Corpocracy, as David Cobb of Move to Amend likes to say, is literally “corporate rule.”
It’s not “we, the people,” but “them, the corporate personhoods” that rule. And this exhibition shows us just how far corpocracy has taken democracy down the road to ruin.
We are witnessing the unparalleled rise of inequality since the Great Depression. Our jobs are not coming back.
The American Dream has all but evaporated. Was it always this way? How did we get to this point? What can be done to reverse this decline?
Let’s dig a little. The voice of history has many warnings.
As far back as 1864, Abraham Lincoln cautions in a letter to Col. William F. Elkins:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. … corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
In 1886, the US Supreme Court changed set the stage for the “full-scale development of the culture of capitalism,” writes Richard Robbins in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism:
Relying on the Fourteenth Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1868 to protect the rights of freed slaves, the Court ruled that a private corporation is a natural person under the U.S. Constitution, and consequently has the same rights and protection extended to persons by the Bill of Rights, including the right to free speech. Thus corporations were given the same “rights” to influence the government in their own interests as were extended to individual citizens, paving the way for corporations to use their wealth to dominate public thought and discourse.
The self-destruction of capitalism is forseen by Karl Marx – channeled here through the words of truth-digger Chris Hedges:
The final stages of capitalism, Marx wrote, would be marked by developments that are intimately familiar to most of us. Unable to expand and generate profits at past levels, the capitalist system would begin to consume the structures that sustained it. It would prey upon, in the name of austerity, the working class and the poor, driving them ever deeper into debt and poverty and diminishing the capacity of the state to serve the needs of ordinary citizens. It would, as it has, increasingly relocate jobs, including both manufacturing and professional positions, to countries with cheap pools of laborers. Industries would mechanize their workplaces. This would trigger an economic assault on not only the working class but the middle class—the bulwark of a capitalist system—that would be disguised by the imposition of massive personal debt as incomes declined or remained stagnant. Politics would in the late stages of capitalism become subordinate to economics, leading to political parties hollowed out of any real political content and abjectly subservient to the dictates and money of global capitalism.
Our modern Corpocracy can be traced to the Powell memo which marks the beginning of the business community’s multi-decade takeover of the most important institutions of public opinion and democratic decision-making. The US Chamber of Commerce took Powell’s advice and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.
I’m going to borrow a timeline from Professor Stanley Stasch – who until recently was teaching at the Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University Chicago. Stasch tell us that between 1970 and 2010 the US Government acted as a “stealth government” working against the general welfare of the American people:
• A program of government-guaranteed student loans rewarded bankers at the expense of students.
• Congress created a new bankruptcy law that favored the wealthy over the middle and lower classes.
• The Supreme Court made a decision that allowed banks to charge very high interest rates on credit card balances.
• The Reagan presidency allowed corporations to replace pension plans with 401(k) plans, thus greatly reducing the retirement incomes of millions of middle and lower class workers.
• The government eliminated three important banking regulations, and their absence contributed to increasing income inequality and the housing crisis that culminated in the financial crash of 2007-2008.
• The government allowed the growing use of stock options to dramatically increase CEO compensation.
• Congress excluded waitresses and waiters when it increased the federal minimum wage, thus relegating them to poverty or near-poverty incomes.
• The government allowed “forced arbitration” clauses to exist in cable, cell phone, and other consumer contracts, which prevented consumers from participating in class action lawsuits when they felt that companies were unjustly taking small amounts of money each month from them and millions of other consumers.
• The business community helped President George W. Bush pass his tax cuts for the rich.
• The government bailed out “banks too big to fail” during the financial crisis of 2007-2008, but prevented distressed homeowners from declaring bankruptcy.
• Congress’ new treaty greatly facilitated outsourcing U.S. manufacturing jobs to China and increasing imports from China.
• Congress allowed employers to steal billions of dollars from employees through legalized wage theft.
• The new bankruptcy law of 2005 favored the rich over the middle class.
• Congress and the president allowed U.S. companies to transform themselves into global corporations and move high tech jobs to foreign countries.
• Congress allowed the business community to block attempts to “cap” excessive CEO compensation.
• Congress failed in its attempt to reform banks and financial institutions after the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
These actions have been referred to as “welfare for the rich.” In no small way, these actions have also robbed us of our democracy. With Citizen’s United, the camel’s back has been broken. The core problem: an illegitimate legal doctrine that courts use to allow corporations to overturn democratically enacted laws.
I’m referring to “corporate personhood.” According to the activist organization Move to Amend8, there are two conceptions of corporate personhood. The first simply bestows upon corporations the ability to engage in many legal actions (e.g. enter into contracts, sue, be sued, etc.).
