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Alternative Futures

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Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy

There is no alternative. Capitalism is the only future. Free markets are the essence of democracy.

How do we know? Because we are told repeatedly by smart guys from corporations and government, and by the journalists and academics paid to explain why the smart guys are right. In the face of that “consensus,” the folks at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD), a group of activists from throughout the United States who began working together in the early ’90s, have launched a direct attack on the nature of the corporation, the institution at the core of modern capitalism. So, are they crazy or just confused?

Neither. The POCLAD members are refreshingly clear, and the recently published book of their writings–Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy–makes a compelling case for their analysis and strategy. The key to their work is a critique of the nature of the corporation. They are not simply saying that corporations do bad things or sometimes distort democracy (most liberals and even some conservatives admit that, especially post-Enron). Instead, they argue that the rise of the contemporary corporation has been the death of meaningful democracy. While I think their analysis needs to broaden (more on that later), the POCLAD collective has done an important service by framing the issue of economic justice in a language accessible to people not yet persuaded by a left/progressive analysis.

Here’s the story POCLAD tells:

Our wealthy founding fathers devised a system that allowed them to maintain power–by restricting citizenship to propertied white men, and through elite-controlled institutions such as the U.S. Senate and Supreme Court. These institutions could corral any wild ideas that regular people might pursue through the relatively more democratic House of Representatives, or state and local governments. Still, the democratic principles on which the country was founded were real, and popular movements over time expanded the franchise and agitated for more democracy.

Meanwhile, lawyers and lobbyists have waged a war to expand corporate power. Often relying on judges to do what even well-lobbied legislatures wouldn’t, corporations went from being limited entities (in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries) that could be controlled by the people and their representatives, to today’s concentrations of wealth and power that have almost completely escaped popular control.

In POCLAD language, corporations began as entities subordinate to the sovereign people but eventually became masters, eroding the core concept of democracy–power resides in We The People. But corporate power expanded exponentially when the courts granted to corporations the rights of persons, including 14th Amendment rights and eventually even free speech rights. POCLAD points out the obvious: Rights can be claimed only by persons; corporations aren’t real persons but only fictional ones, creations under law. According to POCLAD, we should move beyond fighting corporations on their terms–battling to control the worst of their offenses through regulatory law or asking them to curb abuses through voluntary codes of conduct. Instead, citizen-activists should demand that corporations act responsibly in accord with their charters or face charter revocation, the death penalty for corporations.

Along the way, POCLAD retells some American history, with two main effects. First, it de-mystifies the corporation–and by implication capitalism–showing that, like any other system, it is the product of human choices, not some unchangeable natural order. Second, POCLAD members remind us of past resistance to corporations–from the first half of America’s history when corporations were kept on a much shorter leash and such revocations occurred, to the Populists’ activism in the late 19th century contesting the legitimacy of corporations, to the work of the early labor movement to articulate an alternative to capitalism. For progressive political change to be possible, people not only have to understand the nature of the systems and institutions that wield power, but also see that it is possible for systems to change.

The book points out that corporations do not simply engage in business but govern much of our lives, in a system that disadvantages natural persons doing battle with these fictional persons. Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy makes this point particularly well in discussing labor law, which gives management huge advantages over workers trying to organize. The authors also argue cogently that whatever short-term victories citizens and environmental groups have won, or can win, in regulatory agencies, the ecological health of the planet has deteriorated and will continue to deteriorate. So long as corporations can accumulate the wealth and power that contemporary law and politics allows, progressive activists start out in a hole.

