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31 January 2014 @ 01:51 pm
Corporations are the enemy  
Corporations are the enemy.

I work for a really great company. The people here are amazing, and we're engaged in a big, valuable project that I feel good about, and I truly believe that leadership cares about the corporate mission and vision, and also, unlike plenty of leadership teams, the employees and the employee experience. That doesn't matter, though, because these people are not the corporation. They may speak for the corporation; they may make decisions for the corporation; the corporation may be made up of them (and me). But the corporation is bigger than all of them, and it is profoundly anti-person. Not because anyone at the company is anti-person, but because every corporation is fundamentally anti-person.

The corporation's one and only job in our economy is to make money. Its structure and ethics are driven by this mission. And for the corporation, people are always the enemy to this goal, whether employees (serious money sinks from the corporation's perspective) or clients (how can we wring more money out of them?) or competitors (obvious). The bigger a corporation is, the less any one person's influence holds sway, and as the corporation grows, its addiction to money and making more and more money grows as well.

In the fable of the farmer and the snake, where the farmer rescues a snake who then bites him, the snake says, "You knew I was a snake when you rescued me." In dealing with corporations, we must always recognize that the corporation is the snake. The good intentions of the people who make up the corporation aren't relevant, because the very structure of the corporation in today's world is, in human and ecological terms, immoral and opposed to the human good. There is no such thing as a good corporation because of how they are constructed and defined economically and legally.

Good old Google started out saying "don't be evil", and now, anyone can see that Google is evil all over the place: sharing individuals' private data with advertisers and government, conspiring with other corporations to keep employee pay unnaturally low. Don't blame Google: its job is to make money, and this is how it's doing so.

Similarly, the company I work for is currently not (to my knowledge) engaging in overtly evil behaviors, but that's not a steady state, because it's a corporation, and when push comes to shove, it won't always come down on the side of the people.

Even if we love working here right now and truly believe it's a good deal (at the moment), the corporation is never on our side. It's easy to confound the corporation and the people who represent it, and that's especially true at higher levels. Senior leadership identifies with the corporation, and wants loyalty to the corporation from employees. The problem is that loyalty is a human bargain. The corporation has no inherent loyalty to its employees or customers, and we have none to it, though the people representing the corporation have lost sight of this.

This is why it's so important not to let the corporation eat you. The corporation pays you for your time and effort, but it doesn't own you, even though it would like you to forget that distinction and always be available to check your email and put out a fire. Don't confuse the corporation for the people who represent it. Feel loyalty and reciprocity towards people, but never the corporation. The best we can do is rein it in and have strong, ethical leaders keep it on track, who recognize that we are all fighting together against the nature of the thing. If you hold it right, it can't bite you, but at heart, it will always be a snake.
drwexdrwex on January 31st, 2014 06:59 pm (UTC)
What prompted this?
I'm also curious if you think there are better alternatives or whether you believe that the pursuit of money as a goal inherently requires or leads to this form of evil.
ruthless compassion: thinkyaroraborealis on January 31st, 2014 07:14 pm (UTC)
Re: What prompted this?
Nothing particular prompted it. Or, in other words, everything in general, plus a conversation I had recently where I was explaining my observation that it's easy to confound the company and the people who represent it, particularly with a sense of loyalty and reciprocity. Even very smart people think it's reasonable to be loyal to a corporation, and I very strongly disagree.

I do think there are better alternatives, though I also think we lack the political will to enact them (and that's more and more true every day). Currently, corporations are exclusively driven by money, but if we were to include some ethical values in their structure and definition (e.g., asserting that a corporation should do the "right" thing even if it costs money or means making less, or demanding that the cost of manufactured goods include externalized costs [like the cost of cleaning up oil spills being part of the price of gas] as well as internalized ones, that might help), a clause that demands they be good citizens, that could address at least some of the problems we see today.
drwexdrwex on January 31st, 2014 07:27 pm (UTC)
Re: What prompted this?
Interesting. Thank you for sharing some of the back-story with me.
Spiderbabearachne8x on January 31st, 2014 07:37 pm (UTC)
A good reminder. Thanks.
Stephghislaine on January 31st, 2014 07:44 pm (UTC)
You need to publish this. I'm not sure where, but this is worth a wider readership.
ruthless compassion: smiling uparoraborealis on January 31st, 2014 08:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Interesting thought
Chancemiss_chance on January 31st, 2014 08:10 pm (UTC)
I'm curious, because I haven't looked into this deeply enough to know as much as I would like to, and perhaps you have. Does this same admonition apply equally to B-corps? Is "there is no such thing as a good corporation because of how they are constructed and defined economically and legally," true in those cases? I want to believe that's the exception, because if it is, then it also offers a path. But I don't know. do you?
ruthless compassion: martini handsaroraborealis on January 31st, 2014 08:51 pm (UTC)
Interesting question! I am not familiar enough with them or their structure to know, but I'm now inspired to look into them with this question in mind.
Deloresdebsquared on January 31st, 2014 10:21 pm (UTC)
I've thought a lot about this, though I can't say I've found any answers. One reason this is as you say is that the stock market is hyper focused on the conceit that companies will always have accelerating growth. The business models for big company sustainability are still under construction. One bright spot is the co-op movement, and I think this model will get more use for a broader range of industries over the next decade.
Beahbeah on February 1st, 2014 01:00 am (UTC)
I would love to see this published somewhere like the nytimes op-ed page!

