Column: Golem: a Pagan View of Corporations

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Have you heard about the GM ignition switch recall? It was a longstanding problem that resulted in a number of deaths but ignored by the executives. Rightly, many are horrified but few have the magical insight or the systems theory to understand how GM could be so stupid. Here is how a Pagan might understand the problem:

Corporations are useful tools. They are one of the most effective and efficient ways of humans to work collectively. They can be built and focused on very specific or very general tasks, and bound to those tasks legally by the very documents that form the corporation. They can have whatever governance structure the establishers desire: autocratic, democratic, consensus, or whatever. In the creation of a corporation, there exists one of the few ways private citizens can effectively establish what amount to laws for those involved in the project and how that project will function in the world. It also has the virtue of being able to outlast any of its founders, and so it is an effective way of projecting values across generations. But of course, none of that has to happen. Corporations can be created to simply seek profit to the exclusion of all else, and be run in a completely autocratic manner. Today many are.

[Photo Credit: Bo Nash/Flickr]

[Bo Nash/Flickr.]

Much like a hammer, a corporation can be used to build or kill. When ill-formed and ill-governed, a corporation can be a nightmare. This is what we are seeing in GM. It is huge, distributed and diverse, making it hard to govern. Its sole purpose is to make profit for its shareholders, which is the crux of the problem. This principle determines the outcome of decisions: Will this add or detract from shareholder/owner profit?

Pagans, due to our magical inheritance, and Jews for similar but older reasons, know of a creature that is very much like the corporation: the golem. The most famous golem tale is from Prague during the reign of Rudolf II, where Rabbi Lowe made the figure of a man out of clay, and using divine words animated it to protect the Jewish quarter from pogrom, what we would call today ethnic cleansing. In the bad version of the story, the golem runs amuck and can’t be stopped. It is extremely strong, has the power to work tirelessly and is (mostly) invulnerable. But that which is made by word can only be unmade by word.  So the Rabbi, who wrote Emet (meaning Truth, spelled Aleph Mem Tov) on the brow of the golem to bring it to life, erased the Aleph to spell Mot, meaning death, and deactivated the creature.

The similarity to a corporation is striking. Like a golem, a corporation is made by words; its articles of incorporation once signed and seal by the secretary of state bring it to life. At one time ‘life’ might have seemed like hyperbole, but living in the age of the Citizens United ruling, corporations have personhood before the law and with it ‘human’ rights. It will continue doing what it was set up to do unless commanded or forced to stop. This can be very hard to do when those with the power of command are benefiting (making profit) from the creature’s actions. It is effectively immortal, only to stop functioning when it runs out of cash or credit, its lifeblood so to speak. It can only ‘die’ if it is disbanded by sale, in which case it continues in another form, or experience ‘true’ death by the revocation of its articles of incorporation, which will actually end it. Like the golem, it will only stop when its words of creation are erased.

40 Wall Street [Photo Credit: Massmatt/Flickr]

40 Wall Street [Massmatt/Flickr].

Golems are also notoriously dumb. Most don’t speak so that is quite literal. But they are also stupid, in that they will do what they are told perpetually until stopped. There is no thought or will or compassion to guide them, only purpose. So due to bad governance, the corporation GM plodded along making profits because it did not see that the death of customers was a problem. No one took responsibility for the equipment failure, which would have taken less than a dollar part to fix.

We’ll come back to the golem in a bit. The ‘real’ problem GM and others face is that the problem, in this case bad governance, is the result not of human intent (no one wanted anyone to die), but the unanticipated properties of the complex system that is the GM corporation. And this is true of all systems. In GM, they did not recognize that their governance structure, motivated primarily by profit, took no responsibility for fixing the issue until forced.

The problem with golems is that they are not persons; although some versions of the story make them so. They are ordered to their task and can’t choose to stop. Choice is the basis for morality, and so without it, the golem can’t be the moral actor. This dynamic plays out in these two posts about GM and Enron from Forbes Magazine and Robert Reich centered on the “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one” meme. They each have their points, but I’m with Reich on this one. The persons who made the moral choices did not pay the same kinds of penalties that a human would for the same outcomes. They did not go to prison; they were not executed, although Enron was disbanded. I’m for much harsher penalties. Besides holding the executives and other deciders to criminal account, when a corporation is charged with any crime, all trading on its stock should be stopped. This prevents the stockholders from being able to unload what may suddenly become worthless property. It also makes the stockholders accountable for how their property behaves, and therefore they are much more likely to exert their own responsibility for right governance. Should a corporation be guilty of murder, immediate liquidation of all its assets; the end of all trading of its stock, and the revocation of its articles of incorporation is about the closest we can get to execution. I would look to the outcomes to determine if creditors should benefit from the liquidation.

As Pagans know, the other side of the coin from death is life, and this case immortality. Corporations don’t die unless killed. As it stands they can kill and pay wergild and continue in business. The unfolding profit motive makes the risk calculation simple: if the profit is in the billions and the price for killing humans, never mind other species and ecosystems, is only millions, than it is acceptable to kill humans. Since making profit is the life of corporations, killing people while making profit is just good business. It also puts corporations higher than humans on the food chain. I have a problem with this.

It is no accident that, up until now, humans were on the top of the food chain. We struggled long and hard to get there. We tend to eliminate all large predators wherever we live. It is why I don’t believe in vampires; we would simply hunt them down and kill them. Now we have created a kind of golem, a system-creature, in ways that we can scarcely govern. We didn’t have to, and there are many corporations which aren’t, but we did create enough of them to threaten us all. It is profitability that blinds corporations to climate change, to the inequities of our medical system, and to the cruelties heaped upon the economically disadvantaged. What will happen when robots have rendered 80% of the work force redundant?

Will we tolerate beings that prey on us? Generally humans don’t.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.