Back in the sixties people were concerned about the military-industrial complex, companies which owed their prosperity to manufacturing weapons of war and other military requirements, and were said to have undue influence over national government decisions.
Since then large corporations, including financial institutions such as banks, have occasionally surfaced as public enemy number one, especially in 1989 and again in 2007. Environmental disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the recent tailings dam collapse in Brazil have also shone a spotlight on the behaviour of these behemoths.
Now it’s the turn of internet and technology giants such as Google, Amazon and Apple. Unlike earlier cases of corporations being bad public citizens, the complaints are mostly (not entirely) about their failure to pay tax in jurisdictions where they make significant sales.
In other words, they haven’t paid the appropriate bribes (tax) to the appropriate governments in order to be allowed to operate in the controlled territory (country). In Australia recently it was revealed that most of the 500 largest companies here pay no tax, and of those that do, the amounts are miniscule, often less than paid by a nurse or school teacher. Even worse, many of these companies are in fact paying bribes in the form of large donations to political parties — in other words, they are paying bribes to competing warlords. The government of the country, the representative of the people in our democracy, doesn’t get a look-in.
We haven’t progressed far past mediaeval times. Most of us are not much better off than the peasants that Robin Hood protected from the depredations of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Our own governments act as the Sheriff’s soldiers, keeping us in line for the benefit of the corporations. God help us if we don’t pay our own taxes, but for large companies this is totally optional.
I’m inclined to give Google a bit of a free pass, though. Yes, they make a lot of profit advertising to us. But, in return, they give us a lot for free, things many of us use every day without paying a cent. The Google search engine, free email, Google Maps, these are available at no cost to everyone with internet access, and would make a significant contribution to our personal productivity and therefore to national income.
I appreciate Google’s gifts to the world, and any similar contributions made by other companies. BUT, and this is a big one, it doesn’t disguise the fact that I woke up this week and realised that the dreaded government of the world by corporations is no longer a just a future possibility. This staple theme of science fiction, domination of the planet by corporate interests and the enfeeblement of national governments into irrelevance, has clearly already arrived.
This makes me sound like a conspiracy theory nutter. Perhaps I am. But what other explanation is there for daily decisions by governments that don’t benefit any of the people who voted for them, but only corporations, who don’t even have a vote? In whose interests is it OK to ruin valuable farmland (of which Australia has relatively little) by fracking? Why are miners permitted to dig up stuff, go broke and walk away, leaving the mine sites un-remediated, just one more socialised loss for taxpayers to meet? Why is it a waste to provide welfare and support for citizens, but a marvellous idea to develop railways and ports at public expense for miners? Why are we selling off public assets such as water supply (water being the single most scarce, vital and valuable resource in Australia) at bargain prices to private sector carpetbaggers? Why is our government signing trade treaties that benefit others but not us? Or still sending young Australians to die in other people’s wars over issues that affect us hardly at all and over which we have absolutely no influence?
It’s obvious in retrospect that the military-industrial complex never went away, and that other corporations have infiltrated global governance to such a degree that nations no longer have much control at all. And that means citizens have none, whether in democracies or not.