Paradigm Shift: Challenging Corporate Authority.

Author:Cienfuegos, Paul

Dozens of New Strategies are Sprouting Up Across the US and Canada--Some of Them Dating Back to Previous Centuries--That Challenge Illegitimate Corporate Authority and Privilege.

For most of the 20th century, American citizens have become accustomed to challenging corporate harms and corporate abuses of authority one harm at a time--one clearcut Timber Harvest Plan at a time, one toxic spill at a time, one plant closure at a time. It wasn't always like this. From the American Revolution through to the end of the 19th century, in the words of Richard Grossman, "Earlier generations of Americans were quite clear that a corporation was an artificial, subordinate entity with no inherent rights of its own, and that incorporation was a privilege bestowed by the sovereign people. For example, in 1834 the Pennsylvania Legislature declared: 'A corporation in law is just what the incorporation act makes it. It is the creature of the law and may be molded to any shape or for any purpose that the Legislature may deem most conducive to the common good."'

Grossman continues,

"People understood that they had a civic responsibility not to create artificial entities which could harm the body politic, interfere with the mechanisms of self-governance, and assault their sovereignty. They also understood that they did not elect their agents to positions in government to sell off the sovereignty of the people."

Here are a few examples of how different the rules were in the US until the late 1800's. In many states, corporations were prohibited from owning other corporations, prohibited from donating to political candidates or charitable organizations, and prohibited from owning any land beyond what was necessary for the carrying out of their chartered duties. Boards of directors and stockholders were held personally liable for all harms and debts. The "limited liability corporation," as we know it today, did not exist.

Sadly, as we enter the 21st century, few Americans have any idea that such a history even existed in this country. Yet this is starting to change. Beginning in the early 1990's--thanks to the seminal work of Richard Grossman and his colleagues at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD)-- Americans started to rethink how we go about challenging the harms that corporations get away with day in and day out in every community. We began to rediscover what an appropriate relationship looks like in a democracy between we the people and the fictitious subordinate creation we call the "corporation." And we began to learn how to reframe our analysis of what the problem is.

Yes, of course, clearcut logging and sweatshop labor and genetically engineered "food" are a big problem. But the much bigger problem is that we've allowed fictitious corporate "persons" to usurp our authority as citizens to make these and other critical societal decisions which affect all of us and the natural world.

If we no longer pleaded with corporate leaders to cause a little less harm, what would we do? If we no longer celebrated as victories every brief delay in the corporate devastation of our world, what would we celebrate?

By the mid-1990's, new groups were sprouting up across the US and Canada, and asking themselves these questions. Each was beginning to experiment with a different set of tools than anyone had used for a century. Groups like "Democracy Unlimited" in California, "180/ Movement for Democracy and Education" in Wisconsin, "Friends of the Constitution" in Nebraska, and "Citizens Council on Corporate Issues" in British Columbia, are all examples of this fledgling new movement.

Clearly, to ask people of every ideology to rethink how they respond to corporate harm is a very big task, so a number of groups are...

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