Challenging Corporate Power

Interviewed by David Barsamian

Provincetown, Massachusetts, August 23, 1998


Richard Grossman is co-director of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. He is co-author of Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation. He lectures widely on issues of corporate power, law and democracy.


You write in an essay, “Giant corporations govern. In the Constitution of the United States they are delegated no authority to make our laws and define our culture. Corporations have no constitutions, no bills of rights. So when corporations govern, democracy flies out the door.” What do you mean by that?

On one level, it’s that corporations are in fact making the fundamental decisions that shape our society. They determine essentially what work we do, which technologies get developed, which production methods are used as opposed to other productions methods. They are constantly pushing the concept that production has to expand, and from that comes wealth, liberty and freedom. Most of the decisions that they make are essentially beyond the public’s ability to interfere with. They have increasingly, through the law, got their decision-making to be declared private property. The society is structured in such a way that people don’t even second-guess. We’re left with trying to as best we can deal with the impacts of the major decisions, trying to make them a little less bad. But in terms of having this fundamental authority to shape our society, to make the real decisions, to control investment, to control production, to control our work, they have been able to get the law to reflect their position, which is that this is private property of these private entities. Our position is first, we are not willing to concede that a major business corporation is in fact private. All through our history there has been a big conflict over what’s public and what’s private, not just in terms of property but in terms of decision-making. What decisions are appropriate for people who are governing themselves and what decisions are off the agenda and left as so-called private decisions? In addition, the federal courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, have bestowed the equivalent of human rights on these artificial entities. They now have the protection of law and the Constitution, which means the protection of the police and the military, to interfere in our elections and in our law­making. They participate in our elections as if they’re just another person. They lobby, and more than lobby. We all know how they do it intensively. They’re able to field fifty or a thousand lobbyists. They’re able to take politicians to dinner, to buy all kinds of advertising, to shape the culture. Increasingly over this century even citizen activists and activist organizations, have not challenged the claimed authority of corporations to make the fundamental decisions. What’s happened is, we’ve been channeled into regulatory administrative agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities Exchange Commission and the National Labor Relations Board, where we try to make the best of the worst of a bad situation, to make the corporate attacks on life, liberty, property and democracy a little less bad, usually one attack at a time and usually after the fact, when the harm has been done.

We’re saying that if we are to be a self-governing people, which is what the American Revolution was about, that we would govern ourselves, then we have to be in charge of everything. There can be no realm of decision-making that should be considered private, beyond our authority.

The conventional wisdom would have it, though, that we are governed by local, state and federal governments.

That’s the conventional wisdom. Look at the proposed Multi­lateral Agreement on Investment, the MAI. What it does is grant to property, to corporations, to artificial concentrations of wealth, authority to go into other countries, and exercise the same kind of so-called private rights of decision-making that they have exercised in this country since the beginning of this century. If you go back and look at populist and other public resistance to increasing corporate power in the 1880s and 1890s, you find a vigorous debate, very different from today, about what is the right and the role of the states in creating corporations. The states, after all, are the jurisdiction over the corporations. It’s our states that charter the corporations and are supposed to define them and keep them subordinate. What happened was, towards the end of the nineteenth century corporate leaders realized that they needed to get away from the authority of the states to define them. They ran to mama, to the federal government, and said, This is unconstitutional. This interferes with the interstate commerce clause, our property rights and our freedom of contract. Help us. And the federal courts helped them. They stripped the states of their ability to define the corporation. What you have is sort of a shell now. The states charter corporations, but the federal government has taken their clout away to decide what they in fact can’t do. The states are not keeping the corporations subordinate. They’re not nurturing liberty and democracy by preventing the rise of concentrated economic power, which is easily translated into political power. So not only do you have corporations running rampant and exercising the authority and the rights of natural persons, which is just crazy according to the ideals of our system, we have our elected officials, actively aiding and abetting. Here’s something that comes out of the whole mythology, that jobs, progress and the good life, where do they come from? They come from giving these corporations a free hand and saying, Do whatever you want because we’re incapable as people of creating jobs, of figuring out how to grow our food, of arranging our affairs. We need you. The politicians say, We have to create a good business climate. We have to give the corporations whatever they want, including all kinds of subsidies and special privileges. All the money goes to them. They have the law on their side. We as the people are left with, well, if anything bad happens to this corporation, what will happen to jobs, to taxes? How can we possibly compete with the rest of the world? The whole gamut of mythologies that the corporations have created in our culture means that at the local level we have very little control. Most people know that. Towns are groveling to ask corporate leaders to please, put your factory here. Please don’t close your factory. We’ll give you tax rebates for a thousand years. We’ll give you incentives. We’ll build a highway, a railroad. Please come here. We don’t know how to do anything for ourselves. We turn over to them our sovereignty. When we turn our sovereignty over to these so-called private entities that don’t have constitutions or bills of rights, then democracy goes out the window.

