How Corporate Rule Makes Consumers Of Us All
(Keynote speech delivered at "Reclaiming the Holidays: A Buy Nothing Day Conference" on November 27th, 1998, at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland, Oregon, organized by the Northwest Earth Institute)
I am honored to have been invited to join you this afternoon at what I understand is the biggest Buy Nothing Day celebration in the country. We come together today to reflect on how our consumption patterns affect our lives. To begin to tackle our unhealthy relationship to STUFF. Unhealthy for us as individuals, unhealthy for our communities, and certainly unhealthy for mother earth. I'm sure many of you are here today because you've been thinking a lot about how to get off the consumption treadmill. How to not get sucked in to all the holiday advertising. How to help your kids understand that the holidays aren't just about getting more STUFF.
I'm going to take you on a somewhat unusual journey, behind the scenes of the corporate monolithic culture that endlessly spews such enticing offers at all of us. I'm going to offer you a different and more hopeful framework for viewing the issue, one that I believe will help all of us to see ourselves less as SPECTATORS, and more as fully active PARTICIPANTS in the key decision-making that affects all of our lives.
But before I begin, I want to spend a moment reflecting on the word "consumer".
Personally, I think there's something profoundly sick about the word "consumer". These days, when I hear the word, all I can think of is a person whose mouth is open really really wide and he or she is just sucking up the planet's natural wealth. That's not how I want to view myself as a human being on planet earth. And I don't believe its how anyone else wants to view themselves either. Yet we tend to use this word - consumer - to describe ourselves. Why? I am convinced that it is because we have grown accustomed to living in a culture GOVERNED by large corporations, and that's how corporate leaders want us to see ourselves - merely as consumers, workers, and other stakeholders. At the same time, corporate leaders work very hard to convince us that corporations are actually "good corporate citizens". They've turned the tables on us! And we've barely even noticed. They're citizens, we're consumers.
The origin of the word is quite interesting. "To consume" means: to use up, to destroy, to lay waste, to annihilate.
The word "consumption" also has an old and somewhat forgotten meaning: it's a condition characterised by a wasting away of the tissues of the body. People used to say a person was "suffering from consumption". Wouldn't you agree that our mother earth is currently suffering from consumption? And that those of us here today are suffering from consumption?
There are many paths that people are taking to break away from these unsustainable patterns of living. We move to the country and try to grow our own food, or join an intentional community. (Yet we can't ALL move to the country!)
We learn how to fix our appliances rather than buying new ones made in countries where people are paid starvation wages. And we try to live more simply. (Yet this has little impact on the overall economic decision-making in the country.)
Many of us may be able to heal our OWN consumption addictions, but the culture's consumption addictions continue because corporations continue to deluge us and our children with advertising. And, of course, they continue to decide for us what gets produced with our money, how our money gets invested, and how work is organized.
We citizens are supposed to just sit back and gloat over our freedom to choose which products we want to buy from the global marketplace. Do we want Coke Corporation or Pepsi Corporation to help us quench our thirst? Do we want to be fed by Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation or Taco Bell Corporation? Both businesses, as well as Pizza Hut Corporation, are owned by Tricon Global Restaurants Corporation. Makes you hungry just thinking about it, doesn't it!
What many of us are forgetting, which suits corporate leaders to a tee, is that we live in a democratic society born of revolution. Our freedoms are not simply based in the marketplace; they are much more profound than that. Frances Moore Lappe, the author of Diet For a Small Planet, and now the co-director of the Center For Living Democracy, said some very wise words that i'd like to share with you. She said: "Growing up in America, we were taught that we inherited a democracy. No one told us that we ourselves had to create one."
If everyone in this room began to view democracy as a verb instead of a noun, would we act any differently?
Once upon a time in this country, We The People acted VERY differently. Let me take you back to the founding of our nation, and share with you some history that I only recently learned myself.
