Coercive Corporations? (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 1)

Nowadays if you listen to any conservative media, you can expect to find an almost reflexive hatred of everything relating to the government, and an almost reflexive confidence in everything relating to the market and to corporations.  This seems deeply puzzling, since it seems that most of the things that people hate about “the government” apply equally to many large corporations–they are massive entities, reaching their tentacles into everything, sucking up our money, trying to control our lives, faceless and bureaucratic, always expanding–plus, large corporations add an additional unsavory feature not shared by governments: they are legally bound to look out for their own interests firsts, as opposed to the common interest first.  The government may fail to advance the common good, but at least it is supposed to be trying to.

The ferocious reply comes back: “No!  The difference is that corporations aren’t trying to control our lives!  Corporations leave you free to buy or not buy as you see fit, and they can only survive if you choose to buy.  Governments, however, rule by coercion–they force you to pay taxes, even if you don’t want to–that’s the essential difference.”  Hard right libertarians or anarchists will push this further, and describe every function of the government in terms of the baldest coercion: “We have to pay taxes for our schools because otherwise they’ll lock us up in a cage; we’re being forced to pay for these new roadways at gunpoint”–that sort of supercharged language.  All this, I want to suggest, rests upon a rather oversimplistic concept of “coercion” and indeed a false understanding of how human psychology and human societies work.  

In this series, I want to explore a provocative pair of questions: Just how uncoercive are markets really?  And, for that matter, just how coercive are governments, really?  The tantalizing answer, I suggest, is: It depends–upon you, that is.

Let’s try to unpack this.  My main argument rests on deconstructing the concept of coercion, but first, let’s offer an easier, purely empirical challenge to the notion that governments coerce where corporations do not.  Is it true that corporations do not exercise coercion?  As a matter of fact, many do.  Here in the US, the largest corporations have long learned how to harness the power of the legal system to destroy smaller competitors, or to repress protesting workers, or, more frighteningly, have manipulated foreign policy or even collaborated with military forces, CIA, etc., to take down obstacles to their expansion, or to take foreign markets captive.  This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff, but a pretty open-and-shut part of history (not just, of course, in the last century, though the massive reach of multinations has amplified the effects of corruption).  Books like Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, or even Niall Ferguson’s Empire are a good primer in this sort of thing.  

Of course, the right-wingers will reply that this is just because the state, with its coercion, has gotten mixed up in business: in each of these examples, corporations are calling upon the coercive power of the state to do their dirty work, not doing it themselves.  This, however, is a rather poor defense–it reminds me a bit of Boniface VIII’s argument that the Pope doesn’t wield the coercive sword directly–he just gives it to civil authorities and tells them how to use it, so he remains spiritual and peaceful.  If corporations are asking the government to wield coercive power for them, then corporations themselves are seeking to exercise coercive power.  Moreover, outside the First World, private companies often do maintain their own security forces that will protect their interests by force.  So even with direct coercion, a neat distinction between governments and corporations is not possible.  

However, I’m not so interested in direct coercion.  Later on, we’ll try to find an actual meaningful definition for coercion.  But for now, let’s go back to that phrase above “trying to control our lives,” which for now we could call “coercion broadly construed.”  Now, do corporations try to control our lives?  Well, not all of them, sure, but many of them.  They try to control what we eat, how we sleep, what we do for entertainment, what we read, where we travel–in short, all of our lifestyle choices are not left simply up to us, but are pushed and pulled by marketing.  This isn’t a conspiracy theory either, but simply a truism about the purpose of much modern marketing.  “Ah, but the difference,” our free marketeer will object, is that the choice is still always up to you whether you will listen to the marketing, what you will buy, etc.  A corporation can never force you to choose one thing over another.”  But this is to return to a narrow definition of coercion.  When we say that someone has a “controlling husband” or that “so-and-so’s friends are trying to control her” we usually do not mean that physical force is being employed–no, control is usually exercised by psychological and social pressures, by all sorts of forms of bullying, alluring, and manipulating.  We rightly detest the idea of being manipulated–indeed, almost worse than being outright coerced, because at least then we know what’s being done to us, instead of being secretly pulled and prodded.  We are so immersed in the manipulative power of marketing that we often don’t even notice it anymore; we think we’re freely choosing to eat at McDonalds, and then finally we wake up one day and ask, “Why do I eat at McDonald’s?  I hate it!  It’s terrible food, and terribly unhealthy,” and so we try to stop, and then we realize how strong the impulse remains.  Later on, I will return to offer a more thoroughgoing psychological evaluation of choice and this sort of subtle coercion.

