By What Authority:

Fall 1998

By What Authority

Rethinking the Corporation

An urgent call to confront and dismantle the illegitimate power of global corporations

Virginia Rasmussen (Fall 1998)

(Originally published in Food and Water Journal)

In the following transcript of a speech delivered last summer. to the International Congress of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Virginia Rasmussen delivers a powerful call for citizens all over the world to begin confronting and dismantling the illegitimate power of global corporations. As activists -- and activist organizations -- grapple with the myriad of global corporate crimes and injustices one issue and/or one campaign at a time, Rasmussen and her colleagues at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD), are stimulating a necessary strategic dialogue on what amounts to the ultimate grassroots struggle: redefining the corporation back to its intended subservient status, revoking its "right" to pollute and plunder, and returning its illegitimate power back to the citizens where it belongs.

-- Editor, FOOD C WATER JOURNAL, Fall 1998

Corporations have made themselves the primary defining force on the globe. They shape our cultures and communities, define what is of value and what is not, what news we hear and what we won't, what we trade and what we can't. They define our work, what is produced and consumed, where investments are made, what technologies are developed. They subject the natural world to assault after assault until it can't rise up in the springtime. They craft our laws and policies. They dominate our politicians. Corporations are in charge of our lives.

I think we would agree to describe the reality that flows from this corporate power as anti-democratic, anti-community, anti-worker, anti-person and anti-planet. And who among us believes that, under the current state of affairs, things are about to turn for the better!

Given our relative consensus on this situation, what should we be asking and doing about the corporation? Should we be trying to find out what the varied and endless bad behaviors of corporations are and struggle, like Dianas against Goliaths, to make them a little less harmful? Or should we be trying to find out what corporations are and struggle to make them something different? Don't we need to look at how we are resisting and where it's getting us?

It's critical for all of us to realize that this enormous power belongs to a thing, a legal fiction. In this country, corporations were originally a creation of the people, intended to be subordinate to the people. At that time, "We the People" were propertied white males only, of course, but these morally impaired Founders had one thing right. They knew that if "the people" were to be in charge, they would have to be sovereign over both political and economic life, or they would be sovereign over neither. Corporations were kept on a short and closely watched leash in the 18th and early 19th centuries and their charters revoked by the courts if they exceeded their authority or violated the common good. But the corporate form has taken over. Corporate lawyers, their arguments clothed in the garb of freedom, liberty and all manner of property claims, manipulated federal legislators and corruptible judges, bludgeoned opposing voices, and eventually gathered unto the corporation a potent mix of property, political and civil rights.

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court declared corporations "persons" under the law in 1886 with Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment protections. We're talking about freedom of speech and due process of the law, bestowed well before most people in this country were considered persons under that same law. Thus, when we add their wealth, influence, privileges, and immunities to this personhood status, corporations become "persons" of most unnatural look, size, and power. In truth, the law of real people can no longer direct corporate actions. That is to say, corporations govern. Like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, the creation is now master of the creator.

The global reach of these governing powers grows more evident with each so-called "free trade" agreement, spilling forth in breathtaking numbers. There are already 70 such agreements and more simmering on the front burners. Multinational corporations, not content with eliminating every kind of protective barrier between nations, are now, in the proposed Multinational Agreement on Investment, going inside the borders. Local, state and national laws passed in the public interest to protect workers, communities, jobs, resources and the natural environment will be prohibited; all impediments, they argue, to the free flow of stuff and money. These free trade agreements are first and foremost multinational corporate rights charters, and they are sweeping clean any remains of democratic control.

How far we have drifted from an opinion given by the New York Supreme Court late in the last century when it unanimously revoked a corporate charter for harms done to the general welfare. The court stated that "the life of a corporation is, indeed, less than that of the most humblest citizen."

Those who speak for today's corporations, however, present these corporate bodies as master of all the humble citizens. Consider the following:

Confronting Corporate Tyranny

To effectively begin the work of countering what amounts to global corporate tyranny, we'll need to do two kinds of defining: what we wish to see in the future and what we are seeing in the present. It is true that we will never take ourselves to a place we can't imagine. But it is equally true that since the journey begins where we are, we must know our reality, critically and deeply, or we'll not remove obstructions in the way; obstructions that will end our travel before we've packed our bags. There are corporate roadblocks out there with the power to keep us running in place--as consumers, workers, taxpayers, even soldiers. But as people subordinate to corporations we cannot be citizens, and we will have no power to chart and take this journey. That clever Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it well nearly 170 years ago when he said, "Without power and independence, a town may contain good subjects, but it can contain no citizens."

And, let's not fool ourselves. We'll never move these corporate behemoths out of our way with the poking sticks and thin willow reeds available to us through regulatory action. Corporations are too in control of regulatory law and agencies to get more than a scratch or bump from all our citizen activism around rules and regulations. Nor will we gain their everlasting mercy with pleas for social responsibility or requests to sign a corporate code of conduct, or the pitiful pleading for side agreements on free-trade pacts. Such agreements are quickly disregarded when the fortunes of corporations are threatened in any way. The corporate "person" cannot be humanized, it cannot care, it cannot be responsible.

