When Monsanto’s home state of Missouri passed the “Right to Farm” on August 5, 2014 the third noose of corporate control tightened around the neck of the US. Unlike the first two steps of corporate domination of public life, this was a constitutional amendment that would block the state legislature or voters from passing future laws for environmental protection, animal welfare or labeling of contaminated food. This third wave corporatocracy could well spread across US and globally as it becomes a new form of mass disenfranchisement.
First wave: Corporate “personhood”
State constitutional amendments are the most recent phase in a long march of corporations to extend their direct control of government. Efforts of corporations to grab the legal rights of persons date to the post-Civil War ear. In the late 1880s the US Supreme Court first applied the rights of the 14th Amendment to corporations. That amendment had been ratified in 1868 in order to grant former slaves “equal protection under the law.” As Jane Anne Morris documents in Gaveling Down the Rabble (2008), the court became far more interested in applying it to “corporate persons,” granting them the right to “privileges and immunities, equal protection, and due process.”
This flew in the face of the fact that corporations are created by legislative bodies and must incorporate in order to receive their powers and privileges. After the initial rulings, legislative and judicial bodies in the US expanded laws and rulings that enhanced corporate power. In 1938, Justice Hugo Black wrote of court decisions that “Less than 1/2 of 1% invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50% asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.”
Second wave: Free trade
During the decades following World War II, corporations sought to expand their powers internationally via trade agreements. By the end of the 1980s, they conceptualized the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a prototype for granting panels of corporate bureaucrats the power to trump national laws. Designed as an agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, it would basically tell a poor country, “If you want to increase trade, you must give corporations from rich countries the right to sue you for failing to change your laws to benefit them.” But Americans balked at the idea that other countries might do the same to them and George Bush could not get NAFTA through Congress.
Bill Clinton persuaded financial backers that a liberal could accomplish what a right winger could not and their money put him in the White House. “Slick Willy” Clinton had a couple of tricks to get NAFTA approved. One was authorization of “Fast Track,” whereby Congress agreed not to amend the trade deal, but only vote it up or down. The other tool was Speaker of the House Dick Gephardt from St. Louis, who pretended to be a “friend of labor,” opposing NAFTA in the US at the same time that he made trips to Mexico promising he would get it passed.
Sharp differences emerged between environmental organizations. Virtually all small local groups and most big ones (notably Greenpeace and the Sierra Club) opposed NAFTA. But some organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council backed NAFTA to strengthen their ties to corporate funders.
With the help of Democrats in the White House and Congress, NAFTA became a model for a series of international trade deals lasting through today. Divisions between environmental organizations also remain. The deals reflect the modern reality that very little trade has to do with “comparative advantage” — the idea that different countries are better suited to producing different products because of their climate, geography and natural resources. Nowadays, the “advantages” that countries offer include cheaper labor, greater tolerance of wildlife destruction and more acceptance agricultural chemicals.
Riding the third wave
The first wave of Corporatocracy looked inward: It focused on US businesses power that no author of the Constitution would recognize. The second wave looked outward: It asked how corporations in overdeveloped countries could use international poverty to their advantage.
The third wave is so new that not even the first chapter of its book has been written. Its origins are rooted in corporate anger at state and local laws, especially those sparked by citizen initiative and passed by grassroots organizing. Throughout the US, concerns with confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), soaking crops with pesticide poisons, and genetically contaminated food has led to a groundswell of efforts for laws to protect health and the environment. The essence of third wave corporatocracy is to alter state constitutions so that they prohibit laws which limit corporate profits by environmental and health restrictions. This is what characterized the “Right to Farm” amendments passed by North Dakota in 2013 and Indiana in 2014. The proposed “Right to Farm” Amendment 1 to the Missouri constitution reads:
That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by Article VI of the Missouri Constitution.
The linchpin in this masterpiece of vagueness is that “farmers and ranchers” refers not only to the 40 acres that grandpa and grandma had, but also to CAFOs cramming thousands of hogs or chickens together, puppy mills cranking out pure-bred animals in deplorable conditions and megafarms of tens of thousands of acres growing genetically contaminated crops. Please scrutinize the amendment’s wording and notice that it never says that the “farmers and ranchers” have to actually live in Missouri.
Third wave corporatocracy transcends (includes and goes beyond) the first and second waves. The constitutional amendment assumes the corporate personhood of “farmers and ranchers.” It also assumes that such corporate persons can be based anywhere in the world.
Swimming against the wave
Groups which quickly picked up on eco-devastation hidden between the lines included Missouri’s Food for America, Humane Society of the United States, Gateway Green Alliance, Missouri Green Party, GMO-Free Midwest, St. Louis Animal Rights Team, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Universal African Peoples Organization, EarthDance, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Progressive Party of Missouri, and, most interestingly, the Sierra Club. By April and May 2014 the network expanded and contacted the press and their informal networks. The message was that everyone had to act quickly to warn as many people as possible by the November, 2014 general election, when it was expected to be on the ballot.
Wes Shoemeyer appeared on Green Time TV, which is broadcast to four areas of Missouri. Former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell (Dem) stumped with the Humane Society of the United States across the state.
The votenoon1.com website explained: “Amendment 1 will guarantee foreign corporations the right to own Missouri farm land and do as they see fit without any check and balance from the people or the legislature.”
