How corporations have made America like the USSR

Free-market capitalism was supposed to save us from faceless apparatchiks. But that's not what happened

Topics: AlterNet, Russia, Communism, Business, Socialism,

How corporations have made America like the USSR
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The great power struggle of the 20th century was the competition between Soviet-style communism and “free-market” corporatism for domination of the world’s resources. In America, it’s taken for granted that Soviet communism lost (though China’s more capitalist variant seems to be doing well), and the superiority of neo-liberal economics — as epitomized by the great multinational corporations — was thus affirmed for all time and eternity.

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There’s a small problem with this, though. An old bit of wisdom says: choose your enemies carefully, because over time, you will tend to become the very thing you most strongly resist. One of the most striking things about our victorious corporations now is the degree to which they’ve taken on some of the most noxious and Kafkaesque attributes of the Soviet system — too often leaving their employees, customers, and other stakeholders just as powerless over their own fates as the unhappy citizens of those old centrally planned economies of the USSR were back in the day.

It’s not just that the corporations have taken control over our government (though that’s awful enough). It’s also that they’ve taken control over — and put serious limits on — our choices regarding what we buy, where we work, how we live, and what rights we have. Our futures are increasingly no longer our own: more and more decisions, large and small, that determine the quality of our lives are being made by Politburo apparatchiks at a Supreme Corporate Soviet somewhere far distant from us. Only now, those apparatchiks are PR and marketing executives, titans of corporate finance, lobbyists for multinationals, and bean-counting managers trying to increase profits at the expense of our freedom.

With tongue only somewhat in cheek, here are a few ways in which Americans are now becoming a new lumpenproletariat, subject to the whims and diktats of our new Soviet-style corporate overlords.

Reduced Choice and Big-Box Censorship



We see it most evidently when we go to the store. Back in the 1970s, the American retail landscape was still mostly dominated by mom-and-pop stores, which in turn carried merchandise also made by small manufacturers (many of them right here in the US). Not only did this complex economy sustain tens of millions of comfortable middle-class jobs; it also produced a dazzling variety of retail choices. Every store on Main Street carried somewhat different merchandise, bought from a different group of preferred suppliers. A shoe store might carry 20 different brands. The shoe store down the street might differentiate itself by carrying 10 of the same brands, and 10 different ones. The result was a very wide range of consumer choices — though you did have to go from store to store to find it — and a rich variety of stores that competed aggressively for their customers’ attention. And if you visited a different part of the country, the selection might be very different from what you’d get back home.

Now, every Macy’s in America carries the same dozen or so lines of bland, middle-of-the-road women’s clothing. You’ll find exactly the same stuff on the racks in Long Island as you do in Long Beach. If you’re looking for something that hasn’t been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, you probably won’t find it at the mall.

Big-box stores have eliminated choice even further: The Supreme Soviet in Bentonville or Atlanta or Minneapolis has decreed what appears on the shelves of your local Walmart or Home Depot or Target store, with very little tailoring to local tastes and preferences. (Even our own tap water is being sold back to us by Coke and Pepsi.) You have exactly as many choices as they deign to devote shelf space to. Now that Wal-Mart is selling 25% of the groceries in America, if you’re looking for a specific brand that someone back in Bentonville decided Walmart will no longer carry, then you’re just plain out of luck. And since the other grocers in town often close up when a Walmart opens, there’s no place else to turn to find it.

This constriction of choice is most virulent when it comes to media. Big-box stores have very limited shelf space for each product category they carry; yet they are far and away the nation’s biggest purchasers of things like toys and video games. For the past 20 years, this fact has dominated decision-making in both those businesses: manufacturers know viscerally that if the buyers at Walmart aren’t interested in your toy or game, there’s probably no economic point in even making it. So everything is made with these buyers’ sensibilities, prejudices and cost requirements in mind. This became a de facto form of centralized control, where a handful of buyers in Bentonville ended up dictating what the entire country got to play with.

Increasingly, the corporatization of our consumer landscape has meant that there’s less choice and variety in our marketplaces than there used to be. Centrally planned franchise and chain stores have been stripped of quirkiness, uniqueness, local color, and anything that might be challenging to the most easily upset among us. The result is that we’re left with a bland, santized, Disneyfied set of choices in goods, experiences, entertainment, and ideas that’s a far cry from the lively, authentic Main Street scene those stores killed — and which has brought us several steps closer to the scary stereotype of the limited and poorly stocked state-controlled Soviet shops we were constantly threatened with during the Cold War. Yeah, it’s still better — but not as much better as it should be.

The Sovietization of malls and big-box stores has launched a couple of backlashes. Online shopping is the new refuge of people who are looking for a broader set of options. Local producers of food, clothing, grooming supplies, furniture, and other goods are stepping up to scratch our itch for things that are unique and special. These are both end-runs around the corporatized retail order that’s been systematically stripping away consumer choice for decades. But they’ve got a long way to go before they’ll supplant the neighborhood hegemony of Walgreens.

Health Care

The Supreme Health Care Soviet has also done a number on the kind of health care we get, how we get it, where we get it, and who we can get it from. Again: there was a time not so long ago when health care was in the hands of a doctor, who was usually in independent practice (often in a partnership with a couple of other doctors, but that’s it), and who had wide leeway to dictate patient care without being second-guessed. The doctor got sound, reliable information on new treatments from respected peer-reviewed journals, and insurance companies generally paid for most of what he or she ordered without further ado. This extreme level of autonomy notoriously led to doctors who overestimated their capacities; but it also meant that whatever happened in an examination room was — to an extraordinary degree — left in the hands of the doctor and the patient, and nobody else was entitled to interfere. The result was that, in the struggle between science and the doctor’s profit motive, science stood at least a fighting chance of prevailing.

