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Questioning Institutional Power: From Outside and Within


An analysis of who can influence dominant global institutions and examination of corporate centralization

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By William Shaub, Online Editor

In the past decade, the world has seen the kind of power that private, international and unaccountable institutions yield. The effects of globalization since the 1970’s have revealed highly centralized structures of power from financial conglomerates to pharmaceutical monopolies and international enterprises. These dominant institutions not only have extensive control over resources and capital, but make social, economic, and political decisions that never come under public scrutiny.

Extensive analyses of private global institutions have been done in the past by intellectuals and journalists. Work has been done on explaining the roles these businesses have to play in what’s called a market society, and their respective (and general) interests have been closely examined. The books and studies of public figures, such as Justin Lewis and Edward Herman, have inspired activists in communities all around the world to socially pressure powerful institutions to work for the public good.

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However, there is only so much an activist can do alone outside the corporate hierarchical structure.

Michael Moore filmed a documentary on the issue, and not a single global company or even an institutional goal changed. Corporations and financial institutions, decidedly private and unaccountable structures, are just that: unaccountable to the public. They lack the ‘defect’ of the state, which is potentially moral and accountable to the extent that it’s democratic. Therefore, those on the outside are remarkably limited in their influence on these massive institutions.

If a celebrity filmmaker as famous as Michael Moore or a political activist as brilliant as Noam Chomsky cannot seriously dent the institutional search for short-term profits and expanded market share at the expense of humanitarian values, who can?

It’s quite easy to overlook the idea that activists on the outside are not, in fact, the only population sample that can influence corporations. Managers, executives, creditors, CEO’s, workers and others from within the institution itself can also have an effect.

But what influence do they have on institutional goals? What is the extent of their capacity to have an effect on a business’s institutional structure?


One on One with Bill Darrell

To find some answers, I interviewed Bill Darrell, a former corporate executive at General Electric. He spoke very specifically about his role in the company, “as a humanist,” right from the beginning of our discussion. “My role…centered on my management obligations to my associates under me. The salient point being the fairness and decency to which I treated them. I found this belief to fade into obscurity the higher one went into the management hierarchy.”

After further questioning the hierarchical structure inside which he worked, I asked what he could change within GE’s personnel and business code. Mr. Darrell’s response was straightforward, “In my plant, I would have had considerable power to remove and replace positions in the hierarchy.”

What about in the expanded sense, or the ability to make institutional changes elsewhere in GE? “None. I, nor anyone else at my level, could make an impact on the company’s internal structure.” When I asked if the same applied to GE’s standard institutional goals, such as expanding market share and short-term profit, I received an equally blunt, “No.”

[pullquote]There is only so much an activist can do alone outside the corporate hierarchical structure.[/pullquote]

Mr. Darrell made a point of emphasizing the concept that moral values, like solidarity, sustainability and humanitarian consciousness, become less important as one gets more power within an organization. “Corporate decision making dissolves … the higher one elevates within an organization.”

So who does feel this responsibility and place priority on moral (public) issues? “Clarity of truth is usually found in the middle … in this case mid-management.”

Our conversation now became increasingly revealing, considering that Mr. Darrell ran an operation in Northeastern Ohio and received multiple executive’s awards from GE. If he isn’t considered upper level management, than who is, and why do important values “fade into obscurity” the higher one goes into the management hierarchy?

The standard analysis of a corporation’s goals reveals that its primary functions are to increase profits and market share. This isn’t exactly a secret, considering rudimentary business skills like the 80-20 rule exist. Therefore, those who bear the most responsibility for achieving, or more importantly, not achieving these goals are at the highest levels of corporate management and decision-making.

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