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The New Totalitarianism: How American Corporations Have Made America Like the Soviet Union

Free-market capitalism was supposed to save us from the tyranny of faceless apparatchiks. But that's not what happened.
 
 
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The great power struggle of the 20th century was the competition between Soviet-style communism and "free-market" corporatism for domination of the world's resources. In America, it's taken for granted that Soviet communism lost (though China's more capitalist variant seems to be doing well), and the superiority of neo-liberal economics -- as epitomized by the great multinational corporations -- was thus affirmed for all time and eternity.

There's a small problem with this, though. An old bit of wisdom says: choose your enemies carefully, because over time, you will tend to become the very thing you most strongly resist. One of the most striking things about our victorious corporations now is the degree to which they've taken on some of the most noxious and Kafkaesque attributes of the Soviet system -- too often leaving their employees, customers, and other stakeholders just as powerless over their own fates as the unhappy citizens of those old centrally planned economies of the USSR were back in the day.

It's not just that the corporations have taken control over our government (though that's awful enough). It's also that they've taken control over -- and put serious limits on -- our choices regarding what we buy, where we work, how we live, and what rights we have. Our futures are increasingly no longer our own: more and more decisions, large and small, that determine the quality of our lives are being made by Politburo apparatchiks at a Supreme Corporate Soviet somewhere far distant from us. Only now, those apparatchiks are PR and marketing executives, titans of corporate finance, lobbyists for multinationals, and bean-counting managers trying to increase profits at the expense of our freedom.

With tongue only somewhat in cheek, here are a few ways in which Americans are now becoming a new lumpenproletariat, subject to the whims and diktats of our new Soviet-style corporate overlords.

Reduced Choice and Big-Box Censorship

We see it most evidently when we go to the store. Back in the 1970s, the American retail landscape was still mostly dominated by mom-and-pop stores, which in turn carried merchandise also made by small manufacturers (many of them right here in the US). Not only did this complex economy sustain tens of millions of comfortable middle-class jobs; it also produced a dazzling variety of retail choices. Every store on Main Street carried somewhat different merchandise, bought from a different group of preferred suppliers. A shoe store might carry 20 different brands. The shoe store down the street might differentiate itself by carrying 10 of the same brands, and 10 different ones. The result was a very wide range of consumer choices -- though you did have to go from store to store to find it -- and a rich variety of stores that competed aggressively for their customers' attention. And if you visited a different part of the country, the selection might be very different from what you'd get back home.

Now, every Macy's in America carries the same dozen or so lines of bland, middle-of-the-road women's clothing. You'll find exactly the same stuff on the racks in Long Island as you do in Long Beach. If you're looking for something that hasn't been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, you probably won't find it at the mall.

Big-box stores have eliminated choice even further: The Supreme Soviet in Bentonville or Atlanta or Minneapolis has decreed what appears on the shelves of your local Walmart or Home Depot or Target store, with very little tailoring to local tastes and preferences. (Even our own tap water is being sold back to us by Coke and Pepsi.) You have exactly as many choices as they deign to devote shelf space to. Now that Wal-Mart is selling 25% of the groceries in America, if you're looking for a specific brand that someone back in Bentonville decided Walmart will no longer carry, then you're just plain out of luck. And since the other grocers in town often close up when a Walmart opens, there's no place else to turn to find it.

 
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