One upon a time I had some hope that social entrepreneurship (as opposed to business entrepreneurship: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_entrepreneurship) would bridge the gap between caring about the bottom line and caring about anyone/anything else. As far as I can tell, though, the idea has only really taken hold in the nonprofit sector. And while I applaud nonprofits finally using sound business practices and strategies to increase the odds that they'll survive to do more good, I'm disappointed that more for-profits haven't likewise incorporated nonprofit measures of success into their DNA.

Edited at 2014-02-01 01:17 am (UTC)
Will O'the Wispwotw on February 1st, 2014 01:43 am (UTC)
One might just as well, I suppose, say that workers are the enemy because they seek high wages and benefits with no regard to the effects on shareholders, or on customers, or on other workers. Or that consumers are the enemy, because they seek bargains with no regard to the effects on workers, or on shareholders, or on other consumers.

There is plenty of selfishness to go around. Fortunately, we have a system that channels much of that selfishness into a force for good. Unfortunately, much is not the same as all.
the independent republic of nopantsistanfraterrisus on February 1st, 2014 02:32 am (UTC)
I reject the notion that consumers and workers are not capable of acting with regard for other humans. People are motivated by things other than money, at least sometimes. But corporations are *only* capable of acting without regard for people, and can only be motivated by money.
Will O'the Wispwotw on February 1st, 2014 08:01 pm (UTC)
But if singleness of purpose is the criterion for evil, then hospitals are evil because they seek only to cure illness and party committees are evil because they seek only to plan parties.

People, who are concerned about many things, do have a tendency to organize themselves into groups that focus on just one (or a few) of those many things. I don't see the evil in that.

metaphortunate sonmetaphortunate on February 4th, 2014 07:23 pm (UTC)
That's not true, though. I mean, have you ever been on a party committee? It would be a strange party committee that decided "We will kill people and burn their homes to the ground in order to throw this party slightly cheaper." And yet, corporations do that on the daily - think of oil companies in Africa and South America. You can see the difference in their effects.
Kcatkcatalyst on February 1st, 2014 03:17 pm (UTC)
I find it bewildering to agree with wotw on an issue like this, but I kinda do. Corporations are a particular way of organizing people, with associated ideologies about the appropriate kinds of behavior that belongs in and around them. I agree strongly with (what I think is) your core point that many of the cultural practices concerning corporations and business more generally foster evil. But one of the things I think is a problem with corporations is the ways that we allow them to protect individuals from the social and ethical consequences from their actions, because they can do the same move you're doing here and say, that it's "Google", not them, who is making that choice.

As wotw says, self-centeredness is a a really common human trait. So is compassion, and generosity. The organizational structures of our world are good or bad to the extent that they foster those traits. They can't create the behavior on their own.
Randomnessr_ness on February 1st, 2014 01:53 pm (UTC)
The corporation's one and only job in our economy is to make money. Its structure and ethics are driven by this mission.

Definitely. It really is the whole point of a company in a capitalist system.

Losing sight of that is a mistake.
David Policardpolicar on February 1st, 2014 05:53 pm (UTC)
As I've said elsewhere: capitalism is the best machine we've ever developed for converting resources into consumable commodities. This is awesome to the extent that one is a consumer, tolerable to the extent that one is a commodity, and really really sucks to the extent that one is a resource.
David Policardpolicar on February 1st, 2014 05:51 pm (UTC)
(nods) Yes.

This is not just true of corporations; it's true of all kinds of social structures. Not the wanting-money part, necessarily, but groups of people end up optimizing for things that no individual in the group necessarily wants, and doing things that no individual in the group necessarily endorses, and it helps not to confuse the group with the individual.

I often find it helpful to try and think explicitly about the goals (or "goals," if you prefer) of the social structures I'm embedded in and surrounded by. I rarely understand them, but it gets me out of the metonymous habit of confusing them with their spokespeople.

That said, I also frequently experience myself as a social structure comprised of components that don't necessarily endorse the goals of the greater individual, nor even necessarily identify with it. It's kind of turtles all the way down.
maebethmaebeth on February 4th, 2014 03:54 am (UTC)
Worcester Fellowship is "incorporated" as non-profit. So we are a corporation. Our purpose is not to raise money, but we have to raise money to live out our purpose.
metaphortunate sonmetaphortunate on February 4th, 2014 07:24 pm (UTC)
Absolutely true. Corporations are designed to have no ethics but financial responsibility to their shareholders.
Vinnie Teslavinnie_tesla on February 13th, 2014 03:27 pm (UTC)
I recently learned that in Germany, corporate boards are required by law to consider their duty not just to shareholders but to all stakeholders in their decisions. In fact, the board has members who are chosen by the corporation's employees rather than shareholders.

Now, how much that actually works to make corporations operate differently there is something I don't really know anything about. But it does underscore that the current American model isn't the only possible one.