An owl's eye view of forests and trees

The Old Company Town May Be the American Future

Where are decades of corporate and government trends leading us?

 

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In a post Citizens United America, big corporations and organizations gain greater and greater influence and thus control over government.  Our economic policies have reduced competition until only a few large companies control an entire sector. People more and more face less choice when it comes to goods, services, and means of employment.

 

Consumers’ leverage to demand product quality or safety continues to decrease. Employees end up tied to a workplace because they cannot afford losing the possibility of benefits, even if the job pays poorly. They have difficulty training for better positions due to ever escalating costs of education and spiraling debt used to pay for it.

 

Meanwhile, corporations cut costs at consumer and employee expense. More and more businesses save themselves additional money by shifting burdens onto the private individual as unpaid labor.

 

As I look at these trends, I see big business taking more and more control over every aspect of our lives and asking us to pay for the privilege.  I am left wondering.

 

How close is the U.S. to becoming essentially one big company town?

 

For those not familiar, a quick history lesson. In the 1800s and 1900s, a corporation might have built a coal mine in a particular region. Population would grow up around that mine and the employment it generated. The company also would end up owning the businesses, such as general stores, that provide necessities for the people in the town that arose.  It might even have owned the housing too. The company would then set the wages paid to the laborers, sometimes only offering pay in company scrip. It also got to set the price of necessities for the laborers. It provided lower quality goods to generate higher profits. By giving credit, it offered what seemed like an easy solution to workers struggling to afford the basics of life. The credit lines indebted the workers to the company, making it impossible to leave for a better opportunity.

 

For all a miner’s grueling labor, he saw no actual U.S. currency. Just corporate scrip only good in one town, but which, even in that town, had only limited purchasing power. He acquired sub-standard necessities, often going into debt to do so. And he could not pay off that debt because, again, he had no actual U.S. currency. Obviously, the company got huge value very cheaply out of this system, while forcing laborers and their families to endure an untenable situation.

 

Compounding matters, the system, by design, left the workers with no influence in a setting where they served as both the labor and the consumer. Because they lacked resources, and those they received came from the company, even striking en masse proved extremely difficult. And striking en masse was about the only means miners had to improve things. Including their working conditions. Just like wages and the price of goods, the lack of labor’s bargaining power meant that the company could skimp on safety conditions and feel free to treat their workers almost as chattel. Other than a chancy attempt at a mass strike, government regulation served as the only means to force positive change for people stuck in this state.

 

Corporations held company towns as virtual private satrapies. Right here in the United States.

 

In the present, big busines has gathered to itself an overwhelming amount of the available capital. It has accumulated greater control over the government and the economy. With every step it continues to weaken the bargaining power of both the employee and the consumer. At the same time, its sway over politics has led to less and less regulation. The fox has set itself to guard the henhouse.

 

Aren’t we already headed toward something similar to the company town, only on a nationwide scale?

 

Food for thought.

2 Comments

  1. Cheryl O

    I learned a new word (satrapies).
    Also, ugh. The move to put social benefits on effectively gift cards feels sort of like modern day scrip…captured value that will be chipped away by fees and other ‘reasonable’ inconveniences to the user. 🙁

    • Ann Anderson

      Ugh is right, although it is an excellent point. That does indeed sound like a modern way of essentially issuing scrip.

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