Are Corporate Bodies Really Alive? - Part IV Print E-mail


BIG BODY PATHOLOGY: Effects on the Eco-Social Surround...................................... Here


FACING UP TO BIGness – Michael Crichton......................................................         Here


RETHINKING THE CORPORATION by Virginia Rasmussen......................................  Here

REGAINING HUMAN CONTROL........................................................................................ Here



DECENTRALIZING & DEMOCRATIZING BIG BODIES by Shann Turnbull.................. Here

FULL DEMOCRACY by Brian Beedham.............................................................................. Here


 Effects on the Eco-Social Surround

In Your Face Symptoms

Who/what they’re chewing on now


“Practically every progressive struggle--campaign finance reform, sweatshops, family farms, fair trade, health care for all, unionization, military spending, tax reform, alternative energy, healthy food, media access, hazardous waste dumps, redlining, alternative medicine, you name it--is being fought against one cluster of corporations or another. But it is not that corporation over there or this one over here that is the enemy. It is not one industry's contamination of our drinking water or another's perversion of the lawmaking process that is the problem--rather it is the corporation itself that must be addressed if we are to be a free people... The piecemeal approach to fighting corporate abuses keeps us spread thin, separated, on the defensive, riveted on the minutiae, and fighting on their terms. Piecemeal battles must certainly continue, for there are real and immediate corporate harms to be addressed for people and communities. But it's time for our strategic emphasis to shift to the offensive, raising what I believe to be the central political issue for the new century: Who the hell is in charge here?”

                                                                        - - Jim Hightower



Facing up to BIG BODIES
Michael Crichton

Excerpts from a ‘99 Big Medicine interview


wdk: OK, then, the youth of the world wants to know, "Is there is life beyond the millennium?" I mean, livable life, sensual life, carbon-based life. You have been involved more than most people thinking about, writing about, and studying the unfolding new technologies, their implications, the movement of the geo-political economy, etc. You see the concentrations of power. You can read the future a bit. And what do you see? How would you prepare yourself for life in the next 20 years?


MC: I think we're coming into a difficult time, difficult around the world. And the reason I say that is western societies have elected to permit the rise of multinational corporations. And those corporations are now more powerful than nation-states. And they have very different kinds of structures and allegiances. And in their present form they are, in fact, quite new. So, I think we're going to be feeling our way in this new period in which entities make the world safe for capitalism or for capital and not for people. Exactly how that's going to turn out in terms of national governance or for smaller groups or particularly for individuals is not clear. But it's going to be a very powerful force.


I personally see it as a return to feudalism. At least in the States now there is a kind of panic about not having a job and all the things that it means. There is a kind of perception of people who are not attached to some sort of corporate entity as being wicked or dangerous or unscrupulous or something wrong with them. I mean, it's the image of the ronin, you know. It's this kind of masterless samurai. It's very weird really.


The rise of these multinational can look at it as a competitive evolution, you know, between individuals or communities and much, much larger, more hierarchical organisms that are usurping more power within the media, within the educational system, within the political process - entities that don't necessarily have our biological, ground level interests at heart...nor the interests of the ground itself for that matter. You warn about that so often...


MC: Historically we have made a step which I find very unusual... a step toward bigness that's not very old. You know, in Hawthorn's day, people, Hawthorne himself, went to London just to look at it. It was so big. It was 2 and a half million people. It was the biggest thing, the biggest city on the planet, western city. I don't know how big Tokyo was at that time. Probably pretty large. Or how big cities in China were. But the decision to make a population site that is that large, I think is very much against deep human nature. I don't think we're comfortable in it. I don't think we like it and I don't think it's good for us. I think left to our own devices, we won't be in those places. Left to our own devices.


You're talking about a huge historical force then to drag us into them...


MC: Yes, that's right.


So, how would you define that?


MC: I don't understand it. I mean, I understand it in a sense economically that there are opportunities in urban environments and I think there are attractions historically. "How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen...", you know. Farming existence to the extent that I have any sense about it is very rewarding and grounding and sobering and very, very hard work. Very hard work.


But what about the small city...I mean, historically you've had wonderfully burgeoning cultures in metropolises of 50,000 to 100,000. No high-rises, no malls...


MC: Yes, and I think there is going to actually be a return... I think there is going to be a trend away from enormous centers. I don't know what will happen in countries like Japan and England where the central metropolis is so defining of the entire culture.


What do you see causing this or enabling this?


MC: Causing what?


The flight from the cities.


MC: I think the people really don't want to live there. I believe the people want to live in groups sufficiently small that you can recognize the people that you see, at least recognize by face. Small. Thirty thousand is maybe the upper limit of that. I think that's what's most comfortable.


Population centers are one thing, but what about these vast corporations? You see them getting bigger, you see them getting more powerful, you see them getting more empowered by new technologies...


MC: I don't have any secret answers that other people don't have, but I do have a belief that systems are self-correcting. Somehow or other they correct or they die. But you know, for example, in the last ten years in the States there's been a tremendous problem about unchecked media power. The people are starting to win many more law suits against the media which was kind of unheard of sometime in the past. Now, it's getting more and more common. It seems that every few months there's another lawsuit and the media is losing. And it's almost as if the whole society is making this slow turn and saying, "Fuck you, guys! You know, I don't care about the First Amendment. I don't care about anything. You are out of control." And it's interesting. It's sort of an unstated thing. But it has to occur. Too many people are being irreparably damaged on personal levels and work levels. And the social fabric is being turned to junk...


When I was asked about these things I was perceived by many people as kind of critical and depressive in my views, relentlessly negative. Some sense of, "well, you're so successful, why are you negative?" (laughter) And my response was or my way of thinking was or my answer was, "What everyone hears is a lot of enthusiasm for new technology because it's coming from the manufacturers of the technology. Of course, they're enthusiastic, they're trying to sell it." But what we don't get is much balanced appraisal. And, in fact, it's quite possible about the Internet and cell phones and beepers and all this connectant technology, connection technology, it's possible to be very negative about it. To see it as eroding human interactions of all kinds, as a kind of addictive process that's eating up behavior, as a kind of promotion of absurd fantasy. You know, these "cyber relationships" and cybersex. Cybersex???? And cyberspace. There is no cyberspace. That's delusion. It's not a space. When you telephone somebody there's no "phono-space." It's a telephone call, for Chrissakes.


This is all baloney. But how we think about these things is tremendously powerful. You know, I'm in cyberspace now, I can't talk to my children. Really? Well, you don't do that on the telephone because the kid goes, "Dad, hang up the phone."


You're not 'in' any space, you're just talking on the phone. You're 'in' this space. Well, now we've decided that you can go away from here and now to cyberspace. It's Neverland for Peter Pan. Of course, the people who sell this shit want to have us believe that, but it's absolutely invalid. ..


I was ten years old before there was television. That's old enough to see what it is actually doing. It's not a benign force. It was claimed to be. It claimed to offer all the wonders of the educational future. You know, pretty much in the same terms and in the same way that the Internet is now touted. I mean, the Internet is ultimately a new advertising and distribution medium. Oh, a new advertising medium! That's wonderful! Because if there is anything that I think that I lack in my daily life it's exposure to advertising! So, the fact that I can now turn on my computer which was formerly free of advertising and get some ads. Isn't that great? And along with the ads I get a tremendous amount of really erroneous information. Good deal! And I pay for it. Outstanding! And it's going to be in every classroom. Perfect! Great! I love it! (Biting laughter...)


So beyond the joy of satire, what are you telling people must be done?


I did several television interviews here in which they asked, "What is your advice for Japan?" and in every case I said, "I couldn't make such a would be far too arrogant for me to give advice to Japan." And in every case they were disappointed or angry that I wouldn't do that. I think I have no business doing that. Who am I to make judgments about even how another individual person lives their life, let alone a whole country? Who am I?


I'm getting a lot of news from your good angel here today, because you obviously do make judgments in your work. You make these powerful diatribes come bursting out in otherwise placid plot movements. And obviously something has been building up and the fact that you were still able to deliver it to the screen as well as through the book is often miraculous. But when that comes out, you are full of judgment. It's not necessarily "this is how you should live your life" but "this is what's happening and this is how I see it and I do not look lightly upon this phenomenon...."


MC: And I certainly have spoken in those ways here – about the erosion of human values that I see; the erosion of the opportunity for human interactive time; the dominance of increasingly large corporate business groups that have increasingly autonomous agendas that no one can touch; and the increasing recognition that 'that's the way it is.' You know, Louis Lappham who is the editor of Harper's Magazine was on television and I just thought it was breathtaking – after the last American election, he said, "Well, I think we had the election that the corporations allowed us to have." Just like that, on television. Well, no one will really touch this intellectually. It's just too scary. We all like to think that we are masters of our fate and we go, "march right into that polling booth and make our feelings known.” (sarcastically) Uh, hmmm. Yeah, I talk about that.




MC: And I don't know what to do about it.

 - END -


Corporate Coup d’Etats & Multinationals Uber Älles
Ralph Nader

Recent Big Medicine Interview Excerpts


What is the most important front to focus on right now?


RN: Well, one is to keep starting more institutions because the corporations are developing stronger capabilities to stifle general interest issues of the people. Health, for example, health insurance coverage; issues dealing with occupational toxics; weak labor laws; the corporate subsidies we call corporate welfare.


Look, there's been a virtual corporate coup d'etat in the last 15, 16 years which represents itself with a variety of concentric concentrations of power. One is increasing corporate control of the government and using it against the people or draining government resources with bailouts and giveaways and subsidies and inflated government contracts. Another is the concentration in the media and the homogenization of the mass media and its focus on entertainment, advertising, violence, sex, addiction at the expense of serious communication.


And then there is the question of the trade union movement essentially, I mean, it's down to 10 percent unionized workers in the private sector. And they've incrementally weakened the labor-organizing laws tremendously. Some by statutes, some by just by their control over the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), some by their leverage, by being able to export jobs over incipient organizing efforts by workers here.


And there's the corporatization of the universities: increasingly defining university research and priorities through joint ventures, consulting arrangements. Then there's the increasing nullification of the voter's vote by extraordinary diversity of campaign finance methods: soft money, independent expenditures, direct PAC funds. PACs have gone from 419 in 1974 to 6500 now. Most of them are business PACs. Seventy percent of the money in federal campaigns is business money.


And on top of all this is the international autocratic systems of governance like NAFTA and GATT which further sidestep or undermine our country's courts, democratic procedures, openness, etc., and subjugate health, safety, workplace, environment and other issues to the supremacy of commercial international trade. Again this is another very fundamental coup d'etat that was foisted on the Congress - after a rather ferocious battle, I might add, because of a citizen trade coalition of trade unions, environment and consumer groups. But foisted on the public under the guise of free trade when it's basically very corporate managed trade under the corporation's governance. I mean, the corporation's government now is the World Trade Organization.


But the key is...the key is this...the key focus is multinational corporations. They're the dominant institution in the world today. They manipulate and control governments. They induce debt and control governments by the induction of debts through the World Bank, IMF, private banks, etc. They are controlling politics, our economics, our culture, our education, our children - increasingly they're raising our children - video, tv, overmedication, addiction industries and so on. And they're concentrating the media in a hardcore commercial priority system. And now they're beginning to control the genetic heritance of humankind, flora and fauna. I mean, there's not much left, right? So, they are on a collison course with democratic processes.


They don't mind symbolic parliamentary systems that allow oligarchies and plutocracies to control because that's a much more efficient controlling mechanism than a brutal, steel-tipped dictatorship. That's an unstable situation. But they are dismantling our democracy in the United States at an accelerating rate in the last l6 years. It started in the oil crisis in '79. Access to courts, money in politics, homogenization and exclusion of dissent in the media, corporatization and stifling dissent in the universities and their penetration of the family by separating the kids from the parents and teaching the kids how to subvert parental discipline and nag the parents is extraordinary.


I mean, they've got 30 and 35 hours a week of pre-teenage time. No vacations. You don't think that's power. The kids are completely cut off from historical and social context. Their whole world is a virtual world of "chestacheetahs, tony the tigers" and then later on, you know, then the 'power rangers' and 'ninja turtles', and so on. I mean, we basically are letting them raise our kids - thirty, thirty-five hours a week? Turning their minds into putty, shortening their attention spans, dividing them against the rest of the family.


So, the multinational corporation is the focus of the concentration of power and wealth in a few hands that is constricting the full range of human possibilities for people around the world. And the commercialism is destroying other values. That's the genius of GATT. That it subjugates values like health, safety, justice, respect for future generations, to the imperatives of short-term international trade. That is a revolutionary, overtly revolutionary upside-down positioning of the way we have liked to operate in our country. When we got rid of child labor, we said, 'yeah, it's going to increase costs for factories to hire adults but there are other non-commercial values more important.' Now, we couldn't prohibit the importation of products in the U.S. made by brutalized child labor abroad because by all accounts, pro and anti-GATT, it is "GATT-illegal" to do so. We would lose in Geneva in the closed tribunal brought by Bangladesh or some other country against us. And we would have to either repeal the law or pay perpetual trade fines to the victorious country. That's how far we've gotten. I mean, the only next step is any country that prohibits child labor will be accused of having a non-tariff barrier operating.


So, now clarification of struggle is important for any social movement. And by focusing on the multinational corporation and its takeover of public government and its seizure of taxpayer assets and its ability to basically engage a series of controlling processes where people who are not alert become participants in their own subjugation by lowering their expectation levels and by growing up corporate in the way that they look at the world, when you clarify that it connects with people's experience. I mean, parents know that they're losing control of their kids. Not just to the streets. I mean, next is virtual reality where the kids' interactive video start dismembering the adversaries, spine by spine and heart by heart.


So, and that's why it's not difficult to communicate these things in live audiences. You don't get on TV doing that. But in live audiences you get a lot of nods. I mean, you're not conveying esoterica. You're just clarifying what people have been feeling inside themselves: that they're losing control in every single role of their life. They're losing control as voters, that's part of the turnoff; losing control as taxpayers - tax money is used as private enrichment of corporations. There is no constitutional bar anymore or anything. You can convert tax money and give it as a check to General Motors and say, "Create jobs." Whether you do or not, it doesn't matter. They're losing control as consumers over their own money. We're into electronic funds transfer, debit cards, credit card files on people, massive invasion of privacy. They're now selling private medical records in California - the HMO. So, if you have a gall bladder problem, you'll start getting mail order catalogs. And you'll say, "how did they know I had a gall bladder problem?" It's because your HMO sold your records. Now, mother gives birth: drive-through births now. Hey, you don't have to stay in the hospital for a day. How else are you going to make the guy at the top of the HMO you're a member of, super-rich?


They're losing control as workers. They're on their knees. They start forming unions and they're on their way to Mexico or Malaysia or Indonesia. So, every role they're losing control. Savers? Look at the S&L. They got looted. The S&L looted their savings then the S&L turned around and charged them for it as taxpayers - one-half a trillion dollars between the year 1990 and 2020. It's a pretty good deal. I know that Merlin couldn't have thought of one better than that. That's pretty good.


But I just don't get any sense of balance between this huge multinational/transnational infestation and its crushing grip on the society, and this thousand-man phalanx of 20-year-olds you say are supposed to galvanize us into redemption. It terrifies the shit out of me, and the only way I can see that you can escape the political deadlock we're in and the media silence is by redefining the problem in such a way that it becomes "curious", it becomes "fascinating", it becomes a cultural phenomenon as well as a political or legal artifact. If, for example, you can show people that big corporate bodies are not only political disasters, they actually suck up their members' psychic, physical and even sexual energies, then I think you have the start of fascinating conversation.


I basically studied for medicine. I was on my way to becoming a doctor until I started hanging around hospitals and got terminally disillusioned. So, I tend to think biologically and medically about all of this stuff. And then I came over to Japan and I started studying a lot of these ki-based things: the acupuncture and massage and martial arts that are based on ki or what they call "vital energy". And I started to understand that this social ki the Japanese always talk about is simply what we would call focused attention - as it moves outside of people, between people. Like we're having a fairly intense ki exchange right here, and when you have an audience, there is all this focused attention that enters, charges an individual person. And in a very palpable way it physiologically energizes you. Hubert Humphrey used to drag himself up to the podium when he was feeling sick and give a big rousing speech and come down perfectly well again. I mean, people know this phenomenon - stage people, especially.


Attention is the most under-studied, suspiciously under-studied, factor in psychology anywhere in the world. And when you think about it it is the most valuable human resource because it determines the content of your consciousness, it determines your memories, it determines your identity ultimately. And whatever is in control of your attention or whatever has overwhelming influence upon it, leads your life. And within the corporate membranes, as long as these big bodies have eight hours of your essentially clearest consciousness and it's all focused upon corporate ends and means, and it doesn't leak outside into personal concerns or family, community or religion or anything like that, then they develop into extraordinarily powerful and 'single-minded' beasts. I mean, these entities become a new species of being that totally dominate, and obviously outlive, their human members. And in Japan particularly, these big corporate bodies fully encompass all their members' lives so that individuals totally lose their sense of rights, political responsibility and personal identity. Just like your political operatives who don't know what they believe because once they're inside the system, it doesn't make any difference. Once you're inside, the needs of the corporate moment will dictate your responses.


