A recent New York Times headline asked an insinuating question: “After the Attacks, Which Side Is the Left On?” The Times should find the nerve to put the same question to the major players of business and finance. Which side is Citigroup on? Or General Electric and Boeing? Where does loyalty reside for those American corporations that have rebranded themselves as “global firms”? Our resurgence of deeply felt patriotism, with official assurances that Americans are all-in-this-together, raises the same question. At a deeper level, the patriotic sense of unity collides with familiar assumptions advanced by the architects and cheerleaders of corporate globalization. The nation-state has been eclipsed, they explain, and no longer has the power to determine its own destiny. The national interest, they assert, now lies in making the world safe for globalizing commerce and capital.
In these threatening times, such claims sound suddenly unpersuasive. Frightened citizens turn naturally to their government for security–the original purpose of the nation-state–and business enterprises do the same. The global corporation, however, intends to have it both ways: American first when that serves its interest, but otherwise aloof from mere nationality. Since these companies are busy waving the flag at the moment, one needs to recall how they described themselves during the past decade, as they dispersed production worldwide and planted their logos in many distant lands. “The United States does not have an automatic call on our resources,” a Colgate-Palmolive executive once explained. “There is no mindset that puts this country first.”
The much-admired CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, portrayed GE as a “borderless company,” and he brutally enforced the logic. When GE wanted additional cost savings on turbines, jet engines and appliances, it told its US suppliers to pick up and leave, or else–that is, move the jobs to Mexico or other locales where the labor is much cheaper, or GE would find different suppliers. A GE executive in Taiwan once remarked, “The US trade deficit is not the most important thing in my life…running an effective business is.”
An aerospace executive who supervised McDonnell Douglas’s production in China told the New York Times: “We’re in the business of making money for our shareholders. If we have to put jobs and technology in other countries, then we go ahead and do it.” A few years later, McDonnell was swallowed by Boeing, which likewise subscribes to an unsentimental view of national identity. Boeing’s on-site manager at the Xian Aircraft Company in China, where $60-a-month machinists make tail sections for the 737, told me, “We’ve got suppliers that we’ve dealt with for fifty years, and we’re asking all of them to offload production to China.” In addition to the low wages, American firms trade US jobs and technology for access to such burgeoning markets. The US government looks the other way or sometimes even facilitates the transactions.
Then there is Citibank, a pioneer in global banking and now part of the mammoth financial conglomerate called Citigroup. John Reed, Citibank’s former CEO, used to complain regularly about the stultifying bank regulations imposed by the United States, and he often threatened to relocate Citibank’s headquarters to a more banker-friendly nation. “The United States is the wrong country for an international bank to be based,” Reed asserted (though the US government more than once bailed out his bank when it was on the brink of failure). Citibank, it happens, is also a notorious channel for wealthy autocrats trying to spirit ill-gotten fortunes (including drug money) out of their home country ($80-100 million for Raul Salinas, the corrupt brother of Mexico’s corrupt former president). Citigroup has lobbied to weaken the new regulatory rules required to halt the flows of terrorist money in the global financial system.