“Given just a brief list of their fundamental traits, and the fact that they both enjoy legal personhood status, one could easily confuse a corporation with a psychopath.”
The story of the gradual morphing of public-benefit chartered companies into today’s free-range, private-benefit, publicly traded, shareholder-beholden, transnational corporations is quite illuminating.
Originally, corporations could only act within the narrow set of powers allocated to them by their articles of incorporation. Only shareholders in the corporation had recourse against their corporation for failure by its directors and officers to pursue the purposes that had been agreed upon. But because corporations could pursue internally established purposes — policed only by the corporation’s own shareholders and the market for shares — corporations gradually became shareholder-centric. As traditional chartered companies evolved into today’s modern corporations, they shed themselves of any imposed requirements to provide a public benefit. So what had started out as a license to operate with state-delegated authority for state-designated purposes gradually became an open invitation to pursue private advantage.
In the process, corporations also became ‘externality’ generating — producing large and detrimental spillover side effects onto ‘the commons,’ like pollution and — more socially corrosive — the gradual erosion of local community life. These negative externalities have grown exponentially as corporations have grown in size — transnational corporations today make up about seventy percent of the world’s largest economies. They’ve also grown in financial and political influence. And these negative externalities have never been ‘priced in’ to offset the damage to ‘the commons’ that lingers long, long after. Historically, acts of corporate social responsibility have been, more often than not, about reducing harm rather than producing net social benefits. In fact, U.S. corporations pursuing a public purpose at the same time as making a private profit can invite lawsuits over liability for failure to pursue the maximum of shareholder value.
Given just a brief list of their fundamental traits, and the fact that they both enjoy legal personhood status, one could easily confuse a corporation with a psychopath. What do they both share? A callous disregard for the feelings of people, the incapacity to maintain human relationships, reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness in order to maximize gain, incapacity to experience guilt, and failure to conform to social norms and the spirit of the law.
Such a description begs the question: Could a corporate entity with a social conscience ever really exist? After all, a corporation is legally recognized a an ‘artificial person’ seeking nothing more than personal gain in the form of profit. But alas, it has no soul to be damned, no body to be imprisoned, and no sleep to lose after engaging in an unconscionable act. It is an intangible and unaccountable fictional entity.
And what happens when you combine psychopathic, profit-seeking, transnational corporations with sociopathic, return-seeking, highly mobile transnational capital? You get a global economic system that ravenously, efficiently, callously converts natural real wealth, mainly from the Global South, into digital virtual wealth (money), mainly for the Global North. Global finance capitalism has clearly become dysfunctional and destructive, as revealed by the economic meltdown in 2008. It is a shifty, unrestrained system that is also inherently unstable.
And not only is there an appalling lack of political courage among wealthy nations to confront this growing global pathology, but ‘shock therapy’ is frequently used to push through radical pro-corporate measures during times of public disorientation when there is a temporary vacuum between events and our inability to explain them. The ‘shock doctrine’ of ‘disaster capitalism’ is a brutal tactic from the pro-corporate economic playbook that exploits wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes, or natural disasters to advance the private interests of corporations and authoritarian governments over the public sphere and the public interest.
With increasing regularity, news stories and world events suggest that transnational capital has become so concentrated and pervasive in both national and international institutions — and the tight integration of global finance has created widespread vulnerability — that single nation-states dare not adopt a significantly divergent policy direction from the dominant economies for fear of retaliation and potentially disastrous capital flight.
Not long ago in Greece, to pay interest to foreign lenders, the structural adjustments imposed on public services and the social wage threw many thousands into poverty. When elected heads of state were embarrassingly replaced by financial technocrats, the too-easy shift toward ‘government-by-external-fiat’ revealed the shallow roots of democratic processes when confronted by the clearly dominant influence and cold, indifferent demands of global finance capitalism. So even a well-established and respectable Western democracy like Greece is not immune to this economic humiliation.
Globally mobile financial capital has a nasty tendency to erode any well-intended benefits, and ‘free-trade agreements’ often serves to facilitate and legitimate the unjust liquidation and appropriation of the high-quality natural resources found in forests, farms, and fossil fuels of ‘lesser’ countries. This too-common pattern has a name: the Resource Curse.
The current and growing ecological-climate crisis is but one consequence of the inherent inability of today's form of unregulated and voracious global capitalism — increasingly concentrating too much wealth and power in the hands of too few — to restrain its own greed and destructive ecological practices.
Fortunately, the gross misdeeds of transnational corporations seeking ever more concentrated power and control are also making daily headlines with greater frequency, signaling the end of this form of unbridled ‘extremist’ global corporate capitalism with its insatiable desire for unconstrained power and influence. And this all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest has likely peaked and now, hopefully, entered into a state of terminal decline.