You emphasize redefining democracy and law.

And in the process redefining us. What’s happened over the last hundred years is that the corporations have defined us human beings as consumers. We’re told we can vote with our dollars and with our feet and not buy. That’s just crap. If we’re citizens, if we’re a self-governing people, then our main job is to nurture the democratic process. That’s a job that has been entrusted to us by previous generations and that we want to help empower future generations to do. One of the advantages of corporations is that they became legal persons in 1886 when the Supreme Court so declared. This is prior to African Americans being legal persons, women being legal persons, most men without property being legal persons, debtors and Native Americans. They all had to struggle to gain their rights as persons, to gain the equal protection of the law. One of the things that we stress is that corporations don’t have rights. Rights are for people. Corporations only have privileges, and only those that we the people bestow on them. If we abandon our responsibility of defining the corporate entities that we create, if we just let them run rampant and overpower us and go around the world and in our name do what they’re doing, it’s incredibly irresponsible. That’s to a large extent what we have done.

You use an interesting quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group or any controlling private power.” Roosevelt wrote that in his message to Congress creating the TNEC, the Temporary National Economic Committee, in 1937, which was then to spend the next three years, under the leadership of Senator O’Mahoney of Wyoming, looking into the concentration of wealth and power in the U.S. There’s now forty-odd volumes in the Library of Congress and other libraries of that testimony, finding that there was enormous concentration. World War II interrupted the political agenda that they had, the things they were going to try to do with this evidence, so the issue has been forgotten and most people have never heard of the committee. The language that the President used in creating this committee is very clear. When the decision-making and the information that must be public for a democracy to function is privatized and the law has been turned topsy-turvy to support that these decisions and information are private, and when these so-called corporate entities have the rights of persons, have free speech and constitutional protections, then they are doing the real governing and we are becoming consumers or objects. It has a name, which was more current then than now, which was fascism. It’s a hard concept, a troubling concept for people to deal with. We are constantly being bombarded with information telling us that we have the greatest democracy in the world and more freedoms than anybody and more wealth and goods than everybody. I think there’s a growing disconnect in people’s minds around the country. People realize that the real decisions that shape what they can do and increasing what you can grow or buy are being made in a private way by our creations, these corporations. We don’t have standing to intervene. A good example is in a New York Times editorial recently applauding a court decision granting to people, to human beings, we the people, due process rights dealing with HMO corporations on medical care issues. Think about that. The corporation already has due process rights because the courts have already made clear that they think the corporation is a person, a legal person. But on company property workers don’t have First Amendment rights. They don’t have due process rights. And on issues that are concerned with these insurance companies, these medical companies, it’s not just generally assumed that all human beings have due process rights. It’s nuts. Corporations are acting like a government, but they’re not constitutionalized. So we have no standing. It’s a disconnect that is extremely troubling to me and a tremendous source of our woes today.

