Large transnational corporations are clearly the dominant institution of our time. They're preeminent throughout the world but especially in the Global North and its epicenter in the US. They control or greatly influence what we eat and drink, where we live, what we wear, how we get most of our essential services like health care and even what we're taught in schools up to the highest levels. They create and control our sources of information and greatly influence how we think and our view of the world and them. They even now own patents on our genetic code, the most basic elements of human life, and are likely planning to manipulate and control them as just another commodity to exploit for profit in their brave new world that should concern everyone. They also carefully craft their image and use catchy slogans to convince us of their benefit to society and the world, like: "better things for better living through chemistry" (if you don't mind toxic air, water and soil), "we bring good things to life" (for them, not us), and "all the news that's fit to print" (only if you love state and corporate friendly disinformation and propaganda). The slogans are clever, but the truth is ugly.
Corporations also decide who will govern and how. We may think we do, but it's not so and never was. Those national elections, especially the last two, only looked legitimate to most people, but not to those who know and understand how the system works. Here's how it really works. The "power elite" or privileged class C. Wright Mills wrote about 50 years ago in his classic book by that title are the real king and decision makers. He wrote how corporate, government and military elites formed a trinity of power after WW II and that the "power elite" were those "who decide whatever is decided" of importance. The holy trinity Mills wrote about still exists but today in the shape of a triangle with the transnational giants clearly on top and government, the military and all other institutions of importance there to serve their interests. These corporations have become so large and dominant they run our lives and the world, and in a zero sum world and the chips that count most in their stack, they do it for their continuing gain and at our increasing expense. Something is way out of whack, and in this essay I'll try to explain what it is and why we better understand it.
The Power of Transnational Corporations and the Harm They Cause
The central thesis of this essay is that giant transnational corporations today have become so dominant they now control our lives and the world, and they exploit both fully and ruthlessly. While they claim to be serving us and bringing us the fruits of the so-called "free market," in fact, they just use us for their gain. They've deceived us and highjacked the government to serve them as subservient proxies in their unending pursuit to dominate the world's markets, resources, cheap labor abroad and our own right here. And they've done it much like what happens in the marketplace when a predator company attempts to take control of another one that prefers to remain independent. They launch a hostile takeover, going around or over the heads of the target's management, their employees and the communities they operate in. They go right to the target's shareholders and promise them a better deal, meaning a premium price on the stock they hold.
They do this, as in a friendly merger, for a variety of financial and strategic reasons, but essentially it's to achieve any possible immediate gain as well as over the longer term greater market dominance that will build future profits. But what happens in the wake of a takeover. Assets get stripped, spun-off and/or sold-off. Plants are closed. Jobs are lost. And all this is done for the primary bottom line goal - "the bottom line," higher profits, whatever the cost to people, communities or society.
For now all that matters is today, the next quarter's earnings and keeping the stockholders and Wall Street happy. They only understand numbers on financial statements and are blind, unconcerned and even hostile to human and societal welfare or a safe environment that will protect and sustain all life forms. They call it "free market capitalism." It's really the law of the jungle. They're the predators, we're the prey, and every day they eat us alive.
Does all this make sense? And do corporate chieftains who live in a community, love their wives and children, contribute to charities, attend church and believe in its teachings really go to work every day and think - "who and what can I exploit today?" They sure do because they have no other choice. No more so than breathing in and breathing out.
How the Law Affects Corporate Behavior
Publicly owned corporations are mandated by law to serve only the interests of their shareholders and do it by working to maximize the value of their equity holdings by increasing profits. That's it. Case closed. Think of these businesses as gated communities of owners (large and small), the welfare of whom is all that matters and the world outside the gates is to be used and exploited for that one purpose only. Forget about any social responsibility or safeguarding the environment. The idea is to grow sales, keep costs low, increase profits, and if you do it well, shareholder value will rise, the owners and Wall Street will be happy, and you as a CEO or senior executive will probably get a raise, good bonus and keep your job. Try being worker-friendly, a nice guy, a good citizen or a friend of the earth and fail to achieve the above objectives and you'll likely face dismissal and even possible shareholder lawsuit for not pursuing your fiduciary responsibility. Anyone choosing this line of work has no other choice. To do the job well, you have to think only of the care and feeding of your shareholders and the investment community, ignore the law if that's what it takes to do it, and obey the only law that counts - the one that helps you grow the "bottom line."
There's nothing in the Constitution, which is public law, that gives corporations the rights they've gotten. It never mattered to them. They just crafted their own private law, piece by piece, over many years with the help of corporate-friendly lawyers, legislators and the courts. And today it's easier than ever with both major parties strongly pro-business and the courts stacked with business-friendly judges ready to do their bidding. The result is big business is now the paymaster, or puppetmaster, with government and the halls of justice their faithful servants. There's no government of, for and by the people, no public sovereignty, no democratic rights or any choices but to accept their authority and bow to their will. It's a democracy for the few alone - the privileged elite. Our only choice is to go along to get along or get out of their way.
In December, 2000 The Institute for Policy Studies released a report called "The Rise of Corporate Global Power." It was a profile of the 200 largest transnationals that showed just how dominant they are. A summary of their findings is listed below.
1. Of the world's 100 largest economies, 51 are corporations.