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Vol. 10, No. 2, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

violating the social contract and consequences



Civilization began the first time an angry person
cast a word instead of a rock.

When two elephants fight
it is the grass that suffers.
Swahili proverb

We begin with the primordial unit of the tribe and then the amalgamation of tribes, which evolved into the more stable entity of the community. The members of the tribe or community were, of necessity, neck deep in the business of survival -- as hunters, foragers and fishermen -- doing whatever (beyond good and evil) to survive. The plastic moral codes that emerged took their shape from the imperatives of survival, and not the other way around. If the protocols of protein (survive or starve) meant cannibalizing the enemy, the tablecloth was stretched to fit the occasion. Monogamy was a nonstarter. The alpha male enjoyed the first choice of everything: the best or only food; le droit de seigneur -- the Middle Ages equivalent of feudal lord’s first night insemination rights. He would also be the first to walk the line in defense of territory and natural resources.

To ensure survival of the fittest genes, the distribution algorithm was a function of hierarchy where the relative size of the winners’ and losers’ circles mirrored the wealth (or lack of) the community.

From the disciplines of biology, anthropology and sociology, we have a fairly clear if somewhat reductive picture of what to expect of human behaviour in times of scarcity. What is also clear but of considerably less interest is tribal conduct in times of surfeit, when simply being a member of a tribe or community precluded certain rights and expectations which were inviolable. In times of plenty, those whose participation was not required in the means of production (the hunt or the gathering) were not ostracized or excluded from enjoying the good fortune enjoyed by the group as a whole. For the alpha male to deny the epsilon his share in times of plenty would have constituted a punishment for which there was no just cause, since all the members of the tribe were known to each other and were in it together, for better or worse, in feast or famine.

So how do we explain or account for the fact that the exact opposite happens today, that in times of plenty employees are routinely let go, not allowed to participate in the prosperity of the company they helped grow? When a company, usually registered as a corporation, determines that its production and profit margins can be maintained or increased with a smaller workforce, it is self-obliged to ‘retire’ a percentage of its workers to the effect that instead of being rewarded for his effort and contribution, the good soldier is punished, turned into a have-not and left to fend for himself. From the company’s perspective, sold as an accounting detail, the employee’s contribution has been duly counted but he no longer counts. Contrast his fate to that of even the slave who, in times of plenty, was at least allowed the basic necessities of life.

If caring for others united in common purpose and not caring at all are both outcomes predicted by human nature, how did the original impulse so quickly morph into its opposite? What caused the instinct to care to undergo the equivalent of bee colony collapse syndrome?

For most of man’s history that, according to recent paleontological findings, begins 1.8 million years ago, the social contract that bound tribal members together in their struggle to survive was underwritten by mutual care and cooperation. But when communities grew too large for everyone to know each other and money became the medium of barter, the rules of the game changed dramatically; modern man discovered that he could act independently of his group and not suffer the consequences.

Much like the Internet’s effects in our century, the introduction of currency (coins) by the Lydians in 700 B.C. brought about a tectonic shift in the manner in which individuals relate to each other concerning the accumulation of wealth and its distribution, a shift that is directly responsible for a state of affairs that has, on our watch, 1.5 billion people (more than half below the age of five) living below the poverty line. Prior to legal tender, deprivation (going without) did not exist in times of surfeit or prosperity. Prior to money, there were quantifiable limits to the satisfaction conferred by wealth. The vainglorious hunter might dream of bringing 100 kilos of meat to a tribal feast but never a hundred thousand because he is subject to a natural (physical) satiation point, otherwise known as the law of diminishing returns, which totally breaks down when applied to abstract wealth because there are no limits to the number of zeros you can add to a figure or bank statement. The wealth of Bill Gates Incorporated, expressed in compounding zeros, exceeds that of many countries, which makes Mr. Gates a very wealthy, that is powerful man.

We usually think of power and command as the endgame of politics. We also know -- bloodier than well -- that power corrupts, and to such a degree that beginning with Locke (government by consent) and then Montesquieu, separation of power clauses were preemptively written into constitutions as checks against the brute instinct. But despite significant changes in political behaviour, man’s craving would not go gently out of sight and mind. Instead, recognizing the likeness between money and power, he quickly learned how to finesse the restrictions that attend the political realm by making the comparatively speaking unregulated economic sphere home to his operations and ambitions. It’s hardly a secret that taxation (14,000 page tax code) and anti-trust legislation are at best blunt instruments against the iniquitous accumulation of wealth (power) since each has been significantly suborned by the medium it seeks to control: money.

