Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 8, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part IV

The Seat of Power

The consolidation of corporate power
Even as the enclosure of the commons converted the peasant class into the proletariat, providing the treadmill with an unlimited labor supply, the disintegration of the cities and the specter of Blake’s “Dark satanic mills” gave the lie to the cornucopian notion of a ‘new Eden’ emerging from the maw of the factory. Yet, rather than being excoriated as frauds, the captains of industry were celebrated. In the United States, a place where the founders had distrusted corporations and had put provisions into the constitution to protect against corporate power, those provisions were being eaten away. By the mid-nineteenth century, corporations had quietly assumed the legal rights of persons in the United States, by subverting a constitutional amendment meant to protect former slaves. The age of the robber baron fell upon the world.
Of course there were protests against the human carnage that resulted from corporate rapine, and even some complaint against the effects on nature. The gilded age came to an end in a flurry of reforms, and though the machine never stopped turning (and no one would have expected it to- the general opinion was that the treadmill was a fine thing, but its owners just needed to behave properly) the barons played their activities down and bided their time.
World War I came and went, and the corporations became bold once more. By the advent of the Second World War, the proper conditions had arrived for a true consumer culture to meet the treadmill.
The birth of the consumer culture,
The scars of the depression, and sacrifices made to attain an allied victory in World War II left an America hungry for consumer goods. Any lingering doubts regarding possible costs or consequences were easy to put aside in the heady and naive days immediately following the war. As historian Lizbeth Cohen states:
“The flourishing of mass consumption was first and foremost a route to recovery and sustained health of the economy, but it also provided a ready weapon in the political struggles of the cold war.”
As has been discussed above, the cold war was about the means of distribution, not the means of production. David C. Korten writes:
“The struggle between two extremist ideologies has been a central feature of the twentieth century. Communism calls for all power to the state. Market capitalism calls for all power to the market- a euphemism for giant corporations. Both ideologies lead to their own distinctive form of tyranny. The secret of Western success in World war II and the early post war period was not a free market economy; it was the practice of democratic pluralism built on institutional arrangements that sought to maintain the balance between the state and the market and to protect the right of an active citizenry to hold both accountable to the public interest.”
This balance is precisely what put paid to the robber barons. But in the years between the great reformers and the post war boom, certain conditions had arisen that prevented the mass population from seeing the troublesome developments that were starting to bubble up. Or if a particular population could see part of the problem, they could not see the whole picture, much less connect the cause back to its source- the treadmill of production. Presently I shall discuss the nature of the mystification that kept the people from connecting the dots, much less taking action. In this next section I shall discuss the disturbing developments.


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