The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Notes And Comments

The Last Association Standing

James Poulos

US Department of Labor poster for César Chávez Day, 2010; Wikimedia Commons.

What can explain our love-hate relationship with corporations?

On some days, in certain moods, we Americans hate the corporation. It is not just the villain du jour. It is the very institution against which we define our individuality most fiercely. The political left has long seen corporations as the embodiment of greed, despoliation, and patriarchal conformity. More recently, the political right has zeroed in on corporations as unelected, unaccountable beneficiaries of government patronage and abettors of administrative bureaucracy, both being toxins to representative republican government. Such attacks are sometimes overwrought, but they are not entirely without substance.

On other days, however, in a different frame of mind, we seem to believe—and, more important, act as though we believe—that nothing is more American than the corporation, and, indeed, that nothing better supports our dreams and identities. The reasons for this affection may vary slightly. Republicans still love business, markets, and winners; Democrats still prize self-chosen “families” and elective “communities,” particularly if they’re sustained by warm and cozy campus-like environments (think Google and other Silicon Valley archetypes). So how can we—even at our otherwise most divided—be so alike in our love for the institution we so frequently vilify?

Perhaps the best answer comes—implicitly—from Alexis de Tocqueville in his incisive reflections on the importance of associations in a democratic society: “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.” Applied to the present, Tocqueville’s observation might lead us to conclude that we love the corporation even more than we hate it because we have become so dependent on it for certain kinds of goods that are vanishing from other realms of life.

Yet our love-hate relationship is even more complicated. In his time, Tocqueville saw America’s professional flatterers—its politicians—“bow and scrape to the citizenry, the voters, [and] the people” in a manner reserved in the Old World for only monarchs or noblemen. Today, when nearly all major institutions in public life are weak, reviled, or both, populist flatterers flatter the populace by accusing big corporations of committing a sort of fraud against the American people. The people, such flattery runs, would never do such things to themselves. And how could they ever condone the dominance of the corporation at a time of such widespread economic inequality?

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