John ChuckmanAn enemy of the peopleThu Mar 4 11:10:15 2004220.127.116.11
http://www.onlinejournal.com/Commentary/030404Chuckman/030404chuckman.html An enemy of the peopleBy John ChuckmanOnline Journal Contributing WriterMarch 4, 2004-Ralph Nader has defined a perfect moral dilemma forthinking Americans.He finds himself in a situation resembling that of Dr. Stockmann inIbsen's drama, "An Enemy of the People." Dr. Stockmann discovered themunicipal baths were contaminated, but good burghers worried about thedestructive effects of the truth on the town did not want the doctorrevealing it.A number of America's good burghers, fearing the effect of Nader'scandidacy on the Democratic candidate's prospects, have warned himagainst running for office, some are reported to have stopped supportingthe many worthy public-service organizations he founded, and some arewriting 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, theDemocratic Party itself has come to stand for very little. You mightcall it America's parlor-polite alternative to the selfish stench of theRepublicans. Putting up Kerry to replace Bush is like putting upRutherford B. Hayes to replace Calvin Coolidge. It may be possible forKerry to win, but, really, what difference to anything would his victorymake? Bullwinkle the moose miming John Kennedy at the next State of theUnion.Nader sees the fundamental problems of American society as few othernational figures do. His focus is different than my own, being,naturally enough, more concerned about domestic results thaninternational ones. Still, these things are related.Nader is not likely to win, and, if he were somehow able to win, hewould quickly find himself up against the most entrenched, retrogressivelegislative system in the advanced world. Still, he represents some hopefor the birth of a new dynamic in American politics, something importantto Americans and to the world.Nader's focus is on "corporatism" having taken over civil institutionsin America. This is true. Americans are no longer citizens, they areconsumers-language adopted even by their politicians. The reason forthis is simple: America is well along with building a set of monstercorporations intent on supplying most of the world's goods and services.The corporations must be monstrously big to achieve this, because it isthrough economies of scale that they can undercut the costs of companiesin other nations. Companies that dominate markets for nearly 300 millionAmericans are in a position to muscle out the companies in most othercountries. Size is also important as a means of gaining concessions fromgovernments, including, as it turns out, their own.The growth of American monster-corporations does not threaten onlyinternational harmony, it rapidly is changing American domestic life.These corporations adopt bizarre, almost anonymous identities. Many ofthem have had their names reduced to sets of three letters exhibitinglittle connection with their original business or birthplace, but theygo well beyond this symbolism.The relationships these corporations have with those to whom they marketcan perhaps best be compared to the relationships you have with thepeople who send spam to your computer. You can place an order from thespam you receive, but you can't respond otherwise, and the mechanism fordeleting your email address often is extremely slow or defective.The corporate marketers reach you when they please through direct mailor calling centers, and they have a lot of personal information aboutyou (much of it obtained from local governments without your permission)on their computers enabling them efficiently to hunt you down for theirschemes. You may have noticed the marketing letters you receive oftenhave no return postal address, only a toll-free telephone number thatreaches a boiler-room order-taker unable to deal with any other matter.These particulars are small points, but they suggest a sinistercharacter. The scale of a thing always changes its very nature. A smallcyclonic wind, a dust devil, moving harmlessly across a patch of earthshares fundamental structural characteristics with a tornado, but what adifference the difference in size makes.Bear with me if you think my next statement a great exaggeration, butGeorge Orwell's fictitious world of 1984 seems to me no more sinisterthan what is gradually emerging in America. What Orwell emphasized abouthuman freedom was conditioned by his living through a period whenvarious forms of totalitarian governments darkened Europe, but there aresubtler methods of control than jack-booted tyranny. The continuedadvance of technology will assure a bountiful choice of tools to thecorporations which invest in them, own them, and are best placed tofully exploit them.America is becoming a society where huge, almost anonymous, corporationsown virtually every scrap of your personal information and own patentson many aspects of the natural world around you, perhaps even on some ofthe genes of your body or those of your neighbors. Their manufacturingand other needs effectively control the quality of the air you breatheand the water you drink. Their adventures abroad influence whether yourson or daughter is sent to war, although I am sure this will one day belimited by automated killing machines which will be so much