Monday, June 12, 2006

IBM and corporate totalitarianism

The multinational is dead. Long live the multinational. That seems to be the message of a thinkpiece in the Financial Times today from Sam Palmisano, chief executive of IBM.

It seems that the big boss at Big Blue fears a backlash against the untrammelled power of the over-mighty multinational corporation:

‘People may ultimately elect governments that impose strict regulations on trade or labour, perhaps of a highly protectionist sort.’

How dreadful. Democratically-elected governments bringing in legislation to protect jobs and workplace rights. What a truly appalling prospect.

But any government that thinks like that would only acting on the basis of a serious misunderstanding. You see, as the headline of the article puts it, ‘multinationals have been superseded’.

That’s right. While you weren’t looking, the MNC has been replaced by … cue drumroll … ‘the globally integrated enterprise’. Unsurprisingly, Palmisano doesn’t come up with a very convincing description of the way they differ from the old school MNCs we know and love.

But the way I read it, the concept he is trying to describe can be summed up as the rise of genuinely stateless capital. And Palmisano effectively calls for this stateless capital to be allowed to extend its influence into all areas of society, from education and healthcare to some of the basic military functions of the state:

‘Indeed, organisations of all types must come together. I believe public sector leaders will find in business a willing partner to reform healthcare and education, secure trade lanes and electronic commerce, advance innovation, train and enable the displaced and dispossessed, grapple with environmental problems and infectious diseases and tackle the myriad other challenges that globalisation raises.’

In making this case, Palmisano glosses over both the role of business in causing these problems in the first place and its lack of any real interest in solving them. Business simply does not want to tackle infectious disease, for instance. There isn’t enough profit in it.

And why should democracies hand over such key government functions to unelected and unaccountable major corporations? Put simply, Palmisano is making the case for corporate totalitarianism, 1984 with a free market face.

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