RN: Yes, far more than most governments, they're an all-involving system. They have you even during your leisure time. Twenty-five hours a week watching TV, you are their serf, you are their property.


Yes, and they punch little holes in all that TV-focused attention and sell it to advertisers to insert more consumptive messages in the back of our heads.


RN: But far more important is that once people start marching, they don't know where they're going. Take Lenin. What was his big motto? His big motto was "The land to the peasants, the factories to the proletariat." See how simple. So, you start marching, you know where you're going - you take the land, you take the factories. That was the motivational focus of his drive. And there is no direction as to what kind of society we want to build that is that clear anymore. And that's what has to be clarified.


That motto still sounds pretty fresh to me. I mean, whatever happened to worker ownership? Not socialist ownership, not government-managed ownership, but just flat-out, old-fashioned worker ownership? How is United Airlines doing?


RN: Well, that's the problem. The corporate model is so powerful that once you accept it, it doesn't really matter who runs it: whether its the workers or so-called executive management. It's the model that has to be changed. See, the key thing is to play out the trends, people would be much more motivated if they see something they don't like that is going to occur in l0 or 20 years, than if they're just told about what's going on now although both are important.


That's why the environmentalists are so motivated because they see the projection and the trends: global warming, equitorial forests, the oceans, the ozone depletion. See, that's why they are so motivated. It's the trends. And that's what you've got to do is clarify the trends, what's happening. I don't mean in a hundred years from now. I mean just playing out in the next generation. What's going to happen when there's a 4 billion labor pool with minimal barriers to capital movements in the country, in the world? And when people can work hard as heck with modern equipment for a buck a day or two bucks a day, what's going to happen to people who have higher standards of living and are getting paid fifteen dollars an hour?


But the real problem in fighting this is that it takes too long to grow up in this society which is a tremendous asset to corporate power because by the time, as I said, by the time that they suddenly realize what's going on, they've lost their flexibility and their independence and they've moved into the bourgeousie society. Now, that could argue for an intensive education process for fifteen-year-olds if we can separate their gonads from corporate merchandizers.


But that's a REALLY important point, the gonads. That's the weak point in the corporate equation because you will find that corporate living basically saps your gonads. And that's what is happening in Japan. The corporations have it much easier here because they've stressed the living shit out of the boys right when they're trying to get through puberty and they knock them way back hormonally and just plain arrest their development. That's why they obey so well, why they're so into fads, fashions, toys, why they prefer pre-pubescent power sex like bondage and S&M games. And that's why tonight when I jump on this expensive Shinkansen - the fastest one I could get to make this appointment - here are all these 600-dollar suits reading comic books.


RN: Where is this?


On all the commuter trains in Japan. The comic books have been the biggest publishing sector here for the last 25 years. They control forty percent of the print market. That's what passes for literature these days in "salariman" culture.


RN: What kind of stories are in there?


It's mostly garish violence and violent sex. Pick up a few, they're fascinating. Some of the artwork is quite outstanding, but meanwhile the birthrate is plummeting across the country. The women don't want to get married to these child-men. The biggest psychological phenomenon reported in the newspapers over the last few years is the fact more and more couples just don't have sex any more. They go for six months without even touching each other.


RN: They're too tired?


They're just not interested.


RN: No, a little bit more clinical detail, please. What do you mean they're not interested?


They're just literally unmoved by the physical sexual urge. Sexy power fantasies OK, but anything requiring intimacy, effort, reciprocal sensuality - forget it.


RN: But why? What is desexualizing them?


Well, the current pundit reading on it is stress, their world now is too full of stress and they don't have anything that brings them closer with their mate, and once they get married the guy goes off to the company and she goes off to her little women's world and they don't have anything in common really and if she has kids, she's basically on him about all of the stuff that he should be doing with them that he doesn't feel like doing because he's basically married to the company and she's like the nagging mistress. So, that's the general flow of the critique. I have a rather more complicated theory which relates to the puberty-stunning "examination hell", the estrogenic soybean diet and the great suction on vitality that the corporate bodies exert, but we can talk about that later...


RN: Neutered subjects!


Yeah, it worked great for the Ming Dynasty. After all, the ideal corporate operative is a eunuch - he doesn't assert himself, he takes orders meekly, is a great 'team player' and is totally dependent on his hierarchy. There's a wonderful book called Chinese Eunuchs and at the end, the author, a Japanese scholar, says, well, they did it physically in China but you don't have to do it physically, you can do it quite well psychologically and that is what we are doing here.


RN: Well, how come sex is such a big industry then? A good share of the GNP is based on sex.


Where? In Japan?


RN: Everywhere.


Yeah, but in Japan, it's largely virtual sex. Most of the sex that goes on downtown in bars is just verbal, lewd jokes, innuendo, and most of the girls on the street...


RN: You mean those middle and upper-middle class girls who want to buy 300 dollar purses?


Yeah, most of that action is not fully sexual. The guys may talk dirty. They may even feel the girl up or if they're lucky, get jerked off. But they say that normal physical sex occurs less than 15 or 20 percent of the time. And yet the girls are still making 300 bucks a whack.


RN: Sure fights venereal disease.


Ho-ho. But the point is that people are concerned about sexual dysfunction in the West, at least, and I think they are here. I mean, the women at least make a big issue about it. And if you can show that manhood and sexuality and, more poetically, sensuality and your ability to connect with anything resembling the natural world are all intimately related... that all these things are all linked in a sort of molecular chain and that this energy is being short-circuited or totally appropriated by the corporate bodies for their own metabolic needs...


RN: Well, if you look at modern merchandising it is extraordinarily sensual - whether it's junk food, music, entertainment, you name it, addiction... That's the genius of the modern corporate marketing is that it is enormously sensual in both "good" and "bad" ways. I mean, just look at modern packaging. the stuff inside may be junk but the packaging is beautiful. The styling of automobiles during the time when they were gas-guzzling-polluting monsters. For that period of time, there was great attention given to sound, light, color, shape and that's part of it. What they do is they appeal to the least of you, especially at a young age. They appeal to the most sensually vulnerable part of you. They don't appeal to your mind when they sell you junk food, they appeal to your tongue.


But the tongue...the point is is that the body is getting short-changed in this. However beautiful they make your lamp, the point is is that they make you sit under it for eight hours. That's the whole part of the education system that is never touched upon. Most human creatures on the earth are not meant to sit on a chair for eight hours a day for years on end under flourescent light. And the fact that we've been conditioned to that is the great triumph of the educational system whatever hell the content is.

So, when that starts to happen...I think you can make a case that a physical resentment is building up in the bodies of people that actually has a chance of coming to consciousness. That's all I'm saying...that the people are sort of concerned about their sensuality and sexuality. If they live in an apartment house all their lives and the only world they know is the six trees that pass them on their way to the subway station, then you dry out. But there are atavistic relationships to the planet and that kind of stuff has to be touchable. And when you talk about mass rallies or when you talk about a rock concert or you talk about a rousing religious black church, the point is that what people are there for is partially the message, but it's partially to feel that energy of life pulse through them again. (Exactly.) And that's an important opportunity, if we can direct that lust for contact in an intelligent way and guide it in some evolutionarily positive direction...

RN: That's one reason why cults are so pervasive in America.


Yeah, because at least it's a living group experience, it's real.


RN: Yeah, it's real. Well, what's the fastest growing word usage in the United States in the last twenty years? What one word is appearing more frequently than any other word? Virtual. Everything. Virtual theater. Virtual kitchen. Virtual reality. Virtual office. Virtual corporation. It's a sign.


Yeah, it's a bad sign. What is happening is they're driving all the energy out of the lower chakras, if you will, up to here in the forehead because you can't build big organizations with the heart which is only good for small groups and things like rock concerts, and you can't build them with the balls which basically just serve your familial and genetic interests as a biological being. But you can have infinite associations with the mind. So, if you can get everything focused at the cranial level then you can build organizations that can go anywhere because all of your relationships are symbolic and everything else is tokenized. Corporate Japan is the star case, this is friendly fascism central.


Anyway, all I'm saying is that you've got to put some sensual ballast into your campaign. You've got to put some testosterone into it. Testosterone has gotten a really bad rap and that infuriates me. Because it's really the building block of male individuality, of your sense of rights and sympathy, and finally of democracy itself, but that's another conversation...

- END -

An urgent call to confront and dismantle the illegitimate power of global corporations.


Rethinking the Corporation
by Virginia Rasmussen

Corporations have made themselves the primary defining force on the globe. They shape our cultures and communities, define what is of value and what is not, what news we hear and what we won't, what we trade and what we can't. They define our work, what is produced and consumed, where investments are made, what technologies are developed. They subject the natural world to assault after assault until it can't rise up in the springtime. They craft our laws and policies. They dominate our politicians. Corporations are in charge of our lives. 

I think we would agree to describe the reality that flows from this corporate power as anti-democratic, anti-community, anti-worker, anti-person and anti-planet. And who among us believes that, under the current state of affairs, things are about to turn for the better!

Given our relative consensus on this situation, what should we be asking and doing about the corporation? Should we be trying to find out what the varied and endless bad behaviors of corporations are and struggle, like Dianas against Goliaths, to make them a little less harmful? Or should we be trying to find out what corporations are and struggle to make them something different? Don't we need to look at how we are resisting and where it's getting us?

It's critical for all of us to realize that this enormous power belongs to a thing, a legal fiction. In this country, corporations were originally a creation of the people, intended to be subordinate to the people. At that time, "We the People" were propertied white males only, of course, but these morally impaired Founders had one thing right. They knew that if "the people" were to be in charge, they would have to be sovereign over both political and economic life, or they would be sovereign over neither. Corporations were kept on a short and closely watched leash in the 18th and early 19th centuries and their charters revoked by the courts if they exceeded their authority or violated the common good. But the corporate form has taken over. Corporate lawyers, their arguments clothed in the garb of freedom, liberty and all manner of property claims, manipulated federal legislators and corruptible judges, bludgeoned opposing voices, and eventually gathered unto the corporation a potent mix of property, political and civil rights.

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court declared corporations "persons" under the law in 1886 with Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment protections. We're talking about freedom of speech and due process of the law, bestowed well before most people in this country were considered persons under that same law. Thus, when we add their wealth, influence, privileges, and immunities to this personhood status, corporations become "persons" of most unnatural look, size, and power. In truth, the law of real people can no longer direct corporate actions. That is to say, corporations govern. Like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, the creation is now master of the creator.

The global reach of these governing powers grows more evident with each so-called "free trade" agreement, spilling forth in breathtaking numbers. There are already 70 such agreements and more simmering on the front burners. Multinational corporations, not content with eliminating every kind of protective barrier between nations, are now, in the proposed Multinational Agreement on Investment, going inside the borders. Local, state and national laws passed in the public interest to protect workers, communities, jobs, resources and the natural environment will be prohibited; all impediments, they argue, to the free flow of stuff and money. These free trade agreements are first and foremost multinational corporate rights charters, and they are sweeping clean any remains of democratic control.

How far we have drifted from an opinion given by the New York Supreme Court late in the last century when it unanimously revoked a corporate charter for harms done to the general welfare. The court stated that "the life of a corporation is, indeed, less than that of the most humblest citizen."

Those who speak for today's corporations, however, present these corporate bodies as master of all the humble citizens. Consider the following:

 Recent Pfizer Pharmaceutical Corporation advertisement opined that, "With the family and religion, the business corporation is one of the three crucial institutions of civil society."

 On the death last year of Roberto Goizueta, the chairman and chief executive of the Coca-Cola Corporation, his eulogizer, former mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young, stated that "(Goizueta) was marketing more than a product, he was marketing a way of life. We are all better for having come under his influence."

 And how about this vision of the future provided by Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal: "Yes, (politicians) can presume to decide how much time a new mother should spend in the hospital, rather than wait for wrongs to be redressed by health-care providers seeking market share. Yes, they can still ruin the prospect of a peaceful world by cowardice and duplicity in foreign affairs. In the end, though, the force of history will be more powerful. We will be ruled not so much by the work of politicians as by the logic of markets."

Confronting Corporate Tyranny

To effectively begin the work of countering what amounts to global corporate tyranny, we'll need to do two kinds of defining: what we wish to see in the future and what we are seeing in the present. It is true that we will never take ourselves to a place we can't imagine. But it is equally true that since the journey begins where we are, we must know our reality, critically and deeply, or we'll not remove obstructions in the way; obstructions that will end our travel before we've packed our bags. There are corporate roadblocks out there with the power to keep us running in place--as consumers, workers, taxpayers, even soldiers. But as people subordinate to corporations we cannot be citizens, and we will have no power to chart and take this journey. That clever Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it well nearly 170 years ago when he said, "Without power and independence, a town may contain good subjects, but it can contain no citizens."

And, let's not fool ourselves. We'll never move these corporate behemoths out of our way with the poking sticks and thin willow reeds available to us through regulatory action. Corporations are too in control of regulatory law and agencies to get more than a scratch or bump from all our citizen activism around rules and regulations. Nor will we gain their everlasting mercy with pleas for social responsibility or requests to sign a corporate code of conduct, or the pitiful pleading for side agreements on free-trade pacts. Such agreements are quickly disregarded when the fortunes of corporations are threatened in any way. The corporate "person" cannot be humanized, it cannot care, it cannot be responsible.

So what else is possible?

Since we have grown up in a subordinate relationship to corporations, we have trouble even imagining how a citizenry in charge would see and analyze its reality, what language we would use, how we would act to bring change. Our colonized minds make it difficult to cut through our experience and envision real democracy. We've got a "cop in our head," and the cop comes from corporate headquarters. How would we bring a polluting, subordinate corporation to its knees! What would a campaign against a free-trade agreement or the MAI sound like, look like in the hands of people consciously working to be dominant over corporations? Of people who knew such proposals for the deregulation of commerce in money and goods were outrageous invasions of people's sovereignty.

Yet this is how we must imagine and think and choose our language and frame our campaigns against respective corporate deeds and proposals. To do less is to choose subservience. It is to accept the corporate terms of our relationship to them, terms that confer domination as a right of theirs and submission as a duty of ours. To do less is to guarantee that nothing will really be solved in the course of activist labors, leaving us to wage the same battle over and over again, one trade agreement at a time, one toxic chemical at a time, one waste dump at a time.

What must be done?

When those of us who believe in an empowered citizenship see corporations spewing excrement and oppression with ever greater reach, we need to ask, "By what authority can corporations do that?" And we must work strategically to challenge and to remove that authority as we organize against the waste dump, the cancer-causing herbicide, or the polluting corporation in our town. Excrement and oppression, you see, are not merely evidences of corporate "bad behavior," they reflect the very nature of corporations. Corporations are legally empowered and designed to carry out their mission of ever more growth, production and profit, pursued in the mandated spirit of competition, aggression amorality and hierarchy.

When we see people increasingly powerless to protect themselves, their communities and countries, from this excrement and oppression, we need to ask, "Why do people have so little authority? We must work strategically to engage others in that question, and to augment citizen authority with the goal of reversing our legally subordinate relationship to corporations. Remember, a corporation is a thing; it has no more inherent rights than a stepladder or a sewing machine. Laws must change.

When we see nations increasingly doing the corporation's bidding, becoming fellow degraders and oppressors, we must ask, "How it is that our governments protect breathing human beings less and less, while protecting corporations more and more? By what authority does our government trade away to corporations the powers and responsibilities of citizens?" And we must work strategically to shift government protections from the corporations to the people.

Currently, there are an increasing number of municipalities in the U.S. drawing up resolutions and referenda vowing refusal of entry to the invading corporate hordes. Will that turn them back? No. But it could serve to awaken and inform the public mind, and pave the way for an organized, mobilized popular movement. I know of no other way to create the demand that will force power to concede (to paraphrase Frederick Douglas). Also, in the United States, no undertaking would be more humane, more just, more globally far-reaching than to work to reverse the 1886 Supreme Court decision that gave corporations rights of personhood. No campaign would bring more light and hope to our corporatized politics than one to reverse the 1976 Supreme Court decision that equated speech with money and gave corporations the loudest, wealthiest, most undemocratic voice in the electoral process.

But we can't effectively challenge corporate authority at its roots until enough of us de-colonize our minds, stop thinking corporate. This suggests a second kind of work to be about: reading the news more shrewdly in corporate times. We need to be critiquing, uncovering the context and assumptions of corporate and trade organization talk. It just happens to be the slickest, weightiest propaganda on the scene and it can pack a real mind-colonizing punch.

I came upon a speech by Renato Ruggeiro, Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), given in Washington in March 1998. The subject? Celebrating GATT's 50th year. It contains, in very direct words, the sweeping agenda for the global future as corporations would have it: a bald expression of private corporate goals parading as public interest. We can see how minds can turn to slush when words and views like these fill the media and national dialogue as though there were no alternative visions. Enormous numbers of people are quieted and co-opted by its sweeping grandeur, false history, and fake wisdom. For example, according to Ruggeiro:

"The logic of regionalism makes less economic sense in an era of globalization (since it) leads to fragmentation, different rules and discrimination."

