Corporations ARE the problem as the common institutional form of late capitalism, the social system that is the real root of poverty and inequality. Corporations are (temporarily) immortal, often unaccountable to national laws, brazenly criminal, murderous, and have only one purpose: to accumulate capital. They are not, and cannot be, moral actors in society. Even if the most pious, ascetic monks were put in charge of large corporations, the fiduciary responsibility of corporate leaders is to ensure the growth of profits and wealth for the stockholders or private owners. Corporations are not formed to do anything useful or beneficial to humans (except as an accidental byproduct), nor other species, nor the planet as a whole, unless (and only if) the activity produces profits. Corporate leaders can be personally very greedy or completely indifferent to personal wealth. It does not matter. If they don’t show steadily increasing “growth” (accumulating capital) they will be replaced by the next interchangeable “captain of industry.”
Occupy Wall Street and related demonstrations around the country are a welcome breath of fresh contestation. The space opened up in the occupations is prefigurative of new ways of doing politics, and has an incalculable value in radically reconfiguring popular imagination. We should all be grateful to the hardy souls who embarked on this quixotic effort, and do what we can to support them.
Of course there is an gaping ethics deficit in our culture. But this open-ended, exciting political moment will slip away quickly if we frame it in terms of populist moralism. This is not about good and evil. To blame executives or the Frankenstein monster we call corporations for their supposed “greed” is to reduce a systemic critique into easy political demands that confirm the basic rules of the game. Clamoring for corporations to pay a “fair share” concedes far too much from the beginning. Why should corporations and their owners be allowed to control such an overwhelming share of the wealth we’ve all produced together over generations? Their very existence is the problem. And let’s not forget that their power at home and across the planet is enforced at gunpoint whenever “necessary.” Protests focused on banks and bankers overlook the vast wealth spent on the U.S. military empire. Our new movement should keep its sights on ending the wars, withdrawing U.S. troops from the 120-odd countries where they are garrisoned, and dramatically reducing the military and secret police budgets to 10% or less of their current levels, too.
If the Occupy Wall Street movements embody something more than the most tepid liberal demands for mean people to be nice, and untrammeled power to “play fair,” we’ll have to keep our focus on the deeper logic we’re up against. We 99% could get up tomorrow and decide to make a very different daily life than the impoverished mess we’re living now. In fact, OUR cooperation is the key to THEIR power. We work and shop in this society, the basic activities by which we reproduce THIS daily life together. Instead of democratically shaping our shared lives, deciding together how best to produce and make available a good life for EVERYONE, we are like old-fashioned cart-pulling horses, lashed by the 1% to pull who knows what, to who knows where, and who knows why? Clamoring for “jobs” leaves us weakly agreeing in advance to do what the 1% (those with capital) tell us to do.
Why shouldn’t the 99% democratically decide what work we do and how we do it? Let’s evaluate publicly and transparently how our work affects planetary ecology. And finally, let’s abolish the system that concentrates wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of everyone else. How shall we share the fruits of all our work? The most hopeful outcome of the prefigurative democracy finding its voice in the occupations is a revolutionary transformation of how we make life together everyday. Why accept anything less?