While many Americans worry about how much longer they can pay rent and avoid contracting Covid-19, corporations are within striking distance of controlling our basic political institutions. The recent congressional stimulus package has been criticized as a sweetheart deal that will only make the rich richer, giving the airline industry a cool $60 billion while individual Americans facing job loss, eviction, and illness get at most $1,200 apiece. But beyond resource allocations, there are many other ways corporations could benefit from the current coronavirus pandemic. Throughout history, companies have grown powerful not just through pure profit but also through social control. And already there are signs of that in the present moment, the coronavirus being used to curb environmentalism and other forms of behavior inconvenient for corporate interests.
The very land on which Congress now sits was first colonized by the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company chartered by King James I and his fellow shareholders. From London, these investors directed the colonists’ violent theft of the land from the Piscataway and Nacostine peoples. On their land, the colonists built plantations, fortified them, and brought in enslaved Africans and indentured Europeans to produce tobacco for the emerging world market and to defend the territory militarily.
The world of business continued to set the terms of politics well after the United States won independence from the British Empire. Slavery, claimed Southern planter elites, was the “greatest material interest of the world.” Securing this valuable system of production required securing the entire global racial order of social domination it was premised upon. It required control of personal conduct, so plantation owners devised management strategies, occupied key positions in Congress and the military, and pushed U.S. foreign policy in a pro-slavery direction that included imperial invasions and annexations that they hoped would expand and protect slavery in the Western hemisphere.
Back then, the connection between violent social control and profit was unmistakable. The current moment may feel very different, but as recent events have made clear, we’re not as far removed from the power dynamics of centuries past as many people like to assume. Modern corporations know that their survival depends not just on supply and demand but also on broad control over the institutions and practices that organize our lives.
The greatest business success stories of the past few decades have involved changing people’s behavior. Amazon’s profits, for instance, calculated in a standard way—revenues minus expenses in a given quarter—are healthy but unremarkable. What is remarkable about Amazon is its sheer size and scope. Amazon is now a marketplace for retailers, a shipping company, a lender, a grocery store, a cloud computing provider, and a film studio. Its success has depended in part on spreading into as many facets of economic life as it can, and immediately reinvesting the revenue it gains from underselling its competitors into innovations that will widen its reach but are too new to be heavily taxed. It’s working: Amazon alone accounted for 45 percent of all e-commerce sales last year, and more than half of American households are Prime subscribers. It is no wonder that this behemoth was able to make an entire nation of local governments kneel and beg when it was trying to decide where to put its headquarters. Meanwhile, the company exerts tremendous control over both its sellers and its workers, witholding payment to sellers that fail to abide by its rules, allegedly threatening and retaliating viciously against workers who organize against its policies, and mounting aggressive anti-union campaigns in its workplaces. Thursday, Vice reported on a leaked memo from the company laying out its plan to smear a union organizer in one of its warehouses by saying he had violated social distancing orders during the epidemic.
The coronavirus crisis may result in stronger corporate influence on basic political and social institutions. Already, corporations have played an outsize role in crafting the Trump administration’s pandemic response. The White House’s press briefings are full of executives from companies like Walmart and underwear manufacturer Jockey International, who often get even more speaking time than the medical professionals on the White House virus task force.
On March 18, the Plastic Industry Association requested that the federal Department of Health and Human Services issue a national pronouncement discouraging the use of reusable grocery bags in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. They insinuated that reusable grocery bags are a health risk, despite the questionable grounds for the claim (the risk appears to vanish if the bags are washed) and further evidence that suggests that single-use plastics might be quite dangerous themselves: “SARS-CoV-2 was more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, and viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces,” a group of epidemiologists wrote in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine a day prior to the plastic lobby’s request. Nevertheless, governors of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts have prohibited or discouraged people from using reusable grocery bags.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a sweeping declaration allowing power plants and factories to decide for themselves whether they are meeting environmental regulations—in effect, a direct transfer of the responsibility of environmental stewardship from the government’s regulatory office to the businesses themselves. This move has been sharply criticized by scientists, who argue that the rollback will encourage yet more pollution of communities of color whose environmental justice concerns are routinely ignored. The fossil fuel industry is likely to benefit financially from the emergency coronavirus legislation despite its role in causing and distorting the ongoing climate crisis, which available evidence suggests will make future pandemics more likely and costly and hurt communities of color worst. Meanwhile, state legislatures in Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia have quietly criminalized protests against pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. They joined five states that have already passed legislation strongly resembling a model drafted by the conservative American Legislative Executive Council, which in turn is partly funded by the Koch Industries. Fossil fuel companies like Exxon and BP have only exited ALEC in the past few years as ALEC’s notorious climate change denial became a liability.
The structure of the stimulus legislation suggests that there are further gains for corporations on the way. It grants Stephen Mnuchin, secretary of the U.S. Treasury, unprecedented discretionary power over $500 billion of taxpayer money. Mnuchin spent much of his career ruthlessly foreclosing the homes of working-class people of color in California and is empowered to decide which businesses get loans or cash grants and what companies have to give up in exchange (in one case, giving the government an equity stake in the assisted company). Corporate lobbyists have already spent weeks trying to influence the legislation and aren’t likely to stop now that it has passed. The legislation provides for several layers of government oversight of Mnuchin’s choices, but the president has a less than inspiring record of complying with lawful requests for information and has already signaled his intention to bypass at least one of the stimulus’s oversight provisions.
As with the stimulus package in 2008, many commentators in the past week have expressed shock and outrage that the government seems to be bailing out corporations and industries more than people. At a time of striking economic inequality, not to mention decades-long corporate accumulation of power over education, media, and even basic government services, we should likewise be attuned to the way rules and regulations—not just cash—are being shifted in large companies’ favor. The consistency of this preferential treatment should give the lie to one of the most common myths in times of massive corporate bailouts: A rising tide allegedly lifting all boats is little comfort to the many Americans who’ve been effectively thrown overboard.