Advice to Democrats (and Republicans) VI

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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 today’s post, I want to examine an artifact from the Left that help illuminates one of its characteristic point of view. Let’s consider the recent documentary called The Corporation.

It was customary in another time to speak of the king’s ‘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.

Achbar’s 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.

12 thoughts on “Advice to Democrats (and Republicans) VI

  1. Independent George

    Here is my Grand Unified Theory of Left and Right (GUTLR – pronounced, GUT-lar!*):

    Commerce is to the left as sex is to the right.

    Obviously, this is a gross simplification, but bear with me for a moment.

    At the extremes, you have people who believe the activity is inherently sinful and to be abhorred.

    Moving a bit inwards from the fringe, you find those who accept the necessity of the activity, but think of it purely in functional terms (money useful only as a medium of exchange; sex meant only for procreation). Gaudy public displays (Cadillac Escallades or belt-like miniskirts), then become matters of morality, rather than mere taste – particularly when a person takes obvious pleasure in it.

    Then there are those who will admit to the pleasure aspect, but feel guilty about it (“I know Borders is bad for independent sellers, but I just couldn’t find what I wanted; I’m a corporate sell-out!”; “I can’t believe I slept with him on our third date; I’m a slut!”).

    As you approach the center, you find people who are quite comfortable with it, but that it’s also an inherently private matter. They don’t spend the Monday after a vacation telling everyone at the office about the wild monkey-sex they had in Tahiti, or about how they spent $10,000 on restaurants alone that week. They’re not ashamed, but whether by nature or by conditioning, neither are they inclined to flaunt it.

    Of course, by this model, libertarians suddenly become godless, amoral hedonists and Marxist gender-theorists become elitist, puritannical killjoys.

    * – the exclamation point is essential. Say it out loud: GUTLAR! As in, “By the hammer of Gutlar, they shall be avenged!!!”

  2. Independent George

    Of course, in a perhaps unintentionally revealing slip, I only described the negative side of the model – I never talked about how the people who enjoy the activity, find it intriniscally good, and actively seek out more. Maybe I’m less of a godless, amoral hedonist than I thought.

  3. SomeCallMeTim


    Given that you’ve entitled this post “Advice to Democrats,” I think it’s reasonable for people to believe that you are conflating the left and the Democrats. To the extent that the former is a subset of the latter, I think it’s actually a pretty small subset.

    The Democratic ideal changed in the ’90s. We saw big commercial growth, often in Blue areas (Rte. 128, the Bay Area, Austin), and a host of social statistics going in the right direction. Democrats, as much or more than Republicans, believe that economic growth is a (if not the) key to addressing societal ills.

    Accordingly, I think many Democrats are not anti-corporation so much as anti- a specific type of corporation. For example, I tend to think of companies like Google and Apple as liberal or Blue companies. I tend to think of companies like Ford as conservative or Red companies.

    Our problem with the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is that his company, for reasons that have nothing to do with earnings growth, forces him to wear the gray flannel suit. If there is a growth point to it, we’re all for corporate strictures. But, many of us think, there are rarely reasons for it except that the Big Boss’s old boss used to do things the same way. And that is strangely alienating – an imposition of an unnnecessary cost on the employee.

    And, if I haven’t said it before, you have a fascinating blog.

  4. Jason Ligon

    “Democrats, as much or more than Republicans, believe that economic growth is a (if not the) key to addressing societal ills.”

    If this is true, you have made me an optimist in one swell foop. Like folks such as Tyler Cowen over on, I find myself opposite the Donkey party because I perceive that the party as a whole is driven by the anti growthism of its leftmost part. I hear about Benedict Arnold corporations, I hear about the virtues of police force compared to ‘unaccountable corporate will’, and I hear policy after policy that will result in lower growth. Higher overall levels of taxation are anti growth. Policies that penalize investment, such as double dipping on dividend taxation, are harmful to investment, which is harmful to growth. Keynesian stimulation is always and forever about stimulating current demand, not future demand (‘we are all dead in the long run’, the man said).

    I very much fear Tim, that it is not folks like yourself that write the platform for the Democrats.

  5. Jack William Bell

    George said: “Of course, by this model, libertarians suddenly become godless, amoral hedonists and Marxist gender-theorists become elitist, puritannical killjoys.”

    Uh… You mean libertarians aren’t ‘godless, amoral hedonists’ and Marxist gender-theorists aren’t ‘elitist, puritannical killjoys’? I thought those were taken as given?

    (I am speaking as a ‘godless, amoral hedonist’, of course.)

  6. SomeCallMeTim


    I think there’s an Old Guard/New Guard fight going on in the Democratic Party (and I think the DLC, to its shame, is not sure which side it is supposed to be on). Bob Shrum, Inet rumor has it, was responsible for the failed populism message of Gore in ’00 and the failed populist rhetoric of Kerry ’04. Clinton, rumor has it, wanted a more moderate message from both.