I grew up believing that the American Revolution was about throwing off the British monarchy. This is accurate, but it was the colonists' forced subservience to British Crown corporations, corporations that were already global in their reach since the early 1400's, 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 - at least here in the United States - the corporation's role was to serve the needs of society, and cause no harm. 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 re-made into 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 or caused harm.
Citizens were quite clear that a corporation was an artificial entity, with no inherent rights of its own, and that incorporation was a privilege bestowed by the sovereign people. In 1834, for example, the Pennsylvania Legislature declared:
"A corporation in law is just what the incorporation act makes it. It is the creature of the law and may be moulded to any shape or for any purpose that the Legislature may deem most conducive for the common good."
This was an era of our nation's history when people still understood that they had a civic responsibility not to create artificial entities which could harm the body politic, interfere with the mechanisms of self-governance, and assault their sovereignty. They also understood that they did not elect their agents to positions in government to sell off the sovereignty of the people. In other words, they were human beings who tried to act as a sovereign people would act. If we look at the mechanisms of chartering of corporations, and at the language in corporate charters, state incorporation laws, and state constitutions prior to the 20th century, we find precise and defining language, and mandatory and prohibitory language.
I live in California. Here's an example of such language from the California Constitution of 1879. Article 12, Section 8 reads, in part,
"[T]he exercise of the police power of the state shall never be so abridged or construed as to permit corporations to conduct their business in such manner as to infringe the rights of individuals or the general well-being of the state."
(By the way, this section was repealed only recently - in 1972.)
In California in 1879, the Workingman's Party controlled the legislature. It was a Populist party led by farmers and blue-collar workers. Imagine that!
I am not trying to claim that early American democracy was perfect. It was not. In fact, it was an extremely screwed up democracy from the start. It was racist, it was sexist, it was classist. Only white men with property had the Constitutional protection of personhood. Nevertheless, it was still revolutionary for its time as the sovereignty which had always been claimed by the British royal family was transferred directly to We The People. For the first time since the birth of global corporations in the early 1400's, the people controlled corporations, and not the other way around.
For the first time in history, it was prohibited for corporations to make any donations to political candidates, direct or indirect. It was prohibited for corporations to own stock in other corporations. Boards of Directors and shareholders could be held personally liable for all harms and debts. It was prohibited for corporations to make charitable or civic donations.
Imagine if these prohibitions were still in place today.
How our nation got into its current ecological and social predicament is, to a large 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 1800's gave them extraordinary new privileges. One of the most significant judicial decisions, Santa Clara County vs Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), gave corporations the right of "personhood" under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was originally intended to protect the rights of freed slaves. In other words, corporations became people many years before women became people, before African-Americans became people. In fact, even before white men without property became people.
But the rise of corporate power didn't start in 1886. It became an issue of major debate in the mid-1800's. Many American leaders were horrified by what they were witnessing. Here are two quotes to give you a sense of the culture of the period.
In the 1860's, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech which contained the following words:
"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As the result of the War, corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places 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."
In 1873, Chief Justice Ryan of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, addressing a law school graduating class, had this to say:
"There is looming up a new and dark power...the enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate contributions of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economical conquests only, but for political power. ...For the first time really in our politics, money is taking the field as an organized power. It is unscrupulous, arrogant, and overbearing. ...The question will arise in your day, ...which shall rule - wealth or man; which shall lead - money or intellect; who shall fill public stations - educated and patriotic freemen, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital...?"
Is it as hard for you as it is for me to imagine a current President or Supreme Court justice making such remarks? Or even privately having such thoughts? What do these comments tell us about how American citizens used to feel about corporate power - not just dissidents, but leading American citizens - and how effectively a century of corporate propaganda has muddied our thinking about who we are and what it means to live and participate in a democratic society.
In the late 1800's, a social movement - that came to be known as The Populist Movement - rose up to try to stop the rise of corporate power. It was the largest social movement in American history - bigger than the American Revolution - yet very few Americans today know anything about it. It was the last great social movement that refused to concede that corporations should have ANY right to participate in the key decisions that affect society. (If you want to learn more, read The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn.) In the 1890's, the Populists were crushed by corporate and government violence. The social movement that followed was the Progressive Movement, whose name many of us borrow today to describe our own politics. This is unfortunate, because the Progressive Movement was the first American social movement that saw corporate power as inevitable, and chose to REGULATE corporate harms around the edges rather than PROHIBIT corporations from causing harm in the first place.
