Corporate Colonialism

Frances Moore Lappe (Hope's Edge, 2002) makes the case that often politicians and corporations use terms that leave us suffering from "hypocognition." Hypocognition results when a term is used to conjure up all-positive images to prevent us from understanding what is really going on. For example, hypocognition makes it hard for the public to believe there can be anything wrong with "globalism" or "free trade," which sound like the apple pie and motherhood of the 21st century. It is easy for the press to portray those who protest against "free trade" as fringe lunatics.

Ms. Lappe coined the term "primitive marketism" as a more appropriate name for what has become the accepted standard of world trade over the last 20 years -- that the single principle of highest return to existing wealth is the sole driver of the world-wide system of production and exchange. That leaves cultural integrity, human rights, environmental protection, and even the ability of people to feed themselves as inconsequential to multinational corporations reaching around the world for opportunities for the highest return to existing wealth.

As much as the term "primitive marketism" helps identify problems inherent to the way global trade is structured today, it takes a bit of bending of the mind and tongue to use it. It seems to me that a term that more immediately and clearly identifies where we are headed with world trade -- a term which leaves no room for hypocognition -- is "corporate colonialism."

My Webster's dictionary defines colonialism as "The system or policy by which a nation seeks to extend or retain its authority over other peoples or territories." Such political colonialism of one nation over another fell by the wayside in the 20th century. What we are seeing now is the rise of an economic colonialism of multinational corporations over nations worldwide.

Corporate colonialism requires no armies, weapons, or even threats of violence to reap all the benefits of a colonial power. Whereas 19th-century empire builders sent navies half way around the world to secure their colonial power, 21st-century corporations secure their colonial power through financial contributions to political allies and promises that everyone will get rich if corporations are allowed to work their "magic" around the world.

We are only starting to wake up to the reality that world "free" trade means multinational corporations exporting production and associated jobs to wherever labor can be secured most cheaply and environmental regulations are least restrictive. We are just beginning to realize that the great-sounding, theoretical idea that goods and services are best produced where they can be produced at the greatest competitive advantage translates into large-scale loss of employment and community disruption as much as it translates into greater profits for the corporate bottom line. It is sobering to realize that the corporate colonialists will exploit "developed" countries as readily as "undeveloped" countries -- it takes more money and propaganda in a rich country, but the payoffs are greater.

Nowhere are the disastrous consequences of corporate colonialism felt more than in global food trade. Forcing countries to open their markets to cheap, subsidized, industrially-produced food from abroad can eliminate markets for local subsistence farmers, driving them off the land and into the ranks of the hungry. Many American farmers have also been driven out of business by cheap, imported food produced by foreign, low-wage laborers. The winners are agribusiness monopolies that ship, trade, and process food. The losers are farmers who lose their livelihood, rural communities that lose their population, and countries that lose food security as they become dependent on imports.

The further we ship our food, the more vulnerable and fuel-dependent our food system becomes. Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute points out that a head of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped to Washington, D.C. requires about 36 times as much fossil-fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives. Encouraging the shipping of food around the world under the guise of free trade and corporate profits only works when fuel is cheap and much of the cost of producing and shipping food can be externalized from the corporate bottom line. It makes little sense when laborers are paid a fair wage and the full environmental costs of production and transport are factored into the equation.

In centuries past, the best remedy for ending colonial rule was revolution. My Webster's defines revolution as "A complete and forcible overthrow and replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed." Nothing less will be required to overturn the system of corporate governing we live under today, though the forces needed will be political and economic rather than military. The institutions and policies that need to be toppled include the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), no small task.

The first requirement for fomenting a revolution is for enough people to recognize the shackles that bind them. The recent uprising by farmers from around the world at the WTO talks in Cancun may be the beginning of such a revolution. But, judging from the scant US corporate media coverage, which generally reported the collapse of trade talks as a failed opportunity for the world's poor, we in this country still suffer from acute hypocognition.

Francis Thicke of Fairfield, Iowa, is an organic dairy farmer and formerly served as the national program leader for soil science at the USDA Extension Service. Email

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