Are corporations dangerous only in collusion with governments?
One of the moments that made RightsCon Rio great: instead of attending one of the lectures, I had a tough, intense discussion with Thor Halvorssen of and Paulo Rená on… well, on a few topics really, including where do fundamental/human rights come from (are they inherent to every single human being or are they a by-product of society) and whether or not corporations are becoming a threat to those rights on their own (without government “help” in this regard).
The former is a topic well trodden by many thinkers. The latter is what I would like to summarize here, as I deem it’s both important and timely.
The issue arose while discussing a different one (which is important by itself, and which I will cover soon). What the topic boils down to is this question:
Multinational corporations are behemoths, some have more money and hard assets than many governments; hence, power of those corporations is becoming less and less accountable to any society. Is this dangerous in and of itself, or only when such corporations “get in bed” with governments?
I am willing to concede that governments are inherently dangerous; I am willing to concede that the most evil that corporations did up until today was, as Thor put it, “when corporations were in bed with governments”. And I am willing to concede that the military monopoly, held by governments, is one of the most important reasons for that.
However, I am also deeply concerned that what we see here is the game changing before our very eyes. Corporations – which cannot be called the most ethical entities on this Earth – are now amassing more power than many governments, and some are already building their own armies. I feel it is probable that military monopoly will be broken soon.
A historical analogy¶
Polish history in the 17th and 18th century is a good analogy here.
Simplifying quite a bit – Polish nobility had vast personal liberties and had substantial say in government affairs for centuries. Over the years, magnates (the highest class of nobility) gathered more and more power in their (private) hands while Polish Army was mainly based on “pospolite ruszenie” – forces mobilised from Polish gentry.
At some point military power in disposal of several magnates was enough to challenge the military power of the King, by gradually claiming their sole rule and own laws over their territories. This led to the magnates-led nobility revolting against the government and internal struggles in the country.
Finally, it resulted in loss of independence and dismantling the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, once formidable force in Europe and the world, by bordering states.
What is interesting is that we can see a very similar storm brewing today when it comes to multinational corporations.
They are, in fact, being treated like modern-day gentry. They have been granted vast privileges (corporate personhood, “money is speech” verdict in the US, etc.). They do have much say in governmental affairs (through lobbying, revolving door techniques and other means). Similarly to nobility, they cannot be imprisoned and court proceedings are slanted in their favour, if only because of huge legal teams and vast coffers they have at their disposal.
They amass more money and information, and hence power, than many governments. They have their own armies in the form of security agencies. And it’s not a government that knows how to build the newest jet fighter or the best rocket launcher – the corporations do.
They feel authorised to rule their “subjects” – employees and private clients – just as magnates ruled theirs; its the means that changed: now instead of decrees they issue Terms of Service, EULAs and internal regulations.
From this there is just a single small step to be made towards an overt corporatocracy. And already some corporations are asserting their own rule over certain areas. Just like Polish magnates did in the eve of internal troubles.
Hence, I see the situation becoming extremely dangerous in two scenarios:
- either a corporation will gain powers that exceed powers of governments, including breaking the military monopoly, and then will use those powers to their own ends;
- or, maybe, the more power a corporation has, the more likely it becomes that it will “go to bed” with a government.
Either way, we end up in a situation in which it is the power of the corporation that is the extreme and immediate danger to our personal liberties and human rights. We need to be clear on that and acknowledge it.