“Surely by now there can be few here who still believe the purpose of government is to protect us from the destructive activities of corporations. At last most of us must understand that the opposite is true: that the primary purpose of government is to protect those who run the economy from the outrage of injured citizens.” – Derrick Jensen
We are endlessly reminded by today’s so-called conservatives and “pro-trade” liberals of the potential downsides of more intensive regulations on corporate power, of stronger labor unions, of stricter environmental protections, and of raising the minimum wage.
We are told that the above are all invitations for the government to overstep its boundaries, to intrude on the glories of free enterprise.
Those who fight for the rights of workers — that is, those who fight for the large majority of the population rather than the interests of the rich and powerful — are slandered and ridiculed, presented in the mainstream as unhinged radicals, called anti-business, socialists, communists, and the like.
In short, today’s political discourse is overrun by business propaganda that convinces people that corporate interests are their interests.
We are told that business must be allowed to pursue profit, unfettered by intrusive regulations, and unrestrained by labor and environmental regulations.
We are told that government intervention in the economy is harmful, and that increasing regulatory measures will cause the economy to stagnate or collapse. These things, in the words of Friedrich A. Hayek, put us on “the road to serfdom.”
Within the mainstream, and in much of today’s academic work, we are rarely reminded that there is another side of this equation: The pernicious effects that high profits, and the pursuit of increasingly higher profits, have on workers and on society at large.
Adam Smith, often considered a founder of today’s dominant free market ideology, understood the other side of the equation, however, and he recognized what today’s politicians and business elites would like us to ignore.
Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people. — Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
We are endlessly flooded by complaints of this sort, complaints about the downsides of providing workers with benefits and paying them living wages.
This is uncompetitive, we are told, and no one will work hard if they are offered such a tremendous luxury as a living wage.
Further, the reason there is so much unemployment today is largely because of laziness on behalf of the workers, and more handouts and higher wages will do nothing to curb this problem, the narrative goes.
The reality is, as usual, quite different than the picture painted by the corporate media.
American workers are working longer and harder than ever, but instead of being offered opportunities to “climb the ladder,” they are spinning their wheels and struggling to support their families with low paying jobs which are offering fewer and fewer benefits.
The collapse of the bargaining power of the working class is a large factor in the ever-growing income inequality in this country, a problem that continues to worsen as union membership consistently declines.
With no counterbalancing force, corporations have almost unlimited influence on the government, thus they have the power to pay for specific policies and relaxed regulations, allowing them to ship jobs overseas, forcing American workers to compete with Bangladeshi workers being paid pennies per hour under slavish conditions.
As a result — perfectly predictable, and intentional — since 1978, CEO pay has skyrocketed, while worker pay has more or less stagnated.
“The bad effects of high profits” at work, indeed.
In a perfect world (for the few), the business class could convince us to believe that our current economic situation is inevitable in a globalized economy; it’s all a result of market forces, not deliberate policy decisions that gut the working class.
But this simply isn’t the case: Much of what we see today in terms of inequality and poor living standards and lack of healthcare coverage is a result of profit-seeking by the few, not “market forces.”
Here’s Dave Johnson on the idea that today’s economic situation is an “inevitable” result of forces beyond our control:
Globalization is not some kind of inevitable natural process of history that has caught up with us. This was and is the result of intentional policy choices, designed to force deindustrialization, break unions, drive down wages and benefits and increase inequality as that pay differential is pocketed by a few. This is the result of the “free market, free trade” ideology that rose up in the late 70s. Free trade policy was and is designed to give a few plutocrats and their giant corporations — ‘the 1 percent’ — increased power over governments.
Beyond just hurting workers, the endless greed of corporations has also led to the destruction of the environment, a fact which was far beyond obvious many decades ago, but is becoming a more prominent discussion point on today’s political scene.
Environmental regulations have been implemented as a result of environmental activism, but to little effect from a global perspective. As Erik Loomis details in his compelling book Out of Sight,
…corporations moved their operations across the globe to escape these very regulations [such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, among other implemented in the 60’s and 70’s]. They could have become responsible citizens and made their products in ways that gave workers dignified lives and kept both consumers and ecosystems safe, but instead they chose to move their operations and re-create the old toxic and unsafe environments.
Instead of protecting their American workers from breathing in fibers, cloth manufacturers moved to Latin America and Southeast Asia, where workers today get sick from the same conditions that were common in the United States a century ago.
Loomis calls this “outsourcing catastrophe,” which is a logical result of the need to pursue profits at any cost.
Corporations, by their very nature, cannot tolerate any regulations or environmental standards that may, in the short term, hurt their bottom line, so, because they have the power to do so, they simply ship their jobs elsewhere, dumping waste and pollution on poor countries that are “out of sight.”
Not only does this outsourcing lead to job loss on a tremendous scale — often devastating entire cities — it also allows corporations to continue exploiting the environment at no cost to them, and at tremendous cost to everyone else.
And the pernicious effects of profit-seeking by massive corporations extend still further.
Some benefit from the destruction of entire countries, some benefit from imprisoning people at an incredible rate, some benefit from the sale of arms, often to countries which torture and kill their citizens — and the citizens of other countries — on a daily basis.
Still, our politicians insist that we must continue to provide the rich with tax cuts and the freedom to rape and pillage the earth, the freedom to control the global economy, the freedom to influence government, the freedom to act without any kind of regulatory apparatus — all for the greater good.
This narrative must be turned on its head.
We can no longer allow corporate elites and “pro-business” politicians, Democrat or Republican, to frame the debate in terms of “the bad effects of high wages,” and the “bad effects” of providing the working class with benefits they need and deserve.
We must have a discussion about the negative side of the pursuit of “profit by any means necessary”, which is essentially the motto of any successful corporation. We have to do away with the religious dogmatism that dominates our economic education, and we have to start forcing corporations (they won’t do it on their own) to pay attention to the people and the environment.
Until this discussion reaches the mainstream and works to counteract the constant influx of business propaganda — now reaching a peak as the TPP negotiations move forward — the future of the working class and of the planet is not bright.