Staying True To Who We Are
A Review of The Corporation by Joel Bakan and Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky
by Erskine Howcroft


In a recent interview the great Pedro Casaldáliga was asked if he thought liberation theology had failed. He replied: “No it has not failed. What has happened is that it has stopped being fashionable…What liberation theology teaches is that human beings are more important than capital. So, it continues to be the instrument of hope in countries where people believe and are oppressed by savage capitalism. And it is a theology which already has its martyrs.” [1]
There may be many reasons why liberation theology has ceased to be fashionable. The “radical” middle class layers that gave it some prominence in Europe during the 1970’s and 1980’s may have grown older and wiser; “we’re all Tories now”. The days of solidarity with basket weaving cooperatives in Nicaragua and beyond are long gone. For many of them it’s easier to buy into the global market than opt out of it. However it is precisely in the arena of choice and lifestyle - the new idols of the disoriented middle class in Britain - that the radical agenda of liberation theology is most cruelly betrayed.
Thankfully there still remains a handful of prophetic voices making strenuous efforts to make sure the rest don’t fall asleep through complacency. Agenda for Prophets attempts to cherish these contributions and retrieve whatever we can from the past but we are ever more conscious that prophetic contributions from today’s community of believers are increasingly difficult to come by.
The voices of the liberation theologians like Pedro Casaldáliga, although they are growing old now, still have an authoritative and authentic air of apostolic witness, deeply relevant to Catholics in this era of globalisation. Moreover the contributions of many secular observers of the contemporary scene also serve and strengthen the spirit of resistance informed by our faith perspective.
It is two of these contributions that I wish to highlight here. They are Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, and Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.
Both works sound a similar chord of protest and warning. Both writers make similar plea for resistance to a plague which in Christian terms constitutes probably the gravest risk to Gods gift of Creation ever known: laissez – faire or unrestrained predatory capitalism.
A lunatic doctrinal framework
We live in a world where there is insidious daily pressure on every man, woman and child to act, think and believe that the ideal way to be human is to be out for yourself and no one else. And in doing so quite unconsciously for the most part we are being remade in the image and likeness of our new masters, the global corporations. We are becoming enslaved under a delusion of what it means to be free. It wouldn’t be too bad if it was just our personal freedom which was at stake. What is worse is that the actual price of our consumer lifestyle is the blood of the world’s poor and the ruination of the environment. The stakes are as high as they have ever been.
Bakan’s offering is in part a diagnostic analysis of the modern big business system, the most dominant institution of the modern world. He begs an interesting question: if the corporation could be regarded as a certain social type what kind of person would it be? Using the universally accepted criteria as set out in the DSM-IV [2] he identifies in the corporation all the attributes and traits pertaining to an individual with a severe anti-social personality disorder, in short a psychopath. And as you would expert from an eminent legal theorist, Bakan makes a powerful case for the prosecution. Using anecdotes and case studies to illustrate personal and institutional tensions he exposes the modern corporation as intrinsically immoral and deceitful, quite willing to contravene international standards of law and order in the blind pursuit of profit.
In an illuminating passage featuring interviews with a representative from Pfizer, the pharmaceutical multinational, and a member of the internationally acclaimed Doctors without Borders, Bakan shows how, like all psychopaths, the corporation is sometimes not with out apparent charm and is quite capable of appearing empathic and altruistic.
All this however conceals a more sinister drive to exploit to the fullest every opportunity to maximise profit. It will brook no resistance; nothing is off limits when it comes to the chance to make money not even human disaster or catastrophe. Doctors without Borders turned down Pfizer’s offer to send free medicine to projects in Mali, exposing it as both a tax dodge and a cynical attempt to create dependency in a vulnerable context. In the final analysis it seems the pharmaceutical industry’s incentive to develop drugs which are designed to iron out the psychological maladjustments of family pets is stronger than any motive to help control diseases that kill millions of people throughout the underdeveloped world.
These desires of dominance are the central theme of Noam Chomsky’s book. Chomsky maps out the doctrinal framework that facilitates the corporation’s infiltration into every sphere of life. The US Government desires “economic policies that would enable American business to operate as freely as possible and often as monopolistically as possible…” with the aim of creating “...an integrated US-dominated capitalist world economy.” (Chomsky, p.69.)
Chomsky asserts that for the American elite the guiding principle is simply that hegemony is more important than survival. Global hegemony equates with increased wealth and privilege for the tiny layer of oligarchs currently guiding US foreign policy.
