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Darwin and Friedman in the Corporate World

by Bill Willers

Darwinian selection - the "survival of the fittest" concept - is as applicable to human social structures as it is to the natural world. The question just becomes "Fit for what?". Whereas wild nature's "fitness" is defined by the ability to compete successfully in the struggle for food, habitat and reproductive rights, "fitness" in human social structures depends on goals that vary from one structure to another.

The "power pyramid" of military institutions and modern corporations is a perfect model for selecting types needed to fulfill group goals. If one visualizes a triangle as representing a power pyramid, the broad base in a military situation represents incoming recruits and privates. Top generals occupy the peak. Movement upward through the ranks over time depends on the success of individuals to demonstrate ability at carrying out the aim of the system, which is to win at war.

In the base of the corporate pyramid are lowly staff and new hires preparing to embark on an upward struggle through degrees of "middle management" and toward a pinnacle wherein one finds the governing board and a chief executive officer. The corporate aim is to increase profit, and any competing or interfering value is to be neutralized. As movement up through corporate ranks takes place, individuals with qualms or values that hinder profiteering are selected against.

Profiteering is so established as the primary function of the corporation that the corporate world's foremost sage and theorist, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman, declared that any corporate management failing to function so as to maximize profit should be sued by shareholders. Friedman's philosophy has taken such hold of society that Alan Greenspan, lately head of the Federal Reserve, was moved to say that Friedman has been able "to materially alter the direction of civilization" -- a view mirrored by President George W. Bush who admitted that Friedman "has changed America and is changing the world".

While it is no surprise that an academic standard-bearer for an entrenched power structure would be heaped with praise, it remains that Friedman, whatever his good intentions, demonstrated no appreciation for the perfection of the corporate power pyramid as a model for selecting predatory individuals, so that names such as Kenneth Lay, Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski, Jeffrey Skilling et al. might become as familiar to the public as the names of rock stars.

Two features of modern corporations aid in their domination of society. One is that corporations have been able to secure legal "personhood". Although absurd on its face, a giant multinational corporation, more powerful than many countries, is a "person" in an American court of law. A citizen, such as you or I, coming up against a corporate "person" in the U.S. legal system, would walk into court and into the jaws of a multi-million dollar corporate legal division, effectively whipped at the outset.

The other feature of the corporation is immortality. You and I must die, but a corporate "person" has the potential to exist forever. It was not always so. Corporate charters were originally granted with the provision that the "public good" be served, else a corporation would lose its charter. But through a stepwise transformation over time, society has found itself in the grip of entrenched giant, multinational, immortal "persons" administered by those who, through the winnowing process within the power pyramid, have been selected on the basis of an ability to generate as much profit as possible. But how could it have been otherwise? It was all so predictable as Darwin, had he looked closely at the selective nature of the system, would have understood.

Consider for a moment how you might strategize were you to find yourself at the head of an immense, immortal "person" with growth and profit the prime concerns. Wouldn't you work for a "free market" that, for you, would be a highway without stop signs for your interests? Would you not, given your nearly unimaginable financial resources, infiltrate government, generate "think tanks", hire platoons of lobbyists and fund political campaigns in order to ensure laws that further your profiteering? Would you not sanctify private property, resist accountability and send tendrils to all corners of the globe? And wouldn't you purchase networks and newspapers in order to control information distribution and keep the masses in line?

Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter has been good enough to create a website listing top corporate criminals of the last decade of the 20th Century. What is so revealing is that those listed are some of our most recognizable "corporate neighbors". There are General Electric who (yes "who". GE, recall, is a legal "person") brings the NBC evening news, Archer Daniels Midland who funds the Lehrer News Hour on "public" television and who was fined $100,000,000 for price fixing, and Louisiana-Pacific who fells the public's forests with impunity. There are Pfizer, Chevron, Tyson Foods, Eastman Kodak, International Paper, ALCOA, Rockwell, Coors, Royal Caribbean and plenty more.

And what of the nature? It was never of concern for Friedman who, like his tidy theory, was as divorced from the natural world as if trapped within some plastic-encased universe. In his market-driven system, in which selection for profiteers determines leadership, it was, and remains, perfectly acceptable for hordes of life forms to be driven to extinction, for vast ancient forests to be ground into widgets, and for the planet to fry, if such is the dictate of the free market's "invisible hand". For that we have been set on our current perilous direction, and because the corporate power pyramid is now the model to which the world is apparently dedicated, it would seem humanity is pressing hard on the accelerator.

Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, now living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is editor of Learning to Listen to the Land and Unmanaged Landscapes, both from Island Press. He can be reached at willers@charter.net.

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