For now, though, we shouldn’t forget another even simpler way in which companies try and “control our lives”–by limiting the number of choices available.  If I want something to eat and you present me with a choice between corn chips and oatmeal, but I don’t want either, I may still be technically “free,” but I sure don’t feel like it.  The panegyrists of capitalism tell us how much capitalism has increased the number of choices available.  But as many critics have documented, this proliferation of choice is in many ways an illusion.  The vast number of food products seemingly available are often just variations on various corn products and hyper-processed foods; we are not necessarily given the choice to eat healthy beef or natural vegetables.  The most dramatic example of the deceptive proliferation of choice is in drugs.  Supposedly, we are now blessed with an amazing plenitude of medicines for every conceivable need; however, most of these contain one of a few basic chemical ingredients, chemicals that often are far less effective than the plethora of natural remedies that have been pushed off of drugstore shelves everywhere.  More obviously, choice is limited by monopoly.  The massive number of brands out there reflect, in many industries, only a small handful of actual companies, many of which basically follow the exact same production processes.  The goal of most large companies is to choke out the competition and establish a monopoly, or at least an oligopoly, and of course it is precisely the monopoly role that the government seeks to play that angers so many of the libertarian stripe.  Here, then, we cannot draw a clear dividing line between the “control” exercised by government and that exercised by the “private sphere.”  And of course it should be pointed out that this blurriness between the private and the public realms is not a modern development; on the contrary, the modern period has seen an attempt to differentiate between these two much more sharply than ever before.  

Now, this empirical case is not really my chief interest.  In the following three sections, I want to analyze the concept “coercion” and see how useful it really is in enabling us to condemn political action and endorse economic action.   


9 thoughts on “Coercive Corporations? (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 1)

  1. This is heading in interesting directions.(BTW Do you think that pharmaceuticals studied by reputable scientists without corporate links to the drug companies are less effective than natural remedies advocated in the absence or directly against peer-reviewed studies?)

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  2. Tony

    "Hard right libertarians or anarchists"I assume you mean "and"? Also, libertarians are not typically "right", let alone "hard right". Libertarians, or classical liberals, are often at odds with the "hard right"–on social issues especially. Also, and more to the point of the post, it seems you are changing the definition of "coercion" to fit your conclusion. Here is what you seem to be saying: (1) Coercion forces people to act unwillingly (2) Both (a) Big Governments and (b) Big Corporation engage in coercion by forcing people to act unwillingly (3) If (a) is to be feared, then so should (b)(4) But (a) is better than (b) given that (a) is at least (or at least should be) more concerned with the good of the whole where (b) is only ultimately concerned with the good of a few. (5) Thus, (a) is preferable to (b).I think this is what you are saying. And I like it, except that (2) isn't true. Or least you haven't convincingly demonstrated its truth. Attempting to control peoples lives ((b) for example), is wholly different than actually having a legal mandate to do so ((a) for example).

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  3. But Tony, I think the difference between the two is accidental (in the technical sense of the word). We can be compelled by other things than physical restraint. A manipulative person compels people. Advertisements not only make us think the product is a good answer for our desire, but creates the desire in the first place. This isn't a controversial point. It's Marcuse's point in One Dimensional Man. It's Lewis' point in several articles–and also roughly, one of his points in That Hideous Strength. It's Chresterton's point in several articles. It's Orwell's point in 1984 and Animal Farm. There are also economic forms of empire. Economic means of compelling people to do things they would otherwise not want–like a large corporation making up for small profit margins by sheer volume, and thus squashing the competition. Or selling inferior, foreign foods, at in ways that squash the local. Or loading food with grease salt and sugar so it becomes addictive. Some of this may be bad, some good. But it's an acknowledged fact that such compulsion is compulsion. Acknowledged by nearly everyone, except when we start talking about economic issues. Then suddenly we tend to pretend like only physical constraint–the sword of government–is coercive.

