A Citizens' Independence Movement
By Jeffrey Kaplan and Jeff Milchen
The power and influence that corporations enjoy today—indeed, the fact that corporations have the same rights as individuals—are not what our country's founders intended. But progressive activists are working mostly on damage control, rather than making genuine, lasting progress. Here, two veteran activists explain how to bring our single-issue energies together to tear down corporate rule and restore accountability.
Jeff Milchen directs ReclaimDemocracy.org, a nonprofit organization devoted to restoring citizen authority over corporations. Jeffrey Kaplan is a writer and researcher active in the group’s San Francisco Bay area chapter.
In an era when even Business Week runs cover stories about runaway corporate power, few Americans today doubt that corporations wield immense power over our laws, governments, and almost every realm of civic society. Every day, thousands of organizations work to resist harmful actions by corporations and their myriad front groups, but how will citizens move beyond reactive struggles to enable genuine progress?
Today’s challenge for those who seek to revitalize democracy and free our country from control by corporate interests is to show others a clear vision of an America where corporations serve a narrow role—doing business and nothing more.
The trend, of course, is in the opposite direction. There have been 150 years of legal decisions favoring big business, granting corporations legal rights that our founders intended solely for individual human beings. And while human liberty is on the defensive against authoritarianism, corporations are seizing power as aggressively as ever.
For example, courts recently have ruled that municipalities attempting to control the placement of cell phone towers are violating corporate “civil rights.” Corporations selling computerized voting machines claim the 4th Amendment prevents citizens from ensuring that proprietary software isn't used to manipulate elections.
Of course it isn't just Americans’ rights threatened. Perhaps the most significant U.S. export isn't grain or pharmaceuticals, but the legal and institutional structure of corporate control. U.S. authorities declared in July 2003 that Iraq must accept foreign investment and corporatization of its (previously national) oil industry before enjoying their recently granted “sovereignty.” In other words, democracy is permissible only after the most important economic decisions for the future of Iraqis have been decided for them and transnational corporations control their economic lifeblood.
The Rise of Corporate Power
In the early decades of our nation, corporations were tightly controlled entities that enjoyed severely limited privileges and no inherent “rights.” But during the Industrial Revolution, wealthy businessmen, especially railroad executives, succeeded in winning dramatic expansions of corporate privileges. By 1890, most long-standing restrictions had been removed, and the U.S. Supreme Court had granted corporations the legal standing of natural persons—i.e. “corporate personhood.”
Soon the Court bestowed Bill of Rights protections upon them, but with virtually none of the responsibilities borne by human beings. The Supreme Court effectively had subordinated the rights of citizens to institutions with the power to undermine our personal liberties and democracy.
A powerful resistance movement arose, which culminated in the Populist Party, the last third party in American politics to dramatically influence national debate. Although the Populists were defeated in the presidential elections of 1896, populist sentiment remained strong and corporate leaders felt the need to redirect this insurrection against corporate power.
The regulatory system installed during the early 1900s was their solution to this problem. Initiated largely by big business, the regulatory system succeeded overwhelmingly in channeling Populist rebellion against the corporate power structure back into protest against separate “abuses.” The regulatory reforms placed the adjudication of these individual grievances in the hands of agencies dominated by the business entities they purported to control.
The regulatory system remains today what a U.S. attorney general reassured corporate leaders it would be at the turn of the century—“a barrier between corporations and the people.”
Perhaps we should tear down that barrier, rather than repeatedly entangle ourselves within it. Pursuing bureaucratic remedies such as environmental impact reports and e-mailing regulatory officials who came straight from the industry may be necessary tactics, but they fail utterly as an ongoing strategy. So long as we permit wealth—both corporate and private—to dominate political life, “democracy” will be a platitude from the mouths of demagogues rather than a reality.
So what can we do if traditional means of protest won't work? In simple terms, we need to build a political movement to reclaim democracy, starting where democracy begins—at the community level. Citizens can press local and state governments to pass laws challenging corporate personhood. Such ordinances and resolutions could be much like the ones more than 330 communities have passed in opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act—and for a similar reason: our rights as citizens are in grave danger.
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