An enemy of the people
John Chuckman
An enemy of the people
Thu Mar 4 11:10:15 2004
67.1.130.190


http://www.onlinejournal.com/Commentary/030404Chuckman/030404chuckman.html
An enemy of the people

By John Chuckman
Online Journal Contributing Writer



March 4, 2004-Ralph Nader has defined a perfect moral dilemma for
thinking Americans.

He finds himself in a situation resembling that of Dr. Stockmann in
Ibsen's drama, "An Enemy of the People." Dr. Stockmann discovered the
municipal baths were contaminated, but good burghers worried about the
destructive effects of the truth on the town did not want the doctor
revealing it.

A number of America's good burghers, fearing the effect of Nader's
candidacy on the Democratic candidate's prospects, have warned him
against running for office, some are reported to have stopped supporting
the many worthy public-service organizations he founded, and some are
writing nasty little pieces calling him names.

The Democrats are, of course, part of what Nader is concerned about.
Quite apart from the oily-establishment and war-friendly Kerry, the
Democratic Party itself has come to stand for very little. You might
call it America's parlor-polite alternative to the selfish stench of the
Republicans. Putting up Kerry to replace Bush is like putting up
Rutherford B. Hayes to replace Calvin Coolidge. It may be possible for
Kerry to win, but, really, what difference to anything would his victory
make? Bullwinkle the moose miming John Kennedy at the next State of the
Union.

Nader sees the fundamental problems of American society as few other
national figures do. His focus is different than my own, being,
naturally enough, more concerned about domestic results than
international ones. Still, these things are related.

Nader is not likely to win, and, if he were somehow able to win, he
would quickly find himself up against the most entrenched, retrogressive
legislative system in the advanced world. Still, he represents some hope
for the birth of a new dynamic in American politics, something important
to Americans and to the world.

Nader's focus is on "corporatism" having taken over civil institutions
in America. This is true. Americans are no longer citizens, they are
consumers-language adopted even by their politicians. The reason for
this is simple: America is well along with building a set of monster
corporations intent on supplying most of the world's goods and services.
The corporations must be monstrously big to achieve this, because it is
through economies of scale that they can undercut the costs of companies
in other nations. Companies that dominate markets for nearly 300 million
Americans are in a position to muscle out the companies in most other
countries. Size is also important as a means of gaining concessions from
governments, including, as it turns out, their own.

The growth of American monster-corporations does not threaten only
international harmony, it rapidly is changing American domestic life.

These corporations adopt bizarre, almost anonymous identities. Many of
them have had their names reduced to sets of three letters exhibiting
little connection with their original business or birthplace, but they
go well beyond this symbolism.

The relationships these corporations have with those to whom they market
can perhaps best be compared to the relationships you have with the
people who send spam to your computer. You can place an order from the
spam you receive, but you can't respond otherwise, and the mechanism for
deleting your email address often is extremely slow or defective.

The corporate marketers reach you when they please through direct mail
or calling centers, and they have a lot of personal information about
you (much of it obtained from local governments without your permission)
on their computers enabling them efficiently to hunt you down for their
schemes. You may have noticed the marketing letters you receive often
have no return postal address, only a toll-free telephone number that
reaches a boiler-room order-taker unable to deal with any other matter.

These particulars are small points, but they suggest a sinister
character. The scale of a thing always changes its very nature. A small
cyclonic wind, a dust devil, moving harmlessly across a patch of earth
shares fundamental structural characteristics with a tornado, but what a
difference the difference in size makes.

Bear with me if you think my next statement a great exaggeration, but
George Orwell's fictitious world of 1984 seems to me no more sinister
than what is gradually emerging in America. What Orwell emphasized about
human freedom was conditioned by his living through a period when
various forms of totalitarian governments darkened Europe, but there are
subtler methods of control than jack-booted tyranny. The continued
advance of technology will assure a bountiful choice of tools to the
corporations which invest in them, own them, and are best placed to
fully exploit them.

America is becoming a society where huge, almost anonymous, corporations
own virtually every scrap of your personal information and own patents
on many aspects of the natural world around you, perhaps even on some of
the genes of your body or those of your neighbors. Their manufacturing
and other needs effectively control the quality of the air you breathe
and the water you drink. Their adventures abroad influence whether your
son or daughter is sent to war, although I am sure this will one day be
limited by automated killing machines which will be so much more
dependable than soldiers, cause less stress over interventions on the
home front, and cost far less than maintaining all those pesky military
dependents and pensions over the long term.

