Archive for January, 2012

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Glossing the Gilding on Guilt

January 27, 2012

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

A conversation on the Becker LinkedIn Discussion Group centered on guilt (thanks to Liz), and I would like to offer some observations about guilt here in The Denial File.

Right off the bat there’s the problem of definition. How does guilt differ from shame, from sadness? To what extent is guilt a derivative of anxiety?

There is recent scientific evidence on the former question.  A team of European scientists have mapped guilt-specific processing in the prefrontal cortex. (Wagner, N’Diaye, Ethofer, & Vuilleumier, in Cerebral Cortex, November 2011)  The methodology involved having subjects relive, while undergoing functional MRI scanning, recent personal experiences of guilt, shame, sadness, and emotionally neutral events. The brain regions involved in each emotion were then combined across subjects and the brain regions activated by each emotion were compared to each other and to knowledge about localization of other experiences and operations, such as–of particular importance here—the mental operation of focusing on oneself, or focusing on others. The researchers found that the brain regions that were most active for guilt experiences were different from those related to shame. The shame areas were active simultaneously with self-focus areas. In contrast, the guilt-specific areas were coactive with other-focus areas, and especially areas whose activation is triggered by the coordination of goals and interactions with another person, such as in a competitive game. All the emotions investigated (sadness, guilt, and shame) rely on brain areas that are functionally impaired in psychopaths and other antisocial disorders. The bottom line for this study is that (in terms of brain functioning) guilt subsumes shame (all areas involved in shame are active during guilt) but not vice versa, and that guilt is closer to sadness than to shame. Guilt is an other-focused experience and shame is a self-focused experience. From other contrasts, the researchers concluded that guilt is evoked when a social norm is violated, whereas shame predominates when there is a violation of personal values. This suggests that guilt has evolved to maintain one’s relationship with others, and shame has evolved to maintain the values undergirding the self.  [Unfortunately all the subjects in this study were female, leaving open the possibility (based on the widely held theory that men have no conscience) that the study might not be replicated with male subjects.]

As to my first question (Is guilt a derivative of anxiety?) my knowledge extends only to psychoanalytic theory, in which guilt is a topically defined anxiety experienced by the ego in reference to the superego. Guilt is the self feeling anxious about its relationship to the internalized parent, a relationship which has been jeopardized by some action or wish. Of course, psychoanalysis presumes that most guilt is unconscious, heavily defended against, and unfounded in reality, i.e., neurotic. In seeing guilt as related to an internalized other, psychoanalytic theory comports with the neuro-scientific findings cited above. Psychoanalysis also (like the summarized study) views shame as a self-focused emotion (with an anal and urethral in libidinal cathexis). Shame is anxiety about a shortcoming in the self. It could be said that it is anxiety about the capacity and adequacy of the self. Shame says in effect “I do not want to be seen.” The desire to hide. [As a result, it often defends against exhibitionism and unacknowledged ambition].

With that all above taken into account (which is easily said but not so easily done)  guilt and shame are used somewhat differently on the offerings [atonements, sacrifices for putting the reader through all this] that will follow in my next post.

Pop Quiz: Did Adam and Eve experience guilt or shame when they violated God’s instructions? Since Adam was in charge (in their male dominated, two-person world) did the two experience the same emotion?

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Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich Are Right On!

January 25, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Gary Hart is calling for a new debate about capitalism (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-hart/capitalism-debate_b_1203153.html) and I fully agree. Think about it. One group of capitalist investors looks for undervalued companies, uses their investment and management expertise to place these companies and their workers on solid footing, leaves them strong and secure, and then shares in their increased profitability. A second group of capitalist investors looks for undervalued companies with full intention of gutting them, stripping them of all existing assets, closing them down, firing the workers, selling off the machinery overseas, and then rewarding themselves with millions in management fees for doing so. Now, we all know there is a difference in the way a trusted animal vet and a procurer for a knackering plant look at a lame horse. Likewise, even we financial know-nothings can see a moral and economic difference between these two investment groups. Group one is socially beneficial and patriotic; group two is socially parasitic and as treacherous to the commonwealth as terrorism. Look around any American city that once had a strong manufacturing segment. Where are those jobs are today? Who raked in major profits, and who got poorer, as that manufacturing segment declined? This is a crucial point on which all laboring people, Dems, Repubs and Independents, the Tea Party and OWS folks, should be able to find plenty of common ground, along with everyone else who places the good of America’s future above their own short term quick profits. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are right on target in pointing out the difference between entrepreneurial investment capitalism and high finance vulture capitalism.

