For those of us unhappy about the fact that we dwell in a Corporate Republic, where conglomerates increasingly dominate culture, politics and society, the issue isn't primarily economic. It's intensely personal: Can we live individualistic lives, express our own beliefs freely, develop our own value systems?
We have good reason to worry. Individualism and individuals are being continuously subsumed and marginalized in this evolving new nation. But as many people e-mailed in response to Part One: What are we supposed to do about it?
In the 60's people loved to talk about making a revolution. That seems out of place now. Corporatists aren't trying to kill us, they are quite happy to manipulate us; get us to spend, conform, behave and shut up; and punish and isolate us when we don't. Besides, corporatism makes a lot of people a lot of money and the beneficiaries, like the decadent and happy citizens of ancient Rome, are nearly anesthetized by what we are constantly being assured are good times. Who ever heard of a revolution occurring amidst the lowest unemployment in more than a generation?
To react at all, you have to buy the idea that something disturbing is happening. In our increasingly unconscious civilization, many people don't: "Big deal. This has been going on forever," e-mailed Jason. "Who cares?"
In the era of the techno-boom, denouncing corporatism means spreading bad news a lot of people -- even those most adversely affected -- don't want to hear. And unless you want to live like the Unabomber, it's nearly impossible to live, work or do business apart from corporatists. Sooner or later, like it or not, you'll be on one side or the other.
Any social or political movement has to have an ideology. Corporatism's is simple: profitability is society's dominant goal and everything -- creativity, privacy, freedom of expression, individualistic behavior, the political process, education, entertainment and culture -- can and should be subordinated to it.
But individualism, which has increasingly retreated to and thrived on the Internet, doesn't really have a coherent ideology, almost by definition.
That means that the first step towards any kind of survival is to transcend the suffocating boundaries of Left and Right in order to create an ideology of individualism. The second may be to wait for a political figure to emerge from the Net generation and define corporatism as the major problem its become.
This isn't imminent. As Senator John McCain has been trying to point out for several years now, corporatism has completely infected the political system; it serves as its primary underwriter, as it does for many colleges, universities, and cultural institutions. So don't look for the people who run the federal government to assert themselves against corporatism any time soon. These days, it's considered radical when the government proposes breaking a company like Microsoft into two gazillion-dollar behemoths rather than one.
Boycotting individual corporations isn't feasible in the 21st century, either. Boycotts are complicated, especially when most Americans are understandably confused about who owns what. Some of these companies -- Disney,AOL/Time-Warner -- are now so vast it would take a massive uprising to even dent their earnings. Boycotts are also somewhat repugnant to the free-market philosophy many individualists hold.
But a shared set of principles that individuals -- though they may differ sharply on many political, cultural and social issues -- might agree on, that's something people we can try:
To begin with, individualism ought to be recognized as a movement and a political philosophy. Individualism advances humanism, freedom, a free market that rewards individuals and small entities as well as conglomerates, embraces technology both as a means of expression and as a defense against corporatization.
Potential members beware. Individualism can involve some unpleasant choices. Corporatism viscerally punishes and isolates individuals. By their nature, individualists are discontented: persistent, obnoxious and unpopular, from the scoolkid who challenges a teacher in school, to the employee who irritates the senior veep. Individualism demands that its followers become critics.They raise questions many people don't want to hear, confront the growing conformity in our cultural and educational institutions, and put themselves at risk of losing positions and promotions and opportunities.
Their only reward is to join a proud community of other dissatisfied people, a community of social discontents. They are free to speak and think their minds. They are independent in an increasingly dependent world. They are affirming a long and glorious human struggle, from the Enlightenment to the American Revolution, to achieve autonomy and individual liberty. They are seeking a moral way to live in the world beyond simply fattening their portfolios. They can sometimes rise, and help other people to rise above the great levelling that corporatism imposes. People willing to undertake these risk might consider these ideas:
l. People need to wake up. We need a conscious civilization that acknowledges individualism as a basic human right. We ought to be able to express our own views, run our own businesses, pursue our own culture, develop our own software and hardware. We need family farming, local pharamicists, cranky local newspaper editors and website operators, and other small business ownership. We need diversity of opinion and thought in a homogenized cultural environment, the ability to develop innovative technology apart from monopolistic conglomerates. We need a new generation of political leaders who are not dependent on corporations for their survival.
2. We should acknowledge that economics matters (a lot), but it can't be society's only common goal. Nothing could be more morally bankrupt than a culture devoted only to making money, and to diverting work, technology and other institutions to that primary purpose. Free and prosperous markets are important, but corporate entities should also embrace moral and ideological values -- of their own choosing --apart from pleasing stockholders.
3. Individualism values a humane workplace. Workers are entitled to safe, creative and secure work environments, to freedom from continuous downsizings, re-structurings, layoffs and "re-engineerings." Though these practices unquestionably benefit the economy, they're rough on humanity.
4. Individualists celebrate, cherish and support non-conformity. Students, workers, citizens -- all have the right to their individualistic tastes in politics, lifestyles and aesthetic and cultural values.
5. Culture requires diversity; individualism starves without it. So culture needs to be liberated from corporatism. Conglomerates should be prohibited from corrupting and overwhelming institutions of technology, education, entertainment or information.
Just as Microsoft should never have been permitted to dominate the software market, neither should Disney, News America, Nike, Wal-Mart, Sony or AOL/Time Warner be allowed to dominate commerce and culture. This is a form of repression and self-censorship. 6. Individualism is increasingly dependent on universal access to technology. In our time, technology -- especially the Net and the Web -- has emerged as the greatest bulwark against rampant corporatism. Individualism still thrives online; in fact, individualism has been the dominant social and cultural characteristic of the most interesting parts of the Internet for nearly a generation. People with access to computers and the Net and Web have a certain intrinsic freedom of expression and access to information; that protects them from mass-marketed media that stifle diversity of thought. The more technology, the better chance individuals have to find space in a corporatist world.
The rise of the Net -- theoretically at least -- threatens the grip of that increasingly oppressive ideology. Online, we have the machinery to speak freely and loudly, at least until AOL/Time-Warner gets the Death Star fully operational. We can, if we choose, embrace the obligation of the individual to criticize, to use technology to become the pests of society, to challenge authority and conformity, to create public and private spaces dominated by individuals, not corporate entities. For this to happen, we all have to become critics. It's the first leg on the trip.
It's lousy work for which there are few conventional rewards. It rarely leads to success or victory, or brings anything but grief, but hell, somebody's got to do it.
So think of this as merely a starting point in developing an ideology of individualism.
(Next, Part Three: Shadowrunners and the Corporatist Wars)