You may find this hard to believe, but the whole arena of regulatory law was originally shaped and urged on by corporations - around the turn of the century. Up until then, the language of American law governing corporations had been prohibitory language. In other words, corporations were prohibited from causing any harm to persons or communities.
Regulatory law allowed much more flexibility for corporations; in effect it legalized harm - for example: instead of prohibiting the discharge of poisons into the air or water, there were new parts-per-million legal limits for each poison. Additionally, where in the past, a corporate crime might ultimately result in the actual dissolving of the corporation and the state legislature seizing its assets; now the corporation simply paid a fine when it violated a regulatory law and went on with its business, which proved, of course that the system was working. Indeed, ongoing corporate fines are now simply factored into the cost of doing business, and are themselves tax-deductible. And no one is held personally accountable.
There is much more to share about the intricacies of this history. But it would take hours, and in a moment I want to tie this forgotten history back into Buy Nothing Day, and how it has come to pass that We The People have come together today to try to reclaim our society from corporations, at least on this one day of the year.
Everyone in this room already knew before they came here today that corporations are enormously powerful. What I want to emphasize is that they have so much power not primarily because they are wealthy, but because they are considered LEGAL PERSONS. Corporations can now claim free speech and private property protections, they can participate in the democratic process just as you or I can. But unlike you and me, corporations don't die, and they have no duty or responsibility to place, to people, or to the Constitution.
They don't need to INFILTRATE the political process, they ARE the political process. That's what NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) are all about: they're only mechanisms to get governments to be the enforcer for giant corporations.
Corporate leaders understand that as long as they keep citizens' groups always on the defensive, challenging corporate harms one at a time, they keep us from going on the offensive. They keep us from strategies that challenge their authority. Instead of challenging one Nike Corporation sweatshop at a time, or one timber harvest plan at a time, or one bank merger at a time, we need to work diligently to delegitimize all of the rights which corporations CLAIM as theirs.
Let's examine a few current examples of how corporate rule affects our society today. And as I list these examples, I will place them in some historical context.
1. If we're shopping at the mall, and being good "consumers", we are free to move around, and sit and chat with our friends. But as soon as we attempt to hand out leaflets, ask people to sign petitions, stand on a soapbox, we're all of a sudden in a different category: now we're trespassing on corporate property. WHY? Because mall-owning corporations have more free speech and private property protections than we do! What would it look like if citizens began to reclaim our authority over our local mall-owning corporations? If we began to treat corporate property as the commons - which is how we MUST treat it if our society is to be truly democratic! How many of us would they have to arrest before they gave up trying to stop us? Think about it! Why do we concede that our free speech protections stop at the entrance to shopping malls?
We either are We The People, or we aren't! And exercising our free speech at shopping malls is a great way to practice democracy as a verb.
2. Corporations are invading our public schools and universities in a wide variety of ways: sponsorship of school events, exclusive sales of products, incentive programs such as collecting product labels, appropriation of walls and bulletin boards, sponsored educational materials, and lots more. Eight million students are now required each day to watch Channel One, a full-length commercial masquerading as news. The list of examples is mind-boggling, and grows daily. Who gave Chevron Corporation the authority to teach our kids about global warming? In the 1950's, corporate income taxes made up 28% of total federal revenues. By the 1990's this figure had dropped by almost two-thirds. Is it reasonable to assume that the people corporations elect to public office will vote to cut corporate income taxes so that we will all become more dependent on corporate "generosity"? No wonder our schools can no longer afford to teach our children and are forced to make ridiculous deals, such as the school in Evans, Georgia.