So perfect will be their marketing information, the companies' computers
will know exactly the extent to which you are even worth bothering about
in each and every aspect of their operations. There will be a large pool
of people not worth bothering about, the American losers in the
globalization race for ever cheaper or more capable substitutes in every
aspect of manufacturing, marketing, and distributing. This pool already
is being created, but it likely will become much larger. For example,
when those Pentagon killing machines are perfected, the armed forces
will cease providing the jobs they have for millions of young people
with marginal skills.

The emerging social structure of the United States very much resembles
that of 1984. There are the owners and senior managers of the vast
corporations. Their positions and privileges are in every respect
comparable to Oceania's elite Inner Party. Then there is a large pool of
educated, middle-class people, the types who stay at the office 12 hours
a day to complete a project and have the benefit of a corporate gym.
They are sometimes exposed to very sensitive material, but there is a
well-developed ethic and some severe penalties for ever revealing any of
it. They are Orwell's Outer Party. Finally, there is the large and
growing pool of unskilled workers whose prospects become increasingly
dim. The "end of welfare as we know it" may well have reflected expected
growth prospects for this group rather than simply political discontent.
Orwell calls them the Proles.

America's Proles have virtually no role in politics. They have no money
and no influence. They generally do not vote, a fact which may reflect
inertia more than anything else, but it is also true that many local
practices, as we saw from the way polls were run in Florida, positively
discourage their votes. Ex-convicts, and this is a huge group in
America, for example cannot vote. The Outer Party provides voters and
campaign workers. The Inner Party endows acceptable candidates with
small fortunes to assure their prospects.

This structure is self-reinforcing and explains many domestic policies
and practices. One example suffices. America is the only advanced nation
not to have some form of national health insurance. Why? Because the
existing employer-pays-for-private-insurance system suits the political
and economic structure so well. Inner Party members and senior
politicians receive the very best of everything possible, often having
their own elite hospitals. All the Outer Party members receive good, and
often excellent, insurance from their employers. This keeps the
politically active group satisfied about healthcare. Indeed, it is only
when benefits start dropping around the fringes of the Outer Party, as
during economic setbacks, that healthcare becomes a national political
issue. The Proles are uninsured or so poorly insured at meager jobs that
they may as well be uninsured.

There is no way to forecast a clear picture of where these trends lead,
but the prospects are discouraging to say the least. Powerful private
companies possessing information and resources and working hand-in-hand
with government to achieve their goals are capable of doing anything not
specifically regulated or forbidden. The revolution in technology is
quickly changing even what is or is not a crime or abuse, but with
government as a full and intimate partner, what impulse is there for new
regulation and laws limiting corporations?

Ordinary Americans have completely embraced the idea that whatever is
good or necessary for large corporations is somehow good for them. This
may have been true in 1949, but it is certainly not true now. Americans
are remarkably passive about everything from steaming toxic dumps left
behind by closed factories to bloody interventions abroad.

Corporations already have a tight grip on national politics, but their
ability to influence-with personal connections, information, financial
resources, and the discretion to shift investments-increases
disproportionately as they grow and absorb all former competitors.
Corporations are, of course, the training grounds for the many lawyers
inhabiting Congress, and they provide comfortable repositories for
retired politicians who retain influence.

War is very much a reflection of this influence on government, as you
would expect when these companies are engaged in aggressive global
campaigns, when they enjoy supplying the bottomless-pit needs of the
Defense Department, and when they are involved in the
unbelievably-profitable rebuilding of distant places overrun by the
military. It is true that stock markets don't like big wars, but what
Americans have learned since Vietnam is that stock markets don't so much
mind quick, dirty little wars that come mixed with new opportunities for
profit.

The huge number of colonial wars the United States has fought since the
end of the Second World War demonstrates this conclusively. The name,
Defense Department, is outmoded. Not one war in which the U.S. has
engaged since 1945 has involved defense, unless you are speaking of the
defense of America's corporate interests abroad.

Nader a political risk? If there is any chance of sparking a new
political movement that could even moderately alter America's course,
isn't it worth some political risk? If not, what is?


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