Saturday, June 24, 2017

Corporate Bodies

Near the end of the surreal-to-silly Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (forgive me, I’m catching up), two scrappy pirate ships, the Dutchman and the Pearl, flank and destroy Lord Beckett’s East India Company flagship. As his ship goes down, an emotionally vacant Beckett mutters one last time “it’s just good business,” then a cannonball blows him into the water. An East India Company flag flutters beneath him. Lord Beckett, played by Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins for you 1995 Pride and Prejudice fans) is a Disney villain who makes deals with monstrous pirates from a supernatural underworld, but he’s also a figure ripped from corporate history. His tag line, “it’s just good business,” is so familiar that, like the dazed Beckett, we don’t seem to understand what it means any more.
The fictional Beckett was an officer in the very real East India Company, one of the world’s first corporations, which had a royal charter to trade in, among other things, spices, slaves, tea, opium, cotton, and colonizing India. The EIC didn’t distinguish between things and people (or between corporate interest and national sovereignty) because that was “just good business” in the new age of the corporation. A corporation, from corpus (body), incorporates, both in that it gets to count as an imaginary body and that takes in or consumes other things. One of the first things corporations did when they emerged in the seventeenth century was traffic in actual bodies and turn them into things: the Royal African Company, the Dutch India Company, and the East India Company among them. While the early western notion of rights depended on having “property in the self” and thus autonomy, the first corporations took this idea and used it to conceptualize people as property, as goods that could be priced, traded, and even insured.[1]
So it is no surprise that the current battle over health insurance in the U.S., the only developed nation without universal health care, comes back to the conflict between the welfare of human bodies in general and the power of imaginary corporate ones to extract value from individual bodies, and the question of which project the government will favor.
A couple of weeks ago, I was flipped off by no less than 5 cars (2 Land Rovers, 2 BMWs, and a Lexus) of well-heeled, late-middle aged couples while I was standing in front of the Cherokee Country Club. They were all white, well-dressed, and clearly moneyed, but their faces were grotesque against the glass, their middle fingers jabbing. I was there as part of a protest against the plans to destroy the Affordable Care Act while Paul Ryan was inside doing a $10,000 a person VIP event to raise money for his PAC. We held up paper tombstones with the names and conditions of people we know who would die without healthcare, and we chanted “health care is a human right.” It was raining.
I believe that health care is a right, and I think it’s worth fighting for, but I don’t think the bird-flipping folks agreed with me. I’ve spent some time puzzling over their vitriol and its source. My best guess is that they believe that “free enterprise” is a good in itself, that wealth trickles down, that the government is bad, or at best a necessary evil, that taxes shouldn’t redistribute the wealth of those who have more to care for those who have less, and that constraints on businesses (including forcing concessions from the health care industry) are close to immoral. I see things differently and wish we had substantive public discussions about the reasons and values that shape our views, but I had no illusions that was going to happen at a protest. Still, I was unsettled by being flipped off so aggressively by wealthy people who, I assume, have health insurance. There was something more disturbing going on than disagreement, a fundamental shift I’ve seen in objections to other protests; I believe they thought I was being unpatriotic, that my protest was un-American, and that I, fellow citizen, was the enemy.
I think it’s time to talk about how deeply a corporate logic has lodged itself in American discourse, and how it has, for many, displaced the idea of the nation with the idea of the corporation at the expense of civic life. We didn’t get here overnight. It took years of deifying Milton Freedman and Ronald Reagan while jackhammering messages like “government isn’t the solution; it’s the problem”; “business-friendly environments”; “welfare queens”; “historic stock-market gains”; “trickle-down economics”; “government waste”; “job-creators”; “government inefficiency”; “tax incentives”; and “it’s just good business” without checking facts. With such varnished truthiness pummeling our eardrums for 40 years, it got harder for most people to think about what these phrases mean and who was operating the jackhammer. As in the days of the East India Company, corporations use the nation to serve their interests. Lately, they’ve gotten so good at it that it’s hard to tell the difference. So much of what it means to be American has been blurred, bent, and rebranded by sophisticated and well-financed messaging; America the nation gets swallowed up by America, the corporation.
