Monday, June 1, 2015


For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
--Ephesians 6:12
In my recent post on our liber(al)tarian moment, I mentioned Charles Stross' idea that we live under a beige dictatorship in which representative democracy has been captured by corporate interests to the point where the U.K. political system under which he lives, like the partisan duopoly here in the States, and indeed like political systems throughout the developed world, no longer offers any real access to those actors and ideas that would really, truly rock the boat. In his post on the beige dictatorship, Stross links to another of his posts, in which he likens corporations to invaders from Mars; it's too insightful not to quote almost in full:
The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations. 
Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) 
Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy. 
Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies. 
Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes. 
For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered. 
We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist. 
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.
Stross' point about corporate personhood is well taken, and one to which I have been sympathetic throughout the years since I worked for the Nader-LaDuke campaign alongside a POCLAD activist. But I would caveat the point, not least to stress the value of constructive legal personhood for corporate bodies like labor unions, political parties, and the Church (which, of course, is in fact the corpus mysticum of Christ, and so a "corporate person" in a real as well as a constructive legal sense). Indeed, even the constructive personhood at law of joint stock corporations has allowed for economic dynamism that would not exist otherwise, and whatever the many Faustian horrors of Mammon-enabled scientism and science-enabled holocaust, we can and ought to thank capitalist modernity for the relief of man's estate.

But even with those caveats, Stross is right that profit-driven corporations function in our global society as autonomous superorganisms who rule us with a cold, calculative agenda not our own. In this, they are apt tools of the Prince of this World. Thus, when we struggle for social justice, against the porn-ification of pop culture, and for a humane, distributist local economics, against these corporations, our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.

But however useful the capitalist corporation is to the Enemy, the most useful way for Christians to conceptualize it is perhaps as a variant of Less Wrong's "Clippy." Named for the annoying, failed A.I. that used to pester Office users with useless suggestions, Clippy is a thought experiment popular among the motley extropians, transhumanists, singularitarians, etc. who spend time over at Less Wrong being catastrophically wrong about metaphysics and ethics, exaggerating the value of Bayesian statistics, being a cult (er, "phyg") with a creed, and (most relevantly here) worrying about unfriendly A.I. and trying to prevent it and thereby save the world. Like so much the endearing oddballs at Less Wrong come up with, the present Catholic oddball finds Clippy pretty thought-provoking. (Indeed, for all their oddity, the Less Wrong folks are some of the most interesting, intelligent people thinking and writing right now.) Of Clippy, Less Wrong's community wiki tells us that
The paperclip maximizer is the canonical thought experiment showing how an artificial general intelligence, even one designed competently and without malice, could ultimately destroy humanity. The thought experiment shows that AIs with apparently innocuous values could pose an existential threat. 
The goal of maximizing paperclips is chosen for illustrative purposes because it is very unlikely to be implemented, and has little apparent danger or emotional load (in contrast to, for example, curing cancer or winning wars). This produces a thought experiment which shows the contingency of human values: An extremely powerful optimizer (a highly intelligent agent) could seek goals that are completely alien to ours (orthogonality thesis), and as a side-effect destroy us by consuming resources essential to our survival.
Note that unlike Clippy, Satan hates you, personally, in just the way described by C.S. Lewis in Perelandra:
What chilled and almost cowed him most was the union of malice with something nearly childish. For temptation, for blasphemy, for a whole battery of horrors, he was in some sort prepared; but hardly for this petty, indefatigable nagging as of a nasty little boy at a preparatory school. Indeed no imagined horror could have surpassed the sense which grew within him as the slow hours passed, that this creature was, by all human standards, inside out - its heart on the surface and its shallowness at the heart. On the surface, great designs and an antagonism to Heaven which involved the fate of worlds: but deep within, when every veil had been pierced, was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness content to sate itself with the tiniest cruelties, as love does not disdain the smallest kindness.
But the profit-maximizing corporation, like Clippy the paperclip maximizing A.I., is merely indifferent to you: as the Less Wrong wiki's article on Clippy quotes Less Wrong's maharishi, Eliezer Yudkowsky,
The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.
A.I. is not a proximate danger. But we live under the beige dictatorship of corporate capital right now. And like Stalinism before it, late capitalist corporate hegemony is an idolatrous perversion of economic justice, a "god that sucked." So it matters if corporate capital is Clippy. And it is Clippy: the fiduciary duty of corporate directors under modern law is to maximize profits, period. Just as Clippy would mindlessly convert the whole planet into paperclips, indifferent to the consequences, so the corporation is legally mandated to mindlessly convert the whole planet into profits, indifferent to the consequences.

