Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Alternative Futures

by Robert Jensen

There is no alternative. Capitalism is the only future. Free markets are the essence of democracy.

How do we know? Because we are told repeatedly by smart guys from corporations and government, and by the journalists and academics paid to explain why the smart guys are right.

In the face of that “consensus,” the folks at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) have launched a direct attack on the nature of the corporation, the institution at the core of modern capitalism.

So, are they crazy or just confused?

Neither. The POCLAD members are refreshingly clear, and the book of their writings — Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy — makes a compelling case for their analysis and strategy.

The key is that their critique is of the nature of the corporation. They are not simply saying that corporations do bad things or sometimes distort democracy (most liberals and even some conservatives admit that, especially post-Enron). Instead, they argue that the rise of the contemporary corporation has been the death of meaningful democracy. While I think their analysis needs to broaden (more on that later), the POCLAD collective has done an important service by framing the issue of economic justice in a language accessible to people not yet persuaded by a left/progressive analysis.

Here’s the story POCLAD tells:

Our wealthy founding father devised a system that allowed them to maintain power — by restricting citizenship to propertied white men, and through elite-controlled institutions such as the U.S. Senate and Supreme Court that could corral any wild ideas that regular people might pursue through the relatively more democratic House of Representatives, or state and local governments. Still, the democratic principles on which the country was founded were real, and popular movements over time expanded the franchise and agitated for more democracy.

At the same time those battles have been going on, lawyers and lobbyists have waged a war to expand corporate power. Often relying on judges to do what even well-lobbied legislatures wouldn’t, corporations went from being limited entities in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries that could be controlled by the people and their representatives, to today’s concentrations of wealth and power that have almost completely escaped popular control.

In POCLAD language, corporations began as entities subordinate to the sovereign people but eventually became masters, eroding the core concept of democracy — power resides in We the People. Key to this was the courts’ granting to corporations the rights of persons, including 14th Amendment rights and eventually even free speech rights. POCLAD points out the obvious: Rights can be claimed only by persons, and corporations aren’t real persons but only fictional ones, creations under law.

According to POCLAD, we should move beyond fighting corporations on their terms — battling to control the worst of their offenses through regulatory law or asking them to curb abuses through voluntary codes of conduct. Instead, citizen-activists should demand that corporations act responsibly in accord with their charters or face charter revocation, the death penalty for corporations.

Along the way, POCLAD retells some American history, with two main effects. First, it denaturalizes the corporation — and by implication capitalism — showing that like any other system it is the product of human choices, not some unchangeable natural order. Second, POCLAD members remind us of past resistance to corporations — from the first half of America’s history when corporations were kept on a much shorter leash and such revocations occurred, to the Populists’ activism in the late 19th century contesting the legitimacy of corporations, to the work of the early labor movement to articulate an alternative to capitalism. For progressive political change to be possible, people not only have to understand the nature of the systems and institutions that wield power, but also see that it is possible for systems to change.

The book points out that corporations do not simply engage in business but govern much of our lives, in a system that disadvantages natural persons doing battle with these fictional persons. Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy makes this point particularly well in discussing labor law, which gives management huge advantages over workers trying to organize. The authors also argue cogently that whatever short-term victories citizens and environmental groups have won, or can win, in regulatory agencies, the ecological health of the planet has deteriorated, and will continue to deteriorate. So long as corporations can accumulate the wealth and power that contemporary law and politics allows, progressive activists start out in a hole.

As these letters, essays, and speeches (all short and easy to digest) lay out this case, it becomes clear quickly the POCLAD folks have made the strategic choice to focus on corporations and avoid using the word “capitalism.” That decision makes sense in a country where critiques of capitalism typically are associated with foreign ideologies (European or Third-World socialism and communism) and totalitarian systems (the Soviet Union and its satellites). While it is true that spirited critiques of capitalism are a homegrown part of American history (some are referenced in the book, such as the Knights of Labor’s) and not foreign imports, at this moment in history a strategy that focuses on the corporation is likely to resonate more with Americans. No matter what people think about capitalism as a system (if they think about it at all), virtually everyone has some reason to dislike or distrust corporations; we’ve all been screwed by a corporation — as a competitor, employee, consumer, or bystander — in some fashion at some point.

