It started with something a friend of mine said recently. A group of us were ragging on corporations, and someone commented about something vile a corporation recently did, and the friend quipped, “It’s almost like corporations were made up of people.” The subtext to his sarcasm was to imply that it’s silly to discuss corporations as if they’re some separate entity from humanity because, after all, corporations are made up of people and, evidently, will only do the same good and ill that humans do.
Unfortunately, despite what the conservative-leaning Supreme Court thinks (vis-à-vis “Citizens United v FEC”), corporations aren’t people. They are a collection of people, that, like any collection of people, make a gestalt that is very different than the sum of its parts. To claim to not be able to analyze and critique (and judge ethically) corporations as a separate thing because they’re made of people, is utterly meaningless. By that rationale, nothing could be said about anything within the realm of human culture and creation because, after all, it’s all made by, or made up of, people. Like all forms of human culture and its production, corporations can — and should — be analyzed and critiqued as a concept that acts separate and apart from humanity in general. Why?
Think of it this way: Would you walk into a library and find a literary book club in progress and expect it to behave and have the save motives and agenda as, say, the group of Ultimate Wrestling fans that show up regularly at the local sports bar? Or how about the local Baptist Bible study group versus the local Society for Creative Anachronism group? They’re all made of people, yes? But any group of people with a shared goal, or interest, is going to A. be very similar to other groups that have the same goals and interests; and B. be very different from groups with different goals and interests. Similar groups will be similar enough that you can usually talk about that kind of group using generalities, and different groups can be different enough to be able to critique them as altogether different entities. This sounds silly and obvious when stated like that, but it’s the ridiculously obvious reason corporations lend themselves to separate and justified deconstruction and critique apart from the motivations and behaviors of people in general.
One of the reasons should be obvious: self-selection. Particular type of people with particular types of demeanors, attitudes, outlooks, ideologies, will choose to associate themselves with others of similar types, under the banner of a shared goal or interest. You will find particular types of people at a book club and different particular types at the sports bar. Oh, sure, there will be cross-over. The occasional mixed-martial-art fan may also be a Jane Eyre fan, and the occasional Nicholas Sparks fan will be seen at the sports bar. But the exceptions point up the rule.
And so too with corporations. Particular types of people seek and earn MBAs and become stock traders and managers and accountants and whatnot who gravitate toward the corporate culture. And the larger, the more multi-national the corporation, the more the individual dissolves and melds into the background of the homogeneous culture of the corporation. Those who don’t fit in or are different than the corporate culture demands, either self-select to leave the culture, or get pushed out for not fitting in — not being a “team player.” And so the corporate culture self-reinforces and insulates itself even more in order to achieve its goals and realize its agenda.
And what is the corporation’s goals and agenda? All groups, organizations, have goals and agendas. The book club, the Bible study, the sports cub, the football team, the knitting circle, the SCA group, the anti-vaccination group, the local skeptics’ club, the Young Democrats, the Future Business Leaders of America… all groups that have come together for a shared interest have an overarching goal. And what is the corporation’s? Profit, pure and simple. Profit by means of selling a product or service to as close to 100% of the market share as possible, and by any means it can get away with. In fact, legally, a corporation can’t make operating decisions that would knowingly deprive the shareholders from making money. As observed by Robert Hinkley in “Redesigning Corporate Law,”
“Distilled to its essence, [the law] says that the people who run corporations have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to make money. Failing this duty can leave directors and officers open to being sued by shareholders. This explains why corporations find social issues such as humanrights irrelevant – because they fall outside the corporation’s legal mandate. Secondly, these provisions explain why executives behave differently than they might as individual citizens, because the law says their only obligation in business is to make money.“
Well, you can’t make it more plain than that. Corporations exist to make money; and civil liberties, human rights, decency, laws, are all obstacles that must be worked around and, wherever possible, ignored and broken, in order to reach its goal.
A corporation, because of its self-selection and its over-aching goal that all members of the corporation buy into, makes the corporation act as something individualized and apart from humanity. In a way, a corporation is like a person — a sociopath. An amoral being without empathy or remorse, single-minded and manipulative, and dangerous. Capable and willing to do any harm necessary if it means getting what it wants.
In society, when an individual sociopathic human does harm, we punish them. We take them out of society. When a corporation does harm, what happens? The corporation may get fined, it may get sued. But as the link above explains, that’s just a cost of doing business. The corporation will likely continue on without a hitch, especially if it’s a multi-national where its finances are in the Cayman Islands, its management is in Dubai, and its production is in China. Some CEO or manager may become the face of “the problem,” get slapped on the wrist, leave the company — but the company persists as juggernaut. (And the CEO likely will be just fine as well, don’t you worry. Most corporate CEOs and managers sit on the board of directors of other corporations in an incestual game of musical chairs. Boards that hire on a new CEO from another corporation who leads the company for a while, makes several million, gets a few million more as a severance package even if he does a poor job, where he’ll move on to oversee the hiring of a CEO in another company he helps run.)
Oh, and by the way, most of the people on top, the CEOs and managers and directors of the board, aren’t generally people who started out at a community college and worked full time and took classes until they Made It. No, that group at the top, who shuffle around the companies and hand each other favors, are the type of people satirized in this “Note of Appreciation from the Rich.” So when the top of the corporate structure is led by these hereditary, dynastic, feudal lords, and the bottom 95% is constructed of those who strive to be like those at the top — you get a very particular type of culture.
Corporations are, in general, evil in the same way a psychopath is evil. (In fact, it’s estimated that an inordinate amount of corporate leaders are, in fact, sociopaths and psychopaths. Why? Again: self-selected culture.) So, like all and any construct of human creation, the corporation is something that has its own agenda, goals, motivations, effects, and sub-culture, which is perfectly open to deconstruction and ethical judgement.