Sleeping With the Enemy
A version of this article was first published: www.ethics.org.au - 3 May 2012
Mike Daisey, described by the New York Times as a master storyteller, gave a powerful and unscripted monologue about Apple entitled ‘Sleeping with the enemy: collaborating with corporations sells out the human race’ at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2011.
EB White was once quoted as saying, “The problem with the profit system is that not many profit from it”. Like him, many thousands from around the world have joined together in the Occupy Wall Street movement, replicated in cities across the US and the world as a protest, among other things, against corporate greed and failures in unconstrained free market economics. With the richest one percent of the US population controlling more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent, they may just have a point. Even in Australia, the median pay for the chiefs of our top 100 companies has rocketed by 131 per cent in the last ten years, with bonuses of up to 190 per cent. Meanwhile, the stockmarket value of those companies has increased by just 31 per cent. It seems that many at the big end of business can happily capitalise their profits and simply socialise their losses.
Daisey argues that there are those who are happy with this paradigm, either because they are at the top of the food chain or believe they or their kids may one day be. Then there are those disgruntled by it but too busy watching reality television to act on it. And then, in the smallest minority of all, there are those who actually act on it. In the performance he gave, Daisey sought to explore the role of the corporation in our lives, characterising it and then challenging how we relate to it.
The performance was grafted on an analogy that asked us to imagine the way our current times will be viewed by those in the future. The argument was that just as our current time looks back to antiquity and attempts to understand the purpose and sacrifice involved in the construction of, say, the pyramids so too will future times look back on our own era and question our construction of the corporations. Both constructions require vast amounts of labour, time and energy from a whole society driven towards their completion and propagation. And both, while they may have meaning in a defined context, may fail to keep many constructions for future generations. Again, both also seem to be held as inevitable and a natural progression of world events as opposed to a human construct.
, Daisey proposed that there is something fundamentally alien about the concept of a corporation and the acts it perpetrates. Although composed of humans, a corporation is itself a legal person which is inhumane in every sense of the word. It is inhumane in the sense that it exists separately from humans and is not solely constituted by them, and inhumane in the sense that it necessarily performs amoral functions of commoditisation and social and ecological harm. These acts are fundamentally different from any amoral or immoral acts previously encountered by the human race. While we may find the atrocities of the Third Reich or Belgium in the Congo immoral and horrendous, we still at some basic level understand them and the motivations for them because there is an element of humanity within them. Sweat shops throughout the developing world, oil spills and the mass commoditisation of modern society, however, are acts perpetrated by constructs that we cannot even understand and that lack humanity.
We live in an occupied country where corporations control wealth distribution, stream propaganda into our houses in the form of advertising and make their rule seem like the natural path of progress, overlooking the harm and faults they cause in the world. Daisey passionately believes we all have a moral ‘duty to resist’ such corporatism.This involves resistance in a thousand little acts and, to a large part, involves resistance in choosing what we do as a career. Daisey strongly suggested that to work within a large corporation is to simply be ‘priests and soldiers’ for the amoral works of corporations and necessarily involves a disconnect. The disconnect is between most people’s ideals of creating a better world and becoming free individuals, and the actual work they do through forming part of a corporation. Although some people may already be aware of this disconnect, they deny it or seek refuge in wilful ignorance. For those of us who are not part of a corporation, Daisey argued we have a duty to pursue jobs that allow us to make the world a better place while shaming those who work for corporations.
Anarchist? Hypocrite? Prophet? Dare I say, communist? It is easy for labels to be used in debates and these could all be easily used against Daisey. However, labels mean that the user does not have to confront and address each and every argument of his opponent, but merely simplify them. Labels tempt us to ‘play the man and not the ball’. The side effect of this is that labels may also be derogatory and waste our opponent’s time in breaking away from them. In short, they can be very dangerous. Any effective criticism of Daisey, then, must be a direct response to his arguments.
Are corporations as ‘evil’ as he makes them out to be? Corporations power the world economy, employ us, provide us with goods and services, give us an income and even donate to charities. Critics could reply that while corporations power the world economy, they do not empower the world through a concentration of resources with the few. Critics may reply that corporations do not employ us, but instead enslave us to a nine to five (and often longer) day and make us complicit in their crimes. Corporations provide goods and services but at the expense of people they treat as commodities and environments they treats as a means to
profit. Critics may say corporations give us an income, but only enough of an income to survive with a little on top to buy the products they make, while rewarding those at its top with annual salaries many cannot even make in a lifetime. Corporations donate to charities, but also contribute to homelessness and poverty.
Daisey fully admitted that he could not tackle the topic in the hour he was given, but he did manage to create an almost tangible feel of awareness in the room. I must admit that when I left the performance at the Opera House and looked upon the night, it did seem as though we have blurred out the night sky and replaced it with stars of our own making. Neon signs hung in the city skyline, naming ‘legal individuals’ with which we interact and work every day, but which have no conscience and questionable motives. As I plugged into my iPod, it made me think.