21 January 2012

Strategies to rein in corporate power?

From Tom Atlee:

There are many emerging strategies to counter corporate control of our political life (quite in addition to efforts to counter their control of our economic lives). Seeing this as a necessity if we are to have effectively empowered public wisdom, I supported these initiatives in various ways.
At first I focused on campaign finance reform. But that whole realm was largely made irrelevant by recent Supreme Court decisions. So several years ago I started promoting the movement challenging corporate personhood as the gold standard of such resistance. But in the last week I've seen a broader strategic landscape that makes me wonder. I've particularly been exposed to strategists who see corporate personhood as just one tactic in a larger - and, in fact, historic - strategic effort through which corporations claim and obtain "rights" that are superior to the rights of democratic citizens, communities, and processes. Some of these strategists even suggest that "corporate personhood" is a red herring to drain energy from broader, more sophisticated counter-strategies. From this perspective, corporations continually create new legal and political realities to which we then instinctively react - when what is actually needed is for us to take the initiative and change the game completely.

In particular, these critics urge us to stop trying to thwart corporations using the machinery of the federal government - the courts, Congress, the administration. They say, with much justice, that corporate interests already thoroughly control these institutions. We should simply declare our fundamental and independent rights as citizens and communities and, if countered, proceed anyway as a collective act of civil disobedience and justified rebellion. If we can get enough communities to do this, we will win. So what strategy is best? It seems to me this is a judgment call. Below is a list of strategies I'm aware of; I'm sure there are more. None of them seems to me to be unambiguously the Right Choice. All of them have good arguments for and against. Most depend on one's sense of how urgent the matter is and how deep a transformation is necessary to meet our needs.

Can all anti-corporate domination activists gather around one strategy? Can they somehow synergize? Or are they, in their opposing views, doomed to drain attention and resources from each other?

My own preference, of course, would be to find a co-intelligent approach. I can imagine advocates of these various strategies coming together around one integral strategy - one that includes and/or effectively transcends most or all of the different strategies - a super strategy more powerful and wise than anything currently being proposed. If the diverse strategists cannot do this among themselves, perhaps someone could convene a deliberation in which the deliberators are dozens if not hundreds of the most influential activists and organizations whose work is impeded by corporate power. The advocates and opponents of the various strategies would then present their arguments to these powerful political players. With help - perhaps with Dynamic Facilitation - these leading activists and organizations would then discover or design a strategic vision they could all agree on, which embraced the values of all the approaches in a synergistic way.

In the meantime, here are the strategies I see:

1. Community declarations of independence from corporate domination. This strategy addresses not only corporate personhood and the alleged Constitutional "rights" associated with persons, but also how corporations legally wield the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to override efforts at sustainability at the municipal and state levels; how corporations are legally empowered to violate the constitutional rights of citizens and communities at will through their immunity to rights enforcement, and how state and federal preemption are used by corporations to override community self-government. Theoretically, this approach totally handles the problem. But to succeed, it requires hundreds or thousands of communities do it - and it requires their citizens and public officials to be prepared to fight back against resistance, so that the non-cooperation with corporate rule cannot be successfully countered by government suppression or corporate PR and economic pressure. This is a nonviolent revolutionary approach based on the non-cooperation strategies practiced by Gandhi and King, and codified by Harvard's Gene Sharp: "They can't put us ALL in prison. Our protests will make it increasingly difficult for them to function, especially as others - including progressive corporations, corporate managers, staff, stockholders, and political elites - come see the justice of our cause." While extreme, this approach is seen not only as valid but necessary by those who feel that all due process avenues of redress are blocked by corporate domination. For more on this approach, see

2. A Constitutional amendment to declare corporations are not natural persons and therefore don't have the civil rights of persons. This would handle some legal issues, but not others. In particular, it would not override the logic of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. That decision was not based on corporate personhood (as has been mistakenly and broadly promoted) but on the rights of the broad citizenry to hear corporate-sponsored political arguments. Also, Constitutional amendments are notoriously hard to pass - although some have passed rather quickly - and thus this strategy requires a truly massive organizing effort. However, its success would remove a major pillar of corporate political power in one blow. For more on this approach, see