It’s also time we recognize Grover Norquist’s violent, infanticide fantasy of a government small enough to drown in a bathtub for what it is: the death of the nation. With it goes the means to promote the general welfare and establish liberty and justice for all. Lord knows we haven’t always gotten it right, but we made an implicit promise to each other (we call this the social compact) to try. Justice, the first amendment, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” are not first and foremost good for business (the second amendment and mass incarceration, however, can turn obscene profits, “life” be damned).
When the nation disappears into the face of the corporation, the empty mantle of patriotism gets draped across the un-body of the corporation, masquerading as “Citizens United.” Suddenly, supporting profit margins, guns, and big oil are patriotic acts while Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Sandy Hook Promise, and support for the imperfect but landmark ACA are un-American, even treasonous. So consider carefully; who is that corporate body behind the curtain pulling the levers and sending the messages?
Health care corporations have an incentive to avoid insuring sick people because it’s expensive, but the law can demand more on behalf of the people. Instead, we have the Republican plan, (opposed by The American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the AARP—even the conservative Heritage Foundation!—and many others) which would kick millions off of Medicaid and turn seniors out of nursing homes (p. 39), impose an age tax for all over 50 (p. 104), make access to women’s health care and maternity care more difficult and expensive (p. 136), allow states to dump the disabled and those with pre-existing conditions (see the section 1332 waivers) all while cutting taxes for the wealthy and health care corporations and hastening the insolvency of the Medicare Trust Fund (p. 29). The bill does nothing to hold down the skyrocketing premiums that healthcare giants like UnitedHealth, Humana, and Aetna can charge, and it cynically pushes some of its funding changes off until after upcoming elections, delaying the devastation in the quest for votes. It will surprise few that some of the biggest donors to the 13 senators who drafted the bill behind closed doors (McConnell, Hatch, Alexander, Enzi, Thune, Lee, Cruz, Cotton, Gardner, Barasso, Cornyn, Portman, and Toomey) are Humana, BlueCross BlueShield, Kindred Healthcare, Community Health Systems, DaVita Healthcare, Sanford Health, Mednax, and Richie (big pharma in Texas).
The carefully manufactured rage against the ACA, whipped up by conservative media, exploited the loopholes that left some people stuck between categories or without providers and used it as excuse to damn the whole project rather than fix it. The campaign against the ACA also played the illusion of individual rights (“You can’t mandate I have coverage”) against corporate interest (“we’d like to charge more and provide less”) on a principle of “less government” and “consumer choice.” But you don’t have a choice. You don’t choose to get cancer, to have a heart attack, to age. This bill licenses higher premiums, less support for low-income people, an assault on women’s health care, and no requirement for essential benefits (i.e., hospitalization) as “just good business.” Corporate bodies win, real bodies die.
It takes public commitment and legislative will to uphold the idea of human rights against the prerogatives of a corporation, but it’s very American. At the Boston Tea Party, it was the East India Company’s monopoly, not new taxes, that American colonists were protesting. Congress, which has an awesome health care plan for itself, is prepared to take even the most basic health care away from millions and drain the state coffers that might provide it in the future. Health care costs are the #1 cause of American bankruptcy, and whatever dent the ACA might have made in that statistic will reverse if more seniors and working poor families are kicked off of Medicaid, lifetime caps kick back in, and sick or older people become uninsurable. Corporations and their political stooges want you to feel overwhelmed by all this; don’t. Don’t be fooled, and don’t abandon ship. Yes, the system is rigged, but neither Jack Sparrow and his scrappy band nor Washington and his were supposed to win. Belay that fear. We need all hands on deck in every gerrymandered, manipulated district, organizing, running, and voting like hell to save this ship.
[1] For a brilliant discussion of the conceptual history of the corporation, see John O’Brien, Literature Incorporated: The Cultural Unconscious of the Business Corporation, 1650-1850.
[2] “Meet the 13 Senators Deciding on Your Health Care Behind Closed Doors.” Money, June 22, 2017.