Another good example is in some of the famous corporate speech cases over the last fifteen years. There have been a number of cases where the Supreme Court has expanded the privileges of free speech to corporations. One of them came out of a case in Massachusetts. The  Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a law saying that in referendum elections corporations don’t have the right to spend money to sway the vote one way or the other. Corporations took that to court and went all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in the Commonwealth. It approved the law. The corporations then took it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court sort of changed the question and said, When is democracy the most helped? When all voices are heard. These corporate voices need to be heard. Therefore this law is unconstitutional. They refused to acknowledge the finding of the Massachusetts legislature and courts that in fact great concentrations of wealth and power that were not constitutionalized, that are considered private in our society, are a menace to the functioning of democracy and therefore the state has the total right to say, We’re going to keep our elections pure and only persons, corporate leaders as individuals, of course, can participate, but that corporations could use shareholder money to sway votes without having even polled the shareholders they thought was inappropriate. What the Supreme Court did was totally throw out the logic and say, Democracy means all voices, and since corporations are persons, they have voices. Let them be heard, even if they’re going to outspend humans a billion to one.

Critics who may be sympathetic with your argument might say that the state and federal legislatures are largely dominated and controlled by corporate money and interests and to go that route for some kind of change is totally futile. You’re asking the fox to police the hen house.

I don’t know what other mechanisms to seek. We’re not naive. It’s quite clear that today the corporations, corporate values, corporate money control political debate in this country. They control our legislatures as well as the courts. They control the press and have a dominant effect upon education, whether it’s kindergarten, high school or the universities. Our near-term approach over the next couple of years is trying to provoke a different debate and discussion about this. We’ve all been colonized. Our minds have been colonized. These issues have been off the agenda for a century. We’re taught in a knee-jerk way if we have a problem to look for justice, for resolution, to go into the EPA or the NLRB or the FCC. They don’t have the authority to deal with what we’re talking about, which is the constitutional question of who’s in charge, what is the proper relationship in a democracy between the sovereign people and the corporate entities that we create. I don’t think we have any better shot in the regulatory agencies. Maybe after ten years a community group maybe knows how to shut a toxic dump or make it a little more safe or a little less harmful or get rid of a particular toxic chemical. But we don’t have time to be going one chemical at a time, one forest at a time, one assault on liberty at a time. We’re trying to create a different debate, starting with activists and activist organizations and then seep out into the broader community to get people to think about what is it about their lives that they’re willing to give so much authority and power to these giant corporations to make the decisions, to basically boss them around, to even elect their leaders or to control the debate. If we don’t have a revolution in consciousness among enough people, then there’s no way we’re going to ever end up going to our legislators and our courts and where we’re supposed to go, the mechanisms of self-governance, in order to get redress. There’s a bunch of convoluted ironies here. The Bill of Rights was put into the Constitution to protect people from tyrannical government. Some people like Alexander Meikle­john say to provide us with the tools of self-governance. Because of some decisions by courts, by unelected judges, a hundred years ago, the Bill of Rights protects corporations from the people. They’re protected from our using our government to keep them subordinate, to define them. Of course they’re in the chicken coop. That’s where they live. We have to in order to get them out of the chicken coop change the discussion, the language, our whole sense of who we are as sovereign people. What does it mean to be a sovereign person? What does it mean to be we the people? How do we act like we the people? I think we’re fully capable. Certainly all these classes of people who were declared nonpersons earlier in our history have become people. Classes and groups have waged their struggles. They now have the legal rights of persons, and we now can come together and say we’re going to take away all these privileges that corporations have taken from us. We’re going to take away, deny the claims that their leaders and lawyers make, the claims to the rights of human persons to which they have no authority. For that we need some real cultural shifts. On a good day, I sense the language among activists is beginning to change. People are starting to address this issue and understanding that we have to move into different arenas as organizers, as educators, as activists. We have to bring the struggle to different arenas, the arenas that are about who’s in charge, about constitutional rights, that reflect the ideals of this country. When you get into the FCC or the EPA or the NLRB, there’s only certain questions that you can raise. They’re very limited. You don’t ask, By what authority is the corporation exceeding its authority. These agencies don’t have the authority to begin taking away the privileges that corporations are wielding illegitimately. We need to move into legislatures, because they write the state corporation laws. It would be a very different organizing task and a very different struggle if groups that have been dealing with, say, trying to stop toxic chemicals in food, instead of trying to get one more regulatory law passed giving the EPA ten years to write a code of regulations to limit how many chemicals can be used and set up a system of fining corporations if they use a little too much of X or Y, to go into the state, amend the state corporate law to say, A corporation will not be allowed to do business in this state if it emits any poisons into the air or the water. A corporation will not be allowed to operate in this state if it claims the rights of persons. A corporation operating in the state does not have free speech. Workers on corporate property in this state will have free speech and free assembly. We have federal, state and local jurisdictions. Corporate lawyers always have known how to play one off against the other. To get a better deal they’ll go to the state government. If they think the state is going to be tough on them, they’ll go to the feds. We need to be doing that too and challenging all these privileges, that corporations have assumed. Every privilege that a corporation has means a right denied to human beings. The courts in particular have had a special responsibility to undo this because they caused a lot of this. If you compare in the nineteenth century, for example, the extent to which the federal courts and some state courts kept granting more and more privilege to capital to organize and denying the privilege of workers to organize, you can make a chart. Every time they gave capital another privilege, they took something away from workers. So you have an incredibly uneven fight which doesn’t come from God or Mother Nature. It comes from the laws and doctrine created by mostly men, mostly judges, to a large extent during the nineteenth century. So there’s a lot to undo. I think once activists and organizers start taking these struggles and this campaign and this language into our legislatures, into the streets, into public debate, into the universities, into every discussion about what’s going on, and keeping uppermost the question, By what authority are these artificial entities, these corporations, that we create wielding more power than we are? By what authority are they telling us that this information is out of bounds? By what authority are they telling us that you have no right to order us what to do? We are equal to you in human rights and therefore we will in fact drive this debate. We will tell you what to do.

