Monday, June 27, 2011

Orwell's Era: Corporate Governance as Big Brother

An essay by Kenneth H. Laundra

The United States is not a democracy. It is a plutocracy. We are ruled by the wealthy in every conceivable way, in every conceivable corner of society. We have reached the point where almost every major policy decision, at every political level, is made in deference to multinational corporate interests. Often, these elite interests quite obviously collide with the common good of the vast majority of average Americans, but are easily obfuscated through a media system ruled by the invisible, but heavy hand of highly organized, global, corporate profit seeking, manifest in the corporate form today. These interests control the rules and they control the collective narrative, allowing a new form of dictatorial rule and exploitation of most Americans, and those interests are increasingly consolidated.

plu·toc·ra·cy /pluˈtɒkDescription: Description:[ploo-tok-ruh-see]
1. the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.
2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.

Let’s shine some light on American inequality today, in an Orwellian society where almost all human interaction is mediated through manufactured desires (victory gin, anyone?), in which overwhelming influence over congress comes from multinational corporations instead of real people, and “where money not only talks, it screams.” While it is true that the U.S. has more very rich people than ever before, the percentage of those who are wealthy is far less today, so that now about 1% of Americans own almost half of all the wealth. The middle class is shrinking and the number of working poor is staggeringly high for such a wealthy society. Incomes for the top 1% continued to rise through the most recent economic crisis (brought on by those same interest groups through fraudulent, unregulated corporate banking, mortgage and investment schemes) while middle and working class families experience stagnant or falling wages and dramatic price increases for just about everything, not just gas and food. The evidence for these new economic realities is not hard to find online and doesn’t need to be regurgitated here, including a recent conversation with Nobel Peace Prize winning economist Paul Krugman and an intriguing article recently published in Vanity Fair.

Of course, most middle class Americans don’t need scholarship on the issue to tell them that times are harder than ever before. Daily life is our proof. We are working harder and longer for less, a reality we see firsthand every day. But seeing is not always believing. It is probably more accurate to say that we believe what we think we see, which begs the question, who is telling us what we see? More to the point, how is our worldview shaped in this modern era of ubiquitous telecommunications, where more than ever the “medium is the message”? 

It is utterly baffling that these realities are not readily acknowledged by every single semi-conscious American, regardless of political party affiliation. Baffling, that is, until you consider the modern day propaganda machine and its corporate origins. What might seem like honest public debate over the role of government in America, individualism, or free market principles is, upon closer inspection, actually a heavily contrived narrative produced through a network of “astroturf” (as opposed to truly grassroots) movements funded by just a handful of elite interests. For instance, Americans for Prosperity, one of the largest Republican think tanks, and the foundation of what came to be known as the “Tea Party”, is actually a front for the Koch Brothers (ranking numbers 5th and 6th on the richest Billionaire’s List), designed to serve their conglomerate of industries and media operations (see “The Billionaires Tea Party”,worth watching). Coupled with a 24-hour propaganda platform disguised as real news, with Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck barking out the playbook, it is easier to understand how nearly 30% of Americans continue to believe that climate change is a liberal myth, that universal health care is a direct path to socialism, and that the President of the United States has not produced a valid birth certificate, is secretly Muslim and openly Marxist.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Corporations are people.

Orwellian doublespeak like this is more easily choked down through mainstream, round-the-clock opinion news sources like Fox News and CNN where, if you say something enough times people believe it. This media net is vast, pervasive and utterly inescapable, even for the three remaining people on the planet that do not, as yet, have a Facebook account. But the apparent array of diverse choices for news and entertainment, from YouTube to 60 Minutes, is illusory because, in fact, just a handful of corporate entities own and operate virtually everything you see and hear in every media outlet.

Ignoring this basic fact, we tune into the channel we trust (and never that other channel), never questioning the choice of headlines, or lack of stories about the really important stuff we are never told about. If you don’t believe me, just turn on Fox News right now, where they are either analyzing the latest murder trial or debating whether Obama is a bad President or the worst President ever. By ignoring important stories about corporate malfeasance, the current environmental crises, or global inequality and human suffering and, instead, focusing on fear and political divisiveness - and knowing full well that both major parties are in their pockets - corporate media are able to shape the American worldview for their own privilege and profit. It is an intentional distraction.

In America today, the wealthiest country in the world, about 1 in 4 children live below the official poverty line. Did you know that? Who told you?

