Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The (Corporate) Monster Under the Bed


           “Don’t you think you are too down on capitalism,” one of my readers asked me. “It can’t be all bad, can it?” 

     If you look at my villains — a cadre of burghers, merchants, and corrupted ministers who cruelly amass arable lands and every source of wealth they can get their hands on — he seems to have a point. As The Old Deltan Thurgit puts it:

          The Merchant Adventurers, as they call themselves, have always been interested in the way we construct our salt pans to catch the tides and in the way we arrange drainage ditches and moveable dams to evaporate finer crystals. Wasn’t only our salt they coveted – they rent our pans to us and hold back all of the profit. They stole our inventions as well. They used our sluices and canals to drain the reedlands for farming until everything living has perished. There are no reeds, no birds, no otter, no frogs, no turtles, no fish—not until three days march north. First they stole our ancient wisdom, then our salt, and finally, the land itself.”  Infinite Games: The Battle for the Black Fen.

     If you take “free trade” in terms of its original meaning, which was the practice of illegal smuggling by New Forest outlaws in Medieval England, I’m against it. Their purpose was to import and sell goods while avoiding duties and taxation. It’s this kind of freebooting capitalism without regard for the greater good that makes me antsy. I’m in good company, too. The Pilgrim Colony was financed by London businessmen who established a joint stock company to profit from the Northern Virginia cod fishing grounds. The Pilgrims didn’t like the despotic demands of their sponsors, and tried to establish a more democratic contract.
         Adam Smith, inventor of the term “free market,” was concerned that if manufacturers weren’t subject to regulation they would undermine society. He believed that economics were social forces subject to law.  

Then there were our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in particular, who were concerned that if corporations were left to their own devices they might destroy the new democracy.  Here’s Thomas Jefferson on the subject:

 “We must crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

And, later, Lincoln:

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country…corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands…”

     In the early modern economy I invent for The Marshlander and Infinite Games Series my portrayal of the dangers of untrammeled capitalism do not mean that I’m giving up on capitalism altogether. My heroes carry on a complex and thriving system of trade in both coins and kind. Rookery folk cultivate flax to sell in Twist, Dunlin produces oats and barley for the Nidden market, the Tapestry House maintains a lucrative and far flung trade in weavings, and the Fisher folk ship their catch for sale in Brent.  My issue is not with the process of buying and selling but with how it is done in terms of its impact on community.

        It’s just the same today when corporations and the senators and representatives they have bought try to override the good of the nation.  Al Gore, for example, deplores the way American democracy is being gutted:

“Unfortunately, however, the U.S. no longer has a well-functioning self-government. To use a phrase common in the computer software industry, American democracy has been hacked. The United States Congress, the avatar of the democratically elected national legislatures in the modern world, is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances” to the extent that “Some political scientists have asserted that the influence of corporations on modern governance is now almost analogous to the influence of the medieval church during the era of feudalism.” (104, 125)

        Their motivation is the same as it always was: plain old-fashioned greed. The other night I saw Paul Solmon interviewing Dacher Keltner on tv. Keltner described thirty studies on thousands of people, all demonstrating that wealthy people are more likely than folks with more moderate incomes to cheat, to speed dangerously by pedestrians, to lie during negotiations, to attribute success to their own talent, and see generosity as for suckers. When they get together in cadres they can cause irreparable damage.

        These form huge economic forces, monsters whose tentacles of influence are so strong and so widespread that we can’t imagine how smaller folk like us can rise up to combat them. Just keep in mind those intrepid Hobbits, Frodo and Samwise, triumphing over what seemed an overwhelmingly powerful enemy. Invented worlds tell us about things we need to know; they also show us how to persevere. We can certainly take heart, too,  from the excellent and historic company of Adam Smith, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, every one of them convinced that corporations need to be controlled for American democracy to survive.  

If we  believe in democracy of, by and for the people, we need to make ourselves part of it.

Ø  Work to repeal Citizen’s United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision which accorded constitutional rights to corporations. Springing from purely grass roots movement, sixteen states have called for an amendment to overturn Citizen’s United. To get the facts in Michigan click Michigan GOP Serfdom Under Citizens United, and Beyond; sign the petition on Tell Congress: Only people are people. | CREDO Action; write/visit the office hours of/ inform or support your local congressperson. (In SE Michigan go to End Citizens United | Peters for Michigan)

Ø  Go to StampStampede to find out how to stamp your money as a personal protest:


Ø  Mail in your proxy ballots. If you hold stock in a company you have a right to vote at its meetings, and if you read their proxy material you will find shareholder resolutions that you can support.

Ø  Consume Wisely.  The ideal American citizen in a corporation plutocracy is a passive, impressionable consumer. Think before you buy from a business that is degrading the environment or undermining the community. For example, boycott clothing made in sweatshops and tell the stores where you are not purchasing it about your action. Go to Responsible Shopper: Guide to Promoting a Responsible Economy with Company Profiles, Green Living Tips, and Campaigns, or to Green America: Boycotts: Economic action to stop corporate irresponsibility

Ø  Al Gore thinks that the best long term ways to keep corporations from polluting the environment are to insist on  Cap and Trade policies, and  support subsidies for the development of renewable energy.

Ø  Please add a comment if you know of other ways to protect constitutional democracy from overreaching corporations.


Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, p. 104, 125

Pal Salmon interviewing Dacher Keltner on the PBS Newshour, June 21, 2013.

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