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Corporations as Authority

This post will be corollary to what I wrote a few days ago about the chaos and destruction of neoliberalism, but today, I’m focused on the responsibilization of the economy. In “A Chaotic Presence,” I was writing about the role of authority and how it has been decentralized since the 1970s and 80s with the rise of globalization. This has resulted in an anxiety-ridden culture that yearns for a declarative voice to guide it towards truth. There’s another component to this that I think is important to discuss, and which stems from an article that I just finished reading called “The Age of Responsibilization on Market Embedded Morality” by Ronen Shamir.

Shamir writes about how the deregulation of the market and decentralization of the government has resulted in an economy that is dependent on the morality of corporations to guide the principles of the culture, concluding with this claim:

An expression of this reconfiguration and relocation is the deployment of governance as a hegemonic form of authority, a form that is premised on the diffusion of authority into multiple and competing sources that simulate and embody the imagery of a competitive market as a blueprint for action. (14)

I felt excited when I read this sentence because it helped me understand why the global economy has resulted in desperation and anxiety. What I now understand is that the federal government used to be a centralized authority that regulated the behavior, actions, and morality of its citizens, but as a result of decentralization, that responsibility has shifted to the individual, and more importantly, to the corporation. Corporations, in many ways, have emerged as new governments that regulate the lives and well-being of large quantities of people, but unlike actual governments, they’re “for profit” institutions who are motivated to control the behavior and decisions of people because it is directly related to their bottom line. In which case, as people move through life, looking for an identity to call their own, they oftentimes settle for a lifestyle that is sold to them through one of these corporations. The relationship between individuals and corporations is problematic because it’s based on making money. I think this has two main consequences: 1.) corporations are deeply invested in making sure that individuals choose their brand as their identity and 2.) they also want to convince the people who have chosen a different identity¬† that their brand is better and more suited to that individual.

From these two consequences, I consider the second one to be more problematic than the first one because it creates cognitive dissonance. For example, if Jane has decided that Apple products are superior to Google products then she’s made a decision to devote her energy and resources to supporting the continued existence of Apple, but if Google also wants Jane to support their products, then Google is going to create advertisements that convey how Google is superior to Apple. If Jane sees many of these advertisements, and then some of her friends transition from Apple to Google products, Jane may experience the cognitive dissonance of not knowing which company she should trust. Now imagine that it’s not only Google versus Apple, but literally every product and corporation that Jane encounters is determined to prove to her that it’s superior, trustworthy, and fashionable. Jane may not realize it, but I’m willing to guess that she suffers from anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty about who she is and what she wants from life.

When I think about it this way, I’m surprised that anyone manages to make any decisions, and I’m not surprised that “mindfulness” has simultaneously emerged as a coping mechanism. Sure, it’s a historically spiritual tool that has helped practitioners attain enlightenment, but today, it helps people sort through, process, and navigate the onslaught of manipulative information put forward by corporations. In the past, authority figures, like God or the Buddha, were meant to guide people towards a higher truth about the nature of what it means to be alive, but today, those declarative voices have been deregulated and decentralized, resulting in self-serving chaos that is no longer striving for eternal truth, but rather, to experience the highest profit margin, and as long as people believe that they must look outside of themselves for guidance, they will follow these voices, guiding them towards their own self-destruction.

Additionally, what I personally find the most interesting about the role of authority in a culture is how it operates as a foundation for connection. Most of the time, people aren’t attracted to Apple or Nike products solely because of their utility, but rather, because buying into those identities is like buying into a community of like-minded individuals who “get it.” The corporation sets the tone for an identity, but it’s up to the consumers to fulfill it, which oftentimes means that people don’t just buy a Supreme t-shirt, but they actually perform the identity of Supreme in order to be accepted by the community, creating a sense of connection; however, the obvious corollary to this mentality is that there are conditions created by the corporation and sustained by its consumers that restrict individuals’ freedom of expression. These conditions are not only created by the brand and sustained by its adherents, but also reinforced by the people who don’t belong to that particular lifestyle.

In short, we’re trapped in a chaotic world that paradoxically markets every option as always better than that other guy, and you must adhere to those standards if you wish to be included.

2 Comments

  1. Georgette Mehalik Georgette Mehalik

    Thank you Janina for your thoughtful essays. In my work with adolescents and children. I see tremendous anxiety and stress. Imagine the normal adolescent relationship with their peers and the developmental milestones. Now add the stress you describe above on top of those issues, is this why we are seeing suicide rates rising so rapidly? It is something to consider.

    • admin admin

      Yes, from my perspective, I agree with you! I think people are experiencing severe anxiety from the sheer number of consumerist choices available to them, which are all marketing themselves as not only the correct choice from a utilitarian perspective, but also the right choice from a moral perspective. Buying into Whole Foods, for example, is not just choosing a grocery store, but it is also buying into sustainability, conspicuous production (knowing where our food comes from), and being healthy. I can’t imagine the distress of growing into a world like the one we currently live in.

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