Image hosted by

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Corporations & Reparations Part II

Enter the issue of reparations.

The concept of reparations is rather simple. It states that if damage (suffering) occurred because of an entity's actions, that entity should pay reparations to those who suffered. This concept has been applied by various civil society groups across the globe in several different contexts: Creditor countries should pay reparations for imposing odious and crippling debt on debtor nations. Colonial powers should pay reparations for colonialism, slavery, plundering of national wealth, etc.. Polluters should pay reparations to those who suffered from their pollution (for example, victims of groundwater contamination). The concept of reparations is not an economic or political concept; it is a moral concept; the perpetrator of suffering inflicted on others needs to make amends. This is a basic moral precept; if you do something wrong, take responsibility and, if possible, try to correct the situation.

The case for reparations from corporations has many angles, but one of the most current is that corporations must pay reparations for their support (direct or indirect) of illegitimate regimes. The case is, perhaps, strongest in terms of direct support.

Corporations that support illegitimate regimes are committing fairly serious moral violations. For example, an oil company pays royalties to a military dictatorship. The revenue from these royalties is then used to purchase guns and tanks, which are then used to suppress the population. Why is this an example of a moral violation? After all, the corporation wasn't (via its employees) doing the actual suppressing, and it was doing nothing illegal. It was operating within the law of a sovereign nation.

The latter objection falls away quite quickly. The case for reparations is a moral case, and is independent of the law. Throughout history, including the modern era, there have been a variety of laws that make some of the most immoral acts legal; the apartheid system was one such legal framework. The concept of reparations relies on a primacy of morals, not that of law.

It is the former objection that has more strength, and it here that the relative power of corporations comes in. Countries cannot easily force transnational corporations to purchase a particular bond. Countries, especially in the developing world, have a hard time telling transnational corporations what to do in general. Corporation can move domiciles, threaten to disinvest, choose not to deal with illegitimate regimes. When corporations deal with illegitimate regimes that commit human rights abuses, they do so willingly and knowingly. They are like a gun store owners who sells weapons to the enraged husbands of cheating wives; there's only one reason why such individuals want to buy 9mm pistols and fistfuls of hollow-point rounds; there's only one reason why the South African Defence Force issued bonds in 1976.

Corporations that continue to support illegitimate regimes do so in full knowledge of the ramifications of their support, and do so despite having the ability to do otherwise. And, for this, they must pay. This demand for reparations from corporations is a part of wider attempts worldwide to impose morality on corporations. This will be resisted, mostly due to their non-acceptance of the primacy of morals; business, as they are fond of telling us, is war, and all's fair in love and war.

They are wrong. This world does not belong to them. It does not move according to the dictates of currency traders in New York, London and Tokyo. This is our world. It is for all human beings equally, and what makes us special is not that we crawled to the top of the food chain or that we can travel to the moon and back again or that we can bet on the futures market. What makes us special is that we are the only form of life we know of that can differentiate between good and bad, between the virtuous and the wicked. Without this, we would be nothing more than a bunch of particularly vicious apes. The idea that human inventions such as corporations and capital are different, are immune to moral judgement and action, is the great public relations trick of our times.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home