What Do Corporations Want?

In the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision from January 2010, we learned that corporations are citizens, entitled to the freedoms and rights we as ordinary American citizens enjoy. "Corporations are people, my friend," insisted Mitt Romney to a group of hecklers on the campaign trail.

So, if corporations are people (a special class of people with lots and lots of money and influence and power), it's fair to ask what they want. Do they want the same things as the average citizen? Do they want decent pay for all, adequate health care for all, a solid education for all, and democratic structures that foster individual creativity, informed dissent and equitable power-sharing?

To ask these questions is to answer them. Generally speaking, major corporations prefer minimal pay and benefits for workers, a largely uncritical and powerless workforce and minimal taxes, as well as unlimited power for themselves, which they can then employ to influence elections and maximize profits.

In a word, they want control.

A largely unsung movie that captures this dream of corporate control is Rollerball (the original version with James Caan). It depicts a future in which there are no nations -- only major corporations like Energy, Housing, Transport, and Food. And these "majors," explains an executive played memorably by John Houseman, make "decisions on a global basis for the common good." They provide. And all they ask of ordinary folk, Houseman intones, is gratitude in the form of silent compliance, a tacit agreement "not to interfere with management decisions."

But James Caan refuses to play along. Confronted by his ex-wife Ella, now married to a member of the executive class, Caan thinks back to a dim past when people had a choice between "nice things or freedom; of course, they chose comfort." "But comfort is freedom," Ella objects. Corporations are providers who merely want "a kind of incidental control over just a part of our lives," she concludes.

Refusing to be bought off, Caan triumphs in a violent sport whose rules are specifically designed to maim or kill him. (Think of this year's Hunger Games.) And we leave the theater celebrating his defiance.

Americans admire plucky individuals, those who cry "Give me liberty or give me death." But how much liberty do we truly have when we cede so much power to corporations? When the supreme court of our land essentially empowers corporations to thwart democracy and to buy elections?

In the spirit of Orwell, we recognize the tyranny implicit in the phrase, "All citizens are equal -- but some are (much) more equal than others." Yet despite this we've made it the law of the land. How much longer, then, until we're singing, like the crazed spectators in Rollerball, our very own corporate anthems?

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.