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The Psychic Bartender: Hangman’s Lunch

January 20, 2012

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

People can’t think clearly enough to justify killing.  Sooner or later, in court or out, our unseen motives will always betray us into absurdity or evil. Here’s a case in point.

Nobody likes to think that innocent people might be put to death in a nation whose leaders are getting comfortable with the legitimacy of torture and military tribunals.  Even hardcore advocates of the death penalty strongly prefer to see guilty people die.  Troubled observers rightly grumble about procedural faults in death penalty cases.  But rarely does the public think out loud about the amazing susceptibility of death-penalty jurisprudence to the irrational depths of so-called normal life.  We see pretty clearly the incongruities and lunacy in some other legal systems – Saudi religious courts, or politically warped Soviet justice, say.  But it’s not so easy to recognize the pressure of absurdity in our own “natural” rightness.

Consider this:

The execution of Troy Davis in Georgia for shooting an off-duty policeman defied international appeals for clemency.  It also discounted evidence that the original prosecution was faulty, with seven of nine witnesses to the shooting later recanting their testimony.  There are ample procedural grounds for mistrusting capital punishment.  And cognitive studies have shown that the testimony of witnesses under stress is often unreliable.  To make matters worse, the historical record shows a highly suspect disproportion of death sentences pronounced on black defendants.

But there are deeply pernicious yet unaccountable psychological distortions that bear on the process too.   The religious convictions of judges and juries are bound to color their judgment yet they’re usually unaccountable.  Religious beliefs are euphemized or ignored in public discussions, and are in any case likely to be complex, nebulous, and to some extent unconscious.

At the last minute Troy Davis appealed for a stay of execution to the Supreme Court, which declined to intervene.  The present court is well known for its political appointments and historically novel decisions.  In 2009, Supreme Court Justice Scalia declared that “this Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”  Yet beyond this peculiar, if not tortured reasoning, there are other, no less problematical forces at work.

Justice Scalia, for example, uses morally charged and unaccountable beliefs to justify capital punishment. Though ostensibly a “strict constructionist” in constitutional law, the Catholic Scalia maintains that for the believing Christian, “death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next? The Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: ‘Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God’ . . . . For the nonbeliever, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act!  Besides being less likely to regard death as an utterly cataclysmic punishment, the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved. The doctrine of free will–the ability of man to resist temptations to evil, which God will not permit beyond man’s capacity to resist–is central to the Christian doctrine of salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. The post–Freudian secularist, on the other hand, is more inclined to think that people are what their history and circumstances have made them, and there is little sense in assigning blame.”

“Death is no big deal” unless of course you happen to be wrongly put to death. The justice reduces the bewildering variety of religious experience to “the Christian” and attacks a straw man, the “post-Freudian secularist.”  In this rhetoric Christian theology shrinks to a historically shadowy anecdote used by a dramatist in a popular hagiography.  Murder is terrifying–“a horrible act!”–yet in theory Christian murder victims achieve bliss with God, so the rhetoric boxes in deep ambivalence.  Scalia’s Gospel sees no incoherence here and has no room for Christian mercy.

