Monday, November 7, 2011

The Corporatization Of Our Lives

Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers? The question answers itself — the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.
Edward Gramlich, former Federal Reserve Official

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 6:12

Over the past 7 weeks, with the Occupy movement exponentially growing, much ink has been spilled on the evils of corporations, on one side, and the defense of corporations as "job-creators" on the other. The protestors lament corporate outsourcing, job-cutting, sinfully high executive pay, low taxes and increased campaign contributions and lobby activity in Washington. Meanwhile, the corporate defenders proclaim the vitality of entrepreneurship, deregulation, trickle-down taxation and free trade for economic growth. This is a tremendously vital question for our time and warrants an answer to the timeless question: Which side of history are you on?

Over the past few decades, there has been a serious corporate squeeze going on. Through strategic advertising, corporations have manufactured demand for products ranging from various pharmaceutical drugs to meat and dairy to large military weapons to bottled water. Do we really need these products? Corporations have funded both "research" and commericials to make it clear that we, in fact, cannot and should not live without them.

Take, for example, something as "innocent" as running shoes. It has been conventional corporate wisdom since the late-70s that running is good for us and that we need shoes with plenty of cushioning in order to reduce injuries. As it turns out, more and more scientists and top runners themselves are discovering that just the opposite is true. And this, of course, makes sense: what did the human species do before Nike?

As a result of the massive upsurge in marketplace competition (what Robert Reich calls "supercapitalism"), corporations have strategically colonized more and more of our lives. They have mastered the art of consumer persuasion. Most of us are now totally convinced that we need to eat meat (lots of it) in order to get our protein, purchase the latest running shoe technology to support our knees, feet and backs and a supercharged $800 billion military to keep us safe from terrorism.

At the same time that corporations have worked tirelessly to convince us that we desperately need their products, they have spent millions (because they can) on campaign contributions and lobbying in order to influence economic policy at both the national and state level. And at the very same time corporations have worked tirelessly to change the political rules, they have continued to monopolize access to media channels. When Americans turn on the TV (as they do quite often), they are tuning into a corporate version of what is important and why we should all be talking about it at the water cooler the next day.

All this sounds so conspiratorial. But it isn't. It is the logical outgrowth of an economic system based on the profit motive and an American cultural narrative "with its compulsive stress on independence, its contempt for weakness and its adulation of success" (Robert Bellah in Habits Of The Heart: what he calls "dominant ideological individualism").

What does all this mean for followers of Jesus who take seriously the radical socio-economic and political demands of the gospel? According to the Apostle Paul, we must be the ones who engage the powers-that-be, "the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." These "principalities and powers," according to John Howard Yoder in Politics of Jesus (1972) citing Colossians 1:15-20 "were supposed to be our servants [but] have become our masters and our guardians" (see also James McClendon's Ethics and Walter Wink's 3-Volume series on the Powers). God created businesses and governments to order our lives (without them, there would be constant chaos and fear), but they are fallen and all of creation groans for their redemption (Romans 8). In an ultimate act of accountability, Jesus exposed these powerful forces in his death on the cross (Col 2:13-15): killing is what the "cosmic powers" of government, religion and business do to those who refuse to worship them.

Unfortunately, a conservative brand of evangelical Christianity has come to dominate the American religious landscape, conveying "cosmic powers" as Satan and his band of demons, flying around our world to get individuals to sin. This "belief system" either promotes corporate power or remains silent on the large influence that corporations have on not only "the economy," but as it turns out, our entire lives. This "born again" evangelicalism proposes that life really just boils down to one "spiritual" (not "economic" or "political") question: Are you saved? And by "saved," the born-again always means "do you know for sure that you aren't going to hell when you die?" Although this construal of "salvation" is contested within the 2000-year Christian Tradition, this is virtually always defended by the evangelical Christian as "what Christians have always believed."

In addition to individual eternal salvation, a form of personal piety is emphasized, sometimes summarized as "family values" or "traditional morality." Don't cuss, don't chew and don't date boys who do. Or for boys: don't date boys. Over the past 40 years, homosexuality, abortion and "big government" (except when used to criminalize homosexuality and abortion) have become the big sins to guard against, replacing the evils of alcohol, evolution and interracial marriage earlier in the 20th century. This "personal faith in Jesus" is committed to rugged, autonomous individualism at the expense of the common good and with all the focus on personality morality, issues of class and power are pushed to the sidelines.

This culturally respectable suburban brand of evangelicalism stays away from a prophetic critique of corporate power and influence largely because it would require biting the hand that feeds her. Church buildings are financed and pastor's salaries are divved up by the tithes and offerings of those who have earned great wealth from corporations, whether by tax write-offs, salaries or stock dividends.

Fortunately, establishment (or mainstream) religion always has her prophetic rivals within the American Body of Christ. Almost a century ago, as hard-core evangelicals (self-proclaimed "fundamentalists") railed against "political" inner-city churches fighting poverty and crime, the left-leaning social gospel magazine Christian Century offered this pinpoint analysis in its April 1921 issue:

When the capitalist discovers a brand of religion which has not the slightest interest in 'the social gospel,' but on the contrary intends to pass up all reforms to the Messiah who will return on the clouds of heaven, he has found just the thing he has been looking for.

Might as well have been written yesterday. Many of the top 1% of wealth-earners have discovered a religion that guarantees eternal life in heaven by acknowledging a mental assent to Jesus and cheers on financial success and charitable giving while remaining "neutral" on the most vital political and socio-economic issues of the day. And many of the bottom 99% go along with the rules of the evangelical game, wooed by celebrity pastors, content with the dualistic simplicity of religious doctrine and unburdened by the few demands placed on them (anything more would be works-righteousness, not justification by faith) while soaking in the relative social respectability of their belief system. And certainly the numbers help: it's always comforting to be a member of the majority.

The pursuit of profit is the bottom line for our deeply influential economic system. It dominates every aspect of our lives. Within the biblical narrative, on the other hand, God selects and shapes a people who are dedicated to a bottom line of love, peace and justice. When forces like corporations abrasively work to cripple God's Dream for the world, those who pledge allegiance to the biblical Script are called to creatively and consistently confront them.

And when cosmic powers like the federal government issue Supreme Court rulings that grant corporations personhood and give them unlimited influence over campaign funding and, at the same time, increase the number of tax loopholes so that many corporations do not pay taxes, then followers of the God of justice must raise our voices.

As Martin Luther King said in the final year of his life, not only are we "called to be a Good Samaritan, but also to change the road to Jericho." In order to grant economic opportunity to the Other 99%, we must engage the system.
Here are some of the largest American corporations and their tax advantages:


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