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When Tom Paine published the pamphlet “Common Sense” in January 1776, 6 months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, he sought to transform citizen protest into full-bore rebellion. Armed fighting between colonists and the British had broken out months before, but the colonists still identified themselves largely as English subjects fighting a tyrannical government. Their anger was aimed at the king and parliament for ignoring their rights guaranteed by England’s unwritten constitution.

Paine sought to persuade his readers that their problems went beyond corrupt or abusive government. He rejected not only King George III but also the legitimacy of aristocracy and the entire British system. Rather than treating the monarchy with customary deference, he boldly declared the 11th-century monarch William the Conqueror, to be “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself King of England against the consent of the natives.”

“Common Sense” was wildly successful. By the spring of 1776, newspapers reported “innumerable” converts to independence, including “tens of thousands of common farmers and tradesmen.” With burning urgency Paine had gone on to call for the colonies to break from Britain and within the year, they did.

Our struggle with oppression today is not directly against a government. It is against the most dominant institution of our time: the corporation. And, as it did in 1776, Paine’s radicalism – in its true meaning of “going to the roots” – can inform our battleplan.

Many people now accept corporate domination of our political life, yet they seldom discuss the extent to which corporations control our physical existence. Agribusiness dominates our food supply; auto, oil and energy corporations determine what’s in our air, and to a frightening extent, whether we live in peace or in war.

But corporations are no more part of the natural order than the English monarchy. As little as 150 years ago, they didn’t exist in the form we know today. American citizens strictly controlled them through state legislatures, which accepted incorporation as a way to fund public projects like highways or canals. State legislatures explicitly defined corporations as entities subordinate to democracy and with a narrow set of privileges. Some states forbade business lobbying, influencing elections, or even attempting to sway public opinion. Violating these limits could lead to dissolution – a corporate death penalty.

During the Industrial Revolution relentless pressure from wealthy business owners expanded corporate privileges dramatically. By 1890, most long-standing corporate restrictions had been eliminated, and the US Supreme Court had granted the corporation the legal standing of natural persons, or “corporate personhood.” Soon after, the court bestowed Bill of Rights protections upon them with virtually none of the responsibilities of citizens. Effectively, the rights of citizens had been subordinated to institutions that now had the power to undermine personal liberties and democracy.

A powerful resistance movement arose. The poor farmers who launched the Farmers’ Alliance in the 1880s built cooperatives to bypass the iron grip bankers and large merchants held over their land and livelihoods. They soon realized dismantling the political influence of corporations was vital to their cause, and in 1892, they launched the last serious challenge to two-party domination in the US: the Populist Party. Populists focused on changing structures, not just symptoms. They sought to replace existing banks with a democratically controlled financial system and to nationalize railroads and telegraph networks. The Populists were not socialists (quite the contrary, actually) but they realized that free markets were impossible with oligarchies controlling the arteries of commerce.

The regulatory system created in the early 1900s was promoted by corporate leaders, trying to redirect this insurrection against corporate power. Big business succeeded by effectively channeling that rebellion into protest against separate abuses. These individual grievances were then adjudicated by agencies dominated by the very businesses responsible for those abuses. Today, this regulatory system remains what the US Attorney General reassured corporate leaders it would be back then – “a barrier between corporations and the people.”

We must tear down that barrier. Pursuing bureaucratic remedies like environmental impact reports or labor commission hearings are necessary tactics, but such defensive maneuvers cannot move us forward. We delude ourselves by thinking today’s industrial aristocracy will be more responsive to the people’s rights than the old one – or that appealing to our representatives in Washington can solve structural problems. As long as we permit corporate and private wealth to dominate politics, “democracy” will be a platitude from the mouths of demagogues rather than a reality.

The extension of corporate “rights” is accelerating. In 1978, the US Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that barred corporations from spending money to influence ballot initiatives, dubbing it a violation of corporate “free speech.” Courts have ruled since that municipalities attempting to control the placement of cell phone towers violate corporate “civil rights.” Corporations selling computerized voting machines invoke constitutional privilege against “unreasonable searches” to prevent people from ensuring that proprietary software isn’t used to manipulate elections. And Nike recently battled to a draw in a legal contest to establish a constitutional right for corporations to lie.

What can we do to change this trend when the traditional means of protest aren’t working? In simple terms, we need to build a movement to reclaim democracy where it begins – at the local level. Citizens can press local and state governments to pass laws challenging corporate personhood. Such ordinances and resolutions could parallel those passed by more than 220 communities in symbolic opposition to the oppressive “USA Patriot Act,” that led to Congressional bills to scale it back. The motivation is similar: Our rights as citizens are in grave danger.