How can some of the issues and concerns that you’re raising be injected into the mainstream discourse if that discourse is largely driven, shaped and formed by corporate-controlled media? All the networks are owned by large corporations: Westinghouse, General Electric, Time Warner, Disney.

That’s a challenge. First of all, we have to understand that from an organizing educational strategy the media corporations are the adversary, more than the adversary, they’re part of the whole structure of corporate dominance and governance. It’s funny now, sometimes I go to conferences, particularly environmental conferences, and I see environmental magazines. There’s always a section on how to deal with the media. It’s about how to curry favor with reporters, how to write a press release, how to get them to cover your issue, how to give them advisories and keep them informed, and slip them special information. I think we’re well beyond that. The issue is how to force them to cover our concerns while challenging also the claims to privilege that they wield as giant corporations. Many of them are not just media corporations but subsidiaries of other kinds of conglomerates like entertainment or nuclear companies. We have to challenge in every realm of society, whether it’s the corporate realm, the media corporate realm in particular, or academic corporations like universities, or professional associations. We have to start bringing this debate in about who’s in charge, about the rights of people versus the rights of property and artificial entities. It’s going to be hard because the giant media corporations dominate the way people see information and news. However, there’s an enormous, incredible alternative, grassroots media. When we first came out with our early publications, like the pamphlet Taking Care of Business in 1993, none of the mainstream corporate media would touch it. We were forced to go to the grassroots. We got hundreds and hundreds of reviews and excerpts in print, newsletters, magazines, radio, some videos. The word spread in a very effective way. I’m delighted that we ended up going that way. The base we’ve been building is much stronger because people have had to grapple with this stuff. I think that the opportunities are there. In a couple of years, when there are challenges to corporate privilege, the idea of the corporate person, free speech, a challenge to a corporate charter in a state, even the corporate press is going to be forced to grapple with this. That will be our opportunity to take some major steps. But we have to remember we’re challenging the control of the corporations, and if we’re talking to media corporations we have to be very clear that we’re also challenging their claim to authority.

What are your views on the notion of socially responsible corporations? I notice that you cite Tom Paine, for example.

