Sunday, June 14, 2009

The De-Humanizing Effect of Mega-Corporations

Lately I have been working on a crew that installs above ground pools. It’s a great summer job for college kids! The other day as we were driving between job sites, a thought occurred to me. There are a great many jobs that exist that are not things anyone would aspire to be.

Think about kids dreaming of what they want to be when they grow up: either something glamorous, like an astronaut or a movie star, or something "noble," like a doctor or a teacher. We can think of lots of other vocations that fit under those categories, and as we get older, we often expand our definitions of these categories and add new ones of "aspired-to" vocations.

Yet there are a number of careers that we would never aspire to. We might end up working in such a career, but never because we set out to do that. We simply fell into it and never got out. Careers like working on an assembly line or as a greeter at Walmart. But why do we consider these to be careers that are undesirable, things we would never set out to do? What makes other careers more honorable, things we would aspire to?

This may be one of the great ironies of capitalism from a philosophical viewpoint. Capitalism begins with the idea of ownership- if we own our own means of production, we are going to work in "creative" ways to promote our livelihood. The idea is that we have a vested interest in our own success, and so we are willing to put forth effort to achieve that success, especially when driven by competition. The theory of capitalism is that individuals driven to succeed will develop new ideas, new means of production, and the most efficient use of resources and thus create the most robust economy. But this theory developed in a day when markets where much smaller and more localized, when the internet and mega-corporations were not even on the horizon. I think in a twist of irony, the progression of capitalist economics, built on the idea of ownership, has in effect destroyed that idea.

Lets say I own a local shoe store. Or that I work for a locally owned shoe store, either will work. I have a vested interest in the success of that store, I have "ownership" by which I mean a stake in its success. So I work to make the store succeed (per capitalist philosophy). But lets paint a different scenario. I work in the shoe department at Walmart. I find it hard to argue that I actually have any stake in the success of this store. The store is simply too big for me to make an impact anymore. If I do poorly, I loose my job and the store moves on, not even feeling a bump in its progress from my failure. Even if the particular store I work for does fail and close, the corporation is so large it will hardly notice. Likewise, if it does well I cannot claim any sort of responsibility for that really. My contribution is simply insignificant. So the concept of ownership is completely meaningless in this scenario. I don't have a stake here, I am just a meaningless "tool" in the eyes of the corporation.

In both scenarios, we might argue that I have a concern for my own personal success, but I think in each case this means something completely different. In the first, my personal success and the success of my business go hand in hand. So things like efficiency and competitiveness and ingenuity will mark both. In the second scenario, however, my personal success is something completely different from the success of the company I work for. My personal success becomes a matter of mere survival- do I still have a means of sustenance?

This is not meant to be a rant against Walmart, by the way. I will admit I am not particularly fond of the place, but I'm not a Walmart-hater.

Here is what I am really getting at- the reason the concept of ownership is so important to capitalist economics is philosophical. Capitalism developed out of enlightenment philosophy, which is particularly humanist. Self-determination is at the heart of the capitalist system. We are more likely to take the initiative in our own lives if we feel we have self-determination, and for capitalism this is derived from the concept of ownership. If we own (or in the case of the worker in the local shop who doesn't actually own it, have a significant stake in) the means of our own success, we will work to bring that success about.

So the loss of the concept of ownership in the wake of corporations too big for the individuals who are part of them to matter is ironic on two levels. First, on a purely economic level it undermines the very foundation of the system that brought these corporations about. But secondly, on a philosophical level, it attacks the self-determinism and humanism of the very philosophy that brought that system about. It in essence erodes the role of individuals as real "humans" in the sense of having control of the shape of their own lives. They are instead merely pawns swept along in the wake of a much larger creature.

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