Citizens Over Corporations
by Richard L. Grossman
Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy
from the booklet - Citizens Over Corporations
by the Ohio Committee On Corporations, Law and Democracy, 1999
Corporate strategists have long been clear about their bedrock
goals, their tactics and arenas of struggle. In the 16th and 17th
centuries, they designed their charted corporations-the East India
Company, the Africa Company, the Virginia Company, the Carolina
Company, etc.-as governing entities. Backed by the might of the
English Empire, these corporations waged war, vacuumed up resources,
enslaved people, destroyed local cultures, and wrote the arbitrary
rules by which millions of people lived, labored, and died. Then
they wrote the history books to keep the facts from future generations.
In the early days of this nation, men of property set out
to use the corporate form as their economic and as their governing
vehicle. While the history of industrial and technological development
has been well documented, neither the central role of the business
corporations nor people's resistance to domination by men of corporate
wealth is well known. How this minority used their corporate vehicles
to rewrite state and federal constitutions, to clothe their aggregated
properties in the rights of human persons and thereby gain government
protections for their persistent usurpations, needs uncovered
in each community and in every state.
These efforts by men of property were so successful that today
government officials -citing the Constitution-routinely (and relatively
automatically) intervene on the corporate side when we the people
seek to use our constitutions to define and protect our communities.
As former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter has pointed
The history of American constitutional law in no small measure
is the history of the impact of the modern corporation upon the
Exposure of these hidden histories of corporate takeover often
comes as a rude awakening. It's hard to accept that giant corporations
have been defining our values and shaping our culture for well
over a century. But it's not as if we must start from scratch.
The great saga of the American Revolution-and of early Ohioans-has
inspired people in every generation: We the People are the ultimate
authority. Here, the people govern. All people possess inalienable
human and constitutional rights. The role of government is to
nurture democracy and prevent special privilege.
To fortify ourselves with the energy and power of this saga,
we have but to read the Declaration of Independence, the preamble
to the U.S. Constitution, the charter of the Knights of Labor,
the platforms of the Populist farmers and workers' parties demanding
an end to corporate rule, our original state constitutions, the
Niagara Declaration, the Declaration of Sentiments, and other
self-defining documents. We have but to learn the hidden histories
of people's vital movements for rights, justice and democracy,
of people's valiant resistance against corporate tyrannies.
We can build upon the people's great movements if, like theirs,
ours are struggles for democracy and self-governance; if like
theirs, our goal is to replace autocratic, private institutions
that consolidate wealth and power for the few with democratic,
public institutions that disperse wealth and power to the many.
Let us create a great debate in our communities, across our
state and nation- debate which challenges the authority and legitimacy
of business corporations to rule. We can start by:
* unearthing our histories;
* taking back the language of liberty and democracy;
* studying our constitutions and learning about this nation's
plan of self-governance
* asserting our fundamental human and constitutional rights
as individuals persons, AND as "We the people;"
* challenging corporate claims to constitutional authority
and the rights of persons;
* electing town, county and state legislators who will revoke
local ordinances and state corporation codes that privilege corporations;
* bringing our debates into these bodies and into all organizations
we may be involved in, towards using the resources of our communities
and our states to end the rampant illegal seizures of governing
authority by mere legal fictions, and to govern ourselves.
This brief history of democracy tried and thwarted in Ohio
tells us that in every generation, people understood that if they
did not define corporations, then corporations would define them.
Starting with the Revolution, which sought not a kinder, gentler
monarchy but to replace monarchy rule with self-governance and
random struggles, great movements occurred only when people started
uncolonizing their minds. Random struggles against injustice became
great movements only when people made the leap from addressing
specific harms, one at a time over and over again, to asserting
their sovereign right to make the rules, to define all institutions.
It is each generation's challenge to work for human rights
to be valued over property rights ... and for public authority
over private authority. But persistence alone is not enough: we
must also proceed with knowledge, intelligence and care. It took
generations for the Colonists to formulate a plan of government
which protected people from arbitrary power - - and then corporations
manipulated the Constitution to position themselves beyond the
authority of the people. It took generations for African Americans
to gain fundamental human and constitutional rights... and more
generations to start enforcing these rights-and then corporations
manipulated the 14th Amendment to systematically deny all people
our human and constitutional rights, under color of law!
As you reflect on your own organizing efforts in the context
of corporate histories and people's struggles for democracy, you
will see that We the People have inappropriately conceded privileges
and authority to property organized behind the shields of business
corporations. We the People have not acted responsibly, for we
have betrayed past efforts for democracy by giving control over
our courts, our police, our army, our taxes, our work, our schools,
our words, our futures, to business corporations. It is as the
great Populist writer and orator Henry Demarest Lloyd declared
a century ago:
We are calling upon their owners (of industrial power and
property) as mankind called upon kings in their day, to be good
and kind, wise and sweet, and we are calling in vain. We are asking
them not to be what we have made them to be. We put power in their
hands and ask them not to use it as power. If this power is a
trust for the people, the people betrayed it when they made private
estates out of it for individuals. If the spirit of power is to
change, institutions must change as much. Liberty recast the old
forms of government into the Republic, and it must remould our
institutions of wealth into the Commonwealth.
As soon as we stop conceding authority and legitimacy to business
corporations, as soon as we stop calling upon corporate leaders
to be responsible, we automatically break free of the dead dynamic
Lloyd explains so clearly.
As soon as we draw upon the fundamentals of sovereignty and
human rights to assert our authority to define all corporate bodies-business
OR government -we take the offensive. We light sparks to rekindle
the rich and vibrant movements for democracy and self-government
that have lain dormant in our culture since the great Populist
moment one hundred years ago.
We and our activist organizations do not need new laws to
stop conceding power to corporations, or to challenge claims to
illegitimate authority by corporate leaders and other very important
people. We need no Supreme Court permission to rethink our democracy,
to reformulate our strategies and tactics. We need no go-ahead
from our mayors, governors, attorneys general; from talk show
hosts, unions, or national organizations; from our senators or
representatives or law school deans.
When enough people in enough communities change how we think,
we will set in motion the culture of democracy that will begin
the end of corporate rule.