We asked, Why didn’t Tom Paine encourage people in colonial times to search for a more socially responsible king? I’ve done a little research on that. The notion of social responsibility was proposed in the 1920s by some law professors who were very concerned about the powers and privileges that corporations were wielding. They were trying to create some legally binding doctrine and to put it into law that the corporations had responsibilities to the community, to society. It was unfortunately a concept that was crushed by the corporations prior to the stock market crash and the Great Depression. What happened is that in the 1950s and 1960s some civic groups pulled the phrase out and started using it. Corporations were delighted to use it because it wasn’t linked to a concept of making this the law, but more like voluntary conduct, that they had a responsibility and would you please, Mr. Corporate CEO, be a little nicer. That has translated into what we see now, a set of voluntary codes of conduct that some groups are asking corporations to sign on to. I think it’s a terrible and dangerous diversion. If all we’re going to do is create organizations and develop materials and educate people to come together in order to say to corporations, Please, you have a responsibility not to be so destructive. Please be a little less harmful. Please be nicer. What you’re doing is reinforcing the corporate worldview that they have ultimate authority, like petitioning a king to be a little nicer or a little less bad. It’s an extraordinary diversion. It undermines our sovereignty and self-esteem. Some of the groups have invested ten years into these voluntary codes, an incredible amount of time and energy getting their members involved, and when they win, what do they get? Pretty much codes without teeth and no law backing them up. We don’t talk in the language of corporate social responsibility. The only people who have responsibilities here are we the people. It’s our responsibility not to create and sustain corporate entities that cause harm, that exceed their authority. That’s our responsibility to this generation, to the earth and to future generations. We’re the ones who have to be responsible. Besides, organizations can’t be responsible. It’s only people who can be responsible. A principal purpose of a business corporation is to shield decision-makers from responsibility. That’s why there are limited-liability corporations. They shield them from responsibility. The corporation can be doing all sorts of horrible things, assaulting democracy, destroying property, taking people’s future income, assaulting liberty, and nobody’s responsible. What happens when a corporation is brought before a regulatory body or even into court on a criminal case? The worst thing is it’s fined. Maybe it’s declared a felon and the corporation itself is fined. But that’s not going to have a deterrent effect. A corporation doesn’t think. It doesn’t have feelings, a soul. It doesn’t have a conscience. It’s playing games to think that these minor fines, which by the way are usually tax deductible, have any real impact on the corporation. It’s nuts to think that people begging a corporate CEO, like Tom Paine didn’t beg the King of England, to be a bit nicer is going to change the balance of power. We have to face that there’s an imbalance of power, the kinds of powers and privileges that corporations have under law are inappropriate, such that most of the harms that giant corporations do to life, liberty and property are considered legal and are generally regarded as acceptable by the culture, if not inevitable. You have to break an egg to make an omelet. If you want growth and progress and the good life, you have to have a little creative destruction. Of course you’re going to have problems here and there, but in the long run things will work out. In the long run we’ll all be dead. Corporations are able to wield power under law. They have the law on their side, which means they have the military and the police on their side. That turns things around. Up to about 1840 or 1850, if you were a mill owner and you dammed a stream in order to create a mill to grind grain, and your mill was flooding into my land, I had the right under common law, I and my neighbors, to go on your land and take your dam apart in order to save my property. Now if I and my neighbors go on the property of Louisiana Pacific Company in order to stop them from using chemicals and pesticides that are killing the salmon and destroying the whole ecosystem, Louisiana Pacific calls the police and we then become pawns in the so-called justice system. The law favors their property over our property. It’s not that the law favors private property. It’s that it favors corporate property over the property of the citizens and the corporate future income over the future income of people and the liberty of corporations over the liberty of people.

What is your response to the corporate chieftains who argue that, We are creating jobs, we are creating wealth, this is a capitalist economy?

