Breaking the Corporate Trance

According to a report released on January 21 from World Development Movement, a grassroots group addressing poverty and economic inequality, Goldman Sachs made approximately $400 million in 2012 from speculating on staple foods including corn, wheat and soy. This is great for Goldman Sachs but disastrous for nearly a billion undernourished people around the world unable to afford food due to volatility and food price spikes caused by speculation. Goldman Sachs is the global leader in financial speculation on foods and other commodities and has successfully challenged attempts in the US and EU to pass legislation to limit speculation. On January 22, PBS aired a Frontline report on the Obama administration’s failure (or refusal) to arrest a single Wall Street Banker for systemic fraud which led to the ongoing global financial crisis. In fact, Department of Justice officials shielded bank executives who were among Obama’s top campaign contributors in 2008 (Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor donating just over a million dollars). While no Wall Street executives have been prosecuted, small mortgage brokers, loan appraisers and even home buyers have been.

Shortly after the suicide of internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz on January 11, law professor Lawrence Lessig condemned the Department of Justice in a scathing essay. Lessig noted how the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House while Swartz was dragged through 18 months of negotiations fighting DOJ efforts to label him a felon as he faced a million dollar trial and potential life sentence while prohibited by his judge from appealing for financial support. What was the crime? Making publicly funded academic research openly available not for personal gain but for the benefit of all. An unofficial factor that may have contributed to Swartz’s disproportionately harsh treatment was his leadership role in the movement to prevent the passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that would have effectively given the government carte blanche authority to shut down websites. He was also on the government’s radar as a potential threat to their case against Army Private Bradley Manning. Perhaps not coincidentally, on February 9, 2011 the Secret Service obtained a search warrant for Swartz’s home and computers, the very same day Swartz submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Army Criminal Investigative Unit for records related to the treatment of Bradley Manning in Quantico Brig.

Bradley Manning is the soldier accused of transmitting hundreds of thousands of government documents to whistleblower site WikiLeaks, some of them documenting US war crimes. He has been confined for nearly 1000 days without conviction. While at Quantico from 2010 to 2011 he was subjected to solitary confinement, forced nudity and harassment from guards despite recommendations from psychiatric staff that he be treated less severely. On January 16, 2013, Army Colonel Denise Lind, the judge overseeing pretrial hearings, granted a government motion to preclude motive from the trial, meaning questions of conscience and good faith will not be considered relevant in the case. This strips Manning of legal protection provided by the Whistleblower Protection Act and prevents any discussion of the content of the leaked material from reaching the American public. Manning, who could be considered a hero on par with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, faces a life sentence in military prison under the Espionage Act while John Brennan, supporter of torture, drone strikes, and kill lists, was nominated on January 6 by Obama to be the next Director of the CIA.

These are just a few recent examples of institutionalized criminality out of countless others. They are symptoms not just of systemic corruption but a tyranny not unlike Orwell’s 1984 where psy-op tactics such as newspeak, doublethink and thoughtcrime control the masses. So if institutional criminality is rewarded, who gets punished (in a socio-economic as well as legal sense)? Most of us, but especially scapegoats, minorities, the impoverished and disenfranchised, activists and whistleblowers. It’s no exaggeration to say that the worst criminals who do the most harm to the world and humanity are the very ones governing the system. I’m talking about large corporations, which are not equally predatory but an unfortunate outcome of global capitalist darwinism is that the most destructive and ruthless corporations have attained the highest levels of wealth and power (along with strong government/military ties). Corporations can produce useful technologies such as the ones used to critique the corporate system for example, though they often emerge from publicly funded academic research (what Swartz tried to give the public free and open access to) before being commodified by corporations and/or weaponized by the military. And who’s to say the same technologies or better ones couldn’t be produced through economic systems superior to corporate capitalism had they not been repeatedly blockaded or undermined by the military/intelligence arm of the military-industrial complex. Until such alternatives arrive, as Vladimir Lenin famously said, “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” I happen to be against the death penalty, but if corporate criminals kill themselves under public pressure just as Aaron Swartz did under pressure from the DOJ, I would consider that karma but am doubtful they have enough of a conscience to do it.

