As individuals and as collective communities, our relationship with the corporate world shares much in common with Stockholm syndrome, the name given to the supposed condition in which hostages come to sympathize with and identify with their captors. Corporations control, directly or indirectly, virtually every non trivial aspect of our lives. And they do so through psychological manipulation, coercion, and the direct threat of violence. We believe that we have no choice but to participate in the corporate game, and our lives are impoverished as a result. Even those of us who have some understanding of the controlling role that corporations play in our lives continue to support them directly by purchasing their products and services and indirectly by allowing them to exploit the commons and by failing to demand restraint when they engage in practices that threaten the health of individuals and the natural environment. Rather than wallow in our own feelings of helplessness, we come to sympathize with our oppressive captors. We proudly wear corporate logos emblazoned on our clothing—and willingly pay for the privilege of serving as walking advertisements.
In terms of personal freedom, corporate privatization and the ideology it promotes leads to a paradox that Benjamin Barber refers to as a “civic schizophrenia,” in which an individual’s interests as a private person are placed in conflict with her interests as a public citizen. Privately, I want my big screen high definition television, my high-speed internet, my cell phone, my weed-free lawn, and the “freedom” to drive my SUV to the local WalMart where I have access to cheap imported consumer goods. As a pubic citizen, however, I want to live on a planet with clean air and water and in a neighborhood with character, a low crime rate, and a vibrant local economy. Thus our corporate consumer system sets up a kind of social trap in which our private interests are pitted against our public interests, a trap in which we are coerced to participate in dehumanizing and environmentally destructive activities.
We are trapped, but we don’t need to gnaw our leg off to get out. All we have to do is let go. The American dream is a sparkling effervescent nothing, a superficial promise that lacks any depth or meaning, a myth that bolsters corporate profit potential while impoverishing our lives. We are neither citizens nor consumers. It’s a game, and we are always free to walk away, free to refuse to play.