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Corporations: Schools And The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power

Joel Bakan's The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power exposes a fundamental and sometimes hidden premise in any corporate entity. There is a connection to education that might be worth exploring here...

The Corporation's Mandate

The corporation's legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and society.

Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations held a strikingly similar view:

...because managers could not be trusted to steward "other people's money," "negligence and profusion" would inevitably result when businesses organized as corporations.

Michael Moore relentlessly penetrates into the soft underbelly of corporate identity. His premise is simple and strikingly accurate: there is only one thing that matters in corporations, and that is the bottom-line.

Malcom Gladwell points out a bias toward acquiring CEO's that are at least six feet tall and indicates that our decision-making processes are often undermined by those thoughts that lie just outside of our awareness. Corporate identity then becomes a pathological quest for power and profit symbolized by a leader that is six feet or more in height.

The key structural component hinges on providing a corporation with a separate and distinct legal identity. That is, a corporation is in effect a "person." The logical extension of this is the idea that liability for corporate wrong-doing is contained within the corporation itself and does not extend to the personal liability of those that are empowered to work within it. This is an idea that is, thankfully, in retreat even if that retreat is modest.

Whether or nor we agree with the sweeping assessment of corporate pathology, it is difficult not to at least acknowledge that this pathology is real.

Vibrant Communities and Self-Serving Interests

If we contrast the basic nature of a corporation to the idea of a vibrant community we see a distinct change. In a community, the idea of personal and collective responsibility is fundamental. The "bottom-line" of any vibrant community is to increase the financial, emotional, intellectual and physical well being of the people that live within it. A community is not a distinct legal entity, or "person," in the sense a corporation is, and the idea that vibrant communities would "pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others" is nonsensical.

Of course, the future of the corporation is dependent upon how well it can redefine itself. Quite simply, the "bottom-line" cannot serve as a durable and sustainable means of survival, nor can the relentless pursuit of power at the disregard for others have any place in its mandate. Therefore, in the future, any person working for a corporation would assume personal responsbility for the actions of their corporation and would also be personally liable for any compromise in caring for people or the environment. Of course, this sounds quite ridiculous as glaringly obvious realities usually do. But in the end, unless corporations embrace a different set of fundamental principles, my assumption is that eventually both human nature and mother nature herself will quake and a tsunami will drown corporations as we know them.

Education as a Pathological System

Once certain assumptions are laid bare it becomes easier to see the opposing nature of things. In a threatened and fearful state, a person's instincts will take over. If a corporation is a "person" then we might extend that idea to the corporation's "instincts." It seems to me that, in many ways, branding is a defensive strategy for survival and protection of the bottom-line. Fundamental to this strategy is the borrowing of palatable ideas help to create a different impression (e.g. - care of the earth, social responsibility, community development, preferred lifestyles, charity, elimination of poverty, etc.). Sooner or later people see through this, but hopefully not too late.

For example, the obvious decline in the quality of the earth's eco-systems have become a mantra in corporate branding and identity. So they continue to pillage and destroy the eco-system while creating the illusion that they are working to help it. And this, without fundamental changes in the nature or mandate of the corporation itself. It's purpose remains precisely the same. It is a tactic that is transparent. Perhaps when we have done irreparable damage to the earth's eco-system (we have already) and realize that it is not just future generations that will have to pay for it, but the current generaton as well the glaringly obvious reality will finally take hold. (An excellent book is Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce - you can get a feel for his ideas in this interview)

How is it we can "prepare" our youth via education for this Jekyll and Hyde existence? In schools we help students "prepare" for the workforce, or the world they will live in (at least as we imagine it). Many students, however, look out into the world and wonder exactly what is going on and ask why they would want to participate in it in the first place. I have seen many students ponder over a decision for long periods of time- and so they should. It may be, that taking time away from school and traveling or experiencing some other dimensions of life are precisely what is needed to fuel a student's inner strength.

So many students graduate from school-system to corporate existence. And if the corporation as generic structure is at least partly, "is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and society" then is all our career planning merely fueling the pathology. By feeding students to a pathological entity under the banner of preparing for the workforce, are we not being at least somewaht hypocritical?

Perhaps the education system itself has a similar pathology in its mandate. While teachers know their purpose is to help individual's reach their potential, this is not really the "bottom-line" of education as an entity - as a legal system ewpowered to impose demands on people. It can be said that, to some degree, the education system "is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and society" in that it reduces people's humanity to numbers by the way of standardized tests that serve as the marker of how well the education system is performing. The human life becomes symbolized by a number while being superficially branded by the way of social responsibility, cooperative learning, individual learning programs, preparing for the workforce, and so on.

Like a corporation committing a legalized assault on the earth's eco-system, is not education as a legal entity in some sense committing a legalized assault on the human spirit? Isn't the presence of the corporate mandate felt inside our education systems via learning as mass communication? Are not governments, the keepers of the education system, so closely tied to The Corporation that they have in many ways become a puppet to them?

Perhaps we have in fact evolved from thinking about education as assembly-line or factory. It may be that the most useful frame for exploring the apparatus of education is The Corporation itself.

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