Although vastly different, General Electric and Occupy Wall Street share a common cause whether they are aware of it or not. They are both important players in the process of changing how the world defines what a “nation” is. That’s a pretty significant change that I think has been emerging slowly over a long period, but is now beginning to impact world events and could have very significant implications in the future.
When you think of nations, you think of people who have coalesced to enhance and protect their shared interests. Historically, those people have lived within the same geographical borders, but I think geographical borders and location generally are becoming irrelevant to the identification of a “nation.
Let’s look at how General Electric is an example of this trend. GE is generally considered a U.S. company because it was founded within the borders of the U.S. and has its corporate headquarters in Fairfield, Ct., USA. But is it really a “U.S. company”? It serves a global market, with operations in more than 100 countries, employing about 300,000 people around the world. When defining what it means by “citizenship” in its corporate statements, GE clearly does not align itself with any particular nation. Rather, it asserts: “For GE, corporate citizenship means business.” Corporate citizenship = business. Think about that for a moment. Citizenship to GE is not being part of a nation defined in traditional terms by virtue of its geographical borders; rather, citizenship is simply being in business.
And when GE defines its business, again it does not align itself with any particular nation but with the world as a whole: “GE’s businesses are aligned with our overall strategy for responding to the big issues and problems facing the world today, and shaping our future.” [Emphasis in italics added by me]. Certainly when defined by where it pays taxes, GE cannot be identified as part of the U.S. (or any other particular nation for that matter). As the New York Times has reported, in 2010 GE reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, about one-third ($5.1 billion) of which came from its U.S. operations. The company filed some 7,000 tax returns in hundreds of global jurisdictions, spent a global total of $2.7 billion in taxes, and paid $0.00 in taxes to the U.S. In fact, GE claimed a U.S. tax benefit of $3.2 billion.
So, how is GE a U.S. company? What makes it part of the U.S. “nation”? The simple fact that it is headquartered inside the US borders? Does it really place the interests it shares with the people who live within the borders of the U.S. above its own business interests (that is, by its own definition, its real “citizenship”)? Its interests are more likely to be shared with other global companies rather than the people who will vote for the nation’s president in November 2012. I think it’s fair to think of GE as a company that supersedes any nation, or perhaps is part of an as-yet-un-named and un-institutionalized nation of global businesses.
Now let’s think of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It, too, could be seen as an as-yet-un-named and un-institutionalized nation – not of global businesses but of people who are angry at the political and moneyed powerful. Despite its 180° difference with GE, it shares a global presence. In fact, its global reach expanded much more rapidly than the decades it took GE to build its presence. In just a few weeks, Occupy Wall Street now has a presence in at least 70 cities around the world.
How does the Occupy Wall Street movement define “citizenship”? Now that it has become a global movement, does it identify its cause as one that is shared just by those who live within the geographical borders of the U.S.? In fact, in its working draft of its “Principles of Solidarity” it identifies itself as: “autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love. It is from these reclaimed grounds that we say to all Americans and to the world, Enough!” [Emphasis in italics added by me]. Given the opportunity to say whether those who are a part of Occupy Wall Street share interests with the people who work in Wall Street office buildings or people who may be protesting the prospect of “austerity” in Greece, I think it’s a pretty good bet they would identify more with the people of Greece, regardless of geographical borders.
GE and Occupy Wall Street are not the only “new nations” that are emerging. Just consider Al-Qaeda – it isn’t a nation by traditional geographical-centric terms, but it sure has acted like a nation. And that example raises a big question: can new nations engage in wars and, if so, what would such a war look like? We have a real good idea of the type of war that can be waged by Al-Qaeda. What about a war waged by the as-yet-un-named and un-institutionalized nation of people who are angry at the political and moneyed powerful? That war might begin a lot like the Occupy Wall Street movement has begun. Who would they fight? Probably the as-yet-un-named and (largely) un-institutionalized nation of people who have power. How would one side win and what would that mean? What would it mean if one side loses? We don’t know enough right now to even take a credible stab at those questions, but it’s very possible we might find out in the not too distant future.