Landscapes of Global Capital
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The decline, or weakening, of the State has been a central theme in the debate over the consequences of globalization. Does the rise of corporate transnationalism correspond to a profound denationalization?

Discussions of the State in the era of globalization usually presume the following forces.

  • transnational capital flows and internationalized markets;
  • the growing information economy
  • the growth in number and scale of transnational corporations
  • a recognition of shared global risks;
  • treaties and trade agreements that make national borders increasingly porous;
  • and the flows of refugees and immigrants as weakening state power.

In the United States neo-liberal economic doctrine provides ideological support for these changes. The wishful thinking embedded in this perspective often reappears in the theoretical descriptions of the relationship of the corporation to the state.

An opposing viewpoint argues that the capitalist state remains a potent entity. It negotiates trade agreements, controls national money supplies, provides the necessary infrastructures to support economic growth, and most importantly controls the means of violence. Rather than see the state as withering away, this view sees the state transforming itself as a central agency in a new economic environment in order to secure the most favorable position possible in a competitive global economic landscape.
In corporate advertising, depictions of the state as an institution of power and authority are absent.

However, the history of advertising is rife with signifiers of national identity. The Statue of Liberty, heartland fields of amber waves of grain, the Grand Canyon, baseball games, sagebrush blowing across the open road, fourth of July imagery, Hal Riney's voice, and harvesters in wheat fields are but a few of the signifiers that call forth America as an imagined community of solidarity.

Historically, commodity advertising from
Coke to GM to McDonald's sought to build brand value by attaching soda and automobiles and hamburgers to these American signifiers. They did this so effectively that now these products function as signifiers of American domination throughout the world. In a similar fashion, corporate image advertising by International Harvester, Exxon, Mobil, Lockheed, Boeing, GE, and Aetna has historically sought to intertwine the identity of these corporations to signifiers of Americana.

Boeing has made a transition from relying on the Statue of Liberty as a dominant signifier, to signifiers of global Otherness, race and ethnicity.

And yet, in present day (circa 2000) corporate advertising there has been a noticeable decline in the use of signifiers associated with national identity. These have been replaced by signifiers of global presence where narration, slogans, and music are used to create a tone of global community.

In advertising, State functions are either absent or are performed by corporations. We don't see state supported scientific research, or the role of the military in designing the Internet. Even
NASA seems to disappear in narratives of transcendence that use outer space signifiers. The State no longer seems to have a place in corporate mythology. Corporate advertising in the late 1990s offers a blend of images showing the privatization of the public sector and lauding corporate citizenship. For example, Microsoft, MCI, GE, US West and others favor images of classrooms filled with multiracial children to suggest that their technology has changed the nature of public education. Hughes and Enron help third world countries provide education and energy where the state cannot. Phillip Morris attempts to ameliorate the negative publicity associated with growing anti-tobacco sentiment by running a series of commercials in which they provide disaster relief to flood victims and stock food banks for the elderly -- the kinds of activities we once expected from governmental entities. Boeing flies emergency relief supplies to devastated war regions of Bosnia. The insurance and health care industry present images of safe secure futures no matter what disaster strikes. Each Christmas buying season American Express feeds the hungry in tune with consumer credit card charges.

Another set of corporate commercials head off state regulation by demonstrating practices that are consistent of regulatory drifts fueled by public opinion.
Ford employees hike in the mountains as they proclaim cleaner running engines. Corporate advertising imagistically usurps state maintenance of civil society, thereby supporting a myth that governmental functions are being effectively performed by the private sector.

These over-representations of corporate concern misrepresent real social conditions. Not all corporate services are available universally. How many schools lack the funds to provide technologically enhanced educations? How many citizens do not have health care insurance? How many are denied mental health coverage? How many migrant laborers are not citizens at all? Who cannot afford new medicines or the latest MRI scans or even get second opinions when they have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses? Where has poverty gone?

These ads create an image of a world in which peace and prosperity rule and where there is no competition for scarce resources. They construct a world tinged with the presupposition that these products and services are not commodities at all, but universally available to anyone in need. And yet, these ads are not really seeking to spread the gospel of de-commodification, but are instead testaments to the paradise realized when commodities occupy all spaces. The state withers away because capitalist prosperity is enjoyed by all. Welcome utopia.

In the Aftermath of 9/11

In the aftermath of 9/11, corporate America has rallied once again to the flag, the old red, white and blue. The importance of Imagined Community in the United States has never been of greater importance -- a sense of community and solidarity with all those others calling themselves Americans. Under such circumstances, the symbolism of nationalism is quite potent stuff. Initially, following the catastrophic destruction of the Towers, advertisers felt obliged not to advertise -- being commercial seemed too petty under the circumstances. Just as in Washington D.C. where it is impolitic to appear partisan when the nation is under attack, so too corporations did not want to risk their hard-earned legitimacy (this was before the Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom crises). The commercials that did appear were serious and dignified, simple and straightforward - show the flag and a sense of oneness with the American people. This is frequently articulated by paying homage to the victims of the bombing and to the heroes of the day - the firefighters and the police who gave their lives that horrific day. In the post 9/11 environment Capital has rediscovered the advantages of aligning themselves with the State. In the discursive climate following 9/11 there is no more talk of the disappearing State.

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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey