June 6, 2010

Corporations responsible for 95.8% of all ills in the world

I had jokingly written on the Chicago Media Action website that corporations were responsible for 95.8% of all ills in the world. That's obviously grandiose to quantify the ills to such a precise percentage, but it's unquestioned that the modern-day limited liability corporation is the cause for a great many ills in the world, and that a great deal of forward- thinking progressive activism amounts to fighting one or another corporation, or many corporations at once. Some examples off the top of my head:

Labor: Corporations are interested in maximizing their own profits at the expense of everything else, including their own employees. So unions and grassroots groups fight hard just to maintain or modestly raise their own wages while under long and harsh working conditions. The example of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers comes readily to mind: an organization of poor migrant workers in Florida working to help tomato pickers who labor from early morning until late at night six days a week by raising the wage of a penny per pound of tomatoes picked, and launching grassroots publicity campaigns against the biggest food retailers on Earth (e.g., Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, Chipotle). Other corporations like Walmart have bitterly fought to prevent their own workers from organizing unions or joining already-organized unions, and examples of that are abundant.

War: Corporate military contractors like General Electric, Raytheon, TRW, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin make money -- a LOT of it -- by selling overpriced military equipment to the U.S. government, and increasingly in other governments, to power the perpetual war machine. It's now to the point where private contractors in war-related efforts -- including mercenary armies like DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and the company formerly known as Blackwater -- now outnumber government war efforts and personnel themselves.

Politics: Corporate lobbying on various efforts in the United States in a massive endeavor, growing every year, and now in the realm of billions of dollars annually, and in the wake of the Citizens United ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court could well grow more massive. Additional realms of corporate influence in the political process can take the form of public relations campaigns, campaign contributions to politicians, politicians returning to higher-powered political positions after a stint in the private sector (the proverbial "revolving door") , and claiming high-paying executive jobs in the corporate realm after leaving government service (the proverbial "water slide"). A great deal of that money raised from corporations is used to buy advertising time on broadcast media outlets, and the most powerful and best-well-known media outlets (certainly in the United States, and increasingly worldwide) are also corporations.

Media: Most of American media is the province of a small number of corporations, and the set-up of that was done behind closed doors by corporate lawyers with little public involvement or awareness. The media often prevent or dampen awareness of a great deal of social justice campaigns, which is why activism on media and media policy issues has been growing in recent years. My work on media policy activism has for the most part focused on efforts against one or another corporation, including the Tribune Company, Comcast, and AT&T.;

Environment: I gave a presentation at an environmentali conference in St. Louis which began with a rundown of corporate efforts against the environment. To quote from my presentation: "Corporations -- particularly those transnational corporations with limited liability and rights of personhood -- pose a great threat, perhaps the greatest threat, to the environment and to the future of this planet. Examples are legion: Exxon-Mobil and global warming, Georgia-Pacific and rampant clear-cutting, Shell Oil and oil extraction, General Electric and the nuclear industry, and (relevant to St. Louis) Monsanto and GMOs." You could now add British Petroleum and the Gulf Oil Volcano to the list.

Banking: New York Times columnist Frank Rich made an interesting comparison which I'll use as a segue: "[British Petroleum]'s recklessness is just the latest variation on a story we know by heart. The company's heedless disregard of risk and lack of safeguards at Deepwater Horizon are all too reminiscent of the failures at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and A.I.G., where the richly rewarded top executives often didn't even understand the toxic financial products that would pollute and nearly topple the nation's economy. BP's reliance on bought-off politicians and lax, industry-captured regulators at the M.M.S. mirrors Wall Street's cozy relationship with its indulgent overseers at the S.E.C., Federal Reserve and New York Fed -- not to mention Massey Energy's dependence on somnolent supervision from the Mine Safety and Health Administration."

The case can easily be made that corporations are the cause, or at least a major contributing cause, to these and a boatload of other problems. So, it's easy to argue that corporations are a big problem. But if corporations are a problem, what's the solution? Some suggest "holding them accountable" or "enforcing anti-corporate regulations". Others advocate criminal prosecution, enacting the corporate equivalent of the death penalty by revoking the charter of corporate criminals.

But a term like "corporate criminals" is redundant: every corporation will put its own short-term profits above the law, thus making corporations effectively criminal by definition. I suppose you could revoke all of those corporate charters one by one, but that'd take a heck of a long time. Best take steps to attack all corporations at once, draining the shark tank as it were.

What might be a strategy for doing that? That's the topic of my next blog post.