(Fwd) Greening The Corporation by Ward Morehouse

Lyn Gerry (redlyn@ix.netcom.com)
Tue, 24 Sep 1996 03:46:00 +0000


..........Forwarded message..................................

Draft: 14 August 1996
GREENING THE CORPORATION

Address to the Greens Gathering, Los Angeles,
16 August 1996

by Ward Morehouse*

Co-Director, Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy
President, Council on International and Public Affairs

* Contact Address: Suite 3C, 777 United Nations Plaza, New York,
NY 10017, tel. 212/972-9877; fax 212/972-9878; e-mail:
cipany@igc.apc.org

In Daniel Quinn's extraordinary book, Ishmael, which every
Green should read, the narrator of the story answers an unusual
ad: Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the
world. Apply in person.

To his surprise, his teacher turns out to be a gorilla named
Ishmael. Thus ensues an extended dialogue filled with insights
about the human predicament and our assault on the biosphere that
only a non-human could have.

In a memorable exchange, Ishmael observes of the young people who
were in the vanguard of the struggles of the sixties, many of
whom are active Greens today: "They made an ingenuous and
disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately
failed, because they were unable to find the bars of the cage. If
you can't discover what's keeping you in, the will to get out
soon becomes confused and ineffectual." "The world is not going
to survive for very much longer as humanity's captive," continues
Ishmael. Yet "I think there are many among you who would be glad
to release the world from captivity." "I agree," responds his
pupil. "What prevents them from doing this?, " asks Ishmael. "I
don't know." "This is what prevents them: They're unable to find
the bars of the cage."

The bars to our cage are not the harms corporations do to people
and the environment, although they are very great and must be
stopped. Nor are the bars to our cage the structures of power
created by giant, globe-encircling corporations now larger than
most nation states, although those structures must ultimately be
replaced by institutions that disperse rather than concentrate
wealth and power.

The bars to our cage lie in our own minds that have become
colonized by the sheer dominance of huge corporations over our
lives and our communities. These corporations increasingly
determine not only who will do what kind of work and what we eat
and wear but what we think as well. One result of the corporate
domination of our culture is the TINA phenomenon: There Is No
Alternative.

To make matters worse, following the homely wisdom that fish
discover water last, there is strikingly little awareness of the
extent to which our institutions and values are dominated by a
cultural paradigm essentially defined by large corporations.
"American society is disproportionately shaped by the outlooks,
interest, and aims of the business community--especially that of
big business," writes Cornel West in "The Role of Law in
Progressive Politics". "The sheer power of corporate capital is
extraordinary. This power makes it difficult even to imagine what
a free and democratic society would look like."

The arrogance of big corporations toward those of us who dare to
question their very right to exist in their present form in a
democratic society is well reflected in this comment by a
representative of major corporations operating in Wisconsin about
Democracy Unlimited, a Madison-based initiative which is doing
just that: "It is hard to take these people seriously. The large
corporation has been the source for more good than anything else.
Corporations allow us to live the way we do today." It is not
that there are no alternatives to a corporation- dominated
society. Joan Roelofs, in a new book soon to be released,
Greening Cities, describes dozens, if not hundreds, of
initiatives to build more just and sustainable communities that
are actually working on the ground in cities, large and small,
across North America and around the world. Another recent book
inspired by the New York-based World Hunger Year, Reinvesting in
America by Robin Garr, tells the story of grassroots movements
that are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and putting
Americans back to work in all the 50 states.

Even more to the point at a Green Gathering like this is Get a
Life! by Wayne Roberts and Susan Brandon, two Canadian authors.
The cover blurb says it all: "One hundred and one ways to tread
lightly on Mother Earth, make bags of money, simplify your life,
have a blast, keep fit and save your sanity while everything is
crumbling all around you." But there is a harsher reality that
all these good things tend to obscure: The growing concentration
of power in the hands of global corporations, the 100 largest of
which are bigger than most of the member states of the United
Nations. The 500 largest corporations control 70 per cent of
world trade. General Motors has gross income greater than the
gross domestic product of Denmark.

David Korten tells the story of corporate efforts to create a
global consumer culture sustained by their worldwide control of
capital, technology and markets in his latest book aptly titled
When Corporations Rule the World. This pattern of domination and
growth by large corporations at the global level is replicated in
the United States. From 1980 to 1994, the top 500 US corporations
increased their assets from $1.2 trillion to $2.7 trillion--while
they also destroyed 4.4 million jobs, almost one -third of their
workforce.

There is more bad news about a society increasingly dominated by
large corporations. According to the annual report on The
Underbelly of the U.S. Economy which I undertake with my
colleague, David Dembo, the real jobless rate is more than twice
what the government has been telling us. Real wages of industrial
workers are lower than they were 20 years ago. Income is more
unequally distributed than it was before 1950. And one out of
every four Americans lives below the real poverty line, close to
twice the official number.

But what is really grotesque is the explosion in compensation for
CEOs and other top executives of big companies. From 41 times the
average hourly worker's pay in the 1970s, CEO compensation
packages have soared to a ratio of 225 to 1 today. In 1993,
Michael Eisner, the CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation pulled
down $209 million. That comes to some $84,000 an hour -- -nice
work if you can get it. This is obscene under any circumstances
and especially when contrasted with conditions of life in South
Central Los Angeles, not to mention dozens of other urban ghettos
and seas of rural poverty around the world. Is anyone worth this
kind of money?

His fellow CEO, Robert Eaton of the Chrysler Corporation,
recently complained that those who criticize big corporations
like Chrysler are "a bunch of demagogues" trying to"herd us down
the path to class warfare." What working person would not resent
a society which breeds these disparities and obscenities? We
haven't had anything close to class warfare in the U.S. since the
Populist Movement a hundred years ago. What are we waiting for?

We may need to launch such an action to protect the little
economic and political space we now have to pursue Green economic
ideas. The biggest obstacle to community supported agriculture is
the giant corporations that dominate our food system--two of the
largest of which are also merchants of death hawking a lethal
narcotic known as tobacco.

We will need, of course, to differentiate between what my friend,
Ken Reiner from Long Beach calls "healthy" and "unhealthy"
corporations. Ken, a successful entrepreneur and inventor, knows
better than most of us the pathological character of corporations
from his own experience. Size is one critical determinant. Small
companies certainly can cause damage to persons and the
environment, but because they are small, are much less capable of
inflicting massive harm than, say, Union Carbide which killed
thousands -- we shall never know how many -- and injured more
than half million innocent sleeping citizens of the Indian city
of Bhopal. Nor would we exempt from scrutiny and action
not-for-profit corporations. Some of these commit grievous acts
that corrode the very heart of the democratic process -- trade
associations of polluting industries such as chemical
manufacturers being a prime example.

It follows from what I have said so far that my idea of "greening
the corporation" is not to regulate corporations better, even
less to encourage them to agree to voluntary codes of good
practices like the CERES Principles or The Natural Step. However
well intentioned such efforts may be, they are at best diversions
from our real task. That task is the only one consistent with the
principle of self-rule on which this country was founded and the
only one appropriate for a sovereign people in a democratic
society: We must define the corporation, instructing it in what
it can and cannot do for the common good.

The reality is that regulation of big corporations does
not work -- certainly not when push comes to shave and the issue
really matters to the corporation. If you doubt this assertion
read the chapters entitled "Hollow Laws" and "The Fixers" from
Bill Greider's book, Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of
American Democracy. It is the most important critique of U.S.
society since Gunnar Myrdal's study of race relations, An
American Dilemma more than half a century ago.

I will add a chapter from my own experience. A couple of
years ago, Formosa Plastics Corporation -- a rogue multinational
from Taiwan -- started illegally discharging toxic waste water
into an ecologically sensitive fishing ground off the Texas Gulf
Coast without a valid permit, and a local environmental group
which was fighting to save the livelihoods of fishing communities
along the coast informed the EPA Regional Office in Dallas of
this illegal act.

