Dismantling Corporate Rule: The Next Step in “The Great Turning”


(Published in a slightly different form in the newsletter of the Institute for Deep Ecology in 1998)



"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." - Abraham Lincoln



Almost every ecological and social disruption our world currently faces stems ultimately from corporate rule. In the face of overwhelming corporate power that elects governments which protect corporate interests, we citizens have become profoundly alienated from our own democratic processes. In our hearts and minds, most of us have abandoned the idea of taking our nation back from the corporations. Our hopelessness runs deep and wide. Instead, we envision “alternatives,” and try to convince ourselves that it is OK to start over and create new institutions that will serve us. In essence, by conceding that the corporations have won, we have abandoned our responsibilities as citizens.


If we perceived democracy as a verb instead of a noun, would we act any differently? If we understood that corporations are our creations, would we continue merely to resist the endless harms they cause, one at a time? If we remembered that we are all Mother Earth protecting herself, and that our authority comes to us with 15 billion years of experience, would we be more ready to take that plunge together into the darkness to reclaim our world?


The American people are a patriotic bunch, yet few actually know much about our nation's revolutionary history. I grew up believing that the American revolution was about throwing off the British monarchy. This is correct, but it was the colonists' forced subservience to British Crown corporations, already global in their reach, that was at the heart of the rebellion.


The original 13 colonies were either managed by or were themselves British corporations. The nation's founders were quite clear that the corporation's proper role was to serve the needs of society. For this reason, it had to be made a legally (and culturally) subordinate entity of the people. To accomplish this, these British corporations were constitutionalized and became states. State legislatures were given the task of writing a unique “charter” for each new corporation that was created. The charter was its defining document. It could be revoked, and the corporation dissolved, if the corporation acted beyond its authority. Until the mid-1800s, this system worked remarkably well.


How our nation got into its current ecological and social predicament is, to a substantial degree, the story of how corporations overwhelmed the power and authority of “We The People.” Corporations have become powerful not simply by amassing great wealth, but because a series of federal court decisions in the late 1800s gave them extraordinary new privileges. One of the most significant judicial decisions, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), gave corporations the right of “personhood” under the 14th amendment, which was originally intended to protect the rights of freed slaves. It would be a long time before similar personhood rights were guaranteed to women, African Americans, men without property, and others.


Corporations now manipulate every aspect of our democratic process (i.e., lobbying, campaign financing, and political advertising) and control most of our society's key investment and production decisions. Most people assume that corporations have this much power because they are so wealthy. In fact, this power originates from corporate “personhood,” which guarantees corporations free speech rights and private property protection.


After 19 years of grassroots community organizing, it became clear to me that corporate rule is at the root of most of society's ills. Two years ago, I co-founded Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC) on the north coast of California to bring this disturbing history to local citizens. Our work is primarily inspired by Richard Grossman, co-director of the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy (POCLAD). We have maintained a study group for more than a year. We have also taken national leadership in reframing the USDA's redefining of organic food as a symptom of corporate rule. Most recently, we have successfully qualified what we believe to be the first ballot measure in American history that challenges corporate rule in our community.


POCLAD and DUHC are among the first stirrings of a remarkable social movement rising up to reclaim our democratic authority over our corporate creations. Our work encompasses both the second and third stages of what Joanna Macy refers to as “The Great Turning” of our world.


Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the millions of Americans who work tirelessly to protect our world-within a narrow, single-issue frame and in relative isolation-challenging one corporate harm at a time: one timber harvest plan, one endangered species, one toxic spill, one plant closure, one health insurance travesty, one threat to our food supply, one stolen election


Now imagine all of us standing together across ideologies, and class, race, and gender boundaries. Slowly, as a group, we begin to recognize that virtually all of our particular issues and concerns are, to a large degree, a symptom of corporations ruling our society. With this new vision, we see the common threads that lead to common actions and common solutions. Here are some examples of this transformation:


* The Deep Ecology movement would recognize that it is impossible to create a culture that views itself as an integral part of the natural world without first challenging the right of corporations to distort scientific findings, and then project these distortions through the media, which they own.


* The Simple Living movement would recognize that people's struggles to free themselves from their addiction to over-consumption and to the demands of today's highly competitive world of work are rooted in a corporate culture that offers citizens very little control over their own lives. Withdrawing all corporate privileges would restore citizen authority over what gets produced, how it gets advertised, and how our money is invested.


* The Bioregional movement would recognize that achieving the goal of watershed and bioregion-based governance and culture first requires that citizens remove corporations from all educational and governmental decision-making processes.


* The Organic Farming movement would recognize that achieving the goal of a safe food supply for all requires that corporations no longer be allowed to participate in decisions about food production and distribution.


* The vast number of corporate employees would recognize that it's impossible for employees to have any real say in what corporations do (what they produce, how profits are distributed, whether the production process poisons the community, etc.) without first challenging corporations' free speech and private property protections.


If we stop battling one corporate harm to society at a time, and instead align our many varied visions around a set of common first steps-all of which involve challenging the privileges that corporations now claim-our work will have more depth and power. It will be more effective, and its effects will endure. The world is in crisis. Time is short. It is time for all of us to join together and complete “The Great Turning.”


Paul Cienfuegos worked closely with Joanna Macy in the early eighties on despair and empowerment issues. Paul brought this work to the IDE community in 1998 at “Recovering Our Future” on Whidbey Island, and will work with us again in 1999 at Shenoa in California.



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