There is a new expression now being widely used to describe today's world: corporate rule. This phrase indicates that modern global economic activity is increasingly being shaped by the owners and directors of private transnational corporations (TNCs). By the early nineties, TNCs owned a third of the world's privately owned productive assets. The rate of growth of transnational power prompted the 1993 United Nations World Investment Report to declare that "TNCs ...encroach on areas over which sovereignty and responsibilities have traditionally been reserved for national governments."
Millions of people throughout the world are suffering similar negative impacts from corporate decisions to replace workers with new technologies, move their production or assembly plants to poorer countries, clearcut forests and stripmine ores, plunder fishstocks or acquire huge tracts of productive land. Corporate rule is also having a crippling effect on human consciousness. Herein lies one of its most debilitating effects: we gradually come to believe that corporate rule cannot be overcome, so we accommodate ourselves to it. To accept something that we hold to be morally repugnant is to sacrifice both self-esteem and authentic spirituality; it is to allow our faith in resurrection to be swallowed up by today's unique form of social ideology: economic determinism and corporate rule.
This is the great danger of periods when unelected leaders rule supreme over elected leaders: we gradually forget who we are; we come to accept that there is no choice but to live within--and accommodate ourselves to--sinful social structures. It is helpful to reflect on the situation of the people of God living under the Babylonian empire in biblical times, as seen through prophetic messages to "flee Babylon."
In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, Babylon is said to rule over "all the kingdoms of the world which are on the face of the earth." It is portrayed as a wealthy and unjust transnational economic system, not simply a city or region of the world: "O you [Babylon] who live on many waters, rich in treasures, your end has come, the measure of your unjust gain." The domination of the Babylonian empire was total enough to earn it the title "the destroyer of nations." How is it that Babylon gained control over other nations? Jeremiah suggests at least a degree of willing participation: "The nations have drunk of her [Babylon's] wine, therefore the nations are insane." What was this wine? It seems that under Babylonian rule the peoples of other nations were gradually transformed from being a people who worshipped God into a people who worshipped false gods. Babylon not only captured bodies; it also corrupted souls by enticing people to abandon the practice of their faith in favour of participating in the dominant culture and economic system: "For everyone, from the least of them even to the greatest of them, cuts off a profit."[FN 1]
The waning faith of the people in Jeremiah's day was not simply a result of the people having been deceived by false prophets. It also involved self-deception: "The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their hands, and my people love it so." Why did they want to believe falsehoods? Perhaps they had lost hope in the possibility of an alternative to Babylonian rule and become comfortable with the type of privatized life Babylon had to offer: "And they say, it is hopeless! For we will walk after our own thoughts, and we will each one do according to the stubbornness of his evil heart." They eventually deceived themselves into believing that their practice of idolatry was actually sustaining them. To these people came the divine call to "flee out of the middle of Babylon."[FN 2]
Jeremiah obviously regarded such a social situation as unsustainable. His prophecy was that Babylon's domination over the economy and resources of other nations would eventually come to an abrupt end: "And the nations shall not flow together any more to him [king of Babylon]; yea the wall of Babylon shall fall."[FN 3]
In the New Testament book of Revelations, the image of Babylon is also that of a "great city, having a kingdom over the kings of the earth," which "sits across the waters." The "waters" are said to be "peoples and crowds, and nations and tongues." As in the writings of Jeremiah, the nations were not simply captured by Babylon but were also deceived into forfeiting their power to an international system of trade and commerce: "For your merchants were the great ones of the earth, for by your [Babylon's] sorcery all nations were misled." [FN 4]
This system is also evaluated economically. It is especially "the merchants of the earth [who] became rich from the power of her [Babylon's] luxury." Not surprisingly, it is those who profited from the system who are the ones to lament its collapse: the political leaders who forfeited their power to her, "the kings of the earth will weep for her, and will wail over her," as well as the economically powerful who became rich by her: "The merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargo any more."[FN 5]
Indeed, all who relied on the international trading system lament its collapse: "And they threw dust on their heads, and cried out, weeping and mourning, saying, Woe! Woe to the great city, by which were rich all those having ships in the sea, from her costliness, because in one hour she was desolated." Prior to the collapse of this international system comes a prophetic message to those living in Babylon: "And I heard another voice out of Heaven saying, My people, come out of her [Babylon], that you may not share in her sins, and that you not receive of her plagues. Because her sins joined together, even up to Heaven, and God remembered her unjust deeds."[FN 6]
Corporate rule is also undermining psychological health and the quality of human spirituality. Anxiety, competition, fatigue, shame, guilt, despair and denial now define the social malaise of the masses. Those who strive to be faithful to God while living in the modern world are under constant pressure to accept a deceptive and debilitating form of social determinism--the idea that there is no alternative. Many do so simply by "not taking" alternative actions. Gradually--and by default--they conform to the laws, practices and values of the dominant system operating in the world.
This slide away from a dynamic moral and spiritual life does not always happen in a fully "conscious" manner, as a result of individual decisions to "act immorally" and against God. Moral compromise and religious infidelity can also be the consequence of not resisting the social tide of compliance, conformity and capitulation to the demands of an unjust international economic social system. As theologian and social critic Gregory Baum explains, "For a while people may nourish their ideals of life from great religious traditions, but by participating in economic life they acquire a new self-understanding and, even without realizing it, they are transformed in accordance with the public ideals of profit and competition."
Theologian and ethicist Chris Lind has noted that we must reject the notion that the opposite of being "competitive" (a winner) is being "uncompetitive" (a loser). These are not the only options, for the real opposite of "competitive" is "cooperative." A cooperative model envisions a community of winners with no losers. Along with the notion that every person in the world must now "compete" with every other person comes the equally debilitating lie that each individual is essentially worthless to the "system" and is entirely "dispensable." Believing that we are "not needed" is extremely disempowering. The truth is that the owners and rulers of corporations are completely dependent on the contributions of each and every worker for their power and wealth. When people realize their collective power and withdraw support for corporations by engaging in alternative practices that meet their economic needs at a local level, transnational corporations can no longer rob them of their right to a just and sustainable way of life.
Authentic faith must express itself in an ongoing struggle to "get out of Babylon." What specific actions must be taken will need to be determined by individuals and groups responding to their local situation. If such actions are to be truly just and democratic, they must not support what Xabier Gorostiago calls "globalization from above." What is needed is a community-oriented strategy to reclaim control over our own lives and local resources.
Persisting in efforts to establish alternatives such as community economic development projects, organic farming, nonpolluting industries that respect fair labour practices and environmental standards, and other similar initiatives requires the power of faith that alternative options are really possible and worth pursuing. We must recall that all the great empires had both their rise and their fall. We also need to draw motivation and strength to act from the promises of God that those who seek the reign of God and trust in the power of God will effect positive change in this world and be rewarded in the next.
If we truly believe in a life-giving God, then we cannot reconcile ourselves to supporting the death-dealing neoliberal economic system under the control of TNCs. Challenging corporate rule thus becomes a moral imperative and a measure of our capacity to exercise both personal freedom and social democracy. Whenever people of good will work together and persist in seeking just social alternatives, they invite the power of God into their lives to accomplish marvellous personal and social events which today's so-called "conventional" wisdom declares impossible.
© 1997 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld