Discovering How You’re Controlled by Companies

Thinking about your relationship with your parents and your family brings us back to the question of who’s really raising you. It’s a question we’ve touched on earlier, but there’s more to say.

Most children don’t like being told what to do. That’s obvious from the crying of toddlers to the unruly behavior of preteens to the rebellions staged by teenagers. But outside your family, consider how you are told what to do or controlled in ways you never recognized. Just ask yourself this question: “How am I controlled by people or organizations and why don’t I know about it?”

Well, one way to control you is through ads that lie to you. Companies sell you food that’s bad for your teeth, your heart, and your health in general. No matter, they still describe their products as tasty and good for you. Drinks full of sugar and artificial sweeteners are advertised as giving you energy or making you look cool. A few decades ago, when smoking was everywhere, in schools, offices, trains, buses, and airplanes, the tobacco companies gave kids cigarettes as they left school in the afternoon, claiming that cigarettes tasted good and helped you concentrate. The companies certainly did not warn you, as they are now required by law to do on cigarette packages, that smoking is dangerous to your respiratory system and can cause cancer and other diseases. Lies, unrebutted by truthsayers who don’t have the money the companies have, are a way to control you, to persuade you to do what they want you to do—buy and use their bad products. They addict you in the worst ways. Now, that’s control!

Companies that pollute the air, water, and soil are also controlling you. You can’t exactly refuse to drink water or breathe the air. Like many other Americans, you are a victim of what can be called “injurious compulsory consumption” (that’s a mouthful!), a form of control that exposes you to the silent violence of pollution, such as pesticides, from which you cannot escape. A recent famous example, of course, are the children who drank water with high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan, and numerous other cities and towns around our country. Once you learn about these kinds of control, you’ll see more clearly that violence is not just street crime, war, and bullying, which are pretty visible. Violence can also be silent, invisible, and accumulating, and it can shorten your life-span by giving you lung disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions resulting from toxic chemicals, gases, and particulates from pollutants.

Can you imagine anything more controlling, day after day, than harming your own body because companies don’t tell you the truth so you can learn how to avoid, diminish, or prevent these early corporate body blows?

For many years my sister, Laura, has taught a course called Controlling Processes to her students at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a professor of anthropology. Students love that course, and thousands of them have signed up over the decades. Years later, many of them say the course changed their lives because it taught them to see what they never saw before. How? Because Laura discussed the real world around them in ways that led the students themselves to discover the controlling forces in their lives, such as their mounting servitude to gouging creditors, wrong medical practices, or landlords. Her students like her so much because she respects their motivated intelligence. Once the doors are opened to them, self-education kicks in and the experience leaves a memorable mark on their lives.

You can give yourself a simple test of how we grow up influenced to look at our country the way big corporations want us to look at it. Suppose I ask you what comes to mind if you hear the words “violence” and “crime.” You’ll roll these words over in your mind and come up with images of gang violence and street crimes. At least that’s how high school students reacted when I and others asked this question. The students are not inaccurate, but here’s the rub. There are far more preventable deaths, injuries, and diseases resulting from corporate-induced pollution, consumer product defects, hospital hazards, and workplace dangers, especially in factories and underground mines, than there are deaths from all the street crimes and homicides put together.

Now suppose I ask you what comes to mind when you hear the word “regulation.” You’ll probably be thinking of government regulation, but the truth is that there is far more corporate regulation of our lives—for example, in one-sided fine-print contracts, especially health insurance policies, or company decisions about the margin of our safety and health in consumer products, or controls for keeping our wages down or invading our privacy (think Facebook and others)—than there is government regulation. In fact, companies lobby the government to regulate us in their favor, or not to enforce the environmental, consumer, housing, and workplace laws that would safeguard us. One way of doing this is to starve the enforcement budgets of the regulatory agencies—that is, too few cops on the corporate crime beat. As for the cost of burglaries, hijacked cars, and robberies, it cannot compare with the megabillions of dollars that companies drain from us, as reported in major publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Business Week. Fraudulent business activities (e.g., crooked computerized billing practices) steal the income and savings of workers, consumers, and investors, all the people who nurture you, our children.

How about the word “welfare”? It’s likely to conjure images of poor people on government programs such as housing assistance, energy assistance, and food stamps, but consider this. Most companies are on government welfare in the form of giveaways, subsidies, grants, and bailouts (as when banks and other corporations were bailed out by the taxpayers in the trillions of dollars after the 2008 Wall Street crash). Close to your home there’s probably a major league ballpark, a football stadium, a hockey rink, or a basketball arena that was built with the taxes your parents paid to local and state government. These facilities are controlled by billionaire sports owners; ordinary people were not allowed an opportunity to vote down such deals in favor of their tax dollars being spent instead to build or renovate schools, neighborhood playgrounds, and other local recreational facilities. It’s wise to know early that tax dollars should be used for necessities of life, not to enrich commercial entertainment.

The good news is that the billionaires don’t always succeed. When Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, came to Connecticut governor John Rowland, seeking a half-billion-dollar taxpayer-funded stadium in exchange for moving his football team from Boston to Hartford, citizens formed the successful Stop the Stadium campaign in 1999 and sent Kraft back to Massachusetts, where he used his own money to build his stadium. But when the billionaires do get their tax dollars, they turn around and sell the naming rights to some bank, insurance company, or tech corporation. Shouldn’t they at least be required to name their sports complexes Taxpayer Stadium or Taxpayer Ballpark or Taxpayer Arena? After all, the taxpayers paid for them in the first place. Isn’t it strange that taxpayers almost never make such “naming” demands?