As those of us who have seen the documentary The Corporation may remember, large corporations analyzed as persons via the DSM-IV would fully meet diagnostic criteria of psychopaths (ie. self-interested, amoral, incapacity to experience empathy and guilt, callous deceitfulness, disregard for safety of others and rule of law to get its way, etc). In the preface for Rich Zubaty’s book The Corporate Cult, Bill Kauth notes even more disturbing characteristics. Corporations are potentially immortal shape-shifters, they thrive in shadows and can’t be seen in mirrors, they hypnotize their victims, they parasitically suck life energy and can infect others to join them. Thus, corporations (especially banking corporations) are not only like psychopaths, but psychopathic vampires who have apparently bit the neck of Uncle Sam (a provocative metaphor but more accurate than claiming corporations are persons). To avoid being vampire food or becoming vampires ourselves, humanity must first break out of its hypnotic trance and resist internalizing the values and characteristics of the corporate/military state.

The primary method of corporate vampire hypnosis is the corporate-stream media. Not only does heavy exposure to corporate owned media put one in a trance, limiting oneself to such media is the psychological equivalent of eating nothing but sugars and processed foods. Just as we need a balanced diet to maintain physical health, we need a balanced media diet for mental health. There’s nothing wrong with corporate-stream news in moderation, especially if one is aware of its inherent biases (i.e., influence by management and investors, corporate/government sponsors, advisors and sources, internalized corporate values etc.), but in today’s media environment there’s no reason not to seek other sources such as Al Jazeera, Russia Today, The Guardian, Democracy Now, and countless other non-corporate owned, state sponsored and independent/alternative news sources. For those too busy to regularly cycle through websites there’s also podcasts, RSS feeds (a system Aaron Swartz helped develop), webcasts, social media, listener supported radio and public access television news. All news sources have their own biases and perspectives, but the more diverse and unbeholden to corporate interests they are, the more useful the information they provide in terms of thinking critically about current events thereby gaining a more accurate perception and understanding of the world.

Corporate-stream media also includes film, television, video games, literary and music entertainment, all types of art, culture and entertainment also created independently and by smaller private and state-funded companies outside the US. Much foreign and independently made entertainment media are bought and distributed by larger corporations and because of the transnational nature of today’s economy and technology, US media has a greater influence on global media than ever (though sometimes the influence is reversed). So all media should be viewed with a discerning and critical eye. But I would argue that seeking entertainment not produced by US corporations is a worthwhile effort because like travelling, it can potentially open one’s mind to values and perspectives not found in typical products of Hollywood, Disney and corporate television that most Americans regularly consume and are influenced by on a conscious and subconscious level. It’s also difficult for some to break habits and explore beyond the familiar and comfortable. Not only can corporate entertainment provide a sense of comfort and security, but with the amount of money and resources corporations provide, their products can be exceedingly slick, spectacular and addictive. Like corporate-stream news, corporate entertainment is harmless in moderation, especially if one is aware of messages or subtexts in the narratives and propaganda techniques, but to limit oneself to corporate-stream media is to exist in a corporate filter bubble and risk internalizing values and behavior of the corporate/military state.

Recent research suggests that intermittent fasting has beneficial effects on health and longevity. Though there’s less supporting scientific data, there’s growing anecdotal evidence indicating intermittent media technology fasting may have beneficial effects on the mind. Whether it does or not, it’s good to have more time for less-mediated activities such as exercise, gardening, hiking, biking, meditation, creative expression, and socializing with friends and family. Such activities are not only inherently rewarding, but also opportunities to process information and emotions, daydream, connect with nature and community, and/or just relax, all of which have a positive impact on mind/body health and longevity.

As for what to do once snapped out of the vampiric trance, that’s up to the individual. As Gil Scott-Heron said in his song “Work For Peace”, nobody can do everything but everyone can do something. What one does might depend on personality, passion, skills, knowledge, creativity, and life situation. As far as goals, much needs to be done but most of us can agree that we need a culture and institutions that reflect basic non-psychopathic human values (i.e., freedom, equality, truth, justice, empathy, cooperation, etc) which we need to also internalize and embody. Voting, especially when combined with organization and education, can yield positive results such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and personal marijuana use in the state of Washington, but voting by itself is not enough. It’s difficult by design to survive within let alone struggle against a system so dominated by corporations without some compromise. However, everyone can take big or small actions everyday to offset compromises and contribute to positive change. Conscious consumer and lifestyle choices, learning, communicating, supporting, creating, organizing, resisting, monkey wrenching and whistleblowing are just a few ways to spread sunlight and become a stakeholder for the planet and local community. And we know what well-placed stakes and sunlight do to vampires.

Reid is a co-chair for the Seattle-based nonprofit organization Community Alliance for Global Justice. Read other articles by Reid.