Corporate Acts We Could Stop Today - If We Were Educated, Organized, and Building Mass Movement
(Published in Access magazine in November 1997)
As many of you readers know, I coordinate a new grassroots organization based in Humboldt County called Democracy Unlimited. For the past year, we have been educating local residents about the extraordinary 100-year period beginning in the late 1700's when citizens deeply understood their rightful relationship with corporations. Citizens were the sovereign people. And corporations were merely, by law and culture, subordinate legal entities which were defined and instructed by the citizenry to serve the needs of the public and cause no harm. Whenever a corporation challenged the limitations placed upon it through a state's corporate chartering process or state constitution, citizens responded in the appropriate manner befitting a sovereign people: they challenged the corporation's right to exist. They didn't plead with it to do a little less harm. They didn't offer it rewards to be good. They understood that they were in charge, and they acted accordingly. The limitations placed on corporations were extraordinary by today's standards.
For the past year, our group has been sharing these ideas and visions of how it could be once again in the future if only we dared to reclaim our rights from the corporations which now claim these rights as theirs. What is always a stumbling block in our public outreach is how to make these ideas and visions real, not just theoretical. I have been playing with this problem for some months now, and decided to share a small experiment with you, my loyal readers. (Please tell me what you think.)
I have assembled below a short list drawn from thousands of current examples of corporate acts of violence against people and nature. And following each example, in brackets, is the relevant law which once existed that would have made that corporate act impossible. In other words, if we reclaimed these norms, we citizens would no longer have to sue corporations after the damage had been committed, but would instead (in most cases) be able to pre-empt the damage from ever happening in the first place. Here's the list:
* The vast majority of Americans want deep cuts in military spending, yet our elected officials continue to fully fund arms corporations. (Corporations are prohibited from lobbying any government body or agency, or contributing to any political campaign.)
* Corporate manufacturers are putting pressure on the FDA to relax the criteria for labelling items as "Made in USA". (A corporation is not permitted to participate in the political process.)
* US automakers are planning to build the biggest, dirtiest gas guzzlers ever next year. And 47 US corporations continue to build land mines for export. (Citizens define the purpose of a corporation which has no intrinsic purpose beyond that which citizens define. Production decisions are public not private.)
* Corporate polluters now buy and sell pollution rights on the stock market. (Corporations exist to serve the public good and cause no harm.)
* Corporations now commonly sponsor Earth Day celebrations; and last year 2 companies donated $4 million to the Cancer Society in exchange for exclusive endorsement. (Corporations are prohibited from making charitable donations because it interferes in the democratic process.)
* Union Carbide corporation continues to evade responsibility for its chemical spill in Bhopal, the worst industrial accident in world history. (The corporation's board of directors is found criminally liable and sent to prison; the corporation's charter is revoked and its assets distributed to the hundreds of thousands of victims.)
* If you want to boycott tobacco giant Philip Morris, you'll also have to avoid buying Duracell, Miller beer, Sanka, Jell-O, Kool-Aid and many more products. It owns all of these brands. (Corporations are prohibited from owning stock in other corporations.)
* Many logging corporations also dabble in real estate. (A corporation's real estate holdings are limited to what is necessary to carry out its specific purpose.)
* Corporations run dozens of phony grassroots front-groups - such as the Global Climate Coalition and Citizens For the Environment - which fund ongoing media campaigns to convince citizens that the danger of global warming has been much exaggerated. (A corporation has no inherent free speech rights, is prohibited from participation in the political process, and may not use its income for any purpose beyond its stated charter.)
* Last year's nationally televised presidential debates were sponsored by a commission funded by a variety of corporations including Sara Lee and Philip Morris. Perhaps that helps to explain why Ralph Nader was excluded from participating as the Green Party presidental candidate. (Corporations are prohibited from any participation in the political process, and from making charitable donations.)
* The mayor of Toledo begs the Chrysler corporation to build its new Jeep factory within Toledo city limits to replace the ancient one which Chrysler is closing. The corporation declines. The mayor pleads with President Clinton for help, and he declines as well, stating that his staff will be happy to work with the mayor once the Chrysler Board of Directors has made its decision. (Citizens are sovereign over Chrysler, and instruct it as to where the factory should be built - and whether Jeeps, or something else, is the product which will most benefit the people of Toledo.)
* Many manufactured chemical products (such as pesticides) contain additives called "inerts" which are not identified because industry considers them trade secrets. (All corporate records are open to public scrutiny.)
* The federal government is currently negotiating a deal with Maxxam corporation to purchase 7500 acres of the ancient redwood forests it owns in California. The vast majority of the state's citizens are opposed to the deal. (Negotiation is for and among people; it is inappropriate for citizens to negotiate with the institutions they have created. Corporations are subordinate legal fictions.)
* A U.S. court recently agreed with Monsanto corporation that companies selling products containing its Bovine Growth Hormone should not be forced to identify it on the product's label because it violated their free speech rights - i.e. their right not to speak. (A corporation has no inherent rights.)
And, last but certainly not least...
* Wisconsin's Local Agreement Law, first passed in 1987, gives mining corporations the ability to directly buy up constitutional rights of whole cities and counties, once and for all. (No, this is not a joke.)
The founding fathers of our country never intended for corporations to have any rights whatsoever. How did corporations change the rules of democracy? Through decades of struggle, mostly in federal courts, and never affirmed by legislatures or popular votes.
Perhaps the time has arrived to rein in the powers that corporations now claim as theirs.
Imagine: we would no longer be required to challenge one clearcut at a time, one mass layoff at a time, one manipulation of an election at a time. Imagine how it might free up our time as human beings so that many of us could return to less harried and more peaceful lives. I am not claiming that these changes would come easy. They will not. But many of us already put in 10 and 30 and sometimes 60 hours every week in our sometimes frantic struggles to protect the health of our mother earth, and defend the vast swath of humanity whose human rights are violated daily. Surely, it can't be more work than it already is!
Such a shift would require the building of mass social movements of people ready to work together on a common vision - not only politically, but also culturally, artistically, and spiritually. Is such a movement possible in the final years of this milennium? Do we really have any choice?
I'd love to hear your thoughts!
"Although corporate charters may seem to have little to do with sustainability, they are critical to any long-term movement toward restoration of the planet..."
- Paul Hawken-author of The Ecology of Commerce and co-owner of Smith & Hawken Corporation
"We The People...
must unite if we are to be a POWER strong enough to get our Sovereign rights back. We must not squabble amongst ourselves over stuff like abortions, drugs, guns, welfare, unemployment benefits, men who whistle at women, cultural differences, race, and all that. A united people must include ALL OF US: the homos, the heters, the yuppy, the hippie, the red necks, hairy, shaved, kinky, spiffy, the work boots, the sneakers, the black shiny pumps, the nose rings, the knit shirts, flannel shirts, pink shirts, the fat, the thin, the tall and the short and the beautious, and the ugly.
We need millions...we can't fight the corporate scheme if we are all hissing and fluffing and puffing and snorting in little isolated groups which blame other little groups for the country's ills."
- Carolyn Chute, Novelist and a leader of the 2nd Maine Militia ("Your Wicked Good Militia")
"This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it."
- Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural
"I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
- Thomas Jefferson, 1816