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Ralph Nader has defined a perfect moral dilemma for thinking Americans.
He finds himself in a situation resembling that of Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen’s drama, "An Enemy of the People." Dr. Stockmann discovered the municipal baths were contaminated, but good burghers worried about the destructive effects of the truth on the town did not want the doctor revealing it.
A number of America’s good burghers, fearing the effect of Nader’s candidacy on the Democratic candidate’s prospects, have warned him against running for office, some are reported to have stopped supporting the many worthy public-service organizations he founded, and some are writing nasty little pieces calling him names.
The Democrats are, of course, part of what Nader is concerned about. Quite apart from the oily-establishment and war-friendly Kerry, the Democratic party itself has come to stand for very little. You might call it America’s parlor-polite alternative to the selfish stench of the Republicans. Putting up Kerry to replace Bush is like putting up Rutherford B. Hayes to replace Calvin Coolidge. It may be possible for Kerry to win, but, really, what difference to anything would his victory make? Bullwinkle the moose miming John Kennedy at the next State of the Union.
Nader sees the fundamental problems of American society as few other national figures do. His focus is different than my own, being, naturally enough, more concerned about domestic results than international ones. Still, these things are related.
Nader is not likely to win, and, if he were somehow able to win, he would quickly find himself up against the most entrenched, retrogressive legislative system in the advanced world. Still, he represents some hope for the birth of a new dynamic in American politics, something important to Americans and to the world.
Nader’s focus is on "corporatism" having taken over civil institutions in America. This is true. Americans are no longer citizens, they are consumers – language adopted even by their politicians. The reason for this is simple: America is well along with building a set of monster corporations intent on supplying most of the world’s goods and services. The corporations must be monstrously big to achieve this, because it is through economies of scale that they can undercut the costs of companies in other nations. Companies that dominate markets for nearly three-hundred million Americans are in a position to muscle out the companies in most other countries. Size is also important as a means of gaining concessions from governments, including, as it turns out, their own.
The growth of American monster-corporations does not threaten only international harmony, it rapidly is changing American domestic life.
These corporations adopt bizarre, almost anonymous identities. Many of them have had their names reduced to sets of three letters exhibiting little connection with their original business or birthplace, but they go well beyond this symbolism.
The relationships these corporations have with those to whom they market can perhaps best be compared to the relationships you have with the people who send spam to your computer. You can place an order from the spam you receive, but you can’t respond otherwise, and the mechanism for deleting your e-mail address often is extremely slow or defective.
The corporate marketers reach you when they please through direct mail or calling centers, and they have a lot of personal information about you (much of it obtained from local governments without your permission) on their computers enabling them efficiently to hunt you down for their schemes. You may have noticed the marketing letters you receive often have no return postal address, only a toll-free telephone number that reaches a boiler-room order-taker unable to deal with any other matter.
These particulars are small points, but they suggest a sinister character. The scale of a thing always changes its very nature. A small cyclonic wind, a dust devil, moving harmlessly across a patch of earth shares fundamental structural characteristics with a tornado, but what a difference the difference in size makes.
Bear with me if you think my next statement a great exaggeration, but George Orwell’s fictitious world of 1984 seems to me no more sinister than what is gradually emerging in America. What Orwell emphasized about human freedom was conditioned by his living through a period when various forms of totalitarian government darkened Europe, but there are subtler methods of control than jack-booted tyranny. The continued advance of technology will assure a bountiful choice of tools to the corporations which invest in them, own them, and are best placed to fully exploit them.
America is becoming a society where huge, almost anonymous, corporations own virtually every scrap of your personal information and own patents on many aspects of the natural world around you, perhaps even on some of the genes of your body or those of your neighbors. Their manufacturing and other needs effectively control the quality of the air you breathe and the water you drink. Their adventures abroad influence whether your son or daughter is sent to war, although I am sure this will one day be limited by automated killing machines which will be so much more dependable than soldiers, cause less stress over interventions on the home front, and cost far less than maintaining all those pesky military dependents and pensions over the long term.
