Challenge the Corporations

What do you call a gathering in Washington, D.C., to shut down the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for a day? A good start.

As it turned out, the thousands of protesters who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Mobilization for Global Justice April 16-17 weren't able to close down the World Bank or the IMF. The D.C. police, assisted by US marshals and other federal law enforcement agencies, and resorting to questionable police-state tactics, helped the World Bank and IMF get their meetings going on time, even if it required shutting down the protest headquarters on the pretext of fire code violations, pre-emptive arrests of peaceful marchers, closing downtown Washington and getting the financiers up at 4 a.m. to bus them under heavy guard to the meeting site. But the protesters brought the battle against corporate globalization to the nation's capital and they got people to talk about the corporate grip on foreign policy. And that's a good start.

Young people are showing a healthy interest in democracy, and the corporate powers that be don't much care for that, because democracy is not in the business plan for globalization.

David Korten, who started his career working with US foreign aid agencies to bring capitalism to the third world, quit when he realized all the foreign aid was doing was creating a very affluent upper class representing perhaps 1 percent of the population, but it was producing no material improvement in the lives of the poor.

He wrote When Corporations Rule the World [Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1995], which discusses the problems that increasingly powerful multinational corporations pose to free-market democracy, as the corporations make a point of jettisoning any social conscience in the pursuit of profits and commandeer institutions such as the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury and the World Trade Organization.

Speaking in Austin a few days before the World Bank/IMF protests, Korten sees a breakthrough, "a spiritual and political awakening," particularly among young people. He added, "We're beginning to wake up to the idea that democracy is not something we have, it's something we do and it must constantly be recreated. The most powerful slogan out on the streets of Seattle was 'This is what democracy looks like'."

Korten ridiculed the assertion that there is no alternative to global capitalism. "There's no alternative? Are we an intelligent species? There is an alternative! Why don't we try, for example, democracy in a real market economy?"

Economic policy, in his view, should favor small, locally owned businesses that are rooted in the community and have ethical concerns. In the capitalist system professional managers move money around the world at light speed without regard to anybody's communities. He proposes instead a system of "stakeholder ownership," in which workers and communities would own a share of the business. "The basic idea is if private property is good thing, then everyone should have some of it," he said.

The first step, of course, is radical political campaign reform that takes corporate money out of the political discourse.

"We have to work at all levels. We need to move toward human rights over property rights. We need to build a green political party and political alternatives. We also need to engage in initiatives right here in each of our communities, to build stakeholder-owned local independent business-based economies. We need to work within ourselves as well to ask the questions of what do we truly have and how do we bring our own lives ... in line with our values," he said.

Richard Grossman, a founder of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy who has made a study of the corporate power grab and appeared with Korten, said corporate critics need to change the terms of debate. The last great movement against corporate power was undertaken in the 1890s by the Populists, who sought to limit the power of the corporations and to revoke the charters of corporate offenders, he said. But even the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which was seen as a victory for the populists, was used in the early years mainly to prevent unions from striking the railroads, he noted, as the courts endorsed the use of the "full coercive powers of the state" to protect the interests of capital, but not the interests of workers. By the time of the Progressive Movement in the early 1900s, corporations were seen as inevitable, although reformers worked to make them socially responsible.

Grossman said that critics of corporate power must retake the offensive and challenge the legitimacy of corporations and the public officials who have surrendered authority to them.

One way to start is by getting your city council to declare that corporations are not persons. A community group in Point Arena, California, has laid the foundation for such a resolution and hopes to get the City Council to declare that within the town's jurisdiction corporations no longer are persons under the 14th Amendment (as the Supreme Court declared they were in 1886, which set corporations up for extraordinary civil rights). "Now I'm sure that if it's a small town, corporations won't pay it much attention," Grossman said. "But when 10, 20, 50, 100 cities go through that process after they've spent a year preparing for it and studying it, if you start challenging this authority, this will get these issues out on the table."

Activists also can set their sights on state legislatures, which write the states' corporate codes, he said.

"I'm just convinced that as we unleash ourselves and our brains and our creativity that we'll start challenging them all over the place," he said. "The kinds of campaigns that groups are starting to devise are very different. It's no longer 'please, please pollute a little less.' It's 'by what authority are you polluting?' And 'we're going to remove you from the face of the earth'."

(For more information on POCLAD, write P.O. Box 246, South Yarmouth, MA 02664; web www.poclad.org. Contact Korten c/o Positive Futures Network, P.O. Box 10818, Bainbridge Island WA 98110; web www.yesmagazine.org.)

If there is a need for corporations, they also need to be accountable to the public. Corporations certainly should not have any more rights than individual persons, as they do now, with their limitations on liability and their claimed rights to pollute, to withhold information from consumers and to set aside regulations simply because they interfere with the corporation's right to make profits. Congress should take steps to roll back the "rights" claimed by corporations. Charters of corporations that do not act in the public good should be repealed and executives of corporations should be held liable for their actions.

We are pleased that William Greider of The Nation in the 5/1/00 issue has proposed a plan similar to ours ["Social Security repairs," 12/96 PP] to reduce the Social Security payroll tax but extend it to those who earn more than $76,200. Earnings above that level are now exempted from the payroll tax. As Greider notes, only 6 percent of America's wage earners enjoy this special treatment, but they're the ones who have gotten the lion's share of the late economic boom. If we cut 2 percentage points from the current 12.4 percent tax rate, and offset the lost revenue by abolishing the earnings cap, the Social Security fund would come out even but an average working family with $35,000 income would get $700 in tax relief. Such a change would make taxes a bit more equitable, particularly after the Reagan administration in the 1980s grotesquely reduced income taxes for the wealthy while raising payroll taxes for the rest of us. Greider's plan, like ours, would provide tax relief for businesses that are providing standard health and pension benefits. Tell your congressman about it. -- JMC

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