Did you know that a high school student there was suspended earlier this year for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on Coca-Cola day. School officials said the shirt was an insult to visiting Coca-Cola Corporation executives and ruined the school picture. The school had been participating in a statewide contest to win money from the corporation. Is this acceptable in a democratic society? No wonder corporate donations to civic and charitable organizations were once prohibited!
3. The National Consumers League was founded at the turn of the century by labor and other citizen activists. In recent years, it has accepted such a flood of corporate money that it can no longer be considered a legitimate independent citizens' organization. Almost every current project, seminar, brochure, and newsletter is now sponsored by a giant corporation. For example, a recent conference titled: "Focus on Youth: The New Consumer Power" was sponsored by Visa Corporation, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Monsanto Corporation, Burson-Marsteller Corporation, the National Meat Association, and many other corporations and corporate associations. The annual Awards dinner this year honored Liz Claiborne Corporation whose product is manufactured in Chinese sweatshops. Three corporations contributed to the event. You guessed it: Liz Claiborne Corporation was one of them!
Let's look at one final example: Credit card corporations - with names like Providian Financial Corporation, Citibank Corporation, Visa Corporation, and Mastercard Corporation - are pushing credit cards on more and more Americans, searching desperately for new customers, many of them high-risk. In 1997 alone, these corporations blanketed the country with 3 billion credit card offers. The companies hope you'll overspend, because that's where their profits are made. In 1983, 20% of poor families had a credit card. In 1995, it was twice that number. 63% of all US households now owe money on their credit cards. Credit card debt now accounts for 43% of all consumer loans, and is the fastest growing type of home loan today. The average household now owes an amount equal to 95% of their yearly income. At the same time of course, personal bankruptcy rates are skyrocketing - 1.3 million people in 1997. Even as these corporations flood us with easy credit and higher credit limits, luring us into debt, they are trying to restrict our access to bankruptcy protection. The US Senate and House are currently considering a "reform" measure proposed by these very corporations.
If the laws in place in the 1880's were still in place today, this story would be VERY different. None of these corporations would be permitted to send us mountains of junk mail, because they would have NO free speech protections. They would be prohibited from engaging in the writing of new federal laws. In fact, they would not even be allowed to create the credit card as a mode of purchasing goods without the explicit approval of the state legislatures in the various states where they wished to do business.
Finally, let's turn for a moment to the media, which works night and day, 365 days a year, to get you and me to keep buying more and more stuff. Virtually all of the media today is owned by giant corporations. Imagine if we applied the same historic groundrules to these corporations as well. General Electric Corporation owns NBC, Disney Corporation owns ABC, Westinghouse Corporation owns CBS. All of their programs are transmitted over OUR public airwaves. Yet we are so meek in our demands of them! We plead for an hour a night of educational programming, instead of reclaiming our sovereign authority over our subordinate corporate creations. Imagine if we rewrote their charters. If we explained nicely to their executives that those are OUR airwaves, thank you, and we're taking them back. That they're welcome to continue providing programming as long as they understand who's in charge here.
Do you begin to get the picture?
What I have laid out here is a different way to think about our society's addictions to more and more stuff. We aren't mere consumers! "Consumer" is a corporate word! We are We The People, participating together as citizens! We are in charge here. This is a democracy!
A single day of buying nothing is an excellent start. But what we REALLY want is to get our democracy back from giant corporations. We don't just want a "democracy theme-park" which is what the current corporate culture provides for us.
In a truly democratic society, citizens MUST have authority over the basic decisions that affect all of us. Decisions such as what products get produced, whether the production process creates toxic side-effects, how the people's money gets invested, and how our workplaces are organized.
In short: who's in charge? We The People or corporations?
Currently in America, these decisions are beyond our authority because the Federal Courts have ruled that the decision-making process itself is a corporate property right. Yes, you heard me correctly. The decision-making process itself is now legally defined as corporate property, and therefore a legally protected right of all corporate persons. It is fundamentally illegitimate in a democratic society for corporations to be making decisions that are beyond the authority of We The People!
We have to re-learn how to stand up together, and make our voices heard.
