Noam Chomsky calls corporations “totalitarian” without a hint of irony (gated version only):

…I’d like to strengthen the federal government. The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world. And in this world there happen to be huge concentrations of private power that are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised.


The corporations are just as totalitarian as Bolshevism and fascism. They come out of the same intellectual roots, in the early Twentieth Century. So just like other forms of totalitarianism have to go, private tyrannies have to go. And they have to be put under public control.

Maybe corporations are evil, but they’re the opposite of totalitarian.  Consider Mussolini’s infamous definition of totalitarian: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”  Now think about how corporations treat their customers.  They don’t care who their customers are.  They don’t care about their customers’ philosophies.  They don’t care how customers use their products.  As long as customers pay up, corporations are content.

So what do you call an organization that cares about one narrow goal, and views everything else with indifference?  Since we don’t have a good word for it, I’ll coin one: partialtarian.  A totalitarian government wants to run every aspect of your life.  A partialtarian corporation, in contrast, is only after one thing: your money.

But what about employees?  Corporations clearly pay a lot more attention to their workers than their customers.  They care if you were out drinking last night.  Discrimination law notwithstanding, they care if a woman has young kids.  Many corporations even want “team members” to prominently use their products: If you work at a Mercedes dealership, your boss probably wants you to drive a Mercedes.

Even here, though, corporations aspire to nothing like totalitarian control.  The partialtarian ethos is always in the background: Do whatever your like on your own time as long as it doesn’t detract from your work.  Can you imagine Mussolini saying something like that?

You could argue that corporations are cold.  Maybe distillery CEOs should worry more about the families torn apart by alcoholism.  Maybe tobacco CEOs should worry more about customers who die horrible, premature deaths.  Maybe potato chip and television CEOs should worry more about obesity.  But corporations’ coldness is just the flip side of their extreme tolerance.  Totalitarian governments try to control everything you do because they care about everything you do.  Partialtarian corporations leave you alone because they only care about your money.

Perhaps Chomsky would condemn corporations as callous.  But I remind myself that the people who run corporations are strangers – and thank them for minding their own business.