Corporate Apologists Blinded by Trinkets

10/17/2011 11:30 am EST


Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

Just because corporations churn out the consumer goods we buy doesn’t mean they are beyond reproach, writes senior editor Igor Greenwald.

Let us give thanks to the corporation, guardian of our way of life, developer of the marvelous products and services for which we really ought to be more grateful.

And while we’re at it, let’s yuk it up a bit at the expense of those Occupy Wall Street hypocrites, who dare protest corporate greed while dressed in brand-name rags and brandishing some of the corporate world’s greatest inventions.

These are the notions circulating among those who can’t conceive how civilization might survive if it’s not organized precisely the way it is today. It took centuries of (mostly non-corporate) science to develop our technology, and lots of labor by people—whether inventors, engineers, or assembly workers—to get it into consumers’ hands.

The argument that those hands and tongues should then be tied, because the present system has delivered certain material benefits to most people, speaks to a poverty almost as galling as real want—the poverty of imagination.

Yet here we are. Perhaps you’ve seen the info-graphic making the rounds online, identifying the protesters’ reliance on the gadgets and toiletries supplied by the various corporations.

Now the meme has mutated into a Bloomberg column by William D. Cohan. The former investment banker sees no disconnect between promoting a book subtitled How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World and chastising the protesters for their discontent with this state of affairs.

To make his case, Cohan digs up Steve Jobs, and credits Wall Street for turning Apple (AAPL) into the juggernaut it is today. It’s an incredibly poorly chosen example, because no corporation has ever relied more on one man’s vision, initiative, and talents…which is what the world has been celebrating.

Jobs succeeded despite the corporate structure foisted on him by his era, a structure he despised and rebelled against. It was that structure, note, that forced him to spend some prime creative years in exile from the company he founded.

Cohan is also surprised to see the anti-corporate protests spread on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, startups “backed by wealthy capitalists expecting to become even wealthier when these closely held businesses take advantage of the Wall Street-enabled market for initial public offerings.”

Leave aside the fact that IPOs are a tiny fraction of Wall Street’s profit stream, most of which comes from riskier and more controversial activities. Are we really supposed to believe that, without Wall Street, Facebook would be hard-up for funds? Its history suggests otherwise.

And it’s hardly heretical to think that companies might go public in the future without Wall Street’s dubious intermediary services. Facebook certainly doesn’t need the “marketing” Wall Street peddles to its debutants.

Moreover, social networking is rapidly moving beyond corporate control. There are peer-to-peer messaging technologies being developed that bypass the network hub, which—as Egypt and London showed—is vulnerable to disruption by authorities. The landmark protest in New York’s Times Square Saturday night was banished from every one of cable’s supposed news networks, but streamed live on the Internet for all to see.

Yes, the Internet functions thanks to corporations, and ones getting paid handsomely to make sure it does so. But to think that this somehow diminishes anti-corporate protests is, once again, to confuse the benefits of civilization with the system used to distribute them—a system that hasn’t been around all that long, and which derives its legitimacy from the happiness of its participants, which has been conspicuously lacking of late.

Corporations are hardly the root of all evil, but then again the too-big-to-fail banks are hardly providing much of a public benefit these days. And there’s nothing wrong with debating that premise either on the streets or on Twitter.

Revolutions are not staged, nor evolutionary change forged, by people who’ve carefully rid themselves of every association with the old order. The Founding Fathers were Crown subjects who clearly benefited from Britain’s global dominance even as they rebelled against its excesses. The French Revolution was famously led by second sons of the aristocracy who saw no role for themselves in the commercial concerns inherited by their older brothers.

They had a lot in common with the young liberal-arts majors who now find themselves with dismal career prospects and perhaps camping in Zuccotti Park as a result.

These people are not, at the moment, in demand by corporations. But they do have the gift of seeing that no system is impervious to change, especially not one that perpetuates disenchantment this widely and persistently.

At a time when others are content to merely consume corporate gadgets, the Jobsian knack for seeing the world as it should be, and not merely defending what is, has never been so undervalued.

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