Reframing the USDA Organics Proposal as a Symptom of Corporate Rule
Speech presented at "Organic Agriculture in Jeopardy", a major public forum on the USDA Organics Proposal - at the Vancouver Planetarium in Vancouver, BC, Canada on May 11th, 1998 - organized by EverGreen Organics (Marian Halle and Jared Irwin)
Thank you all for attending this important forum. I am honored to have been invited to join you this evening. I'm going to spend a few minutes asking you to contemplate a different way of looking at this issue. I am going to try to convince you that this issue isn't simply about organic food. That what's really going on here is that corporations have seized your and my country's democratic institutions and now they call the shots. You may think that this is a recent viewpoint, but in fact, at least in the United States, this fear has been widely expressed ever since the mid-1800's. I'll give you two examples.....
• 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...?
• 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.....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.”
Is it as hard for you as it is for me to imagine a current Canadian judge or prime minister making such remarks? Or even privately having such thoughts? What do these comments tell you about how American citizens used to feel about corporate power, 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.
If our ancestors already feared corporate power over a hundred years ago, how has it come to pass that American food safety activists frame the current problem simply as originating from an incompetent or evil federal government department?
Here are a few recent examples of the language coming from the current leadership of that movement:
• "Time and time again, U.S. government officials have ignored citizens' concerns and interests."
• "The federal government has failed us."
• "Washington bureaucrats have proven themselves to be incompetent."
• "We can win this battle and defeat the USDA."
This is the conventional activist perspective - it's framed as a battle: consumers and farmers vs the USDA. And there's a big problem with this explanation.
Why would the USDA even contemplate including toxic food-growing and production practices under the label of organic? And why would the USDA staunchly defend farming practices that destroy soil fertility? Are there actually private citizens out there lobbying independently for an unsafe food supply? Of course not, the public is solidly opposed! Then why is my government ignoring the unanimous rallying cry in support of safer food? For example, in Iowa in February, 150 people attended a public hearing on the USDA proposal, and not a single person spoke in favor of it. And at the hearing in Austin, Texas, again, the opposition was unanimous (65 to 0). So what the heck is going on here?
Is it possible that the federal government's actions are completely predictable and understandable given the situation? That in fact, the USDA is extremely competent in representing its constituents, but these constituents are no longer mere flesh-and-blood persons? That today, the only real constituents that matter are corporate persons?
Corporations now have more rights than do you or I. They don't need to infiltrate the political process, they ARE the political process. That's what NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments are all about: they're only mechanisms to get governments to be the enforcer for giant corporations. How did corporations gain such rights? In the US, their lawyers fought it out in the courts and legislatures between the mid-1800's and the early 1900's (and the fine-tuning still continues to this very day). Corporations now claim the same Constitutional protections that flesh-and-blood people have; in both the US and Canada, it's called "corporate personhood". Corporations themselves call it “being good corporate citizens”. And corporate culture is now so pervasive that those of us who are merely the flesh-and-blood variety of persons refer to ourselves not as citizens but simply as consumers, workers, and taxpayers.
Corporations claim free speech rights, private property rights, political participation rights, and much much more. And although corporations have won extensive personhood rights, they claim that unlike actual persons, they have no duty or responsibility to place, to people, or to the Constitution.
In Canada, the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms offered no explicit personhood rights to corporations, but that didn't stop Canadian corporations from quickly mobilizing to make sure - via a number of successful court cases - that they were indeed defined as persons with some of the same Constitutional protections as actual persons.
When you tell the average Canadian or American person on the street this simple reality - that corporations are considered persons under the law, they think you're nuts. Surely you must be joking. That's how blatant is the absurdity, and how bold the arrogance of the modern corporate leader who assumes that we citizens won't be able to unravel this mysterious truth. Unfortunately, for most of this century, they've been right! But once you begin to understand this fascinating and mostly unknown history, government actions start making a heck of a lot more sense!
• In the US, it helps to explain how California's Governor can veto a package of health care protection bills supported by virtually every citizens' organization in the state.
• It helps to explain how President Clinton can secretly negotiate the MAI treaty with 28 other countries without the US Congress even hearing a peep about it for 2-1/2 years, and only then from a leaked document posted on the web by an activist.
And most importantly here today, it helps to explain how the USDA can ignore four years of hard work by the National Organic Standards Board, and then propose a definition for organics which is so compatible with the existing industrial and management practices of large corporations that they would be able to call their products "organic" with very few changes.
For over 100 years in the US there has been a concerted effort by corporate leaders to undo the intricate legal controls that citizens had once constructed in order to make sure that this kind of thing never happened. Simply put, America's federal government has been overpowered by corporations which now demand that it prevent and undermine communities and states from having authority over their own lives.
