Corporate power is the central issue

By Robert Jensen

Published in Austin American-Statesman · December, 1999

[This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, December 10, 1999, p. A15.]

Anyone who followed the protests of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle can likely name the chain coffee house that had its windows broken (Starbucks), the color of the clothing worn by the demonstrators who broke the windows (the “black-clad” anarchists), or the cartoon characters the riot-gear-clad Seattle police most resembled (Ninja Turtles).

But how many know what brought the protesters into the streets? The demonstrations were the result of a coalition of labor, environmental and human-rights groups, each bringing their own specific concerns. But we were told little about those concerns, and even less about the simple principle that brings those groups together:

Corporations shouldn’t run the world, people should.

The central question for the global economy is not free trade v. protectionism. It’s whether we will have trade rules designed to benefit corporations or people. Does “economic growth” mean only an increase in corporate profits, or does it mean a decent life for people?

The corporate propagandists, and their supporters in the Clinton administration, would like us to believe that what benefits the corporations by definition benefits people — the “a rising tide lifts all boats” argument.

When rising corporate profits coincide with stagnating real wages for the majority of Americans and continued sweatshop conditions in the developing world, that’s an increasingly hard line to sell. Slowly, people are coming to understand a few obvious truths about the corporate entities that control much of our lives: Corporations are authoritarian institutions that are incompatible with democracy.

That simple assertion is at odds, of course, with the current rhetoric, which tells us that “free markets” open to huge transnational corporations are the defining feature of democracy. There is no greater testament to the power of modern public relations and advertising than the fact that such a patently absurd claim is taken so seriously.

First, there is no such thing as a free market, if free means “open to all with equality of opportunity.” As many in the developing world point out, it is quite convenient for the industrial nations of the world — which built their economies on some combination of protectionism, slavery and imperial conquest — now to proselytize for free markets. In such a setting, free markets mean nothing more than the freedom of transnational corporations to exploit more freely the people and resources of the less-developed nations.

And what of modern corporations? On what principles are they built?

As anyone who has ever worked in one knows, there is no such thing as democracy within a corporation. By law and tradition, authority is vested in the hands of a small number of directors who empower managers to wield control. Those managers on occasion might solicit the views of workers below; it is usually called “seeking input.” But input does not translate into the power to effect change and implement policy.

Corporations exist for one reason only — to maximize profit. Neither history nor logic give us any reason to think that maximizing profit leads to democracy within a corporation or support for democracy in the society. U.S. corporations, which do their best to subvert meaningful democracy at home through bribes to politicians commonly called campaign contributions, have shown repeatedly that when given a choice in other countries, they prefer dictatorships and oligarchies to real democracies. Rule by iron-fisted thugs and elites generally is easier to deal with than a government based on popular sovereignty.

So, the central problem of the WTO is that it was designed by and for corporations, not people. It’s rules are made and enforced in secrecy, with no pretense of democracy. And those rules subvert the democratic processes that exist in some nations.

Some protesters want the WTO reformed. I lean toward scrapping it; the people of the world have a better shot at protecting themselves from corporate predators without such an organization around to protect the wealthy. But whatever the position taken on the WTO, the focus has to remain on the central task: Unless we, the sovereign people, revise our laws to reign in, and eventually dismantle, the modern corporation, we will always be fighting battles in which we are outgunned and outspent.

We cannot have a meaningful democracy at home, nor promote democracy abroad, if we live most of our lives under the thumbs of authoritarian institutions that concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few to the detriment of the many.

If that sounds like old-fashioned rhetoric, it is. Working people understood it at the turn of the last century as they fought a losing battle against the emergence of corporate power. As this century turns, the battle continues, now with fresh spirit. This time, we can’t afford to lose.