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 out,

The history of American constitutional law in no small measure is the history of the impact of the modern corporation upon the American scene.

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.

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