Corporations are the dominant institutions of our era. They define the culture as well as the economy. They define how we think. They define how we resist them. They define our aspirations. They write our history. They get us speaking their language...
Corporations understand that as long as they keep citizens' groups always on the DEFENSIVE, fighting corporate harms one at a time, fighting their next NAFTA or MAI, they keep us from going on the OFFENSIVE. They keep us from strategies that challenge their authority. They even have us believing that when we work to challenge one Tree Farm License at a time, or one bank merger at a time, or one USDA proposal at a time, that it's a great setback for the corporations. As long as we are not challenging corporate authority to govern, then we are always on the defensive, we are always fighting the symptoms.
The rhetoric from the campaign is superficial and strangely unconcerned about the rapidly expanding corporate power WITHIN the organic foods industry which is itself hungry for a global market. The movement's leadership fails to question the very concept of adopting national standards for a form of agriculture that has long celebrated its decentralized roots in local and regional economies. The very nature of national standards, even before they got co-opted by the USDA proposal, is grounded in attempts by organic food corporations to centralize and globalize organic food production, distribution, and sales. Many of the idealistic and successful organic foods companies are now owned by giant corporations. As Michael Colby, director of the Vermont-based organization Food and Water, points out, Heinz Corporation now owns Earth's Best Baby Foods, M&M-Mars Bars Corporation recently purchased Seeds of Change (a young and hip mail order company which sells organic seeds), and Whole Foods Corporation is pushing numerous small and locally owned organic food stores out of business across the US. Yet the campaign to oppose the USDA utterly fails to raise these issues. In Vancouver and elsewhere, the trends are similar. Capers is a perfect example - it's now owned by an American corporation.
This profound lack of concern from social movements about the proper relationship between citizens and giant corporations is extremely disturbing. Earlier American generations had a very different attitide. They were quite clear that a corporation was an artificial, subordinate entity with no inherent rights of its own, and that incorporation was a privilege bestowed by the sovereign people. Until the late 19th century, both law and culture reflected this relationship between the sovereign people and their institutions. People 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.
This understanding originated in the American Revolution which, contrary to what I learned in school, was largely about throwing off the yoke of the British Crown Corporations which had names like the Carolina Colony, the Virginia Colony, and the Pennsylvania Colony. The Revolution successfully constitutionalized these colonies into democratic states where citizens had full authority over all of the institutions they created, be they government or corporate. It was an extremely screwed up democracy from the start: only white male property owners had the Constitutional protection of personhood. Nevertheless, it was still revolutionary for its time as the sovereignty which had always been claimed by the royal family was transferred directly to We The People. For the first time in the history of the world, We The People controlled corporations. The changes were dramatic.
For the first time in history, it was prohibited for corporations to participate in the political process at any level of government (lobbying, election financing, and political advertising). It was prohibited for corporations to own other corporations. Boards of Directors and shareholders could be held personally liable for all harms or debts. It was prohibited for corporations to make charitable or civic donations. If corporations acted beyond the authority vested in them by the state legislature which had chartered them, or caused significant harm, they could be dissolved and their assets seized by having their charters revoked. Imagine if today's citizens reclaimed this authority.
Unfortunately, recent generations seem to be at a total loss when it comes to establishing the proper relationship between sovereign people and the corporations we create. Most of us take for granted corporations' rights to participate as fully in every aspect of society as do human beings. We may not like it, but the avenues of our activism exist almost entirely within the limits that corporations have designed for us. Believe it or not, even the creation of the regulatory arena of law in the US 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 in the 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 seizure of all 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 in as the cost of doing business, and are themselves tax-deductible. How times have changed, and what's most scary about all of this is that virtually no one remembers how it used to be. Of course, this is no coincidence. Corporations have had a century to refine their propaganda and rewrite our history leaving out the offensive parts, such as how citizens would act in a truly functioning democratic society.
We citizens must reclaim our historic authority over giant corporations. For too many decades, our activism has been focussed entirely on corporate behavior instead of corporate form. Instead of challenging one corporate harm at a time, we need to work diligently to delegitimize all of the rights which corporations have claimed as their's.
Let me spend a moment linking these ideas back to the organics issue.
Within the organic food movement, I hear people all the time referring to the distinctions between conventional food and organic food. What the heck is conventional food? Before the 1940's, conventional food was ORGANIC food. In other words, virtually ALL food was organic food. Since then, corporations have taken control of the food supply which ultimately resulted in a tiny subset of privileged citizens creating for themselves a separate and safer food supply which they labelled as organic. In other words, instead of citizens striving to retain their authority over the entire food supply in order to protect everyone's inherent right to safe and unpoisoned food, citizens instead conceded to giant food growing and processing corporations the authority to redefine food itself - as stuff filled with chemicals, and grown and processed and sold in ways which are destructive to soil and nutrition and social arrangements. And corporations achieved this extraordinary feat by helping to arrange investment and legal and banking rules which separated most farmers from their farms. And because they had won corporate personhood, they were politically and culturally powerful enough to convince entire populations to celebrate these changes as the apex of efficiency and wisdom.
