Corporate Colonialism: Some Thoughts

You can see the parallels between classical imperial colonialism and its modern corporate manifestation. Today’s giant global corporations have annual incomes larger than many countries and they act with almost sovereign entitlement.

Their allegiances are not to countries, not even their country of origin, but to their management and shareholders. They are capable of subjugating populations in both North and South, subverting democracy in the process.

They may pretend to care about social responsibility – regarding their employees, the rights of the communities affected by their activities, the health of the environment within which they operate, and so forth. But there is a distinct limit to a corporation’s observance of such social responsibilities. No successful corporation adopts a strategy that fails to enhance its profitability. Simple as that.

One doesn’t have to assert a sinister corporate conspiracy to account for the fact that corporations invest in advocacy, propaganda, and lobbying that serves their interests. Nor should we be surprised that they exploit all legal avenues open to them to exert and spread their influence, and the considerable moral and legal “gray areas” that exist in between.  

The growth of the corporate “deep state” has been a steady and natural process, abetted by the vulnerability of our open political processes.

How Corporations Undermine Democracy

Our democracy is thoroughly undermined by “corporate capture” of our regulatory agencies, our public bureaucracies, and our political representatives themselves. Is it too great a stretch to regard our political administration as colonial, one that largely serves the interests of a corporate sector without local allegiances? I don’t think so.

Fundamental to this colonial relationship is the fact that the colonial power defines the terms of any debate over economic options, leaving off the table, in this case, those options that fail to serve the corporate interest or world-view.

Indeed, the very meaning of “development” itself is arrogated to comply with the corporate, rather than the public interest. That definition is implanted through dominance of the public discourse and without the informed involvement of the local communities most affected by macro-economic choices, and even without the informed involvement of the majority of their political representatives. Uncritical , and yes, colonized, journalists are only too ready to adopt this biased terminology and contribute to its dominance.

It is a small step from there to labelling those who dare to oppose one major corporate plan or another on behalf of their community or the environment as “anti-development”, or “anti-jobs”. This is so because viable economic alternatives that serve both the goals of true community development and employment have not been examined publicly on their merits – the clear result of a failed democratic process.

The Mechanics of Corporate Colonialism

There is much more complexity to this corporate colonialism than I allow here – for one, its ability to recruit political compradors to help pave the way for its successes. One tactic is simply to share the wealth. The swinging door between relevant bureaucracies and industry is legendary.

Another means is overwhelming, immersive lobbying. The Corporate Mapping Project found that the federal government met with oil industry lobbyists more than 11,400 times over the seven years from 2011 to 2018! That’s five times the attention garnered by ENGOs. Other studies have since confirmed that that lobbying intensity has not abated. Such facts help to explain why the actions of the Trudeau government fall so far short of its promises to take the climate emergency seriously.

Whether it is the recent approval of the disastrous Bay du Nord oil venture off Newfoundland and Labrador, or a readiness to countenance drilling adjacent to the rich fishing grounds off Nova Scotia, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has had great success in snowing federal and provincial politicians to get its way. The reasons may be ignorance of the economic options, laziness, political cowardice, or even corruption. The result is the same.

The phenomenal lobbying effort by CAPP over the years speaks to its effectiveness. Success has only emboldened this privileged corporate bully. A secret memo to the Trudeau Cabinet uncovered by Environmental Defence, shows how the CAPP used the COVID emergency as a cover for demands to roll back federal regulations to address the climate emergency, and even went so far as to call for delay in implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) through legislation. A more colonial statement than that would be hard to imagine – the rights UNDRIP is bound to honour are bad for Big Oil, so ignore them!

Also notable, is the success corporations have had shifting many of the costs and risks their activities entail (so called externalities – unrecognized costs of production, both environmental and otherwise) to the shoulders of the public at large, thus giving their investments an economic advantage they don’t merit when compared with alternative investments. 

All these practices, along with corporate dominance of the development discourse, lead to a failure to assess each investment in terms of its true opportunity costs – the benefits foregone when the alternatives are off the table. In the case of the extractive resource sectors, favoured with billions of public dollars over the decades, we might ask: What might we have achieved with the same public investment in support of sustainable alternatives?

Pathways of Resistance

One last point – corporate capture has narrowed the political avenues that remain to those of us who want to turn back the clock on corporate colonialism here at home. Federal and provincial levels of government are increasingly inaccessible to grass roots influence.

From coast to coast to coast, we are learning that two avenues, in particular, demonstrate the greatest potential for resistance:

  • first, activating and empowering our local governments to speak out, singly and in concert, on behalf of their constituents, and
  • second, allying ourselves with Indigenous peoples whose experience with colonialism reaches much farther back than our own and whose rights are receiving greater international support than ever before.

While I am most familiar with how corporate capture of our democracy manifests itself in decision-making regarding oil and gas developments in our offshore, the daily news is full of other examples of corporate colonialists running roughshod over the public interest.

The recent example from that another coddled sector – the monopolistic communications industry – where Bell made a so-called “business decision” to fire Lisa LaFlamme, a senior journalist and host of Canada’s most popular TV news cast, reeks of colonialist entitlement. 

Screw journalism, screw gender equality, screw the public’s right to independent analysis! Who’s going to stop us?

Answer? We, the colonized!

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

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