"Over the past 50 years trade has been a powerful engine for growth."

"The world's prosperity--and that of the United States--rests on maintaining an open international economy based on commonly-agreed rules."

If we want to redefine our local and global lives, it is this context and these assumptions that we need to drag into the light. We must insist that the role of corporations be discussed and challenged in democratic forums. Because it is only through such exposure and engagement that we can liberate ourselves sufficiently to contest corporations' illegitimate authority to distort our language, define our priorities, and design our future.

So, you want to tear the system down and replace it with a culture of peace? It will only be possible when the authority to govern is in the hands of natural persons and not in the boardrooms of corporate entities. *

- END -

(Originally published in Food and Water Journal, Fall 1998)



Regaining Human Control
Collective Collapse vs. Corporate Fruition


The Santa Clara Blues:
Corporate Personhood vS. Democracy

by William Meyers


What Corporate Personhood Is

The History of  Corporate Personhood

Why Corporate Personhood Is Bad for Our Society

What Could Change

How We Can Revoke Corporate Personhood

Frequently Asked Questions

1.      What would be the immediate effect of revoking corporate personhood?

2.      How would small businesses be affected?

3.      If corporations can't lobby, how can they get laws that are fair to them?

4.      What about past harms done by corporate personhood?

5.      Would the media lose its freedom of the press and free speech?

6.      How will revoking corporate personhood affect non-profit corporations?

7.      Why don't unions have corporate personhood?

8.      Why do you want to restrict the freedom of stockholders and people who work     for corporations?

9.      Wouldn't we lose the power to tax and regulate corporations?


What Corporate Personhood Is

Corporate Personhood is a legal fiction. The choice of the word “person” arises from the way the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was worded and from earlier legal usages of the word person. A corporation is an artificial entity, created by the granting of a charter by a government that grants such charters. Corporation in this essay will be confined to businesses run for profit that have been granted corporate charters by the States of the United States. The Federal Government of the United States usually does not grant corporate charters to businesses (exceptions include the Post Office and Amtrak).

A corporation is owned by a person or group of people called stockholders. It is required by law to have officers and a board of directors (in small corporations these may all be the same people). In effect the corporation is a collective or partnership of individuals with a special legal status and privileges not given to ordinary unincorporated businesses or groups of individuals.

Obviously a corporation is itself no more a person (though it is owned by persons) than a locomotive or a mob. So how is a corporation legally a person?

In the United States of America all natural persons (actual human beings) are recognized as having inalienable rights which the government cannot take away. These rights are recognized, among other places, in the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment.

Corporate personhood is the idea (legal fiction, currently with force of law) that corporations are enough like natural persons to have the same inalienable rights (sometimes called Constitutional rights) as real, natural, human persons.

That this idea has the force of law both resulted from corporate power and wealth, and resulted in even greater corporate power and wealth. It effectively inverts the relationship between the government and the corporations. Recognized as persons, corporations lose much of their status as subjects of the government. Although artificial creations of their owners and the governments, as legal persons they have a degree of immunity to government supervision.


The History of  Corporate Personhood

Corporations were not considered to be persons in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence severed the States from Great Britain. There had been only a few corporations in colonial America, but they had been very powerful. The Dutch West India Company had founded New York. Corporations had effectively governed the such colonies as Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas. The political history of the colonies up until 1776 was largely one of conflict between citizens trying to establish rule by elected government and the corporations or King ruling through appointed governors.

The new “nation” or confederation of 13 sovereign states was free of native business corporations. The corporations that survived the revolution were all non-profit institutions such as colleges [Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819)]. There was not a single bank in the United States until 1780, most of that first bank's stock was owned by the confederate government, and the bank's charter was revoked in 1785. “The agrarian charges were numerous... the bank was a monstrosity, an artificial creature endowed with powers not possessed by human beings and incompatible with the principles of a democratic social order.” [Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 48-54] By 1790, however four banks had been granted corporate charters by states, but these banks were not originally purely private institutions, but had a state function. [Ibid, pp. 65-67]

The federal Constitution which was adopted in 1788 did not mention corporations at all. But in the late 1700's and early 1800's corporations began to be chartered by the states. This was not without opposition. Thomas Jefferson said, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Like the banks, other early corporations were closely supervised by the state legislatures that granted their charters. When the Supreme Court of the United States in Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819, ruled that Dartmouth's charter granted in 1769 by King George III was a contract and could not be revoked by the New Hampshire legislature, a public outcry ensued. State courts and legislatures, supported by the people, declared that state governments had an absolute right to amend or repeal a corporate charter. [Richard L Grossman and Frank T. Adams, Taking Care of Business, Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation (Cambridge: Charter, Ink., 1993), p. 11-12]

Until 1886 corporations were not considered persons. It was clear what they were: artificial creations of their owners and the state legislatures. They could be regulated and taxed. They could sue and be sued. They were subject to all of the laws of the land as well as any restrictions placed in their charters.

During the 1800's the United States went through and enormous economic expansion, sometimes called the Industrial Revolution, but that term is misleading. The United States expanded geographically by grabbing native American Indian territories formerly claimed by France, Great Britain, and Mexico. The population exploded. Farm production exploded, and international trade exploded, with U.S. grain feeding both growing U.S. cities and Europe. Manufacturing in the U.S., protected by tariffs from British competition, also progressed rapidly. The favored form for large businesses became the corporation. And as these corporations came to dominate business life, they also began to dominate America's politicians, lawyers, and courts.

The Civil War accelerated the growth of manufacturing and the power of the men who owned the corporations. After the war corporations began a campaign to throw off the legal shackles that had held them in check. The systematic bribing of Congress was instituted by Mark Hanna, sugar trust magnate Henry Havemeyer, and Senator Nelson Aldrich and their associates. [Jonathan Shepard Fast and Luzviminda Bartolome Francisco, Conspiracy For Empire, Big Business, Corruption and the Politics of Imperialism in America, 1876-1907 (Quezon City, Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1985), p. 92-97] Most Supreme Court judges that were appointed were former corporate lawyers.

In 1886 the supreme court justices were Samuel F. Miller, Stephen J. Field, Joseph P. Bradley, John M. Harlan, Stanley Matthews, William B. Woods, Samuel Blatchford, Horace Gray, and chief justice Morrison. R. Waite. Never heard of a one of them? These men subjected African Americans to a century of Jim Crow discrimination; they made corporations the real government of our society; they vastly increased the power of the Supreme Court itself over elected government officials. How quaint they are forgotten names. In all fairness, Justice Harlan dissented from the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision [163 U.S. 537 (1896)], which, as he said, effectively denied the protection of the 14th Amendment to the very group of people (former slaves and their descendants) for whom it was designed..

In 1868 the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution had become law. Section 1 of that Amendment states:

SECTION 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws

“The one pervading purpose . . .” [of the 14th Amendment] “was the freedom of the slave race, the security and firm establishment of that freedom, and the protection of the newly-made freeman and citizen from the oppression of those who had formerly exercised unlimited dominion over him.” That is exactly what Justice Samuel F. Miller said in 1873 in one of the first Supreme Court opinions to rule on the 14th Amendment. [83 U.S. 36, 81 (1873)]


But the wealthy, powerful men who owned corporations wanted freedom for their corporations. Their lawyers came up with the idea that corporations, which might be said to be groups of persons (though one person might in turn belong to (own stock in) many corporations), should have the same Constitutional rights as persons themselves. If they could get the courts to agree that corporations were persons, they could assert that the States, which had chartered the corporations, would then be constrained by the 14th Amendment.

It would certainly be interesting to know how much stock in various corporations the judges who decided this question owned. But as yet no one has done the research.

Beginning in the 1870's corporate lawyers began asserting that corporations were persons with all of the rights of natural persons. It should be understood that the term “artificial person” was already in long use, with no mistake that corporations were claiming to have the rights of natural persons. “Artificial person” was used because there were certain resemblances, in law, between a natural person and corporations. Both could be parties in a lawsuit; both could be taxed; both could be constrained by law.

The need to be freed from legislative and judicial constraints, combined with the chance use of the word “person” in the U.S. Constitution and the concept of the “artificial person,” led to the argument that these “artificial persons” were “persons” with an inconsequential “artificial” adjective appended. If it could be made so, if the courts would accept that corporations were among the “persons” talked about by the U.S. Constitution, then the corporations would gain considerable leverage against legal restraint.

These arguments were made by corporate lawyers at the State level, in court after court, and many judges, being former corporate attorneys and usually at least moderately wealthy themselves, were sympathetic to any argument that would strengthen corporations. There was a national campaign to get the legal establishment to accept that corporations were persons. This cumulated in the Santa Clara decision of 1886, which has been used as the precedent for all rulings about corporate personhood since then.

Though it is not yet clear who hatched this plot or where the campaign began, the early cases mainly concerned railroads. In the late 1800's railroads were perhaps the most powerful corporations in the country. Most of the nation's farmers were dependent on them to haul their produce; even the manufacturing corporations were at their mercy when they needed coal, iron ore, finished iron, or any other  materials transported. That the lawyers for the railway corporations had planned a national campaign to make corporations full, unqualified legal persons is demonstrated by the Supreme Court making several decisions in which this was an issue in 1877. In four cases that reached the Supreme Court [94 U.S. 155, 94 U.S. 164, 94 U.S. 179, 94 U.S. 180 (1877)] it was argued by the railroads that they were protected by the 14th Amendment from states regulating the maximum rates they could charge. In each case the Court did not render an opinion as to whether corporations were persons covered by the 14th Amendment. Bypassing that issue, they said that the 14th Amendment was not meant to prevent states from regulating commerce.

Similarly, in 1877, in Munn v. Illinois [94 U.S. 113 (1876)], the Supreme Court decided that the 14th Amendment did not prevent the State of Illinois from regulating charges for use of a business's grain elevators, ignoring the question of whether Munn & Scott was a person. Later, in Northwestern Nat Life Ins. Co. v. Riggs [203 U.S. 243 (1906)], having accepted that corporations are people, the court still ruled that the 14th Amendment was not a bar to most state laws that effectively limited a corporations right to contract business as it pleases.

Calling silence a victory, from 1877 to 1886 corporate lawyers assumed that corporations were persons, and their opponents only occasionally argued that they were not. In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company [118 U.S. 394 (1886)], at the lower court levels the question of whether corporations were persons had been argued, and these arguments were submitted in writing to the Court. However, before oral argument took place, Chief Justice Waite announced “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”

It is not half as strange that the Supreme Court judges would render such an opinion, as the way that they rendered it. These guys loved to write long-winded, complex opinions; look at any Supreme Court opinion of the time (or any time) and you'll see that. This question had never been covered in a Supreme Court decision; it had been avoided. Here was the perfect chance for any of nine Supreme Court judges to make his place in history. All declined. They declined because they were a bunch of corrupted oligarchs who had made a decision that stank to high heaven. No one wanted to explain how an amendment about ex-slaves had converted artificial entities into the legal equivalent of natural persons.

This opinion without explanation, given before argument had even been heard, became the law of the United States of America. No state or federal legislature passed it; no Amendment to the Constitution was deemed necessary; the average voter was simply informed that he had a mistaken view about corporations. Future Supreme Courts refused to even consider the question, though occasionally future justices would try to raise the question again.

Was the 14th Amendment about corporations? One of the 1886 judges, Samuel F. Miller, had not thought so in 1872, only 6 years after the Amendment had become law, when the court was “called upon for the first time to give construction to these articles.” In the “Slaughterhouse Cases” [83 U.S. 36 (1872)], he states (and I quote at length because it is important not only to the question of corporate personhood, but to the question of civil rights):


The most cursory glance at these articles discloses a unity of purpose, when taken in connection with the history of the times, which cannot fail to have an important bearing on any question of doubt concerning their true meaning. Nor can such doubts, when any reasonably exist, be safely and rationally solved without a reference to that history, for in it is found the occasion and the necessity for recurring again to the great source of power in this country, the people of the States, for additional guarantees of human rights, additional powers to the Federal government; additional restraints upon those of the States. Fortunately, that history is fresh within the memory of us all, and its leading features, as they bear upon the matter before us, free from doubt.

The institution of African slavery, as it existed in about half the States of the Union, and the contests pervading the public mind for many years between those who desired its curtailment and ultimate extinction and those who desired additional safeguards for its security and perpetuation, culminated in the effort, on the part of most of the States in which slavery existed, to separate from the Federal government and to resist its authority. This constituted the war of the rebellion, and whatever auxiliary causes may have contributed to bring about this war, undoubtedly the overshadowing and efficient cause was African slavery.

. . .

They [Negroes] were in some States forbidden to appear in the towns in any other character than menial servants. They were required to reside on and cultivate the soil without the right to purchase or own it. They were excluded from many occupations of gain, and were not permitted to give testimony in the courts in any case where a white man was a party. It was said that their lives were at the mercy of bad men, either because the laws for their protection were insufficient or were not enforced.


These circumstances, whatever of falsehood or misconception may have been mingled with their presentation, forced upon the statesmen who had conducted the Federal government in safety through the crisis of the rebellion, and who supposed that, by the thirteenth article of amendment, they had secured the result of their labors, the conviction that something more was necessary in the way of Constitutional protection to the unfortunate race who had suffered so much. They accordingly passed through Congress the proposition for the fourteenth amendment, and they declined to treat as restored to their full participation in the government of the Union the States which had been in insurrection until they ratified that article by a formal vote of their legislative bodies.

. . .

We repeat, then, in the light of this recapitulation of events, almost too recent to be called history, but which are familiar to us all, and on the most casual examination of the language of these amendments, no one can fail to be impressed with the one pervading purpose found in them all, lying at the foundation of each, and without which none of them would have been even suggested; we mean the freedom of the slave race, the security and firm establishment of that freedom, and the protection of the newly made freeman and citizen from the oppressions of those who had formerly exercised unlimited dominion over him.

It has been argued that the men who wrote the 14th Amendment specifically meant for the word person to be a loophole which you could drive a giant corporation through. Apparently in one of the railroad cases an attorney waived a paper before the court claiming that it documented such; but the paper was not entered as evidence, nor apparently was it shown to anyone, nor was it saved. However, careful research has shown that, “[John A. Bingham] the Ohioan and member of Congress, who is known to have been chiefly responsible for the phraseology of Section One when it was drafted by the Joint Committee in 1866, had, during the previous decade and as early as 1856-1859, employed not one but all three of the same clauses and concepts he later used in Section One. More important still, Bingham employed these guarantees specifically and in a context which suggested that freedmen – free Negroes and mulattos rather than corporations and business enterprise – unquestionably were the 'persons' to which he then referred.” [Everyman's Constitution, Graham, Howard Jay, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1968]

The utter moral and legal depravity of the Supreme Court during this period, and the absurdity of treating corporations as persons with natural and Constitutionally recognized rights, is illustrated by the deterioration of the legal position of the former slaves and their descendants during this time. A series of Supreme Court judgments [92 U.S. 214 (1875), 92 U.S. 542 (1875), 106 U.S. 629 (1882), 109 U.S. 3 (1883)] of cases where men classified as Negroes sought the protection of the 14th Amendment narrowed the scope of that protection. Finally, in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson [163 U.S. 537 (1896)] decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a man who was 1 part slave by ancestry and 7/8 of white/free ancestry could be forced to sit in a “separate but equal” section of a passenger train. In effect this decision declared people with non-European ancestors to not be people. The decision would not be overruled by a future Supreme Court until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Only justice John M. Harlan dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson. Of the justices who had ruled that corporations were people in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific, four were still justices to rule that natural persons of the wrong skin color were not persons in Plessy v. Ferguson. These infamous four were Stephen J. Field, Samuel Blatchford, Horace Gray, and Edward D. White.

Two well respected Supreme Court judges, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas, later rendered opinions attacking the doctrine of corporate personhood. I supply here most of justice Black's opinion:

But it is contended that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits California from determining what terms and conditions should be imposed upon this Connecticut corporation to promote the welfare of the people of California.

I do not believe the word 'person' in the Fourteenth Amendment includes corporations. 'The doctrine of stare decisis, however appropriate and even necessary at times, has only a limited application in the field of constitutional law.' This Court has many times changed its interpretations of the Constitution when the conclusion was reached that an improper construction had been adopted. Only recently the case of West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379, 57 S.Ct. 578, 108 A.L.R. 1330, expressly overruled a previous interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment which had long blocked state minimum wage legislation. When a statute is declared by this Court to be unconstitutional, the decision until reversed stands as a barrier against the adoption of similar legislation. A Constitutional interpretation that is wrong should not stand. I believe this Court should now overrule previous decisions which interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to include corporations.

