Two UCSB professors spoke about the role of corporate powers in global economics and politics during a lecture titled “Do Corporations Rule the World?” presented Saturday by the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara.
Professors Nelson Lichtenstein and Richard Appelbaum discussed international corporate power in front of about 70 people before answering questions at Saturday’s 3 p.m. Humanist Society meeting at the retirement community Vista Del Monte in Santa Barbara. Lichtenstein, a history professor, took a chronological view of the influence of certain corporations on social norms and economies, saying he does not necessarily believe corporations rule the world, but they do have a significant impact. Appelbaum, a professor of sociology and international studies, said current shifts in business and international production show corporations are the number one influence on global events.
Appelbaum said the world is being exposed to something totally new with the emergence of “truly transnational corporations” that operate globally, outside of state boundaries and state loyalties. Though there are other forces shifting global economic, social and political changes, corporations are the most influential, he said.
“If you had to look for a single candidate for who rules the world, I would say that it is corporations,” Appelbaum said. “One obvious [other] candidate would be the United States. One can also say that religious nationalism is a rising force in the world today, represented most obviously in Islamic nationalism…”
Lichtenstein said the decreased amount of government influence over large corporations – like Wal-Mart – in the American economy represents an unprecedented relationship between business and state. Wal-Mart has an entirely different business model than other corporations have used in the past, he said.
“One thing that is very different today is that the state no longer plays a very vigorous role in the way business does business,” Lichtenstein said. “The state has chosen to retreat on a lot of questions that used to be important.”
Corporations such as U.S. Steel Corp., General Motors and Wal-Mart show an evolution in the way large companies deal with their internal structure as well as their interactions with the world at large, Lichtenstein said. For example, he said General Motors had a consumer-oriented view of their relationship with the rest of the world in the 1950s.
“The ideology of management then was: We are powerless; the only people with the power are the consumers,” he said.
Without stringent government regulation, corporations like Wal-Mart have evolved into multinational giants.
Appelbaum said there are four ways to alter the power that corporations have in the world. He said they include enforcing international trade agreements, mobilizing social movements that change public opinion, promoting an international labor union and ethical shopping by consumers.
Marian Shapiro, public relations chair for the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara, said she enjoyed the lecture and its topic, but would have liked more emphasis on the pros and cons of big business.
“The one thing I wanted to hear was a list of how Wal-Mart and other big corporations help people and hurt people,” Shapiro said. “I mean, low prices are always good, but one of the sad things about our country is that we are supposed to be the richest nation and still so many workers are without healthcare.”