As these letters, essays, and speeches (all short and easy to digest) lay out this case, it becomes clear quickly the POCLAD folks have made the strategic choice to focus on corporations and avoid using the word “capitalism.” That decision makes sense in a country where critiques of capitalism typically are associated with foreign ideologies (European or Third-World socialism and communism) and totalitarian systems (the Soviet Union and its satellites). While it is true that spirited critiques of capitalism are a homegrown part of American history (some are referenced in the book, such as the Knights of Labor’s) and not foreign imports, at this moment in history a strategy that focuses on the corporation is likely to resonate more with Americans. No matter what people think about capitalism as a system (if they think about it at all), virtually everyone has some reason to dislike or distrust corporations; we’ve all been screwed by a corporation–as a competitor, employee, consumer, or bystander.

Given that corporations and modern capitalism can’t be separated or separately defined, POCLAD’s critique of the corporation goes to the heart of the system. It is possible to highlight the key problems inherent in capitalism–its need for constant expansion, the exploitation of workers, the commodification of everything–by focusing on corporations. Indeed, capitalism as we know it couldn’t exist without the corporate form. Still, at some point in discussion about politics and economics, people understandably ask, “OK, you don’t like what we’ve got–what kind of system do you want?”

Do left/progressive folks answer by saying we want capitalism without corporations? Or capitalism with corporations that just have less power? It’s not clear what the first claim would mean, nor is it obvious the second would bring substantive improvements. Or do we articulate a vision that, whether or not we use the term, will sound a lot like what traditionally has been known as socialism: no private ownership of the means of production, worker control over production, collective/council structures throughout the economy, participatory planning, etc.? Such a system can go by other names; for example, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel call it “participatory economics” (see their book Looking Forward or the web site http://www.parecon.org). But in the end, it’s not unreasonable for people to expect an answer to that question.

One might argue that the first step is to delegitimize the corporation, exposing not only the way it corrupts democracy in the political sphere but crushes people in the private. No argument there, but that first step quickly leads to questions about vision for an alternative system. This is not a demand for an alternative defined in great detail, which usually is a tactic to derail criticism of the existing system. Indeed, when any system is oppressive, it is in some sense enough to demand that the system end. But the effectiveness of that demand is much enhanced by a clear articulation of the underlying principles (which POCLAD offers) and some discussion of that vision, even if tentative and sketchy (which isn’t included in this volume).

Another necessary step forward is to include a more specific accounting of racism, sexism, and U.S. imperialism–not as issues separate from corporate capitalism but intricately bound up with it. It is clear POCLAD wants to keep its eye on the prize of contesting corporate power, but expanding the analysis can aid in that task. In one sense, capitalism is not inherently racist or sexist–corporations are happy to exploit anyone in the drive for profit. But owners and managers have used racism to divide workers and solidify control, and sexism has been important in keeping certain jobs associated with women or “women’s work” (such as the expanding customer service sector) low-paying. Those stories are also an integral part of the history of the corporation.

It’s also imperative, as the American empire seeks even greater domination of the world, to link the corporate system to U.S. foreign policy and militarism. At a time when expressions of patriotism run high, this may seem risky. But it’s difficult to imagine making inroads against the corporate power at home without challenging the brutality and violence of U.S. policy as it secures resources and markets abroad for corporations.

These are issues that left/progressive movements have to hash out. One person or group can decide to focus on a particular issue, but the analysis that underlies that political action can’t ignore this complexity.

Whatever differences in strategy and emphasis I might have with POCLAD, Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy reminds us that this kind of political work can be done in a language that speaks to ordinary people. POCLAD avoids long, jargon-filled writing that will turn off most readers, and that’s all to the good. But too many of these short, to-the-point pieces repeat the same themes, sometimes in pretty much the same language. The book could have been cut in half and conveyed as much information, making it more effective for outreach tool to the general public.

Still, leftists and progressives should read Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy–and keep up with the group’s work through the web site (http://www.poclad.org) and newsletter (By What Authority). POCLAD reminds us the task is not to convince policymakers and elites of the problem of corporations but to reach the public and build a mass movement.

At a time when most people accept the big lie that there is no future outside of capitalism, it’s time to move forward with political strategies grounded in the recognition that there is no way to think about a decent future except outside of capitalism.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out.