A few months ago there was a series of commercials about ordinary people being mistaken for "the owner" of a large corporation.
For a few minutes they would receive royal treatment, until it was realized that their "ownership" was limited to a few insignificant
shares of a company’s stock. Perhaps these commercials were pulled off the air because they made viewers realize the
opposite of what the advertisers intended. We were supposed to be impressed with being "owners..." but in real life we all
knew that any power or benefit that went along with such ownership was microscopic to the point of being comical.
When some talk about an "Ownership Society," one of the things he means is increasing the percentage of people who own
tiny amounts of stock in big corporations. For one thing, this is the point of his proposal that Social Security be corporatized.
(The operative euphemism for this scam is "personalization."). Grover Norquist was on the radio the other day effusing
that this change would make stockholders out of more Americans. More people get to join the "investor class." Like that’s
a good thing for anyone but the corporations and stock brokers.
The real meaning here is that more money gets taken out of the pockets of ordinary people and given over to multi-national
corporations. Like everything else the current administration is about, this initiative has mainly to do with further enriching
the wealthy and big-business. Basically, the ownership society means being forced to give the rich more of our money to play
with, while the main burden of risk remains on us.
Rick Perlstein and Nick Stoller have noted (VV, 1/19-25/05) that, when more people technically own shares of stock,
then it becomes easier for right-wing propagandists to charge that anything that threatens corporate profits — labor
laws and environmental regulations, for example — may be framed as an attack on people’s retirement fund. (I already
see this in the church. Whenever I make the point that, for moral and theological reasons, the church should not own corporate
stock at all, the first response I get from other ministers has to do with the fate of their retirement fund. We get the same
protests when the church seeks to divest from the latest corporate atrocity. The concern is less with the victims of corporate
greed than with the profits we might lose.)
The Great Depression was brought about by a crash in the stock market. The value of stocks, as we have learned in the last
few years since the collapse of tech stocks which sparked the most recent recession, can also fall. Investing in the market
is not a sure thing. It does not necessarily mean a healthy return. It can mean losing money. You can have your money invested
in an Enron or a Worldcom, and lose it all. In the plan to gut (that is, "personalize") Social Security, individuals
get to bear the risk if stocks fall... or even if they return less than around 6%.
More importantly, though, these changes are intended to encourage the shift in the whole way Americans think of themselves.
Some want us to see ourselves as owners, stock-holders, investors, who live off the return we get on our investments. This
means driving a wedge between work and wealth, so that we will come to believe that wealth is primarily derived from what
is gained from investments, not from what we do or produce. This has always been true for children of wealth who have
barely ever had to do an honest day’s work. For such people, wealth comes from a portfolio, not from their own labor.
It is their portfolio which sets their economic, and moral, agenda. Goodness is determined by the health of one’s portfolio;
when the portfolio is healthy, meaning that the corporations they have invested in are making money, the owners are happy
The character and activity of the corporations that are making the money doesn’t matter. All that matters to the
owner/stockholder is the bottom line. If the portfolio’s health is based on doing evil in the world, if it is a raucous
polluter and waster of resources, if it is exploiting workers, raining terror on the innocent, destroying families and communities,
it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that it is making money.
Shifting our values away from the understanding that work and wealth are connected is an attempt to deny the economic fact
that wealth comes from (among other things) work. When a corporation makes money, someone, somewhere is doing the labor to
make that happen. When we come to believe that wealth derives, not from work but from some other fancy tap-dance, we devalue
work. Work becomes something that only "little people," the poor, the unfortunate, the chumps, foreigners, the people who
have no alternative, do. And we, the "owners," try to suck as much value out of their work as we can, returning as little
as possible to the workers.
Another consequence of this shift is in where people perceive the "give" in the system. In the hey-day of the labor movement,
it was clear that, while prices may be relatively stable (this was when the economy was far more regulated than it is today),
higher wages and benefits could be gained by collective action. But, as Liza Featherstone points out (TN, 1/3/05),
if workers think of themselves as owners and consumers, it means they think of wages as something that will stay low, while
prices are variable. Hence, the rise of low-pay, low-price emporiums like Wal-Mart. "Consumers" seek low prices, but it never
occurs to them to think like "workers" and seek higher wages.
When people learn to think of themselves not as workers and producers but as owners and consumers, their interests are
easy to interpret as identical with those of big-business. Which is the whole point. (Ironically, it was Ralph Nader, the
great enemy of corporate greed and malfeasance, who did so much to get Americans to self-identify as consumers.)
Another thing this ownership society vision does is further corrode the social bonds and contracts we share together and
by which we form living communities. It pits each against all in an "every individual for him- or herself" mentality. The
emphasis is on my "getting mine" with little or no concern for the common good. Certainly we are encouraged to care not at
all for workers or the environment.
This sour selfishness is the very essence of the Capitalist spirit, and it has already maimed the American soul, polity,
and landscape, perhaps beyond repair. The recently unveiled proposed federal budget reveals this perfectly, with its
draconian cuts in education, health, public transportation, environmental protection, and veterans’ benefits... all
to protect the massive tax cuts for the wealthy, and to increase the diet of steroids for military contractors (but not soldiers
and their families).
The kind of ownership society that is envisioned is a society that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporations and
the wealthy. The ownership society means that everyone will be owned, in a sense. A conservative judge serving on the Fourth
Circuit Court of Appeals, J. Michael Luttig, already admits that the driving question has become: "How do I interpret the
law to get the result that the people who pushed for me to get here want me to get?" (NYTM, 3/9/03) That will become
the question for all of us in the ownership — i.e. corporate — society: "How do I live my life so that
the corporations that feed me will benefit?" How do I enrich myself by enriching my Masters? In the ownership society we are
reduced to junkies (consumers) and pushers (owners). It is an arrangement that is almost neo-feudal.
This vision has been creeping up on us and is now infused everywhere around us. Remember media independence? Remember when
election boards could actually be trusted to accurately count votes? Remember when the courts at least gave lip service to
being on the level? Remember when doctors didn’t work for the pharmaceutical industry? Remember when an elected official’s
constituency was the people, not the campaign donors?
Now it is practically an article of faith that, if it exists at all, government should be of, by, and for the rich and
powerful. What is good for the corporate bottom-line should be what is perceived as good for everybody. Wages and prices should
be low, profits should be high. The creation should be raped with increasing efficiency; those who actually do the work should
continue to lose ground. And so on. Everyone is on the take, and the highest wisdom is to know which side of your bread is
But we are buying into this, as the last election demonstrated. If we do continue to invest ourselves in this godless and
depraved vision of a social hell, it will be our own fault. For in the end, the ownership society basically means that when
the reckoning comes all of us will own the responsibility. We will all own the consequent day of wrath.