However, corporate personhood also commonly refers to the Supreme Court-created precedent of corporations enjoying constitutional rights that were intended solely for human beings. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution ever mention corporations. But thanks to decades of rulings by Justices who molded the law to favor elite interests, corporations today are granted so-called “rights” that empower them to deny citizens the right to full self-governance.
And it is not just the left that is protesting.
We see a new wave of voices – some from the right – that are against government by and for the corporation. David Stockman, who served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan writes in his book The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America:
Free markets and prosperity are deeply imperiled because the state and its central banking branch have failed miserably due to overreaching, overloading and outside capture. They have become the tools of a vicious form of crony capitalism and money politics…
“Neutron Jack” Welch – the retired CEO of GE has gone on record to say that “maximizing shareholder value” is the “dumbest idea in the world.”  Unfortunately, he shares much of the blame for the hollowing of the US middle class and the astronomical hikes in CEO compensation.
Meanwhile, at Princeton and Northwestern, researchers have concluded that US government policies rarely align with the preferences of the majority. Instead, they favor special interests and lobbying organizations. Policy outcomes “tend to tilt towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations.” Their conclusion: the US is an oligarchy.
Also at Northwestern, Philip Kotler, the “father of modern marketing” writes about the decline of democracy. His book – Confronting Capitalism – states that the current state of capitalism has 14 shortcomings:
• Proposes little or no solution to persistent poverty
• Generates a growing level of income inequality
• Fails to pay a living wage to billions of workers
• Not enough human jobs in the face of growing automation
• Doesn’t charge businesses with the full social costs of their activities
• Exploits the environment and natural resources in the absence of regulation
• Creates business cycles and economic instability
• Emphasizes individualism and self-interest at the expense of community and the commons
• Encourages high consumer debt and leads to a growing financially-driven rather than producer-driven economy
• Lets politicians and business interests collaborate to subvert the economic interests of the majority of citizens
• Favors short-run profit planning over long-run investment planning
• Should have regulations regarding product quality, safety, truth in advertising, and anti-competitive behavior
• Tends to focus narrowly on GDP growth
• Needs to bring social values and happiness into the market equation.
Once again, what does corpocracy mean?
It means that we are ruled by the
kings CEOs of the world’s most powerful corporations.
The corpocracy is global and unaccountable. At the time of this writing it has just been reported that US corporate giants such as Apple, Walmart and General Electric have stashed $1.4tn in tax havens, despite receiving trillions of dollars in taxpayer support, according to a report by anti-poverty charity Oxfam. This is larger than the economic output of Russia, South Korea and Spain, and is held in an “opaque and secretive network” of 1,608 subsidiaries based offshore. It is also reported that the companies enjoyed a combined $11.2tn in federal loans, bailouts and loan guarantees during the same period.
While we wrap ourselves in the flag and false patriotism, our Democracy has been stolen.
Our artists have spoken. One gave his life.
Are we listening?
Time to get up, stand up.
- Archer H. Shaw, The Lincoln Encyclopedia, Macmillan, 1950
- Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Allyn and Bacon, 1999
- “Karl Marx Was Right,” Chris Hedges, Truthdig May 31, 2015
- The Lewis Powell Memo: A Corporate Blueprint to Dominate Democracy: http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/democracy/the-lewis-powell-memo-a-corporate-blueprint-to-dominate-democracy/ (retrieved April 13, 2016)
- Reclaim Democracy http://reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis/
- Stanley Stasch, “The Creation and Destruction of the Great American Middle Class (1930-2010)” http://ecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=business_facpubs
- “What is Corporate Personhood?” Move to Amend FAQ http://movetoamend.org/frequently-asked-questions#1
- The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, David Stockman, Hachette Book Group, April 2, 2013
- “The Dumbest Idea in the World: Maximizing Shareholder Value,” Steve Denning, Forbes, Nov 28, 2011 http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/11/28/maximizing-shareholder-value-the-dumbest-idea-in-the-world/2/#eef009226218
- Confronting Capitalism: Real Solutions for a Troubled Economic System, Philip Kotler, AMACOM, April 15, 2015
- OXFAM, Broken at the Top: How America’s dysfunctional tax system cost billions in corporate tax dodging, April 14, 2016 http://www.oxfamamerica.org/static/media/files/Broken_at_the_Top_FINAL_EMBARGOED_4.12.2016.pdf
- Patricia Goldstone, Interlock: Art Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi, Counterpoint Press, 2015