BOOK REVIEW – How the corporate big picture affects the little guy

Published on

Los Angeles Times

“Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom and What You Can Do About It”, by Jamie Court – Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin: 324 pp., $15.95 paper
The corporate mega-giants that have mushroomed in today’s hothouse climate of deregulation, mergers, takeovers, bailouts and globalism may not yet have attained the absolute power famed for corrupting absolutely, but they seem well on the way to doing so. By 1999, according to a survey cited in Jamie Court’s eye-opening “Corporateering,” “fifty-one of the largest 100 economies in the world were corporations.”

As Court explains, the forces that have traditionally served to counterbalance corporate power — government and labor unions — have been severely weakened, making it all too easy for corporations to do as they please, regardless of damage to workers, consumers, the fabric of society, the national interest or the natural resources on which human life depends.

“Corporateering” provides a trenchant look at the extent of the power currently wielded by the largest corporations. Court, who is executive director of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, attacks the subject from three angles.

He begins by detailing the ways in which corporations have encroached on our private lives and commercialized our public spaces. Next, he examines the underlying assumptions — the “prevailing logic,” as he calls it — that have enabled them to get away with this. And finally, he suggests ways in which individuals can resist or fight back.

While many fear a threat to freedom from the heightened security measures taken by the government in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, few seem aware of the more commonplace (and less justifiable) incursions on our personal freedoms by corporations.

Among the rights Court sees as endangered are privacy (when corporations share our personal information without our knowledge or consent), free association (when companies interfere with the right to join a labor union) and legal recourse (when employers require workers to waive their right to a trial and submit to binding arbitration as a condition of employment).

Still more disturbing is Court’s account of how corporations have managed to transform the climate of public opinion in their favor. Thanks to a long campaign of vilification against union leaders (routinely dubbed union “bosses”) and government (the buzzword here is “bureaucrats”), corporations have persuaded people to distrust the two entities capable of counterbalancing corporate power — or at least setting some limits on it.

The campaign to enshrine corporate ideology has proved so successful that many now unthinkingly believe that freedom is identical with free enterprise and that society, culture and morality are all reducible to the marketplace.

Catering to (and sometimes artificially creating) the demands of the marketplace, as Court explains, is not the same as providing for the social, cultural and health needs of individuals. Television “news” consisting of scandal and crime may reap a high ratings share, but it does not keep the public well informed about its political choices. Junk food, recreational drugs, cigarettes, violent and pornographic films, and video games may sell, but they certainly don’t enhance the well-being of those who consume them or of society in general.

The earliest corporations, Court reminds us, were granted charters by the state permitting them to operate provided that they served the public interest. If they didn’t, their charters could be revoked. It was only in the late 19th century, the era of the “robber barons,” that a perverse ruling by the Supreme Court proclaimed that under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, corporations had “rights” formerly believed to belong exclusively to human beings.

Thus, it became possible for a company to avoid safety inspections on the grounds that these would infringe on its “privacy.” Or for arbiters to decide that limiting the amount of political advertising a corporation can buy would infringe on its right of “free speech.”

Crisply written and lucidly argued, “Corporateering” will certainly strike a chord with those concerned about the erosion of their rights and looking for tips on how to fight back.

But one hopes it will also find readers among those who are not, at present, outraged by excessive corporate power: people who automatically assume that what’s good for Wall Street is always good for the rest of us.

Court’s astute analysis of this misguided mind-set — and how it came to prevail — should induce at least some readers to re-examine their assumptions and start thinking outside the corporate box.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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