The Corporations are Coming

May 16, 2010

A talk delivered at the discussion group “Journey”
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Let us see this morning if we can stitch together some pattern out of the patchwork of our troubles.  We are sometimes so beset with sound bites and trends, polls and policies, instant failures and unexpected successes that we dare not piece together any suggested place for ourselves in history. But, we might ask, is it not the work of people like you and me in every age to seek out and name the connections between things, to take some view of the valleys from—what we hope might be—the mountain top?  Is that not what Journey wants to do every Sunday?

Here are some patches in the quilt this May morning:

In April of this year, 29 men were killed in an explosion in a Massey mine in West Virginia. Massey, it turns out, has had a disgraceful record of continuous, consistent safety violations. Massey has had a record, further, of financing and electing a Supreme Court judge in West Virginia to protect that corporation against attempted enforcement of a $50 million fine because of earlier safety violations. Did Massey expect to similarly evade and escape the government’s regulation before the most recent disaster? In all probability it did. But the corporate veil is not easy to penetrate and it will be a long time before anybody knows.

Last month as well, 11 roughnecks on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico were killed in a methane explosion. Millions of gallons of oil have since come gushing into the sea threatening the livelihood of thousands of Louisianans, tourism, the survival of shell fish, wetlands species, wildlife, ducks and birds. Did British Petroleum, or Haliburton, or Transocean, the three giant corporations involved, make a callous, or negligent decision when they drilled that well and failed to install the backup systems that would have prevented the blowout? In all probability they did. But the corporate veil is not easy to penetrate and it will be a long time before anybody knows.

Andrew Cuomo, attorney general of the state of New York, has launched an investigation into eight mega banks to determine whether they provided misleading information to seduce the ratings agencies into inflating the grades of certain mortgage securities.  Did those eight mega corporations intentionally mislead the ratings agencies, engaging in a practice that would eventually lead to the catastrophic collapse of 2008? In all probability they did. But the corporate veil is not easy to penetrate and it will be a long time before anybody knows.

The SEC has now also filed suit against the largest of those banks, Goldman Sachs, alleging that those managers knowingly packaged risky derivatives and marketed these as winners while knowing them to be losers. Goldman then bet its own money on the losing side. Those to whom the investments were sold as winners lost billions while Goldman made billions at their expense.  Did Goldman commit intentional fraud? In all probability they did. But the corporate veil is not easy to penetrate and it will be a long time before anybody knows.

Five justices of the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Citizens United in January, 2010, that corporations, as persons, have the constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts in political campaigns, at every level, including in state legislative and judicial races. Billions of corporate dollars will now therefore flow into TV ads, leaflets, sloganeering for the “free market” and against “socialism.”  That “socialism,” of course is the very government regulation that might have prevented the Massey mine disaster, the BP oil spill, and the Goldman derivatives scandals. But with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, corporations such as Massey, BP and Goldman will be authorized to invest in elections at every level to insure the future election of representatives and judges who will protect the unregulated market, or that is, defend corporate irresponsibility in opposition to the public good.

The drum beat against socialism and for the free market is kept up, night after night, day after day, by corporate media, the loud voice of oligarchy, and these in turn are prominently led by The News Corporation.  That corporation is in turn controlled by a single one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men, Rupert Murdoch, lord over TV stations, radio channels, movie making, and magazines. Murdoch is the ruler of an empire that reaches from the US to the UK to India to Australia and exercises a substantial influence over what is determined to be politically newsworthy, or what is fair and balanced. A single oligarch therefore has capacity to reduce American politics to sloganeering and circuses equivalent to the Roman Circuses of old, to make editorial decisions, and to make his personal values those that are broadcast to the public. Do these values reflect the suffering, economic distress, or loss of life of West Virginians, Louisianans, or defrauded global investors? In all probability they do not. But the corporate veil is not easy to penetrate and it will be a long time before anybody knows.

The net effect of these facts is that corporations, a form of organization originally intended to facilitate the accumulation of capital and thus to fuel industry and commerce, now in the year 2010 have become something altogether different. They have morphed over the last 100 years into a means to control sovereign states. They have grown so powerful that they have the ability to choke off government by the people. Artificial persons originally intended each for a different limited economic purpose, have become self perpetuating and autonomous to the extent that they are no longer controlled by the states that created them. To the contrary, they more often than not control not only the states that created them but now with the Citizens United decision are poised to control federal elections and therefore also the federal government.

The robot is controlling the robot maker. The mechanical device has taken over the lives of its inventors.

That is the desperate situation in which we find American democracy today.

How is it that nobody knows what goes on in the gilded boardrooms of the world’s largest corporations?  How can it be that corporate decisions that influence the lives and welfare of millions around the globe and especially millions in our own country can evade governance and command the very instruments of popular opinion and legislation that we thought were created to ensure the common enterprise?

How did this happen?  Where in history did propertied elites first take over?

The elite of Athens objected to Socrates teaching young people about the true, the good, and the beautiful and made him take the hemlock. When they did this they were killing ideas and when they killed ideas they killed Athenian democracy and when they killed Athenian democracy they killed Athenian power. They didn’t say they were doing this. They didn’t know they were doing that. But that is what they were doing.

Roman generals, themselves enriched by the loot of empire, stirred to provincial anger local soldiers who lived on the farms of Italy, turning them against privileges that might be granted to foreign slaves. That is perhaps not different from Wal-Mart stirring local anger against immigrants, while at the same time hiring immigrants and threatening to expose them to this local fury if any one of them complains about working conditions.

In the 18th Century, Christians were told that hard work was next to godliness and, aided by the Church, propertied classes sought to make every peasant work harder in order to get to heaven. Today the same effect is achieved by corporations increasing “productivity” by extending hours for workers in the mine, for professionals on weekends, for fewer health inspections and less environmental protection.

