In Sydney Lumet’s fierce and funny movie Network (1976), a newsreader facing the sack, Howard Beale, begins to do something outrageous: he starts telling the truth. Every night, in place of the news he is supposed to read, Beale raves about the excesses and injustices of the world, working himself into conniptions. Such antics make for great ratings, of course, and Beale is cajoled into turning his holy madness into prime-time shtick. Which all goes swimmingly, until he goes too far, exposing some unseemly ties between the network and offshore business interests on live TV.
Afterwards, Beale is called into a dark, mahogany-lined boardroom, where he sits at the end of a comically long table and receives an incredible tirade from the company’s chairman, Arthur Jensen, about the real way things work. There are no borders and no nationalities, he’s told, ‘only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.’ Interfering with the operations of this dominion, Jensen says, is tantamount to meddling ‘with the primal forces of nature’.
Dial down the campness a little, and this is how I’ve long imagined the environments in which decisions of consequence are made: dark, unseen corporate enclaves, where men (and women, but usually men) nimbly dismantle whatever obstacles lie in the path of the dominion’s rapid, unchecked growth. In this rarefied air, everything – governments, scientific fact, laws and regulations – is fluid and malleable, a puzzle waiting to be solved. Accountability, if such a thing could be said to exist at all, is exercised only toward shareholders, whose only expectation is that the company continue to grow each quarter, and who typically don’t expect to know too much about how this miraculous feat might be performed. Meanwhile, several floors below, slick and practiced PR teams spin the boardroom’s coups into a grand, continuous narrative of ease and freedom and progress, in which we are forever the beneficiaries.
The secretive manner in which corporations and their minions tend to function gives rise to all manner of theories about their real nature and ultimate goals: that they all serve a handful of murderous, all-powerful families with ancient Bavarian bloodlines, or a race of people who, behind human-looking faces, are actually reptiles. But the reality, I would argue, is decidedly more prosaic. Over the last fifty years, we have allowed the nexus of power to shift into these quiet rooms – in exchange for endless credit, numberless manufactured goods, and the promise that, if we just work hard enough, we can join our masters and amass enormous personal wealth.
Which, of course, has turned out to be a terrible deal. Our credit has ruined us; our cheap, poorly made goods just make us sick and sad; exceedingly few of us climb the ladder, while many more tumble further down. Governments, of course, are wholly complicit in this mess, but so are we, in the choices we make about how we live, and what we’ve chosen to believe about how power functions in our society. Which makes doing something about it difficult and complicated: we first need to acknowledge our own collusion with the forces we’d like to do away with, in order to discover how we might do away with them.
The corporate state is, by necessity, a slippery beast. It must be so to do so much without being seen. When corporations influence policy and government, they usually do so through elaborate networks of foundations, think tanks and front groups. This makes them hard to pin down, and nearly impossible to call to account, especially in a society with a shrinking attention span, a growing aversion to complexity and detail, and a hopelessly compromised media. Even tracing corporate influence can be difficult.
Not all of our overlords, though, like to work in the shadows. Take Gina Rinehart, for instance.
Rinehart says outrageous things. The kind of things that most mega-rich types save for hushed conversations with like-minded tycoons on yachts and in cloistered boardrooms. Last month, in perhaps her most spectacular outburst yet, she said that Australian workers could learn something from African labourers, who are regularly coerced into working for next to nothing. ‘Africans want to work, and its workers are willing to work for less than $2 per day,’ she said. ‘Such statistics make me worry for this country’s future.’
Unsurprisingly, Rinehart’s views have angered the Australian public and several of our politicians, notably the Federal Treasurer. For me, though, as repulsive as I find what comes out of Rinehart’s mouth, there is something to like about her honesty. Instead of the onus being on us to divine the true opinions of our robber barons (which, to be fair, are usually obvious enough), Rinehart spells hers out for us in very straightforward ways: Australian people do not want to work. Cheap labour in devastated and dysfunctional countries makes for good business. Good business requires that the government accede to my every demand. There will never be a point when I have enough money.
To be fair, Rinehart is also a capable operator behind closed doors. She and her fellow resource magnates had little trouble spiking the first version of the mining tax, which led, in short order, to the demise of our elected prime minister. Her latest project, wresting control of Fairfax, has not proved so easy – though, with the slashing and burning of the group’s newspaper staff in recent times, she may be playing a long game there.
By becoming such an outspoken, combative figure, Rinehart has become an object of national fascination and scrutiny – and not in the way she intended. We are now deeply suspicious of her every move. When she muscled in on Fairfax, it was front-page news. The Australian public started talking, for what felt like the first time in many years, about media ownership and the influence of corporate power on what we watch and hear and read. About the profound importance of an independent media – with teeth. When Rinehart told us all how lazy we were, how we drank and socialised too much to become wildly rich, like her, we realised how little she thought of ordinary people. Suddenly, the anger and disillusionment many Australians feel at the ease with which our nation’s wealth is being swindled is now firmly trained on a genuine and deserving target.
In the UK this year, a related phenomenon has been occurring with Rupert Murdoch and News Ltd over the phone hacking affair. Unlike Rinehart, Rupert has long been a dab hand at pushing agendas via his media outlets, without having to say very much directly. But with the phone hacking scandal, and the denials and dithering that followed, the true nature of his organisation and legacy, and the contempt in which News Ltd held the public, became very clear. At the July hearing, Rupert and his son, James, looked hopelessly out of touch, as if they’d spent a decade or so too long aboard the Starship. People got angry; they demanded to know how such a powerful and far-reaching corporation – one with proven and dubious ties to the government and the police – could act for so long with almost total impunity.
Could this be the beginning of something? Could these recent developments, not to mention the widely heard message of the Occupy movement, be a sign that we’re finally getting a taste for increased scrutiny of the 1%, that tiny subset of people whose wealth affords them the kind of influence of which our piddling politicians can only dream? Granted, Rinehart’s bullheadedness and Murdoch’s recent missteps have made them easy targets. There are far more sophisticated and dangerous operators working behind the scenes, who have turned clandestine corporate influence into a kind of dark art. (See: The Koch brothers.)
But maybe, just maybe, having seen the nature and power of a few of our puppet masters, we might develop a hunger for outing many more of them – fostering a culture where any position of real power, whatever its outward appearance, comes with a commensurate level of scrutiny. Who knows? With a taste for transparency and plain speaking, we might discover remarkable things: that we can speak truth to power, that power only exists where we vest it, and that, despite what we’ve been told, we are something substantially more than a multinational dominion of dollars.