Does getting kids addicted to junk food maximize value for agri-business and food manufacturing shareholders? Then do it.

Does getting teens addicted to porn and to semi-pornographic popular entertainments maximize profits? Do it.

Do strip mining, tar sands oil, Dickensian sweatshops, conflict diamonds, cocoa grown and shrimp caught by slaves boost profits? Just do it.

Like structural racism and media bias, our corporate-corrupted economy, culture, and politics are not a single, conscious human enemy. Like Clippy, global capitalism is a mindless algorithm, indifferent rather than malevolent. But the Prince of this World is the puppet-master of all such structures of oppression, and he is malevolence itself.

So resist the "alien invaders." Resist the Enemy. Follow the King.


  1. A not entirely serious suggestion: Clippy could at least be persuaded not to destroy us via the Doctrine of Double Effect, but corporations cannot be reasoned with at all. So corporations are more dangerous than Clippy.

    More seriously: A recent comment by John Ohno on Hugh Hancock's great post over at Charlie's blog seems tangentially related to this:
    He writes, "A corporation is less like an ant colony and more like a mammal. Middle management is the spinal cord. You aren't an ant; you're a lymphocyte." It's interesting to me that someone is willing to challenge the archetypal example of human organization mirroring other species' organization, and it raises the question of just how many alternatives to ant colonies, hive minds, and mammals there are.

    Let's assume that the reason these analogies have merit is not just because there is a resemblance between some human organization and species' organization but rather because there is some analogue to the ecosystem that allows it to take on the same form, presumably the marketplace. So what analogues in nature have parts that have something like the dignity humans require? Cells in any body do not look promising. Neither do ant colonies or hive minds. So what does? If there's nothing out there, then we should prima facie be skeptical there's any particularly good form a human organization could take on, much less ideal. Corporations oriented solely to profit are bad, but how much better can our alternatives be?

    You can drop me a line via this associated email address.

  2. So what analogues in nature have parts that have something like the dignity humans require? Cells in any body do not look promising. Neither do ant colonies or hive minds. So what does? If there's nothing out there, then we should prima facie be skeptical there's any particularly good form a human organization could take on, much less ideal.

    Hmm. Well, it's possible that we are the part of nature that invents the good form for the first time. There has to be a first time for everything. Imagine that cells of multicellular organisms were a good model: before the first multicellular organism, the model didn't exist. So the lack of a handy analogy among eusocial animals (or cooperating cells) for what flourishing human collectivities could be like doesn't trouble me. We rational animals' capabilities and needs are quite discontinuous in many ways from what's evolved before.

    Corporations oriented solely to profit are bad, but how much better can our alternatives be?

    Any alternative will be imperfect. But I'm no enemy of the Church, or of guilds, or community service groups, or even of commercial corporations (in moderation). What concerns me is that post-1980 shareholder capitalism has made the maximization of stockholders' profits the sole goal of the median commercial corporation in a very unsubtle and almost mechanically algorithmic way. One of my links in the OP was to a discussion of Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., a 1916 case that stands for the proposition that a CEO can't place serving the public with a better, cheaper car over concern for shareholder value--i.e., that profit has to come first, as a matter of fiduciary duty between principal (shareholder) and agent (manager). Cases like Shlensky v. Wrigley (in which a shareholder sued because the Cubs' owner's sentimental opposition to installing lights at Wrigley Field to facilitate the then-novelty of night baseball was seen as curtailing profits) have thankfully narrowed Dodge, such that it now stands for "profit must come first" with the caveat that if management thinks that plowing shareholders' money into self-driving cars or donations to the Ronald McDonald House or whatever will improve public image (or whatever) enough that more profit is in their judgment an expected long run result, then the courts won't second-guess them by giving shareholders standing to sue in such cases. But even with that caveat, we are still, w/r/t most public corporations most of the time, very far from the old "we could save money by moving the factory away from the rust belt, but I just couldn't do that to these families" ethos that at least was once supposed to characterize capitalism (although of course it all too rarely did in reality). A human collective like a Church, a labor union, or a political party is still a sort of eusocial superorganism, but one that takes its goals, its overriding agenda, from the deliberations of humans within it. A modern commercial corporation is increasingly less and less like that. Something like a worker-owned corporation or a closely held family firm or any of myriad other alternatives (including some rather more like what we have now) would still be in business to make money, but it wouldn't have to be so systematically dangerously single-minded about it.