Documentary Round-Up Pt. 2: Down with Wal-Mart and McDonalds!

Whereas the documentary in the first post, Inside Job, took on the behemoths of the American banking industry, and did it very effectively, these next two documentaries likewise sought to expose the dark underbelly of American corporate giants–two of the most iconic: Wal-Mart and McDonalds–but were less effective in their execution.

The High Cost of Low Price
Message: 4.5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 2.5/5
Cinematography: 1/5

This film is an attack on Wal-Mart’s business practices, pointing out, essentially, that the wonderful benefits to American society of being able to buy $10 cardigans and $5 earbuds do not come without a price.  Obvious, perhaps, yet it is stunning how many ardent defenders Wal-Mart still has.  The movie covers the obvious bases–running small businesses into the ground and destroying downtowns, appalling Third World labor conditions, barely liveable pay for First World Wal-Mart employees–along with some less obvious ones–poor security at Wal-Mart parking lots leading to high crime rates, very poor environmental standards, for instance.  All of this is very much a story that needs to be told.

Unfortunately, it was clearly told on a very low budget by a very under-competent director.  The film quality is quite poor and worst of all is the sound mixing–there are many points where you simply cannot hear what the interviewees are saying because of over-loud background noise or music.  Of course, that’s no great loss, because they often don’t have anything very interesting or intelligent to say, generally offering little more than subjective personal experiences, which, although readily believable, doesn’t carry much weight in a company with 2 million employees.  That is, of course, the line of defense that anyone inclined to contest this film’s premise could easily take: yes, abuses have happened–bad labor practices, bad environmental practices, etc., but Wal-Mart is just so enormous that of course there will be instances of such–that doesn’t mean they are systemic or intentional.  The movie offers some evidence and statistics to prove that they are in many cases, but it might not be compelling to people otherwise inclined to trust Wal-Mart.  To really prove his point, the director would have needed to secure interview with more highly-placed people who could bring damning evidence against the company on a macro level.  

The other line that Wal-Mart defenders might take is, “Well, sure, Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its employees much, sure it cuts some corners, sure it drives small retailers out of business, but that’s what’s necessary in order to supply its customers with really cheap products, and that helps so many struggling people make ends meet.”  A distributist would be appalled at the absurdity of this defence, but it is the common one among right-wing defenders of Wal-Mart.  The director undercuts this line of defence, however, near the very end of the film when he looks at how much money the Wal-Mart executives make, and how fantastically rich the Walton family is.  It turns out that Wal-Mart could keep its prices just as low and still afford to pay its workers a much more livable wage, if the lucky few on top weren’t trying to live like emperors.  A deeper way of refuting this objection (and perhaps this is beyond the scope of a documentary), though, would be to argue that getting the cheapest products is not the best thing for a society–that the whole business model of a Wal-Mart, convincing the consumer to substitute quantity for quality, is destructive to society.  But for that, perhaps we should all just go read The Human Condition.

Super Size Me
 Message: 4/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 3.5/5
Cinematography: 3.5/5

Yep, believe it or not, I’d never gotten around to seeing this before.  Since it was almost entirely first-person in focus, it was very fun and engaging, and did not require the first-class cinematography of an Inside Job in order to hold the viewer’s attention or make its argument.  It was also, unsurprisingly for anyone who knows the premise, nauseating almost the whole way through.

Just in case anyone doesn’t know the premise, here it is: A guy named Morgan Spurlock, curious about the lawsuits against McDonalds, decides to test out just how unhealthy McDonald’s food really is.  So, with thorough health monitoring throughout the process, he embarks on a month-long binge of eating only McDonalds food–breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  The result–a man in exemplary good health manages to run his body into the ground, putting himself at serious risk of liver failure by the end of the month–was to me at least hardly surprising.  I mean, what else would you expect from an exclusively McDonalds diet?  

What was surprising–and really disturbing–about the film was the fact that it was surprising–to the doctors involved.  At the beginning of the process, Spurlock asks his physicians what ill effects they expect.  Not much, they say–modest weight gain is about it.  By two-thirds of the way through, they’re begging him to stop for his own safety, and at the end, they confess they had no idea that fast food could do that much damage to a person, though in hindsight it makes sense.  This is a damning indictment of the vacuum of nutritional knowledge (or even common sense) among the medical professionals that we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate.  

