We are habituated to companies presenting themselves as people. Organisations such as churches, colleges and municipalities have had the legal status of personhood for centuries – in Europe going back to the days of the Roman empire and in India, where the shreni (associations of merchants and artisans) had such a status, right back to 800 BC. When companies began to be formed, they also acquired the status of being ‘legal persons’ and, in the USA, this was cemented in 2010 by a Supreme Court ruling that even allowed corporations to make political contributions as if they were private citizens.
Outside the courts, in everyday life, we have become increasingly used to being addressed by companies as if they were people. Pret a Manger have been informing us since the 1980s that they are ‘passionate about food’ while Odeon cinemas have been telling us for almost as long that they are ‘fanatical about film’. And we are constantly reproached with guilt-tripping messages about how sorry corporations are that we have chosen to leave them if we terminate a contract, or reminded that ‘it’s a while since we heard from you’ if we have neglected to visit a website. Corporate mission statements are infused with affect – telling us how much the brand-holders care – about our children, animals, the future of the planet or whatever cause they think will tug at our heart-strings. It can be hard, sometimes, to remember that they are not flesh-and-blood entities with eyes that weep and skin that responds to touch.
So let us for a moment suppose that corporations really are people. If so, what sort of people might they be? The answer is actually very creepy; on close examination they turn out to exhibit many of the most toxic pathologies to be found in the 21st century lexicon of personality disorders. Here are a few.
A medical website defines people with Narcissistic personality disorder as having ‘an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.’
This is a pretty accurate description of the typical corporation with its obsession with brand image. Staff are not only issued with minutely detailed instructions on how to present it (or themselves, as its representatives) but it may even be a disciplinary offence to voice any scepticism about its boasts. Such rules also extend to anyone receiving sponsorship, such as athletes, students on scholarships or organisers of cultural events. Press releases trumpet its virtues and lawyers are kept on standby so that critics may be sued if any grounds can be found for doing so. There is a need to be forever in the limelight, with logos and corporate slogans always on show. The more branding, the better. (If you still haven’t got the idea, think of the White House under Trump.)
Here’s a definition of coercive control, from another medical website ‘Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism used to instil fear. The abuser will use tactics, such as limiting access to money or monitoring all communication, as a controlling effort.’ As Women’s Aid explains, ‘This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.‘
Sound familiar? Many taken-for-granted management practices follow very similar patterns. Workers are given targets to meet and minutely monitored to make sure that they meet them. Detailed procedures are prescribed, to be followed to the letter. Budgets are laid down with penalties for overspending or deviating from them. Communications may be monitored and movements tracked. Warnings are issued if these commands are not followed precisely, with an escalating scale of warnings, leading to the ultimate sanction of losing the job altogether or being dropped from the online platform. Seeking support from a trade union may be punished savagely.
These forms of control, often administered via online digital interfaces, to which there can be no answering back, are not just applied to workers but also to customers where the corporation has established an ongoing relationship of dependence. Some of the most extreme forms of terror are inflicted on customers who owe money (or are accused of doing so) with the threat (or actual use) of physical force by bailiffs to seize their property. But many organisations, including landlords and suppliers of energy, broadband services, phone contracts, insurance, maintenance contracts on malfunctioning appliances, also routinely generate enormous amounts of misery as they force their customers to spend hours of their time following convoluted procedures and proving that they have met obscure legal requirements in order to access their rights.
Corporate relationships with such clients often follow a pattern that is well-known in abusive relationships, whereby an initial period of ‘love-bombing’ with seductive promises is followed by the creeping introduction of ever-more controlling behaviours.
Closely related to coercive control, bullying can involve a single person being directly targetted by a corporate person or, more insidiously, the encouragement of a culture in the organisation that allows for the spread of collective forms of bullying, especially of vulnerable groups or individuals. There is now such a large literature on bullying and harassment at work that I won’t discuss it further here, other than to point out that the corporate person does not just bully its workers but may also bully people outside the organisation, including competitors (especially small organisations, from whom it might have stolen ideas) and critics, such as journalists or NGOs who point out its imperfections in public or – in the case of large global corporations – even governments who try to stand up to their worst excesses, for instance by trying to extract taxes, protect indigenous industries or minimise environmental damage.
As wikipedia succinctly puts it ‘Stalking is unwanted and/or repeated surveillance by an individual or group toward another person’ and, in this digital age, probably represents the most definitive feature of contemporary corporate behaviour. To paraphrase Churchill, they stalk us on the beaches, they stalk us on the landing grounds, they stalk us in the fields and in the streets, they stalk us in the hills; they never surrender. Tracking our every movement online or offline and incorporating the resulting information into every more precise means to monitor us, control us and target us with their commodities, they are omnipresent.
I could go on. Check out ‘borderline personality disorder’, for example, or ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’. But I hope I have said enough to give you the general picture.
Put all these things together and you have what starts to look very much like the condition, described by wikipedia in these words: ‘Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is traditionally a personality disorder characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits’.
In short, the corporate person is a very nasty one – not somebody you want to share your life with in any intimate way. What part is played, I wonder, by enforced subjection to these abusive and controlling relationships with corporate ‘persons’ in the creation and reinforcement of the epidemic of depression that seems to have swept the world? And to what extent has it generated such behaviours in the population? Abusive parents, we are told by scientists, produce abusive children. And there do seem to be an awful lot of abusive people around these days. Just look at the statistics on femicide, child abuse and racial harassment, to name but a few.
But, as any therapist can tell you, it is the recognition that one is in a relationship with someone with a personality disorder that constitutes the first step to escaping it. Get the self-help books out, comrades! And remember the importance of solidarity.