When massive Western corporations provide relief and assistance during a pandemic, these stories are easily framed by corporate communications teams, the government, and mass media as some sort of angelic benevolence. This is, at most, half the story.
Many have hailed these companies for “stepping up” as they turn their productive capacities to producing things like ventilators or masks, or provide financial assistance to the cause of fighting COVID-19. Many seem all too excited to frame the narrative as the reception of gifts from benefactors who have absolutely no reason or obligation to give.
To be clear, this can and should be praised to some degree. It’s good to see that certain organizations and their executives are choosing to not putter along as if nothing is happening around them, but instead are turning their attention to alleviating a crisis that the entire world is facing. Some of these actions will help people to a large degree.
However, in the reality of Western state-capitalism, what we should be saying to many of these corporations is “Thanks for doing that. It’s the very least you should be doing.”
Even if you believe that there is no moral obligation to care for those around you (let alone be taxed so that wealth can be redistributed), applying this principle to a multi-billion-dollar company is a stretch. Especially given the history of corporate North America.
Picture a world with our neighborhood and several others in it. These neighborhoods coexist peacefully. Let’s also say one day we hear that another neighborhood will go without food or other necessities for at least a few weeks, maybe even for months. They’ve fallen on rough times.
Even if we are more well-off for the time being, the argument can be made that the folks in our neighborhood don’t have an obligation to do anything.
Let’s accept that argument — just for now.
However, let’s say I add another group. This new group has weapons and they claim to be the only ones with the right to use force. They create rules we must follow, but say they won’t throw us in jail or harass us too much if we pay our dues — so most of us do.
In this new reality, let’s also say our neighborhood happens to be the savvier one. Lots of our neighbors cozy up to the folks with the guns, and it turns out by doing this, the folks with the guns are more likely to create rules that benefit us. We can even get some of our own neighbors elected onto the special council that votes on what rules to create. When dues are increased, there are certain people in our neighborhood that are exempt from the increase.
Other neighborhoods are eventually barred from some activities they used to freely do, like harvesting their entire crops. One other neighborhood was also prevented from building and selling a special type of crop harvesting tool — the people in our neighborhood claimed to have invented it first and had a rule created stating they could be the only manufacturers — if people want the tool, they have to buy it from us. Some of the dues collected from the other neighborhoods are re-directed to some of the intelligent folks in ours. They pitched an idea to the special council about medical equipment they’d like to build and sell — they claimed it would be good for the equipment to be built and sold for all neighborhoods, and we ought to be the ones to build it.
Over many years this continues, and our neighborhood becomes wealthier and more influential than the others. More rules are created that prevent others from competing with our industries. Some professions even require special licenses from the special council to sell services, and the licenses are naturally discriminatory by being expensive.
Then, a plague hits many of these neighborhoods. We hear that one neighborhood doesn’t have enough medical equipment to take care of those in need. Some are running out of other necessities and supplies.
After some consideration, the wealthiest individuals and businesses in our neighborhood decide that they see no reason to help out the other neighborhoods. Some from the other neighborhoods claim that after being on the receiving end of special privileges, and in some cases having their resources and wealth gifted to us, the least we can do is understand the injustice of the whole initial arrangement and feel an obligation to help them out.
Some of us consult our PR teams and decide it would definitely look better to help out. And after all, it’s chump change to us!
Multi-billion-dollar American and Western corporations, especially since the end of World War 2, have been the continual recipients of enormous gifts, and the beneficiaries of special privilege and protection, from the state: From direct subsidy, through to the erection of legal barriers that prevent competition and the pressures of the market (e.g., intellectual property, tariffs) — not to mention the direct access and influence they have on those in the political class.
We should praise these companies as heroic and selfless only after we get the answer to one question: Did the success and wealth they’re now using for good come from the power and privilege they are granted by the state? Wealth and power that was built on the backs of the very people so thankful for it now?
If not, then bravo.