Review Of Defying
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)
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
Neither. The POCLAD members
are refreshingly clear, and the book of their writings -- Defying Corporations,
Defining Democracy -- makes a compelling case for their analysis and
The key is that their critique
is 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 father
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 that 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
At the same time those battles
have been going on, 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. Key to this was the courts' granting 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, and 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 denaturalizes
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 -- in some fashion
at some point.
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
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 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. In a world of multiple systems of repression
and oppression that are enmeshed, we have no choice but to deal with
them analytically. One person or group can decide to focus on a particular
issue, but the analysis that underlies that political action can't ignore
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 website ( www.poclad.org ) and newsletter
(By What Authority) -- not only for the history and analysis it offers
but for rhetorical strategies for taking the message to the public.
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
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
Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy
Edited by Dean Ritz
336 pages, $17.95.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the
University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective , and
author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins
to the Mainstream . His pamphlet, "Citizens of the Empire,"
is available at http://www.nowarcollective.com/citizensoftheempire.pdf.
He can be reached