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Tony,With regard to the phrase "hard right libertarians or anarchists"–I had difficulty figuring out how to label the mindset I'm opposing. I don't know what circles you walk in, so let me just try to explain the sort of people I had in mind. In my circles (American Reformed churches), the general political orientation is very right-wing in the sense of being very pro-market and very anti-government. Among some, there is an inconsistency of being anti-government yet very pro-war–that is, of wanting a small government at home, and a large government abroad. Others say that no, what they are against is coercion, and given that the government accomplishes everything it does through coercion, whether at home or abroad, it is to be opposed across the board, and shrunk as much as possible. The market, however, which is a voluntary sphere, is to be encouraged and given free rein. Among those sharing this general orientation, some would consider themselves "Republicans," others "libertarians," others "anarchists." Much of this sort of mindset could be identified with the "Tea Party" or with Ron Paulites. Call them what you will, but this is basically what I am responding to.As for your more substantive objection, well, this is only part 1 of 5 parts, so a lot of this will be clarified further on. As far as breaking down my point into those five points…well, 1) is basically accurate, though in part 2 I will nuance the definition more carefully, 2) and 3) are basically accurate; 4) and 5) are not exactly my point in the argument as a whole. I think it is important to point out that in principle a) may be better than b), but my point is not really to argue that it reliably is–both big governments and big corporations have often been great forces for evil in the modern world, but both have also done much good. My main point is to challenge the idea that b) is much better than a), without necessarily trying to flip it around and say, "No, a) is much better than b)"You say you disagree with 2)–which part? 2a or 2b? Then you say, "Attempting to control peoples lives ((b) for example), is wholly different than actually having a legal mandate to do so ((a) for example)." Well, yes and no. There is of course a very big difference between trying to exercise control over a person legally vs. illegally, though, if the person in question does not want to obey, they will consider it coercion either way. The fact that coercion is of the essence of gov't, in a way that it is not for business, is an important distinction to keep in mind, and one that I recognize later on (in part 4, I think); however, this does not change the fact that either may actually often function in similarly coercive or similarly voluntary ways. This sounds a bit vague here, but that's because I think most of your questions may be addressed by the definitions I develop in the following segments…if they are not, then please keep questioning and arguing.I should also add that my purpose here is not to suggest that coercion is necessarily wrong. I am simply trying to identify how and why and where it works so that we don't apply double standards.

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  5. Brad Littlejohn

    Oh Byron,I forgot to answer your question. I do not know the details of such studies, and was not intending to make any sweeping statements about the effectiveness of natural remedies–merely drawing attention to the fact (a fact easily confirmed by ordinary experience, it seems to me) that with many garden-variety health problems (e.g. cold, flu, sore throat, canker sores), heavily marketed drugs are often hardly better than placebos, and worse than many natural remedies that have been dismissed by the industry, presumably because they cannot be patented and profited from. My friend Bradley, however, can speak much more authoritatively to this subject than I can, and hopefully he will jump in and comment. For the record, though, I have never understood the sacred authority attached to so-called "peer-reviewed studies."

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  6. Peer-review is not sacred, but it is the best way we've found for minimising the noise to signal ratio in academic discourse, reducing the level of irrelevant, patently incorrect or heavily biased material that contributes to the intellectual discussion on a given issue.Of course it is not a perfect system that always delivers truth, but we're yet to find something better.But the real strength of health research is not simply in peer-review, but in random double-blind empirical trials. If a particular remedy can only gain recommendations from anecdotal evidence, then it is telling. This is not simply a matter of big pharma distorting the market (though that certainly happens, particularly in the US), but of independent studies discovering what actually works.

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  7. Ironically, this article would not have passed peer review in a scientific journal. It exhibits many of the very failings that it criticises: cherry-picking the interesting results from a narrow field without adequately controlling for random variation or confirmation bias. Perhaps if this analysis of peer-reviewed publications looked again at this question, the apparently startling result might begin to fade… ;-)Seriously, I noted above the many problems that still dog peer-reviewed publications. My point is a negative one: that focussing on peer-reviewed literature in reputable journals generally reduces (but does not eliminate) the noise-to-signal ratio in the discussion of a given topic where that topic falls within the proper scope of a scientific field of enquiry. Of course it is no guarantee that every paper so published will be faultless, but it is certainly better than reading a few bloggers sharing their opinions.

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  8. For those who read the New Yorker piece, make sure you also read the follow-up piece by the same author here.Some key points for those with little time:

    "One of the sad ironies of scientific denialism is that we tend to be skeptical of precisely the wrong kind of scientific claims. Natural selection and climate change have been verified in thousands of different ways by thousands of different scientists working in many different fields. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that such theories won’t change or get modified—the strength of science is that nothing is settled.) Instead of wasting public debate on solid theories, I wish we’d spend more time considering the value of second-generation antipsychotics or the verity of the latest gene-association study."

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