Like the industrial corporation the political oligarchs are highly adept at covering their real motives and appearing altruistic and high minded - so a criminal war of aggression against a defenceless nation such as Iraq is presented as a campaign for democracy and freedom. As Howard Zinn has noted, George Bush and Tony Blair have no more interest in spreading democracy in the oil fields of the Middle East than Columbus or Cortez were interested in spreading Christianity in the Gold fields of the Americas.
This then is the doctrinal framework within which the absurdities of today’s global politics appear at all sensible. This is the “logical illogicality” at the heart of the US administration. How otherwise, for example, could we make sense of a “war on terror” which is accompanied by “an increase in the scale of cold calculated savagery”? How can we otherwise make sense of the militarisation of space - something which brings the possibility of slaughter on a vast scale ever closer - without reckoning on the basic doctrinal principle held by the Bush administration: that hegemony is better than survival?
As is usual with Chomsky his exposé of the hypocrisy of the US government is supported by extensive historical and contemporary references to sources consistently ignored by the mainstream media.
Taking examples from Latin America, the Balkans and in detail from the Arab Israeli conflict - “the cauldron of animosities” - he demonstrates the capacity which vast systems of power have for lying and deceit. À propos of this, one wonders how long it will be before the world hears the truth about what the U.S. Army really did in Fallujah during 2004. Most of the American public and, we have to assume, many of the British public too, have fallen for the fallacy highlighted by Chomsky that “misdeeds are performed by others; we are culpable only of inadvertent error or oversight” as a consequence of which “the worst crimes are easily effaced.” (Chomsky, p.95.)
A passing nightmare?
This is the unanswered question Chomsky holds out for his readers in the final section of his book. As globalisation increases so does poverty, along with increased polarisation, deepening economic stagnation in some regions, increased political instability and cultural alienation. All of which provides fertile ground in which extremism and terror can flourish.
Yet while Chomsky is careful not to play down the real threat of terrorism he argues that it is not the only abyss into which we peer. Much worse is the prospect posed by the continued development, maintenance and neglect of weapons of mass destruction, be that in the US, China or in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Both of these books do more than cite a litany of objections to the current world order. They both propose alternative ways forward.
Bakan call for a reassertion of democratic controls over corporate institutions, meaning improvement of the regulatory sphere with inbuilt and more robust public accountability. The “prevalent presumption” that no public interest lies beyond the quest for profit must be rejected entirely. Finally he appeals for a ideological shift within the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, away from market fundamentalism and its championing of deregulation and privatisation. “Most important we must remember the most subversive truth of all: that corporations are our creations. They have no lives, no powers, and no capacities beyond what we, through our governments, give them.” (Bakan, p.164).
It is with a second trajectory - away from annihilation towards a belief that another kind of world is possible - that Chomsky closes his book. He points to international solidarity movements and the slow evolution of a human rights culture as exemplified by the World Social Forum, (see the link below). According to Chomsky, “it is fair to say, I think, that the future of our endangered species may be determined in no small measure by how these popular forces evolve.” (Chomsky, p. 236).
What kind of people are we?
As this issue goes to press a fierce debate is raging in the US over the right to life of Terri Schiavo, a young woman who has lain in a deep coma for over ten years. The banners of those opposing the withdrawal of the basic means of preserving life - water and food - appeal to people to “Choose Life”. The Catholic Bishops in the run-up to the British general election speak too about the need to be vigilant in face of a growing “culture of death.”
Our stance on these issues, just as on those raised by Chomsky and Bakan, boils down to two fundamentally opposed conceptions of human nature.
On the one hand we can choose the narrow and impoverished notion of what it means to be human, that we are really only “rapacious producers and consumers of goods who function in ways that are competitive and self-interested.” Or else we can trust our fundamental instinct that we are all tied to one another on the basis that if my brother or sister is denied health and life then I cannot be healthy and live life freely either. Bakan reminds us that all empires which have repressed essential aspects of what it means to be human have been doomed to failure. It is this truth about what it means to be human, which Bakan believes can never be permanently suppressed or eradicated, that he claims as the ultimate basis of his optimism.
(Joel Bakan, The Corporation, London, Constable and Robinson, 2004, ISBN: 1845290798, and Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, London, Penguin Books, 2004, ISBN: 0141015055. For more information on The World Social Forum, go to http://www.wsfindia.org/.)


Notes and References
[1] Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, Claretian missionary and Bishop of São Felix, Brazil, in interview with Juan Arias, Far East Magazine. March 2005, pp.2-3.
[2] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (fourth edition) American Psychiatric Association, Washington DC, 1994.