An Anti-Corporate Terrorist?

February 19, 2010

As many people know by now, yesterday a man rammed an aircraft fatally into an office building housing, among other things, an office of the Internal Revenue Service in Austin.

Why did he do it? No simple answer suffices; any fair account would take as a starting point that his mental state made him angry enough to want to kill. But the press has been eager to present him as an “anti-government” extremist. Which, in a sense, he is; anyone who is politically active is so primarily because of discontent with the way the government operates.

But why was he angry at the government? His already notorious manifesto indicates that the root cause of his madness is that he had tax grievances with the IRS going back decades. But the reason in his estimation that the IRS cheated him was that the government is controlled by big business:

Why is it that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities (and in the case of the GM executives, for scores of years) and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours? Yet at the same time, the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering tens of thousands of people a year and stealing from the corpses and victims they cripple, and this country’s leaders don’t see this as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies. Yet, the political “representatives” (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate) have endless time to sit around for year after year and debate the state of the “terrible health care problem”. It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in.

There is nothing in the manifesto to indicate that the murderer was deeply steeped in the canon of anti-corporate literature. Indeed, he only used the word “corporation” once in the entire piece. But
it is clear that he held the belief that big business runs everything, including manipulating the tax code to hurt the little man, and that is why the government cannot do what needs to be done in the public interest, which is a belief both with roots in older populism and which underlies modern anti-corporatism. And so an accurate rendition of his views, for any media organization interested in them, would have to lead with the lead, which is this anti-business hostility, rather than an empty invocation of “anti-government” beliefs. One wonders how widespread this sense of betrayal of the public interest to big business in general and to corporate interests in particular coincides with a willingness to use violence.

Xenophobic Anti-Corporatism

February 14, 2010

President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech contains the following passage:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.

Why not? “Foreign entities” does sound awfully sinister, much more so than mere “foreign companies.” (Ian Fleming’s SPECTRE, one supposes, was a “foreign entity”.) But foreign companies employ lots of Americans, sell products to Americans, and Americans own a lot of their shares. In other words, people who own and work for these “foreign entities” engage in a lot of mutually beneficial exchange with a lot of Americans. Alas, the US government, at the behest of people who compete with the individuals who own and work for such foreign firms, likes for the gain of politicians to restrict their ability to do business (e.g., by limiting their ability to bid for government contracts), and likes to take their money to give to people who support those politicians. In this, foreign firms are no different from all other Americans, who daily must put up with the indignities and shakedowns of the predatory state.

But Americans, at least, have some capacity to fight back. (The more so in the wake of the spectacular decision Citizens United v. F.E.C. For my analysis of that decision go here.) What the president is saying, however, is that both Americans who do business with foreigners and the foreigners impacted, often negatively, by the American government ought to have the right to contest government restrictions on their ability to earn a living handicapped.

What is striking is the explicitness with which, in an anti-corporate context, xenophobia becomes acceptable. In progressive politics it is generally unacceptable to argue that people who come from overseas should have their rights limited, and indeed later in the same speech the president argued, however obliquely in light of the controversy it would cause were he more honest about it, for amnesty for illegal immigrants. Until recently, based on opposition from organized labor, many progressives were hesitant to aggressively defend the rights of immigrants. But once unions came around, to the left foreigners in the form of immigrants became as American as apple pie.

But once they take the form of a corporation, they become fair game for unequal treatment. (Could you imagine anyone taking seriously the argument that foreign newspapers were not protected by the First Amendment, or that foreign religions cannot proselytize in America?) The progressive wing of statism is just as willing to pander to anti-foreigner attitudes (if it synergizes with their anti-corporate rage) as any Know Nothing ever was. (Note that the argument that foreign corporations contaminate American democracy fails, because so too can immigrants, especially amnestied illegal immigrants, who come here in sufficiently large numbers. So too do foreign media that contaminate the American political conversation.) Ethically the whole progressive framing misconceives the problem, which is not virtuous Americans versus nefarious foreigners. Rather, as long as the American government reserves the right to pass laws that take money from “foreign entities,” those entities, and the Americans enriched as shareholders, workers, and customers by their commercial activities, have every right to try to get those laws changed.

It will be interesting to see how far the left, in conspicuous rejection of its own recent aggressive defense of foreign alteration of the American political conversation, is willing to push the anti-foreign version of the anti-corporate argument.

When is Theft Not Theft?

December 29, 2009

The  blog BrandX links to a Times (UK) story on an Anglican vicar who says that thou shalt not steal, unless the victims are big companies:

“My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift. I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither.

“I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need. I offer the advice with a heavy heart. Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift.

“The life of the poor in modern Britain is a constant struggle, a minefield of competing opportunities, competing responsibilities, obligations and requirements, a constant effort to achieve the impossible. For many at the bottom of our social ladder, lawful, honest life can sometimes seem to be an apparent impossibility.”

Leave aside the theological difficulties — is it the Eighth Commandment, or the Eighth Suggestion? Leave aside also the question of what it means to be “poor” in a country in which per capita GDP is well north of $20,000. The striking thing to note is the differentiation between small companies run by real flesh-and-blood people and big companies — evil, deserving of whatever happens to them, and run by and serving, I suppose, something other than real flesh-and-blood people. Its customers, workers, shareholders, etc., because of their mass, cease to be human.

On BrandX, Richard Metzger writes that “It’s not like Rev. Tim is saying ‘Go forth and mug people’ or that the poor should burgle their neighbor’s homes. He’s basically saying ‘feed yourself, illegally if you must, just do it in a way that doesn’t harm society.'” But of course “society” is ultimately a collection of individuals, and a big food retailer is simply a legal device for uniting commercially individual buyers and sellers of food. The effect of some people shoplifting from the big company is that some other people find it harder to get food — they will have to pay more, they will face more inconvenience at the store, and so on. Like all victims of nonconsensual redistribution of wealth, their costs are real but hard to see, hence easy to ignore.

These, and not the poor, are the true invisibles of society. They — the law-abiding customers, the people who make investments, take specific jobs, and otherwise take risks by committing to a particular course of action on the assumption that their property rights will be respected — are the ones damaged by this belief that big companies are simply a bottomless pit of money begging to be ransacked for the good of “society.” (To his credit, at least the vicar acknowledges the harm. It is the blogger who fails to see this.)

Avatar

December 28, 2009

The movie <I>Avatar</i> is apparently the hit of the season.  Below is the plot summary, according to the <a href = Internet Movie Database:

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge’s intentions of driving off the native humanoid “Na’vi” in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand – and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.

In The Rise of the Anti-Corporate Movement, I talked of the rise of anti-corporate thought in the popular culture, with science fiction being a particularly fruitful vein.  The Alien and Terminator series, as well as the classic Blade Runner, all depict sinister corporations as responsible for futuristic misdeeds.  And while I hasten to add that I haven’t seen it, Avatar appears to be along those lines.  The military as nothing more than a glorified corporate army, corporations as greedy exploiters of the natural resources belonging to native peoples, and most of all corporations as the forces that secretly rule the world, these are all recurring themes in the ACM.  File it with the most recent James Bond picture, Quantum of Solace, as a sign of the further mainstreaming of the once-fringe Manichean, paranoid subset of ACM thinking.

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December 3, 2008

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