What can be done to tackle the corrosive effects of corporate power on political systems with regard to local community interests?

This is a highly complex question. It is not a new concern – in the 1970s, for example, there were considerable political debates around the effects of multinational corporations on national, regional and local economies and their constituent communities. Yet it remains the elephant in the room – and strikes at the heart of modern state-market-civil relations.

There is a temptation to interpret degenerative dynamics as resulting from corporate power transforming the economic and industrial contexts of local communities against which government can do little but tweak the worst effects. Certainly the histories of regional, urban and rural economies would appear to support this view.

Yet, corporate power is not homogenous and comes in all shapes, sizes and operates at different scales. What is common, however, it that corporate power’s interest in that of itself. Depending on the sector, the links with allied activities such as finance, politics and the media, business corporations exercise considerable power in a variety of ways.

In general, for example, corporate power promotes an ethos of consumption, individualism and materialism. This is highly pervasive and seeks to corrupt societies in simply spending more and more – the evidence of debt confirms this. The effect is to elevate money metrics to a new level – as Michael Sandel argued as he explored the moral limits of markets.

Allied to this is the ideological dimension in which business corporation power promotes the idea of markets – along with individualism, liberty and consumer choice. These, it is asserted, serve the wider public interest. Yet this intellectual veneer is very brittle as business at large relies very heavily on government, public policy and spending to create the circumstances in which it can thrive – investment, regulations, protection and privatisation. Seeking to understand the symbiosis involved is tricky as shown by Mariana Mazzucato in her 2013 book “The Entrepreneurial State”. It also promotes short term thinking – the “fast buck” is not an accidental term.

Further, corporate power corrupts government – and the political system may be more or less complicit in this – creating the corporate state. In effect the state then becomes not the weaker handmaiden of business but its active partner. Current political priorities in Westminster clearly assert the interests of business, capital and finance rather than those of communities and citizens. The corporate state and the exercise of business power represent the shifting sands of political debate in which communities are exposed, are vulnerable and routinely threatened. Interestingly the corporate state also promotes short term, non strategic and fragmented thinking to serve its own ends.

Where then is the much vaunted public interest? David Marquand in his new book “Mammon’s Kingdom” explores the ways in which the public interest – the community interest – has been eroded by governments capitulating to finance and corporate power. The rise of the corporate state has created a vacuum in which some local communities are left exposed to the vagaries of corporations, the abuse of power and the weaknesses of political arrangements which are paranoid about standing up to big business, multinationals and corporate interests.

The only conclusion is that a community’s control over its own well-being and interest has not been served well by the particular type of moral economy, business values nor by the form of representative democracy that prevails. There is a need as new political opportunities suggest themselves to expose this corporate (im-) moral economy. It is now time to explore alternatives to enabling communities secure their own interest – maybe through more direct democratic means. The ‘canton’ model used in Switzerland is worth exploring. A robust indicative planning model would be appropriate as well to set out exactly what type of economy Scotland would like to develop – and one that is appropriate to its emerging demographic profile. Industrial priorities should be dovetailed with educational arrangements and state investment should be a real driver of the Scottish economy. All this will require a real and ongoing national conversation.

Greg Lloyd

School of the Built Environment, University of Ulster

August 2014