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.