In 1949 the English novelist and journalist Eric Arthur Blair wrote a novel that has had a considerable impact on society’s perception of government. The novel was called Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Blair’s pen name is well-known: George Orwell.
Orwell was a believer in social democracy, an advocate of revolutionary opposition to totalitarianism, and had a strong sense of injustice.
He was reportedly concerned that socialists are not immune to the corrupting effect of power, especially absolute power, and wrote other pieces highlighting the risks in a satirical manner (Animal Farm being a classic example).
I remember when the year 1984 arrived – just about everyone was looking for evidence that Big Brother was either on the horizon or at the very least was packing the last of his socks before closing his suitcase and heading out the door, ready to start work on a spot of oppression before tea.
I also remember a report in the UK that discussed the fact that government computer systems – some 25 of them – had been recording the minutest of trivia about the country’s population since the 1950s. Some of them we were familiar with: the Inland Revenue, DoHSS, DVLC, and so on.
Even recently, when staff at a school district in the US used a webcam built into a school-provided laptop to spy on a student while he was supposedly in the privacy of his own home (see Not Just Crossing The Line), it seemed that another piece of the Big Brother jigsaw had been put solidly in place.
It did look as though the core elements of control required by Big Brother were indeed present. The trouble was, where was Big Brother?
In the last fifteen years or so I have come to the realisation that George got the idea right – control of the people through the power derived from the possession of massive amounts of detailed information – but he was facing the wrong way.
As he and others stood outside their metaphorical front door, scanning the horizon for signs of the Big Man and his suitcase, a dark and furtive figure had already crept into the house through an open window in the back, and he’s been growing in strength and power ever since.
The United States has the rather dubious distinction of being the one western democratic republic that absolutely hates and loathes its government. Its people do not trust Washington or any one of a half century of other city locations as far as they can be thrown. The latest report I saw claims that just a quarter of the population believe that their government can be trusted.
For me, coming to the country in 1995, there was a strong sense of impending anarchy, an undercurrent of anger and resentment against government and indeed anything that represented authority of any kind. For its part, the authority often came across as intransigent, bullying, and totally out of touch with the daily reality faced by many citizens. It seemed, on the surface, as if it was an invading power, rather than being drawn from the very ranks of the citizenry itself (or possibly themselves).
Even “experts” in any field are reviled, their considered opinions found wanting when matched up against the ignorant ranting of television and radio “celebrities”, irrational postulations by racist and extremist political fringe groups, or stupid and bigoted conspiracy theories propounded by those who smell money but who usually smell of something else.
I think the key word in Big Brother is Big. As in Big Business. As in Small Business rarely has the clout to enforce its opinion on anyone, but Big Business seems to have had the run of the place for decades, and is now so confident of its grip on society that it doesn’t feel it has to do things in secret any more.
I’ve come to the realisation in the last decade and a half that in the US at least, Democracy is more accurately defined as “government of the people, by the corporations, for the corporations”.
Time and again I see situations where a popular vote shows what the people want, but when the time comes to implement it, various vested interests – almost exclusively corporate – have the power and ability to block it indefinitely.
And that has to be bad. Politicans may be easy to buy in America, but the real villains are the ones doing the buying. When I hear various groups (such as the so-called Tea Party Movement) rabbitting about how they need to take back government (from the government?), how The People need to re-exert their control of the country, I think: I come from Earth. What planet do you come from?
It’s not possible to take back control of the country from politicians you don’t happen to like, because they are no longer in control and haven’t been for decades.
If you replaced all of them with new politicians who pledged never to be bought, how long do you think it would be before the last one finally capitulated? Years? Months? Weeks? Days?
It’s something I’ve never quite understood. In the US, the over-arching principle seems to be, paradoxically, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.
But surely it’s the seller who should be the one we focus on?
In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, it has long been the case that buyers shouldn’t have to take their lumps because they bought something that was misrepresented. Consumer protections seem to be much more widespread than they are in the US (which wasn’t always the case).
If Entity A cons Entity B, we shouldn’t criticize B for having been conned – at least, in a sane modern world we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t point and laugh at B because they were fooled. We should instead look long and hard at A and their practices and pass laws to prevent them from behaving so badly, if necessary shutting them down altogether.
Indeed, some of the federal organizations in the US came about because of undeniably criminal activities by companies.
The FDA, for example, owes its origins to the execrable practice of cosmetic companies selling quack cures that not only didn’t work as advertised, they actually seriously injured some consumers.
Rather than telling the buyer to simply beware, people supported the idea that it should be nigh impossible for the seller to place the buyer in a position where they would need to beware.
And for the small companies, that situation obtains. But for corporations, the rules don’t seem to apply.
The question in my mind, therefore, is what is the threshold? How big does a company have to become in order to go from being merely big to being Big?
Could we impose restrictions on the size (and how would we measure that?) to which a company may grow before it is constrained from growing any larger – could we require that it must divest itself totally of parts, if necessary, in order to stay within the limits that permit the organization to avoid behaving in such an antisocial – indeed, anti-societal – manner?
Usually we get the answer (when does merely big become Big?) after the event – once the company has grown so big that we can now no longer realistically exert any control over it. Instead, it controls us.
I don’t know what we would measure or how, but I suspect that we ought to start trying to find out – now. There is a storm brewing, of the worst kind, and it would be a major tragedy if, during that storm, individuals were victimized simply because those giving vent to their frustrations were seriously misinformed and misdirected.
(I recall with anger and horror the attacks after 9-11 that were perpetrated in the US against anyone who wore a turban. The ignorance and stupidity of those who perpetrated the assaults was and is incredible; we don’t need a repetition of that.)
Ultimately, though, there may be a silver lining in the dark cloud. If corporations are going to continue to be assigned rights that previously were only enjoyed by individuals, there will eventually be a tipping point.
Beyond that point, instead of simply enjoying freedoms hitherto accorded to individual citizens, such corporations would find themselves as accountable as if they were persons.
I look forward to the day that an entire company is ordered to jail as punishment for some execrable act that it thought it could perpetrate with impunity.
But I’m not going to hold my breath. My doctor says it’s bad for me…