Corporations Good, Corporatism Bad?
By Gwydion M. Williams
People confuse method with intention; do not remember how successful 1950s Corporatism was in ending the miseries of the 1930s and the horrors of the 1940s.
The Body Politic is a very old idea. Something going beyond the family or clan or tribe. And yet not falling under the dominion of a single individual whose private life as Duke or King gets tangled up in public matter. Personal loyalty is familiar and comes first. An abstract Body Politic is a more sophisticated idea.
A corporate body derives its existence from many different individuals, and from no individual in particular. If one individual exercises the corporate will, this is a matter of convenience rather than right. All such individuals are servants of the corporation, and can be criticised and controlled as such.
Corporatism is a word in bad odour right now. Even Will ‘Stakeholder’ Hutton prefers to distance himself from that legacy. If his commitment to Stakeholding were serious, he should be emphasising how successful that system was in achieving its own aims (which were admittedly different from what most people nowadays would want).
For all the talk of ‘conservatism’, every mainstream politician wants to distance themselves from the last functionally conservative order than existed in Britain. Macmillan was a functional conservative, at a time when Britain’s legacy had been undermined by war and by the loss of economic advantage. Macmillan preserved something, where another sort of Tory leader could easily have lost everything. Just as Eden ended Britain’s Imperial Glory by conducting the Suez adventure without squaring it with the Americans. Coming in after Eden, Macmillan managed to make a strategic retreat when a rout and collapse could quite easily have occurred.
Thatcherism was a dysfunctional conservatism. A dysfunctional family may want to be happy but will spread misery. Thatcher sincerely wanted to restore old fashioned values. But she failed to realise that these were being preserved more than damaged by the ‘corporatism’ she attacked so vigorously.
So just what is Corporatism? Is it tied to just one set of values? Or is it a form of organisation that can be applied to anything, just as a glass bottle may contain wine or beer or paraffin or mineral water?
Checking the Oxford English Dictionary, I find that Corporate, forming a body politic or corporation, goes back as far as 1512. It originally meant a town possessing municipal rights. Its wider application as corporations in the business world is mostly American. They say corporation where Britain says company. But there are also British examples like the British Broadcasting Corporation (currently being gutted and Americanised by dysfunctional conservatives).
And Corporatism? Corporatism is the idea of extending business values to the society as a whole. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to 1890, with a Chicago newspaper complaining ‘Individualism has seemed in danger of being swamped by a kind of corporatism.’ The idea was definitely there in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, 2000-1887. Bellamy supposes that the growth of private corporations will resolve itself in a socialist society as soon as the corporations have swallowed everything else. The same notion was floated rather more practically by Mussolini. A former socialist militant who always regarded himself as a Marxist, Mussolini combined corporatism with aggressive nationalism as an alternative to International Socialism.
Most people in the 1920s and 1930s recognised that Liberalism had disgraced itself with the 1914-1918 war, and with mass poverty existing alongside growing wealth. The Liberal theory that Free Trade and Free Competition would produce justice and harmony was based on unproven assumptions. It had been tested to destruction by a middle class order that drew immediate benefits from breaking down older social forms. And the theory had been found quite untrue.
‘Free’ is always culturally defined. No one ever intends to allow all possible forms of human behaviour when they declare freedom to be sacred. When I say free I mean free within certain limits, and so do you, and my limits may not be the same as your limits. Vicious battles regularly brake out over which forms of freedom were admirably Liberty and which were unworthy Licence.
The notion that free well-educated people would automatically reach a moral consensus was tested, and has been shown to be false. When people were free to mock Christianity, its authority vanished. And much that had been taken as ‘obvious’ morality turned out to be very questionable indeed. Liberalism had not intended to give women equality with men, for instance. Yet when the traditional forms were broken down and when free-market economics turned them into wage workers, the women started demanding new freedoms to go with their loss of traditional protections and restrictions.
