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Seeing What’s There
The brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin writes,
My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.
Today, having accepted the myth of a democratic, meritocratic society, we’ve lost the critical capacity necessary to see the injustices that have always defined global capitalism. The history of European people in the Americas speaks to the strange, symbiotic relationship between state power and corporate power, the first settlements being corporate projects. “The colony at Jamestown,” writes John Steele Gordon, “was not founded by the English state; it was founded by a profit-seeking corporation.” In fact, both are true. The English presence in what is now the United States was the result of both state and corporate power, which, empirically speaking, are not separate powers at all. As it is today, the senior leaders in government and business were the same group of people, with the same worldview and values.
There is a natural alignment between the holders of capital and the holders of political power. There was no separation between political and economic power for the three decades it took slaves to build the Great Pyramid; there was no separation when private European landowners calling themselves lords enjoyed tribute from peasants working on “their” land; there was no separation when the peoples of Western Africa were captured and brought to the Americas in chains to work for the gain of a European ruling class. There has never been any way to disentangle politics from economics and there never will be. There are no neutral, pre-existing economic facts, as such propositions are always underlied by normative philosophical questions of yours or mine, of how we define the rules.
Accumulated power is the truth that underlies our arbitrary, confused categories. Every corporation in the United States today exists at the pleasure of some government authority. Understanding the history of business corporations as we know them today brings the picture into focus: the early modern state conceives of the corporation precisely to grant charters and monopolies of various kinds—to create privilege rather than equality, to inhibit competition rather than fostering it, to structure and order economic relations in a specific way. As corporate law scholar Lorraine Talbot has shown, corporate governance has developed “not through the logic of the free market but through other mechanisms – politics, law and ideology.” We have to begin to believe what we see, to trust our senses: in the present-day economy, it is not only the invisible hand of supply and demand that governs human economic relations, but the legacy of entrenched power. As long as we’re inhabiting the reality history has actually given us, we can’t even talk about the free market and the existing global corporate system in the same sentence. The DNA of state power—at bottom, violence—lives in every cell of every existing corporation. Reality gives us no neat separation between the public and private sectors, no unblemished free market that exists apart from the state’s positive interventions. There is no way to unmix, as it were, economic power as we find it from political power, to disentangle the two, anymore than we could remove the milk from the cup of coffee after the two have been stirred together. When the left laments that corporations are now more powerful than nation-states, or the right defends the global economic system on free market grounds, both have the picture confused: they are attempting to make reality fit with the crude models and incoherent terminology that’s been given to us. But we should accept reality, refining and further articulating the models, rather than starting with the models and the language and shoehorning empirical observations into those. In the well-known words of Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the territory.”
We continue to see the meta-patterns that have defined capitalism since its emergence, patterns that ought to be familiar, but that are able to hide in their own ubiquity, invisible even as they literally define modern life. The leitmotif of modernity is just this: every possible thing is too complicated to be left to anyone but qualified, credentialed experts, who work in giant bureaucracies that, though they affect our lives, are totally outside of our control. Examples abound. Indeed, they are practically uncountable, unanswerable and everywhere: the Dodd-Frank Act consolidated the power and privilege of mammoth banking cartels; the Affordable Care Act accelerated existing trends of market consolidation in health care; successive interventions not only fail to serve the common good, but consolidate power in the hands of a new lordship. You’re not supposed to think or question. As William A. Schambra observes, we interact with government “not as self-governing citizens but as passive, grateful clients of the credentialed experts, who  assume the burden of rationally directing public affairs.” The modern state is the therapeutic state, a “comprehensive, multidisciplinary, coordinated, interagency ‘wrap-around’ service system.”
Libertarians and egalitarians are underscoring different aspects of the same whole, concerned ultimately with the same social phenomena of violence, hierarchy, and oppression. They are drawing out aspects of the same truth. There is no capitalism—no privilege or monopoly—without the power of the state, without an active and concerted effort among political elites to create the legal rules and social conditions necessary for the theft of the few from the many. The United States government is the most powerful single institutional force in history; the notion that it is a counterweight to global corporate power rather than the creator and foundation of that power is profoundly naive and ahistorical. The idea that our topmost government officials are not active participants in corporate exploitation flies in the face of everything we know. The Snowden revelations, too, made it clear that the idea of a neat separation between state and corporate power is a shared delusion, human invention that bears very little relation to the real-life complexity of the human relationships that underpin power. Corporations are partners in the violation of our rights. Governments both violate our rights themselves and empower corporations. Some of you know the name for such a system.