Of course, the film does not really do all that much to improve this situation.  There is very little discussion of just why it is that this food is so bad for him–his liver in particular.  Spurlock and the doctors vaguely chalk it up to a “high-fat diet,” but clearly fat per se is not the problem.  A bit is said about the degree of processing that fast food goes through, but not much.  I would’ve been interested to see a more thoroughgoing exposure of all of the things that go into making this food so unnatural and so unhealthy, instead of simply blaming it all on fat.  For this, Food, Inc. is a better starting point.   

The most interesting part of the movie, to me, were the interspersed bits of investigation into McDonalds’s marketing practices, and an interview with a spokesman for the lobbying firm that represents America’s food industry.  His defence, of course, and the standard line of defence for free marketeers that want to defend the American food industry, is to say that businesses’s responsibility is simply to make sure to get all the relevant “information” out there–to make sure that the public is well-informed about their products.  If consumers choose not to take advantage of this information, or, having consulted it, choose to buy their products, then they are solely responsible for the effects.  

This is hogwash on at least three levels, and yet it is utterly pervasive among free marketeers today.  First, it is simply not true that the food industry, particularly the fast food industry, wants to get all the relevant information out there to every consumer–on the contrary, it requires thorough and aggressive research, such as that underlying Food, Inc. to get to the bottom of many of its dirty secrets.  Second, it is absurd to say that as long as a company tells you that it is selling something it knows to be harmful, then there is no ethical problem with it continuing to sell it.  If that were so, then why prosecute drug dealers?  If we believe that we have any responsibilities for our neighbor’s good, then surely we must believe that it is wrong to knowingly help another person harm themselves (and make money off it!), even if they choose to do so.

Third, it is based upon the myth of the consumer as a rational, independent choosing agent, who requires only to be informed with relevant facts, so that he can make his purchases accordingly.  Of course, food companies know better than to act on the basis of this myth in their advertising!  They know that the way to win consumers is to bypass their rational faculties and play to their fears, their cravings, their addictions, their sentimental associations; and of course, they know that the best way of all to do this is to capture their consumers when they are only children.  Super Size Me gives some attention to the aggressiveness with which McDonalds seeks to rope in children and thus create brand loyalty for life.  If this is your marketing strategy, then it’s bald hypocrisy to wax on about how the key is supplying the consumer with all the relevant facts so they can make an informed purchasing decision.  

Super Size Me was fun and a good start, but a small budget and staff meant that it doesn’t dig nearly as deep as it ought to.


Happy Thanksshopping

Although I have oft deplored Black Friday, this trademark of a culture gone mad, this most sacred of all holidays to our national god of Mammon, I had not until today stopped to reflect on the sad irony of its position in our national calendar.  Its defilement of the liturgical calendar, with expectant, ascetic, penitent waiting for the Advent of our Lord being overrun with the frantic feeding frenzy of the Christmas shopping season, is something that has increasingly troubled me in recent years.  But sharper still is the contrast with the day that now marks the start of this shopping orgy: Thanksgiving.  

The origins of our Thanksgiving, and of its analogues in many other cultures, lies in a grateful celebration of the gifts of sustenance that God has supplied us from the bounty of creation.  Thanksgiving is the day when our ancestors rejoiced that their basic needs had been supplied, and expressed their contentment and gratitude for their freedom from want.  Today, no sooner do we pause to engage in this now-artificial ritual than we hurl ourselves with wild abandon into the whirl of covetousness and discontent, leaving behind the repose of satisfied needs to stoke the fires of artificial wants and needs.  Of course, the theologically-minded defenders of our modern consumer capitalism will insist that there is a connection–that the extravaganza of shopping can serve as an expression of gratitude for the gifts we have received, that enable us to purchase so freely, and indeed, to purchase gifts for others.  But this is to overlook the deep difference between the gratitude that accompanies the satisfaction of genuine human wants and needs, and the still-restless temporary satiation that accompanies the indulgence of artificial needs that a bottomless consumerism constantly creates.  The former is not impossible, even for the modern American shopper; but it is increasingly uncommon.  

Since my birthday always falls on or near Black Friday, and I have for years received mostly cash gifts after relatives despaired of following my arcane and eccentric tastes, I have for several years found good reason to join the teeming masses and make an uneasy truce with the manic ritual.  This year, the day’s proceedings concluded on a note of heavy irony with my final purchase–a book called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.   

