August 9, 2009    BusinessPolitics

How Our Addiction to Corporations Killed Our Communities

When I read the autobiography of Emma Goldman, I was struck by how differently people lived here in the East Village, New York, at the turn of the 20th Century. I was particularly surprised by how everyone assumed they would eventually have their own businesses. On the other hand, most of us now expect that we work for corporations all our lives. Today, that became the mainstream, and running one’s own business became an “alternative” way to make a living. As a matter of fact, the corporate world tends to shun people who have defected to the alternative world. So, once you defect, it’s hard to get back into the mainstream. Born into this cultural environment, I had always assumed that this was the norm. It didn’t occur to me to think that people might have lived differently in the past.

Emma Goldman described a vibrant and passionate community of people here in the East Village. The street names and the landmarks that she described were very familiar to me, but not what the people expected from their lives. Despite the fact that everyone spoke different languages, they united passionately for various causes. There was a sense of community in her book which felt completely foreign to me.

My family moved so many times in my childhood that the word “community” has never had much relevance to me. Just as we got to know the people in our neighborhood, we moved. I’ve heard other people talk about the value of “community”, but I’ve always thought of it as something that didn’t concern me. When you overhear some bankers talking about the “yield curve”, you might think, “It must be important for them, but it’s not for me to be concerned about.” It was like that. It’s easy to dismiss something that you don’t know anything about.

I suspect that my view of “community” is not uncommon for the people of my generation and younger. My family moved a lot because my father worked for a big corporation. If he had his own business, we wouldn’t have moved. In Japan, owning your own business is even more “alternative” than it is here in the US. There is even a sense that small business owners are living in the fringes of their society. But, without these small business owners, local communities would have been completely destroyed. Imagine if everyone moved in the same way my family did.

Until recently I had never made the connection between the corporatization of the world and the destruction of local communities. It was having my own child that changed it all. Without a child, I didn’t have an urgent need for a local community. I didn’t even know who lived next door to me. It was only after I had a child that I made a concerted effort to get to know my neighbors. First it was motivated by my concern for the safety of my child, but more importantly, I needed a local community so that my daughter can make friends and learn to socialize. Suddenly privacy and individualism weren’t so sacred to me.

Local sustainability is a difficult topic to discuss, because, depending on how you frame your argument, you can sound self-serving. When I was still living in Japan, the farmers there had powerful political influence. They managed to convince the government to heavily tax imported agricultural goods, so that they can stay competitive. In some cases, they even managed to ban importing of certain goods (like oranges). This angered the Americans, especially during the years when the Japanese automakers were aggressively invading the American automobile market. At the time, I saw the Japanese farmers as self-serving. I was annoyed by them. I figured, if they couldn’t compete with the imported goods, they should perish.

About 10 years ago, I read Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, which triggered a shift in the way I thought about “community”. I then had a child 4 years ago, which changed my view of the very community I live in. What finally convinced me of the true value of local sustainability was the interview of Judy Wicks in The Sun Magazine.

She manages to explain it all without giving into anger nor turning the topic into a moral issue. She does not vilify money or people’s desire to make money either. I feel inspired and motivated by her because she proves by her own example that local sustainability is a fulfilling and rewarding way to live. I want to do it, not because it’s the right thing to do, not because we need to fight the evil corporations, but because it is a great way to live. Most advocates of sustainability are driven by anger and hatred, so they sound preachy. They come across as bitter, and because of it, their moral prescriptions do not have a lasting appeal.

A few years ago, for my own graphic design business, I started shifting my focus to small business clients, especially to the local businesses in my neighborhood. I have to say, it has been a lot more rewarding than working for corporate clients. But this is where speaking of local sustainability becomes tricky, because some people might feel that I’m just promoting my own business. This is where Judy Wicks brilliantly succeeds. She does not deny that she too is driven by self-interest. The only difference is that her ultimate interest is spiritual fulfillment, and she proves that money naturally follows it, although it may not be a lot. What Wicks implies here is that you do not have to become evangelical about local sustainability. The point of advocating local sustainability isn’t to convince others to follow you; it’s so that you can lead a more fulfilling life yourself. Even if nobody else follows you, it wouldn’t matter. In a way, local sustainability is a lifestyle. It is a matter of choice.

For many of us, this choice was never visible. When I watched some video footage of North Koreans worshiping Kim Jong-il, I was baffled by how sincere many of them were. They had never known any other way of living, so why should they question his authority? It has been so long since someone came up with the idea of “God” that we no longer think of it as someone’s idea. Many people accept that God created the universe. So, why shouldn’t the North Koreans accept Kim Jong-il as their God?
The reason why the idea of God has flourished for so many centuries is not just because we were born into the environment where it was worshiped; it is also because there is something in the idea of God that appeals to us all. Keeping this in mind, let’s ask why corporations have dominated our world so much. It’s true that we’ve come to accept it as the norm, but there is something more to it as well.

Much like the idea of God, corporations too have qualities that appeal to us all. Any time we form a group, the identity of each member is exalted. This exaltation is highly addictive. For instance, designing a promotional postcard for a local business can be as difficult as designing a graphic sequence for a TV commercial for a major corporation, yet the amount of recognition and respect you receive from the latter is much greater.