3. A Constitutional amendment to require that all campaigns for federal office be financed exclusively with public funds and prohibit any expenditures from any other source, including the candidate, and prohibit independent support or opposition ads. This seems to remove a lot of the problem, but undoubtedly has loopholes, including (a) the use of so-called independent "issue ads" that *implicitly* (but powerfully) support or oppose a candidate without mentioning them and can readily be defended as free speech and (b) violations (especially borderline cases) that impact the election but aren't finally punished or declared invalid until long after the election is over. Furthermore, this strategy faces the above-mentioned challenges of passing a Constitutional amendment. For one version of this approach see

4. Congress declares that the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, do not have jurisdiction over political matters (as per the Constitution) and simply reassert Congress' Constitutional right to manage elections. This "Constitutional Crisis" approach theoretically handles the problem except that corporate interests which currently control Congress might succeed in preventing it. Furthermore, showdowns between branches of government are kind of unpredictable, raising questions of legitimacy and where the ultimate enforcers - the police and army - stand on the conflict. As with the three options above, chances are this would only succeed with truly massive popular support. For more on this approach see

5. Pass federal laws that reduce the range of corporate political power without directly tackling the underlying challenge. Below are three approaches I've seen. The advantage is that these are probably more doable in the short run than the previous options. The disadvantage is that the creative corporate types (legal, PR, strategic planners, etc.) will probably STILL expand corporate political power, regardless. Here are some of the ideas that have been fielded (and, in most cases, dropped, but they could be picked up again...):
• Amend the laws on corporate governance to assure that shareholders explicitly approve political expenditures by the companies they hold shares in.
• Restrict campaign contributions by federal contractors (and sometimes other organizations who have recently received money from the federal government, such as corporate subsidy recipients). Alternatively, when a contractor applies for a contract, require them to disclose their contributions to politicians and advocacy groups involved in elections.
• Prevent campaign contributions from any U.S. cosrporation controlled by foreign governments.

6. Promote the capacity for citizens, communities and states to generate empowered public wisdom which, to the extent it is developed, can create a wise We the People capable of resisting any attempt to control them unjustly or unwisely. A major downside of this is the difficulty most people have in understanding it or believing it is possible, so it will likely be a long process during which corporate domination could become further entrenched. For more on this approach, see

7. Reduce the power of giant corporations by building alternative (mostly local and green) economies. Separate livelihood, production, consumption, and all other forms of meeting human needs from the corporate-controlled global economy. This approach will likely gather steam as global economies falter and peak oil and other resource limits bite into the ability of mass economies to satisfy workers and consumers - e.g., when Walmart can no longer offer low prices because of high transportation costs and unrest in China. To a certain extent, this is inevitable; the transition will be bumpy and/or catastrophic to the extent communities delay and don't proceed with conscious intention and responsive planning. And while communities try to withdraw from the global economy, corporate control will put obstacles in their way and continue degrade the larger environment within which those communities function. For one of the many sites on this approach, see

8. See if corporate domination will die from a million cuts or mosquito bites. This strategy depends on things like the Occupy movement, YouTube creativity, critiques on blogs, popular movies with an anti-corporate theme (think Michael Moore and "Wall Street"), anti-corporate art, music, and performances, boycotts, stockholder activism, violence and property destruction, thousands of groups and communities taking this or that political or economic protest action, etc., etc., all of which would grow into an overwhelming cacophony of populist upheaval as living conditions deteriorate and people have less and less to lose and more desperately want to bring down the bad guys. This strategy includes the idea that certain corporations and (especially local) businesses will do good things and will then use that for market advantage, increasing the dynamic tension against the "bad guys". All this creates an energized context for radical change, including voluntary change from within corporations. A major risk of this extremely likely and nonlinear strategy is that as things get worse, fascist and totalitarian tendencies also increase, often on a populist wave.

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