- Evocations of Empire in A Transnational Corporate Age: Tracking the Sign of Saturn
I - Tales of Lost Glory
In “American Tune,” Paul Simon gave an early if somewhat hazy voice to what is now a prolific and impassioned motif in premillennial American economic and political life. For many, “what’s gone wrong” is the sum total effect of global structural changes u pon the once mighty U.S. economy. It is the mass exodus to the Third World of once lucrative manufacturing and management jobs from the U.S. and the subsequent replacement of the promise of stable and secure careers with “McJobs” (Coupland 5). Concurrentl y, millions of middle-management positions have disappeared below the incessant waves of corporate “downsizing.” What’s gone wrong, writes political pundit Kevin Phillips, is that:
People were starting to sense that the so-called middle-class squeeze was really much more: a sign of America’s declining [economic] position . . . [and] a threat to their own futures and their children’s.(Boiling Point 163)
And a fair number of those domestic jobs that were neither expunged nor exported across political boundaries in the ‘80s and ‘90s have reemerged at the American socio-economic margins—that is, at the urban core—in Hong-Kong-like or Sao Paulosque scenes, as described by Roger Rouse:
In a hidden sweatshop in downtown Los Angeles, Asian and Latino migrants produce auto parts for a factory in Detroit. As the parts leave the production line, they are stamped “Made in Brazil.”(Mexican Migration 8)
Auto parts are not the only simulated Brazilian import. As Barlett and Steele note, income stratification patterns in the U.S. between 1959–1989 show a rapid acceleration of the gap between rich and poor. This gap occurs at the expense of a rapidly shrin king and disproportionately taxed middle-class. That is, much of the middle class is economically downwardly mobile (America: What Went Wrong?). Coupland dubs this mass process Brazilification:
Brazilification: The widening gulf between the rich and poor and the accompanying disappearance of the middle classes.(Generation X ix)
All of this is a long way from the American techno-utopian workers paradise portrayed in the famed 16mm industrial cartoon, King Joe (1949). “King Joe” was an animated factory worker whose work and leisure activities were meant to be an ideol ogical sign. They depict the average (white-male, blue collar) American “Joe” as the most productive and best materially compensated worker in world history. He was an early icon of the American Empire that emerged in the post-WWII period. According to Walter Russell Mead:
The basis of the American Empire after 1945 was economic. The military might that seems so awesome is the result of wealth. America rose to power because the rest of the world was exhausted. As the world recovered from the war, it was inevitable that America’s relative power would weaken.(Mortal Splendor 54)
Since 1973, the material equivalents of King Joe and his realm have all but vanished. His kingdom now serves as social history and the ground for parody, nostalgia and simulation. As Europe and East Asia recovered from the effects of global and/or civil wars, new or resurrected industries, many nurtured by U.S. Cold War deterrence and containment strategies, provided stiff competition in a swiftly globalizing marketplace. As rival corporations concentrated their resources in transnational mergers and a cquisitions, the feasibility of setting in motion mobile production, capital and information strategies at sites across the globe seemed as enticing as it was necessary. In the Third World, U.S., European and Asian transnational corporations (TNCs) devel oped an economic environment characterized by low wages and low corporate tax rates. Unions were absent or ineffective and corrupt. Child labor could be easily and inexpensively procured. Environmental and/or safety regulations were non-existent or of ten easily circumvented. These competitive advantages accelerated the exodus of rust-belt manufacturing jobs. And with the mobility that the digitalization of business activity provides, the New World Order can be construed as a period of shifting flows of globalized capital and migrant bodies along information highways of magnetic oxide.
As Main Street yielded to...