The downside of our corporations

Many human organizations and institutions constitute the working mosaic that is our country. Governments at all levels provide policy guidance and decision-making on behalf of the citizenry. Other organizations include churches, fraternal societies, NGOs, business associations, clubs, charities, trade unions, so-called “think tanks,” and so on. Virtually, all of these have a vested interest in influencing the decisions of their democratically elected governments. But, within this tangle, a kind of elephant in the room compared to its other occupants, are corporations.

At times, it is difficult to judge where the greatest influence on government decision-making comes from: citizen input, or corporate lobbying. Certainly, the recent controversy concerning SNC Lavalin’s relationship to the federal government suggests that corporate influence is very strong, indeed.

Corporations are NOT citizens; only qualified people are citizens. However, corporations ARE considered legal persons for significant purposes, defined so largely as a means of conferring certain rights on their status and behaviour, particularly to do with lobbying and free speech.

Canadian corporations own billions in assets: land, buildings, productive capacity, patents, cash and investments, rights to resources, and so on. (Interestingly, purchase of these assets was largely accomplished through debt. In the fourth quarter of 2018, non-financial corporations’ debt/equity ratio stood at 196 per cent, or nearly 2 to 1. See Statscan.)

Nearly 7.5 million Canadians work for individual corporations that employ over 500 people. Thus, a large portion of the working population has a vested interest in corporate well-being (particularly regarding their own employers). Many Canadian retirees draw pension income from former corporate employers, in addition to the government pensions that are invested in both the debt, common and preferred stock, and real estate of the corporate world.

Given corporations’ centrality in our daily life (the products we consume, the media and advertising we watch, and the employment and income they provide), it is difficult to disentangle the benefits they bestow from the damage they often cause. Corporations have conferred immense benefits on society, particularly regarding our material comfort and well-being, from networks of food production and supply to opportunities for travel and education. Corporations have also caused immense harm, including damage to Canada’s environment, and human exploitation at home and abroad.

In his book In the Absence of the Sacred, Jerry Mander outlines several detrimental aspects of corporations that we are too often prone to overlook.

Even when such imperatives demonstrably cause harm, profit and growth dominate virtually all other priorities. Corporations are naturally competitive and aggressive, and although working together may exist within the corporate “team” (when individuals aren’t competing for position, salary, etc.), such cooperation is a weakness in a competitive market.

Corporations’ hierarchical natures are a rebuke to notions of social equitability and equity. Decision-making is number-driven and fundamentally amoral (the bottom line determines action, not the officials who read it). A company may hurt others, but an individual human is rarely found accountable.

Corporate profit (the value difference between inputs such as labour, materials, etc. and their sales value) is a form of exploitation, relying on using up resources and lives to generate it for the elites who most benefit. Nature is there to be used, not protected or conserved.

As we continue to find ourselves confronting biophysical limits (the planet’s carrying capacity), we may also find that corporations are not the best institutions to ensure our survival.

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