There’s nothing in the Constitution that mentions corporations or capitalism. There’s nothing in the Constitution other than protecting contracts that sets up a system which is so overly competitive and not cooperative. The Knights of Labor in the 1870s and 1880s were really clear that they wanted to build a society based on cooperation, not on competition. There are a lot of people throughout our history who believed that everything doesn’t have to be cutthroat, that people can cooperate. I would say that the smartest corporate leaders from the 1870s on have always understood that what they wanted was the ability to cooperate among the top corporations and make everybody else compete. Recently there was a piece in the New York Times by Walter Goodman that quoted James Randall, the president of Archer Daniels Midland Corporation. ADM was caught in some scam in which they were fined $100 million, peanuts. Randall was secretly taped saying to some of his associates, “The other corporations are our friends and our customers and our suppliers are our enemies.” I think that’s how big corporations have felt for a hundred years. They created the regulatory system and laws to minimize competition among themselves but maximize competition among workers and the community so they could play one community off against another and one country off against another. So of course corporations bring some jobs. That’s where all our money goes, our subsidies, our wealth. With all these privileges they have, they damn well should be creating some jobs. But the question is, Is that the only source and the appropriate source of getting things done? Are we so helpless that if we didn’t have these giant corporations we wouldn’t have wholesome food, we couldn’t build our own houses, we couldn’t have newspapers and radio and television and magazines, we couldn't heat our homes and create electricity? If people and communities had any fraction of the vast authority and the public wealth that has been channeled into these corporations, we would be able to do what’s needed to be done. One of the ideas of democracy, of self-governance, is that if you have lots of people participating, the chances are you’ll have a better decision. These corporate CEOs continue to make the wrong decisions primarily because they make them in private, based on their own values and on immediate return. What do we have now? Poisoning of our food supply, our air, our water, the warming and poisoning of the whole planet, an incredible increasing gap between rich and poor,  and CEO salaries which are a billion times higher than workers’ salaries. You have the center of the society imploding because of decisions made by a few people. That’s what Roosevelt was talking about. When you have private power making the decisions, that’s fascism.

The CEOs would argue again that their loyalty, duty and obligation is to their shareholders, not to the larger society. They need to generate profits in order to give shareholders dividends. If they don’t they’re out.

I noted at a recent GE shareholder meeting the CEO, Jack Welch, kept talking to the shareholders saying, This is your corporation. I’d like to see some shareholders go onto company property and say, I want to see the books. I’d like to see some shareholders start exercising some of their authority. The fact is that over the last twenty-five years, through courts and legislation, the rights of shareholders have been decreased enormously. They have very little authority any more in the running of these corporations. It’s the self-perpetuating boards, the people like Jack Welch of GE, who are running them as dictators. There’s no question about that. It’s unclear to me, historically, where this line is that the obligation of the corporation is to maximize profits for the shareholders. That came out of another federal court decision dealing with the Dodge Motor Company in the early part of this century. That’s not what the state law creating corporations is. It’s not written in federal law. It was a court decision saying it was the obligation of the corporation to maximize profits for the shareholders. However, many states have put into their state corporation codes that the directors can take into account the impact of the corporation on the environment, on workers, on future generations. So in fifteen or twenty states the law is clear that there are much broader criteria. A lot of people would say what you said, Wall Street would say you’ve got to have returns. What is Wall Street? Let’s start putting some labels on this. You’re talking about financial institutions, other kinds of corporations, partnerships. You’re talking about banks, investment banks and the stock market. The New York Stock Ex­change is yet another corporation. We’re letting corporate entities of one kind, the financial kind, define for the industrial, service and entertainment media corporations what they have to do. Again, it’s un­con­sti­tutional­ized private power, without bills of rights setting up the criteria and the values. I’m much more concerned with the ability of giant corporations to shape values, to shape how we think, to colonize our minds, to frame debate, than I’m concerned about them directly giving money to politicians. I think we could change the campaign finance laws to forbid any money changing hands and nothing will change. Because the most important value in this country that drives everything is, The economy must expand. We must increase production. Production is the most important thing. Efficiency is defined as production per person. That’s productivity. In order to have high productivity to please the Wall Street financial corporations, you have to substitute for people, you substitute energy, chemicals, or cheaper people working in China or India or Malaysia, making Nike sneakers and being paid nothing. Where did those values come from? What’s possible for us to aspire to? Can we say we can have a society where production doesn’t always have to expand? First of all, the ecology  is not going to sustain that. We can’t keep expanding at the rate we’re expanding. We need to rethink what we produce, what for, who is making the decisions, stop making so much single-use and throwaway stuff and start making things that can be rebuilt and repaired and recycled in a meaningful way. It is absolute insanity that in this country people buy fifty million of those plastic PET bottles for sodas a day and throw them away. They barely recycle. I keep coming back to this theme that corporations are manifestations of this so-called private power over which we have no authority. Somehow we the people have delegated them the authority to make these fundamental decisions over what’s produced and how it’s produced, about where investment goes, including and especially public monies. There are tons of public money in the corporations, and what kind of work people do. These are the decisions that shape our communities and shape our lives in fundamental ways. For us as the sovereign people to concede that these are the corporations’ decisions and we have no rights to interfere, is totally contrary to the theory of government that this country is based on, to the Constitution and all the ideals that people have struggled for since the founding of this country. If we’re the sovereign people, there are no arenas of information or decision-making that are beyond our authority. Otherwise we’re not the sovereign people. If we don’t define ourselves and therefore define all the entities that we create, whether they’re business corporations or government corporations or university corporations or charitable corporations, they will define us. I think that’s what’s happened. They have defined us, defined themselves as sovereign and us as consumers. They have most people thinking that the only thing they can do is to buy and buy and occasionally not buy, as opposed to saying, We must come together as sovereign people and take back control of our mechanisms of self-government. First we must take back control of our own minds.

