Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The corporatization virus

Someone posted to our faculty discussion list this article about the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic, with her $7 million in compensation and her imperious manner.

A colleague observed that, “It's all too familiar. The corporatization of American Higher Education is, of course, only one part of the corporatization of everything, including -- perhaps most shamefully -- American politics.”

I agree, and I worry that part of why this “corporatization of everything” is happening is that, from the perspective of social evolution, corporatization has high “fitness.”

Corporatization has a built-in advantage over its opponents, which is that it can pay its foot-soldiers well. In an environment where money is not just treated as a useful tool, but celebrated as a marker of success and even virtue, that’s a really powerful advantage.

Note that when I say that corporatization is “fit”, I don’t mean that it’s “good.” In biological terms, a thing is “fit” if it survives better than other things, but that says nothing about whether it’s good. The very concepts of “good” and “bad” make no sense in an ecosystem, which simply is—or isn’t.

A thing may be so good at outcompeting everything else that it ends up destroying the basis of its own existence. But the thing itself is neither good nor bad; until it undermines itself, it’s simply fit.

In human economies, fitness is similarly just about a thing thriving relative to others, but unlike in ecosystems, we do have notions of “good” and “bad.” And while I agree with my colleague that the results of corporatization are generally bad, that’s hardly an uncontested position.

One of the cleverest tools of the corporatization virus is that it reaches into our psyches and changes the very standards by which we decide whether a thing is good. We’ve come to equate “profitable” with “good,” and the more we do that, the more we relinquish our ability to think about what we really want.

It’s like a tree that changes the chemistry in the ground around it so that nothing else can grow.