Amidst all the chaos, tragedy, and tumult that was 2011, I noticed one very clear theme: Most of us are struggling with the role corporations play in our society. The 14th Amendment (yes, the one that banished slavery) established corporations, in the US, as “persons” in the legal sense. In 2010, Citizens v. United sanctified corporations as equivalent to you and I in terms of political speech; in 2011, we began to see the impact of that decision on our political process here in the US (in short, follow the money). The freedom to “associate in corporate form,” as it is termed in portions of the Citizens decision, is one I sense all of us are not entirely certain about. Corporations are utterly undemocratic organizations, and being a part of one is often not a choice, but a necessity. Does joining a corporation mean that you must defend that corporations’ point of view and now Constitutionally-protected right to speech?
Usually, at least in practice, the answer is yes. That corporation is paying your salary, and keeping food on your family’s table. Speaking out against it would be folly. This creates a tension in society that is clearly starting to surface. We overthrew the feudal system in the 1600s, and the theocracy in the 1700s. But currently, corporations play similar roles in many of our lives, either directly or indirectly.
Certainly the Occupy Wall Street movement is one expression of this tension, but I’m not certain it will be the only one. Corporations are arguably the most powerful institutions in human history, more powerful than all but the largest governments. If that sounds silly, remember that the cash and cash equivalent hoard of the Internet Big Five – $180 billion and counting – is larger than the GDP of all but 50 countries. And that doesn’t account for leverage. The top 1000 corporations in the US are holding nearly a trillion dollars in pure cash.
From a balance sheet prospective, corporations are in far, far better shape than just about every country in the world. Even as our personal incomes shrink on a per capita basis, and the world dips in an out of what feels like an eternal recession, corporate profits are up and up again.
This feels a bit out of whack. And while #OWS is one reaction to that dissonance, I’m not sure it’ll be the only one. I think 2012 is the year we all start to question the role corporations can and should play in our society, and doing so won’t (or shouldn’t) be seen as an indication of some leftist or political agenda, but rather as a reasonable outgrowth of how a thinking person sorts through the solution of some of our most pressing problems. Because at the end of the day, we can’t really solve those problems without organizing ourselves into commercial entities. The question, however, is simply this: Can we organize ourselves into corporations without ending up doing things that, if one were to judge corporations as people, would be considered amoral, evil, or psychopathic?
So far, the results are mixed at best. But I have a strong sense that we can and will do better when it comes to how we manage our corporations. And it starts with the industry we’re all part of. While it can be disputed endlessly as to its specific merits, Google’s informal corporate mantra of “Don’t Be Evil” was a watershed moment in the history of corporations. And as “The Information” becomes the most important currency in our culture, and the ability to code (and create great information-driven products) becomes its most prized skill, we’re seeing the rise of a new kind of corporate leader. Perhaps we’re shifting from corporate skillsets that value profit over all other metrics (psychopathic qualities which arguably led us to the financial crisis) to ones that value, well, doing well by doing good.
It could happen. But I’m not arguing it will in 2012. What I am predicting is that this debate will become central to our political and cultural conversation in 2012. It feels like it’s time to have it, without screaming at each other in the process.
And by the way, this is where corporate marketing comes in, in a critical way, but more on that in another post.