Thirty years ago I published a short story in Esquire magazine that subsequently became a movie. The movie was only fair at best and people remember “Rollerball” as a film about a violent futuristic game, but the real and deeper subject of both the story and movie concerned a future ruled by large corporations instead of nations.
Not that I was a prophet at the time. Thirty years ago the net annual profits of General Electric — our 10th largest company in those days — was greater than the combined liquid assets of all Scandinavian countries. Books like “The Rich and the Super Rich” and “America Inc.” had already been published for us to read. Japanese workers were already standing outside their factories singing corporate anthems. Sports franchises had corporate sponsors with athletes wearing their logos.
By the time the 21st century opened America and the major nations of Europe and the Far East were already outsourcing. Most major corporations had long ago become multinationals sending both factory work and many conventional jobs around the globe to impoverished countries. In those foreign venues low wages were paid for the same work high-priced and union labor demanded in the States. Outsourcing raised profits and pleased the shareholders.
Even apart from the practice of outsourcing, the multinationals began to behave as separate entities. They no longer served their countries of origin, avoiding corporate taxes and dodging laws they found restrictive or annoying. They took pride in how corporate lawyers outsmarted government regulators and found ways to pass corporate taxes directly to consumers. Whether they dealt in oil or diamonds or munitions they often employed mercenaries — private armies — when it became necessary to deal with small and recalcitrant governments. The strong arm tactics of the United Fruit Co. that were in place almost a hundred years ago in Latin America often became standard business procedure in other parts of the world.
Lobbyists for corporations and multinationals became extremely powerful both in Washington and in many states. In states like Arkansas where term limits resulted in a number of inexperienced members flowing into our legislature, newcomers often found themselves instructed and guided by lobbyists — and sometimes on their payrolls. Corporate money has been a defining part of our elections for years.
Like Japan, our corporations and our government grew close. As a result government regulations on business and industry either softened or vanished altogether. A striking recent example is Halliburton’s role in the Iraq war, its task awarded by the current government without bids or competition. Our airlines and our aircraft manufacturers — to name just one industry — are kept afloat by government contracts and bail-outs. In times of national crisis — wars, for example, either real or manufactured — the government and the industrial complex become indistinguishable.
“Rollerball” pointed out that the board members and directors of corporations aren’t elected leaders, yet make decisions that control the economy and millions of lives. Inside our democracy is a tyranny of manipulated rule. Public rage doesn’t seem to matter. Scandals erupt, quickly go to the back pages of our newspapers, then disappear as the press finds new stories elsewhere. When my movie was remade a couple of years ago its political and social themes were removed. The new film — I’ll never watch it — is a senseless ode to male violence. Deeply corrupt corporations often get a free pass in the press — and in the entertainment business as well.
Except for our wealthiest citizens, health care is still poor. We pay what we’re told at the gas pumps. Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt who fought big business and the monopolies are rare. Indeed, such leaders might never win another election.
We are a fat people, pious, self-satisfied, and unable to detect how the rest of the world distrusts us. I’ve just returned from a cruise in the Baltic, visiting Copenhagen, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and other major cities. We were obviously Americans — my white tennis shoes were a giveaway — and so quickly made our politics known. We never found anyone who defended George W. Bush, his economics, his war in Iraq or his blatant disregard for the environment. Europeans and Scandinavians — young and old, educated and not so educated — spoke of this government’s obsession with oil, its tax breaks for wealthy citizens, and its political coercions.
Others don’t look at America at this moment in history and see a lamp of freedom held high. They see our corporations. And that translates as power and economic arrogance. Seeing this, they understand why terrorism is growing in many parts of the world and why so many outsiders just want to bring our trade towers down.
William Harrison, who lives in Fayetteville, is an emeritus professor at the University of Arkansas, where he co-founded the creative writing program.