The Tragedy of the Corporation


May 18, 2006


Browse in Corporations

Corporations are a lot like politicians. Often they start with a good idea, or at least an idea, in the form of something to sell.. If that thing is a success the corporation becomes bigger. Soon the career – which in the corporation’s case means growth – overwhelms the good idea that started it. Wall Street clamors. Executives seek to justify their outlandish pay. The result is a grim battle to grab more, and then more, without end.

The problem is not bad people, though often they are not strong people. The problem is encoded into the institutional machinery. The modern corporation has no capacity to say “enough,” or to declare its job done. It always must find another job, and then another, to yield a return for the shareholders and justify its existence.

Ford started with a practical car that anyone with a tool box could repair. Nike started with a practical running shoe designed by a track coach. Both ended up as marketing circuses whose products represented the opposite of the kind they started out to produce. Now it’s high tech. Microsoft began with a computer operating system; Apple with a computer in a garage. Both became successful beyond the dreams – one hopes – of their founders. Both outgrew the products on which that success was based.

So they cast about for new things to do, and both found entertainment. Apple has succeeded again, this time in the business of distributing commoditized music. Microsoft is playing catch-up once again, this time in music, while plunging into computer games in a major way. (In the former, it looks as though Steve Jobs finally has a measure of revenge at the competitor – Bill Gates – who poached on the Mac’s “user interface” to create Windows, and then ran away with the business, shamelessly playing the intellectual property angles in the process.)

Jobs has more genuine product originality. Gates has been better at the intellectual property game. (Jobs is wising up, however; he actually got a patent on the grand staircases in the new Apple stores.) But neither one has asked, or seems capable of asking, whether the kids of this country, or any country, really need more computer games and more commoditized music to occupy their attention at more times of the day. Such questions are not possible. The maw must be fed. Jobs and Gates both own large shares of their companies; but in reality the imperatives of their companies now own them.

This is the tragedy of the corporation. It is like a crocodile – an appetite without a shut-off switch. It just keeps coming and coming; and now most of the world is going into the maw, from earth’s atmosphere to the mental atmosphere, the gene pool to children’s play. That is why – the main reason at least – we must resurrect the commons. We need to establish a boundary to the corporation’s appetite, one that is not entirely dependent upon the political winds in Washington. And we need to cultivate this parallel realm of productivity and value that supplies what the corporate market cannot, and that it increasingly destroys.