Wrong Bark, Wrong Tree

I lost count during my hiatus, pondering the things to appreciate. Since Breakdown Leads to Breakthrough, the current times are an orgy of gratitude if you like breakthroughs as I do. To be thankful, we need to be working on the right things, as is happening so much in the web world, rather than on the wrong things, which has been perpetually the case.

There’s a current forked meme that I hope we let go of so we can put our energy into some ideas more useful than these old illusions:

  • Companies need to start acting ethically – like they used to!
  • Politicians need to start acting ethically – like they used to!

I enjoy reading rants by Dan Gillmor, Doc Searls, Dave Winer and John Robb among others, pointing out the excesses and stupidity of businesses and their political tools, screwing the people who are their consumers while taking care of their real customers. These smart guys still believe we should expect something else from companies and their toadies.

Like love and war, business and politics have never had a standard of fairness nor will they ever. The media have always exhorted politicians and businesses to be fair, so we (via our parents) assumed there must be a way they could be.

Let’s stop barking up that tree.

Corporate “Ethics” the Mistaken Identity

There are two kinds of people under our legal system: humans and corporations. The law grants corporations the same rights and legal protections as humans. If a human hurt as many people as did Enron, they’d be ostracized at church, school, club, work, etc. People are hard on their peers, but companies aren’t, and that’s the problem.

That corporations are treated as people is a legislative accident, as explained so skillfully by Marjorie Kelly in The Divine Right of Capital, which tracks the legislation which inadvertently declared them to be persons.

Her larger point is that we place a hugely disproportionate emphasis on the rights of the entities which nominally “own” a company – its shareholders – to the detriment of all other stakeholders – customers, employees, the economy, the environment. All property once belonged to the king but the world was able to move beyond the divine right of kings doctrine. She wonders if we might move beyond our current worship of the “divine right of capital.”

Written before the full force of the corporate meltdown, Marjorie Kelly’s point is even more potent today, with an even darker implication:

Holy Shit! Corporate equities don’t even benefit the shareholders! The corporate structure seems to favor only its elite stakeholders – investment bankers, brokers, auditors, bureaucrats, etc. The form fails at the only justification for its existence – that it provides capital for innovation and growth – since we know that small groups and the open source movement are far better at organizing for innovation.

With its primary rationale debunked, how long will it take to innovate a new organizing force that won’t dissipate its participants’ vitality, creativity and savings? The corporate structure has changed little since the days of wooden ships and iron tyrants. Don’t we imagine that a self-organizing force might be supported by the Internet? Surprise! Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock did in 1979, calling it the adhocracy, which is how most creative projects are developed today – movies, music and non-Redmond Internet software (maybe even Redmond, if you count temps).

Fighting for Survival

Our conception of companies as big bad wolves is part of the problem. Any company that really believes it has a lock on profits and market share behaves like a benign dictator – as public utilities and banks once did. But when any organism feels threatened, it will do anything to save itself (as will the chieftains who know they may never again lead another company).

Companies spend about 5% of their time plotting the takeover of the world, but 95% of the time struggling for survival, as they see it. This is what isn’t obvious to outsiders. They cannot afford to be less than ruthless, because every fiscal quarter holds the threat of do-or-die, not the promise of everlasting benevolent rule.

What would you not do to prevent your family from being turned out into the streets? For those who have risen to a  visibly elevated status – CEO, bishop, Representative, etc., demotion to the wretched life the rest of us live is the end of life as they know it, so they’ll do anything to hang on. Once that line has been crossed, defeat or exposure is a double threat, since there’s an impeachment or indictment in the wings.

Sound extreme? Why do you think Dick Cheney disappeared? Don’t you think his conflicts of interest are actionable? How about George II?

Saddam Hussein is out of options. He can’t stop being “evil” because, if he’s ever caught, he’ll be reduced to a sub-human, from his viewpoint. You know, someone who can’t execute people for fun.s

The Only Answer Left Standing

Sherlock Holmes famously said (and Commander Data reminded us) that when you remove all the possibilities which are untrue, then the one that is left, no matter how implausible, must be true. The implausibility that we must accept is that there is no way to redeem the corporate mechanism. Like trying to save a gangrenous limb, society must amputate this hopeless form of organizing work and resources.

Once we see an alternate way to organize resources, corporate structures can blow away like dead leaves. The open source movement is pointing in the right direction. My regular rant readers will recognize my regular answer – an even-handed transaction  system with distributed data and no central greed point.

I’m thankful this weekend that things have broken down to such a sorry state that the obvious breakthrough is on the horizon.

7:49:31 PM    

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