The Immortals, according to Herodotus, were a group of 10,000 soldiers that served as the imperial guard and elite fighting force for the Persian Empire, the largest empire the world would see until the rise of Genghis Khan. They supposedly got their name from the fact that whenever one fell in battle, another took his place, so that their numbers never fell below 10,000. Men die in battle, but they are replaced, and the unit continues on, undying. No matter how many you kill, they return as strong as before. Many of us remember their portrayal in the popular movie, 300. With black robes and silvery masks that hid their faces, they certainly were a powerful portrayal of dehumanized soldiers. The individual man is not important, so long as another exists to replace him. Only his place is important. Only his role defines him. He is mortal but his role, his place, and his collective unit are immortal.
Since I first heard about the Immortals in some history class long ago in grade school, I have found the concept fascinating. The psychological effects of a military unit that never shrank in number must have been tremendous in the ancient world. What seemed to be a group of regular soldiers was transformed into an idea that conveyed the power of an empire that was ruled by a living god and would last forever. Of course no empire lasts forever, and the Persians were eventually defeated by Alexander of Macedonia, commanding a far smaller force in unfamiliar territory. Still, the concept of perpetual life through collective immortality is alive and well.
I have described these ancient soldiers and their fascinating name because it strikes me that our society has created it’s own Immortals, albeit without intending to or naming them such. They don’t carry weapons, but they certainly can wield tremendous power over people’s lives. They don’t wear costumes or uniforms, but a great many are instantly recognizable. They aren’t really alive, but they could theoretically exist as long as humanity itself. We encounter them every day, for they are everywhere, in every country. If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m talking about corporations, the gigantic collections of stockholders and employees that occupy an increasingly prominent place in our civilization.
Like the ancient Immortals were composed of a set number of soldiers, corporations are officially composed of a set number of shares of stock. They can be owned by ordinary people, employees, other corporations, and in a disturbing recent development, the government as well. Who owns them isn’t really important (except in the case of the government), because most of them act more or less independently of their actual shareholders. Whoever the shareholders are, they probably hold the stock for more or less the same reason, because they want to make money. The employees, from CEO on down to the rank and file, are charged with acting in the shareholders’ interests. Their performance is measured in many ways, but ultimately, it is only the share price, and whether it goes up or down, that the average shareholder cares about.
While private corporations are widely associated with capitalism, the first corporations precede the capitalist era. The first corporations were joint stock companies commissioned by the governments of Europe to manage colonial possessions in the 18th century. Organizations like Britain’s East India Company, which acted as the government of India throughout much of the 19th century, were, in essence, a way for governments to expand their economic power without having to actually do any of the governing or risk any of their military assets. Some were successful,and some less so, but to this day, a corporation must be incorporated by a government. In this country, it usually is the government of whatever state the business starts in. They exist with the permission of the state and are granted almost all the rights usually afforded to individual living people. With but a few exceptions, they are granted all the same protections as individual citizens are under the Constitution.
None of these things is necessarily cause for concern. It goes without saying that corporations have contributed much to our society. One might reasonably argue that the technological progress and improvements in our quality of life over the past two centuries would not have been possible without them. However, time goes ever forward, and just as every tyrant was once an innocent child, so too may the institutions we set up with the best intentions end up doing the worst kind of damage. Here we have these institutions, some of which are already older than any living person. Their original owners are long gone. Their shares bought by someone else hoping to make some money. So, they are now forever cut off from whatever purpose and vision their founders had, assuming they in fact had one beyond the accumulation of personal wealth. They exist, they continue, for no purpose other than the accumulation of wealth, and they are very good at it. They accumulate, they grow, they devour one another in the endless pursuit of a higher share price.
To be sure, individual people can be just as greedy, and more, than the worst companies, but there’s a reasonable limit to the amount of power a single person can have. It isn’t really a question of how clever or how intelligent or how politically savvy they are that limits their power, because after all, they can delegate power to others to expand their empires. Stated simply, every person’s power to influence events and to influence others is limited to his or her own lifespan. Dictators like Stalin and Tse Tung did terrible things that will not soon be forgotten, but they died, and their madness and evil died with them. Mortality is the ultimate equalizer. No matter how powerful or weak we may be, we are all equally mortal.
But a company is not. It’s owners die. They are replaced. The company continues. It’s only true motivation is greed. The corporations that inhabit our society are yet young by the standards of time we use to measure nations and civilizations. What will they be like when they are no longer young? They already have tremendous power. How much more might they accumulate in another hundred years, two hundred, five hundred? Who really controls them? Is it the employees, the shareholders? None of them can really be held fully responsible for what the company does, nor should they be. Each man is responsible for only his own conduct, but here is the dilemma. What are the consequences of having a group of perpetual entities acting only on greed without anyone being really and truly accountable for their actions? They are treated as people, but they are not accountable. They can’t be imprisoned, and whatever morality might be exercised by an individual owner or employee, it is drowned in the collective greed that unites them all.
Now, I am not a Marxist, nor a Socialist. I do not believe these philosophies are really so different from capitalism. They all measure the man and his well being in terms of material wealth, and that, in my opinion, is the basic problem. They seek to equate social justice with economic equality, but these are not at all the same. Some are quite happy to live simply, and some are not. Some will do great things so that they may buy themselves a better life. I applaud them. I do not resent those who possess great wealth. I admire those who accumulate it themselves through their own talents and labors. They are to be praised for their hard work. I am, however, troubled by how much political power and power over the lives of individual people, that the very wealthy can wield. It is even more troubling when that power is not even being wielded by a person, but by these new Immortals. They lobby the government. They hire and fire thousands. Their decisions affect the lives of many persons to whom they are not accountable. Their decisions can poison our water, our air, our lives. Their misconduct can ruin those who had little or no part in the decisions that led to their ruin. They are, all too often, protected by the governments because their collapse would affect so many. There was a time when no corporation was “too big to fail”. I ask again, what will happen when the Immortals are 300 years old, 500? How big can they be? What is the limit to their power?
I am the sort of person that attempts to accept the world as it is. I am not a crusader, nor have I any illusions of being able to change the world or even anyone’s opinion of anything. I merely seek to ask questions, and encourage those who read to ask them as well. It is by asking questions, not answering them, that we progress as individuals and as societies. What are the consequences of having immortal collectives of people acting with all the rights and privileges of people? What good can they do, and does it outweigh the harm? What limits should we place upon them? How large can they grow? Can they grow larger and more powerful than the governments which our ancestors established to protect us from the arbitrary tyranny of the few and powerful? What legacy will our Immortals leave to history?