We invite you to engage us in this idea: giant corporations govern. In the Constitution of the United States, they are delegated no authority to make our laws and define our culture. Corporations have no constitutions, no bills of rights. So when corporations govern, democracy flies out the door.
This may be a depressing idea but it is not a new idea or a complicated one. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, among many others, spelled it out:
“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”
There is something else: when people live within a culture of privatized power, common sense scrambles out the window. People cease to trust their eyes and ears, to rely upon their own experiences. Their minds become colonized.
How else to explain that our justice system treats corporate assaults upon life and democracy— such as pouring millions of tons of poisons into air, water and food, denying Bill of Rights protections to employees—as legal. Or that The New York Times Corporation really ran this headline in April 1998: “Times have changed . . . Corporations champion free expression.”
To understand the illegitimate authority by which corporations govern, people need to talk about it. To challenge this authority effectively, activist groups need to debate different perspectives, goals and strategies from those we’re used to. For the past few years, the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) has been provoking such debates.
VALIANT ORGANIZING, EARLY MORNING DOUBTS
Let’s start with what we and you have learned. Thousands of groups know how to: stop an incinerator, organize a union, block a timber harvest sale, decrease a toxic emission, orchestrate a referendum or initiative, enact new permitting and disclosure regulations. People spend years getting regulatory agencies to lessen a single corporate harm.
But sometimes, in the darkness before dawn, have you wondered why—despite all this good activist work—corporate assaults against life and democracy keep increasing? After a century of local, state and federal regulatory laws—pure food, labor, stock exchange, clean water, clean air, public health—why do people in community after community have to struggle for years to get the right to know which corporate chemicals are killing their families? To bring a wrongful damage suit against a corporation? To save a forest? To get a fair collective bargain in election? To get back pay or their own pension money?
We all know stories about small, low-budget groups stopping global corporations from: siting a deadly factory, clear-cutting a forest, ramrodding through a new law, busting a union, using deceptive advertising, carrying propaganda into a school. This is vital: valiant and persistent organizing has enabled people to stand up to raw power and violence. It has bettered the daily lives of millions, instilled confidence and self-respect, transformed whole communities, taught democracy.
But when the joy of victory fades, imperial corporations remain. Slowed down in one place, they pop up in another. They are in everybody’s yards front and back, in little leagues and scouting, in town halls, state houses and Congress.
They keep blocking sane, logical transitions in food, energy, transportation, health care, finance, forestry and manufacturing. They keep funding think tanks and university corporations to frame public debate. They keep buying obedience and defining family values. Their leaders still walk off with big money and top community honors.
Unimaginable billions of tax deductible corporate dollars still gurgle through corporate public relations, advertising and law firms.
Radio, television, magazine, and movie corporations keep selling their relentless message: “Corporations: efficient; good. Government: wasteful; bad.”
Giant corporations bully and browbeat. They denounce people like you and us as Luddites, Commies, tree-huggers and ‘60s leftovers. They homogenize people into consumers. They turn life into corporate theme parks.
They also manipulate our government. It’s nothing personal, of course. It’s just that when they turn our own government against us—bureaucracies and courts and police and military paid with our money—they make us into the king’s subjects all over again. But the United States got rid of the king a long time ago. We are supposed to be self-governing people. You know, “We the People.”
During the early 1990s some of us began to research and write about corporate, legal and movement history. We started convening “Rethinking the Corporation, Rethinking Democracy” meetings. In 1995 we formed POCLAD
Among other things, we realized that in our prior work we had limited our goals and generally restricted our efforts to regulatory and administrative arenas. This was also true for many people’s organizations. Yet corporations never limited their designs and actions to anything.
A century ago corporate strategists began to dream up regulatory laws and agencies to replace the chartering processes, general incorporation laws and state constitutions which people had used to define corporations as subordinate. They transformed once potent public cultures of trespass, nuisance, liberty and personal property rights into bastions of private corporate power.
Perhaps you remember thinking this about your past campaigns: If only we had gotten a thousand more letters in the mail; more experts at the hearings; better press coverage; more people at the demonstration…
We remember. But now we see that even with these “if only,” corporations would still be I charge. This is because the political and legal culture has been diverting activists from political arenas where people can define issues and make the rules; where whether we win or lose, it is clear that the struggle is about who is in charge—corporations or people.
So today, POCLAD is exploring different organizing arenas and reaching for strategies that take into account long-term corporate influences over culture, law, and even activist organizing.
We have intensified our examination of the great colonizer of the twentieth century—the large business corporation. We’ve tracked its development from a subordinate legal entity created to serve the public good into a fantastic shield for property and wealth. We’ve helped people see how corporations got courts and legislatures to deny the rights of people and nature via doctrines and laws asserting that the corporation is a legal “person,” has property rights in decision-making, is forever.
Our inquiries keep leading us to the activists in every generation who perfected organizations to advocate human rights over property rights, to repel their era’s aggressions against democracy. These were people who understood that they could never practice self-governance and enjoy political liberty if they let legislatures, courts and culture define corporations as beyond the authority of the sovereign people.