When you work for an international organization like Red Cross, you could probably secure a meeting with the president of the US. Although you are still the same person, you wouldn’t be able to meet with the president, if you used your own name only. When you are a writer for New York Times, you can get access to all sorts of powerful people. Many successful people wisely navigate their careers and climb up the ladder by making the right associations with powerful corporations and institutions. Many successful men go through a period of depression after they retire from powerful corporations because their associations are severed and they feel naked without them. They don’t even know how to define themselves without corporate or institutional associations. Academics too rely on their associations with powerful universities. Even fine artists carefully associate themselves with powerful galleries and museums. We are all guilty of this.

In the PBS documentary about Air Force One, they interviewed one of the people who maintained the aircraft through several presidencies. As he saw these presidents express their sadness about leaving Air Force One at the end of their terms, he realized that what is powerful about the US president is not the person who becomes one, but the position itself; a subtle but significant distinction to make. This is the same distinction that we fail to make when we take on various positions at large corporations. When we represent corporations and institutions like Microsoft, New York Times, GE, Goldman Sachs, Harvard University, The Museum of Modern Art, Red Cross, The UN, etc., people respond to us differently. We become much more powerful than we would be without the associations. Most of us do not make the distinction between the power of our positions and our own power, and start behaving as though they are one and the same. This eventually becomes addictive, and the idea of doing anything for our local communities starts to look so insignificant and boring. I believe that, this more than anything else, was the biggest reason why we became so corporatized. That is, addiction to the exaltation of our identities.

We often hear expressions like “corporate greed”, but “corporations” are not some entity independent of their members. Corporations are not greedy; only people are. This type of expression allows us to blame something other than ourselves. The corporatization of the world is not being orchestrated by some sinister people. We are all suckers for the power that corporations and institutions can give us. While we all focused on changing the world through the power of mega-corporations and mega-institutions, our local communities were falling apart.

Now, our local communities are so broken that we cannot even let our children go out on to the streets to play by themselves. At least in New York, the streets have become much safer than they used to be several decades ago. When my wife grew up here, it was a very dangerous place with drug dealers and criminals everywhere, but she was still allowed to go out to a store on her own when she was around 8 years old. This can never happen now even though it is much safer. Even if I let my daughter go out on her own, someone will call the social services on me.

Why do we think it’s so dangerous to let our kids out onto the streets? It is because we have no local community to protect them. Not many people on the streets in my neighborhood would even recognize my daughter. My neighbors don’t work at local stores, they work for various corporations that have nothing to do with our community. We don’t have any reason to get to know them. Even if they explained to me what they do for their corporations, I probably wouldn’t understand. They might be powerful at work, able to move millions of dollars, reach out to millions of people, yet they have no contribution to our local community.

Safety, in this sense, has multiple dimensions. The one that can be measured statistically cannot tell the whole story. For instance, one neighborhood in New York City might have the same number of car thefts per year as some rural town in New Jersey has. But, let’s say, in the latter, nobody has to lock their cars when they park. That is a big difference. In New York, if you leave your car door unlocked, some people will see it as an invitation to steal things from your car, if not the whole car.

Statistically speaking, Japan is a much safer country than the US is, but if you travelled to Japan with your children, would you let them out onto the streets by themselves? No, you wouldn’t because you would have no idea what could happen to them. We essentially have the same situation with our own community. Even though we live in it every day and we know that it’s relatively safe, we still don’t know what could happen to our children. It is a sad situation.

In comparison, imagine a neighborhood just like the one in Sesame Street where you know everyone on the street (especially the old school Sesame Street where it was more of a ghetto). Even if the crime rate is statistically high, you wouldn’t have to worry so much about your kids getting into trouble because many people on the street will be looking out for the safety of your children. That type of community, which was described by Jane Jacobs in her book, no longer exists. This is why we can’t let our kids out, even though we have a statistically much safer neighborhood. Jane Jacobs’ nightmare scenario is already here. It wasn’t so much the failure of urban planning, but I believe the corporatization of our culture is what broke our local communities in the end.

But again, this is not to say that everyone should leave their corporate jobs and open their own small businesses. Large corporations and institutions have their strengths and benefits for our societies, but the main problem that we face today is that most of us are not even aware of the alternative ways of making a living. Running your own business is no easy feat. In the old days, people learned by watching their own parents run their businesses. Today, we would have to be quite lucky to have that experience. We are not going to get that from someone who collected a predetermined amount of money every month.

Owning a restaurant is one of the most popular daydreams that people have. Why is this? I suspect that it is because we are all secretly craving for being part of a community. A sense of community is something we have been deprived of, and we are not even aware of this deprivation because we’ve never known what a real community is. But instinctively we know it and crave it because it has been a significant part of how we humans survived for thousands of years. We have become alienated from this part of ourselves. I believe that, to enjoy life fully, being part of a real community is a necessity. This is something we need to relearn and rebuild; the lost art of community building. Not for the humanity, nor for our society. Not as moral dogma, nor as activism. But for our own well-being.