The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 2017)

The Last Association Standing

James Poulos

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The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 2)

O n some days, in certain moods, we Americans hate the corporation. It is not just the villain du jour. It is the very institution against which we define our individuality most fiercely. The political left has long seen corporations as the embodiment of greed, despoliation, and patriarchal conformity. More recently, the political right has zeroed in on corporations as unelected, unaccountable beneficiaries of government patronage and abettors of administrative bureaucracy, both being toxins to representative republican government. Such attacks are sometimes overwrought, but they are not entirely without substance.

On other days, however, in a different frame of mind, we seem to believe—and, more important, act as though we believe—that nothing is more American than the corporation, and, indeed, that nothing better supports our dreams and identities. The reasons for this affection may vary slightly. Republicans still love business, markets, and winners; Democrats still prize self-chosen “families” and elective “communities,” particularly if they’re sustained by warm and cozy campus-like environments (think Google and other Silicon Valley archetypes). So how can we—even at our otherwise most divided—be so alike in our love for the institution we so frequently vilify?

Perhaps the best answer comes—implicitly—from Alexis de Tocqueville in his incisive reflections on the importance of associations in a democratic society: “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.” Applied to the present, Tocqueville’s observation might lead us to conclude that we love the corporation even more than we hate it because we have become so dependent on it for certain kinds of goods that are vanishing from other realms of life.

Yet our love-hate relationship is even more complicated. In his time, Tocqueville saw America’s professional flatterers—its politicians—“bow and scrape to the citizenry, the voters, [and] the people” in a manner reserved in the Old World for only monarchs or noblemen. Today, when nearly all major institutions in public life are weak, reviled, or both, populist flatterers flatter the populace by accusing big corporations of committing a sort of fraud against the American people. The people, such flattery runs, would never do such things to themselves. And how could they ever condone the dominance of the corporation at a time of such widespread economic inequality?

But our enmity toward corporations cannot be understood unless we make sense of our dependence on them. With so many intermediary institutions fading from public life, we have begun to act as if we believe the corporation is our final form of association. And we have done so because it holds “secret charms” for us—not in spite of its effects on our individuality, but because of them.

What we don’t want to hear is what Democracy in America plainly tells us: that the institutional dominance of the corporation rests on the foundation of our own habits, mores, and longings. Although no honest observer can deny that the largest corporations—especially in the financial industry—have used their outsized influence to secure every possible advantage, our fealty to corporations has far more to do with the baked-in rules of democratic life than with the diabolical scheming of big-business overlords.

In our democratic age, Tocqueville repeatedly emphasized, life is defined by the spread of a general equality of conditions, tastes, and habits. Not only do we resent the plutocrats living as if they thought they were a separate and better species. We also resent any near-equal who is a little better off—or worse, acts as though he or she is. Because we’re all so equal, we’re typically faced with unremitting competition for resources and status in every area of life—vividly on display in what Peter Thiel has called “the convergence of desire”: We all tend to want the same devices, the same luxuries, and the same recreations; if we tend to relentlessly assert our unique individual or group identity, it’s to help assuage, but never erase, the anxiety attending our deeper democratic sameness.

This unceasing and only partly rational striving can be exhausting. Tocqueville stresses that we take it so hard because our personal weakness and isolation tend to increase as the democratic age unfolds. Tastes, habits, and longings grow more equal—even among people with vastly different incomes—because the aristocratic age that preceded ours is receding further and further into the hard-to-remember and increasingly irrelevant past. However sharply our economic classes may be divided, they don’t provide the support systems, safe spaces, and resources for recovery that survived into the recent past (via patterns of living inherited from old social and cultural hierarchies, themselves built on categorical differences we now increasingly despise and reject).

Many of us are simply unable to find rest, relaxation, or repose in the social institutions —clubs, churches, unions, even families—that have sharply waned as equality has waxed. And precious few alternatives, apart from the corporation, have arisen in their place. It’s not just civic life that’s hurting. It’s our personal lives—our feelings and our hearts. As institutions have failed to nourish and anchor us, so too have our neighbors and the state. So we now turn to the corporation for shelter.