In the 1950s, the tax rate for the rich was 91 percent. It’s now 35 percent. For the past 80 years, the laws of the land have allowed for the existence of offshore tax havens. It is surely self-evident to even the least politically astute observer that neither the butcher nor the baker is responsible for the above mentioned tax favours that would have never seen the light of day if the money man hadn’t figured out how to reconcile the nuisance of a moral conscience with his gene-driven lust for wealth and power.

To obviate the potentially unsettling effects of a guilty conscience (he had to have his cake and eat it, too), the ever resourceful entrepreneur decided to introduce a business model that would allow for the unrestricted accumulation of wealth=power while absolving him of any moral responsibility for decisions taken on the model’s behalf. We now recognize this brave new business concept as the prototype of the corporation whose emergence would rival the invention of gun powder in its effects.

The corporation, in its present (dis)guise, is an entity that is legally considered a person in that it can act like a person without any regard for actual people. Its blood runs inversely as cold as its production heats up. Its structure and organization are determined by profit. All its operations and decisions are underwritten in consideration of profit. The CEO and members of the board are sworn to uphold the objectives of the corporation and are self-rewarded and punished according to their ability to fulfill the corporate mandate. In pursuit of its aims, the corporation maintains a standing army of lawyers and lobbyists whose job it is to draft and push through legislation that facilitates profit making. When a corporation decides it can retire 25 percent of its ‘redundant’ workforce, it cites profit as the reason, knowing full well that disgruntled ex-employees can not affect or overturn a decision made by an entity.

Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, compares the corporation to a psychopath incapable of responding to “the feelings of others; an incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; a reckless disregard for the safety of others; a pattern of deceitfulness; an incapacity to experience guilt; failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviour. This is the institution that we allow to govern all aspects of our lives.”

As such, the corporation is the force that through the green fuse drives government. When the latter decides to wage an especially dubious war, it is usually at the behest of those corporations that stand to gain by it. That men and women are needlessly sacrificed for the glory of the bottom line is consistent with the raison d’être of the corporation for whom profit is more valued than the health and well being of the individuals and environment (planet) that provide for it.

As it has increasingly concentrated power unto itself -- crushing and bending human will and enterprise to serve its ends -- the corporation can be said (as predicted by both Huxley and Orwell) to be out of control because it is in total control. That Thomas Friedman can look at a creature-cum-insatiable appetite whose tentacles are everywhere and conclude that the earth is becoming economically flatter beggars credulity. What chance do the rest of us stand against an entity that devours equally people and human resources if a mind as fine as Friedman’s can be so easily destabilized by the bogus utterances of corporate doublespeak under whose auspices the hegemonic designs of globalization have been refashioned into a slick, proletariat-friendly, all purpose economic balm that promises a fairer distribution of the world’s wealth as trade barriers fall and corporations become more productively intertwined and interdependent. For the actuaries and bartered accountants whose numbers corroborate the fraud, the rewards are more than most can refuse. But despite the numerology, the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen, the conventional middle class (one wage earner per household) has all but vanished and during the past 50 years real wages have gone down. “You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees,” writes the Mahatma.

If our planet in peril is to survive its defective institutions, if we are to avoid the fate predicted by Cree prophecy -- after the last tree has been cut down, after the last river has been poisoned, after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten -- the corporation will have to will itself, based on insights that can only come about through huge self-examination, to rewrite its purpose.

And there can be no circumventing the inconvenient truth that we (self-delusional par excellence) are the corporation, seismically implicated in its schemes and purposes. Reduced to the sum of its (mis)behaviour, is not the corporation the stealth extension of human nature -- uncouth and flawed -- turned into convenient bogeyman?

I propose that the challenge of our times is nothing less than righting something that is so wrong it cannot be righted. Short of reconfiguring our DNA, how do we instruct and command ourselves to care for and be kind to strangers? How do we extirpate the rot from institutions we have designated to care on our behalf? Did we or did we not give birth to the corporation and raise it in our image? Did we or did we not trash its hopes and promises and turn them into betrayals? If not I and I, who is the hallowed be thine ass fallen back into its hole?

As far back as 1854, George Bancroft, a political theorist, could confidently predict that “the good time is coming, when humanity will recognize all members of its family as alike and entitled to its care; when the heartless jargon of over-production in the midst of want will end in a better science of distribution.”

Perhaps the real clash of civilizations is the battle being waged in the dark gray matter of the species: best intentions struggling to best human nature.

And how is this likely to turn out, you ask? Lacking the soothsayer’s vision and vanity, I restrict myself to the modest proposal that if when looking hard into your crystal ball it cracks under the pressure of your anxious gaze, take comfort in the fact that "that’s (where and) how the light gets in.”



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