On a social level, we belong to a species whose every advance is based on collective action, peaceful cooperation. To quote Jeffrey Tucker slightly out of context:

Without it, our world would fall apart. All progress is due to it. All order extends from it. All blessed things that rise above the state of nature are owed to it…. [W]e need ever more . . . to make the world a more beautiful place.

Speaking of “society” or “community” or “humanity” is entirely reasonable as a shorthand for the collection of individuals being discussed. The politicians trick which perverts the concept (and, secondarily, turns non-violent people into seeming lunatics stuck on the idea of individuality) is to talk about the collective concept–I’ll use “society”, but all have been used–as if it were an actual entity apart from the individuals that make it up with its own measurable level of well-being.

Once that fiction is in place, any number of individuals can be harmed in pursuit of the good of the society–as if there’s something somewhere that’s doing better even though the individuals that supposedly comprise it have been hurt.

As a quick, concrete example, 1 in 3 African-American men are entangled with the criminal justice system–mostly as part of the war on drugs. Thousands of people have been murdered on the border. Thousands more are threatened by various armed agencies, kicking down doors (sometimes even the intended ones), breaking up families and shooting anyone who resists or is slow to comply. Millions of individuals have clearly been aggressed against in a whole variety of ways. No individual can be identified as a beneficiary (other than the prison-industrial-complex and police state). The political argument is that drug suppression is for the greater good. It benefits society. We should, after all, stop worrying about the individual so much.

Another great example is the “liberation” of [name of American occupied country here] where whole civilizations have been destroyed, countless persons killed, millions of refugees created, in the name of improving the state of the social abstraction that is supposedly comprised of the victims of American aggression.

It’s possible, of course, that there’s some citizen who is better off because of the drug war. There are certainly people better off under one political regime than another. It’s impossible to coherently argue that the “greater good” is being served, or not served. It doesn’t have a physical existence and it’s well-being can’t be measured.

This makes talking about abstractions an ideal way to manipulate people into supporting aggression against other people. Part of the politician’s trick is to speak for the “greater good” the way the Pope speaks for God. We’re meant to believe that we common folk can only access our own subjective state, while political leaders can calculate any number of weighted sums of millions of individuals’ subjective experiences and then determine which weighting to maximize with each policy decision.

It’s nonsense on the face of it. Politicians do what they want, or what their patrons want, and call it the “common good,” just as the Pope does whatever he and/or his patrons want and call it the “will of God.”

When you hear somebody lamenting collectivist thinking or championing a world-view where the individual is exalted over the collective, it’s possible you’re listening to some selfish asshole who just wants to do what he wants and to hell everybody else.

It’s also possible that you’re talking to somebody who has noticed the pattern by which individuals are being harmed, on an epic scale, in the name of some abstraction and always for the gain of the advocates of said abstraction.

One more caveat and I’m out: there are obviously good people in the world who would self-describe as serving the common good/greater good/society. This doesn’t bother me at all, though they may be adopting political language beyond the convenience of using collective nounts–I have no evidence of this at all, mind you.

The litmus test for whether or not someone is using abstractions manipulatively is whether they are advocating violence against certain individuals in the name of the abstraction. If not, they may still be trying to manipulate you personally (into donating money, time, etc), but they’re certainly not violating any core moral principle. If their devotion to the “greater good” *does* require the harming of individuals, then they’re either delusional or criminal; they should be shunned by all good people and their duplicity should be exposed as far as possible.