POCLAD’s exchanges with activists started with a focus on corporations. Discussion quickly expanded to include governance and democracy, unleashing a torrent of questions:
What should be the legal, political and cultural relationships between people and corporate bodies? Who decides? How were a minority of natural persons in the original thirteen states able to define the majority of human beings as non-persons? To define Africans as property, Native peoples as invisible? Given that Native peoples, women, African Americans, immigrants, debtors, people without property, gays and lesbians are still organizing for justice and equality, how did corporations become superduper legal persons a century ago?
Should people dismantle giant corporations? Transform them? Should a business corporation be regarded as a citizen? As private? Should it have free speech? Are there constitutional rights differences between the NAACP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Between the Sierra Club and the Chemical Manufacturers Association or the Tobacco Institute? Why does the General Motors Corporation have more rights than the United Auto Workers Union?
What is property? Who decides if it’s public or private? How did other generations decide? How did corporate leaders get their decisions on investment, production and jobs to be regarded as private?
How much legal and moral liability should shareholders bear beyond their own investments and consciences?
What roles did railroad, banking, mining and other corporations play in the federal government’s abandonment of freed women and men of the South? In the writing of the Southern states’ apartheid constitutions? In the exploitation of Native peoples? Of immigrants from Asia and the global South?
Who were the Knights of Labor? What did they have to say about railroad, banking, grain and telegraph corporations? About the control of knowledge? Who were the Populists? Why did they risk their farms and jobs to stop the corporation from becoming the dominant institution in the land? What happened to them? Who were the Progressives? Why did they concede that giant corporations were inevitable, and settle for making them a little less dominant?
Why didn’t anti-trust laws and all that trust busting of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson fix everything? Did antitrust fix anything?
Why were regulatory and administrative agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created? Who wanted them? Why? Was there anyone who wanted something else?
What is this country’s plan of government? How is each generation supposed to discover it? To live it? Why didn’t Tom Paine encourage people in Colonial times to search for a more socially responsible king? Do famous phrases like “We the People” and “consent of the governed” mean anything?
Why do environmental laws regulate environmentalists? Why do labor laws regulate unions?
THE TIME IS RIPE
Millions of people have organized courageously against corporate assaults—of the legal and culturally accepted kind and of the illegal and culturally rejected variety. This is as it should be, as Eugene Debs has noted: “If it were not for resistance to degrading conditions, the tendency of our whole civilization would be downward; after a while we would reach the point where there would be no resistance, and slavery would come.”
Thousands of activist groups are flourishing. People from all walks of life have taught themselves to demystify complex issues and their special languages: chemistry, biology, physics, nuclear energy and weaponry, genetic engineering, global finance and trade, civil rights and human rights law, regulatory and administrative law.
After two centuries of struggle, the formerly dissed and disenfranchised have gained the legal status of persons. In recent years, many have invested time and energy exploring identity politics. This means that even as “corporate persons” cast grotesque shadows across a disfigured cultural landscape, there is finally a multitude of human persons who can envision ripening into a self-governing people.
It is now possible to direct organizing struggles beyond lessening the impacts of endless corporate assaults. Isn’t it time? Today’s giant corporations are not fundamentally different from what they were in the seventeenth century when King James of England chartered the Plymouth Company “for the planting, ruling and governing of New England in America.”
We believe that community, labor, environmental justice and other organizations formed over past generations to resist harmful corporate behaviors are well positioned to take these logical next steps. How to press forward in the years ahead? That’s what we want to consider with you.
CHALLENGING CORPORATE AUTHORITY TO GOVERN
POCLAD is not building a big national membership operation. Rather, we are working with existing groups to launch democratic insurgencies to render corporations subordinate.
We are looking for people to invest time, energy and resources challenging judicial doctrines dealing with the Commerce clause, personhood, the business judgment rule, the prudent man rule, managerial prerogative, and corporate property rights. People who fancy extending the Bill of Rights to employees on company grounds; amending state corporation codes to end limited liability and to ban corporations from owning other corporations; excluding business corporations and their trade associations from elections, law-making, education and public debate over community values, legal philosophy and policy.
Activists will need to do what corporate strategists have mastered: exploit the tensions of our federal system by creating crises of jurisdiction and authority between local, state and federal governments.
All this and more will happen as communities reject the idea that business corporations are private; as municipalities enact local ordinances defining corporations within their jurisdictions; as organized people instruct elected representatives to cease aiding and abetting corporate rule.
CONSPIRE1 WITH US
We see ourselves as instigators and provokers, as conveners and facilitators. Our work is to help organizers challenge the mass-producing and mass-marketing of culture and law by artificial entities called corporations. To help people contest the authority of corporations to govern. ■
PROGRAM ON CORPORATIONS, LAW & DEMOCRACY
Jane Anne Morris
1 “Conspire” is constructed from the Latin con- “together with” + spirare “to breathe”, meaning “to breathe together, to accord, harmonize, agree, combine or unite in a purpose.” We use “conspire” based on this original construction
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