BP, (Foul) Flavor Of The Month

06/21/2010 01:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There was a time in our past when corporations were fair to middling citizens of our nation. What held them in check is a topic for another day, but might be summarized as a dire threat from socialism. That time though, 194x-198x, has passed, or rather was terminated with prejudice. One does find a faint glimmer of new hope in the BP ascension to demands from the White House of $20 billion to mitigate their oil catastrophe.

If there is a common purpose for profit, it is that it benefits all in some measure. If it does not, it serves no purpose to all of us at all, but only to a few of us. Why then should we, collectively, defend it? Why should we suffer it, or even not attack it if it offends us? A corporation is not a person and has no liberties that are not granted by law. It is an inanimate construct for the purpose of profit. Yet today's corporations wield powers as if they were super persons or even nations undreamed of by previous generations, in too many cases impervious to the will of nations that license and host them.

BP has more revenue (pre spill) than all but the top 30 of the 190 nations rated in the CIA World Factbook have in GDP. BP is the fourth largest company in the world. Wal-Mart, at number three, is as big as Sweden, number 22 in GDP. Of the top ten largest companies, seven are oil companies. Viewed as countries, none of those ten are smaller than Hong Kong in cash flow.

Enormous corporations rival countries in terms of monetary power and the influence that portends. It is in terms of how well the mega corporation's interests intersect the public interest that we should be alarmed by their size and power. These behemoth companies can buy and sell most nations. It has been apparent for a while that they can buy and sell enough of our government to get things their way.

A corporation has no loyalty to the whole public of a nation. It only serves a fraction of those holding stock in it, and then only in the sense of private monetary gain, seemingly oblivious to wider concern. In a sense it is a nation unto itself, serving the economic interest of its shareholders as if they were citizens of a separate nation with no conscience.

It might be more appropriate to treat mega companies as hostile nations, rather than as they are treated, as peers of a mom and pop drive-in theater chain in Texas. Who would treat Russia as a business, or China, and let them freely trade in our markets and secrets and determine our fate? Oh, yeah, we do.

How is the indifference to public fate by a corporation any different than the indifference to it of Saudi Arabia? Many have analogized the BP spill to a war on our Gulf states' economies and ecologies. BP liabilities in the Gulf might then be well analogized to reparations for the consequences of war.

We may have come to the point at which we should begin to have treaties with corporations of a size that can defy our public interest, instead of corporate filing fees and tax schedules. We ought to appoint ambassadors, and conduct surveillance of them to insure they don't threaten the security of our country. Unwarranted search and seizure applies to persons, and privacy is not necessarily the prerogative of a state authorized business entity with immunities granted by the state for its individual liabilities.

Instead, we act as if their interests are identical to ours, inseparable, when their allegiance is demonstrably antithetical to national interest in terms of protecting and promoting their profits above all else, and short-term at that.

BP is just the flavor of the month. Mega banks, likewise visit on us a ruling class unassailable by the voter franchise, with whom to do battle for the public interest you must be a maven of both government and finance. Perhaps we should consider them other nations with whom we negotiate their influence on our economic welfare. Maybe the Fed is actually the largest nation in the world, in a three piece suit disguise betrayed only by a sneer at domestic human distress. But there is no army that we can assemble against them because they are logistically speaking, us; our fate holds shares in their fate even as they ruin our collective fate for short-term gain.

There may one day be one world, free of competing national interests, united in the goal of the best, most sustainable life for every world citizen, regardless of differences. That is the natural goal of utopian ruminations. But until we discover the secret to ourselves that makes us treat others as unequal, then that goal will depend on the intermediary existence of powerful governments of and by the people. Maybe our future lies in dispensing with corporations in the same sweep as nations. Must we compete in cliques of a certain size to be ascendant as persons, and if not, who will be the arbiter of an equal world?

The ascendance of corporations in global decision making must be taken in this light. The other, non-shareholder, by nature of the corporation, is unequal, and an enemy or prey. It is a new prejudice the likes of which the world has only seen in terms of nations and wars before. Before we were nations of cultural identity, and now we become nations of profit identity. These are nations by virtue of charters that cross borders and make folly of nation states. These corporate nations can rule the world as would any empire of a nation state, but by guile and money instead of open force. So the nation states must reckon with corporate states the way they would any alien power.

Or, corporations could be broken up into companies too small to matter. But it begs the question of whether or not business for profit should even be trusted to undertake efforts of a magnitude that their potential liabilities far exceed their ability to make it right. BP appears to be fiscally strong enough to do that in the Gulf. Would a young wildcat Texan, like T. Boone Pickens was once, have encumbered the public with just as big a liability? We do need organizations large enough to conduct terraforming scales of the people's business and be able to make it right if they screw it up. The question of whether projects of such scope should be undertaken by an elected government or a corporation for profit is not simply a matter of ideology. It is a matter of allegiance to the goal rather than the money.

BP, AIG, Goldman Sachs and all the other too big to fails must be re-evaluated in terms of the threats and benefits they pose for the world before they become so large that they alone will be making that reckoning.