So we each have to work to peel away our own corporate conditioning and corporate assumptions so that we can start to understand that corporations now control every step of the food process... from the seeds, to the farm-work, to the farm equipment, to the soil additives and chemicals, to the water quality, to the marketing and distribution systems, to the giant food stores, to the over-packaging, to manipulating people's diets via the corporate media. And finally, when the food we've eaten causes cancer, we depend on the American Cancer Society which gets substantial funding from the very corporations which have caused the cancer in the first place. The above scenario would not have even been possible if corporations had not seized the rights of personhood a century ago.
Through their participation in the political process, corporations devise agricultural, taxation and environmental policies which benefit them directly and externalize social and environmental costs. And in order to keep us mere humans marginalized from any meaningful participation in the political process, they fund and nurture their favored candidates and state initiatives, which almost always win. Because they have won property rights, they can decide without interference from the rest of us what they will grow on their lands. And because corporations have convinced judges that property rights should include production, investment, and workplace decisions, they maintain full control over which seed varieties get mass marketed and which seed varieties disappear forever; which food harvesting and production processes offer the highest profits and the least interference by actual flesh-and-blood farmers and farm workers. (That's right, the decisions themselves have been redefined as private property.).
But that's not all!
Because they have won free speech rights, which for corporations translates as commercial free speech, they can make virtually any claim about their products, their production techniques, their views on issues of critical importance to the people. They educate us about what tastes good, what apples and oranges should look like, what farming practices are the most up-to-date, how we need to lose weight, what pills we should take when we get sick, and on and on and on. This is corporate culture; it profoundly affects every last one of us. And all of the above used to be against the law.
In fact, the Oprah Winfrey trial was really all about corporate free speech, and who should have more of it - corporate persons or actual flesh-and-blood persons. Believe it or not, Oprah was sued simply for saying that she would never eat another hamburger. It's called food disparagement, and it's now illegal in 12 states thanks to some very shrewd corporate lawyers. It sounds like a bad dream, doesn't it! You see, it wasn't human ranchers who brought the suit, contrary to the images served up by the media corporations - it was the American Cattleman's Association which is made up primarily of cattle corporations, and is itself a non-profit tax-exempt educational corporation.
Last week, the Tobacco Institute, another non-profit tax-exempt educational corporation made up of numerous tobacco corporations, had its charter revoked by the New York State Attorney General. An event of this nature hasn't taken place in the US for a very very long time. Why did the Attorney General take such a bold action? He told the New York Times that the two corporations were 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.” If revoking a corporate charter is still this straightforward, how can it be that activists are not even contemplating revoking the charter of the American Cattleman's Association which lies to the public about the health effects of eating beef while it masquerades as an educational institution.
And what about media corporations? The New York Times Corporation owns forests as well as radio and TV corporations. General Electric Corporation owns NBC Corporation. Canada's media is in a similar mess. Why do the Canadian and American public's allow such an absurdity? And how long will it take before the citizens of our two countries reclaim their authority over these media corporations which claim free speech rights because they are corporate persons? There is probably not a single person in the audience tonight who believes that the Vancouver Sun does an adequate job of covering the news. Yet how many of you have ever contemplated what it would take to revoke the charter of its owner - the Southam Corporation. And how many of you are even aware that the BC Government is proposing to revise the Companies Act and remove the provision which grants the Lieutenant Governor the right to revoke a corporation's charter in this province? You may not have noticed, but the corporations have!
Let me conclude by returning to where I began: examining the framework of this very critical campaign to protect the integrity of the organic food supply. In my opinion, the very first step is rejecting the conventional framework and language of the campaign: that it's not consumers and farmers vs the USDA, it's citizens vs corporations which have overpowered and now run the USDA. I encourage all of you to practice a similar reframing of local issues that concern you.
I am convinced that if we citizens can make this leap of consciousness, that our movement will be much more powerful and will be joined by hundreds of other single-issue groups which are all fighting corporate power in one way or another (whether they consciously realize it or not).
We have enormous rethinking and organizing tasks ahead. My organization, Democracy Unlimited, based in California, has many articles, books, and audiotapes we can send you. I've brought some of our materials here, they're available in the back. In addition, there are a small number of people in Vancouver who have recently begun to meet to discuss these ideas.
Thank you all for coming out this evening. And thanks for inviting me!