The grassroots group asked us to intervene, so I wrote a
strong letter to the EPA Regional Administrator, accusing him of
becoming an accomplice after the fact by refusing to take action
to stop an environmental crime of which he had knowledge. For my
troubles, I received an indignant response, agreeing that
illegally dumping was occurring and that EPA knew about it but
arguing that enforcement action is purely discretionary!

It is for good reason that cynics call EPA the
Environmental Pollution Agency. It licenses pollution by
corporations when it should be stopping it.

But it did not use to be this way. My colleague and the
Co-Director of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy,
Richard Grossman has unearthed a hidden history of the exercise
of citizen control over corporations by the several states in the
early decades of our national independence.. This hidden history,
which continues to unfold through the efforts of Richard, Jane
Anne Morris, Peter Kellman, and others active in POCLAD, found
initial expression in a seminal pamphlet by Richard and Frank
Adams, Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of
Incorporation. It is this pamphlet which launched the still
emerging movement to create, as Peter Kellman puts it, "a debate
in the body politic which questions the authority and legitimacy
of corporations to rule our society." A debate in this context is
understood to involve not only dialectical discourse but actions
that will sharpen and deepen public understanding and help us
surmount the colonizing impact of a corporation-dominated
culture.

"What if...," asks Jane Anne Morris of Democracy Unlimited in
Wisconsin, who may be the only corporate anthropologist at large
in North America:

"**corporations were required to have a clear purpose, to be
fulfilled but not exceeded.

"**corporations' licenses to do business were revocable by the
state legislature if they exceeded or did not fulfill their
chartered purpose(s).

"**the act of incorporation did not relieve corporate management
or stockholders/owners of reasonability or liability for
corporate acts.

"**as a matter of course, corporation officers, directors, or
agents could be held criminally liable for violating the law.

"**corporation charters were granted for a specific period of
time, like 20 or 30 years (instead of being granted "in
perpetuity" as is now the practice.)

"**corporations were prohibited from owning stock in other
corporations in order to prevent them from extending their power
inappropriately.

"**corporations' real estate holdings were limited to what was
necessary to carry out their specific purpose(s).

"**corporations were prohibited from making any political
contributions, direct or indirect." (Rachel's Environment and
Health Weekly, #488, April 4, 1996)

All of these provisions and more were once law in the State of
Wisconsin. And similar provisions existed at different times in
most other states, including New York and California. As in
virtually all of the 50 states, New York still has the power to
revoke charters of especially harmful corporations. Section 1101
of the New York Business Corporation Law stipulates that
corporations are subject to dissolution when they act "contrary
to the public policy of the state." When we urged, in a full-page
ad last December in the New York Times headlined "Should
Corporations Get Away with Murder?", the New York State Attorney
General to take action against Union Carbide for its murderous
acts in Bhopal under Section 1101, he did nothing.

Think of how different the political climate and public
understanding of the proper role of corporations must have been a
century ago when New York's highest court declared, in revoking
the charter of the North River Sugar Refining Company, a major
corporation at the time, "the life of a corporation is, indeed,
less than that of the humblest citizen." What has happened in the
last century has been the increasing consolidation of the grip of
corporations on political and economic power and their growing
insulation from meaningful democratic control. A key turning
point was actually four years before the North River Sugar
Refining Company case, when the U.S Supreme Court declared
corporations to be persons before the law under the Fourteenth
Amendment in the infamous decision of Santa Clara County v.
Southern Pacific Railroad. This decision became the fulcrum used
by corporations to expand their Constitutional rights to other
amendments to the U.S. Constitution, especially the First
Amendment and has led us to the absurd situation in which
corporations have more rights than natural persons.

How ironic that corporations should have attained legal
personhood before persons of color, women and indigenous people
did -- even though the express purpose the Fourteenth Amendment
was to assure equal protection of the laws to freed slaves in the
South. Lest we romanticize the early years of our national
independence, let us remember that the U.S. Constitution
originally granted full political rights only to white males who
owned property.

