Monday, February 20, 2006

Global Corporatism: The Human Being As A Statistic


In 1962, American journalist Eugene Lyons, author of the 1937 nonfiction classic Assignment in Utopia, gave a lecture about what turned him from a pro-Leninist radical in 1928, when he took a news job in the Soviet Union, into the conservative, fiercely anti-communist Reader's Digest editor he became years later.

"It was ... the appalling contempt for human life which I found to be the hallmark of communism in practice. For I found myself in a world where such age-old concepts as justice, conscience, human dignity, the values that set man apart from the beasts, were despised as a species of treason. ...

"Do men and women have an intrinsic worth, or are they merely the raw stuff for building some dehumanized state structure? Is the human being the final measure of all things, or merely a statistic?"

Two generations have passed since Lyons gave that talk, and the Soviet empire has been, as conservatives say, "on the ashheap of history," for going on two decades.

A great irony is how true this sounds for 2006 if one substitutes "global capitalism" for "communism" and "corporate structure" for "state structure." Communism is all but dead; yet, in our new world economy, dehumanization seems very much alive and on the march. The biggest difference is that the perpetrators' flag isn't red.

Lyons died in 1985, so he didn't even see glasnost, let alone the self-destruction of Marxism-Leninism. It would be interesting if he could ask the former employees of Enron how they have enjoyed becoming destitute statistics, or former call-center staffers how much human dignity they were afforded when their jobs were offshored.

True, we don't have gulags. There are no party purges, at least none in which anybody dies very soon. People don't vanish in the middle of the night (although their jobs often disappear in the middle of the day). But there are slow, subtle ways of killing people. Michael Moore has vividly illustrated, in his examinations of the effects of General Motors' style of capitalism on his hometown of Flint, Michigan, that when a corporation discards much of its workforce for the sake of profits: "Crime goes up, suicide goes up, drug abuse, alcoholism, spousal abuse, divorce, everything bad spirals up."

Stalinism and Maoism kill the body. Global corporatism is destroying our spirits -- and our bodies often follow.

This isn't just happening in the West. China is still nominally pseudo-communist, having retained their police state while instituting "free-market reforms" and turning a blind eye to sweatshops.

And there, an interesting thing is happening to migrant laborers who work at construction sites. Quite often, they're not paid. At all. Zilch. Nada. After weeks, even months, on a job, being furnished a bare subsistence of rice and bunks, the contractor says he didn't get paid, so he can't pay them. If the workers threaten to go to the authorities, the contractor laughs and says he's not afraid. The practice is reported to have become rampant.

You see, where global capitalism goes, plutocracy and official corruption tend to follow. When maximizing profits becomes the paramount motive, it's not hard to buy off the powers that be, even if they happen to be Party members.

According to statistics, a certain number of these cheated, broke, discarded workers are being systematically killed, as surely as if they had been shipped to a Siberian gulag to toil their way to the miserable death of slave laborers.

We ought to know from the experience of the 20th century that, with sufficient regulation, trust-busting, rights of collective bargaining, and (gasp!) social welfare programs, an economic system can be primarily capitalist and yet relatively humane and, even with a few semi-socialist restraints, prosperous. To wit: the Scandinavian nations.

But this seems to depend on a vigilant progressive movement. Pure, unbridled capitalism has a sad tendency to revert to its 19th-century Dickensian outrages. Now, with 21st-century technology at its disposal, that is far a more dangerous tendency. A strong progressive movement is needed to remind capitalists that they should be morally accountable to all human beings, not just to the board and a faceless mass of stockholders.

Of course, capitalists will never be sincere about that -- but when they are faced with enough populist political will, that isn't necessary. They can move, and they have moved, many jobs to Mexico, etc. But when they find out what schools and roads are like in such a low-tax economy, their tune can change quickly, at least for some of their employees. The going is tough right now, but there are ways to fight back. And, in the long run, we must.

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the battle lines seemed clearly drawn to people like Eugene Lyons, who never understood that "capitalism versus socialism" doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. As it has turned out, right-wing renegades like Lyons, who moved from one extreme to the other, helped usher in the unchallenged corporate monolith that now confronts us.

A new battle is under way -- and humanity can't afford to lose it.



Anonymous said...

Under our system, the author says people aren't killed outright.
Tell that to Karen Silkwood.
For that matter, people DO vanish in this country if they are perceived as some sort of threat to the system. I knew a labor organizer in Florida who vanished. At any given time in this country, some three million people are missing. What do you want to bet that at least some of those people were individuals such as labor leaders, radicals, progressives, and others who were purged because they posed a threat to the system.

Anonymous said...

Hi -- although I signed in anonymously, this is Manifesto Joe, responding to the previous poster. Yeah, I know about the Silkwood case, and I suspect there are many others like it. People here are indeed killed now and then because of political or economic dissent. But that's more the exception than the rule as it has been seen in openly totalitarian countries. Here and in many other countries, as authors like Noam Chomsky have pointed out, the authorities don't need to play that kind of hardball. They can just do the kind of thing they've done to Chomsky for decades -- keep him on the margins, generally out of mainstream media, paint him as a fanatic and a lunatic, etc. That's how they prefer to work, and they've got the means to do it. They're not above the other way, but it's so messy. Anyway, good point. Thanks for reading Marc's blog, to which I am happy to be a contributor. I just hope they don't come after him in the middle of the night sometime!

Anonymous said...

I never have agreed with the idea that the Soviet Union equaled communism, so if the Soviet Union is defunct, then this means "communism is dead." Some of us don't believe that the Soviet Union was ever really communist. In any case, Marx has still been vindicated, time after time, in his ideas, such as his description of the ongoing struggle between the classes, which clearly continues today.

Anonymous said...

I noticed this article takes a swipe at China for it's sweatshops. However, let's remember that corporate America uses U.S. prison labor---just like the Chinese do. Also, there are many sweatshops in the U.S. (NYC alone has a huge number). I don't see our government doing anything about it. I'm not defending China; I'm just saying that the U.S. has its own problems.

Anonymous said...

Today's multinational corporations are the real power-holders. Their allies in global organizations like the WTO wield vast clout and can (and often do) overrule laws passed by democratically elected representatives of the people. By contrast, the likes of the WTO aren't elected and operate in strict secrecy.

Anonymous said...

I think the recent Chinese "brickmaker's" being Shaghai'd as it were is a bit more drastic than employing prison labor if that labor were humane (which it isn't). The prisoners are already emprisoned, so humane use of their labor for the Common Good could be quite respectable if done right. --- nothing philosophically morbid about prison labor.

Cool Hand Luke need not, but does, happen.

Anonymous said...

Marx will go down as one of the greatest fools in history turning the "classes" against each other when they need each other to survive when they could accomplish so much working together communists try to spread wealth equally but only spread suffering while capitalists eccept the fact that there will be suffering and try to minimize it you complain that corperations put profits ahead of people but in truth they do what it takes to survive if the didnt care about profits they would have less money and wouldn't be able to invest in and improve themselves they would be outcompeted and and everyone would loose their jobs so in truth they putting the whole ahead of the parts ps stopping drinking the communist cool aid