Systems and Individuals and the Source of the Problems We Face
By Dennis Loo (11/9/13)
Among many of the more politically aware the sentiment is growing that corporations are the source of many of the multifaceted problems we face today. Rob Kall at OpEd News, for example, is calling for people to speak to this question, Chris Hedges has been writing about the evils of the “corporate state,” and many, if not most, of the people in the Occupy movement see corporations as the problem. It isn’t only within the political Left that this view is arising. Segments of the Right, such as some in the Tea Party movement, are also increasingly skeptical of corporations.
To put this question concisely: corporations are a feature of the problem, but not the source of the problem itself. If the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, for example, that conferred the rights of personhood on corporations so that they could exercise their First Amendment rights as “people” (and give unlimited amounts of money to their candidates, parties, and issues of choice) were overturned, this would be a good thing, but it would not really change the overall picture.
The problem is not corporation-hood but capitalism-imperialism. Saying that the problem is corporations and not making it clear that the real problem is capitalism and imperialism’s drive for profits and “expand or die” logic, is like saying that the skin that a poisonous snake is in at the moment it bites you is the problem and if we could just get rid of that skin! Snakes routinely shed their old skins for new ones and remain lethal biters throughout the skin-shedding process.
Corporations exist because capitalism exists. The causal sequence is capitalism, then corporations. Corporations are also a particular feature of imperialism, which is when the largest capitalist enterprises breach their national boundaries and go abroad to exploit labor, markets, and resources, and finance/banking capital becomes the economy's leading factor. Corporations do not exist as something anomalous within capitalism. They do not represent a distortion of capitalism but rather the logical outcome of the system-logic of capitalism and imperialism – the relentless and ceaseless pursuit of profit.
Systems govern our lives, ranging from the social systems and social structures that make up those social systems, to economic and political systems. Systems are as small as couples and as large as the whole world’s human society. What separates systems from the individuals who occupy those systems is the fact that system-level logic sets the terms within which individuals operate. Systems do not have the character that they possess primarily because of the cumulative individual actions and ideas of the individuals who make up those systems. Systems instead have a logic and character to them that is larger than and overall more powerful and determinative than those individuals, singly or collectively. Individuals who make up those systems operate within the overall parameters of the systems logic or else they are individually expelled from those systems. This is what the famous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated so dramatically: Stanford students assigned randomly to roles as prisoners and prison guards quickly and comprehensively recreated the character of a prison in a Stanford university building basement.
It is a major error to think that systems operate the way that they do because of the individuals within those systems. They do not. They operate as they do because systems impose a logic upon those individuals who make up those systems and they must do that for individuals to interact at all.
The form of negative sanctions towards those who don’t abide by or fit into the stated and/or unstated governing rules of systems range from a disapproving look and walking away from them, to ridiculing them to “get into line,” to physically assaulting them, all the way up to killing the person. The rules governing separating groups (e.g., races, classes, genders) in hierarchical systems of oppression can and almost invariably do include formal rules (e.g., apartheid laws, Stand Your Ground laws) to numerous informal rules (e.g., the idea that white lives are more valuable than minorities’ lives and that American lives are more important than the lives of non-Americans).
In the apparently highly dysfunctional world of the Miami Dolphins’ locker-room, for example, a brutal and angry racist like Richie Incognito and his buddies considered the Stanford-educated, biracial Jonathan Martin an outsider and treated him so viciously that Martin finally had to depart from the team.
To a yet unnamed homeowner in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Dearborn, Michigan, that surrounds Detroit, a young black woman on his porch late at night (Renisha McBride) seeking assistance after a car accident, is violating the largely unspoken rules of racial segregation and instead of calling 9/11, he shoots poor Renisha in the face, killing her with his .12 gauge shotgun. This homeowner remains uncharged as of this date, protected at this point both by the “Castle Doctrine” in Michigan (a formalization of white supremacy in the law) and the unstated rights of white supremacy that operate within and through numerous institutions such as the media, police department, and the “Justice” system.
If black people like Renisha, Trayvon Martin (Carrying Snacks While Black), or Jonathan Ferrell are found where “they don’t belong,” killing them is justified by the social rules of white supremacy: blacks are seen as criminals and their lives may be taken with impunity by white people.
Correspondingly, capitalists, in the corporate or non-corporate form alike, must abide by the “expand or die” logic of capitalism. That logic’s horrid results are what are impelling many people to question why things are this way. Being clear on what the real problem is is critical to being able to actually solve these problems that take innocent people’s lives and that imperil this planet’s very viability.
Tell the people suffering from the biggest storm in history in the Philippines right now, for example, about the “hoax of global warming.” Global warming is not being addressed by this system in a way even remotely commensurate to the catastrophe that it represents, record levels of fossil fuel burning continue. This reason alone stands as a searing and what should be inescapable indictment of capitalism-imperialism's utter bankruptcy.
We cannot change what needs to be changed unless we are guided in our efforts by a correct understanding of what is causing all of this. Good intentions are not good enough. Indeed, good intentions led by an incorrect analysis of the problem frequently do a great deal of harm. And making errors of that kind in these times we can ill afford.
1 Like Renisha, Jonathan Ferrell was seeking assistance after a car accident and approached a white police officer in N. Carolina. Instead of helping him, the cop shot him ten times and killed him.