    What’s interesting is that (it seems to me) many of the new “grassroots” Democratic activists are (again, it seems to me) substantially more moderate than the leaders of the Party. Krugman, for example, is really pretty moderate. Of the bloggers (particularly if you look at their writings from a couple years ago), Drum, Atrios, DeLong, and Josh Marshall are all pretty moderate. Dean was a popular choice because (a) he was against the war b/c it was stupid, not because he’s a pacifist, (b) b/c as a governor he was pretty moderate – more so than the Congressional candidates, and (c) his policy concerns (fiscal discipline, incremental healthcare reform) were pretty moderate.

    To the extent that there is a divide between moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans, its that we are less likely to believe in natural law arguments about property (but moderate Republicans don’t seem to really buy them either), and more likely to think that we should help those with less out – both b/c it makes them (and therefore the country) more productive, and because we think its just right to do so. But there really isn’t much difference at all. I, for example, would have preferrd GHWB to both GWB and Kerry.

  7. Gabriel Rossman


    You’re right to note that the corporation has a lot in common with the state. Bill Roy’s book “Socializing Capital” gives a very interesting account of how corporations went from being agents of the state to an entrenched private form. The short version of the story is that in the early 19th century, the government had several failed public works projects and it decided to let private capital give it a try.

  8. Ennis

    Funny — I’m watching THX 1138 now, and Lucas makes much a similar point in his director’s commentary (that is, that society of the 60s was insane and empty and consumeristic). When you consider how deepy Lucas’ visions have resonated with American society, it doesn’t seem like that critique is anti-american any more.

  9. amoeda

    But Grant, isn’t it obvious that corporations are both our best hope for large-scale socioeconomic progress and entities whose behaviour is often cruel and harmful? That’s why we need regulation, and why, contrary to Republican rhetoric, wanting to regulate corporations doesn’t mean one hates them. For example, I advocate substantially raising the Federal minimum miles-per-gallon required of cars and light trucks, not because I hate the automakers, but because I believe in their ability to innovate. I just think that in this case, market forces plus regulation will produce that innovation more efficiently than will market forces alone.

  10. Jason Ligon

    “…Drum, Atrios, DeLong, and Josh Marshall are all pretty moderate.”

    I think this may be true on any randomly selected day, but the election drove some people mad, it seems. Even as a Keynes skeptic, I still used to read guys like Krugman and DeLong as the ‘go to’ sources of reasonable Donkey economic policy. Both went totally insane as the election year progressed. As long as Bush did it, it was bad. Any unknown variable was a conspiracy or a lie. The least economically sound president in history was Bush due to his fiscal irresponsibility – so you all have an obligation to vote for Kerry? Drum and Yglesias seemed to keep their heads a little better.

    I’m sure the same happened on more right wing blogs. To be honest, I get my fill of ‘right’ material from predominantly libertarian sources, as that is where I am most ideologically comfy. I may, therefore, be assigning a more reasonable voice to the Elephants than would be the case if I were truly spending time reading Republican blogs.

  11. Scott McArthur

    Personally I think the attitude towards commerce is THE KEY to revive the electoral effectiveness of all left of centre parties.

    Once you set your rhetoric and vision as pro commerce your use of the state for a collective purpose has a greater chance of success.

    To my mind it is interesting that the CCF was never an anti-commerce party. Their platforms were designed to grow as well as spread wealth. I think this had to do with its rural heritage which was by definition practical in its objectives and approach. I think it was later, with the influx of foreign socialist ideas that the left in Canada degenerated. We can see this division today in the body of the NDP, with the provincial NDP in Manitoba and Sakatchewan being very practical and pro commerce and the Federal NDP being ideological and impractical. BC and Ontario are split, as Bob Rae found to his chagrin in 1995 when the unions turned on him.

    The irony here being that the National Left Wing in Canada, which would by definition stand against colonialism, has let foreign socialist ideology change its very character.

    Don’t even get me started on the Parti Quebecois.
    They take foreign intellectual idolitry to a whole other level. White Niggers of America, the nationalist hommage to Fritz Fanon can now only be seen as leftist comedy. Is there anything less ‘Canadian’ then the ideas of the Parti Quebecois? And I don’t mean that only as a federalist double entendre.

  12. Rob Hafernik

    The casting of corporations as evil is one of the things that turns me off most about the left. Corportations are required if you want to have any sort of large scale application of capital within a free society. You simply can’t create and run a large, complex, capital-intensive operation – like a steel mill – the way you create and run the “Things ‘N Stuff” store in a strip mall.

    Put another way: without corporations there would be no way to make the airplanes that fly anti-globalists to their protests.

    And who makes up corporations? People. Who makes up the government? People. Given that the same species is doing the work in both cases, it’s kinda silly to assume that one is inherently evil and the other inherently good.

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