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Our Modern Dictatorship

Guest Column
Anton Van Der Ven

I used to think that we live in a free country. I am now convinced that we live in a dictatorship.

To be sure, the dictatorship is not as bad as the Soviet Union under Stalin, at least if you’re not poor and either African American, Latino or Native American.

Nevertheless, the majority of us well-to-do folks at MIT live a relatively unmolested life. After all, we can all participate in a representative democracy, though our participation wasn’t really taken very seriously when the current president was selected. Even then, the U.S. government guarantees us unparalleled civil liberties, at least to the lighter and richer among us.

So what do I mean when I say we live in a dictatorship? I’m talking about a system where the meaningful and important decisions in society are not made by us, the people, but by highly concentrated undemocratic corporate institutions. The dictatorship I’m referring to is a corporate one.

A corporation is itself a totalitarian institution in which orders are passed down a hierarchy. Once you rent yourself out to one you leave many of your constitutional rights at the door. But, increasingly, we aren’t subjected to corporate tyranny for just those eight or more hours we toil for them. During the last few years, corporations have gotten so large that often only a handful dominate whole sectors of the economy and thus much of our social life. This was even true in past decades, when, for example, General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone banded together to buy up the public electric transportation systems in 45 U.S. cities so they could subsequently dismantle them and pave the way for a society of suburban sprawl and massive air pollution.

One thing Bill Clinton will be remembered for in the future is that he presided over record numbers of corporate mergers -- to be exact, 70,000 of them. By comparison, the Reagan era saw 40,000 corporate consolidations. Markets central to our existence, such as food distribution, pharmaceuticals and energy, are oligopolies that can be characterized as highly centralized command economies only a shade more competitive than the economy of the former Soviet Union.

Lately, corporations have been expanding their reach even further by preying on social services, traditionally the responsibility of the state. Prisons, welfare and schools are all targets for corporate takeover. Government prisons are already human-rights-violating hell holes. Do we want prisons to be run by institutions whose roots lie in fascism? If current trends continue, it will only be a matter of time before a corporation like Lockheed Martin takes over our public schools. Do we want this military contractor to turn our children into war mongers so our government will have even less public resistance when it procures weapons of mass destruction?

Especially harmful to democracy are the record-breaking mergers that have occurred in the media business during the last two to three years.

This sector is now dominated by eight multi-billion dollar corporations that control more than half of all media outlets. Their control is vertical in that they simultaneously own multiple TV, cable and radio stations as well as newspapers, magazines and book publishing companies.

One large corporation in the media business is General Electric, which owns NBC. GE also makes large profits selling greenhouse gas producing power generators and employs roughly 100,000 workers. Will GE CEO Jack Welsh allow NBC to host honest coverage on global warming or labor issues? We can be sure that environmentalists and labor unions don’t have access to similar resources to mold a public perception favorable to their interests.

But mega-corporations do not need to own a TV network to influence the media. Powerful rogue corporations are quick to use bullying tactics like threats of massive lawsuits when reporters expose unsavory corporate behavior. Furthermore, media corporations are always careful not to offend their important sponsors who are more often than not other large corporations. It is in exactly this way that several large chemical companies, most notable among them the Monsanto corporation, have been able to surreptitiously transform a majority of our food supply to one that is drawn from genetically modified crops. We the people of this country were never consulted about this fundamental change in our food. Even as consumers we are denied the right to not eat genetically-modified food since they are not labeled as such. The media has been all but silent on this issue. This is no surprise considering the clout that Monsanto has. Monsanto, for example, forced Fox TV to rewrite a documentary that mentioned potential health risks associated with its genetically modified bovine growth hormone used to boost milk production in cows. When the two reporters of the documentary failed to sufficiently white-wash the piece after 83 rewrites, they were fired. The reporters filed a whistle-blower law suit against Fox and won. A jury awarded them almost half a million dollars. Fox is appealing the ruling. It argues that “there is no law, rule or regulation against slanting the news.”

Despite the overwhelming dominance and power of corporations in our society, there are still a few laws that restrict their behavior. It is well-known that corporations expend much effort buying off politicians to dismantle laws and regulations. Lately though, they have also been using international “free trade” agreements as a conduit to slip in new rights for corporations, often at the expense of democracy in countries.

The next major free trade agreement on the table is the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), which was the subject of a meeting in Quebec City this past weekend. Trade representatives of all the countries of North and South America (except Cuba) met in Quebec to work on an agreement similar to NAFTA. Although agreements like NAFTA are widely acknowledged to impact all strata of society, only trade representatives and CEOs of large corporations participate in the drafting of these “free trade” agreements. In fact, most of the FTAA draft remains a secret; even Congress has not seen the full text. While the trade representatives in Quebec were accompanied by several hundred corporate representatives, the rest of society was kept out of the meeting in true dictatorial style. A large 10-foot wall was erected around Quebec City and held in place by close to 10,000 heavily armed police who used tear gas and plastic bullets to intimidate protesters. Ironically for corporations, it is the free trade agreements that have spurred an encouraging pro-democracy movement of resistance to corporate domination. This was dramatically evident during the Seattle protests of November 1999, the IMF-World Bank protests last spring and the massive protests last weekend in Quebec where 60,000 citizens, despite tear gas and a constant shower of rubber and plastic bullets, took a stand against the corporate takeover of our society.