For eighty years, Americans have feared robots, worrying they might one day rule the world. In 2011 we realized our real enemies are not robots, but multinational corporations, who have declared war on democracy.
In 1936 evil robots made their first film appearance in Flash Gordon. Since then they’ve haunted popular culture, because robots can be designed to perform human functions yet have no conscience – they are programmed to achieve their objectives no matter the consequences. This nightmare vision reached an apogee in the 1999 film the Matrix. The movie depicts a world where robots, the “sentinels,” run everything and humans have become an energy source. Robots maintain control by enveloping Americans in a simulated reality – we have no idea what’s happening to us.
In 2011 multinational corporations ran most of the US but the average American didn’t realize this because corporations controlled our reality.
Although the concept of a “corporation” is 400 years old, the modern US corporation evolved from an 1886 Supreme Court decision. Until the end of World War II most Americans did not work for corporations. Now the typical wage earner works in a corporate setting.
Over the past 50 years, corporate power grew. In his 1961 farewell address, President Eisenhower warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex.” Ike should have alerted Americans to the threat of corporations, in general.
The sixties and seventies saw a new era of global trade and the advent of multinational corporations. In 1981 Ronald Reagan became President and “Reaganomics” became the dominant ideology. At the forefront of this philosophy were three malignant notions: helping the rich get richer would inevitably help everyone else, “a rising tide lifts all boats;” markets were inherently self correcting and there was no need for government regulation; and the US did not need an economic strategy because of the “free” market. The Reagan administration viewed unfettered corporations as a vital component of a free market and deliberately unleashed a pernicious threat to democracy.
Once Reagan came to power the number of Washington lobbyists grew from a few hundred to an estimated 40,000 – in 2009 Federal lobbyists expended $3.5 billion. Multinational corporations sponsor most lobbyists either directly or indirectly through organizations such as the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Under Reagan, the Justice Department softened enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act and other statutes limiting the growth of corporations, in general, and monopolies in specific. As a consequence, five giant corporations now control most of the US media industry – and manipulate the reality of average citizens.
Despite these changes, until recently most Americans were unaware of the threat posed by multinational corporations – unless their job had been shipped overseas or their cable provider dropped their favorite TV channel. Then three things combined to wake up the 99 percent.
In September of 2008, the US walked to the edge of a profound financial crisis. In response Congress authorized a $700 Billion bailout and funds went to financial giants such as AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo – the same corporations whose reckless policies had caused the crisis. Average Americans asked, “What about me? Where’s my bailout?”
In January of 2010, the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case and strengthened the notion that corporations have “personhood” and, therefore, enjoy the same rights as ordinary individuals, including the right of free speech. (For a compelling account of how the bizarre notion that corporations enjoy the same constitutional rights as human beings has evolved, see radio host Thom Hartmann’s book, Unequal Protection.) The Citizens United decision allowed corporations to spend unlimited funds in political contests. Members of the 99 percent bellowed, “Since when do corporations have the same rights that I have?”
In November of 2010, because of their new political clout, corporations were able to shift control of the House of Representatives to Republicans. Since the GOP took over in January 2011, this has become the most corporation-friendly legislative body in American history. Republicans have consistently thwarted efforts to have multinational corporations – and their executives – pay their fair share. Republicans behavior has been so egregious that average Americans were outraged: “Why do corporations get special treatment when I can’t pay my bills?” (Mother Jones reports that corporations are gearing up to spend billions more to buy the 2012 election.)
In the Matrix the hero, Neo, breaks out of his simulated reality and joins a band of human insurgents, who battle the evil robots to regain control of earth. Occupy Wall Street is an insurgent movement that strives to get average Americans to break out of their simulated reality and battle evil corporations.
In 2011 our worst fears were realized. It’s not evil robots but instead multinational corporations that want to control the world and, in the process, destroy democracy. Like humanoid robots, corporations have no conscience – they are programmed to achieve their objectives no matter the consequences to humans or the planet. Now it’s up to the insurgency to save democracy.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org