Like all environmental / social change organisations, we’d like humans to live in a sustainable system. But unlike many other organisations, we clearly state that we’d like that system to be non-corporate. What do we mean? Can’t we continue to live in a corporate system, but make it sustainable? Well, not only do we think that’s impossible, we also believe that the current, corporate system is incompatible with democracy too. Here are just a few reasons why (the focus on US politics is because whoever controls US politics controls the world).
Corporations maximise profits and damage small businesses by:
- paying workers as little as possible. This involves mainly plantation workers in poor countries for agricultural produce and sweatshop workers in poor countries for consumer goods. Wages are low, hours are long, working conditions are harsh and dangerous, there are no sickness, maternity or unemployment benefits and any attempt to organise and unionise to improve conditions is crushed. No-one should have to live this way, but it means that corporations are able to provide things more cheaply than small businesses / the non-corporate sector.
- pumping money into politics. In the US alone, around $7billion is spent on a round of federal elections. Corporations aren’t actually allowed to fund politicians directly, but they get round it via Political Action Committees (PACs) and super-PACs. They don’t do this for fun – they want new legislation (or legislation removed) to benefit them (including removing environmental legislation). It’s corruption, pure and simple, and the non-corporate sector can’t compete with this level of spending.
- employing lobbyists – which costs corporations over $3billion per year in the US alone. There are ten times as many lobbyists in Washington than politicians. A lobbyist’s job is to try to persuade politicians to do what their corporate employers want. It’s all perfectly legal, even though it’s undemocratic. Again, it’s corruption, pure and simple, and again, it’s not something the small business / non-corporate sector can do.
- giving jobs to politicians when they leave office, and often whilst in office. Often, these politicians will be involved in creating legislation affecting the businesses they work for. This is called the ‘revolving door‘ and it’s one more thing that prevents democracy in a corporate system and one more thing that’s not accessible to the non-corporate sector.
- avoiding taxes in ways that the rest of us can’t. It’s perfectly legal for corporations to locate subsidiaries in buildings in tax havens that apparently house more businesses than the population of the country (often the case in small countries like the Cayman Islands). We all know about Starbucks and Amazon doing this kind of thing (and if you want a sustainable, democratic world, the first thing to do is to avoid giving them your money), and obviously, it gives them an unfair advantage over the non-corporate sector.
- unfairly closing down competition: for example in the nineties, transport giant Stagecoach was trying to buy up as many local bus companies as possible. The Darlington Transport Company refused, so Stagecoach simply ran free buses in the town until their small ‘competitor’ went out of business. They were able to do it because of their size, using profits from elsewhere to run free buses. It was know as the Darlington Bus War, and of course, it happens all the time, as small businesses are unable to compete with corporate economies of scale.
- owning the media. In the US, for example, 50 companies controlled 90% of all media as recently as 1983, but now that number has fallen to just 6 corporations. So almost all Americans are getting their news and opinion from corporate sources. Unsurprisingly, their agenda is pro-corporate – ridiculing any person or organisation speaking out against corporate hegemony. The angle includes the famous TINA – ‘there is no alternative’. Of course there are alternatives, but the corporate media don’t want you to know about them.
- initiating, sponsoring and developing ‘independent’ think-tanks and research establishments, to influence policy and public opinion in a seemingly neutral ways that are in fact overwhelmingly pro-corporate. The names of the groups may be familiar to you – the Trilateral Commission, the World Economic Forum, the Council for Foreign Relations, the Brookings Insitution, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Bilderberg group (this last one is not so much for influencing public opinion as its operations are entirely secret, but government ministers are an important part of it). These groups pose as independent and non-partisan. They are not – they are corporate-controlled, and exist to help maximise coporate profits.
- suing governments that introduce legislation that can be shown to reduce corporate profits. How this can exist within a democracy is moot, but I suggest that it can’t, because it prevents it. This is soon coming your way via the corporate-inspired and initiated TTIP trade deal – although the latest word is that tobacco companies will be exempt (presumably due to the likelihood of a public outcry at tobacco companies taking elected governments to court for trying to reduce smoking rates). Tobacco companies are calling this ‘discriminatory’, which would be funny if it weren’t so twisted.
- getting their politicians (see points 2-4 above) to invite them to write policy. The most hilarious example of this was when McDonald’s, Pepsico and KFC were invited to help write UK health policy.
All this loads the dice firmly in favour of the corporate sector, at the same time preventing sustainability and democracy. Nothing can be done from within the system itself for precisely the reasons above. But there is something you can do – you can move your money out of the corporate sector into the non-corporate sector.
This is only a brief overview, and we’ll blog more about the details, but it highlights why nowadays, it’s not enough for an environmental organisation to espouse sustainability without challenging the corporate system. It just won’t work.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's