Class Warfare Blog

December 8, 2011

The Corruption Papers, No. 5, The Doctrine of Gentle Commerce

My last post, addressing President Obama’s Kansas speech echoing some of the sentiments of former President Theodore Roosevelt, was actually on topic regarding the focus of my recent comments—political corruption. At the core of the problem of political corruption is a torrent of money unleashed by corporate and other monied interests. The core of the corporate problem is that profit has become an end in itself and not a means to an end. Roosevelt addressed this in his 1921 speech and, well, you can’t say we weren’t warned.

To address this issue, we need a bit of perspective. Up until the turn of the 20th Century, the dominant policy on trade was mercantilism in which government control of foreign trade was a mechanism to ensure prosperity and security of the country. In other words, commerce was backed by the diplomatic and military prowess of countries (think of the Opium Wars between Britain and China). This led business leaders to a position that their enterprise was of paramount importance to our country. It also bred a certain arrogance and beggar-thy-neighbor mindset. An example of this mindset that comes to mind is from the early 20th Century. As the Standard Oil Trust was creating a monopoly of the oil business in this country, their most common business model involved buyouts of other oil businesses. Those who refused to play found themselves surrounded by Standard Oil stations selling gasoline at a price far below what they could offer. If they still didn’t sell, they were driven into bankruptcy. If they did sell, it was for far less than they were first offered. Basically this is business planning by Attila the Hun. This practice is no longer legal but it does indicate the mindset created from many decades of mercantilism. This mindset has not disappeared.

The Progressive Movement countered with the Doctrine of Gentle Commerce. In this mode, trade is a form of reciprocal altruism which offers positive benefits for both parties and gives each a selfish stake in the well-being of the other. (Imagine civilized commerce with no bullying.) With regard to labor, Gentle Commerce defined the trade as labor provided the means of production and management provided labor the means of existence in an atmosphere of mutual respect and interdependency. Obviously the violent resistance of management to labor being organized in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the vehemence of which has been lessened but is still present today, tells us that the mindset of the days when the government went to battle to make business better has not entirely departed in the business community.

If corporate interests were operating from the modern “trade benefits us all” viewpoint they would understand that it is good business to support labor well. Even that social troglodyte Henry Ford understood this. Pay your workers well and they can buy what you are selling. That our economy is 70% domestic (China’s is about 30%) is indicative of the path we were on.

When Republicans come to power, they use every trick in the book to undermine organized labor at the behest of their corporate masters. Their masters do not honor people who work with their hands. They worship profit and profit alone and not what they accomplish earning that profit. These corporate interests are going to have interesting inscriptions on their tombstones, I imagine something like “He made a great deal of money diminishing those who worked for him.”

The Republican’s corporate masters tout gentle commerce when extolling free trade agreements, but their hearts are elsewhere. And their pockets, well, they are full of Republican hands.

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