December 2005: The "Big Business Bang" Theory

Social, economic, environmental ills all have the same cause
December 1, 2005

After nearly 12 years of editing and writing articles for The CCPA Monitor—about 3,000 of them so far—I’ve come to divide our contributors into two broad categories. Finding suitable one-word labels for them, however, is difficult without being guilty of generalizing. They all concern themselves in some way with social, economic, political, and environmental issues and the struggle for global justice, but some—let’s call them the “specialists”—focus on one particular problem. There’s poverty, pollution, inequality, and war, the myriad problems with health care, child care, education, trade, labour, politics, the tax system, civil liberties, agriculture, and the media. On all of these and many other ills besetting our troubled world, Monitor writers have provided thoughtful, well-documented, often brilliant diagnoses and suggested remedies.

Then there are the writers and thinkers who try to connect these problems and see them all as symptoms of one overall global malaise. Privately, I think of these analysts as “world-viewers.” That’s not a satisfactory label, by any means, but it does reflect the holistic approach they take. (If there were a personal noun—holist? holisticist?—I’d use it, but the lexicographers haven’t yet provided one. So “world-viewer” will have to do.)

Again, a caution against generalizing. Most of our “specialists” are not so fixated on their particular problem that they see it in isolation from everything else. They do see the connections, especially the economic and political ones. Nor do all our “world-viewers” ignore the localized symptoms. They often focus on individual problem areas before taking the global perspective.

The point I want to emphasize is that, in our struggle for a better world, we need both specialists and world-viewers. They complement one another. Without the specialists, the world-viewers would lack the specific information they need to map an effective survival strategy. Without the world-viewers, the specialists would lack a broader framework into which their specific findings could be interlocked and acted upon.

In each issue of The Monitor, we try to offer space to both kinds of commentators. We need contributors who care deeply about a particular social or economic injustice. We need the writers and activists who are passionate about protecting Medicare, about eradicating poverty, about cleaning up the environment, about preventing wars, about developing renewable forms of energy, about saving the rainforests, about replacing free trade with fair trade, about serious political reform. At the same time, we need writers who look at the bigger picture, who see the accumulation of all these separate problems worsening to the point where the very survival of planetary life is at stake.

As someone who has read and edited thousands of articles and essays of both kinds over the past dozen years—and who, as an editor, has occasionally been chided by readers for “filling The Monitor with doom and gloom”—I think we have done a reasonably good job of exposing and describing the problems, but not such a good job on the solution front. Not, mind you, that we’ve neglected the need for alternative policies—that’s what the CCPA is all about, after all—but that perhaps we haven’t made “the one big connection” as effectively as we should.

Is there one big connection between all the social, economic, environmental, and political problems we are concerned about? If we were to take a cause-and-effect approach, could we identify one overriding cause of all the troubles that plague us? If we could, it would certainly simplify, solidify, and intensify our remedial efforts. Instead of dissipating our resources trying to tackle each of the many problems separately, we could come together in a concerted campaign to get rid of their common catalyst. That, in turn, would also avert the looming global collapse.

At the risk of being branded a monomaniac or a simpleton or a crazy conspiracy theorist—or all three—let me give you this common cause: excessive and destructive corporate power. Call it corporatism, neoliberalism, ultraconservatism, laissez-faire capitalism, corporate globalization, the corporate agenda, private enterprise, right-wing fundamentalism, the Washington Consensus, or any of the other descriptive tags applied to a world overwhelmingly dominated by Big Business. Whatever you call it, you’ll find it to be the root cause of virtually every social, economic, political, and environmental problem we are now grappling with. And, by extension, it’s also the primary cause of the rapidly worsening global crisis.

I’ve been nattering on about the damaging effects of corporate power for quite some time, but, on flipping back over the pages of The Monitor for the past few years, I was struck anew by the number of articles on a wide range of issues that did indeed—directly or implicitly--expose corporate blame. Let’s recap some of them:

Health care: Many writers on this subject have traced the deterioration of Medicare to its deliberate sabotage through underfunding and understaffing by politicians eager to justify opening this vital service to private for-profit operators. But, as one headline put it, “Privatization is a health problem, not a solution.” Experts on prescription drugs also question the benefits of the $18 billion a year that Canadians are spending on the products of the big pharmaceutical drug companies, which, as one writer noted, “are hooked on ever-rising profits.”