It is not unusual either, historically speaking, for propertied elites to profit from the progress and prosperity of republican government thereafter seeking to control that government and in the process to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That is what the families of elite Florence did in the 15th Century, eventually suffusing that republic in greed and deception, fraud and corruption, killing the republic, returning the city to feudalism.

Emile Zola challenged the propertied classes in the French Republic who had mistakenly convicted Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, of treason.  Zola proved to them that it was another who had committed the treason but the French elite would not release Dreyfus from jail because to admit a mistake would weaken the French Republic. “J’accuse!” Zola wrote for all the world to read but all the generals rallied around the government to defend the honor of their privileged positions and in so doing were complicit in the subversion of justice and in so doing in turn set the stage for a moribund French general staff that would be unprepared for the German invasion of 1914 and then the collapse of that republic.

Historically speaking, as Gary Hart has said, “time is the enemy of republics,” and it is not unusual for republics in Athens or Florence to last only a short time until the people are gradually moved out of control, and when the people are moved out of control, then a republic will die.

Here, in 2010, in the United States of America, the situation is therefore far more serious and important for the survival of the republic than simply the regulation of mine safety, or off shore drilling, or financial firms. What is going on today is a battle for American democracy, a continuation of the age-old struggle of We The People.

This is the same struggle as that of our ancestors who originally drafted the Constitution and those who fought at Concord in 1775 and Trenton in 1776, at Washington DC in 1814, at the Marne River in 1918, at Iwo Jima and in Normandy during the Second War, and yes, even now in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. Here too, ordinary Americans have died to preserve government that serves the whole of the people. They are not battles to preserve some fictions of contract law, or engines of material empire; they are not battles merely for the benefit of the propertied. They are not battles fought for artificial persons that may decide to defend property before people. They are not battles to protect and defend the one percent of our wealthiest who now control over 40% of all our wealth.

Real people do not call their children subsidiaries. Real people have emotions and devote time to things that do not make money. Real people are not bound by an insatiable appetite for risk formulas, stock accounts and derivatives that are completely, totally and wholly detached from emotion.  Real people do not measure their futures in the three-month quarterly report but expect to have long-term legacies, grandchildren, and mountains, and rivers in the generations to come. Real people value the light and the sky, art and music, love and connection to one another, and want to go on valuing these non-economic values even though none of them is measured by corporate productivity, or profit ratios, or the short term quarterly report.

Years ago, in this country in 1776, rebellion broke out against the King of England. But it was not just rebellion against the rule of the sovereign. Catherine Macaulay and Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry and Sam Adams did not perceive the problem to be just that of the incompetent George III. Macaulay wrote, in great detail, that the problem was in the English Parliament too; that the Parliament had become the province of the wealthy class; that the Parliament was no longer the protector of the English Bill of Rights of 1689; that the landed interests—the great merchants of the British East India Corporation then substantially represented in Parliament (and determined to make their profits off the tea trade to the American colonies)—were not on the side of the masses of people who labored under the heel of lords of great abundance. Great wealth was not the solution to England’s problems, wrote Macaulay, and great wealth could never be the solution to America’s problems echoed Thomas Paine.

Only government by the people could right this situation and since the English Parliament was unwilling to allow the Americans to govern themselves, since the representatives of the East India Company would not allow Americans to drink tea without taxes, these Americans would have a revolution.

Ours was not therefore just a revolution against a king. It was more than this. It was a revolution against government by only those few who had great property.

Today the new tyrant is not a king. It is not even a collection of barons and viscounts. But it is still a people’s battle against tyranny; it is against the tyranny of the quarterly report; the tyranny of decisions made in secret board rooms that grant life or death to the forests and the seas; it is the tyranny of fictional paper entities that protect sometimes incompetent, sometimes selfish, sometimes arrogant, very often super rich individuals from personal liability for their incompetence, for their selfishness and their callous disregard for those less fortunate. It is against the tyranny that allows a corporation to exist in perpetuity, to exist only for profit, to spend billions to control and eliminate the people’s own democratic processes.

Today the revolution against this tyrant need not be by taking arms, even though this is the fury that fuels the Tea Party movement and allows them to use the metaphor of arms. Today, the revolution could come from a simple amendment to the Constitution of the United States that corporations are not people, or that corporations should not be allowed to spend sums in our elections.

Or, the revolution could come about by restoring to the people of Louisiana the right to protect their own beaches. Or to the people of West Virginia the right to protect their own mines. Every state’s people ought to have the right to review the activities of those corporations that do business within their territory on a regular basis and to determine whether those corporations are operating in ways that promote the health, safety and welfare of the people of that state, and not just of the economic state, or the oligarchic state. Every state ought to have the right to open up the activities of corporate decision makers who now operate in secret and may, in secret, threaten the survival of life in their state, or indeed, the survival of life on the planet.

It will not therefore be sufficient to merely reform off shore drilling or mine safety or the financial industry. We must begin at the root and that root is the false idea that corporations are people and that corporate money is speech. Once we get that straight we can begin to establish what corporations may do with our permission, what they must do to become good citizens in the communities by which they are enfranchised.

This is, however, not the Sunday, and we do not have the time today, to review the movements now abroad in the country organizing to amend the Constitution. Suffice for this morning to say that organizations are forming, that money is being spent on drafting, that lawyers are engaged in the preparations and that now the numbers in favor of a 28th Amendment to the Constitution are growing.  Let us stay alert to the movement, educate ourselves and be prepared to respond to this greatest threat to popular government since the days of monarchy. Let us therefore now become, each of us, like a hundred, hundred Paul Reveres, and let us go forth with the cry that the corporations are coming.

Thank you.