Corporatism, Degradation, and Living in a World of Catastrophe
The sad reality is that individual action is inadequate. No amount of donation, responsible eating, ethical-company-purchasing action will save anyone when your professional and economic actions work to undermine your theoretical ideals.
From Elliot Kulakow
I’m searching for reconciliation in a world of easy choices and distraction. As an American tech worker, surrounded by bubbles, comfort, and easy life choices, do I settle for a direct path of success, relative wealth, social importance, and fun? Whenever I look beyond my immediacy, it becomes increasingly apparent the irresponsibility of simple exits. Our apparent stability and well being hides in borrowed time, living on the accumulated resources of thousands of years of senescence.
The latest doom-saying report explicitly states the hopeless situation we find ourselves in. Anyone who has been paying attention has known this for a long time, of course, but now there is no excuse left to deny it. Even the most optimistic projections - given functional political systems, cooperative individuals, and rapid economic restructuring - don't leave enough time for the major infrastructure projects necessary for any substantial impact. Already, 60% of non-human life on Earth has died in the last 50 years. That's not counting the extensive catastrophe we had already been courting for centuries prior. At this rate, a short century from now will leave us a lifeless, homogenous wasteland filled with those few creatures skilled at surviving from our refuse. Hundreds of millions of people face a future where they must cling to survival or flee their homes for wealthier but hostile pastures. When even a couple hundred thousand refugees are enough to cause “civilized” nations to bury their heads and embrace nativist politics, is there even a chance at optimism?
It's easy to point to oil companies, military contractors, reactionaries, theocrats, and xenophobes and blame them. They are the obvious villains. But they can be identified, mobilized against, fought, and defeated. It is those of us who claim to want reform, who seek nature and tranquility, diversity, harmony, who are our own enemies. The time for compromise and comfort is past. Nothing will change without difficult compromises from both individuals and the collective.
The sad reality is that individual action is inadequate. No amount of donation, responsible eating, ethical-company-purchasing action will save anyone when your professional and economic actions work to undermine your theoretical ideals. If you work for Goldman, Walmart, even a “progressive” company like Google (minor exceptions for certain specific departments), it doesn’t matter that you recycle, bike to work, and donate to WWF. If you convince them to offset emissions, it’s at best a detente. Startups are not much better, for they are the outsourced corporate Research & Development arms of major multinationals. Major investors and lucky stockholders just wait to collect their checks and move to the next convenient opportunity.
The entire system of western corporate life revolves around exploitation, consolidation, and ruthlessness. Claims of capitalism are grossly overstated when the mechanism of state force enforces exclusivity, the right to pollute, and immunity from responsibility. Prior to 1980, the profit motivation was primarily one of simple self interest by the actors themselves on their own behalf. However, a fundamental economic restructuring reconfigured motivation toward the benefit of abstract third parties - exercising influence solely for the purpose of growth on capital. Shareholder value became the foundational ideology of neoliberalism.
This policy change set off the runaway increase in inequality that continues through today. The top 1% went from approximately 10% of total income in 1980 to over 20% today. Most of these gains came at the expense of those at the bottom, who have failed to gain any meaningful raise while inflation and prices continue to increase. Investment and appetite for risk is also at historically low levels, despite superficial appearances of entrepreneurialism in the tech centers. Modern tech investors dramatically prefer safe bets with little real innovation, servicing niche products to the urban wealthy and large corporate clients. Early stage money is scarce, despite large increases in late stage mega deal financing. Investments in sustainability, agriculture innovation, and services for the poor are practically nonexistent as a share of the total.
How has this manifested in our daily lives? It’s easy to see: the drab similarity of endless repetition stemming from a few behemoths - dictating by focus group tastes, beliefs, and availabilities across the entire US. We have built the facade of glamour and prosperity by stealing pieces here and there from the parts of the world and society less capable of defending themselves against opportunism. Our serious pollution, from mining, textiles, semiconductors, and plastics is mostly offshore or confined to the poorest areas. We happily pay under $10/day in wages to people making our goods, while forbidding them to move to wealthier pastures. A staggering number of industries are controlled by one or a small handful of gigantic companies.
What can you do? For most people, unfortunately, the best you can do is probably the abstract idea of “raising awareness” - unless you're lucky enough to have a dynamic protest movement in your city that will allow you to express your anger in the streets. For those of us who can do something, I propose the following actions:
- Reject consumerist careers with institutional financing. Your profits, even if they are “sustainable”, are just feeding the machine that brought us to this point. Obviously this point is difficult to achieve in practice.
- Work on real problems. If you are solving problems for the global elite, you are part of the problem. It's not enough to support those who are taking action, you must also take action yourself. Practically speaking, problems involving general capabilities and culture may also be real - even when targeting the elite.
- There is an ethical burden for holding capital. Anything beyond that which is required for individual survival and basic comfort should be deployed. Seeking returns is not unreasonable, but failing to act is. Most individuals don’t control enough capital to actually use, but collectively and politically, there must be accountability for hoarding wealth.
When you are engaging in economic action with a corporation, you should remember some simple rules. Most importantly, the corporation is not your friend. Not only is it not your friend, it is actively your enemy. This is even true for founders and major shareholders! The CEO's job (and the board, and everyone else) is to screw you over as much as possible in order to enrich themselves, the company, and most importantly the investors. Never take the word of any manager or higher ranking member unless you have no choice. Never sign anything unless you have absolutely no choice. You can always quit (unless you can’t). A company cannot operate without the participation of its employees. It is the responsibility of the employees to get as much out of the company as they possibly can. Even though John Roberts thinks that corporations are people, they are not! They exist to leech value from the world and redistribute it to their controlling entities. You should fight them at every turn, and seek to make that value your own. They will turn on you immediately if it's convenient for them.
America is a democracy superficially. How free can a democracy be when a huge percentage of the population lives within dictatorial power structures, controlling their presentation, their time, their creative output? Fascism was bypassed politically but adopted economically. As long as we want to see a world that works for everyone, we must not participate in opposition. We cannot accept the excuse of following orders.
I don't know the way forward. Some people think that only through return to primitive lifestyles will we become stable with our environment. Some people think technology can save the world. Some say ending globalization and compartmentalizing ourselves against all others. Maybe there is no way forward, and we will simply weather the forthcoming catastrophe as blind and unhelpful as we are entering it. Regardless, I want to say that I've looked for it.
Elliot is a highly privileged cis white male tech bro who only sometimes acknowledges his privilege when it's convenient to him. He studied physics at Cornell, and wants to do something with his life that doesn't involve trying to get people to spend more money on irrelevant goods and services because that's boring. It's very fortunate that his idea of interesting and his moral compass happens to align. Sucks for those people who like to work on fun tech that will inevitably be used for crappy purposes. He is a cofounder of Fortium Africa, and owns a ginger farm in Nigeria that was paid for with Bitcoin. That's right, he's one of those assholes. He writes about the relationship between environmentalism, neoliberalism, and imperialism. That's a lot of isms. This bio was edited by his partner who rolls her eyes a lot.