Neither the history nor the language of the Fourteenth Amendment justifies the belief that corporations are included within its protection [303 U.S. 77, 86]. The historical purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was clearly set forth when first considered by this Court in the Slaughter House Cases, 16 Wall. 36, decided April, 1873-less than five years after the proclamation of its adoption. Mr. Justice Miller, speaking for the Court, said:

'Among the first acts of legislation adopted by several of the States in the legislative bodies which claimed to be in their normal relations with the Federal government, were laws which imposed upon the colored race onerous disabilities and burdens, and curtailed their rights in the pursuit of life, liberty, and property to such an extent that their freedom was of little value, while they had lost the protection which they had received from their former owners from motives both of interest and humanity.

'These circumstances, whatever of falsehood or misconception may have been mingled with their presentation, forced ... the conviction that something more was necessary in the way of Constitutional protection to the unfortunate race who had suffered so much. (Congressional leaders) accordingly passed through Congress the proposition for the fourteenth amendment, and ... declined to treat as restored to their full participation in the government of the Union the States which had been in insurrection, until they ratified that article by a formal vote of their legislative bodies.' 16 Wall. 36, at page 70.


Certainly, when the Fourteenth Amendment was submitted for approval, the people were not told that the states of the South were to be denied their normal relationship with the Federal Government unless they ratified an amendment granting new and revolutionary rights to corporations. This Court, when the Slaughter House Cases were decided in 1873, had apparently discovered no such purpose. The records of the time can be searched in vain for evidence that this amendment was adopted for the benefit of corporations. It is true [303 U.S. 77, 87] that in 1882, twelve years after its adoption, and ten years after the Slaughter House Cases, supra, an argument was made in this Court that a journal of the joint Congressional Committee which framed the amendment, secret and undisclosed up to that date, indicated the committee's desire to protect corporations by the use of the word 'person.'  Four years later, in 1886, this Court in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394, 6 S.Ct. 1132, decided for the first time that the word 'person' in the amendment did in some instances include corporations. A secret purpose on the part of the members of the committee, even if such be the fact, however, would not be sufficient to justify any such construction. The history of the amendment proves that the people were told that its purpose was to protect weak and helpless human beings and were not told that it was intended to remove corporations in any fashion from the control of state governments. The Fourteenth Amendment followed the freedom of a race from slavery. Justice Swayne said in the Slaughter Houses Cases, supra, that: 'By 'any person' was meant all persons within the jurisdiction of the State. No distinction is intimated on account of race or color.' Corporations have neither race nor color. He knew the amendment was intended to protect the life, liberty, and property of human beings.

The language of the amendment itself does not support the theory that it was passed for the benefit of corporations.

The first clause of section 1 of the amendment reads: 'All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.' Certainly a corporation cannot be naturalized and 'persons' here is not broad enough to include 'corporations.'

The first clause of the second sentence of section 1 reads: 'No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.' While efforts have been made to persuade this Court to allow corporations to claim the protection of his clause, these efforts have not been successful.

The next clause of the second sentence reads: 'Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.' It has not been decided that this clause prohibits a state from depriving a corporation of 'life.' This Court has expressly held that 'the liberty guaranteed by the 14th Amendment against deprivation without due process of law is the liberty of natural, not artificial persons.' Thus, the words 'life' and 'liberty' do not apply to corporations, and of course they could not have been so intended to apply. However, the decisions of this Court which the majority follow hold that corporations are included in this clause in so far as the word 'property' is concerned. In other words, this clause is construed to mean as follows:

'Nor shall any State deprive any human being of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor shall any State deprive any corporation of property without due process of law.'

The last clause of this second sentence of section 1 reads: 'Nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.' As used here, 'person' has been construed to include corporations. [303 U.S. 77, 89] Both Congress and the people were familiar with the meaning of the word 'corporation' at the time the Fourteenth Amendment was submitted and adopted. The judicial inclusion of the word 'corporation' in the Fourteenth Amendment has had a revolutionary effect on our form of government. The states did not adopt the amendment with knowledge of its sweeping meaning under its present construction. No section of the amendment gave notice to the people that, if adopted, it would subject every state law and municipal ordinance, affecting corporations, (and all administrative actions under them) to censorship of the United States courts. No word in all this amendment gave any hint that its adoption would deprive the states of their long-recognized power to regulate corporations.

The second section of the amendment informed the people that representatives would be apportioned among the several states 'according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.' No citizen could gather the impression here that while the word 'persons' in the second section applied to human beings, the word 'persons' in the first section in some instances applied to corporations. Section 3 of the amendment said that 'no person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress,' (who 'engaged in insurrection'). There was no intimation here that the word 'person' in the first section in some instances included corporations.

This amendment sought to prevent discrimination by the states against classes or races. We are aware of this from words spoken in this Court within five years after its adoption, when the people and the courts were personally familiar with the historical background of the amendment. 'We doubt very much whether any action of a State not directed by way of discrimination against [303 U.S. 77, 90] the Negroes as a class, or on account of their race, will ever be held to come within the purview of this provision.' Yet, of the cases in this Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption, less than one-half of 1 per cent invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 per cent. asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.

If the people of this nation wish to deprive the states of their sovereign rights to determine what is a fair and just tax upon corporations doing a purely local business within their own state boundaries, there is a way provided by the Constitution to accomplish this purpose. That way does not lie along the course of judicial amendment to that fundamental charter. An amendment having that purpose could be submitted by Congress as provided by the Constitution. I do not believe that the Fourteenth Amendment had that purpose, nor that the people believed it had that purpose, nor that it should be construed as having that purpose.

– Hugo Black, dissenting, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company v. Johnson [303 U.S. 77]


Justice Black was not alone in his questioning of the legitimacy of corporate personhood. Justice Douglas, dissenting in Wheeling Steel Corp. v. Glander [337 U.S. 562 (1949)], gave an opinion similar to, but shorter than, the one quoted above, to which Justice Black concurred.


Why Corporate Personhood Is Bad for Our Society

Is corporate personhood a bad thing? If you are a wealthy corporate stockholder who doesn't care about the environment or the fate of less wealthy human beings, the answer is no. In fact corporate personhood is right up there with limited liability as one of the good things in life. For the rest of us corporate personhood is a very bad thing.

Corporate personhood changes the relationship between people and corporations and between corporations and the government, and even between government and the people. The effects of this change in relationships range from loss of liberty and income for consumers and workers to the destruction and poisoning of the earth and the corruption of the U.S. governments (including state and local governments). As outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the Anti-Federalist Papers, government derives its powers and responsibilities from the people. Corporations, chartered by governments, are subject to the people with the government acting as an intermediary. Corporate personhood allows corporations to control the government and use it as an intermediary to impose the will of corporations upon the people. It is this basic about-face from democracy that should most concern us. But because of our corrupted legal system, corporate media, and corrupted elected officials, social activists usually focus their efforts on the bad, even horrible, results of corporate control of government and society. Reformers run around trying to get bureaucrats to enforce the minimalist regulations that corporations have allowed to be enacted into law, rather than finding a way to prevent the corporations from writing the laws.

Take, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its feeble attempts to clean up the most toxic sites in the United States. Almost all of these sites were created by large corporations. Regulation of corporations was traditionally left to State governments; the Federal government regulated only interstate commerce (though in the 20th century it increasingly used its power to regulate interstate commerce as a means to regulate all commerce). Why did the State governments not prevent the creation of toxic sites in the first place?

One might claim that there was simply, in the past, a lack of knowledge on everyone's part about the environment and the dangers of toxins. This theory does not stand up to analysis. Poisoning wells was a crime from the earliest of times. Government standards for food purity and safety go back to at least the Middle Ages. Sanitation laws came into common existence in the U.S. during the 19th century. But toxic sites were the result of toxic dumping by large industrial corporations. They dumped toxic byproducts into the air, into waterways, and onto the ground. They continue to do so today with environmental law written to give them permission to pollute up to specified levels, and even at higher levels if they are willing to pay small fines. In addition, they have used their political power to force taxpayers to pay to clean corporate toxic spills. In some cases they have escaped financial liability through the corporate bankruptcy laws, which limit the liability of stockholders. Billions of dollars that were paid out in dividends to stockholders cannot be reclaimed by the people in order to cover the costs of toxic cleanup at taxpayers' expense.

After corporations were given personhood and Constitutional rights in 1886 state governments began to find that attempts to regulate were thwarted both by Supreme Court decisions and the “race to the bottom.” If a state prohibited an industry from dumping waste in streams and rivers (and actually enforced such a law) the industry would simply move to a state that had no such law or enforced it laxly. But the federal Supreme Court ruled that because corporations were persons, a warrant was required to inspect the property of a factory to see if toxic substances were being dumped []. Since warrants can be issued only after witnesses swear to observing a law being broken, in practice they could seldom be issued. By the 1960's America had dead rivers (one of which caught on fire!), toxic air, and most of the “Superfund” toxic sites that the EPA would eventually have to try to clean up.

What would it take to make corporations stop polluting and pay to clean up the messes they have created? They would have to be prohibited from lobbying, they would have to be prohibited from contributing to political campaigns, they would need to lose their limited liability status, they would need to have their charters limited and enforced, they need to be subject to inspections without warrants, and they would have to have their ability to buy decisions in their favor in the courts ended. In order to remove any of this set of privileges we would need to make it legally clear that they do not have corporate personhood and the Constitutional rights the courts pretend go with it.

Or consider subsidized corporate timber harvesting on government lands. One might see this as a case of simple, raw economic and political power. The timber companies wish to grab (privatize) the profits in a situation and pawn off (socialize) the costs by charging them to the taxpayers. They do this by writing the laws governing the sale of timber. It is sold cheap, and the government does not take into account its own costs (administration, building roads, etc.) in setting prices. The net result is that taxpayers loose money, the timber industry makes profits, and the environment is managed in an unsound manner. Corporate personhood does not, in itself, cause laws to be written to subsidize the wealthy holders of timber company stock with the income taxes laid on the backs of ordinary wage earners. But it has created the situation is which corporations are free to lobby and corrupt the political process. To prevent them from lobbying and contributing to political campaigns we must revoke their corporate personhood.

Look at the recent consolidation of the media, from bookstores to cable television empires. This is part of the process of putting Americans in chains, where corporations are able to stifle individual liberty by driving out small local businesses and replacing them with cloned outlets. What does that have to do with corporate personhood? Well, some people, realizing that in the long run local communities prosper with locally owned businesses, have tried to limit the corporate chain's right unlimited expansion. In the case of Liggett v. Lee [288 U.S. 517 (1933)] the State of Florida had imposed a filing fee for licenses for stores that was progressive: a person opening one store would pay a $5.00 fee, whereas a large chain was required to pay $30.00 per store. J. C. Penny Company challenged the law and the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that this law violated the 14th Amendment's principle of equal protection. This was at a time when the Jim Crow system of discrimination against blacks was at its height; blacks were still not considered persons protected by the 14th amendment, but corporations were. Judge Brandeis’ dissent in the case is well worth reading for anyone interested in a critique of the growth of corporate power up to 1933.

If terrorists had tried to bomb independent bookstores out of existence in the 1990's, people would have been demanding police protection for our neighborhood bookstores. Instead the independents, which had survived fairly well against the earlier versions of bookstore chains, were bombed (economically) by Barnes & Noble and Borders. Now independent book publishers, which had long struggled to survive against the big corporate publishing empires, can have their books effectively censored by two clowns, one working at each of the chains. Now the dream of owning a small bookstore and carrying the books that you love has been replaced by the nightmare of being a low-paid clerk in a chain bookstore. Corporate personhood offers little or no advantage to small, local stores and businesses: it is of advantage only to the national and international corporations.

The book industry is just one segment of the media industry that has consolidated at an accelerating pace at the end of the 20th Century. Laws could have been enacted insuring a multitude of voices on the radio and TV and in newspapers and magazines, but instead we are subjected to one voice: the voice of money. Endowed with corporate personhood, the media corporations have been able to lobby and bribe politicians (with campaign contributions) to allow media empires to effectively extinguish meaningful freedom of the press in the United States.

Compare the position of most real persons in the U.S. at present. Most real persons are lucky if they can shake their congressperson's hand; few of us have the power to talk to any congressman on any committee that might help our personal business interests. Most real persons were not consulted before Congress acted recently to liberalize the corporate banking laws, allow the consolidation of the media industry, or change the rules for personal bankruptcy. But multinational corporations have unlimited access to Congress. They buy that access with campaign contributions (and often, lucrative jobs for ex-Congresspersons). The public is told what to think by a (almost always) unified media voice. The public is usually not even told when critical anti-democratic or economic changes are being considered by Congress.

Because of corporate personhood, the ordinary, natural person has become a second-class person in the eyes of the law. A person who has to work for wages as a corporate employee loses his Constitutional rights (such as free speech) when he steps onto corporate property, according to the courts. In any dispute he has with a corporate person he is confronted with the economic penalty of having to buy justice from lawyers and courts, which for the corporation is a tax-deductible expense. For an international corporation a million dollars in legal costs hardly affects the bottom line; for a real person, a thousand dollars in legal costs may mean missing a rent or mortgage payment. Equality before the law has become a farce under the Supreme Courts ruling on corporate personhood. Even if ordinary people try to work together, as in a labor union, they are not afforded the same privileges as a corporate person.

Finally, look at the corporate contributions to politicians and their overall ability to influence political thought through the corporate media. Without ever giving a penny to a politician's campaign the corporate media would have enormous control of the political process through their ability to filter news and opinions. Dependent on other out-of-control corporations for their own advertising income, they have no reason to anger their real clients by impartially reporting the news. When you add to that the enormous amounts of money that corporations are able to use to affect the political process you have the makings of corruption and tyranny. There have been some efforts by states and the federal government to put some mild restrictions on corporate campaign spending. But in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti [435 U.S. 765 (1978)] the Supreme Court declared that corporate persons have the same free speech rights as natural persons, and could spend unlimited sums of money “speaking” in the form of ads and campaign contributions.

Summing up, corporate personhood is bad because it is the basis of corporations being regarding by the Supreme Court with other rights such as equal protection under the law, free speech, the right to remain silent in criminal cases, and protection from searches. These rights in turn have been used by the corporations to corrupt our government and legal system, to treat workers and small businesses as economic prey, and to destroy the environment we all depend on to sustain life itself.


What would change if corporations lost personhood?

There are two broad areas that could change if we revoked corporate personhood. One is directly related to corporations not being persons for the purposes of the 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendments. The other is the critically important secondary effect of what can be achieved if we push corporations out of the political process, which can be achieved only if we remove their personhood. Knowing exactly what would or could change has to be based on what changes have been made, or prevented, since the establishment of corporate personhood as a legal principle in 1886.

Fortunately we do have a road map of sorts, a mirror image of this issue. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, effectively declared that “Negroes” were not protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, were not in fact the persons it was meant to protect. In 1956 in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled so that suddenly “Negroes” again became full legal persons. I hope I don't need to describe the plight of African-Americans and other people of color during the period from 1896 to 1956, nor will I recount the campaign necessary to get the court to change its mind in 1956.

Were African-Americans (and others classified as non-white) suddenly better off the day after the 1956 ruling? Potentially yes, but factually no. It took years of protests, court cases, legislative changes, changes in people's awareness and semantics, and even many people's murders at the hands of those who opposed change,  before African-Americans began to be treated, legally, socially, and economically, as citizens and persons. The process is not yet complete.

When corporate personhood is terminated, whether it be by a Supreme Court decision, an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or by State or Federal legislation that will hold up in court, the next day it may seem like nothing really has changed. But the potential for change will be as great as it was for people of color after Brown v. Board of Education.

Just as in 1956 you could predict that, finally guaranteed the protection of the Federal Government under the Fourteenth Amendment, people of color might soon be able to shop with white people, have the vote, elect people of color to office, and make substantial economic gains, we can predict what can happen after the ending of corporate personhood. But these things will not happen unless there are years of protests, court cases, legislation, and changes in people's awareness. We can't predict the details, but since we know what has been obstructed in the past, we can see what freedoms the people might gain once we begin to end corporate dominance.

Corporate personhood is at the root of such Supreme Court rulings as First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti [435 U.S. 765 (1978)], which equate corporate donations to political campaigns with free speech. They allow corporate money to govern the political process. These rulings can be reversed once the 1886 decision is reversed, since they are directly dependent upon it. Then we should be able to force corporations out of the political process. We could do this through legislation or through the chartering process. Without personhood the corporations are not entitled to 1st Amendment rights; they will have only what privileges the people, through our government, gives them. We can and should prohibit them from making any kind of contribution to politicians, to lobbying groups, or to campaigns involving referenda. Any advertising that does not sell products, that is, any advertising meant to directly or indirectly affect the political process, should be prohibited.

Later in this essay the secondary effects of removing corporations and their money from the political decision making (including regulatory) process will be examined. First other changes that are directly dependent upon revoking corporate personhood need examining.

Without the protection of the 14th Amendment, corporations could be purposefully discriminated against in legislation. It would even become possible to discriminate against particular types and sizes of corporations. The citizens would thereby gain much greater control over the economy, both nationally and at the local level. For instance, the Supreme Court in the past, based on corporate personhood, has held that States and localities cannot favor small or local businesses over corporate chain stores or out-of-state businesses, as in Liggett v. Lee [288 U.S. 517 (1933)]. Towns that want all business to be local, or even that want to keep out certain chains but allow others, will be able to have that control, if they wish. They could also finally have truly effective “bad boy” laws, as opposed to the current ineffective ones (because we'll be able to limit corporations appeals to the courts).

