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Kill the Corporation

Dennis Fox

August 12, 2002

I don't know who's more pathetic, the wannabe-rich astonished that portfolios go down as well as up, or the already-rich corporate elites and their minions busily trying to restore consumer confidence in the wake of one exposé after another. When we try to fix what ails us, though, let's not get hoodwinked by all the moaning and groaning and reforming and promising. Let's aim for the gut.

For much of the 1990s, those in the know told us the boom was permanent. So permanent, in fact, that we should transfer money from old-fashioned Social Security into the with-it stock market. Then every janitor and school teacher and cop and hairdresser could get as rich as people with real money.

Now that the tailspinning market's shocked millions of Americans, we don't hear much from free-marketeers trying to repeal the New Deal. But the bloodsuckers will inevitably return, once they finish tinkering a bit and the corporate media's talking heads assure us we can safely go back to watching reruns.

At least, that's what usually happens.

In his influential work on injustice and revolt, Barrington Moore pointed out that criticism of oppressive systems most often targets individual elites who violate approved standards. Less often comes criticism of the entire class of elites. But "only the most radical forms of criticism have raised the question whether kings, capitalists, priests, generals, bureaucrats, etc., serve any useful social purpose at all."

How does this apply to demands that we "do something" about the corporate meltdown?

Focusing on Moore's first level, our corporate-proxy president has loudly denounced some of his peers. But, he whines, the system hasn't failed; only a few execs broke the law, and they will pay the price. The rest, apparently, will have to put up with incessant appeals to be more moral. Capitalism may be ruthless -- winning and losing is what it's all about (wink) -- but acceptable ruthlessness has a limit: No cheating.

The president's moneyed supporters may grumble privately about all the fuss, but publicly they're in throw-out-the-bums mode, anxious for the remaining bums to get back to work undisturbed. Much of the public, long taught to ascribe all manner of injustice to flawed individuals rather than flawed systems, will likely settle for a few more CEO perp walks and be done with it.

The next level up is where many Democrats hang out, and some fake-populist Republicans, and even much of the liberal public -- especially those with portfolios of their own. To them, the real problem isn't a few ethically deficient corporate elites but insufficient regulation of all corporate elites.

So let's keep more records, send investigators, change accounting requirements, mandate more shareholder information. The new regs will keep new crooks more honest, or at least more careful. Then the market can resume its climb and corporate honchos can plan their next structural adjustment of the American way of life, careful to remain within whatever limits our corporate-friendly legislators and judges create.

What we really need, of course, is action at Moore's third level: questioning whether "kings, capitalists, priests, generals, bureaucrats, etc." -- or corporations, more to today's point -- "serve any useful social purpose at all"

Although you won't find much evidence in the mainstream media, there is some good news: the movement to transform corporate society so completely that the kind of tinkering Washington politicos now debate pales in comparison.

Ralph Nader junkies form the most moderate end of this effort, bridging the gap between those who want to make corporate capitalism less destructive and those who want to replace it with a fundamentally different system.

Beyond Nader are groups like the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy. Advocating "the right of the sovereign people to govern themselves," POCLAD aims to reverse decisions by privileged judges over the past century and a half that declared corporations "legal persons" and then gave them even more rights than you and me. POCLAD says we can do something about that, beginning with pushing states to use the power they already have, but rarely use, to limit corporate size and reach.

In the long run, "any useful social purpose at all" the modern corporation serves will be met more justly and less destructively once we create a democratic economic and political system. The problem, after all, isn't just a few corporate crooks. The power held by even honestly run corporations is bad for all of us.

So sure, let's throw the bums out.

And then let's kill the unnatural creature whose interests they served so well.

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