In it, the author Benjamin Barber (best known for the prophetic Jihad vs. McWorld) argues, more or less, that in its quest for ever-greater consumption of its limitless production (I think of Arendt’s The Human Condition), global capitalism has learned to expand its consumer base by aggressively marketing to children, the easiest to persuade and hardest to satiate, and hooking them early on the consumerist drug, and by increasingly converting the adult populace to a state of childlike gullibility, dependence, and insatiability.  The result is the simultaneous destruction of childhood and the infantilization of adulthood. 

I have only read the first chapter so far, whose thirty-seven pages read like one great rant composed in a fever of moral passion which, though often merely reactionary, occasionally attains heights of genuine eloquence.  Although the moral passion rings somewhat hollow in the absence of any theological conviction (as I found also with Naomi Klein), such a prolonged and at times cranky rant is on the whole justified by the seriousness of the subject and the keenness of Barber’s insight.  Already in this first chapter he exposes the risible obsolescence of appeals to a “free market” that is based, more often than not, on manipulation and captivation of the defenceless, to the “Protestant work ethic” of a capitalism that is now much more about consuming than producing, and to the operation of the “law of supply and demand” in an economy where supply does not so much meet demand as create it.  Here are a couple striking quotes, one from near the beginning of the chapter and another from near the end: 

“Beyond pop culture, the infantilist ethos also dominates: dogmatic judgments of black and white in politics and religion come to displace the nuanced complexities of adult morality, while the marks of perpetual childishness are grafted onto adults who indulge in puerility without pleasure, and indolence without indolence.  Hence, the new consumer penchant for age without dignity, dress without formality, sex without reproduction, work without discipline, play without spontaneity, acquisition without purpose, certainty without doubt, life without responsibility, and narcissism into old age and unto death without a hint of wisdom or humility.  In the epoch in which we now live, civilization is not an ideal or an aspiration, it is a video game.”
 
“The consumer at once both imbibes the world of products, goods, and things being impressed upon her and so conquers it, and yet is defined via brands, trademarks, and consumer identity by that world.  She essays to make the market her own even as it makes her its prisoner.  She trumpets her freedom even as she is locked up in the cage of private desire and unrestrained libido.  She announces a faux consumer power even as she renounces her real citizen power.  The dollars or euros or yen with which she imagines she is mastering the world of material things turn her into a thing defined by the material–from self-defined person into market-defined brand; from autonomous public citizen to heteronomous private shopper.  The boundary separating her from what she buys vanishes: she ceases to buy goods as instruments of other ends and instead of other ends and instead becomes the goods she buys.”


Coercion and Motivations in the Economic Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 3)

Now that we have outlined the general motivations for human action, how do these function in different spheres of human life?  (I will not, of course, be comprehensive here and try to cover the entire scope of human life!)  

In most people’s conception, and certainly in the “Christian libertarian” (for lack of a better term) conception, the religious sphere is governed primarily by the love motivation, the economic sphere is governed primarily by the reward motivation, and the political sphere is governed primarily by the fear motivation: we obey God because we love Him, we obey our boss because he will pay us, and we obey the government because we don’t want it to kill us.  (Hate could also enter into any of these spheres, and I will give brief attention to its role in the economic sphere and a bit more attention to its role in the political sphere.) 

However, as I think is apparent already in that quick summary, this is dangerously oversimplistic.  The example just given above about serving God shows the complexity of motivations even in the religious sphere, a sphere from which even the coercive element does not seem entirely absent.  (This is a contentious subject, and not one I want to enter into here, but inasmuch as leaders of the Church are entrusted with the power of binding and loosing, the exercise of church discipline has a coercive character–it moves to action by the motive of fear–at the very least fear of losing fellowship, at the most, fear of losing salvation.)

The economic sphere is certainly more complex.  First, briefly, the most marginal motivation in the economic sphere, it seems to me, is hate.  Of course, it is quite possible that I could hate someone enough that I would refuse to sell to them.  This was common in the age of segregation and still is in regions charged with racial conflict; classical economists claim that good economic sense will automatically overcome such behavior, but this is to underestimate the power of irrational hate.  Or I could hate someone enough that I would go buy from their competitor even when it didn’t make economic sense, or hate someone enough to refuse to employ them.  However, it is worth noting that in each of these cases, hate doesn’t really motivate an economic action as such; it motivates a refusal of an economic action: I won’t buy, I won’t sell, I won’t employ.  So we might consider hate as an occasional but relatively infrequent intrusion upon the economic sphere, rather than something which characterizes it.  