So what else is possible?

Since we have grown up in a subordinate relationship to corporations, we have trouble even imagining how a citizenry in charge would see and analyze its reality, what language we would use, how we would act to bring change. Our colonized minds make it difficult to cut through our experience and envision real democracy. We've got a "cop in our head," and the cop comes from corporate headquarters. How would we bring a polluting, subordinate corporation to its knees! What would a campaign against a free-trade agreement or the MAI sound like, look like in the hands of people consciously working to be dominant over corporations? Of people who knew such proposals for the deregulation of commerce in money and goods were outrageous invasions of people's sovereignty.

Yet this is how we must imagine and think and choose our language and frame our campaigns against respective corporate deeds and proposals. To do less is to choose subservience. It is to accept the corporate terms of our relationship to them, terms that confer domination as a right of theirs and submission as a duty of ours. To do less is to guarantee that nothing will really be solved in the course of activist labors, leaving us to wage the same battle over and over again, one trade agreement at a time, one toxic chemical at a time, one waste dump at a time.

What must be done?

When those of us who believe in an empowered citizenship see corporations spewing excrement and oppression with ever greater reach, we need to ask, "By what authority can corporations do that?" And we must work strategically to challenge and to remove that authority as we organize against the waste dump, the cancer-causing herbicide, or the polluting corporation in our town. Excrement and oppression, you see, are not merely evidences of corporate "bad behavior," they reflect the very nature of corporations. Corporations are legally empowered and designed to carry out their mission of ever more growth, production and profit, pursued in the mandated spirit of competition, aggression amorality and hierarchy.

When we see people increasingly powerless to protect themselves, their communities and countries, from this excrement and oppression, we need to ask, "Why do people have so little authority? We must work strategically to engage others in that question, and to augment citizen authority with the goal of reversing our legally subordinate relationship to corporations. Remember, a corporation is a thing; it has no more inherent rights than a stepladder or a sewing machine. Laws must change.

When we see nations increasingly doing the corporation's bidding, becoming fellow degraders and oppressors, we must ask, "How it is that our governments protect breathing human beings less and less, while protecting corporations more and more? By what authority does our government trade away to corporations the powers and responsibilities of citizens?" And we must work strategically to shift government protections from the corporations to the people.

Currently, there are an increasing number of municipalities in the U.S. drawing up resolutions and referenda vowing refusal of entry to the invading corporate hordes. Will that turn them back? No. But it could serve to awaken and inform the public mind, and pave the way for an organized, mobilized popular movement. I know of no other way to create the demand that will force power to concede (to paraphrase Frederick Douglas). Also, in the United States, no undertaking would be more humane, more just, more globally far-reaching than to work to reverse the 1886 Supreme Court decision that gave corporations rights of personhood. No campaign would bring more light and hope to our corporatized politics than one to reverse the 1976 Supreme Court decision that equated speech with money and gave corporations the loudest, wealthiest, most undemocratic voice in the electoral process.

But we can't effectively challenge corporate authority at its roots until enough of us de-colonize our minds, stop thinking corporate. This suggests a second kind of work to be about: reading the news more shrewdly in corporate times. We need to be critiquing, uncovering the context and assumptions of corporate and trade organization talk. It just happens to be the slickest, weightiest propaganda on the scene and it can pack a real mind-colonizing punch.

I came upon a speech by Renato Ruggeiro, Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), given in Washington in March 1998. The subject? Celebrating GATT's 50th year. It contains, in very direct words, the sweeping agenda for the global future as corporations would have it: a bald expression of private corporate goals parading as public interest. We can see how minds can turn to slush when words and views like these fill the media and national dialogue as though there were no alternative visions. Enormous numbers of people are quieted and co-opted by its sweeping grandeur, false history, and fake wisdom. For example, according to Ruggeiro:

"The logic of regionalism makes less economic sense in an era of globalization (since it) leads to fragmentation, different rules and discrimination."

"Over the past 50 years trade has been a powerful engine for growth."

"The world's prosperity--and that of the United States--rests on maintaining an open international economy based on commonly-agreed rules."

If we want to redefine our local and global lives, it is this context and these assumptions that we need to drag into the light. We must insist that the role of corporations be discussed and challenged in democratic forums. Because it is only through such exposure and engagement that we can liberate ourselves sufficiently to contest corporations' illegitimate authority to distort our language, define our priorities, and design our future.

So, you want to tear the system down and replace it with a culture of peace? It will only be possible when the authority to govern is in the hands of natural persons and not in the boardrooms of corporate entities. *

For more information on the illegitimate power of corporations and the struggle for a people-centered democracy, contact the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) at P.O. Box 246, South Yarmouth, Massachusetts 02664-0246; 508-398-1145.