Poverty: Countless articles have cited the many broken promises by Canadian governments to eradicate poverty, notably the all-party pledge in Parliament in 1989 to eliminate child poverty by 2000. Instead, the rates of poverty and homelessness have soared. Why? Because these social blights stem from the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, which in turn is an inevitable result of an economic system that glorifies greed and bars a more equitable distribution of income. No wonder, as one of our writers put it, “we now live in an era of inequality that is historically unprecedented.”

Pollution: Hardly an issue of The Monitor goes out that doesn’t contain an article deploring the contamination of our air, water, soil, and food by industrial toxins. The release of these pollutants—few of which are tested or regulated—cause most of the cancers that afflict us, but are treated by their corporate makers and dispensers as “just another cost of doing business.” On a larger scale, of course, pollution of this magnitude threatens the viability of the biosphere itself.

War and peace: A recent Monitor index revealed that the arms sales of the top 100 manufacturers of weapons now total more than $236 billion a year. As our writers have explained, wars have become very profitable, so we should expect more of them. At least one-third of the multi-billion-dollar cost of the Iraq war, for example, is swelling the coffers of the big arms corporations. One headline declared that “War is driving the economic agenda we’re fighting.”

Trade: Many experts in this field have described NAFTA and WTO trade deals as essentially “charters of rights and freedoms” for transnational corporations, extending their power and influence to encompass the globe. Far from helping to boost employment and economic prosperity for everyone, these one-sided treaties have worsened poverty and inequality while creating obscene riches for a privileged minority. We now have a global economic system in which the pursuit of profits is unconstrained by any concern for the public good—“a world in which 20% of the people consume 80% of the resources.”

Labour: Corporate leaders have always been anti-labour, accepting unions only grudgingly and always looking for ways to oppose and undermine them. As corporate power has increased—especially the ability to move jobs to regions with the lowest wages, taxes, and environmental laws—so has the corporate attack on organized labour. It’s an attack that has been avidly supported by most governments in Canada, which have not only failed to protect and promote collective bargaining rights, but—as our labour relations writers emphasize--have repeatedly violated these rights themselves.

Taxes: Reductions in taxes on business and the rich, along with lavish tax breaks for these élites, have highlighted the budgets of the federal and most provincial governments over the past 20 years. The non-collection of these billions in corporate tax revenue has unfairly shifted the cost of public services and programs to lower-income taxpayers, while providing governments with a handy excuse for cutting these programs. Globally, we have a tax system that, as a recent Monitor report revealed, allows transnational corporations to hide over $600 billion in tax [evasion] havens.

Agriculture: The plight of our family farms, many thousands already bankrupted or gobbled up by the big agribusiness firms, has been the subject of many Monitor features. The main thrust of our stories has been to stress that the cause of the “farm crisis” and the decline of rural communities has not been the alleged “inefficiency” of small farmers, but rather the failure of the current agricultural system to give them a fair return for their crops. “Farm crisis caused by greedy corporations,” said the headline of one article, which noted that, although the price of a loaf of bread has risen from 50 cents to about $1.30, the share going to the grain farmer--after the millers, bakers, retailers, and other corporate middlemen grab their shares—is still only a nickel.

Politics: Corporations have always wielded a great deal of political clout, being the major funders of most politicians’ election campaigns and being free to propagandize their views during elections and finance strong lobbying pressure between elections. With the even greater power bestowed on them by free trade and deregulation, they now effectively dictate government policies—to the point where some observers fear the conversion of our governance to a form of fascism. As one headline reads, “Governments now see themselves as the political arms of business.” And another heading concludes that “the business of government has become the government of business.”

The media: Numerous Monitor articles have remarked on the transformation of the commercial media into propaganda organs for corporations and their free-market dogma. This is hardly surprising, since the privately-owned newspapers, TV and radio networks are owned by and operated as profit-making corporations themselves. In addition, of course, they depend for most of their profits on the corporate ads that fill their pages and air-time. Little wonder that our media articles carried headlines such as “Commercial press lacks balance and fairness,” and “Democracy can’t work if corporate propaganda prevails.”

* * *

I could go on to cite the damaging effects of corporate influence on our education system, monetary policy, natural resources, civil liberties, science, and a host of other sectors. But I think I’ve made my point that, no matter which social, economic, political, or environmental problem you happen to be mostly concerned about, its origin (and aggravation) can be traced to some aspect of corporate rule.

Isn’t it time, then, to at least think about developing a unified effort to address the common corporate cause of all our problems, including the biggest problem of all, which is the threat to our very survival? (This assumes, of course, that our species deserves to survive, which is not at all a given, and it also assumes my “Big Business Bang Theory” has some credibility. Whatever.)

I’ll give you a few weeks to think about this before returning to the subject in our next issue.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)