Gregory Sams
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21. Global Corporation Inc.

 
We worry about the nightmare scenario of a world run by big business, controlling our minds with advertising, filling our lives with material junk and devastating our earth in their eternal quest for a quick buck. The most frightening manifestation of this is the faceless multinational, plying its trade with tentacles in every country of the world. Some of these companies will sell products with known health risks in markets where they are still legally declared safe. We have heard of the healthy mothers in Africa encouraged to formula feed their babies. Large cola companies have bought up the local competition and pumped their own product into the market. This all happens, and in the absence of some central Commissar of Production will continue to happen. It does occur less often, however, when markets become educated.

As mentioned in the last chapter, many aspects of business have been shaped by state intervention; we also have many examples of big business intervening in the affairs of the state, prompting this or that regulation, subsidy or permission and even sometimes extending to a landgrab and subsequent murder of the previous custodians. This chapter is not meant to be an apology for the moral transgressions of many businesses but it is intended to make you aware of the fundamental difference between the relationship we develop with business and the relationship we have with the State.

So you might as well get to know your local multinational because they are going to be an increasingly important part of the future. To help you recover from the shock, let me point out a few things about businesses, small and large.

POINTS

Many multinationals now have sales greater than the GNP of most of the world's nation states. Despite the power this gives them, as they get even larger they will be less and less likely to ever find a reason to rain bombs upon us, their global customers. This is so unlikely for any business that very few, if any, of today's multinationals have a special reserve of bombs stored away - just in case the need arises. This cannot be said of today's nation states.

Not many businesses will put you in jail, fine you or harass you if you just don't want to buy their product; however brilliantly clever the advertising you don't respond to, however many millions they spend promoting it, or however much they know you need it. There is a choice and even though a lot of people are "fighting it out" in the marketplace, rarely does anyone actually get maimed or killed and, with footwear for instance, we end up with a choice of shoes, sandals, slippers, sneakers, thongs, skis, roller blades and boots. We have leather boots, rubber boots, canvas boots, space boots, wading boots; in all colours, sizes, and styles. And in most parts of the world, notwithstanding the varieties of footwear available, it is still legal to go barefoot.

It is not unusual for business to respond pretty quickly to consumer needs and demands. Even if big companies are sometimes slow to respond, they spend many millions trying to determine just what it is the consumer wants. When small flexible companies do this they often grow faster, steal an edge on the competition, and make more money...thus getting bigger.

Companies usually stop short of killing or imprisoning their competition and critics. Even that early multinational, IBM, effectively controlling the world computing market in the early 1970's, could only stand by and watch whilst two young nerds in a California garage* changed the world of computers with the introduction of the Apple computer. Many big businesses got to be where they are by starting out small with a brilliant new product that made all of our lives a lot easier or more enjoyable in some way. Other small companies got big by responding to consumers faster than the established giants of their industry. Companies can and do sue for damages if defamed by critics, but as the "McLibel" case against McDonalds has dramatically shown, such tactics can backfire when the criticisms are defensible.** The McDonalds case turned into one of the greatest "own goals" of corporate history. Since "winning," millions more of a harder-hitting "What's Wrong With McDonalds" leaflet have been and continue to be distributed, and the McSpotlight internet site, arising from the case, became one of the most popular sites in cyberspace.

* I refer to Steve Woszniac and Stephen Jobs who created Apple Computers and the Macintosh. With minimal resources they successfully challenged and changed the most firmly emplaced corporate monopoly of history. The chairman of IBM had predicted in 1949 that the world market would eventually reduce to five giant computers - Apple changed all that.

**Helen and Dave, two unemployed Britons with the bulldog spirit intact, defended themselves against libel charges by McDonalds rather than say they were sorry, and went into the record books with the longest libel case, and then the longest court case in UK history. The award-winning website devoted to the issue can be found at - www.mcspotlight.org

Few companies claim the right or even harbour the desire, to break into your house at any time of day and night to ensure that you are not ingesting, reading or watching something of which they disapprove. This even applies if you choose to watch some devastatingly revealing, dirt-digging video produced by a new start-up company, whose stated aim is to put the brand-leader right out of business. Even if you have been drinking Pepsi every day of your life for years, you can switch overnight to water, orange juice or beer without so much as a veiled threat from the Pepsi company.
"A business must have a conscience as well as a counting house."

