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The New Company Store: The Final Step in the Corporate Takeover of America

John Atcheson

Well, here we are, slouching toward another national garage sale in which corporations bid on and buy candidates the way futures traders bid on commodities – or as our founders used to call it: an election.

As we go to the polls, it might be wise to remember the song Sixteen Tons.  Here’s a few lines to refresh your memory:

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt; and

St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t come.  I owe my soul to the Company Store.

The original version of the song was written by an ex-coal miner named George Davis and recorded on his album, When Kentucky Had No Union Men.

It is a song about the truck system, and debt bondage.  Under this economic model, workers lived in houses owned by the company, shopped in stores owned by the company, and got paid in scrip minted by the company.  And no matter how hard they worked, they remained indebted to the company.

The truck system survived in the US until the early 20th Century.  This kind of abuse existed because government allowed it to.  Then as now, wealth was highly concentrated and government was in the pocket of the plutocrats.

It came to an end with the passage of The National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. 

Since then, the US government and labor moved together to level the playing field for workers.  The result was a steady increase in prosperity shared by all Americans. 

That is, until about thirty years ago, when Reagan launched what has been a sustained assault on government.

Thanks to thirty years of Republican policies and Democratic complicity, we’re in the process of reopening the company store, only as with all things 21st Century, it’s a national chain.

Today, we shop with credit cards owned by “the company,” live in houses financed by “the company” – often owing more than the value of the home – and get our news and information from sources controlled by "the company."  In short, the company store is back in business.

While Republicans and Tea partiers are all aflutter over government debt, Americans owe some $11.4 trillion in consumer debt.  Talk about indentured. Seventy five per cent of us are held hostage to debt. 

This spring student loan debt passed $1 trillion, and the average student now owes $25,000 upon graduating, And Congress passed a law making it almost impossible for students to escape this debt through bankruptcy. Right now, it’s far easier for a corporation to default on hundreds of millions of dollars in retirement and health benefits than it is for a student to escape a few thousand in student loan debt.

Congratulations, Grad, and welcome to the company store.  Oh, but you corporations and fat cats? No worries. It’s business as usual – your McMansion is protected; you can still screw your employees with impunity.

So how did this happen?  How did we once again become enslaved to a system which does not represent our interests; a system which benefits the 1% at our expense? 

Well, not surprisingly, corporations and plutocrats used the tools of marketing to conduct a silent takeover of the country, imposing a tyranny far more severe than the imaginary government tyranny Tea-Partiers rail against.

They systematically “branded” the forces that were capable of constraining them while rebranding the very things that worked to enslave so many of us in times past.

Using repetition, metaphors and other figures of speech that form the basis of advertising, corporations and their conservative cronies – the real modern day Madmen – made people believe up was down and right was left.   And because they were unopposed by the corporate owned media and the Democratic Party, they succeeded.

Government was branded as the problem, not the solution.

The private sector got branded as the solution, not the problem. 

The same private sector that set up the company stores in the 18th and 19th Centuries until the government and unions put a stop to it.

“Liberal” became an epithet – something politicians ran screaming from, and something the people identified as evil, ineffective, elitist … even though, on an issue-by-issue basis, most Americans hold progressive views.

Socialism is now equivalent to Satan worship, and anything but wild, unconstrained capitalism has been branded as socialism – or gasp – even communism.  Thus, regulations preventing the Company Store, or the rape of the Earth are seen as infringements on our freedom even though they apply mostly to corporate abuse.  Plutocrats must get together at their secret meetings and howl with laughter at the rubes who screw themselves because they’re worried about their freedom, which  -- thanks to the evisceration of government -- is now essentially the freedom to be exploited.

Exhibit A?  “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Or take this gem:  “Don’t steal from Medicare to Support Socialized Medicine.”

The result of this massive con?  Income mobility in the United States has all but stalled, especially in States with Republican governors. Income disparity, on the other hand has exploded and the top 10% of Americans now control 75% of the wealth.  The United States now ranks behind such luminary examples of shared prosperity as Cameroon and Iraq, according to the CIA

So now, as corporations impose an economic tyranny not seen since the 19th and early 20th Century, many Americans are chasing ghosts ginned up by the corporations and their conservative political madmen. 

Welcome to the New Company Store, now opening at a location near you.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a CA car accident in January 2020.

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