Given that corporations and modern capitalism can’t be separated or separately defined, POCLAD’s critique of the corporation goes to the heart of the system. It is possible to highlight the key problems inherent in capitalism — its need for constant expansion, the exploitation of workers, the commodification of everything — by focusing on corporations. Indeed, capitalism as we know it couldn’t exist without the corporate form. Still, at some point in discussion about politics and economics, people understandably ask, “OK, you don’t like what we’ve got — what kind of system do you want?”

Do left/progressive folks answer by saying we want capitalism without corporations? Or capitalism with corporations that just have less power? It’s not clear what the first claim would mean, nor is it obvious the second would bring substantive improvements.

Or do we articulate a vision that — whether or not we use the term — will sound a lot like what traditionally has been known as socialism: no private ownership of the means of production, worker control over production, collective/council structures throughout the economy, participatory planning, etc. Such a system can go by other names; for example, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel call it “participatory economics” (see their book Looking Forward or the web site <>). But in the end, it’s not unreasonable for people to expect an answer to that question.

One might argue that the first step is to delegitimize the corporation, exposing not only the way it corrupts democracy in the political sphere but crushes people in the private. No argument there, but that first step quickly leads to questions about vision for an alternative system. This is not a demand for an alternative defined in great detail, which usually is a tactic to derail criticism of the existing system. Indeed, when any system is oppressive, it is in some sense enough to demand that the system end. But the effectiveness of that demand is much enhanced by a clear articulation of the underlying principles (which POCLAD offers) and some discussion of that vision, even if tentative and sketchy (which isn’t included in this volume).

Another necessary step forward is to include a more specific accounting of racism, sexism, and U.S. imperialism — not as issues separate from corporate capitalism but intricately bound up with it. It is clear POCLAD wants to keep its eye on the prize of contesting corporate power, but expanding the analysis can aid in that task.

In one sense, capitalism is not inherently racist or sexist — corporations are happy to exploit anyone in the drive for profit. But owners and managers have used racism to divide workers and solidify control, and sexism has been important in keeping certain jobs associated with women or “women’s work” (such as the expanding customer service sector) low paying. Those stories are also an integral part of the history of the corporation.

It’s also imperative, as the American empire seeks even greater domination of the world, to link the corporate system to U.S. foreign policy and militarism. At a time when expressions of patriotism run high, this may seem risky. But it’s difficult to imagine making inroads against the corporate power at home without challenging the brutality and violence of U.S. policy as it secures resources and markets abroad for corporations.

These are issues that left/progressive movements have to hash out. In a world of multiple systems of repression and oppression that are enmeshed, we have no choice but to deal with them analytically. One person or group can decide to focus on a particular issue, but the analysis that underlies that political action can’t ignore this complexity.

Whatever differences in strategy and emphasis I might have with POCLAD, Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy reminds us that this kind of political work can be done in a language that speaks to ordinary people. POCLAD avoids long, jargon-filled writing that will turn off most readers, and that’s all to the good. But too many of these short, to-the-point pieces repeat the same themes, sometimes in pretty much the same language. The book could have been cut in half and conveyed as much information, making it more effective for outreach tool to the general public.

Still, leftists and progressives should read Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy — and keep up with the group’s work through the website (<>) and newsletter (By What Authority) — not only for the history and analysis it offers but for rhetorical strategies for taking the message to the public. POCLAD reminds us the task is not to convince policymakers and elites of the problem of corporations but to reach the public and build a mass movement.

At a time when most people accept the big lie that there is no future outside of capitalism, it’s time to move forward with political strategies grounded in the recognition that there is no way to think about a decent future except outside of capitalism.

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.

He can be reached at


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). Robert Jensen can be reached at and his articles can be found online at To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to 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:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future