Without personhood the due process used for corporations could be different than the due process used for individuals or unincorporated businesses. As an illustration, corporations might only be allowed a single hearing when their actions effect an endangered species, rather than the current system where they can spend millions of dollars of their own money, and of taxpayer money, and of the non-profit environmental groups that oppose them, in an unending series of appeals and diversionary legal filings.

Another example would be that corporate charters, granted by the states, might channel certain types of corporate wrongdoing into special courts where justice is swift and stern, including the immediate closing of businesses that violate environmental, consumer safety, or labor laws.

Another important Constitutional “right” given to corporations is protection under the 4th Amendment, which states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons to be seized.” The key Supreme Court decision here was Hale v. Henkel [201 U.S. 43 (1906)], which established that corporations have protection under the 4th Amendment based in part on their status as persons. It was decided that a subpoena issued by a federal grand jury to the secretary of a corporation, MacAndrews & Forbes Company, amounted to such an unreasonable search and seizure. This ruling made it difficult to enforce the Sherman anti-monopoly act, which naturally required the papers of corporations in order to determine if there existed grounds for an indictment. Oddly the same ruling recognized it would be very hard to give the 5th Amendment right that “nor shall any person ... be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” because a corporation, not being a natural person, cannot testify at all. It can be represented in court by natural persons, who cannot take the 5th on the corporation's behalf, because you only have the right to not incriminate yourself; you have no immunity to testify against other persons.

The importance of the 4th Amendment right of corporate persons is shown, among other places, in Marshall v. Barlow's, Inc. [436 U.S. 307 (1978)]. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), enacted to try to get employees safe working environments, allowed for surprise inspections of workplaces. These inspections were struck down by the Supreme Court, which declared that OSHA inspections required either the corporation's permission or a warrant to take place. Apparently the Constitutional personhood rights of corporations trump the rights of real persons. Thousands of workers have died, been maimed, or poisoned since 1978, while on the job; many of these accidents were preventable, but the Supreme Court did not consider the liberty of the workers, only the liberty of corporations and their wealthy owners in making this murderous decision. No workplace that follows OSHA safety rules need fear a surprise inspection.

Revoking corporate personhood would allow the government to make reasonable inspections to insure worker safety, to insure that toxic substances are not being emitted, and to insure that corporations are operating as allowed by their charters and the law. Revoking personhood should not be feared by law-abiding, legitimate businesses and corporations who are obeying the law.

We now return to the possible secondary results of ending corporate personhood and getting corporations out of the political process.

With corporations out of the political process the whole nature of regulation would change for the better. Whether regarding the environment or food safety, we would not have to compromise with powerful corporate political machines. Do the people want to prohibit clear-cutting? Then the laws will prohibit clear-cutting, because no politician will be on a wood-products corporation's payroll. Do the people want zero emissions into streams and rivers? Then the law will prohibit any and all toxic emissions, because the politicians will rely on people for votes, not on polluting corporations for money to buy votes.

The main roadblock to single-payer, national health care has been the enormous amount of lobbying and campaign contributions from those corporations that profit from the current system. By prohibiting corporate-sponsored campaign contributions to politicians and corporate-sponsored propaganda on television, the national consensus in favor of national health care could no longer be thwarted.

Ending corporate personhood is no more a magic-bullet than was the Brown v. Ferguson ruling, or the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment itself. As long as there is a society there will be struggle over how resources, including political powers, are allocated. Ending corporate personhood would result, not in a level playing field, but in a field where We the People have the advantage again, where in any particular issue that is fought out in the public arena, the people are more likely to win than the corporations.

How We Can Revoke Corporate Personhood

Corporate personhood is a lie. How do we get the courts and government to realize that?

The simple solution would be to somehow bring a case involving only corporate personhood to the Supreme Court and ask them to rule on it. Hopefully they would take a strict-constructionist line and recognize that the Constitution does not mean corporations when it says persons. This method is unlikely for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that the current Supreme Court is a product of the corrupted legal system and appointees are designated by corrupt presidents and approved by a corrupt Congress. In addition, many roadblocks have been built into the system to prevent such a case from even coming to the Supreme Court. We would need a law in some State or locality specifically denying corporations personhood, but attorneys and judges have so far taken the view that any such law would be outside the allowable bounds for local jurisdictions. They can (and certainly will) advise elected officials that they cannot even allow such a law to come up for a vote or referendum.

But neither did the railroad attorneys simply declare corporations persons and a few days later have the Supreme Court agree with them. Powerful as they were, it took them 15 years to get corporate personhood enshrined in the system.

We will need a sustained grassroots campaign to abolish corporate personhood. This campaign has already begun. We can win with education and action. We must try to pass laws abolishing corporate personhood in every local government and in every state. We must argue before the courts so that they become familiar with our ideas. We must pass referenda and then protest when our referenda are struck down by the corrupt judiciary. We must demand that elected representatives take a stand against corporate personhood if they want the votes of environmentalists, workers, and small business owners. And we must argue our points in the law schools where future generations of lawyers and judges are being trained.

Supreme Courts do not work in a vacuum. When the public cries out for an issue to be tried the Supreme Court loses its prestige, perhaps even its ability to govern the country, if it refuses to hear the issue. Even if, in the first case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of corporate personhood, if they at least gave an actual rationale to their madness, we would be able to tear it apart. We could focus on each point of their argument and bring suits appropriate to overruling each point.

The corporate media will not be on our side; we must communicate through our natural inter-connectivity as a grassroots campaign.

Other tactics are available besides education, legislation, and lawsuits. We can find corporations that will publicly and voluntarily renounce their corporate personhood. We can boycott corporations that lead the fight to retain corporate personhood. We can add civil disobedience and direct action to our campaign. If a State revokes corporate personhood, and the Supreme Court overturns them, we could refuse to participate in the federal government and simply govern ourselves through the State government until the Supreme Court sees the light.

If the Supreme Court, perhaps succumbing to public pressure, perhaps feeling that it can defy its corporate masters without any danger of a coup d'etat, finally does rule that corporations are not persons under the 14th amendment, our battle will not be over. Corporations will ask their wholly-owned state representatives and federal congressmen to give them personhood; perhaps they will even try to amend the Constitution. Well, we can amend the Constitution too, if we get no justice from the Supreme Court.

The struggle to abolish slavery was long and difficult. Even as abolitionists seemed to have won, by passing the 13th and 14th Amendments, counterattacks were being prepared. Corporations were pronounced persons in 1886, and in 1896 black people were declared to be sub-persons. In the 20th century we have seen the emergence of wage-slavery on a massive scale. We must ask ourselves: Are corporations to be our masters? Or are we to be free? What price are we willing to pay for our freedom, and what price do we pay now for our ongoing subjugation?

The Abolition of corporate personhood is part of the abolition of slavery. It is deeply connected to our need to save the earth from environmental destruction. This is not an optional campaign. Hard as it might be to fight now, it is better to fight now than in 20 years when corporations are even more entrenched and the average person has sunk even deeper into our modern style of slavery.


Frequently Asked Questions

What would be the immediate effect of revoking corporate personhood?

The only immediate effect of revoking corporate personhood, either at the state level or by the Supreme Court, would be to cause the legal status of corporations to revert back to that of artificial entities. (We should refuse to use the old terminology of artificial persons.) They could still be represented in courts by attorneys and would be subject to the law and taxation.

However, a whole body of Supreme Court decisions would have to be re-examined. The ability of States, when granting or renewing corporate charters, to restrict harmful activities of corporations would be greatly enhanced. New legislation to protect the environment, workers, small businesses, and consumers could be enacted without worrying that it would be struck down by the Supreme Court.


How would small businesses be affected?

Small, incorporated businesses would become artificial entities under the law. Most small businesses have gained no advantage from corporate personhood. Small businesses do not have the kind of money it takes to corrupt the political process that large corporations have. Small businesses would be better situated to protect their interests since laws favoring local businesses over national and international corporations would become legal.


If corporations can't lobby, how can they get laws that are fair to them?

Revoking corporate personhood would not immediately prevent corporations from lobbying, but it would allow laws to be passed (and enforced) that would restrict corporate lobbying and campaign contributions. If a state legislature or Congress is considering legislation that affects a particular industry they would be able to hold hearings and interrogate corporate representatives. If a corporation feels its needs a change in the laws, not for its own profits but in order to insure competition or public safety, it could petition the legislature to hold such a hearing.


What about past harms done by corporate personhood?

That is an interesting question with no certain answer. The Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws (laws that punish for deeds committed before the law was written), and properly so. However, revoking corporate personhood does not create an ex post facto law. It may be possible to force corporations to rectify damage they did to the environment during the era of corporate personhood.


Would the media lose its freedom of the press and free speech?

The ruling that corporate ads on political and social issues is free speech would be overturned, but the corporate media would continue to have freedom of the press. New legislation would be needed to restrict corporations to ownership of a single radio or TV station, newspaper, or magazine and to insure that non-corporate voices can be heard as well.


How will revoking corporate personhood affect non-profit corporations?

Non-profit corporations would continue to operate as the artificial entities that they are. However, it would be possible to restrict for-profit corporations from giving money to non-profit corporations that work for corporate interests rather than the public good.


Why don't unions have corporate personhood?

Unions don't have corporate personhood, even though they are also, legally, artificial entities, because we have a corrupt legal system and government run by corporations, which treat unions and working people as their enemies. Again, it is a situation similar to the period of time (1896 to 1954) when the Supreme Court refused to protect black people and just as arbitrarily gave full, indeed excessive, protection to corporations.


Why do you want to restrict the freedom of stockholders and people who work for corporations?

This is a trick question. Corporate lawyers and propagandists will try to get people who work for corporations to support corporate personhood by lying to them about the effects of revocation. In fact individuals, whether they work for corporations or not, will retain all of the freedoms recognized in the Constitution. In addition, individuals will have their freedom enhanced by not having their liberty overpowered by the rule of corporations. Only the artificial entity of the corporation will be redefined to have restrictions on its liberty.


Wouldn't we lose the power to tax and regulate corporations?

In the art of lying it is hard to surpass corporate lawyers. They have managed to place in the minds of law students, in the texts of some law books, and in the public mind, the idea that corporate personhood is necessary to bring corporations under rule of law. This is such a big lie it is amazing that they can tell it with a straight face. Corporations were taxed when they were artificial entities, long before they were granted personhood. They were more subject to the rule of law, not less, before personhood. Read up on the history; don't be fooled again.

- END -



Labor Organizing Must Challenge
Corporate Personhood and Rule

by Peter Kellman


 It is time for labor to go beyond signing contracts with corporations. We need to start challenging the very concept of corporate privilege and rule.


 The people of this country need to act on the understanding that we the people create corporations through our state legislatures. As the Pennsylvania Legislature declared in 1834; "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 the purpose the Legislature may deem most conducive for the common good." If we don't mold corporations, they will continue to mold us. They will mold us at the expense of our rights, our health, our democracy, our communities, our environment and most importantly our souls.


 For almost 80 years, labor's message has been primarily limited to protecting the interests of organized workers. But workers¹ rights don't exist in a vacuum. A fundamental law of physics can also be applied to politics: two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time. Workers' rights in this country have been relegated to a little space under a chair in the corner of a large room occupied by corporate "rights"-- in quotes because only people can have rights, and corporations are not people.


 People have rights, inalienable rights. Corporations have only the privileges we the people give them, because corporations are created by people through their legislatures. Corporations are not mentioned in the United States Constitution. Their constitutional privileges stem from Supreme Court cases, judge-made law. These judges are lawyers, appointed for life. In Santa Clara County v. the Southern Pacific Railroad Corporation (1886), the Supreme Court of the United States declared that "...equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations." The meaning of the Court was clear: corporations are persons under the law deserving "equal protection."


 Equal protection is a term used in the 14th Amendment to bring African-Americans under constitutional protection. The activist Court of 1886 bestowed "equal protection" on the corporation. This judicial conversion of people's rights to corporate privilege has done much to create the present situation. The price of each expansion of corporate privilege has been a contraction in workers¹ rights.


 Every day union people are confronted with this erosion of their rights in union organizing, internal governance, the political process and authority over union property such as pension funds. Look, for example, how the court's role diminishes the power of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to the detriment of workers' rights.


 OSHA was put in place by Congress in 1970. When you called up OSHA, it would send an investigator to your place of work. Corporate managers objected and went to court. They argued that the corporation should be afforded the same protection that flesh and blood people have under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches of their property. They said OSHA inspectors needed a search warrant to inspect corporate property!


 In 1978 ( Marshall v. Barlow) the Supreme Court of the United States agreed. So the right of individual people to be protected from the government arbitrarily entering a persons home was extended to corporations. The Court ruled that corporations have the privilege to require OSHA inspectors to get a search warrant before entering corporate property to investigate the complaints of a worker regarding her health and welfare. In essence, the Court interpreted the obligation of the government to "promote the general Welfare" of workers to be secondary to the liberty of a corporation to prevent entry of a government inspector. In this case, while the OSHA inspector is getting a warrant from a judge, the corporation can clean up its act and avoid being found in violation of the law.


 The OSHA case is but one example of how the granting of privileges to corporations diminishes the rights of workers. Another is the way corporate employers injected "employer free speech rights" into the process by which workers exercise their "right to associate" in choosing a union to represent them in the workplace.


 Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) required employer neutrality when it came to the self-organization of workers. That is, if an employer interfered in any way with a union organizing drive it was considered a violation of the Act. "The right of employees to choose their representatives when and as they wish is normally no more the affair of the employer than the right of the stockholders to choose directors is the affair of employees" stated the Board. However, with the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act ( termed " the slave labor act" by labor), corporate privilege was inserted into labor rights and corporations were granted "free speech" in the union certification process.


 The concept of "corporate free speech" in the union certification process may sound benign to the casual observer. However, if you are involved in a union organizing drive the brutality of the corporate employer's use of "free speech" to usurp the worker¹s right to "freedom of association" becomes apparent in many ways. One example is called the "captive audience meeting" where the employer assembles workers during working hours and harangues them on the negative consequences of unionization. The corporate spokesperson will inject the notion that if the workers choose a union the company might take that as a sign that their facility might not be a good one to invest in. The company spokesperson will point out that many union shops have been closed over the past couple of decades and the work moved to non-union areas of the country or offshore. The company uses "corporate free speech" to send a clear message: voting for a union means you are voting to close the facility. So much for a worker¹s right to "freely associate."


 The OSHA unreasonable search and the Taft-Hartley corporate free speech instances illustrate that workers cannot assert their fundamental rights unless they deny corporate privilege. Yet for years most of organized labor's activity has revolved around labor Political Action Committees (PACs) giving money to people running for Congress. The money was followed by union leaders trying to convince union members to vote for endorsed "labor candidates." Then, when the new congress took office, labor lobbyists encourage politicians to support labor issues. Labor¹s record isn't very good because the focus has been on the money given to politicians instead of rank- and-file organizing to confront corporate privilege.


 If labor abandoned its PACs and focused its energy on getting members involved in the process, think of the results. First, labor could develop organizations that would put resources into involving the membership in the political process rather than trying to influence politicians with money for their campaigns. Secondly, imagine the message that labor would be sending by voluntarily giving up that corrupting influence on our body politic, the Political Action Committee.


 The bottom line is that historically, managers and large stockholders of corporations have a leg up on the rest of us. This process has continued for over 100 years and unlike the union people of a century ago, we no longer understand the origins of corporate privilege. So it is time to take another look. And out of that look MUST come an agenda created by working people that promotes workers¹ rights and challenges the root of corporate privilege.

 - END -



 Democracy in the 20th century has been a half-finished thing.
In the 21st, it can grow to its full height

decentralizing & Democratizing Big bodies
by Shann Turnbull


The corporate concept was developed in 17th century England as a means for the Sovereign to raise money by privatising the exploitation and colonisation of foreign lands in perpetuity by granting monopoly rights. The East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company are better known examples. Beside exercising political control, corporations introduced, in the words of Professor Penrose: "unlimited, unknown and uncontrollable" foreign payments. Such costly drains of foreign exchange earning from excessive payments, or surplus profits, are inconsistent with the rationale of a market economy where profits are supposed to be limited by competition.


To avoid re-colonisation in the United States by foreign interests after its war of independence, the rights of perpetual succession of US chartered corporate bodies was eliminated to expose managers to becoming regularily accountable to their shareholders and expose shareholders to competition in identifying new investment opportunities. However, ambitious managers and seriously rich shareholders used their influence to persuade State Legislatures during the latter half of the 19th century for US corporations to exist forever. The first English companies Act was introduced at this time. This allowed investors the rights of perpetual succession for any activity without a Royal Charter or Act of Parliament and without any accountability to any stakeholder.


Because no corporation can exist without employees, customers, suppliers and its host communities I define these people as "strategic stakeholders". Investors are not strategic stakeholders because they are not required after the business becomes established as a viable self-financing enterprise. Over 99% of the money invested in stock exchanges is used in speculation to purchase existing shares, so less than 1% of stock exchange investment is used to finance business expansion. In some years, negative investment occurs as corporations pump money out through management buy-outs.


To make market economies more efficient, sustainable and accountable, governments should withdraw all rights of corporate perpetual succession to force companies to die like all living things. This would force their business activities to be spun off into human scale offspring enterprises democratically owned and controlled by their strategic stakeholders and so controlled by individuals in the local community and sovereign state. It would also force corporations to introduce internal divisions of power to create a rational basis for establishing trust and accountability with stakeholders. Involving stakeholders in ownership and control was recommended as way to make US corporations more competitive in the 1992 report by Professor Michael Porter to the US Council on Competitiveness. Some countries require companies to divide power into two or three boards. The internationally compeitive stakeholder controlled firms in Mondragon have power divided into five centres.


My book, Democratising the Wealth of Nations describes how tax incentives could be used to persuade both managers and investors to rewrite the DNA of corporations, as embedded in their constitutions, without the need to change corporation law. The following article also describes how to introduce "Stakeholder Governance" and explains how this would change the role of government to "imprinting" the DNA of our social institutions to minimize direct government interventions. By this means the alienating influences of both corporations and government could be reduced to enrich democracy on a highly decentralised ecologically sustainable basis. .



Building a Sustainable Fulfilling Stakeholder Democracy

Many Australians are demoralised by unemployment, alienated by insensitive bureaucracies, exploited by business, depressed by environmental degeneration, powerless to take control of their lives and cynical about the interest or the ability of politicians to make things better.   Stakeholder democracy would resolve these problems by reducing the size and power of bureaucracies in either the public or private sectors.  Citizens would obtain power to directly control their lives, neighbourhood and look after their environment.  As stakeholder democracy would create a universal minimum income, policies of full employment could be replaced with a policy of fulfilment in employment.


The opportunity for Australia to establish itself in the next 30 years as an ecologically sustainable stakeholder democracy to provide all citizens with personal fulfilment will require fundamental changes in the way we govern ourselves.  Beside significant changes to the Australian constitution, we need to also make substantial changes in our social institutions.  Instead of relying only on market forces and the authority systems found in public and private bureaucracies to govern our lives we should place far more reliance on family and community relationships or common interest voluntary associations.


As property rights and money significantly govern our lives, their distribution and characteristics require changing if we are to build an equitable and ecologically sustainable society. To preserve the integrity of our bio-regions, we need congruent political structures.  To maintain bio-regional capacity to yield nature's resources and preserve bio-diversity, we need matching diversity in: our economic institutions, the means of production and choice of consumption.  To achieve choice and diversity, we need to decentralise control of the economy. 


Decentralisation facilitates economic equity, efficiency and the ability to manage the information complexity of new technology.  New technology will in turn facilitate the development of a decentralised political economy.  Decentralised communities create the best defence against political exploitation by foreign interests.


Decentralised control of government departments and large private enterprises would improve their performance if stakeholders who have the most knowledge and interest in their operations were involved.  Operational stakeholders are individuals with some physical interaction with the organisation such as employees, clients, suppliers or members of the host community.


The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission is an illustration of decentralised stakeholder democracy in the public sector.  Seventeen of its 20 commissioners are elected by its clients.  In the private sector, Australian research has confirmed overseas studies which show that listed corporations with employee ownership out-perform those without stakeholder involvement.  Businesses totally controlled by workers and customers around the town of Mondragon in Spain have a far lower failure rate and greater profitability than investor owned firms.


Both the Australian and State governments should immediately introduce stakeholder participation in the public sector.  Privatisation provides an opportunity to create bench-marks of world's best practice for the private sector.  Australia could become a world leader and export the social technology of stakeholder democracy.


However, while stakeholder democracy could improve the performance of both public and private sector institutions, it may not improve economic equity.   Economic equity does not exist in Australia as less than 10% of the voters own more than 90% of the means of production.  This inequality is exacerbated by substantial foreign ownership.  Expanding local ownership would reinforce the benefits of stakeholder democracy by expanding the number of voters who obtained the right to control through ownership. 


It is only through local ownership that communities can obtain the power to control the nature and degree of exploitation of their environments.  Stakeholder ownership becomes a fundamental strategy for building sustainable societies.  Local ownership also maximises the incomes of voters by eliminating the export of economic values.  This avoids resource rich bio-regions becoming cash poor and allows each community to obtain the power to decide the trade-off between income and nurturing their environment.  Stakeholder ownership minimises dependency, social alienation and exploitation while maximising the quality of life consistent with sustaining the environment.


Most importantly, stakeholder ownership introduces a 'Third Way' (refer to figure) for distributing national income.  This new 'plumbing' creates a universal income to replace welfare.  As all citizens are consumers, they would all become stakeholders and obtain property rights to dividend income.  Dividends are the only way to distribute national income without work or welfare and taxation.  This Third Way allows the scope, size and cost of government to be substantially reduced.  It also increases incentives for expanding the breadth and value of private investment to increase dividends.  An 'expanded ownership' strategy provides a way to privatise the tax and welfare system!


The opportunity for reducing taxes and expanding investment should be tied to  expanding stakeholder ownership of investments.  Foreign investment should be attracted only on the basis that local ownership is increased over time.  The ownership transfer principle is illustrated by Build Own Operate and Transfer (BOOT) projects such as the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. 


No commercial investor requires ownership for ever to obtain the incentive to invest.   Commercial investments are made on the expectation of obtaining a return of and on money invested within the investor's 'time horizon' during the foreseeable future.  Any profits after the time horizon become surplus profits as they are not required to provide any investment incentive.  For most productive assets the foreseeable future is less than ten years unless there is some government support as found in infra-structure projects.  For most investments, dividends after ten years represent surplus profits.  Surplus profits are totally inconsistent with the economic or moral justification for a market economy.


The transfer of business ownership from investors to stakeholders after the investor's time horizon cannot, from the definition of a time horizon, produce any disincentive to invest.  Australian law limits the life of patents to 16 years and so the capture of surplus profits after this period.  Our government does not create a level playing field for investors by allowing them to capture surplus profits from corporations after 16 years.  It is also against the interest of Australian voters to have their income and spending power reduced through the export of surplus profits to overseas investors.  This now costs Australian voters billions of dollars, absorbs foreign exchange earnings, and exacerbates our overseas debt.


To minimise these costs, tax incentives are required to attract investors on the basis that ownership reverts to resident stakeholders over time.  Companies should be given the choice of obtaining the rights to surplus profits by paying tax at the existing level or having their tax rate reduced, on condition that, say 5% of the ownership were transferred each year without cost to their resident stakeholders.  In this way, participating corporations would become 100% resident owned within 20 years to terminate the export of surplus profits and introduce economic democracy.


A win-win result is created for shareholders, corporations, the government, the economy, citizens, management and other stakeholders.  Shareholders would obtain higher dividends from the reduction in tax and profit retention.  Corporations would continue and/or expand their operations through dividend re-investment into their "offspring" Ownership Transfer Corporations (OTCs).  Government revenues would increase as the tax base transferred from corporations to resident individuals with a higher tax rate.  At the same time, the distribution of income to stakeholders would reduce welfare entitlements and so the cost to government.  The economy would export less surplus profits and lose less foreign exchange for all citizens.  Management and employees would legitimate their control with part ownership shared with customers and all other stakeholders.   The surplus profits captured by stakeholders would help expand the economy with new spending and investment.


Succession of business operations, management and investment would be provided through the creation of offspring companies and the re-capitalisation of OTCs after 20 years.  To build an ecologically compatible society, the dynamic, time limited property rights inherent in OTCs also need to be incorporated in the structure of money and the way we own realty.  These features are inherent in negative interest rate money and Community Land Banks (CLBs) described in Building Sustainable Communities and a number of my other writings. 


CLBs would manage a contiguous precinct containing around 50,000 people and create a local government unit from which all higher levels of government would be based.  No higher level of government would undertake any function which would be better carried out at a lower level.  Health, education and welfare services would be provided through the CLB which would capture and re-distribute most economic values created by the community.  CLBs, rather than individuals, would pay tax and appoint the next level of government.  Economic and political power would trickle up rather than down this cascade system of governance.  The control of business, social infrastructure and land would be exercised directly by their stakeholders to introduce locally owned economic democracy.


Dividends from CLBs would underwrite a universal minimum income for all residents.  Unemployment would no longer be a concern as financially independent citizens competed to undertake meaningful unpaid activities.  Voluntary associations and communitarian activities would replace much of the alienating and dysfunctional market forces and hierarchies which currently govern and intrude into our lives.  Voluntary community activities would both occupy and support those without paid employment.  Dividends for all citizens would allow residents to develop their personal potential and achieve fulfilment without the need for paid employment or welfare.


This is the world I would like to create for our children and their descendants.


- END -




Full Democracy
by Brian Beedham


This survey argues that the next big change in human affairs will probably not be a matter of economics, or electronics, or military science; it will be a change in the supposedly humdrum world of politics. The coming century could see, at last, the full flowering of the idea of democracy.


The democratic system of politics, which first took widespread root in the 19th century, and then in the 20th century beat off the attacks of both fascism and communism, may in the 21st century realise that it has so far been living, for understandable reasons, in a state of arrested development, but that those reasons no longer apply; and so democracy can set about completing its growth.


 The places that now consider themselves to be democracies are with a handful of exceptions run by the process generally known as "representative" democracy. That qualifying adjective should make you sit up and think.


The starting-point of modern democracy is the belief that every sane adult is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs. Some people are richer than others, some are more intelligent, and nobody's interests are quite the same as anybody else's; but all are entitled to an equal voice in deciding how they'should be governed.


There is therefore something odd in the fact that in most democracies this voice is heard only once every few years, in elections in which voters choose a president or send their representatives to an elected parliament; and that between those elections, for periods of anything up to seven years, it is the presidents and parliamentarians who do all the deciding, while the rest of the democracy is expected to stand more or less quietly on one side, either nodding its head in irrelevant approval or frustrated disagreement. This is part-time democracy.


There exists in a few places a different way of doing it, called direct democracy. In this straight-forward version, the elected representatives are not left to their own devices in the periods between elections. The rest of the people can at any time call them to order, by cancelling some decision of the representatives with which most of the people do not agree or, sometimes, by insisting that the representatives do something they had no wish to do, or perhaps had never even thought about.


The machinery by which this is done is the referendum, a vote of the whole people. If democracy means rule by the people, democracy by referendum is a great deal closer to the original idea than the every-few-years voting which is all that most countries have.


 The test is: "who gives the order?"

It has to be the right kind of referendum, of course.


A referendum organised by the government, posing a question of the government's choice in the words the government finds most convenient, is seldom much help to democracy. Not many referendums are quite as blatant as the Chilean one of 1978. ("In the face of international aggression... I support President Pinochet in his defence of the dignity of Chile"). But General de Gaulle in the early 1960s plainly saw his de haut en bas sort of referendums as one means of making sure, as he put it, that "the entire indivisible authority of the state is confided to the president," meaning himself. Napoleon liked the technique, too. Even more modest politicians are unlikely to resist the temptation to put a spin on their referendums' wording: "Your government, having after careful thought decided that X is the right thing to do, asks you to agree..."


No, the proper referendum for democracy-strengthening purposes is the one which happens whether the government wants it or not. This can be arranged by constitutional requirement, an instruction in the constitution saying that certain kinds of change in the law must be submitted to a vote of the whole people.


Better, because this way is more flexible, an agreed number of voters can insist, by putting their signatures on a petition, that a law proposed by parliament must be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection.


Best of all, an agreed number of signatures can ensure that a brand-new idea for a law is put to the voters whatever the president or the parliament thinks about it.


Change calls for change

These are the channels through which power previously dammed up by the politicians can be made to flow into the hands of ordinary people. The politicians, naturally, present various arguments against doing anything of the sort. Some of their arguments do not stand up to a moment's examination. Others are more serious, and one in particular raises a genuine problem for direct democracy if a current weakness in the economies of Europe and America becomes a permanent fixture.


On the other hand, the defenders of the old-fashioned form of democracy have to face the fact that the world has changed radically since the time when it might have seemed plausible to think the voters' wishes needed to be filtered through the finer intelligence of those "representatives". The changes that have taken place since then have removed many of the differences between ordinary people and their representatives. They have also helped the people to discover that the representatives are not especially competent. As a result, what worked reasonably well in the 19th century will not work in the 21st century. Our children may find direct democracy more efficient, as well as more democratic, than the representative sort.


This is a far bigger change than any alteration in the way in which the representatives get elected -- proportional representation rather than the first- past-the-post system, alternative voting, and so on. These are just variations in the method by which power is delegated. Direct democracy keeps it undelegated. First, then, a picture of how direct democracy actually works, a matter about which most people have only the haziest idea.


It is still, admittedly, a pretty scattered phenomenon. Slightly over half of the states in the United States use it, some with fairly spectacular results, though it so far has no place in American politics at the federal level.


Australia has held almost go nationwide referendums, and its component states almost as many again (one in every six of which was about bar-closing times). Italy has recently become a serious exponent of direct democracy, and its referendums in 1991 and 1993 played a large part in breaking up the corrupt old Italian party system. The new light has flickered occasionally in Denmark, New Zealand, Ireland and a few other countries.


But the best country to look at is Switzerland, which virtually invented direct democracy, and uses it at every level of politics.


The next three sections describe how the Swiss manage to keep their politicians under control in the central government, in the country's 26 cantons, and in the 3,000-odd communities which make up the cantons.


 So long as it's clear who's in charge


Take Switzerland for both a model and a warning

The first lesson from Switzerland is that direct democracy is hard work The second is that, though it makes politicians less important than they like to be, it does not remove the need for an intelligent parliament; the system works most efficiently when politicians stop assuming they know best, but do their proper job with modest zeal.


This proper job, as with any parliament, is to sit down, discuss the problems of the day, and propose solutions for them. The difference in a direct democracy is that the parliament's solutions are not necessarily the last word in the matter until the next general election, which may be years away. In Switzerland, 50,000 signatures on a petition, a bit over 1% of the current total of qualified voters, are enough to haul any new countrywide law before a vote of the whole people. Twice that number of signatures will put a brand-new idea for a law to the people's decision, even if parliament wants nothing to do with it. Because of a Swiss quirk, new federal laws coming from outside parliament have to take the form of amendments to the constitution, with the result that Switzerland's constitution has come to look like an over-stuffed cupboard; but there is no reason why the same process could not put such new laws on the ordinary statute-book, as happens in many American states and in most of Switzerland's own cantons.


From the ridiculous to the sublime

In all, almost 450 nationwide questions have gone to a vote of the whole Swiss people since the current system got going 130 years ago -- over half the world's all-time tally of national referendums, and overwhelmingly most of the genuine, non-Napoleonic, sort. At three and a half a year, that may not sound all that much. But the pace has been accelerating lately; and, when you add the votes in which the Swiss decide what to do in their cantons and communities, it means that three or four times a year they are invited to read in the meticulously impartial documents sent to them through the post, or watch on television, or pull off the Internet, the arguments for and against up to a dozen assorted issues, and give their decisions.


That is hard work. Those decisions, at the all-Swiss level, range from the tiny to the huge. Last March the country's voters solemnly decided to let the French-speaking Catholics of the hamlet of Vellerat (population 71) leave the mainly Protestant and German-speaking canton of Bern to join the French-Catholic canton of Jura, which had itself for the same reason been allowed to break away from Bern in 1978. In September I993 the Swiss rather belatedly gave themselves a day off work every August 1st, the anniversary of Switzerland's birth a mere 705 years ago.


Such things bring a condescending smile to the foreigner's face. But, a few months before the holiday vote, a band of signature-collectors who wanted to stop the Swiss air force buying any new fighter aircraft for the rest of the century, and to reduce the number of bases the army is,allowed to use, had got within a few percentage points of winning their case.


And six months before that the voters, against the advice of most of their leaders, had momentously decided not to join the European Economic Area, lest even this small step to Euro-cohesion should eventually enmesh them in a European political union most of them do not want.


It should not be deduced from that act of defiance, however, that direct democracy spells chaos for Switzerland. In return for the parliament's acceptance that the people are the boss, the people are quite often willing to heed the parliament's views.
It's not a war - outcome of Swiss referendums, 1866-1993



Total Number



Percentage successful






Parliamentary laws and decrees brought to the people's vote





New laws proposed from outside parliament





Parliamentary counter-proposals





Constitutional amendments proposed by parliament





 Source:"Referendums around the world", edited by David Butler and Austin Ramney


Only a handful of the measures that could under Swiss rules have been summoned to a referendum in the past 130 years actually have been summoned. Of the laws written by parliament which have been called before the people's judgment, half have then been given the people's okay (see the table below). Nine-tenths of the new legislation proposed by the signature-collecting process has been turned down by the voters. When parliament puts up a counter-proposal, it is accepted two times out of three. If anything, people and parliament get on better these days than they used to; only about a quarter of the acts of parliament put to the referendum since 1960 have been rejected, compared with well over a half 100 years ago.