You alluded to the imperiled environment. Could you elaborate a little more on the long-term environmental consequences of the current path that we’re on?

We have a number of environmental laws, toxic chemical laws, clean air and water laws, that have been passed since the 1970s. These are regulatory laws, regulating what the corporations can put out. Despite these laws, the amount of toxic chemicals produced every day by corporations is increasing. The amount of harm that people and other species are suffering is increasing. That process hasn’t worked. If you go back and look at these regulatory laws, what they do is legalize the corporations’ ability to put out poisons. They channel us, as activists and environmentalists, into trying to deal with one poison at a time rather than saying to the corporations, It’s illegal for you to be poisoning in the first place. So we have poisons in the air and the water, in the food. We have enormous corporate effort to make sure that cities and towns don’t build mass transportation systems so that the country still relies upon the internal combustion engine. Many people may know the story of how in the 1940s Firestone and General Motors bought up the urban trolley systems and shut them down in order to sell buses and cars. We have what I prefer to call the poisoning of the atmosphere, global poisoning. Others call it global warming. You have overwhelming evidence in the Arctic and the Antarctic that there’s a warming trend that is going to have enormous con­sequences. Wherever you look in areas where giant corporations have been particularly powerful you’ll see enormous impacts. In the Northwest, where the timber and mining corporations have been so dominant, you see many species of salmon that are extinct, thousands of salmon streams that have been destroyed. People’s property rights, fishermen’s future rights to future profits have been destroyed by corporations taking their profits. I live in Province­town, Massachusetts. This used to be a fishing village. Because of corporate trawlers with their ten-mile nets, the local fish industry is basically destroyed. Off the Gulf Coast of Texas the shrimp industry is destroyed because of all the poisons coming out of the chemical and petrochemical companies. In Maine, you have a handful of timber corporations owning two-thirds of the state and exercising not only control over the land but also control over the political process. The politicians all turn to them before they do anything. So from an ecological standpoint, from an equal distribution of wealth standpoint, from a justice standpoint the rule by giant corporations has brought us problems. It’s certainly brought us a lot of raw wealth. There’s a lot of production. We are the masters at producing things in this country. We produce more than anybody else in the world, more poisons and more garbage and more crap than anybody else in the world. People keep buying a lot of it, for whatever reasons. But the earth cannot sustain this kind of approach. It cannot sustain the theory that our economic institutions can only exist and thrive if they keep producing more and more and keep expanding and gobbling up other businesses. It just can’t last.