We must NO LONGER remain silent while the Girl Scouts of America launch their new Fashion Adventure Program complete with power-walking activities at the mall, and sponsored by Limited Too Corporation!
We must NO LONGER remain silent while the Safeway Corporation imposes a new "forced friendliness policy" on the citizens who are its employees, causing many of its female employees to be harrassed and propositioned by male shoppers.
We must NO LONGER remain silent while Monsanto and other corporations overpower the US Department of Agriculture and force it to redefine the legal meaning of organic food into oblivion.
This is OUR country. It's a democracy. We want it back!
You may be sitting there and quietly thinking to yourself that what I am proposing is wildly unrealistic in the year 1998. That corporations have become so powerful, that nothing can be done. Let me tell you about three extraordinary events taking place this year across the country:
1. In May, the Attorney General of the state of New York, a Republican by the name of Dennis Vacco, initiated corporate charter revocation proceedings against two front-groups for the tobacco corporations: the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research. He accused the groups of posing as nonprofit groups while, at taxpayer expense, they "fed the public a pack of lies in an underhanded effort to promote smoking and addict our kids." I heard only last week that he had completed the revocation of the Council for Tobacco Research, it had been dissolved, and most of its assets will be turned over to the Health Sciences Center at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Imagine that!
Here's an Attorney General who understands his authority, and his duty to protect the people from harms caused by their corporate creations. An action like this hasn't occurred in almost 100 years, and is cause for real celebration. Imagine if citizens' organizations began challenging the legitimacy of other non-profit tax-exempt phony educational corporate front-groups. The Global Climate Coalition, for example, which teaches the public and our elected officials that global warming isn't really a problem at all, and may even benefit the economy - it's funded by oil and other corporations. Or how about the American Cattleman's Association - made up of cattle corporations, which sued Oprah Winfrey simply for saying she would never eat a hamburger again? Another example of a corporation having more free speech than an actual person.
2. Here's another remarkable development: Last month, the township of Wayne, Pennsylvania passed into law a new ordinance which had been drafted by public interest lawyers. The new law prohibits any corporation from doing business in the town if it has a history of consistently violating regulatory law, or if any members of its board of directors currently sit on the board of any other corporation which has a history of consistently violating regulatory law. That includes environmental and labor law, occupational safety and health law, tax and consumer law. In other words, the people of Wayne, Pennsylvania are standing up as citizens and stating clearly that they don't want scofflaw corporations doing business in their town. That sounds pretty reasonable, doesn't it?
3. Here's one final story, which i have been a key player in, and which i'm very proud of: In my community of Arcata, California, we just passed a ballot initiative titled "The Arcata Advisory Measure on Democracy and Corporations". It was on the ballot earlier this month as Measure F and it won by more than 60% of the vote. It was merely advisory, so no laws will be changed quite yet. But here's what it does. It asks the City Council to co-sponsor with our organization two major town hall meetings on the topic, "Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under law?". Imagine thousands of residents gathering twice to discuss that topic? Out of the town hall meetings, the City will create a new standing commission on Democracy and Corporations. Its mandate will be to propose "policies and programs which ensure democratic control over corporations conducting business within the city, in whatever ways are necessary to ensure the health and well-being of our community and its environment." Our ballot initiative is gaining national attention, and was endorsed by the Mayor who was running for re-election, as well as the Central Labor Council. In addition, it has been endorsed by three of my favorite citizen activists: Jim Hightower, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.
I leave you all with a few critical questions: What would it look like if we governed ourselves, as was the intention of our nation's founding fathers? What would it FEEL like? What would happen if we relearned our history, and began to understand once again that democracy is a verb?
Do we want giant corporations writing our news? Do we want giant corporations interfering in our elections? Do we want giant corporations sponsoring our civic organizations? Do we want giant corporations deciding what products will and will not be produced?
Let's all stand up together for a moment, and say a few words together.
(Let's say,) "We are We-The-People". / "We govern ourselves."
Thank you very much!