Still, a certain weariness has crept into the proceedings lately. The turnout for referendums, once pretty regularly 50-60%, or more, went into a decline in the 1950s. Despite a few moments of big-issue excitement, it has been floating around the 40% mark for most of the 1980s and 1990s. The people of Switzerland have lost some of their enthusiasm for voting, compared with people in most of the big representative democracies.


 It does you good, in moderation

This almost certainly does not mean that the Swiss no longer think direct democracy a good idea. The much likelier explanation is that, as the population has grown (and since women won the vote in 1971), the number of signatures needed to summon a referendum has become a much smaller proportion of the total number of voters than it used to be. This means not only that there is a lot more voting to do -- ten nationwide votes a year on average in the 1990s, compared with three in the 1920s and 1930s -- but also that a fair number of referendums are the work of small and excited groups of enthusiasts. This turns people off and some of them stop voting. The.politicians thereupon explain that direct democracy is dying, so they themselves should be put back in charge.


This can be remedied when the Swiss overhaul their voting system, as they plan to do in the next few years, especially if they look at what some of their more adventurous cantons are already doing; see the next article. If the number of signatures needed to call a referendum is raised to something nearer its old share of the electorate, there will be fewer referendums. If the procedure for collecting signatures is made a bit sterner (some Swiss super-markets will let you do it at the check-out counter), maybe more of the referendums that do take place will be seriously thought through. The voting turnout will then presumably go up again; the fear that referendums are becoming the voice of excited minorities will subside; and the superior look on the politicians' faces will duly disappear.


There is still a solid basis for partnership between the politicians of Switzerland and the people with their special power. The voters are content to let the politicians do most of the routine work of politics, and to listen to their advice on many complicated issues. The politicians, for their part, have learned that ordinary people are often surprisingly (to politicians) shrewd in their decisions.


In the 1970s, the voters refused to be frightened by anti-immigrant propaganda into sending home most of the foreigners working in Switzerland (and this December they declined to tighten the rules against asylum-seekers). In the 1980s and 1990s, they were persuaded to dig into their pockets to start paying value-added tax. And not long ago there was a splendid moment after most of the political class had shaken a furious fist at the voters' refusal to accept an anti-urban-sprawl planning law. The politicians then discovered that just as much sprawl could be prevented, more cheaply, by a different scheme. Politicians and people may occasionally snarl at each other, but they have learned how to work together. The Swiss will go on doing democracy their direct way.


 (Part 2)                  Here is how it can be done better


Some of the Swiss do it even more directly


If this does not sound quite like the way your own national government operates, take a look at the next level down in Swiss politics. The country's 26 cantons (six of them technically "half-cantons", but for all practical purposes separate entities) are powerful bodies. They raise and spend almost as much tax money as the central government does -- and a larger share, let envious over-centralized countries note, than half a century ago, when the central government swept up more of the total tax take than it does now. The cantons control all of the country's police forces, virtually all of its education system, much of the law-making power over each canton's economy, and a large chunk of Swiss welfare spending. And these sturdy bodies are, in the matter of direct democracy, generally even more people-friendly than the central government. Here are three examples.


The biggest canton, Zurich, with one in six of the country's voters, gives to these voters a considerably wider range of supervision over the cantonal government than they have over the central one. Any law emerging from Zurich's parliament, or any expenditure of more than SFr 2m ($1.6m) a year, automatically has to go for public approval. The number of signatures needed to bring smaller matters to a referendum, or to start a new law on its way, is an even smaller proportion of the electorate than at the federal level. This means that Zurichers vote on about 16 cantonal subjects a year, ranging in recent months from the provision of SFr 873m for the expansion of Zurich airport (approved) to an indignant signature-backed demand for "separation of church and state" (defeated). Indeed, Zurich has one voting device that goes beyond anything on offer in any other canton. Under its Einzelinitiative, the "single initiative", one solitary signature on a petition can be enough to put a proposal for a change in the law to the people's vote, provided the signatory gets some backing in parliament. This may sound like democracy gone daft. Yet in March 1995 one Albert Jorger was able to bring about by this device a sensible (and voter-constraining) change in the way Zurich's schools are run. Before, the teachers had been appointed by each community's voters, and this had led to some odd choices. Thanks to Mr Jorger and his signature, they are now picked by a professional selection committee (itself, to be sure, chosen by the voters). Most people reckon this has improved things. One part of the machinery of direct democracy has corrected another part's excess.


Not too often, please

In the second-biggest canton, Bern, they have decided that the correction process needs to go further. The Bernese are a slow-speaking, circumspect lot, not given to dramatic action, but in 1995 they made some radical changes to the way their canton's direct democracy works. They had come to the conclusion that they wanted not to have to vote so often, but when they did vote they wanted to be able to aim their votes with greater precision.


The voting-less-often part has been achieved by abolishing most of the mandatory referendums in which petty issues had to be brought to the people's vote whether or not anybody asked, and by stiffening the signature-collection requirement for optional referendums. Other cantons, and the central government, may decide to imitate the Bernese in this; it seems a sound way of slowing down the now rather over-hectic Swiss referendum tempo.


Bern's most adventurous innovations, however, are those in the precision-aiming category. The voters of Bern can now make up their minds about the general shape of a new law without having to wait until it has been drafted and enacted by parliament; this December, for instance, they were able to choose between five different ways of reorganising the canton's hospital system. They can also pass judgment not only on proposed new laws but also on their government's bigger administrative decisions. Since such decisions -- the building of a new reservoir, say, or the expansion of an airport -- can arouse a lot more passion than many minor laws, the extension of direct democracy into this field should encourage more people to vote.


Both of these things seem good ideas. There is more doubt about the new Bernese constitution's other innovation, which is to let people vote not merely yes or no to a proposed law but to offer amendments to it, which the voters can then decide upon. There is a certain amount of grave head-wagging that this is going to produce laws which contradict themselves. The Bernese will find out, on behalf of the rest of the Swiss, whether this is so.


The face-to-face way

The other way of running a canton, of course, is not to bother about putting crosses on pieces of paper but to turn out once a year in the town square, call out your opinions, and stick your hand up to vote. Glarus, up in the mountains of eastern Switzerland, is one of five small cantons that make their laws by the Landsgemeinde, the cantonal get-together. Its 24,700 voters employ the usual paper-consuming method for choosing the canton's seven-member government and 80-member parliament (and for doing their bit in federal referendums) but when it comes to the serious business they can assemble on a Sunday in spring to do the canton's law-making, elect their judges, set their income tax and decide about any cantonal spending over SFr 500.000 ($400,000) in the good old face-to-face way.


Last May about 6,000 of them turned out -- almost exactly the same number, as it happens, as the voters in the direct democracy of ancient Athens, but in Glarus a third of them were women -- and, having sworn the formal oath to do the right thing, settled down to an 18-item agenda. It went on for about four hours; most people stayed on their feet, there being few benches in the square, and some slipped off for a quick drink round the corner during the proceedings. It was decided to build a new hospital and, more reluctantly, a new roundabout on the main road at Nafels, a bit to the south of Glarus town. A proposal to stop schooling on Saturdays was rejected, and there was a tremendous row about limits on hunting. All in all, those ancient Athenians would have felt quite at home in Glarus town square, except for the sight of women voting.


As this suggests, direct democracy at the cantonal level is still in reasonably good shape. It is a puzzle that the French-Swiss cantons make less use of the referendum than the German-Swiss cantons do, or Italian-Swiss Ticino; perhaps, like their cousins across the border in France itself, they are more willing to tip their cap to the wisdom of those in authority. The Swiss should also take note that the turnout for cantonal referendums, as for federal ones, is less than it ought to be: only a quarter of Glarus's voters came to that stirring Sunday morning last May. But these things will doubtless come right if the cantons absorb the lesson the central government is slowly learning. The people want to have the big decisions in their hands, but they do not want to spend so much time on fiddling ones.


Life at the democratic roots

The places where you realise what a sense of community means

Kilchberg, a community of 7,000 people, sits on a hillside that slopes sharply down to the southern shore of the lake of Zurich. It would not be fair to call it a typical specimen of the 3,000-odd Gemeinden (communes in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, comuni in the Italian part) which are the foundation of the country's politics. Most of its people are comfortably well-off many of them refugees from the higher taxes of the next-door community, the city of Zurich; less than a quarter are native citizens of Kilchberg. Only about 100 of the 7,000 are unemployed. From the graveyard of the Reformed church at the top of the hill the mortal remains of Thomas Mann and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer look out on a summer's day at the silent snows of the mountains of eastern Switzerland.


Still, Kilchberg is a fair example of how Swiss politics works at the roots. Its 7,000 people hold all power not specifically allocated to the federal or the cantonal government. It raises its own income and property taxes (in all, the communities dispose of more than a quarter of all Swiss tax money, not all that much less than the federal government). It runs schooling up to the age of 16, including building the schools and choosing the committee that appoints the teachers. It distributes up to a monthly SFr 3,000 ($2,370) per person to its poor -- admittedly not very numerous in Kilchberg -- as well as providing help to a handful of foreign refugees, mainly from Sri Lanka. It has its own volunteer fire brigade; two police boats on the lake; a couple of car-borne policemen who keep an eye on illegal parking and look after the lost-and-found office; an old people's home; and a community farm where, if the fruit-seller is out for lunch, you just leave your money on the counter.


The government of this busily innocent little place consists of a seven- person council, elected by the people, which supervises a modest staff of professionals (unlike some Gemeinden, whose part-time workers combine their work for the community with their ordinary jobs). The real power, however, is wielded by the voters who assemble up to four times a year to listen to the council's recommendations and decide whether it is handling things properly. It is at these meetings that tax levels are fixed, new laws are passed, the community's accounts are inspected, building regulations are decided (a crowd-drawer, this) and anything else anybody wants to bring up can be discussed.


Voting is by show of hands, but there can be a cross-on-paper vote if a third of those present demand it; they never have, so far. If somebody feels the council's ideas are inadequate, he or she can by collecting 15 signatures insist on putting a proposed new law to the voters; it has not happened for a decade. A single person can demand some specific other action from the council, with the right, if the council does not agree, to take the matter up to the cantonal and federal levels. Only one such demand has been made in the past ten years, for the community's farm to use organic farming methods. This smooth record suggests that Karl Kobelt, president of the council for these ten years, is a model politician of the Swiss school.


The cloud on the horizon is the fact that no more than about 400 people generally turn up at these meetings, or maybe 700 when something especially exciting is on the menu. As a percentage of Kilchberg's 4,000 or so qualified voters, that is worryingly smaller even than the quarter of the electorate the canton of Glarus brings out for its annual assembly. Nothing seems to have gone badly wrong as a result; if it had, the protests would have been heard by now. But something odd is happening when a system designed to deploy the power of the people turns out to be actually using only a tenth of that people-power.


Dealing with this problem is harder for the little units of Swiss politics, which like to bring their people together for a face-to-face talk about everything, than it is for the bigger units. The big ones, which call their people to referendums only on selected issues, and usually do the voting by post, can reduce the voting burden fairly easily -- fewer mandatory referendums, stiff'er signature-collecting rules, and so on. That will probably get more people to vote. To achieve the same result, unless their people rediscover a more general willingness to abandon the television set and assemble for a meeting every few months, the smaller cantons and communities may eventually have to renounce the intimacy of their talk-about-anything get-togethers and turn to more prosaic methods of selective voting. It will be a sad loss of a vivacious piece of old-fashioned politics. But if that is the price of keeping the 21st century's people at their democratic work, so be it.


 (Part 3)              The arguments that won't wash

AH YES, the objectors say at once: perhaps the Swiss can do these things, but that does not mean anybody else can; the Swiss, you see, have a unique gift for direct democracy. To which the answer is: come off it. There is nothing special about the Swiss. They are a perfectly ordinary mixture of west-central European peoples (and the fact that they are a mixture makes it harder, not easier, for them to run their country in this way). They too yawn at the blearier aspects of politics; the turnout goes down with a bump when there is nothing of particular interest on the referendum list. They too get sudden bees in the bonnet; it was the Swiss, in 1989, who asked themselves whether they should abolish their army, and found 35.6% of themselves saying yes. Here are no models of zealously dutiful civic rectitude.


If the Swiss can manage this richer form of democracy, it is not because they have always had it. There were some fine early examples of pastoral democracy high up in the Alps in the later Middle Ages. But other parts of the world have had similar things -- the town meetings of New England, for instance -- and it was not until the 1860s that a countrywide Swiss system of direct democracy got itself organised. Nor is the explanation that the Swiss are an especially sophisticated lot. They are now the second-richest people in Europe, and give themselves a good education; but for the first 60 or 70 years of their democratic experiment -- its most vigorous period, many would say -- they were largely rural, not very well-to-do, and as politically unpolished as any other people of the time.


Least of all should the Switzerland-is-special school be allowed to get away with the argument that Switzerland can do it because "it is such a small country, where they all know each other." That is half-true of the smallest cantons and communities, but nobody who knows the place would say it was true of Switzerland as a whole.


In a country with nearly 6 million citizens and four different languages, the ordinary voter in Zurich knows no more about the political thought-processes of the ordinary voter in Geneva or Lugano than the New Yorker does about the San Franciscan's, the Londoner about the Glaswegian's. The German-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country, in particular, are quite often at angry odds with each other: the 1992 vote about membership of the European Economic Area is only one recent example. The Swiss are not a natural unity, born to chat things over easily on referendum day. Do not believe that the god of direct democracy has selected them as his chosen people.


Remember, politics is politics

The other attempts to demolish the idea of direct democracy are, with one exception, no more convincing than the notion that only the Swiss can do it. Some people argue, for instance, that letting all the voters share in the decision-making process is bound to be inefficient, because it defies the division-of-labour principle.


In the world of economics, these people explain, it would never be suggested that everybody should grow his own food, make his own shoes and construct his own lap-top computer. The sensible way to organise things is to let people specialise, so that each thing is produced by those who do it best; the consumer then has a far wider range of goods to choose from, much more cheaply. So, in the world of politics, if the specialists of the political class are allowed to get on with the complex business of decision-making, the ordinary chap will end up much better off.


To this the reply is: sorry, but politics is different from economics. The world of politics is not divided between consumers and producers (unless you agree with people like Lenin and Stalin, who thought they knew exactly what needed to be done to create a happy world, and so decreed that their Politburo should be the sole producer of political decisions).


In democratic politics, everyone is a consumer, and by the same token everyone can join in the production process. There is no evidence that widening the production process to let ordinary people take part in decision-making in the years between parliamentary elections leads to a narrowing of the range of goods on offer, or increases their price.


On the contrary: direct democracy seems to expand the choice, most of the newly recruited producers are happy to do their work for free, and with luck the members of parliament will cost less.


A variation of this attempt to confuse politics with economics is an argument, also used by adversaries of direct democracy, which confuses politics with science. You would not entrust your health to the advice of your next-door neighbour, runs this argument, or ask the other passengers on the train taking you to work how to set about building a nuclear reactor. You go to a doctor or a physicist, somebody trained in the science of medicine or atomic energy. So in politics you should turn to somebody who understands the science of politics -- namely, your elected representative.


But politics is not a science, either. Parts of it require some detailed knowledge of various subjects, not least economics, and this is one reason why it makes sense to keep parliaments in existence, places where people are paid to burrow into such details. But the heart of democratic politics is the process of finding out which of the various possible solutions to a problem is the one most people think the best. The quickest and most efficient way of finding that out, surely, is to ask the people directly, rather than leaving the choice to a handful of parliamentarians who may well discover at the next parliamentary election that most people think they got it wrong.


The claim that there is such a thing as a science of politics is deeply revealing. Those who make it are in fact claiming that the policies they think best are the ones that should be followed, even if most of the rest of the country disagrees, because the rest of the country is "scientifically" wrong. That is not unlike the sort of thing you hear from conservative mullahs in the Muslim world, who say that since politics is a branch of religion only the "scholars of Islam" are equipped to puzzle out God's political intentions. Such a claim is not just anti-direct-democracy; it is anti-democracy.


The distorting effect of money

There is a bit more substance, but only a bit, in the worry that money can shape the outcome of a referendum. When a question is put to a vote of the whole people, those whose interests are affected naturally want the vote to go their way, and are prepared to spend a lot of money on the signature-collecting and the propagandising which are designed to bring that about.


Studies in both Switzerland and those American states which use direct democracy suggest a pretty frequent link between the amount of money spent and the result of the referendum. The link is by no means always there. The Swiss took their decision about Europe even though most of the big money had been trying to persuade them to vote the other way.


The voters of several American states have passed anti-gun legislation despite the gun- lobby's opposition. Italy's voters helped to torpedo the country's old political system in 1991 and 1993 while the system's two main parties watched ashen-faced. But the connection between money and votes seems persistent enough to justify concern.


There are two reasons, however, for thinking it does not decisively tilt the argument between direct and representative democracy. One is the fact that the voters can if they wish set limits on the amount of propaganda money spent at referendum time.