As Ishmael's pupil asks when Ishmael has informed him that those
who want to save the world from destruction by humanity are
unable to do so because they cannot find the bars to their cages:
"What do we do next?" While the agenda for action in arenas we
the people define is long, complicated and still unfolding, a
good place to begin is to take away corporate personhood. That
means working toward the reversal of Santa Clara, and for those
who say it cannot be done, I would remind them that for half a
century "separate but equal" was established judicial doctrine.
Then in 1954, after Brown v. Board of Education, it no longer
was. But, of course, it did not just happen out of the blue.
Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues worked for many years to
create a situation where reversal was possible politically as
well as judicially--a story richly told in a blockbuster of a
book, Simple Justice.

I come most immediately from the Green war zone in the State of
Maine where there is an initiative on the ballot in November to
ban clearcutting. This initiative has aroused the wrath and fury
of the paper companies which have long dominated the political
and economic life of the state, and they have pulled out all
stops to defeat the referendum, outspending the proponents many
times over and dispensing campaign contributions freely to
relevant officials in state government. If ever there was a case
to be made for overturning Santa Clara, it is the total
perversion of the democratic process by the major paper and wood
products companies over the ban clearcutting initiative in Maine.

Besides, overturning Santa Clara will spare the American Civil
Liberties Union from another absurdity -- defending tobacco
companies when their First Amendment rights of so-called
commercial free speech are being attacked because these
corporations are trying to turn as many young people as they can
reach into life-long nicotine addicts. All societies entertain
myths about themselves and ours is no exception. Our political
democracy is indeed mythical; we live instead in a plutocracy in
which the rich with wealth accumulated more often than not
through corporate mechanisms are effectively dominating, if not
controlling the electoral process. Reversing Santa Clara will not
restore our democracy overnight, but getting corporations of all
kinds -- large and small, profit and non-profit -- out of
politics will go a long way toward doing so. But our goal must be
clear. It is not to nibble around the edges at the corrupting
influence of corporate money, to make corporate lobbyists more
apparent by requiring them to register, to restrict the size of
the tab for power lunches that corporations can pick up or to put
a ceiling on their contributions to candidates but not to
political parties. It is not incremental campaign finance
"reform" as practiced in Congress. The only logical goal in a
truly democratic society is to get corporations out of the
political process altogether.

The struggle against corporate power and for our democratic
rights that have been usurped by corporations is not about left
or right, as Carolyn Chute, the Maine novelist and another ally
in this struggle, likes to say, but about up and down. Right now,
the corporations are on top, but in a democracy based on the
principle of self-rule, the people should be. Ultimately it comes
down to a simple question: Who is in charge? Bill Greider ends
his book with a plea for what he calls democratic conversations
"Rehabilitating democracy," he writes, it will require citizens
to devote themselves first to challenging the status quo,
disrupting the existing contours of power and opening the way for
renewal .... This renewal, if it occurs, will not come from
books. A democratic insurgency does not begin with ideas .... It
originates among the ordinary people who find the will to engage
themselves with their surrounding reality and to question the
conflict between what they are told and what they see and
experience."

"My modest ambition for this book," he concludes, "is that it
will assist some citizens to enter into 'democratic
conversations' with one another, asking the questions that may
lead them to action.". I also have a modest ambition for this
session of the Greens Gathering, and it is that we come together
to start a democratic insurgency against corporate power as a
first critical step in launching a debate in the body politic
over ending corporate rule of our society, and ultimately, the
world.

Many, perhaps most, of you came to Los Angeles to make history
next week by participating in the first ever national Green
presidential nominating convention. But why wait until next week.
Let us start now our own chapter in the historic process of
democratic renewal going on in Los Angeles.

And if any of you think the quest to end corporate rule in
America and the world is too quixotic to be taken seriously, I
ask you to ponder these words of Howard Zinn who reminds us that
the big lessons of 20th Century history tell us otherwise:

... the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of
the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and
the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold
on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved
vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and
dollars: Moral fervor, ingenuity, courage, patience--whether by
Blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador,
Nicaragua and Vietnam, or workers and intellectuals in Poland,
Hungary, and the Soviet Union itself. No cold calculation of the
balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their
cause is just.

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