A “progressive” undertaking? Not necessarily. Nebraska, South Dakota, and several other conservative Midwestern states have passed laws forbidding corporate ownership of farms. At least 11 townships in rural Pennsylvania have done the same. Real conservatives are the first to recognize that corporations were established strictly as business entities and should remain so.

Small business owners in the US have helped lead successful efforts from Port Jefferson, New York to Solvang, California that subordinate presumed corporate “rights” by banning or capping the number of chain restaurants allowed to operate there. Many more communities are proactively excluding big box stores through size caps or bans, rather than fighting individual battles against Wal-Mart and other chains.
Citizens can further such efforts by documenting ways that corporate personhood robs citizens of power to their communities from corporate harms. Example: if a factory repeatedly breaks health, safety or environmental laws, public officials may be barred from inspecting corporate property without first obtaining a search warrant, as if corporate property were personal property. Of course, this enables companies to conceal dangers and imperil communities.
Eventually, local officials may follow the lead of tiny Porter Township, Pennsylvania. When agribusiness giant Synagro complained that a law controlling use of toxic sludge as fertilizer violated its constitutional rights, the community passed the first US ordinance to declare that corporations have no constitutional rights within its jurisdiction. Months later, a neighboring community followed Porter’s example. These efforts demonstrate that with the right language and framing of issues, exposing the insolence of corporations can inspire radical, proactive challenges to the legitimacy of corporate power. If such defiance were to spread, corporate executives would face tough decisions: concede significant privileges, or risk confrontation on a scale not seen since the 1773 Boston Tea Party and the ransacking of East India Company property (then the world’s second largest corporation).

The rights of US residents aren’t the only ones threatened. Perhaps the most significant US export isn’t grain or pharmaceuticals but the legal and institutional structure of corporate control. US authorities declared last year that Iraq must accept foreign investment and corporatization of its nationalized oil industry before a permanent government takes charge. So “democracy” is welcomed only after the most important economic decisions for the future of Iraqis have been decided for them, after transnational corporations control their economic lifeblood.

But instituting corporate rule is done typically without armies. Trade treaties such as NAFTA and GATT are basically globalized versions of the “Interstate Commerce Clause” of the US Constitution – used by the Supreme Court to invalidate state laws that banned corporations from importing and dumping hazardous waste from other states. Power is being transferred to secret transnational tribunals where the corporation is always king.

Activists can help reverse the trend by framing the ongoing assaults by ceo George Bush and company – on workers, forests, human rights – within the context of corporate domination, and by promoting structural solutions alongside necessary damage control measures. But it’s the new push from corporations to widen their personhood rights still further that could offer an immediate opening.

In January, Monsanto Inc. lawyers argued their case against Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser before Canada’s Supreme Court. Basically, Schmeiser is accused of allowing the wind to infest his farm with Monsanto’s patented GE crops. Should the court side with Monsanto, Canadians will have fertile ground to organize rural communities and enact initiatives like those passed in Pennsylvania to deny illegitimate corporate rights.

Fifty-five million Americans joined a federal government list allowing them to opt out of being called by telemarketers. But last September a district court judge overturned the law that set up the list designed to keep for-profit companies (though not non-profits or politically-motivated callers) from pestering people at home. Judge Nottingham outrageously concluded that telemarketing companies possessed equal protection “rights” that would be violated by de facto discrimination against corporations, and that those presumed rights trump our right to personal privacy. The number of citizens with direct self-interest in this case makes it a stellar organizing opportunity – especially if the appeals court, that began its review in November, affirms the corporate claim.

Such conflicts can be used to enlist people of any ideology into battling “corporate personhood” via an obvious and direct impact on their lives. This work could trigger growth in awareness and engagement against corporate personhood, much like Seattle did for opposing secondary structures of corporate rule like the WTO. The key will be convincing average citizens that they and their families are oppressed by illegitimate corporate power, not by buffers like government agencies or politicians currently in office.

The opportunities will differ from one location to another, but let’s heed Tom Paine’s approach and transform our myriad single-issue protests into an outright rebellion to tear down the anti-democratic structures of corporate rule and institute some genuine democracy. Yes, it’s a huge challenge to change the rules, but sensible people don’t keep playing a rigged game.

Jeff Milchen directs, a non-profit devoted to building a democracy movement to restore citizen authority over corporations. Jeffrey Kaplan is an independent writer and researcher active in the group’s Bay Area chapter.




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