If we cannot exclude hate as a possible motivation in the economic sphere, then we certainly cannot exclude love, however much we may tend to view the realm of love and the realm of contract as mutually exclusively.  Most obviously, I might often buy things out of love for others.  But on a larger scale, could I not, for instance see my neighbors in desperate need of some good that I am able to provide, and so start up a business out of a desire to help them and provide it for them?  Defenders of capitalism often speak in this way–the entrepreneur identifies a need, and develops a business to serve it–however, they do not really believe this provides the true motivation for the entrepreneur; instead, it is the profit motive, which is to say reward.  Adam Smith of course said it most famously: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  This has been a pillar of capitalist theory since–we must expect people to work, buy, and sell chiefly because of the benefit to themselves that they expect.  Within reason, of course, there is nothing terribly wrong with this, but if the reward motivation completely detaches itself from any love motivation–if I seek my own self-interest without any regard to that of others, then we will soon have a very ugly situation on our hands.   

For my purposes here, though, I want to take chief note of how the reward motivation, which I acknowledge to be the dominant one in economics, can easily become distorted into a fear motivation.  Consider someone happily working at a small company–he does his job, to be sure, out of a desire for a paycheck, and perhaps does it well because he wants a bonus.  Of course, he will probably be a better worker if there is an element of love as well–if he really likes his boss, and wants to please him, and if he thinks the work he is doing is valuable.  A new manager takes over, and efficiency is the name of the game (I’m imagining an Office Space sort of situation here).  Workers are afraid of getting laid off.  The motivation to work because of desire to get a paycheck has changed into a motivation to work because of fear of not getting a paycheck.  And as the movie Office Space shows, once this becomes the dominant motivation, you have a very unhealthy work environment.  Moreover, I would submit that once this happens, we have a subtly coercive work environment.  Now, the free marketeer will object and insist that we have a perfectly voluntary system here, because no one is under any legal compulsion–the employees are perfectly free to choose not to work.  However, the free marketeers believe that if someone is legally required to do something, on pain of receiving a steep fine, then this is coercive.  Now, what, I must ask, is the material difference between these two situations?  If someone acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in losing their job), how is this different from someone who acts in a certain way because they are afraid of the severe financial consequences of acting otherwise (in paying a steep fine)?  

 The coercion, of course, becomes less and less subtle the more desperate the situation of the employee.  If the employee has plenty of independent means, he is unlikely to be very intimidated by threats of losing his job.  Indeed, if the work situation becomes too unpleasant, he will probably just quit.  A typical middle-class worker has a lot more cause to fear unemployment than a wealthy person, but given an unpleasant enough work situation, he will probably take his chances and quit, and try to get a job elsewhere.  Someone who is dirt-poor, isolated, and unsure of the chances of getting any other work may, through terrible fear, put up with the most horrific work conditions lest things become even more horrific by losing his job.  This of course happens all around the Third World, and more often than we care to think in the First.  And yet our free marketeers will insist that this remains a perfectly voluntary arrangement.  But, as soon as any legal strictures are brought into the picture, be they the tiniest fines or penalties, capable of inducing much less fear and much less severe consequences, they decry these as “coercion.”  

 So, coercion is undeniably a reality in employment.  What about in buying and selling?  Here, the fear motivation is rarely as strong, because it is rare that any single purchase will have ramifications as great as the loss or maintenance of employment.  Of course, there are certainly exceptions.  In large enough purchases, so large that the merchant or manufacturer’s livelihood depends on them, or in desperate circumstances, the buyer can gain a great deal of leverage over the seller.  The seller absolutely must make some large sale or face bankruptcy, and so the potential buyer is able to play on this fear and wield great power over the seller, forcing him to agree to terms that he would not normally accept and that we would not normally consider just.   Inasmuch as in this situation persuasion now takes place through fear, we have a coercive situation.  Of course, this may not be morally objectionable.  Perhaps the shopkeeper made several very foolish gambles, and that’s why he is in such straits.  If no one is willing to buy his product except at very unsatisfactory terms, that is perhaps his fault and not theirs.  However, we can certainly envision situations in which the seller is genuinely a victim.  Wal-Mart, for instance, is well-known for strong-arming small producers through its enormous buying power in some pretty unsavory ways. 