Sir Montague Burton, the tailor
Many companies offer a guarantee with their product, so that if the promised washing machine never arrives or breaks down completely, you have an opportunity to correct the situation. The commercial principle and practice of offering guarantees existed long before legislation made it mandatory. You usually do get what you are promised and if there are, say, only four cans of beer in the six-pack, then you can actually point this out to the vendor and get some money refunded. The growing weight of overall taxation on business and its employees may well have reduced the level of back-up service that the average consumer might expect to accompany their product purchase. I remember when my mother spilt some Copydex glue on our carpet in the 1950's. She wrote to the company asking for advice on how to remove it. Within twenty four hours their local representative was at our doorstep with a bottle of the appropriate solvent and help with its application; of course, she has used Copydex ever since.

Businesses do quite commonly sack disgraced and dishonest executives. We occasionally read of this in the newspapers and rarely find that the executives move on to greater and higher positions in the firms or are retired early for medical reasons with full pay. When internal corruption is discovered it is quite common for those involved to be dismissed with no consideration at all. Sometimes corporate bigshots may get an undeserved "golden handshake" if there are no legal grounds for their removal, but life will always have some warts.

Holding onto a monopoly in a free world is not as easy as you might think. Whilst the government maintains the (one and only) Monopolies Commission to check abuses, there are few examples of a long and stable corporate monopoly in history that did not rely upon state support and legislation. Few unsupported monopolies survive long against competition and changes in our culture. Most of the long-term monopolies we seem to have experienced are those regulated by the state; in such industries as medicine, utilities, roads, education, defence, power supply and even toilet-tissue manufacture in some places. Here we often pay for a service whether efficient or not, whether needed by us or not, with little or no option to choose.

There are exceptions to the above points and they are exceptions - not the rule. In an increasingly communications-rich world it becomes both difficult and undesirable for a business of any size to disregard the morals, concerns, desires, and considerations of the society upon which it depends for that buck, whether fast or slow. And whilst I lament the way in which whole, once-untainted populations eagerly embrace some of the lowest aspects of Western culture I do not complain about their right to do so, only about the fact that aspects of their own culture and tradition have been banned or discouraged in response to global pressure for culture to fit the Western democratic corporate model.



Most valid examples of coercive abuse from the corporate world have either passed into history, or are carried out in collusion with a state. The former are historical because the resulting publicity and public disenchantment with direct coercive action by business is damaging to their image-i.e. When the public sees a car manufacturer's hirelings shooting strikers they retaliate with their wallets. The plentiful examples of multinational and corporate abuse today exist where a corporation has enlisted the state to do the dirty work it could not do itself. Whether it is tribal people in Guatemala murdered to pursue World Bank supported dam projects, or viable communities and dwindling countryside compulsorily purchased for dubious road-building projects, it is the state with its soldiers and police who are always there to do the dirty work. The fact that two men in a garage successfully challenged the all-powerful giant, IBM, who monopolized the world computing market, speaks volumes about the vulnerability of a corporate Goliath to the power of unfettered creative competition.

We are all aware of the depths to which businesses (and people on their own) will sink in the quest for wealth, and often have personal experience of lies, deceptions and dishonouring of promises. When this has happened, when we finally recognize the deception of a business or colleague, whether in advertising or employment promises, we are in a position to stop buying the product or quit the job. However severe the disruption and inconvenience of doing this, we do not go to jail for our actions - our desire for freedom does not result in the loss of our freedom.

Can we really hope that the state, disconnected from the feedback loop of our society, is going to somehow make big business safer and more ethical, when we regularly witness the state exceeding the corruption of business, and often aiding and abetting its worst abuses? In the dangerous combination of big business and the state, it is the agent of the state that usually creates or officially condones the damage. Only we can protect ourselves from the dangers posed by the growth of big corporations, and the sooner we empower ourselves with this awareness the better. Because they cannot force the money from our pockets we - as their customers - have more ultimate control of their activities than does their own boardroom or the state. And in most matters of life we are able to exercise this control invisibly without the need to attend board meetings, consider too many issues or tick from limited selections in different boxes.

Disclaimer: Do not be swayed by the above propaganda. All businesses are run by evil twisted people who would sell off their grandmother if the price was right. Everything on sale anywhere is a rip-off, and you should really be making all your own stuff, from pencils to bicycles, drugs to camera film. Only then can you escape the evils of capitalism.

- end chapter -
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From the book "Uncommon Sense - The State is Out of Date"
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