The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen:
Democracy under the Rule of Big Business

by Murray Dobbin,
320 pages,
ISBN: 0773730877

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Global Warnings
by Ian Allaby

If you like polemic, and especially if you're bitter against "triumphalist" capitalism, you'll love Murray Dobbin's The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen.

Mr. Dobbin's book is a critique of globalization. It's fair to say he covers some of the same ground as Linda McQuaig, who in The Cult of Impotence divulged how macho market guys go limp on social programs. But Mr. Dobbin is a notch up intellectually and less inclined to below-the-belt conceits. Although he does mention that transnational corporations are sociopaths. They're tax dodgers, job slashers, slayers of rivals, money-maniacs. And they want to rule the Earth.

Mr. Dobbin, known for his crafted hatchet-jobs on right-wing stumpers (Preston Manning & the Reform Party, The Politics of Kim Campbell), contends that a gang of transnationals, its pockets packed with collabo politicians, is already close to uncontested rule. Half of the world's hundred largest economies are corporations. A transnational's revenue base can easily exceed a nation-state's. By revenue, General Motors out-muscles Denmark. Wal-Mart is catching up to Canada.

Free trade pacts give this gang the privileges of global super-citizens, opening up nations to corporate depredation while placing a straitjacket on government's ability to intervene. The nation-state is withering away. At least, it has become a hapless head-waiter at the corporate feast. "Countries now define their national purpose.in terms of how they will fare in the global competition for investment." If the gang objects to your environmental and social programs, it will downsize you into the Dark Ages.

As opposed to yesterday's multinational corporation (which established separate operations in each country), today's transnational corporation disdains local presence. It may even decline to dirty its hands with anything other than financing and market control. Factoryless Nike rents out the right to produce, vied for by myriad contractors whose workers toil in well-documented misery. Transnationals are becoming middlemen, fleecing both consumers and producers. The world's top 200 corporations-all but 14 of them headquartered in the US, Japan, or Europe-have combined revenues surpassing 28 percent of global GDP, yet they employ under 1 percent of the world's workers.

To be sure, corporations still need the state to pave the path to profit-and to send in the troops when the masses riot. Even that's not carved in stone, however, judging by the oil company that enlisted mercenaries to subdue Angolan rebels last year.

Since Mr. Dobbin sees only today's fast track to poverty and is blind to the free trade utopia ahead, his account of why nation-states including Canada have been such patsies is somewhat partial. His explanation revolves around the usual machinations of the rich and powerful.

As Mr. Dobbin tells it, the Western world's corporate elite got spooked in the mid-1970s because after thirty years of postwar boom there was too much democracy going on. Radicals and feminists were mouthing off. Governments were spending like it was going out of style. Labour's share of the pie was growing. Profits were slipping. Everything was going to hell.

So the elite hatched a long-term plot to chasten the governments, bring the workers into line, and blast open new markets until the whole Earth becomes one expanse of mega-malls and maquiladoras.

The plotters began by funding various New Right front organizations to thump the tub for privatization, deregulation, and free trade. They spread the view that humans are me-first monads in search of excellent monetary gains. The Canadian wing of this propaganda assault included the Fraser Institute and the Business Council on National Issues, which also appear as bÍtes noires in Mr. Dobbin's other books.

Next, the elite jacked up the world's ad dosage. Now by age seven a kid sees 20,000 commercials yearly and probably thinks consumerism is the only way to go. The corporate mission is to create a human species defined not by nationality or religion, but rather by brand loyalty.

Of course, ask a corporation why it goes global and it will give some preposterous self-justification. It's merely doing its damnedest for its widow and orphan shareholders in an eat-or-be-eaten world. Or it needs a massive customer base to finance new technology-like the three-blade razor that cost Gillette $1 billion to develop.

But being a wet blanket, Mr. Dobbin sees globalization as "the current expression of the historic contest between social classes over the distribution of wealth and power". Corporations want us to run a Darwinist gauntlet of overwork and underpay. They want to shift production to manipulable cheap-labour nations with lax pollution laws. They want carte blanche on profits without worrying about the debris.

The coup de gr‚ce has been the sight of executives collecting obscene salaries-in companies paying zilch in taxes-shamelessly demanding cuts to welfare and medicare, basically because they want workers to be insecure and docile. They tout corporations-"this sick subculture of greed and corruption," says Mr. Dobbin-as the economic paragons to take over public education and health care. They want to erase the public sector so everybody will depend on corporations and there'll be no jobs for communitarian types. They want to sabotage our noble soft-Left vision of the country.

You have to admit it's diabolical. Worse, it's plausible.

Mr. Dobbin fears the darkness will deepen before there is light. There will be corporate-feudal rule, child labour, sweatshops, squalor, ecological putridity. Civilization will be crushed under the evil new paradigm.

Of course, you can always hope for capitalism's next Inevitable Big Crisis to scramble the deck. Aside from that, what can you do to save the world? Switch off your TV, says Mr. Dobbin. Become an activist. Go forth and rejuvenate the democratic ideal. Deny corporations access to the Charter of Rights-why treat these stateless marauders as citizens? Forbid them to back politicians. Expose their misdeeds. And stop buying their stuff. Easy to say!

He complains that "globalization" seems to connote an irresistible force in whose face we must shut up and be grateful for a job. Yet it's true that the jet and the Internet make the world a smaller place. Environmental change acts across borders. Petty states are armed with nuclear missiles. A plentiful Third World labour supply is coming on-stream. The arena of the future is the entire globe.

Anti-corporate activists must form international networks to fight the transnational enemy, as did the tree-huggers and culture zealots who recently blocked the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

Nations must work together, for example to set up an international anti-combines agency. Forget the baloney about consumers benefiting from competition in a free-trading world. Business abhors competition. Global oligopolies are evolving in autos, aerospace, electronics, oil, and other industries.

Mr. Dobbin does not add this, but probably in the end we need world governance and world taxes: we'll have to demote the nation-state whether we wish it or not. 

Ian Allaby is a Toronto writer.


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