The Fruits of Civilization (44) Corporations


Corporations, which should be carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters. ~ US President Grover Cleveland in 1888

The concept of incorporation was born in Rome, 3 centuries before the birth of Christ. Societas publicoranum addressed a pressing problem: how a group of people could hold property together and make contracts for their common enterprise, independent of any particular participant. (The first pollution with global impact was a Roman corporation, mining silver and lead in southern Spain (366 bce–36 ce).)

7 centuries later, the followers of Christ took corporate form. Beginning in the 4th century, the Catholic Church claimed corporate status so that it could receive gifts of land and hold property in perpetuity.

In the late 19th century, industry had a voracious appetite for capital. Firms found funds by listing ownership shares publicly traded on stock exchanges. It became a way for the little man to think he could have a piece of the action: money for nothing but a gambler’s stake.

Successful corporations came to be self-sustaining: having little need for investor-supplied capital. This freed them to behave as they would, constrained only by the limits that governments imposed: governments which corporations could effectively purchase, as politics has always been lubricated by money, and politicians in thrall to the moneyed elite.

During the early 20th century incorporation became the ubiquitous form of business organization throughout the world. In doing so, societies inadvertently put their trust in the hands of corporate masters, whose interests were in no way aligned with that of their societies.

The shift of the industrial wealth of the country to ownership by large corporations vitally changes the lives of property owners, the lives of workers, and necessarily involves a new form of economic organization of society. Management becomes, in an odd sort of way, the uncontrolled administrator of a kind of trust. ~ American diplomat Adolf Berle in 1932

Corporations do everything possible to maximize their profits. The first measure is to lower costs as much as possible. Packaged foods are exemplary. A successful brand tries to ramp its profits by cheapening ingredients and product quality, along with lessening portion sizes. Every American adult is familiar with the quality of favorite packaged products declining over time. Such selfsame degradation is seen in all sorts of consumer products, sustaining the hoary adage: “they don’t make them like they used to.”

Companies often employ outright deception to sell their products. No doubt you have encountered this yourself.

In Walmart, Target, CVS, and other major American retailers, skin gel, sold by virtue of it being advertised as having Aloe vera, actually has none of the medicinal plant in its contents. There is no government regulation to halt such chicanery.

Fraud is a common corporate tactic. The profit motive provides ample incentive to cheat customers and skirt regulations intended to protect people and the environment.