The justice is weighing the power to kill accused individuals, but his argument refuses to contemplate actual behavior. Its stereotypes foster psychic impunity by polarizing categories and ignoring the quality of evidence.  At no point does Scalia acknowledge that he is talking about faith in immortality that by definition is beyond any rational standard: and that such faith could be used to legitimize judicial murder or a genocidal crusade.  At the same time he imagines that all murders are deliberate acts, ignoring the roles of panic and accident, not to mention organic dysfunction.  Operating in an anti-psychological intellectual zone, the man never considers that the terror of annihilation might be driving his take-no-prisoners convictions about immortality, or that a judge’s magisterial courage might be at bottom tragic denial.

Rage for order is both a behavior and an idea about behavior. Justice Scalia, for instance, is attracted to the idea of punishment: “the Christian is also more likely to regard punishment in general as deserved.” He imagines a world cleanly divided between the righteous and the damned; believers and nonbelievers, Christians and “Post-Freudian secularists,” and so on.  In this mindset the deep structure is melodrama.  Differing imaginations don’t overlap, wonder at the infinite varieties of creation, agonize over how to get at the truth, or rue our tragic inadequacy (“God will not permit [temptation] beyond man’s capacity to resist”). Social life is not a matter of trade, negotiation, mutation, and adaptation, but rather an adrenalized struggle to identify and punish, empowered by a conviction of godlike invulnerability.

The issue is not whether judgment will exist, but what form will it take?  How much is enough?  Who gets to judge?  On what evidence? And who will police the system? History groans with mass movements and cults that have thrived on predatory righteousness.  The self-intoxicating effects of moral aggression stand out in Philip G. Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which had to be halted early when student volunteers in the roles of prison guards began slipping into sadism and the inmates’ depression became self-confirming.  But this was only an experiment, not the living horror of a false conviction and judicial murder–the likely fate of people such as Cameron Todd Willingham, whom Texas officials put to death in 2004 despite demonstrably faulty evidence, a feckless appeals process, and now a brazenly manipulated coverup by a governor who has become a national candidate for president..

In his retirement, with moving humility, Justice John Paul Stevens abjured his support for the death penalty decades before.  Reviewing reasons that capital punishment is “unwise and unjustified,” Stevens called attention to the creaturely motives underlying American cultural practices that make the law perverse, quoting the argument of David Garland’s Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (2010).  Not only is the death penalty not a deterrent to crime, it actually promotes “gratifications,” of “professional and political users, of the mass media, and of its public audience.” With its demonstrable racial biases and its role in the Republican party’s “southern strategy” as well as in the post-Vietnam “culture wars,” capital punishment has served political ends.  But beyond these motives, even beyond revenge, Stevens and Garland see at work “the American fascination with death”–specifically, the “emotional power of imagining killing and death. [Garland] concludes that “the American death penalty has been transformed from a penal instrument that puts persons to death to a peculiar institution that puts death into discourse for political and cultural purposes.”

From Clarence Darrow to the Justice Project, many have challenged the death penalty, and for good reason.  But a thorough reexamination of the death penalty is long overdue.  It needs to bring into the light, for all to see, not only the difficulties that compromise capital punishment in action, but also its profoundly fallible roots in mental life.

Here in the bar, on the mirror behind the glittering bottles, you can still make out the worn gilt letters of the old advertising slogan, “Primum Non Nocere.”

Bottoms up, pal.

(This argument draws on Kirby Farrell’s Berserk Style in American Culture : <<http://people.umass.edu/kfarrell/Berserk_Style_in_American_Culture.html)

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Becker and Hobbes

January 17, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

This weekend I found myself reading a little about Thomas Hobbes, who, or so it seems to me, anticipates Becker somewhat in that Hobbes believed that the chief horror of a person’s living in nature is the person’s fear of death, especially sudden and violent death. Using the example of Prometheus having his liver eaten each day and repaired each night (imagine the anxiety), Hobbes says “to that man which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity, and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.”

