THE CULT OF IMPOTENCE: SELLING THE MYTH OF
POWERLESSNESS IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
By Linda McQuaig
THE MYTH OF THE GOOD CORPORATE CITIZEN: DEMOCRACY UNDER THE RULE OF BIG
By Murray Dobbin
In his latest book, John Ralston Saul argues that Canadians have always
leaned to the political left. And while that left-right distinction (Linda
McQuaig would rather say "popular" and "market") may be
artificial, it does help to highlight a public-spirited attitude still reflected
in most opinion polls.
These days, the main target of the Canadian left is the ongoing consolidation
of corporate power, both at home and abroad. The arguments are fairly easy to
summarize. Large, transnational corporations dominate government policy, without
any corresponding responsibility to individuals or communities. The new world
economy, increasingly driven by speculation in financial markets rather than
production, gives rise to growing inequality, job insecurity, and lower
standards of living.
As corporations get bigger, the individual shrinks. Citizens become mere
consumers, and democracy is undermined by a "cult of impotence" - a
false belief that representative government is powerless. Of course governments
aren't really powerless, it's just that they've ceased to use their power to
promote the public interest. Thus a secretly negotiated foreign investment
treaty (MAI) is almost passed without debate, while a measure for taxing
currency exchanges (the Tobin tax) gets short shrift.
I found these arguments, made in depth in these two books, convincing.
Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with Murray Dobbin when he says that
"it would be difficult to imagine a more impoverished set of ideas,
principles, assumptions about human nature, and goals for society than those
promoted by the new right."
Because they deal with current affairs, both books show signs of haste.
Dobbin has collected a mountain of supporting material, but relies too much on a
shotgun blast of statistics to make his case. I would have been interested in
his analysis of more fundamental issues. If, for example, there is such a thing
as a disease of corporatism, and I think there is, its effects are wider than
Dobbin implies. Corporate minds are shaped by corporate structures, which exist
in universities and labour unions just as much as on Bay Street.
McQuaig is a more engaging writer, and one not afraid to indulge her gift for
narrative. Unfortunately, her book tends to wander through too many anecdotes
and unfocused history. As a result, she spends a lot of time off topic, and ends
up seeming less than objective.
Both authors do a good job exploding some of the commonly repeated myths of
neo-liberalism (that is, right-wing economic theory). Among other things, they
explain in clear terms how the government can play a dramatic role in job
creation, why more regulation of the market only makes sense, and why the
private sector is really no more effective or less bureaucratic than the public.
Of course, the mother of all ecomomic myths, at least in the '90s, has been
the debt. Not that the debt itself is a myth - only the blaming of it on
government spending for social programs. In fact, social programs have
contributed little. Government spending on programs and services has been
falling for 10 years. What is growing are the interest payments on the debt.
McQuaig suggests that our real problem is neither globalization nor
technology, but simply a lack of political will. Our impotence is selective. We
could, for example, make fighting unemployment a higher priority without causing
our currency to collapse. International markets do not take nearly as dim a view
of Canada's situation as our leaders do.
Technology poses a different, and I think harder problem. There can be no
question that new technologies are making many fields of labour obsolete. Postal
workers and bank clerks, to take a pair of obvious examples, are clearly on the
endangered species list. And what are these people going to do when they are
replaced by computers? Design software? We have yet to see how the information
revolution will play out, but in the short term it seems clear that there will
be more losers than winners.
While both Dobbin and McQuaig make impassioned pleas for democracy, their
real thrust goes deeper than politics. What they are trying to affirm is a new
humanism - one that places human concerns and values ahead of global capital,
corporate interests, and abstract economic theories (like the absurd
"natural rate" of unemployment). This is certainly a worthy goal, and
part of a debate that we all should be engaged in.
Review first published April 11, 1998. Readers interested in the subject
should also check out David Korten's When Corporations Rule the World.