While researching the origins of modern industry, I found a little gem from an account of the Montgolfier paper mill 1786. Pre-revolutionary France was a more progressive place than Victorian mythology makes it, with the aristocrats very progressive and radical about everything except their own privileges, and promoting the growth on an energetic middle class. The Montgolfier brothers began the whole ‘conquest of the air’ by their pioneering balloon flights. They also introduced modern methods at their factories. It was not only England that traditional artisan habits were swept aside, though England went furthest. Their paper mill employed a mix of men, women and children, but had trouble imposing labour discipline in the relatively lax and tolerant 18th century world.
In this one case, ‘they released Duranton’s wife from her obligation to give six weeks’ notice ‘in order to be rid of her.’ She was neither clean nor orderly, spent her time taking care of her children, and produced little work.’ (The Workplace before the Factory, Safley and Rosenband, Cornell University Press 1993, P 236. Emphasis added.)
People wonder why family values have collapsed. Yet they take great care to look in all the wrong places. They dare not notice how the process of free economics attacked the ancient traditions. Traditions that had been successfully producing much the same sort of person across the centuries.
The nineteenth century world wanted everything to be changed, and also for everything to stay just the same. Liberalism claimed that this contradiction would be resolved by Free Choice. Sometimes this was true, in as much as the old order would often quietly let itself be eroded. But for the most part, people reacted with anger to an arbitrary division of the world into things that must not be changed and things that could not be left alone despite strong roots in tradition and human need. It became obvious that such arbitrary ‘freedom’ was not much more than middle class vanity and self interest.
One simple example. The notion of carrying personal identity cards is seen as an outrageous threat to True British Liberty. Even the notion of voluntary identity cards seemed dangerous. As for a requirement to publicly display such identity cards, a growing number of corporations do now require this of their employees. But that is not seen as a threat to liberty, since employees are supposedly free to go and work elsewhere, even though jobs are increasingly scarce and even though the right to refuse an undesirable job is being attacked. As for identity badges outside of the workplace, not even the most totalitarian regime would think of asking for that. Except for cars. Cars are taken to be the ultimate symbol of personal liberty, and yet every one of them displays a government-assigned code at each end, a code that it is illegal to deface, alter or conceal. And because this has always applies for as long as such things as cars have existed, no one thinks to question it or call it a restriction on privacy or liberty.
Liberalism is utterly arbitrary in what it accepts, what it attacks and what it rejects as an a violation of The Freedom. It does not try to work how you can construct a passably free, decent, prosperous and happy world. It assumes that these things should exist spontaneously. It assumes that any deviations are due to someone else’s wickedness.
Liberal freedoms in the first half of the 20th century had freely wandered into war, horror and economic collapse. Liberalism had failed so badly that there was mass support for Leninist Authoritarianism. And the defenders of the old order found it necessary to offer some substitute. In Italy, it was Fascism, an entire nation organised as a gigantic benevolent corporation, extending the same rights to all inhabitants of the nation as an old time city or corporation gave to its citizens. The very notion of ‘inhabitants of the nation’ as citizens comparable to the members of a town corporation is a legacy of 18th century rationalism and Rousseau’s use of the term in a reassertion of basic human rights.
Mussolini most likely floated the notion of Corporatism because it was a different word from Socialism, and thus reassuring to business people. Of course a company or corporation practices a rather unequal form of socialism within its own boundaries. The many are organised collectively for the benefit of a few, but the interests of the many can not be completely ignored if the corporation is to function effectively. And the New Right dreams of breaking down capitalist corporations into fragmented competing individual units of personnel has not worked out in practice. It is rather harder to be a genuinely independent individual in a deregulated market than it was when life was more protected. ‘Corporatism’ in the form of private companies continued to grow, only no longer much related to the nation.
Corporate culture is intensely conformist. It is this local popular totalitarianism and not any free market that makes for success. The culture itself will not lightly change, but in the end gets attacked by something more successful. This is taken by the New Right to be a Good Thing, except that in the real world it is often and inexplicably a Bad Thing.
