The Occupy Wall Street movement indicates that we’re remembering what we’ve forgotten: that we create our economy, and that the whole system relies upon our trust in each other.
Income disparity is terrible in the United States right now, and people are angry about it. Lots of people are in debt, kids can’t afford college any more, health care is becoming a preserve of the rich and the connected, and jobs remain scarce. A lot of the blame is being placed on corporations. People are living in downtown parks across the nation in order to protest the current state of affairs, where money rules and human lives are quite literally discounted. Corporate greed is on the hook.
It began as a good idea
The word “corporation” comes from the latin corpus, meaning body. When humans get together to form a corporation, they are creating an artificial body, a kind of metabiological life form. I have begun to think about corporate bodies using the metaphor of the golem. The golem was an artificial human, legendarily created by Jewish rabbis out of clay, and brought to life by a tablet with magic words written upon it inserted in its head. The animated golem was a tireless worker, able to defend the Jewish ghetto from attack on one hand, and to help out with household tasks on the other. The most famous golem was the golem of Prague, created by Rabbi Löw during the reign of emperor Rudoph II.
Just like a golem, a corporation is a nonliving entity created by virtue of a writ or charter kept in its “head” —that is, among its officers and board of directors. A corporation is capable of tireless work, day and night; its human members need to sleep, but it does not. Like a golem, it is often designed both to serve certain humans and to protect them from attack—in the legal realm, the term for this attack would be “liability.”
However, not all corporations are helpful and good to humans, and even the golem of Prague was problematic in the end. It became too powerful, and eventually instead of performing helpful deeds it became uncontrollably destructive. Finally, the Rabbi had to remove the tablet from the golem’s mouth, deactivating the clay man.
Your friendly neighborhood golem is here to help
By pooling our resources, we have learned to buffer ourselves from tragedies such as famine and sickness, and to help us to each better our circumstances.
When the Yoruba were brought over in the slave ships to my homeland, the Bahamas, they brought with them a form of basic financial management now known in the islands as an “asue.” For example, 10 people each need $900 in order to take care of some expense. They might form an asue, with an agreement to each put in $100 per week, and each week one of the members will get a “draw,” or the payout of that week’s collection of $900 total from all the other members. The set time period between draws can vary, as can the amount deposited, and some asues can be formed to pool very large amounts of money indeed. The asue has a “holder” who is in charge of keeping track of the money and giving it out when each person’s draw comes around. Think of the asue as a very simple golem with only one task and a limited lifespan.
Obviously the asue only works properly when all the people who formed it are responsible and trustworthy to each other. Successful asues are often created within extended families or among the members of a neighborhood who know each other well and see each other frequently. In a bad asue, the members with the first few draws may not bother to keep contributing to the asue after their payouts. However, in an honest asue each member will get the benefit of pooling community finances, and this can be a way for that community to bootstrap itself into a higher economic state, for example allowing local businesses to invest in equipment they could not otherwise afford.
Really, the corporation as a form is in itself not “good” or “evil.” Like individual humans, some are ethical and responsible, some are indifferent, and a few are feral and psychopathic.
Groups of humans, whether formally incorporated or not, exhibit aggregate psychological traits that have to do with the way the group is put together. If the results of the group’s activities happen in the same environment as the individuals making up the group, that group will have a natural stake in making sure their collective actions are not detrimental to themselves, their families, and the world immediately around them. Your friendly neighborhood golem, in other words, will not hurt you. When you volunteer for a local charity, or when you shop at a locally owned business, you are supporting this kind of an entity.
Golems gone feral
These days, however, mighty corporations bestride the globe, and they are definitively not local entities. The colossus that is your average transnational corporation is a feral golem, controlled by shareholders that may also be corporations. So how powerful are they? A study done recently by analysts in Zurich, Switzerland, tracked the connections between 43,000 such corporations, and found that when they accounted for share ownership of corporations by corporations, a core of 1,318 companies controlled about 60% of global revenues. Furthermore, of those 1,318 companies, a “super-entity” of 147, mostly financial institutions, controlled 40% of the total net wealth in the network. For soulless creatures made of inanimate materials and words on paper, these golems have become incredibly powerful.
Corporations own shares in corporations which own shares in corporations, like a series of matryoshka dolls. The human effort that lies at the foundation of every economy is obscured. Humans are distanced from humans as the corporate veil thickens into an impenetrable wall. Layoffs, outsourcing, and cutting health benefits and pensions all make sense on paper, but cause a lot of human misery in the real world. In the end, humanity is suffering from the strain on our economy caused by this failure of trust.
The Occupy Wall Street movement indicates that we’re remembering what we’ve forgotten: that we create our economy, and that, like an asue, the whole system relies upon our trust in each other. Transnational corporations are not entirely bad. It is because of their gargantuan ability to pool resources that we as a species are able to work on curing cancer and harvesting renewable energy from the sun and wind. However, when we tell ourselves that a poor person “doesn’t deserve” health care, or that corporate pollution in a foreign country “doesn’t matter,” we are telling a lie. We all live on a tiny planet in the middle of a vast void of space, and there is no such thing as a business externality. What goes around comes around.
On the legend of the golem:
On corporate personhood:
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228354.500-revealed—the-capitalist-network -that-runs-the-world.html?DCMP =OTC-rss&nsref=online-news]
On asue financial management:
Alice Bain is a Salt Lake-based artist. Look for her blog updates, appearing several times a week, at http://catalystmagazine.net.