So perfect will be their marketing information, the companies’ computers will know exactly the extent to which you are even worth bothering about in each and every aspect of their operations. There will be a large pool of people not worth bothering about, the American losers in the globalization race for ever cheaper or more capable substitutes in every aspect of manufacturing, marketing, and distributing. This pool already is being created, but it likely will become much larger. For example, when those Pentagon killing machines are perfected, the armed forces will cease providing the jobs they have for millions of young people with marginal skills.
The emerging social structure of the United States very much resembles that of 1984. There are the owners and senior managers of the vast corporations. Their positions and privileges are in every respect comparable to Oceania’s elite Inner Party. Then there is a large pool of educated, middle-class people, the types who stay at the office twelve hours a day to complete a project and have the benefit of a corporate gym. They are sometimes exposed to very sensitive material, but there is a well-developed ethic and some severe penalties for ever revealing any of it. They are Orwell’s Outer Party. Finally, there is the large and growing pool of unskilled workers whose prospects become increasingly dim. The "end of welfare as we know it" may well have reflected expected growth prospects for this group rather than simply political discontent. Orwell calls them the Proles.
America’s Proles have virtually no role in politics. They have no money and no influence. They generally do not vote, a fact which may reflect inertia more than anything else, but it is also true that many local practices, as we saw from the way polls were run in Florida, positively discourage their votes. Ex-convicts, and this is a huge group in America, for example cannot vote. The Outer Party provides voters and campaign workers. The Inner Party endows acceptable candidates with small fortunes to assure their prospects.
This structure is self-reinforcing and explains many domestic policies and practices. One example suffices. America is the only advanced nation not to have some form of national health insurance. Why? Because the existing employer-pays-for-private-insurance system suits the political and economic structure so well. Inner Party members and senior politicians receive the very best of everything possible, often having their own elite hospitals. All the Outer Party members receive good, and often excellent, insurance from their employers. This keeps the politically active group satisfied about healthcare. Indeed, it is only when benefits start dropping around the fringes of the Outer Party, as during economic setbacks, that healthcare becomes a national political issue. The Proles are uninsured or so poorly insured at meager jobs that they may as well be uninsured.
There is no way to forecast a clear picture of where these trends lead, but the prospects are discouraging to say the least. Powerful private companies possessing information and resources and working hand-in-hand with government to achieve their goals are capable of doing anything not specifically regulated or forbidden. The revolution in technology is quickly changing even what is or is not a crime or abuse, but with government as a full and intimate partner, what impulse is there for new regulation and laws limiting corporations?
Ordinary Americans have completely embraced the idea that whatever is good or necessary for large corporations is somehow good for them. This may have been true in 1949, but it is certainly not true now. Americans are remarkably passive about everything from steaming toxic dumps left behind by closed factories to bloody interventions abroad.
Corporations already have a tight grip on national politics, but their ability to influence – with personal connections, information, financial resources, and the discretion to shift investments – increases disproportionately as they grow and absorb all former competitors. Corporations are, of course, the training grounds for the many lawyers inhabiting Congress, and they provide comfortable repositories for retired politicians who retain influence.
War is very much a reflection of this influence on government, as you would expect when these companies are engaged in aggressive global campaigns, when they enjoy supplying the bottomless-pit needs of the Defense Department, and when they are involved in the unbelievably-profitable rebuilding of distant places overrun by the military. It is true that stock markets don’t like big wars, but what Americans have learned since Vietnam is that stock markets don’t so much mind quick, dirty little wars that come mixed with new opportunities for profit.
The huge number of colonial wars the United States has fought since the end of the Second World War demonstrates this conclusively. The name, Defense Department, is outmoded. Not one war in which the U.S. has engaged since 1945 has involved defense, unless you are speaking of the defense of America’s corporate interests abroad.
Nader a political risk? If there is any chance of sparking a new political movement that could even moderately alter America’s course, isn’t it worth some political risk? If not, what is?
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada.