FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Corporate Power is the Enemy of Democracy

by Robert Jensen

GEORGE W. BUSH says he likes to put things in simple terms. Let’s adopt his strategy and ask: Do Americans want to struggle to create a rich democracy, or are we going to roll over and accept a democracy for the rich?

Never has the question been placed in front of us more starkly. Let’s run down some of the “highlights” of the Bush administration’s first year:

Tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the most wealthy. Environmental regulation gutted in favor of “voluntary” efforts by corporations. An obsession with an unnecessary and unworkable national missile defense, which will defend little except the profits of the weapons industry. An energy policy plotted with the companies that will profit, through a consultation process the administration wants to keep secret.

Could there be a pattern here? Could it be that politicians, who are supposed to represent we the people, sometimes pursue agendas that benefit only the few people and corporations with the resources to put (and keep) them in power?

Could the obvious be true – that a country with an economy dominated by large corporations will find itself stuck with a politics dominated by those same corporations – and that ordinary people don’t fare very well in such a system?

Perhaps we should ask the question from the other angle: So long as corporations rule the economy, how could it be any other way?

When the Enron debacle broke, politicians eager to distance themselves from the mess argued it was a business scandal, not a political one. One lesson of Enron is that there is no distinction: A business scandal involving a large corporation is by definition a political scandal in a nation where corporations dominate the political sphere.

By law and tradition, corporations exist for one reason only: to maximize profit. Neither history nor logic gives any reason to think that profit-maximizing leads to meaningful democracy. Corporations are undemocratic internally and usually hostile to democracy externally.

As anyone who has ever worked in one knows, there is no such thing as democracy within a corporation. Authority is vested in the hands of a small number of directors who empower managers to wield control. Those managers on occasion might solicit the views of folks below; it is usually called “seeking input.” But input does not translate into the power to effect change, implement policy or control our own lives.

U.S. corporations do their best to subvert meaningful democracy at home through bribes to politicians, commonly called campaign contributions. They have shown repeatedly in other countries that they prefer dictatorships and oligarchies to real democracies; authoritarian governments are much easier to cut a deal with.

Although politicians and pundits are often very good at avoiding the obvious, it’s hard not to notice that this concentration of economic power in the hands of a few has long had a corrosive effect on democracy. In the Bush administration, that corrosion has accelerated. It’s not that Bill Clinton was – or the Democrats, in general, are – fundamentally different, only that the Bush boys and many of today’s top Republicans are so brazen about it.

Looking back at the 20th century, we can see two powerful trends: the growth of democracy and the growth of corporate power. People of conscience and principle fought to enrich democracy in the United States by expanding the franchise to women and non-white people, carving out space for free expression and organizing popular movements to pressure politicians. At the same time, corporations went about the business of enriching themselves by expanding their powers through the strategic use of laws and politics. Let’s celebrate the expansion of people’s formal rights, but not be naieve about how concentrations of wealth and power have made those formal rights increasingly irrelevant as corporate money saturates the system.

Borrowing one more time the Bush simple-and-to-the-point style: Are corporations and democracy compatible?

A Business Week survey during the last election showed how clearly people are coming to understand that the answer is no. Nearly three-quarters of the Americans surveyed said business has gained too much power over too many aspects of their lives. The trick now is to use those rights – speaking, organizing, voting – and take back democracy from the corporations.

Campaign-finance reform, while a reasonable first step in and of itself, won’t solve the problem. Like water that finds cracks in a dam, corporate money will find a way to pervert our politics until we deal with the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the corporations.

At its core, democracy is about spreading power as widely as possible, while corporate capitalism is about concentrating power. That means the struggle to make American democracy ever more democratic in practice will have to be a struggle against corporate power.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.

His pamphlet, “Citizens of the Empire,” is available at http://www.nowarcollective.com/citizensoftheempire.pdf. Other writings are available online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~r
jensen/freelance/freelance.htm
. He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Radical-Living-Learning-Gracefully/dp/1593766181 Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 29, 2017
Jeffrey Sommers
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon: Real Threats More Serious Than Fake News Trafficked by Media
David Kowalski
Does Washington Want to Start a New War in the Balkans?
Patrick Cockburn
Bloodbath in West Mosul: Civilians Being Shot by Both ISIS and Iraqi Troops
Ron Forthofer
War and Propaganda
Matthew Stevenson
Letter From Phnom Penh
James Bovard
Peanuts Prove Congress is Incorrigible
Thomas Knapp
Presidential Golf Breaks: Good For America
Binoy Kampmark
Disaster as Joy: Cyclone Debbie Strikes
Peter Tatchell
Human Rights are Animal Rights!
George Wuerthner
Livestock Grazing vs. the Sage Grouse
Jesse Jackson
Trump Should Form a Bipartisan Coalition to Get Real Reforms
Thomas Mountain
Rwanda Indicts French Generals for 1994 Genocide
Clancy Sigal
President of Pain
Andrew Stewart
President Gina Raimondo?
Lawrence Wittner
Can Our Social Institutions Catch Up with Advances in Science and Technology?
March 28, 2017
Mike Whitney
Ending Syria’s Nightmare will Take Pressure From Below 
Mark Kernan
Memory Against Forgetting: the Resonance of Bloody Sunday
John McMurtry
Fake News: the Unravelling of US Empire From Within
Ron Jacobs
Mad Dog, Meet Eris, Queen of Strife
Michael J. Sainato
State Dept. Condemns Attacks on Russian Peaceful Protests, Ignores Those in America
Ted Rall
Five Things the Democrats Could Do to Save Their Party (But Probably Won’t)
Linn Washington Jr.
Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Hiring Practices: Privilege or Prejudice?
Philippe Marlière
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Presidential Hopeful, is Good News for the French Left
Norman Pollack
Political Cannibalism: Eating America’s Vitals
Bruce Mastron
Obamacare? Trumpcare? Why Not Cubacare?
David Macaray
Hollywood Screen and TV Writers Call for Strike Vote
Christian Sorensen
We’ve Let Capitalism Kill the Planet
Rodolfo Acuna
What We Don’t Want to Know
Binoy Kampmark
The Futility of the Electronics Ban
Andrew Moss
Why ICE Raids Imperil Us All
March 27, 2017
Robert Hunziker
A Record-Setting Climate Going Bonkers
Frank Stricker
Why $15 an Hour Should be the Absolute Minimum Minimum Wage
Melvin Goodman
The Disappearance of Bipartisanship on the Intelligence Committees
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS’s Losses in Syria and Iraq Will Make It Difficult to Recruit
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer Bernie Morphs Into Public Option Dean
Gregory Barrett
Can Democracy Save Us?
Dave Lindorff
Budget Goes Military
John Heid
Disappeared on the Border: “Chase and Scatter” — to Death
Mark Weisbrot
The Troubling Financial Activities of an Ecuadorian Presidential Candidate
Robert Fisk
As ISIS’s Caliphate Shrinks, Syrian Anger Grows
Michael J. Sainato
Democratic Party Continues Shunning Popular Sanders Surrogates
Paul Bentley
Nazi Heritage: the Strange Saga of Chrystia Freeland’s Ukrainian Grandfather
Christopher Ketcham
Buddhism in the Storm
Thomas Barker
Platitudes in the Wake of London’s Terror Attack
Mike Hastie
Insane Truths: a Vietnam Vet on “Apocalypse Now, Redux”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail