Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Invisible Corporate Shadow

by David Cromwell

ZNet Commentary (October 06 2006)

The Australian social scientist Alex Carey summed up the evolution of political power in the last century as follows:

"The twentieth century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy." {1}

The power of the state has also grown, a major factor in facilitating the rise of corporate dominance. As we have noted before in our media alerts, the projection of the West's military might around the globe is undertaken for profit and control. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it bluntly:

"The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." {2}

Little wonder that America's leading social philosopher, John Dewey, described politics as "the shadow cast on society by big business".

In their documentary, The Corporation, Canadian film-makers Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan note that corporations are legally and structurally bound to pursue profits at any cost:

"Self-interested, amoral, callous and deceitful, a corporation's operational principles make it anti-social. It breaches social and legal standards to get its way even while it mimics the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism. It suffers no guilt. Diagnosis: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a psychopath." {3}

A new report by the Oxford-based Corporate Watch casts a critical eye on the corporation as an entity with powerful and malign impacts on society. Activist Claire Fauset rightly describes the propaganda tool of "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) as:

"an effective strategy for: bolstering a company's public image; avoiding regulation; gaining legitimacy and access to markets and decision makers; and shifting the ground towards privatisation of public functions. CSR enables business to propose ineffective, voluntary, market-based solutions to social and environmental crises under guise of being responsible. This deflects blame for problems caused by corporate operations away from the company, and protects companies' interests while hampering efforts to tackle the root causes of social and environmental injustice." {4}

The notion of "corporate social responsibility" - endlessly promoted by big business, news media and even green groups - is a dangerous myth. But there are plenty of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are actively involved in partnerships with corporations. One recent example is the Aldersgate group, which has coalesced around the issue of climate. Amazingly, the group sees the Green Alliance and even Friends of the Earth sitting cosily alongside business giants Tesco, Shell, Vodafone, Unilever and BAA. {5}

Corporate Watch asks: "Why are NGOs getting involved in these partnerships?" One important factor is "follow the leader":

"For many NGOs, the debate on whether or not to engage with companies is already over. The attitude is 'all the major NGOs engage with companies so why shouldn't we?' While in many organisations internal debate continues, there is a sense that, right or wrong, engagement is the current tack so there is little point in questioning it". {6}

Sadly, NGOs rarely address the fundamentally destructive nature of corporations. In January 2002, we wrote to Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace UK. We recognised Greenpeace's excellent campaigning and research but suggested there was a gaping hole at the heart of its work:

"... let us see Greenpeace (and other pressure groups) doing more to oppose, not so much what corporations +do+, but what they +are+; namely, undemocratic centralised institutions wielding illegitimate power". {7}

Missing the point, Tindale replied:

"We will continue to confront corporations where necessary - as in our current campaign to force ExxonMobil to change its stance on climate change. Since we have taken on the most profitable corporation in the world we cannot be accused of ducking conflict with corporations. But we are an environmental group, not an anti-corporate group. We will therefore work with companies when we can do so to promote our campaign goals. But we will do so on the basis of complete financial independence." {8}

But we weren't asking Greenpeace about its financial independence from corporations or whether it was willing to "confront" them. The reality is that Greenpeace and other NGOs largely accept the ideological premise that corporations can be persuaded to act benignly. To question that premise - never mind to point out the illegitimate power and inherent destructive nature of the corporation - is anathema for most pressure groups.

A Classic Liberal Herring: 'Good People Work For Corporations, Too'

We have already seen that major environmental and social justice groups, and even the Green Party, almost wholly overlook the corporate nature of the news media {9}. Such groups appear unmoved by rational analysis, backed by evidence aplenty, indicating that corporate media filter out any serious challenges that such groups might ever make. Once again, the corporation - as an entity with immense undemocratic power, whether in the media industry or elsewhere in the global economy - is simply accepted as an immutable fact of the universe.

Likewise, mainstream journalists do sometimes raise questions about corporate behaviour but only within the constraints set, for example, by the media's huge dependence on corporate advertising revenue {10}. Bad corporate practice might be fair game, but not the psychopathic nature of the corporation. This blindness afflicts even those journalists we are supposed to regard as champions in the fight for climate protection: the environment editors.

On September 4 we emailed John Vidal, veteran environment editor at the Guardian:

"Earlier this year, one of our readers challenged you about your article 'Big water companies quit poor countries' (The Guardian, March 22 2006). You were asked:

"Why do you assert as fact that the multinationals 'intended to end the cycle of drought and death'. They exist to maximize profits, not public health." {11}

"In your email response you wrote:

"'... do not underestimate the essential humanity of the people who work for them [the corporations]. I'm always amazed at how within the body corporate, there are people at all levels, who do feel and act responsibly with the best of intentiosn [sic]. I have had long, long talks with several water companies at all levels and some are clearly better/worse than others. Equally, there are some small (water) companies who are rigfhty [sic] bastards and will sell their grandmothers. Size seems to have nothing to do with morality etc '" {12}

We suggested to Vidal that was a classic example of what we've called a "liberal herring" (that is, a red herring deployed by journalists in the liberal media); it misses the structural determinism of the corporate system.

Canadian law professor Joel Bakan explains that the entity known as a "corporation" was legally transformed into a "person", possessing its "own identity, separate from the flesh and blood people who were its owners and managers". If one examines corporate behaviour, as Bakan did, it clearly matches the clinical definition of a psychopath.

