There Is a Way! Beyond the Big, Bad Corporation
As our political system sputters, a wave of innovative thinking and bold experimentation is quietly sweeping away outmoded economic models. In New Economic Visions, a special five-part AlterNet series edited by economics editor Lynn Parramore in partnership with political economist Gar Alperovitz of the Democracy Collaborative, creative thinkers come together to explore the exciting ideas and projects that are shaping the philosophical and political vision of the movement that could take our economy back.
In September 2011, two Appalachian women traveled to Delaware to deliver a petition to the state's Attorney General Beau Biden. Betty Harrah and Lorelei Scarbro represented thousands who believed that the business charter for coal-mining company Massey Energy should be repealed. The company, mostly operating in Appalachia but incorporated in Delaware, has violated the Clean Water Act 60,000 times. An investigation commissioned by the governor of West Virginia found Massey could have prevented the explosion that claimed the lives of 29 miners, among them Harrah's brother, at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010.
Massey, they contended, was simply too dangerous to be in business. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. The company plugs along, despite its shoddy environmental and safety records, churning out profits for its parent company, Alpha Natural Resources.
To many, Massey is not simply one bad apple, but part of an economic system heavy with rotten fruit. Companies like Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Countrywide, BP, and Walmart epitomize the relentless drive of corporations to maximize profit above everything else, including safety, fair working conditions, clean air and water, healthy communities, and common decency. In doing so, the very word "corporation" has become a dirty word.
Forget bad apples, perhaps we should just raze the entire orchard, right?
Our economy, like our environment, is in trouble. Limitless growth that drives the profit-hungry corporate model today is ecologically impossible. We simply cannot sustain business as usual and the cracks in our system are showing.
"You look at the Arab Spring ... what looked like very stable regimes across the Arab world were suddenly shown to be completely vulnerable and brittle and I think that we may see the same kind of thing in our economy," said Marjorie Kelly, a fellow at the Tellus Institute and author of the new book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution. "What looks massive and permanent and invulnerable, may show itself quite suddenly to be brittle."
Maybe this doesn't sound heartening but it should. The corporate model we have today hasn't always been around and it doesn't need to remain the dominant way we do business. There is no reason we should be swabbing the decks of a sinking ship -- alternatives already exist and they are flourishing. Kelly's book points to examples of these from England to Mexico to Minnesota. It's nothing short of an ownership revolution, she says. We are no longer faced with "dusty 19th-century categories" of capitalism or communism, in fact there are myriad way in which we can restructure the economy.
A common complaint in today's world is one of disconnection. Our industrialized world has resulted in less contact with community -- we don't know our neighbors or who grows our food. In the same way that we've lost touch with a deeper sense of belonging and place, many of us have become disconnected from the soul of our work. The corporation-worker structure today is a master-servant relationship. We're slaves to the company, working longer hours for less wages.
"Now mass layoffs to boost profits are the norm, while the expectation of a career with one company is long gone," William Lazonick wrote. "This transformation happened because the U.S. business corporation has become in a (rather ugly) word 'financialized.' It means that executives began to base all their decisions on increasing corporate earnings for the sake of jacking up corporate stock prices. Other concerns -- economic, social and political -- took a backseat. From the 1980s, the talk in boardrooms and business schools changed. Instead of running corporations to create wealth for all, leaders should think only of 'maximizing shareholder value.'"