If you accept this premise, that corporations largely control both Republican and Democratic parties, it is not difficult to imagine what true corporate governance through the media might look and sound like. You would hear “experts” justifying a corporate bailout by middle class taxpayers while simultaneously ignoring the root (corporate) causes of the crisis. You would see devastating images of the country’s worst oil spill - in the form of an oil-soaked Pelican - devoid of any substantive discussion of a country addicted to oil and in desperate need of a modern energy plan. You would hear alarmists demanding that we reduce the federal deficit by .0001% by outlawing teachers unions or by defunding NPR , and that we cut Medicare for seniors as a top national priority, while simultaneously announcing that a closer inspection the military budget and its trillion dollar wars (which constitutes nearly half of the entire federal budget)  is simply “off the table” and not up for debate. You would hear testimony from anti-evolution politicians who are certain the planet is just six thousand years old that the overwhelming evidence (and dire consequences) of man-made climate change presented by literally thousands of reputable climatologist across the globe is an organized hoax. You would not see accurate coverage of the largest, most diverse public protests in American history that took place across the country in every major city in the past few years over health care costs, education and poverty. In defense of the corporate agenda, cleverly disguised as a defense of American individualism, you might even see a re-make of the movie, Atlas Shrugged!

And people will believe, despite any contradictions to reason, because people tend to fear the unknown, which in this case is unfiltered information about the world around us. We will believe because we do not believe there is an alternative story to be told, and because we fear changing our pre-existing worldview. We fear changing our mind because it is easier not to, and the role of corporate media has been to incite fear and to entrench opposing ideologies against each other.

Given that true power in an information age is control over information, doesn’t today’s corporate media conglomerate become the Big Brother that Orwell imagined, in that it is all-encompassing, both producing and pacifiying our fears? In both essence and practice, claims that commodify life, reducing everything in life to economic value, are propagated while ideas that might threaten the dominant, corporate worldview become thoughtcrimes, handled bureaucratically through either selective media newspeak, or what Noam Chomsky calls manufactured consent, which often consists of not talking about it at all.

As imagined by George Orwell, in his apocalyptic future novel, 1984, such a society would also necessitate unprecedented surveillance of its citizens and a fusion of mind and body control. These Big Brother invasions of the private sphere would be justified with large scale fear campaigns designed to convince citizens that their personal safety is in unprecedented peril and that heightened government security and surveillance is a necessary moral imperative for a misguided nation. In true doublespeak, they might also decry government involvement in corporate affairs as the best means for ensuring social stability and economic prosperity.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Corporations are people. And that is why this happened, and also why this is happening, with no serious public opposition whatsoever.

Being a socially responsible American means being an informed and engaged citizen. It means participating in both local and global communities, making life fairer and helping those who suffer. And more now than ever, it requires us to look behind the media veil, to pull back the curtain and see the true face of Big Brother whom, if he had a face today, would necessarily be that of a corporate lawyer. We have to seek out alternative stories being told in the corners of cyberspace, in the margins of mainstream news, and in our treasured tradition of intellectual freedom on our campuses to balance the misshapen images cast by the dominant corporate agenda that functions solely for global profits and which, consequently, has a vested interest in what you think is happening out there in the world.

We should be more like Winston Smith, the hero in Orwell’s timeless novel, who refused to lie when asked how many fingers his malevolent torturer was holding up, despite knowing he would be tortured again and again until he conceded. Admirably, he resisted easy answers and spoke truth to power because of his commitment to an ideal higher than any other – freedom of thought. Although Winston was ultimately rendered powerless, we are not, at least not yet. And like Winston, we should resist. We should resist a false narrative driven by a single-minded corporate worldview because it is falsely singular and one-dimensional, seeking profit over all else, and at the expense of all those nonmaterial things that make life worth living, such as relationships with other human beings not mediated by economics. More than that, it is a repressive force that hinders human evolution, intellectual growth and enlightenment.

As humans, we are dependent upon the diversity of life on this planet for our very survival. Thus, as co-evolvers with other species we have an innate awareness in the benefits of coexistence with diverse others because we know that without these vibrant interactions we would be diminished in every way. So we value diversity in all its forms, but especially diversity of thought, because it buys us something corporate interests are unable to sell. It provides us with an opportunity for intellectual growth and moral development that is not constrained by any single claim or worldview (like capitalism or religious dogma). It provides us with a sociological imagination that allows us to understand our society from various vantage points that cut across class, culture, gender and race. Diversity of thought provides us with a strong community of free thinkers - and all the other things money can’t buy.

These are the reasons for resisting the mainstream mandate pushed forward by multinational corporate interests, for questioning their authority, and for speaking truth to power. In truth, our willingness to question authority is the reason for the resistance. Like Winston, we are compelled to seek the truth in the face of coercive powers bent on obscuring it. This is what makes us fully human, and not merely corporate objects valued solely for our ability to consume and produce.

How many fingers am I holding up? Just one. My middle finger.  

*For a more thorough expose’ on corporate media control, see the Link TV special:
Published online in Sosh Chat, 6/28/2011                                             
Kenneth H. Laundra, Ph.D. | Department of Behavioral Sciences | Millikin University