In the last few days, we’ve been talking about the differences between Left and Right, and the great chasm that exists between. One strategy proposed for a rapprochement was to look at the assumptions of the two groups, that they might cultivate a clearer idea of the one another.
In todays post, I want to examine an artifact from the Left that help illuminates one of its characteristic point of view. Lets consider the recent documentary called The Corporation.
It was customary in another time to speak of the kings ‘two bodies. One of these was the actual, corporeal form of the monarch, his Body natural. The other was his “Body politic, consisting of “Policy and Government. A literal rendering of this notion appears in the frontispiece of Hobbes Leviathan which shows the ruler in his Body politic, a monarch made up of the many bodies of his subjects.
This notion that an organization is a kind of body comes down to us in the present day in the term “corporation. The Coca-Cola Company, Proctor and Gamble, IBM, these are bodies, too.
Mark Achbar and his colleagues had the nutty, but original idea of taking this notion one step further. If the corporation is an entity in its own right, a body fashioned from the bodies, ideas, Policy and Government in which it consists, we may see it as a person. (This is the monarch re-membered, as it were.) And if the corporation is a person, might it not be judged as a person? Achbar and his crew decided to assess the corporation according to the diagnostic supplied by the World Health Organization and the Manual of Mental Disorders.
To more precisely assess the “personality” of the corporate “person,” a checklist is employed, using actual diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social “personality: It is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism. Four case studies, drawn from a universe of corporate activity, clearly demonstrate harm to workers, human health, animals and the biosphere. Concluding this point-by-point analysis, a disturbing diagnosis is delivered: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a “psychopath.
This undertaking demonstrates several of the characteristics of the Left. It shows an imagination and intellectual agility. Whatever we might think about the outcome, as a thought experiment, this is kind of fun.
It also shows, I think, a kind of desperation. Here is the Left in its characteristic search to find some way to bring capitalism under control.
In the 1950s, American intellectuals rose up to declare suburbs bankrupt, TV a waste land, and commercial culture an abomination. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit came under particular attack for his moral failings. In this view, post-war prosperity was a trick. Corporate man lived a lie.
A couple of decades later, a death certificate for “the subject” was issued by leading European intellectuals. The certificate, written in haste and triumph, reads something like this:
place of death: Paris
time of death: 1972
attending physicians: Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan
This was a patent challenge to the notion of individualism on which capitalism depends. The Smithian view of the marketplace depends on rational individuals engaged in acts of exchange. Vaporize the individual, and we vaporize the great presupposition on which the state depends. Corporate man was a fiction.
Several decades later, the ecological movement declared corporations the villain of the piece. A fragile, blue planet was now being “raped for profit. Corporate man was a sexual criminal.
Achbars latest foray suggests a new, more dramatic undertaking. With the help of the DSM-IV, Corporate man (make that Man) was a psychopath.
This vilification of the corporation and its occupants is, of course, at odds with the more conventional view of the corporation. According to this view, corporations are extraordinary creatures, capable of things that states and their governments cannot do. Indeed some would say that as corporations become Complex Adaptive Systems they are the only creatures capable of contending with the new dynamism of the world. (Fed Ex would be merely one case in point. Dell, another.) In sum, the Right and the center are now inclined to look on the corporation as one of the instruments that helps make a difficult world a manageable place.
There is a deep difference here that needs examining. Please forgive my impatient treatment of the position of the Left. (Please also forgive my supposing that Achbar speaks for everyone of the Left.) My sympathies are clear.
But I think this treatment does help to clarify how deep are the differences between us and how much we have to do.
Kantoriowicz, Ernst Hartwig. 1957. The king’s two bodies : a study in mediaeval political theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Website for The Corporation here.