Now, the profit Politburo has had its way with almost every aspect of this interaction. Two-thirds of primary care doctors don’t own their own practices anymore — in no small part because the administrative cost of dealing with Soviet bureaucrats insurance company overseers is so overwhelming. Now, they’re salaried employees of some large corporate entity, where they’re subject to constant pressure to shorten visits, rack up billable hours, stick to narrow protocols of accepted treatment and churn patients through.

Insurance bean-counters second-guess every order, requiring doctors to put in extra shifts each week writing letters and making phone calls to fight for their patients’ right to care. Every channel they rely on for information on new drugs and treatments — from the peer-reviewed journals to the medical conferences to the drug information inserts — has been co-opted by the pharmaceutical companies to ensure that doctors won’t ever get important information that might reflect badly on profitable drugs; and this, in turn, undermines evidence-based medicine in favor of a kind of corporate-driven Lysenkoism.

Increasingly, states are also inviting themselves into the exam room, passing laws telling doctors what they can and can’t tell you about your own condition (and, in some cases, demanding that they out-and-out lie to you, for reasons that are entirely political and seldom supported by science). And as a patient, your access to this co-opted, compromised care is entirely dependent on what the Politburo apparatchiks at your own employer’s corporate HQ have decided you deserve to have.

Again: what we’ve got here isn’t anything like a free or independent system, one in which patients and doctors are at liberty to make appropriate decisions without layers of centralized interference (much of it from people who aren’t even MDs). And most of this interference isn’t from government; it’s from various corporate interests that have subjugated both doctors and patients to a centralization regime in order to extract profits from them. During the Cold War, this is what we were told Soviet medicine was like. Now, we don’t have to go to Russia: we can get the same regimented, over-managed treatment from our own free-market health system — and we’ll pay more for it than anybody else in the world.

Education: Testing, Not Teaching

My eighth-grade civics teacher used to terrify our class with grim stories about the education endured by our unlucky peers in the USSR. Communist education, she said, was nothing but rote learning — no discussion, no critical thinking skills, all aimed at preparing kids for high-stakes standardized testing that would ultimately determine their place in the Party hierarchy. They weren’t free like we were to explore our own interests, or choose professions that pleased them. Rather than being treated like full, autonomous human beings being prepared for a limitless future of their own design, they were sorted and graded like potatoes, and tracked to serve the needs of the state. All of the decisions, we were told, were dictated by the central authorities in charge of determining what kind of workers the state would need, and which schools students would be sent to in order to fulfill those goals.

The ironies abound. Even as China has ramped up its efforts to inculcate creativity and critical thought in its students, the United States has voluntarily given up on those values — our competitive edge over the world for the past 150 years — in favor of a centralized, test-driven schooling regimen that only a Soviet bureaucrat could love. Increasingly, the doors to the best high schools and universities are closed to everyone but those in the top echelons of society, just as the best schools in the USSR were set aside for the children of the Party leadership. But the greatest irony of all is that, far from being done in the name of the state, this is being done by taking education out of the hands of the state and giving it over to for-profit corporations. Again, the more “private industry” gets involved, the more the outcome looks like something from a 1950s John Birch caricature of the horrors of Soviet life.

And On It Goes

These are just three easy examples. There are plenty more to be had:

* Our modern homes are designed by marketing researchers working for Soviet-style large developers that dictate what The People’s Houses should look like.

* Our food supply is dominated by Soviet-style government-mandated (but privately run) monoculture.

* Our voting system is increasingly restricted to people who are acceptable to the party hierarchy, just as the Soviet system limited Communist Party membership to a small percentage of the population; and corporate-owned machines count our votes.

* Our increasingly privatized and militarized law enforcement is starting to owe a lot to the brutal Soviet policing style, too. We have gulags now — and the corporations are running them, too.

* Our response to climate change is being driven by another form of Lysenkoism — a science-denial movement driven by corporations that are threatened by any demand that they change their ways.

* And anybody who’s dealt with a bank foreclosure can tell you stories that would cross Franz Kafka’s eyes about the runaround they get every time they try to contact their lender. Checks and papers vanish, and must be sent over and over. Payments are never posted. And you can never talk to the same person twice. (We used to think the DMV was bad enough, but now we know: it takes a corporation to really screw things up.) This kind of faceless, brutally inhuman bureaucracy used to be the stuff of totalitarian nightmares. Now, it’s everyday reality for tens of millions of American homeowners.

This is corporate-sponsored tyranny that comes at a huge expense to the masses. The great irony of our age is that, over the past 60 years, the more energy we put into resisting Communism by raising up the cult of the consumer (and the corporations that serviced it), the more our own corporate overlords were able to seize our resources and energy, and divert them into the goal of consolidating their power and inflicting their own totalitarian, centrally planned hell on us.

The USSR has been a historical dead letter for over 20 years now — but there are still plenty of earnest Fox-watching Americans for whom “communism” remains the most terrifying of all scare words. They’re vigilantly watching the leftward horizon, scanning for signs of government-inflicted socialism, ready to strip their own democracy of its very ability to thwart totalitarians if that’s what must be done to stop totalitarianism.

Unfortunately, they’re facing the wrong direction. The real threat of dignity-stripping, liberty-destroying, soul-crushing oppression is coming not from government, but from the very corporations those same people believed were the key to our superiority over the Communist menace. Now that the government can’t protect us from rapacious businesses any more, the centrally planned authoritarian state they’ve feared is already coming to pass — privately, for the profit of the few, free from pesky accountability or oversight, and without a bit of resistance from the would-be patriots who have been on guard for decades to ensure it could never happen here.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a futurist and the editor of AlterNet’s Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet’s Vision newsletter for weekly updates.

Sara Robinson is a trained social futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page.

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