Hobbes had little use for clever but meaningless phrases. We should, I suppose, do our best to live in the Now, as contrasted with the past and the future, and those who keep saying this are no doubt right, but, sadly, living in just the Now is impossible for a self-conscious creature. It takes a better and wiser man than I to comprehend this living in the Now. The few withered leaves on the trees outside my study window are, surely, in the Now, but, ah, they remind me of what it to come. The resplendent beauty of autumn is fading now, the leaves bare, the brightly colored leaves sodden. Winter looms ahead. I can prate all I want about the wonder of the moment, but in my imagination I am always standing beside the newly-dug grave when the gravedigger heaves up the jawless skull of Yorick, and all I can say is, “That skull had a tongue in it once and could sing.” What “Now” can erase that tune from my memory?

Hobbes wanted to know what was the answer to this awful problem. Hobbes chose not to consider religion, since he finds is “not a safeguard against fear, but a parasite on it.” No, the answer Hobbes provides is secular. To avoid and to escape the consequences of his impotence, his mortality, his tenuous existence, his self-consciousness which fills him with anxiety, mankind must construct “an authority . . . whose opinions are truth, whose orders are justice.” Becker would say, of course, that Hobbes is talking about “cultural heroics.” The culture absorbs the anxiety, “takes over” the life of the citizen, enables him to live a truncated but comfortable life, one in which he knows his place. Men are, as Hobbes knew, eager to give up their freedom, to abdicate from responsibility for their own lives. They are sheep who want to be led, to be taken care of, to be protected.

What happens, though, when one of the sheep understands that the shepherd knows no more than the sheep?

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Occupy the Toolbox

January 13, 2012

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Yes, once again it’s time for the world to end.  Apocalyptic thinking never wholly goes away.  In good times reason sometimes reduces end-times fantasies to an entertaining diversion like the fabulous “Left Behind” fad.  But doomsday takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.  It’s partly an innocent cognitive prejudice: we frame reality all the time.  To make sense of overwhelming reality, we rely on beginnings and ends, boundaries, agreed definitions, rules.  When they don’t exist, we invent them.  The idea of death of course undermines all such frames.  It’s bigger than what we know, without measurable limits in any direction.  Its mystery is an insult the idea of a person.

Better, then, to imagine the absolute end of everything.  It’s closure.  No more stress, no more doubts.

I’ve written about apocalyptic thinking recently in Berserk Style in American Culture, but today the angels of doom are swarming and biting like midges – the aptly named no-seeums.

Sometimes doomsday is an explicit theology or fantasy of the end.  More often it’s a trope or marker for breakdown or the “I-don’t-want-to-go-there” unthinkable.  Sometimes doomsday is seductive millennialism: a projection of “fate” with hints of utopia or final perfection, as in the Nazi “Thousand Year Reich” or its Soviet counterpart.  This sort of fantasy protects infantile addiction to idealism and impossible self-aggrandizement, as Hitler obligingly demonstrated.   Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are susceptible to this sort of cosmic payoff, but they’re hardly alone. As he slipped into Alzheimer’s dementia, President Reagan poignantly brought up end-times themes in a way that showed the mind trying to cope with encroaching awareness of its own doom.

The point is, doom can be used in all sorts of ways.  It’s a Swiss army knife, an arsenal of tools that can be used in every emergency you can imagine.

And today?

Rightwing politics and media strongly favor apocalypse as a form of threat display that can compel attention and assent in anxious, frustrated audiences. Candidates such as Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman are enthusiastic about doomsday.  Newt Gingrich favors attention-getting ideas that explode “outside the box” (frame) like the atmospheric nukes he imagines causing an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would shut down civilization.

Robert Reich recognized the desperate quality of Gingrich’s budget-demolishing tax plan:  “Americans are so cynical about the major institutions of our society that someone who offers huge, outrageous plans holds a special fascination: The whole system is so awful, people tell themselves, why not just jettison everything and start from scratch? Let’s throw caution to the winds and do something really big – even if it’s colossally stupid. This is why the more outrageous Newt can be, the better his polls. The more irresponsible his bomb-throwing, the more attractive he becomes to a sizable portion of Americans so fed up they feel like throwing bombs.”