The grandest example of running a whole nation as a corporation was the former Soviet Union. It illustrated the classic process whereby exactly the same things bring about a spectacular rise followed by an equally spectacular fall. Ideas that were futuristic in the 1920s and 1930s were routine by the 1950s and 1960s. And under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union successfully prevented the sexual and social revolutions that changed the West from the 1960s onwards. It was not Christianity or Capitalism but sex, drugs and rock-and-roll that conquered a society that was increasingly a hold-out of traditional values. The busting of the planned economy led to a spectacular decline in the nation’s wealth and health. The Russians since they turned to market economics have seen their living standards reduced by at least one-third, and are also saddled with enormous debts. Yet the cultural attractions of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll plus the utter cynicism of the later days of Brezhnev mean that the Russians are not yet wildly discontented. They re-elected Yeltsin, after all.
With the USSR gone, the prime centre of corporate culture is the United States of America. Rights as a citizen are minimal and being reduced, with the national or federal commitment to welfare having been abolished by popular demand. Individualism is the creed, but not the reality. People find that individual struggle is expensive, ruinous and frequently led to the worst people winning out. When you are required to defend your rights as a citizen by individual struggle, you find that these rights are not very secure in practice. Even the ‘success stories’ are not all that encouraging. The most recent case, Bill Gates, shows mostly that it is a great advantage to be a computer buff whose parents were very successful in America’s corporate corridors of power. Those computer enthusiasts who were more genuinely self-made often fell and went bankrupt quite as spectacularly as they had risen. Unlike Gates, they did not have parents who could advise them on the difference between myth and reality.
In America, you cannot even be a rebel without wearing the right uniform. The most notable and well-publicised rebels are the Hells Angels, a small tough and vicious corporate body, mildly at odds with larger but more law abiding bodies. If they were to seriously mess with real powers in the land, they would be Exterminated Angels soon enough. As it is, they fill the role of ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, defined by Hollywood in the 1940s. Defined by the worlds best commercial myth-makers at a time when Rebels with causes were becoming a menace and were being purged from Hollywood in a pro-liberty witch-hunt. Hells Angels are a safe sort of rebel, a menace only to the poor and to rival biker gangs. Even the original concept of Hells Angels was defined by a Howard Hughes film, fighter pilots as technological angels over the hell of the trenches in the Great War. An image which real fighter pilots and bomber pilots took up, and passed on to the biker culture which they sometimes joined.
No man is an island. And the society and culture you stem from makes a great deal of difference to the life you lead. You are not human except by contact with an existing human society. The protest ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’ seems to suppose that there is some ideal human form that would emerge spontaneously if only society would leave the kids alone. Which is total rubbish. A baby left alone will simply die. Raised by wolves it will become an unusually cunning wolf, but with none of the mental attributes of a human. If Kipling’s Mowgli or Burroughs’ Tarzan had been real, they would have been just animals without language and without the fine ideals that their authors sentimentally gave to them.
The ‘individualism’ carefully crafted by Hollywood studios and other mega-corporations has successfully deceived a great many people. State-run corporate structures that were the actual condition of people’s existence were demolished as mere impediments to freedom. There was also, of course, a real desire for change. 1950s Corporatism assumed a basic dominance by white males with middle class culture. But there was no reason why these structures should not have been steadily changed as a ‘Long Revolution’, as has happened to some degree. this is very much the way it should have been done, and could have been done had the Left been wiser and more realistic in the 1970s
Replacing corporatist social concern with the asocial battles of pure money is not necessarily to the disadvantage of white males with middle class culture, who still have most of the money. For the most part, they have conceded near-equality to the female of their own kind, while successfully excluding other groups by free competition. Since the inequality is defended by business power and markets rather than laws and politics, they can say and even believe that everyone has been left free and equal.
The grandest greatest corporate social product still around is the developing European Union. If Europe does not go that way, then it will definitely capitulate to the carefully crafted ‘individualism’ of American culture. Yet far too many people on the left have learned nothing and forgotten nothing over the last twenty years. Europe is still seen as a diversion from something or other, though they are no longer sure quite what.