What about buying?  This is the part that interests me the most, because of the great increase in the sophistication of coercion that modern marketing has introduced.  In buying, there has always been a potential fear motivation, the fear of starvation, illness, or some other kind of great danger or suffering.  If a farmer loses his whole crop and is in fear of starvation, and comes to buy grain, then the seller is suddenly in a position of power over him, able to use that fear as a lever.  If the seller does so, and ratchets up his prices absurdly high, it is hard to see how this does not count as a kind of coercion.  However, for reasons unknown to me, our free marketeers will treat this as a completely voluntary transaction, and one in which the laws of supply and demand should have free rein to set a reasonable price.  They might object that the farmer does not need to pay the unreasonable price–he can just go to another merchant.  If this were true, then we would have no problem.  But of course, it is very often not true. Businesses know how much greater coercive leverage they can gain if it is not true, and that is why monopoly is such a prized goal.

 Now generally such coercive power over buying has been restricted to absolute needs–if someone breaks their pencil and has to buy another, the seller is unlikely to be able to bring much of a fear motivation to bear.  Enter the power of modern marketing.  Marketing of course has many valid uses, but one key function of modern marketing has been to redress the limitation that only absolute needs can put a buyer in a coerceable position.  The solution, of course, is to increase the scope of absolute needs, since “needs” are largely a matter of perception.  Take me, for instance.  I would say that I need a regular supply of milk, eggs, bread, butter, meat maybe three times a week, some cheese, salt and pepper, at least a cup of coffee a day, preferably some tea as well, several sets of nice clothing, a computer, earbuds, several albums of music, a cell phone, a number of computer programs, a steady supply of new books, wireless internet access, a comfortable bed and blankets, and some basic hygiene supplies.  Clearly, most of these are not genuine absolute needs.  But the fact that I perceive them as such means that I am prone to fear if I do not have them, and thus prone to having that fear worked upon to persuade me to do things or pay prices that I rationally would not want to pay.  And of course I think I would be reasonable in saying that this is a fairly short list of needs compared to most young people in the modern West, who are fairly easily persuaded that they need iPods, iPhones, thousands of songs of music, a digital camera with at least ten megapixels, an almost endless supply of the latest and most fashionable clothing, along with various food and drink addictions, ranging from the grossest junk food to the faddiest health food.  Some of this need-creation is done by marketing working on our physical appetites–whether the lust of the flesh or the lust of the eyes–but the most powerful forms work on our emotional appetites–on the pride of life–and sometimes by creating or preying on fear.  Teenagers are probably the most vulnerable demographic, easily convinced that they will be a complete social failure if they do not buy any number of fashionable absurdities.  We would point out that most of these “needs” are illusory, but in some cases, that’s not quite true.  For instance, in the realm of business, most businesses now pretty much need to have a website–if a new device can be successfully marketed to the majority of businesses in an industry, then suddenly, the others will find that it has gone from being a luxury to a necessity if they want to stay competitive. 

Now, again, not all of this by any means is morally objectionable.  In the latter example–of businesses constantly having to upgrade–that’s just part of how the advance of technology works, and although we might legitimately argue in certain cases that technology ought to move a bit more slowly, it is not necessarily exploitation for the purveyors of such technology to make it so that everyone has to jump on board.  And in the former example, we would no doubt say that the insecure buyers bear plenty of responsibility for letting themselves be duped into “needing” luxuries.  However, it is crucial to note that the fact that there is fault on the one side does not mean there is none on the other.  If someone has an irrational fear of something, and I decide to play up their irrational fears and use them to convince them to do all sorts of things for me, then I am certainly guilty of a wicked kind of manipulation, and probably, given the definitions we have been working with, a subtle form of coercion.  I think that we are naive if we do not recognize that a kind of “coercion” may be going on when a clothing company convinces a girl to pay four times what a pair of jeans is worth because they have played up her fears that she will be rejected by everyone if she doesn’t buy them.

The point here, of course, is not to argue that all or even most modern marketing is “coercive,” or to deny that most needless purchasing decisions are still made out of a vices as simple as covetousness, rather than fear.  The point is simply to establish that we need to offer a more complex account of how the economic sphere really operates in our world, and such an account, it seems to me, must include an analysis of the various subtle and even overt kinds of coercion at work.  In the next segment, I will turn to try and offer a similarly complex account of the political sphere.


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.