Corporate Oligarchs, Politics, and the Common Good

The TakeAway: Among other events, this week’s anniversaries of JFK’s inaugural speech and Citizens United call us to fight to elevate conscience over politics and capitalism.

This week juxtaposed statesman service and corporate dominion at a time when oligarchs increasingly control public life, requiring us to rise from our complacency over gains made on sustainable prosperity and justice.

First, the light: Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, in which he made his abiding call: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  On Tuesday Sargent Shriver, the epitome of this hope, died, at the age of 95. Shriver was Kennedy’s brother-in-law, one of the last of the New Frontier public servants who, as U2’s Bono wrote in the New York Times, “embodied service and transcended, so often, grave duty”.  As founding director of the Peace Corps and architect of the War on Poverty (which drew, in large measure, from Paul Ylvisaker’s Grey Areas project at the Ford Foundation), Shriver knew what many of us forget: that mirrors must be broken, that it’s better to look at the face of your neighbor than your own. And on Monday, we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and our pledge to uphold simple truths.

But on the other side, darkness looms: Today marks the first anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which turned JFK’s call on its head.  Rather than individuals sacrificing for American ideals, Citizens United sacrifices the political process for corporate ideals. In the context of economic oligarchy Citizens United bulldozes freedom, pluralism, and self-rule in ways that would spin these statesmen in their graves.  Meanwhile, mega-corporate power was on display across the continuum of darkness to light, affecting the circulation of ideas, images, and information—even bananas and baby food.

Here’s a rundown, across the gradient:

  • Really dark: Citizens United enables corporations and labor unions, as we wrote last October, to spend unlimited amounts of money on political ads directly from their treasuries, or through nonprofit groups and a new thing called Super PACS.  They can do this without complete or immediate disclosure, leaving voters in the dark as to who’s behind the message.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2010 business shoveled $1.3 billion to campaigns, of which $310 million went to nonprofit groups for so-called “outside spending”.  Organized labor spent $81 million.  Fifty-one Super PACs together spent $64.8 million at the federal level.  The result: pollution of the democratic process and erosion of public trust.
  • Charcoal dark: On Tuesday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved Comcast’s purchase of NBC, creating a behemoth that “reaches into virtually every corner of our media and digital landscapes and will affect every citizen in the land,” said Democratic Commissioner Michael J. Copps, the sole dissenting vote.  Meanwhile, yesterday, Verizon sued the FCC over net neutrality, despite the FCC’s compromise ruling made just before Christmas.  According to Politico, the lawsuit will be heard in the same court that last year struck down the FCC’s earlier attempt at enforcing net neutrality rules.  And the Republicans are fighting back: this week Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) argued against it, and introduced legislation, H.R. 96, seeking to strip the FCC’s power to regulate all Internet and “IP-enabled” services.  Finally, in a bombshell announcement made Thursday evening, Google changed its troika leadership, relegating longtime CEO Eric Schmidt to government and external relations, and restoring Larry Page, Google’s 38-year-old co-founder, to the corner office.  Motives aside, Google is hugely powerful and successful, and continues to grow beyond the search engine into clean tech, television, and other areas.
  • Getting lighter: Yesterday, Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, announced it was working with the Michelle Obama to promote healthier and more affordable food options at its stores.  The announcement builds upon Let’s Move!, the First Lady’s child obesity initiative.  Walmart’s move is a game-changer, blogged Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor and management guru.  “Wal-Mart’s unilateral decision to put its purchasing and communication power behind going green also shows that a single company using its unique clout can accelerate public action to reduce greenhouse gases and reverse climate change”  It’s an example, she said, ofprincipled action by a self-interested company. That is values-based capitalism at its best.”

The Walmart story challenges many to rethink their view of the company, and provides an example of where service and self-interest go hand-in-hand.  There are other examples, too, as the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement – which enjoys many names – continues to expand, making it easy to take comfort in the self-congratulatory echo chamber of sustainability practice.

But doing so often blinds CSR and sustainability advocates to the perils of politics and policy, to the darker side of economic enterprise—and limits shrewd assessment of the power of self-interest, individual and institutional.  Sustainability idealism is a good thing, but not if it fails to appraise and act upon the moral realities of our political life.  And nowadays, those realities are grim, indeed.

Sometimes new truth rides into history on the back of an error, the great public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote 67 years ago in his momentous book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. For Niebuhr, the “error” was the idea that economic life is autonomous and ought not to be placed under either moral or political control.  The self-regulating and self-balancing forces in economic life are not as strong as Adam Smith supposed.  The propagation of this era has caused great damage in modern life.”

The “children of light”, Niebuhr said, are those who mistakenly see themselves above the “self-interest” fray, whose idealism often fails to address the complexities of politics and justice, and who sometimes fall victim to hypocrisy and pretension.

This week was a vivid reminder of the need to bring the power impulse of politics and capitalism under the control of conscience.  In this way might the ebbing power of the “ask not” challenge be renewed.

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2 Responses to Corporate Oligarchs, Politics, and the Common Good

  1. Great post. I love your format with the takeaway. Check out The Corporate Court.

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