29 December 2006

The Corporation is Today's Dominant Institution

Fortunately, you can't see air. If you could, it is unlikely that you could see anything else.

In a similar way, when a particular institution dominates a community, it is nearly invisible. In medieval times, that institution was the church; today, the dominant institution is the corporation. Its influence is so pervasive that we can’t even see it.

Think about the typical day of the average person.
The alarm goes off at 6:30. The programming is courtesy of a corporation - the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The very thoughts that first enter her head aren’t daily prayers sanctioned by her church but are, instead, news items and commentary approved by employees of a corporation. The radio that conveys this programming is made by the Sony Corporation and was bought from a retail outlet the Best Buy Corporation. This person lifts herself off the bed, a bed made by the Select Comfort Corporation. The alarm goes off at 6:30 because the time it takes to commute in her car (made and sold by the Nissan Corporation) plus the time it takes to get ready (using products like toothpaste, shaving gel, hair gel, and deodorant provided by the Proctor & Gamble Corporation) equals the time that the corporate employer expects her to begin working. She has scarcely gained consciousness and already her day is defined by corporate norms, products, and expectations.

Even the context for the use of the products listed in the above paragraph is a product of corporations. The very notion of “body odor” is a product of corporate advertisers trying to create demand for deodorant early in the 20th century. The idea of time zones was not an idea of governments but of railroads that needed uniform time zones in order to create schedules. It is one thing to notice that we’re bombarded by about 3,000 advertisements a day. It is another to notice that the very expectation of wearing deodorant or chewing mints is created by corporations, much less the expectation that we’ll all synchronize our watches and alarm clocks.

Our clothes and transportation are defined by corporations. Our working hours and the number of years that we need to work are also defined by corporations. More than 90% of Americans are employees and their role as employees is either defined by a corporation or an institution that patterns itself after a corporation.

The level of pollution that we accept is defined by the needs of the corporation. Only when health needs of people and the planet are being too obviously ignored is that negotiated or changed. The extent to which children are allowed to be with their parents during the work day is defined by the corporation. Even our diet is defined by corporations and if the health consequences of this are harmful, then corporations are ready to offer prescription drugs that remedy the complications from the diet.

One of the real obstacles to transforming the medieval church was getting enough intellectual distance from it to see it, rather than simply see through the lens it provided. Our situation is little different today. Just take note of how pervasive is the corporation in defining your daily life. Once you do, you can begin to explore ways to define it rather than accept it defining you, taking to heart the warning that Emerson gave: "We have become the tools of our tools."

Why does this matter? It was impossible to change life, to make progress, coming out of medieval times without changing the church - and changing it fundamentally. Today, fundamental progress depends on changing the corporation, today's dominant institution.

3 comments:

Daryl Morey said...

Yes, but of course all these corporations are only doing what the customers want generally so really the people are the pervasive force that is invisible.

Ron said...

Daryl - excellent point and quite true. To a point. The corporation is translating demand into products and services. The inarticulate want that the corporation would translate into demand for the latest movie the church might have translated into evening prayers. The wants of people are trained by the dominant institution.

Norman said...

"Today, fundamental progress depends on changing the corporation, today's dominant institution."

Agreed.

Change to what?

Again, I suggest Elliott Jaques' Social Power & the CEO provides a useful place to start. So does Peter Druker's thoughts on entrepenurialism in the corporation.