moredependable than soldiers, cause less stress over interventions on thehome front, and cost far less than maintaining all those pesky militarydependents and pensions over the long term.So perfect will be their marketing information, the companies' computerswill know exactly the extent to which you are even worth bothering aboutin each and every aspect of their operations. There will be a large poolof people not worth bothering about, the American losers in theglobalization race for ever cheaper or more capable substitutes in everyaspect of manufacturing, marketing, and distributing. This pool alreadyis being created, but it likely will become much larger. For example,when those Pentagon killing machines are perfected, the armed forceswill cease providing the jobs they have for millions of young peoplewith marginal skills.The emerging social structure of the United States very much resemblesthat of 1984. There are the owners and senior managers of the vastcorporations. Their positions and privileges are in every respectcomparable to Oceania's elite Inner Party. Then there is a large pool ofeducated, middle-class people, the types who stay at the office 12 hoursa day to complete a project and have the benefit of a corporate gym.They are sometimes exposed to very sensitive material, but there is awell-developed ethic and some severe penalties for ever revealing any ofit. They are Orwell's Outer Party. Finally, there is the large andgrowing pool of unskilled workers whose prospects become increasinglydim. The "end of welfare as we know it" may well have reflected expectedgrowth 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 moneyand no influence. They generally do not vote, a fact which may reflectinertia more than anything else, but it is also true that many localpractices, as we saw from the way polls were run in Florida, positivelydiscourage their votes. Ex-convicts, and this is a huge group inAmerica, for example cannot vote. The Outer Party provides voters andcampaign workers. The Inner Party endows acceptable candidates withsmall fortunes to assure their prospects.This structure is self-reinforcing and explains many domestic policiesand practices. One example suffices. America is the only advanced nationnot to have some form of national health insurance. Why? Because theexisting employer-pays-for-private-insurance system suits the politicaland economic structure so well. Inner Party members and seniorpoliticians receive the very best of everything possible, often havingtheir own elite hospitals. All the Outer Party members receive good, andoften excellent, insurance from their employers. This keeps thepolitically active group satisfied about healthcare. Indeed, it is onlywhen benefits start dropping around the fringes of the Outer Party, asduring economic setbacks, that healthcare becomes a national politicalissue. The Proles are uninsured or so poorly insured at meager jobs thatthey 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 privatecompanies possessing information and resources and working hand-in-handwith government to achieve their goals are capable of doing anything notspecifically regulated or forbidden. The revolution in technology isquickly changing even what is or is not a crime or abuse, but withgovernment as a full and intimate partner, what impulse is there for newregulation and laws limiting corporations?Ordinary Americans have completely embraced the idea that whatever isgood or necessary for large corporations is somehow good for them. Thismay have been true in 1949, but it is certainly not true now. Americansare remarkably passive about everything from steaming toxic dumps leftbehind by closed factories to bloody interventions abroad.Corporations already have a tight grip on national politics, but theirability to influence-with personal connections, information, financialresources, and the discretion to shift investments-increasesdisproportionately as they grow and absorb all former competitors.Corporations are, of course, the training grounds for the many lawyersinhabiting Congress, and they provide comfortable repositories forretired politicians who retain influence.War is very much a reflection of this influence on government, as youwould expect when these companies are engaged in aggressive globalcampaigns, when they enjoy supplying the bottomless-pit needs of theDefense Department, and when they are involved in theunbelievably-profitable rebuilding of distant places overrun by themilitary. It is true that stock markets don't like big wars, but whatAmericans have learned since Vietnam is that stock markets don't so muchmind quick, dirty little wars that come mixed with new opportunities forprofit.The huge number of colonial wars the United States has fought since theend of the Second World War demonstrates this conclusively. The name,Defense Department, is outmoded. Not one war in which the U.S. hasengaged since 1945 has involved defense, unless you are speaking of thedefense of America's corporate interests abroad.Nader a political risk? If there is any chance of sparking a newpolitical movement that could even moderately alter America's course,isn't it worth some political risk? If not, what is?
Buddy Eppson, Thu Mar 4 12:55
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