The Swiss have not done so, because the sums spent in Switzerland are (by American standards) still fairly small, and the Swiss do not think they have ever produced a result outrageous enough to require a remedy. The voters of California, on the other hand, in 1974 overruled the resistance of special-interest groups to pass Proposition 9, which set some firm spending limits. Proposition 9 was then squashed by the federal Supreme Court in the name of the constitutional right to freedom of speech. This November the voters of Montana had a shot at doing the same thing in a way that might escape the Supreme Court's veto. In a direct democracy, the voters can set the rules under which referendums take place, so long as these rules respect the country's constitution -- which, in a direct democracy, the voters can themselves change. The other reason for not letting the money issue decide the argument is that money-power almost certainly distorts the old sort of democracy more than it does the new sort.


In a direct democracy, the lobbyists have to aim their money at the whole body of voters. Since most of the money is spent on public propaganda campaigns, it is hard for them to conceal what they are up to. In a representative democracy, however, the lobbyists' chief target is much smaller -- just the few hundred members of the government and the legislature -- and so it is much easier for them to keep what they are doing secret. They have at their disposal a whole armory of devices ranging from the quietly arranged free holiday in a sunny corner of the world "for information-gathering purposes" through cash-with-a-wink for saying the right things in parliament to straight bribery for getting your government to order the bribe-giver's make of aeroplane.


There have been too many recent examples of all those things all over the democratic world. This is why, when somebody says he is worried about the influence of money over referendums, the correct retort is: "At least you can't bribe the whole people."


Most of the other criticisms of direct democracy are, like this one, equally applicable to the rival version. Does a new referendum designed to solve one problem sometimes carelessly create a new problem? To be sure it does; and the same applies to many an act of parliament. Are some referendums obscurely worded? Yes, and so is some of the work of professional draftsmen; think of the Maastricht treaty. Can the man in the street be counted on to understand tricky economic issues? No, but neither, quite often, can the supposed experts; recall Britain's doomed plunge into Europe's exchange-rate mechanism. None of these objections is fatal. There remains, however, one genuine cause for concern about the way direct democracy works.


 The underclass test

The challenge the voters must not duck

The serious worry is whether deciding things by a vote of the whole people is the best way of looking after an unhappy minority of the people. The worry grows when one particular bunch of unhappy people looks like getting stuck indefinitely at the bottom of the pile. The advocates of direct democracy have to ask themselves whether their preferred form of government can cope with the emergence of a permanent underclass.


Of course, unhappy minorities are a problem in any sort of democracy. Whether they are defined by the smallness of their income or the colour of their skin, they tend to vote less frequently than other people do. In a representative democracy, they therefore elect less than their fair share of the members of parliament, and so their complaints have less chance of getting listened to.


But such people may fare even worse in a referendum-based system. Statistics from all over the world show that participation in referendums is almost always a bit lower than it is in candidate-choosing elections. The lower the turnout, the worse the minorities perform. Studies in Switzerland and America make it pretty clear that, as turnout declines, the proportion of the vote cast by the poor and unschooled drops even further and the proportion cast by the better-off and better-educated grows still bigger. Referendums are by several percentage points a more middle-class way of doing things than parliamentary elections.


To this must be added the different ways in which the two kinds of democracy tackle the issues facing them. In a parliamentary system, each of the rival parties offers a package of proposals to the voters at election-time. The party that wants to do something to help an unhappy minority tucks its proposal for doing so inside the package. Voters who do not care for that particular scheme may nevertheless accept it if they like the rest of the bundle. In a direct democracy, on the other hand, the proposal can be brought to a separate vote, all by itself. It requires no leap of the imagination to suspect that a minority-helping project which puts up taxes will find that sort of vote a bigger obstacle.


 The need to vote unselfishly

The difference may not matter hugely when the unhappy minorities are fluid groups, changing their composition from decade to decade. This is what happens when a flourishing economy and an efficient education system are regularly converting large numbers of poor people's children into new members of the middle class, and when racial tolerance is holding open the gates of the ghetto. The difference matters much more when the division between groups grows more rigid. That may be happening now. In many parts of Europe and America, the bottom layer of society seems to be in danger of getting stuck at the bottom for ever.


These are the people who have not been bright enough or energetic enough or lucky enough to escape from the conditions into which they were born, and join the newly prosperous majority. The end-of-the-20th-century economy no longer provides them with the simple manual work their predecessors were generally able to scrape by on. The breakdown of marriage, and the disproportionately large increase within this group in the number of single-parent children, mean that most of these children are unlikely to grow up in a way that will help them to do any better. An unemployment rate of over 10% of the current figure in most of the European Union, reduces their chances still further. Here is the possibility of a permanent underclass. It is a grisly thought. If those trapped in the underclass have access to the chemistry of consciousness-changing, the instruments of violence and easy means of transport, it gets even grislier.


This is the challenge to supporters of government by referendum: they have to demonstrate that their system would not turn its back on the underclass. They can comfort themselves with the thought that legislation designed to prevent a social explosion is unlikely to come very frequently to a vote of the whole people. If Switzerland's experience is anything to go by, this is one of those complicated subjects that the voters are on the whole willing to leave to parliament. They do not often summon such legislation to a referendum, or insist on proposing an underclass-bashing law of their own.


Yet it is clear that, if direct democracy spreads, there will be people who want to use it for such purposes. The awkward question must then be asked. Will the ordinary voter, confronted with a referendum paper which says to him, "The proposal is to raise your tax in order to help the underclass: vote yes or no", do the right thing?


The answer of direct democracy's true believers is: yes, he probably will. When people have to deal directly with an issue like this, the odds are that a mixture of compassion for those trapped in the underclass and fear for their own comfort and safety if nothing is done to solve the problem will persuade them to put their mark in the right square on the voting paper. The purpose of this newer sort of democracy, after all, is not only to save ordinary people from the errors of their representatives. It is also to encourage ordinary people to grow more responsible, and to shoulder more of the burden of government themselves -- in short, to become better citizens. That is the optimist's answer, anyway; and it is not plucked out of thin air. Read on.


 (Part 4)              Why the time for change has come

In an equal and electronic world,
the unequal old steam-engine won't work

The argument for direct democracy is not just a matter of beating off the mostly unconvincing objections its opponents throw at it. The bigger part of the argument consists of pointing out that the world has changed hugely since the other version of democracy, the representative sort, first came into widespread use in the 19th century. These changes make the vote-every-few-years brand look increasingly unworkable, and strengthen the claim to workability of the emerging alternative.


The idea that government by the people really meant no more than letting the people from time to time elect a legislature and perhaps a president who between elections would take all the real decisions may have had a certain plausibility in the 19th century and the first part of the present century. Even then, the Swiss were unpersuaded: they got their referendum system going 130 years ago, and it worked fine. But for most people in those days it seemed important that only a small part of the population had a decent education, plenty of money, ready access to information about public affairs, and enough leisure to put that information to responsible use. Let this minority therefore provide the political class which would do most of the serious work, while the poor and relatively ignorant majority contented itself with the occasional broad choice between This Lot and That Lot.


That was the reasoning behind the idea of representative democracy. It was an over-simplification even in the 19th century, in the judgment of men as different as a conservative novelist like Anthony Trollope and Keir Hardie, the founder of Britain's Independent Labour Party. By the end of the 20th century, it has become untenable.


The table on this page illustrates the economic and social upheaval the richer part of the world has gone through in the past 100 years. A century ago, the average Briton and American produced an annual GDP of only $4,200 and $4,500 respectively at today's prices; today, the Briton's great-grandchild produces more than four times that much and the American's almost six times (and the growth in many other countries, such as Italy, has been even faster). A century ago, few people got a proper education: only one child in France, for instance, went to a secondary school compared with every 60 who do so now, and only one went on to college or university for every 50 who do now; and the spread of learning has been even more spectacular in, for instance, Japan.


All is changed

 GDP per head, $*












 United States




Educational enrolLments





























 Savings per head, $*






 United States




Working hours per week, manufacturing









 United States




Internet-number of connected networks**



 United States







*1995 prices and exchange rates

**Separate groups of linked computers that can share information

+ 1992 ++ Projected

Sources: The Economist, ILO; Internet Society; national statistics; OECD


These things have enabled the average citizen of the rich world to save much more money than he could even 60 years ago, and thus to expand his ownership of shares, housing, cars or whatever. Meanwhile the amount of time he has to spend at work has considerably diminished, leaving him more time to take an intelligent interest, if he wishes, in the way his country is governed. To do that he has at his disposal not only the enormous expansion of newspaper circulation that began a century ago but also the 20th-century innovations of mass radio and television and, the latest arrival, a 34,000% increase in the number of networks linked to the Internet in the United States and a 27,000% increase elsewhere in the world in the past eight years alone.


This is a revolution,and it would be extraordinary if such a revolution did not rattle the foundations of a political system based on pre-revolutionary assumptions. The rattling of representative democracy would presumably have started years ago if it had not been delayed by the cold war. The self-discipline required by the struggle against communism made the democracies reluctant to think of changing their own political arrangements; so the half-way-house sort of democracy erected in the 19th century lasted longer than it would otherwise have done. But once the cold war had loosened its grip, things were bound to start changing.


As good as you are

One sign of the change is already clear. By the late 1990s, many people have come to realise that they are as well (or as badly) equipped to make most political decisions as the men and women they elect to represent them. They have as much education, nearly as much access to the needed information, and as big a stake in getting the judgments right; if they give a question their attention, they can usually offer a sensible answer. The longer the past half-century's economic expansion can be prolonged, and the wider the information revolution extends its embrace, the larger the proportion of the population of which all that will be true.


The ordinary man no longer feels, as his grand-father felt, that his representative is a genuinely superior fellow. Indeed, the huge new flow of information that has become available to ordinary people by grace of electronics in the second half of the 20th century has made it painfully clear that those representatives are not at all superior. They are as capable of laziness, stupidity and dishonesty as the ordinary man. That may have been true a century ago, too. The difference is that then it was not generally realised; now it is.


Even a dozen years ago, it was hard to imagine that Italy's whole parliamentary edifice was about to be brought crashing to the ground because its corruption had become public knowledge and Italians were horrified by what they had discovered. At the end of 1996, Belgians are wondering whether something almost as bad may have happened in their country in the past few years. These are extreme cases. But in many other countries the voters no longer extend to the politicians as much trust and respect as they once did. Opinion polls in America, Britain, France and elsewhere all make the same point: people nowadays look on their representatives with a disillusioned eye. That is the result of the past century's economic and social equalisation, and of the fact that a richer and better-educated electorate can now keep a pretty constant eye on most of its politicians' activities.


The end of the cold war has brought another change, and this one too suggests that democracy needs modernising. The disappearance of communism has greatly reduced the ideological content of politics. The shaping power of ideas has not entirely vanished, of course. A recognisable post- cold-war frontier is starting to emerge between a new left and a new right in the debate about the competing claims of efficiency and compassion, the proper functions of government, the best economic way to pay for sickness and old age, and so on. But these are nuances compared with the thunderous old battles between socialism and individualism, between the command economy and the free market. This dilution of ideology has two consequences.


One is that the agenda of politics, the list of decisions to be taken, has grown much more prosaic. The choice at voting time is no longer even in theory a choice between two radically different bodies of ideas. It is a series of selections among relatively small differences of opinion about the details of economic management and fairly minor disagreements over the amount and direction of public spending. This is not the sort of thing that is best presented to the voters once every few years in the parliamentary-election programmes of competing parties. That is like being told to do your supermarket shopping in one half-hour trip every half-decade. The modern agenda of politics is much better handled by the regular routine of visits to the voting centre that is offered by direct democracy.


The other effect of the fading of ideology is that political parties are losing their old power. This is important because parties -- the things you vote for or against on parliamentary-election day, and the building-blocks of the governments thus created -- are keen supporters of representative democracy. Their existence largely depends on it. They therefore oppose direct democracy. In post-cold-war politics, however, the parties can no longer claim to be carry- ing banners inscribed with the name of a great idea that unites a whole segment of humanity. As the banners are lowered, the loyalties that used to hold the parties together begin to dissolve; people move more readily from one party to another; parties become woollier, weaker things. As they lose their old clout, they can no longer put up so much resistance to the modernisation of democracy.


These days, voters do not need a special class of people called politicians to interpret their wishes; they have learned that politicians are a rather unreliable lot; and the trade unions into which the politicians have organised themselves, the political parties, are growing feebler. Between them, those three facts can push open the door to direct democracy.


The end of a dividing line

Rulers and ruled no longer

It would be wrong, however, to rest the case for direct democracy on utilitarian grounds alone. To vote directly on the issues of the day is more efficient than to delegate the issue-deciding job to a bunch of representatives, because it almost certainly provides more people with more of what they want at little or no extra cost. But it also does something else; By giving ordinary people more responsibility, it encourages them to behave more responsibly; by giving them more power, it teaches them how to exercise power. It makes them better citizens, and to that extent better human beings. It improves the producers as well as the product.


Getting more out of democracy, and out of the people who are supposed to be the operators of democracy, was bound to take time. For most of history most of mankind has been poor, ignorant and timid. It has not been hard for the minority had some money, a sword and the rudiments of knowledge to persuade everybody else (and often themselves too) that they were the only ones fitted to take the decisions of government.


The turning-point came with the Reformation, which declared that every individual is directly responsible to God for his own life, and does not need a priestly class to tell him how to conduct that life. It then became possible for people to start working out the secular deduction from that religious premise. That too happened horribly slowly. But, two or three centuries after the Reformation, it was coming to be seen that equality before God must imply equality in the running of earthly affairs too.


Even then, this realisation had a hard time overcoming the self-interest of those who wanted to insist that they knew best how to run things. In particular, it was hindered by a damaging by-product of the Enlightenment, the next great sharpening of consciousness after the Reformation.


The Enlightenment was a necessary reassertion of the power of reason after too many centuries in which dogma had too often suppressed reason. The trouble was that this reassertion of reason tempted some people to think that reason could produce a scientific answer to every problem, including all the problems of politics. The most spectacular victims of the temptation of scientific certainty were the communists, who were so certain of the rightness of what they planned to do that they saw no need to consult anybody else at all. But a milder version of the temptation still tugs at other politicians. It is why so many of them still claim to possess a special skill which enables them to decipher what the incoherent voters are unable to say clearly: why, in short, they reckon they should be left in charge of the decision-making process.


Self-government and self-discipline

If you believe in democracy at all, it is hard to see why in most democratic countries the proceedings of democracy should still be divided between, on the one side, a few hundred people who take all the detailed political decisions and, on the other, the vast mass who walk down the road once every few years, push a button or mark a cross in a square, and then walk home again.


Democracy, after all, assumes the basic equality of all grown-up human beings. Yet the overwhelming majority of these beings are still expected to be content with an occasional vote for a party some of whose proposals the voter agrees with, but others he doesn't; then a wait of several years to see whether the winning party does what it has said it will do, and whether it does the right bits; and after that another stab in the dark to find out whether this time more voters can get a little more of what they actually want.


It is unlikely that the 21st century will put up with this for long. Of course, the fuller form of democracy, the one in which the voters directly take the decisions they want to take, will put down its roots only in places where the soil is ready.


The soil will generally be readiest in countries where economic and educational equalisation has made a special class of politicians largely unnecessary: which means, at first, chiefly in the countries around the North Atlantic. Even in these countries, parliaments will continue to exist; there is still plenty of useful work for a parliament to do once it has accepted that the people have a right to act over its head. And, if the new direct democrats of the 21st century learn from the experience of late-20th-century Switzerland, they will concentrate their referendum-voting work on things that really matter, by limiting the number of minor issues that parliament has willy-nilly to send to the voters and by tight signature-collecting rules for the referendums the voters can impose on parliament. Like all good things, direct democracy needs self-discipline.


 If it is done right, though, it could finally remove one of the oldest and deepest of the dividing lines that run through mankind. So far, the business of government has always separated those who do the governing from those who are governed, the rulers from the ruled. The invention of democracy healthily blurred that distinction. But it did not wholly expunge it, so long as it limited the democracy's voters to the subordinate role of saying every now and again which of various groups of politicians they on the whole preferred to other groups.


 The dividing line is bad for those on both sides of it. It is bad for the minority who hold most of the real power, because they can conceal what they are doing with their power, and can therefore be corrupted by it. It is bad for the majority, because it confines them to the generalities of politics and discourages them from voting with a proper, detailed sense of responsibility; that makes them superficial, careless, and increasingly cynical. The division can now be removed. The idea that people should govern themselves can at last mean just that.

- END -


Among the books that helped the writing of this survey were:

"Referendums around the World" edited by David Butler and Austin Ranney (Macmillan),

"Swiss Democracy" by Wolf Linder (St Martin's Press),

"The New Challenge of Direct Democracy" by lan Budge (Polity Press);

"Doch dann regiert das Volk" by Markus Kutter (Ammann Verlag)


This article was originally published in The Economist magazine of London, England, December 21st 1996.



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