As Noam Chomsky said in an interview:

"When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual. So slavery, for example, or other forms of tyranny, are inherently monstrous. But the individuals participating in them may be the nicest guys you can imagine - benevolent, friendly, nice to their children, even nice to their slaves, caring about other people. I mean as individuals they may be anything. In their institutional role, they're monsters, because the institution's monstrous. And the same is true here." {13}

Using the Lexis-Nexis database, we have conducted an extensive newspaper search of John Vidal's articles in the Guardian since 2003. To date, he has never mentioned Joel Bakan, his 2004 book The Corporation {14} (or the 2003 film of the same name), or seriously addressed the evidence that "corporate social responsibility" is an oxymoron and that corporate behaviour is essentially psychopathic. We asked Vidal:

"What reason(s) do you have for not addressing such important arguments in your journalism? Surely these are crucial points in reporting the potentially terminal fate that faces us in this age of climate chaos?" {15}

We have received no response.

We sent a similar email to the Guardian's economics editor, Larry Elliott. We welcomed one of his articles which had been about Sir David King, chief government scientist, sounding the "death knell" for "economic growth". Elliott had written:

"The argument that business would not be able to cope with curbs on greenhouse gases is a fallacy; the longevity of capitalism is due almost entirely to its ability to adapt to any regime. What business lacks now is a clear steer; it has the expertise." {16}

We challenged Elliott:

"This suggests that corporations, indeed global capitalism, will be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Can you point to any of your articles that question this ideological framework?"

In an earlier article, Elliott had written:

"Corporate social responsibility is an optional extra in many cases, seen as desirable until it affects the bottom line". {17}

The Guardian's economics editor sees "corporate social responsibility", at worst, as an "optional extra", rather than as an insidious falsehood.

A newspaper database search indicates that Elliott has never mentioned Joel Bakan, The Corporation, or exposed "corporate social responsibility" as propaganda. Nor has he reported that corporate behaviour is essentially psychopathic, and that this may well have terminal consequences for humanity and millions of other species on this planet.

We asked Elliott:

"What reason(s) do you have for not addressing such important arguments in your journalism?" {18}

Again, we received no response.

The pattern at other papers is similar, notwithstanding some glimpses of scepticism here and there - such as in the Independent on Sunday, courtesy of Abigail Townsend. In an article on "CSR" earlier this year, Townsend wrote:

"All companies want a bigger market share and bigger profits, it's what they do - and they will push the limits of what's acceptable to achieve it. And therein lies the problem whenever companies start talking about corporate social responsibility: there's too big a whiff of empty spin about it." {19}

This scepticism is welcome. But, again, an endemic problem is no more than a "whiff of empty spin" to the nose of yet another corporate newshound.

In a recent article focusing on BP's ongoing problems, Townsend again showed the limits of acceptable analysis in the mainstream:

"People want environmentally aware, socially responsible companies ... So business adapts - or at least it almost does ... Politicians are the only ones who can bring about change. And when the G8 leaders can't even ensure that their own carbon-offsetting scheme gets off the ground, it doesn't bode well for the rest of us. So, spin or not, companies are to be applauded for at least moving in the right direction." {20}

And once again, a newspaper database search indicates that Townsend has never mentioned Joel Bakan, the book or film The Corporation, or dismissed "corporate social responsibility" as a lethal falsehood (not merely "spin"), or addressed the argument that corporate behaviour is psychopathic. The same applies to the journalism of Jeremy Warner, business editor at The Independent. Our email to Warner on September 4 has also not been answered.

Outside of a tiny handful of television listings, film and book reviews, mention of the inherently destructive and illegitimate system of corporate power has been entirely overlooked by the corporate press in the UK. This should surprise nobody who values rational analysis. But once again, the costs of such media silence are enormous.


{1} Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (University of Illinois Press, 1995), page ix

{2} Quoted from John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (Verso, 2001), page 114)


{4} Quoted from Corporate Watch, 'What's Wrong with Corporate Social Responsibility?', page 2, 2006

{5} Larry Elliott, "Blue chips see the green light", The Guardian (June 12 2006)

{6} Corporate Watch, op cit, page 23

{7} Email from David Cromwell (January 17 2002)

{8} Email to David Cromwell (January 28 2002

{9} See 'Silence is Green' (February 03 2005)

{10} See 'Beyond Propaganda' (September 05 2006)

{11} Email forwarded to Media Lens (March 22 2006)

{12} John Vidal, replying to a Media Lens reader (March 22 2006)

{13} Noam Chomsky interviewed in Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, The Corporation

{14} The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Free Press, 2004)

{15} Email from David Cromwell (September 04 2006)

{16} Elliott, 'Winds of climate change are about to make their impact felt in many a boardroom: Top science adviser sounds death knell for theory that insists growth is good', The Guardian (February 06 2006)

{17} Elliott, 'Analyse this: corporate culture is in a midlife crisis', The Guardian (March 31 2003)

{18} Email (September 07 2006)

{19} Townsend, 'So companies should be nicer', Independent on Sunday (June 18 2006)

{20} Townsend, 'Rust in the pipes is corroding BP's shiny reputation', Independent on Sunday (August 13 2006)


David Cromwell is co-author with David Edwards of Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media (Pluto Books, 2006). For further details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here:

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home