Yet the collaborative and competitive goods we seek from corporate life may be contradictory, even destructively antagonistic. We desperately want to be drawn out of our weak and isolated self-enclosures, but we want just as desperately to be given reprieve from the agonistic jockeying that defines so many social settings. To put the matter provocatively, in some ways we are unduly unsettled, fearing that any time we dare confess to unfulfilled longings, we’ll be met with a wall of indifference. Yet in other ways we are unduly settled, culturally conditioned to spurn the kinds of free inquiry, personal inventory, and social behavior that might summon forth longings deeper than contemporary secular life can readily address.

Politics fails to provide a way out of the trap. Our resentments and frustrations re-appear there in exaggerated form: We don’t want to be ruled by a phony aristocracy of elites who act like a breed apart, but we don’t really want to be ruled by random names from the phone book, either. We hardly even want to do any ruling ourselves, politics now seeming fit only for the congenitally ambitious and slick. We didn’t set out to create the conditions for an “aristocracy of wealth,” as Tocqueville called it. But we see too what our most talented and ambitious have figured out: As heredity has grown less reliable as a means of perpetuating concentrated power and prestige, the corporation has stepped forward to offer the surest access to these coveted, slippery goods. After all, the corporation is now the ultimate in civil associations, as immortal and adaptable as we sometimes ruefully wish we could be. And we yearn for those associations to reconcile collaboration and competition in a way that at last offers us a form of rest that is not a form of exile.

If we ruminate on corporations for a minute, we democratic souls tend to visualize participating in corporate life in a way that causes a kind of secular miracle. Partaking of a corporate identity allows us access to the very things that are difficult for us to find as isolated individuals, fortifying us to pursue more productive advancements in social life while shielding us against the loneliness and futility that creep in the minute we sit with ourselves in solitary silence. Encouragement and protection take material form in the basket of perks we’ve come to expect from any respectable corporation, from health insurance to paid vacations to “life event” leave and beyond. Unlike any other institution in our democratic American life, corporations offer American workers the opportunity to be and feel more sheltered yet less boxed in. They do this not only through the matrix of benefits that accrue to people who let corporations order their lives, but through the magical fact that corporations are not people.

No matter how charismatic or controlling its CEO, a corporation is more like the “mortal God” of Hobbes’s Leviathan state than a king or a commander. That’s crucial because, as Tocqueville intimates, corporations, unlike individual persons, have no pride! They are free of the great sin that makes us hate the rich so much. The wealthy, says Tocqueville, could bankrupt themselves with handouts to the resentful masses and still fail to win their favor. What is needed, he warns, is not a sacrifice of their cold hard cash but of their pride—their bogus pretense to being in a sense more than merely human, not just qualitatively different from the rest of us but different in kind. For all the faults of corporations, their conspicuous lack of all-too-human pride is why we feel them to be a giant, liberating step away from the stubbornly residual features of the old aristocratic age, supporting us as we move into an ever more uniformly equal world.

As much as we fear corporations gone wild, we love corporations that love us. Many of us, from the minute we set foot in the working world, long for nothing more than to establish a stable position in a good corporation. Because money really does matter more in our time than in ages past, as Tocqueville says, we like the steady paycheck. Far more, however, we like how corporations boost our status and purchasing power even if we lack any real net worth; we like how they lift the velvet rope for us, providing us with social experiences we couldn’t enjoy on the strength of our own name or reputation. And perhaps most secretly, we like the way they lift the burden of having to be ourselves. As good corporate professionals, we are free to stop caring so much about who we are. The corporate identity establishes a fixity that we struggle to find within ourselves or in the consolations of love, faith, or honor.

Little wonder that corporations have embraced the campus model, encouraging employees to feel free to be themselves and at home where they work. Little wonder that corporations have embraced diversity, inclusion, and the full human-resources ethos, the better to make us feel more like a part of the business—and the better to make the business seem like something more than a profane moneymaking venture.

Corporations are winning because we want them to. And we want them to, Tocqueville helps us see, because in our time they’ve perfected the art of association—offering both the shelter and the challenging exposure Americans crave most. For that, we are willing to let them have their way, growing large and enduring forever.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.2 (Summer 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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