Aliens or Kleptocrats?
December 12, 2010
In this week’s in-box, three pieces by gentlemen who have precious little in common beyond that I admire each of them very much: Charles Stross (science-fiction author), Paul Krugman (Nobel Laureate in Economics), and Nayan Chanda (director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online).
Tim O’Reilly (another guy I like and admire very much) forwarded a link to Stross’ “Invaders from Mars,” a punchy case that the world has been taken over by “aliens”– a critique of the corporatism* that’s come to characterize so much national and international political action. Excerpts…
…The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people… [But] corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)…
We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
[Stross' full piece here]**
Paul Krugman disagrees: it’s not, Krugman suggests, corporations that are the problem; it’s greedy individuals:
These days, we’re living in the world of the imperial, very self-interested individual; the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit. Look at the protagonists in the global financial meltdown, and you won’t see faceless corporations subverting individual will; you’ll see avaricious individuals exploiting corporate forms to enrich themselves, often bringing the corporations down in the process. Lehman, AIG, Anglo-Irish, etc. were not cases of immortal hive-minds at work; they were cases of kleptocrats run wild.
And when it comes to the subversion of the political process — yes, there are faceless corporations in the mix, but the really dastardly players have names and large individual fortunes; Koch brothers, anyone?
[Krugman's full piece here]
Hive organisms or killer bees (or a combination of the two)? Clearly it’s a problem either way… a problem that is increasingly accruing in global challenges.
Nayan’s post couldn’t be more different in tone and approach from Stross’ and Krugman’s. But interestingly, it drives toward a similar recognition that many of the most vexing problems that face the citizens of any country face the citizens of every country. While he’s (understandably) circumspect about their current operation, Nayan argues in defense of supranational organizations like the G20– though working not so much as they do, but as they should. From “Let Down by Politics“…
…regular consultations between senior officials of member countries have helped create deeper understanding of each other’s problems and facilitated work towards common solutions. Besides, the routine of the summits generates pressure to push through deliverables… for all the challenges, global governance, often confused with global government, is the only recourse to solve the myriad problems arising from an increasingly integrated world.
[Chanda's full piece here]
Of course as things stand, the representatives to the G20 and like groups tend too often to be the proxies of precisely those same corporate/kleptocratic interests of which Stross and Krugman warn. But at least the impedance is right: it’s a (set of) global mechanism(s) that could– if we get their composition and orientation right– rein in the supranational corporate behavior that’s beyond the jurisdiction of any one country. Similarly, international NGOs clearly have a “lobbying” role to play in balance to the efforts of the corporate interests already pleading their cases at the WTO and other such organizations.
It’s the happiest of ironies that such a balanced outcome would be as terrific for business as it would be for “civilians,” creating, as it would, a refereed playing field on which the “game” could be played fairly and well– a platform on which inclusive growth would be easier and coordinated responses to global environmental threats, easier and more effective– i.e., the preconditions of that rising tide that can lift all boats…. that’s to say, good for business, and for us all, in the long run.
Still, of course, there’s resistance. In the short run (the horizon, and thus focus, of most corporations… and thieves), there’s a price to pay: the sort of governance that Nayan describes would require forgoing the marginal immediate returns that come of being able to plunder with no restraints, and recognizing that it will likely be years before the tide will have risen high enough to offset them…
But there’s just no denying that it beats the alternative that’s being increasingly mooted in the face of the epic environmental and resource allocation issues facing the world– e.g., by the father of the Gaia Hypothesis, James Lovelock, who’s become a reluctant fan of global government– and of an authoritarian one at that– suggesting that “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”
Happily, failing to manage the sort of global governance that Nayan is touting doesn’t necessarily consign us to global government. But as environmental and resource challenges become ever graver, and drive conflict, national/region versions of that authoritarian prospect seem all too plausible… or even worse, the essentially feudal future that’s the extension of Krugman’s war-lord-defined vision.
Surely that’s reason enough to galvanize us in a commitment to reforming our elected bodies and to working to assure the efficacy of cooperative global governance. Otherwise, our nascent tragedy of the commons will turn into… well, a common tragedy.
* My daughter reminds me that “corporatism” is a term of art in the discourse of political science; I use it here in its more immediately-obvious sense: controlled by and for the the interests of commercial corporations.
**Stross’ description of a “Corporate World” may seem to extreme to some, and in any case, applies more obviously in some corners of the globe than others. But I suspect that we can all agree that it’s evocative precisely because it’s rooted in reality… which is striking when we remember that it’s an echo of the dystopian “future”– of global corporate behemoths, with their (pun-sharply-intended) “headhunters”– described in William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, an imaginative fiction published in 1984. When asked how he came up with such “outlandish” ideas, Gibson replied that he just looked around him: “the future’s already here; it’s just not yet evenly distributed.” Fast forward 26 years… Indeed.
Filed in Competition and Industry Structure, Economic, Political, Scenario Planning, Social
Tags: authoritarianism, Charles Stross, corporatism, G20, Gaia Hypothesis, global governance, global government, James Lovelock, kleptocrats, Nayan Chanda, Neuromancer, NGO, Paul Krugman, Tim O'Reilly, tragedy of the commons, William Gibson, WTO, Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, YaleGlobal Online