Beginning with Ronald Reagan, the political center in this country has increasingly extolled the free market "system" as the answer to all our society’s ills. To emphasize the diminished role he would give the state, Reagan famously said "government is not the answer to all our problems. Government is the problem."
Reagan’s greatest hypocrisy is that he professed a desire to shrink the federal government while avidly seeking its highest offices, and once in power did nothing but expand its size, mostly through debt. Reagan’s background in Hollywood, with its dumb superficiality, sloganeering and ceaseless public relations, must have prepared him well to peddle a program he had neither the intention nor the vigor to carry out.
Despite its standard bearer’s loss of credibility, the idea of limited government persists in the polity because it has genuine merit and endless applications. Yet, it is troubling that the demagogues who repeat freedom slogans ad nauseam over the airwaves and chafe at every infringement of the government ignore the same brutish tactics when employed by private companies.
International corporations are by far the most powerful institutions on the planet today and, if they are not put in their proper place, they threaten to intrude on every sacred aspect of our lives and turn it commercial.
Their assault on private life is adamant, persistent and total in its scope. Advertising fills every peaceful corner with noise, to the maddening point that one is willing to pay a monthly fee to have entertainment mercifully limited in marketing content. But to liberate the family telephone from pitchmen, one has to enlist police protection. Nevertheless, the pitches find a way through to remind us that we are wanting.
Employers exert their influence more directly. Many put an electronic leash around their employees through mobile communications, and constantly disrespect family life by "checking in" with them at all hours. What’s more, employers now force complete dependency upon the worker by controlling not only his income but his access to health care. As many have recently discovered, no one without a job can afford private insurance.
In their fanatical striving for control, many companies seek to manipulate even the most intricate details of their workers’ behavior, down to specifying what greetings may be used with customers. In one past job, my entire interaction with customers was scripted. And in the ultimate affront to decency, we were monitored by the regular inspections of company spies, euphemistically called "secret shoppers," who posed as real customers and then graded our adherence to the scripted guidelines.
I have to say from experience that this type of private espionage would not be tolerated by most countries that have lived through a period of totalitarian government. In countries that have experience with official informants and secret police, the despicable people that take such employment and the managers who sponsor them are openly spat on and ostracized when exposed. Why we put up with the practice here is a mystery.
No matter the offenses we suffer, it remains that no society can prosper without the social order provided by the state or the benefits derived from industry. However, when these unrelenting forces invade the private sphere of the individual in such totality, it is both natural and just to rebel. For the struggle against these powers is a noble one and has a long history.
It took nearly half a century and two combative presidents to construct a domestic system that checked the power of the commercial "trusts" by protecting workers’ time, wages, savings and even their persons. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt belonged to different political parties but they both made a career of fighting vested commercial interests and eventually carved out a protected space for the individual from the jungle of laissez-faire business. If one needs a refresher on the period before the Roosevelts, the book to read is Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle."
The free market "system" is not a system at all; it is wild, barbaric, inhumane. The nature of capital industry is to exploit the living world and level all forces that oppose its drive to accumulate. The true system, the one developed under the Roosevelts, has been progressively weakened since the 1980s, and industrial interests have been turned loose on the public once again.
In this new millennium we must re-establish respect for the individual, if we wish to keep from being completely hemmed in. Our families, our churches, our neighborhoods, our friends, our health and our peace of mind require time and energy to maintain, and regular attention to be enriching and enjoyable. The reward will be a more balanced life and space to breathe.
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and area resident whose columns appear regularly.