There is a myth that is often put forth as evidence that conservatives are unserious about democracy, which is that they favor rapacious capitalist behemoths. Many do, especially those for whom conservatism means capitalism. But most conservatives are ordinary people who want the little guy to be free of the imposing will of major power interests. It confuses matters to assert that all conservatives are interested in promoting big business interests.
As a good friend of mine often says, it matters more what people hear than it does what you say. When most conservatives hear talk about business, they don’t think about how wonderful it would be to promote the infinite expansion of multinational corporations, and they don’t hear their own vocabulary as promoting oligarchy.
Conservatives hear enterprise, business, entrepreneurship, and they think about ordinary people opening genuinely small businesses, family businesses with two or five or ten employees: restaurants, barber shops, fishing tackle shops, even insurance offices and local newspapers.
Those of us who oppose the unbridled expansion of transnational corporate interests and oligarchic impunity need to stop equating conservatism with corporatism, because it’s the corporatists, not the conservatives, and certainly not the liberals, who benefit from that false conflation of ideological focus.
From the mid 20th century to the present day, we have seen a vast expansion of corporate power in the landscape of American politics. Wealth has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, to a degree not seen since the decade before the Great Depression, possibly since the legendary corruption of the so-called Gilded Age. Ordinary people are distanced from the levers of power in ways that most of us find disconcerting.
It has become increasingly common for major enterprises to seek to use their influence and their economic might to force their entry into markets to which they have nothing to offer, even as they box out more able competitors with less quality performance. Defense contractors, notoriously, have sought to manage welfare programs; chemical and agribusiness companies have sought to join forces; commercial banks have sought to take over financial markets, which are their natural rivals.
General Electric (an industrial juggernaut) and Vivendi (a French water utility) have taken huge positions in the media business. Publishers and bookstore chains have merged, then been taken over by content-starved internet service providers. Financial companies have sought to profit from “financial instruments” whose only function is to allow financial companies to expand their wealth claims, without producing any substantive benefit to anyone else.
Parasitism has become a celebrated corporate virtue: the more you can make while doing less to the constructive benefit of others, the better. The problem has become so pervasive that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act had to 1) stop Wall Street from rewarding insurers for providing less coverage and 2) stop insurers from taking money while refusing to provide the service promised.
It’s vitally important that we note, as part of this analysis, that not all corporate interests operate in this way. There is an important, and demonstrable, difference between enterprises that seek to profit by bleeding others of productive value and businesses that seek to profit by providing them with it. This is where we should draw the line and the metric by which we should try to measure value.
Small businesses, especially those with only one retail location —”mom and pop” shops, local restaurants and cafes, diners, and the like— have to do something people want or can benefit from, in order to get paid. Large businesses, however, have become adept at moving money around, restructuring their own spectrum of activities, and gambling on projected future activity, to gather wealth to themselves that has little to do with their productive role in the marketplace.
Major oil companies, the most profitable enterprises in the history of the planet, still claim to be so commercially immature as to be unable to survive, or at least to play a constructive role in the marketplace, without tens of billions of dollars in free giveaways from taxpayers. A significant portion of their business model is now made up of the quest for subsidies, which they seek and accept in multiple countries simultaneously.
We need to think more intelligently about what kind of society we aim to build: if we want a society in which free people are rewarded for creativity and for worth and dignity, then we should not reward those who seek to undermine the capacity of others or to siphon away the productive value of economic activity for which they are not responsible. In short, parasitic enterprise is not in keeping with the ideals of a democratic society.
Everyone understands when someone is trying to “pull a fast one”, to get away without being seen doing what in fact they are doing. When enterprise becomes a shell game, moving the money around so that no one can verify what exactly anything is worth, it is not enterprise anymore in the legitimate sense. One of our central goals as a civilization in this century should be to free ourselves of parasitic monopolies and their less massive but equally corrosive kin.
We cannot overcome a crisis of valuation, if we continue to let pirates, mercenaries and parasites, determine what milk and honey are worth. Some very abstract financial investment tools are legitimate, because they generate real value for the wider marketplace. But no fashion or fad within any industry can be worth our forfeiting our capacity, as individuals or as a civilization, to innovate to solve problems, to invent to build a better future, to be free and strong enough to decide what comes tomorrow.
Democracy must come first.