This week, several more CEOs of major corporations resigned from the White House’s Manufacturing Council, citing concerns with President Trump’s conduct and policies. For those looking to all the other CEOs to rise up as moral beacons: Look elsewhere.
What is a public corporation? It is, in essence, an algorithm for making profit. It performs specific tasks with maximum efficiency in order to achieve maximum profit. That is what a company is. The logo and the tagline and the advertising and the branding and the PR is all made-up window dressing. They are clothes draped clumsily on a humanoid robot. Companies do not have a soul. They do not have ethics. They do not have political beliefs; they care about politics only to the extent that they affect a company’s ability to make its profits.
Public ownership only intensifies this truth. The CEO of a major public corporation is not the lone conscience and mastermind of the enterprise, a spirited entrepreneur bringing his vision into the world. He is a hired hand, a captain paid a (high) wage to steer a ship as efficiently as possible. The actual owners of public corporations are thousands of investors and mutual funds and hedge funds and other entities that could not give less of a shit about anything other than the profit that the company posts each quarter, and its stock price. That is how our system works. Companies—particularly those that rely on consumer purchases—want you to anthropomorphize them because it helps you relate to them better and makes you like them more and ultimately builds within you an affinity for their brand that will translate to business success. But companies are not human. Corporations are not things that can be reasoned with. They are machines for making money. They are extremely good at doing the specific thing they do and that is all they do. Everything else is just hand-waving. It follows from this that it would be truly insane for us to equate the success of our nation’s corporations with the success of our nation. Corporations could not care less about America. Corporations care about profits. If we are smart, we will tightly hem in and regulate corporations so that all they can do is what they do well, and keep their amoral, inhuman, robotic presence outside of the civic and political sphere, where morals are actually important. The last thing we should want is to allow companies to meddle in our politics, because their meddling will always be of the absolutely most self-serving variety, with never a care for humanity in a broader sense.
Corporate CEOs will never be moral leaders. They will be followers of the most pedestrian sort. They will act when it becomes in the economic interest of their company to act. All you are seeing, as this parade of CEOs depart their meaningless honorary White House council, is a calculation that the public relations risk has grown too great to make their position worthwhile. This is a calculation ultimately based on profit, not morality. When the PR climate was slightly cooler, they were able to tolerate all of the president’s outrages just fine. History has shown countless times that corporations are perfectly happy operating in fascist or totalitarian or genocidal environments, as long as the government doesn’t interfere in their business operations too much. To hope that CEOs will “do the right thing” is to misunderstand what companies are. They are machines. And like all machines, they will keep right on grinding as the world burns.