The apocalyptic feeling, Reich sees, reflects exasperation and despair of practical solutions.  Hence the urge to run amok.

The berserk behavior registers in Reich’s metaphor of “bomb-throwing.”  That trope in turn ought to remind us of suicide bombers and the thrilling, stupid pledge to succeed “or die trying.”  History’s most expensive military is always deploying doomsday threat to trigger another war.  Osama bin Laden provided the corporate military with a rich fund of threats. The nasty TV series “24” celebrates torture as the sovereign prophylactic for unimaginable crisis.  These days a chorus is warning us that the Iranians are planning nuclear apocalypse.

The empire according to Newt has learned nothing.

This is of course one of the core motives for doomsday thinking.  If you keep repeating the same demonstrably futile behavior – Iraq was a disaster, Afghanistan is a chronic disaster: let’s invade Iran – you may begin to hear a voice in the back of the mind screaming for doomsday relief.  Vietnam marked the beginning of fifty years – half a century – of what has been “the American War.”  After all the corpses, refugees, and trashed economies are tallied, there has been no victory.  As usual, merchants of death have made a buck, but the nations involved have only enriched the undertaker.

The political-economics of the American War has a counterpart in the tormented struggle to cope with the financial debacle on Wall Street and in Europe.  The banks have created a crisis that demands the equivalent of war on the public treasury to prevent global explosion.  These days financial writers are howling about collapse, devolution in Europe (Rick Perry has advocated secession for Texas, too), and of course Nazi despotism.

On Main Street the doomsday feeling comes partly from the hoarding of money and power at the top.  It makes ordinary working people feel helpless and worthless.  At the top boundless money is boundless life and boundless freedom.  On the bottom, the empty pocket means social death.  The problem isn’t just sickening injustice.  Hoarded wealth doesn’t circulate, so the economy’s lifeblood stagnates and the heart dies.  In more senses than one.

But even at the top the fear of doomsday is at hand. After all, the higher you go, the farther you can fall and the more you have to lose.  The more you loot and hoard, the more you fear your bony, hollow-eyed, snarling neighbor.

Survival greed haunts the Midas suite as well as the gutter.  As Becker says, “Whoever gets enough life?”  No wonder the very rich live behind electric fences.  No wonder dictators murder compulsively trying to swat the swarming no-seeums of doomsday.

In this context the mild Occupy Wall Street protests are long overdue.  They dream of rolling down darkened limousine windows.  As in Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” they dream of looking the boss in the eye.  The act of speaking out boosts morale, but protest always struggles against disillusion and despair–doomsday.  If you rebel against denial and let yourself feel the sting of injustice and bungle, you risk feeling helpless and in danger of retaliation from on top.  The photos of cops and pepper spray that make you indignant can also make you afraid.  When media demands that the protesters say what they want, as if modern economies can be reformed by a bumper sticker, the challenge is so extreme it insinuates helplessness.

The best answer to doomsday is build something.  That means seeing problems to be solved and thinking about the toolbox rather than the cosmic grindstone.  Step by step.  Swat those no-seeums.

Roll up your sleeves.

Occupy the toolbox.

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To What End?

January 10, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

An aspect of Ernest Becker’s work that has always intrigued me is his treatment of anality. In The Denial of Death he characterizes it as follows: “ … it reflects the dualism of man’s condition—his self and his body. The anus and its incomprehensible repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.” Later he states, “To say someone is ‘anal’  means someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal.”