Talk about practical things that people can do in terms of reversing mental colonization and reframing the debate.

We and other organizations have been producing materials over the last four or five years. Those can be very helpful to people, to read the history that they didn’t know and see how other folks in other generations have been addressing this. We’re suggesting that folks who are interested form some kind of study group, read and start thinking and talking about this. That’s very important because we have to start using a different language, thinking about ourselves in a different way. But as important is that people who belong to activist civic organizations need to bring these debates into churches, academic institutions, professional societies or in places like New England town meetings. We need to start bringing these discussions into the body politic. In terms of when people see a harm taking place and mobilize to stop the harm, we need to do that in ways that start to change the context. It’s difficult because when the corporation is pouring chemicals out of a factory and polluting the environ­ment, obviously people come together to stop the immediate harm. But the equivalent harm is the way the corporation is interfering with our liberty and democracy. There’s no doubt in a community where a toxic chemical corporation is polluting in a big way out of its stacks and pipes that it has a pipe into the city council and the state legislature and into the newspaper editors and the television station managers, that they’re helping to create the climate where people say, There’s nothing we can do. This is the price of progress. In order to have jobs we have to kill some of our children with leukemia. We have to start challenging all these privileges that these corporations have been given, their claims to human rights.

Increasingly people at community, town, county, city and state levels can start passing laws that challenge all these corporate privileges, that start denying corporations free speech, all these other Bill of Rights protections, denying them their legal personhood, and that start asserting that within our jurisdiction we have a responsibility to protect life, liberty and property of the people and species in place in our community. We are not going to allow it, even if the Supreme Court talks about the commerce clause or freedom of contract or all the other theories that they put forward. We are going to challenge that. As enough communities start challenging that, the debate will change. I take hope from looking back historically. Many of the key Supreme Court decisions granting corporations all kinds of privilege were 5-4, 6-3 decisions, very flimsily based, and their logic is ques­tionable. As we the people start to challenge, as we start asserting our authority and our claim that corporations have no right to any of these privileges, they don’t have any human rights, we’ll start having a very different debate. People will start feeling empowered and start demanding what we really in our hearts know we want, which is the right to control our own futures, our own communities, clean air, not poisoned air, food and water without poisons in it, atmosphere that isn’t warming up and being poisoned, banks, insurance companies and utility companies that don’t boss us around and dominate all our government and our elections and write the laws.

In 1994 you helped establish the Program On Corporations, Law And Democracy, POCLAD. Its mission statement is “instigat­ing democratic conversations and actions that contest the authority of corporations to govern.

I think that says it in a nutshell. We’re not asking corporations to be a little less bad or a little more responsible. We’re saying that the norm of giant corporations is to usurp the governing authority of the people. With that authority, given their values and their own internal needs, they’re going to make the wrong decisions. We have to take that authority away. Since most people today don’t recognize that corporations are governing illegitimately, we’re trying to help create that debate. Out of that debate will come, we hope, a very different kind of citizen organizing over the first decade of the twenty-first century, which is about taking these powers and privileges away from corporations and asserting ourselves to say, We are the sovereign people, we are we the people, we come together to form this government, to protect the general welfare, to preserve our posterity. We do that. We create these corporations. Therefore we define them. When they have exceeded their authority, we must assert ourselves to say, We’re in charge. Here’s how we want things to be run.

Let people know how they can get in touch with POCLAD.

Our mailing address is

      P.O. Box 246
      South Yarmouth, MA 02664-0246
      Tel.: 508-398-1145
      Web page:


Related Alternative Radio programs:

Noam Chomsky: “An Inquiry into Global Capitalism”
William Greider: “The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism”
Richard Grossman: “Revoking Corporate Charters”
Doug Henwood: “Wall Street”
David Korten: “When Corporations Rule the World”
Ralph Nader: “Diversion of Discontent”
Vandana Shiva: “Biopiracy”
Holly Sklar: “Economics of Greed”

For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:

David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306
(800) 444-1977




Z Magazine

ZNet Watch Sites ZNet Crisis Sections The Parecon Site