In reflecting on the symbols of culture it occurred to me that it might be instructive to examine the symbols associated with that most important of consumer products, toilet paper. Regarding our dual nature and death anxiety, toilet paper is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. When we do an internet image search of toilet paper, what do we find? My search uncovered a variety of symbols but they seem to cluster in a few groups. Babies are popular, as are a variety of cartoon animals, bear cubs and bunnies, butterflies and puppies. The famous big bear who does his business in the woods is conspicuously absent. Why are these images chosen? Newborns represent the opposite end of the temporal spectrum from death. They reflect life itself, specifically new life and regeneration, a transcendence of death. Denial is accomplished through counter symbolism. Psychologically it is similar to the tagline for my mother’s assisted living retirement community: A Sunrise Community. The bears and bunnies are not depicted realistically but rather as a form of unreality, colored pink or blue and sporting  a big ole smile. Denial or repression is accomplished through fantasy. What are we to make of this? I’m not sure, but perhaps a little more time roughing it in the woods would be a good thing. An unexpected and interesting result of my search was the discovery of toilet paper used  to smear political opponents, i.e. Bush, Obama, Osama bin Laden. Here, the connection between death anxiety and the annihilation of enemies is clear.

Finally, regarding the topic of anality and death denial I would like to recommend a short film that I use in my classes. It is only ten minutes long and readily available online. The title is Our Time Is Up and it tells the story of an anal psychotherapist whose imminent death changes his perspective. While the film plays fast and loose with therapeutic techniques, it nevertheless clearly shows the effects of death denial and the benefits of working through that denial. You can view it below.

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Corporate Social Responsibility

January 6, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Somewhere along the line, we seem to have swallowed the idea that the sole purpose of corporations is to maximize profits for their shareholders. Recently, I even heard Robert Reich, being interviewed by Bob McChesney, make that very statement as if it were completely self-evident. http://will.illinois.edu/mediamatters/show/september-4th-2011 Apparently, McChesney thought the same; at least he didn’t challenge the statement at all.

I am really concerned about this. This is certainly NOT the view of corporations we have always held in the American social dialogue. It is, I fact, a relatively recent view, and I would like to see it challenged more often than it is.

Corporations are not entities sui generis. Corporations are granted the right to exist by the public, and the public has every right, therefore, to expect that corporations will contribute to the PUBLIC GOOD in exchange for the right to exist. The current view is only defensible, therefore, if we assume that the public good is exhaustively defined by maximization of profits for corporation shareholders. This is abjectly absurd and absolutely false on the face of it.

We can imagine circumstances in which this might be less absurd and false – for example, when corporation shareholders comprise most, if not all, of the local community in which the corporation functions and does its business. By its very nature, the capitalist system is one in which, through its myriad market processes, value is extracted from one area and bestowed upon another (even the so-called expanding economic pie does not expand in a vacuum.) There is always a tradeoff between what is created and what is destroyed in the process of that creation. When the extractions (what is destroyed) come from largely the same people as those on whom the benefits are bestowed, as with locally functioning and marketing businesses and corporations, the system is defensible.

But this is not the case at all for large national and multinational corporations. The corporations are geared toward extracting value from anywhere, anyone, anyway, anyhow, and bestowing it on shareholders (who, of course, richly reward corporation executives for the favor.)

Would we tolerate among us a group of people who make it very clear that they are constantly scheming to take your valuables from you? Would we gratefully work for such people, thankful that through them we have a paycheck, right up to that day when we come home and find our own home plundered and empty? I don’t think so. I think we would very quickly turn to the law for protection!

Which brings us to a final point. As long as we could expect that corporations had “being good citizens” as at least part of their mandate (which, believe it or not, was once the case) it made some sense to give them leeway on the legal regulatory front. But these corporations now have completely shed even lip service about citizenship responsibilities. They have made it very clear, and we have bought the line, apparently, that their sole purpose is to maximize profits for their shareholders.  It has come to the point that their willingness even to obey existing laws have become subject to the executives’ cost/benefit analysis, weighing longer term chances of being prosecuted and prospective fines against  the value to be extracted and grabbed up in the immediate.

In such circumstances, we citizens have nowhere else to turn for protection than to the regulatory function of the State, a function that must be strengthened and seriously pursued. Allowing corporations to claim that maximizing profits for their shareholders is their sole purpose (justifying even law transgression if the cost/benefit analysis indicates this as the most likely path for maximizing profits) and at the same time weaken and undermine the regulatory regime of the State is a certain recipe for disaster. We need to challenge this assumption at its root.