The Sullivan Journal wrote:
…if Amendment 1 passes, corporate farms may actually escape regulations concerned with chemical use, animal treatment, and waste disposal… The amendment may also limit municipalities from keeping noxious corporate livestock farms away from citizens. This amendment is not for the little family farmer – it’s for the corporate farms…
The Joplin Globe asked: “…who qualifies as a farmer in Missouri? Smithfield Foods, for example, owner of Premium Standard Farms? How about Tyson Foods? Both of those are Fortune 500 companies that count their revenue in the billions.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that supporters of “Right to Farm” amendments “…hope to pre-empt any proposals to ban genetically modified crops similar to ones recently passed in Oregon.” The article documented that Missouri’s Amendment 1 was bankrolled by “five-figure checks from the state corn and pork associations, the Farm Bureau and businesses with strong financial stakes in rural America…”
John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics University of Missouri Columbia, warned on his website that:
Foreign corporations—including the largest pork, beef, and poultry processors in the U.S.—would be given special constitutional rights; including special exemptions from Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and legitimate nuisance lawsuits—rights that ordinary American citizens do not have.
Betrayal 1: Democratic Party governor
As Vote-No-on-One forces began to pull together and plan how, within a few short months, they could explain the dangers lurking within the jolly sounding amendment, the first bombshell fell. Missouri’s Democratic Governor Jay Nixon announced that the vote would be moved forward from the November general election to the August primary.
The Democratic Party governor had given a huge advantage to Yes-on-One forces. For the big ag side, most of their campaign work was buying expensive series of ads to come out 2 to 3 weeks before the election. Shortening the campaign by three months meant nothing to them. But for grassroots organizing based on word-of-mouth communication, three months is everything.
As if a super-short campaign was not enough of a gift to big ag, the State of Missouri used ballot descriptive language that was so misleading as to constitute intentional falsification. Ballots don’t have the actual wording of proposed laws or amendments (which can be quite lengthy) and instead use an abbreviated description. For Missouri’s Amendment 1 the ballot description read: “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed?”
This directly contradicts the wording of the amendment itself (above):
1. The ballot description uses the word “citizen,” which means (according to Webster), individuals “born or naturalized” in a state. Amendment 1 itself never uses the word “citizen,” instead referring to “farmers and ranchers,” which, of course includes “corporate persons.”
2. The ballot description put the word “Missouri” immediately prior to “citizen,” stating unambiguously that those who would benefit from the law would be those residing in the state. The Amendment itself says no such thing, as it refers to protecting the “Missouri economy” and never suggests that the “farmers and ranchers” who receive protection must reside in the state.
As the propaganda blizt began, Yes-on-One TV ads tunnel-visioned on the wording that voters would see on the ballot description, claiming that Amendment 1 would protect local farmers. TV reporters and commentators repeatedly predicted a victory for “Right to Farm” because Missouri liked farmers. They parroted big ag messages as if their advertising revenue depended on it.
Betrayal 2: Democratic Party mayor
On August 4, the day before the primary election, No-on-One organizers in the City of St. Louis were stunned to receive a robo call from Francis Slay, Democratic Party Mayor of the largest city in the state. Throughout the campaign, his silence on the issue led St. Louisans to believe that he had no bone to pick. But less than 24 hours before voting began tens of thousands of City residents received an automated call urging them to vote “yes” on Amendment 1. For the large number of people who were undecided on ballot issues, a last minute call from the mayor could have been the deciding factor.
A couple of days after the election count, I answered my phone to hear, “This is Mayor Slay’s office calling for Barbara Chicherio.” I was hardly surprised since my wife Barbara was a No-on-One organizer for the St. Louis area and she had planned to call the Mayor.
“She’s not available now. Could you give me your name and number so she can call you back in an hour?”
“No. I’ll call her back,” answered the mayoral assistant who refused to identify himself.
He also refused to tell Barbara who he was when he called back. “I have two questions,” she told him. “One, when did Mayor Slay decide that he would support Amendment 1? Two, what went into his thinking that made him wait until the last minute, and, without participating in any public discussion on the issue, make robo-calls the night before the vote?”
His refusal to answer either question was as adamant as his refusal to identify himself. “It sounds like you are accusing the Mayor of making a deal,” he retorted.
The defensive denial let the cat out of the bag. Despite abundant speculation, we may never know what deal the Mayor made with whom for what reason or when it was made.
Sierra Club: The unexpected
A funny thing happened on the road to the primary election. The Sierra Club forgot how to identify the most important issue for mobilizing campaign workers.
Sierra has a history of organizing its active members for election work and was one of the first groups to put information about Amendment 1 on its web site. So it seemed a no-brainer that Sierra would join the growing coalition to recruit organizers to turn out poll workers on election day. But everyone’s jaws dropped when Sierra organizers responded that they were going to put all of their efforts into opposing Amendment 7 and not confuse voters by talking about Amendment 1.
Amendment 7 was very deserving of opposition. It would have imposed a ¾ cent sales tax to pay for road improvements. The tax would have let trucking companies, the chief culprits in tearing up roads, pay nothing while people too poor to own a car would foot the bill when they bought food and clothing. But Amendment 7 defined a temporary tax that would end after a given period of time. That’s why the Missouri Green Party and other groups distributed literature recommending a “No-on-One” first and “No-on-Seven” on the bottom of the page.
As voting day approached, the importance of person-to-person contact became increasingly evident. Virtually every day we talked with people, we found some who were ignoring TV ads and eager to hear what we had to say about the dangers of the amendment.
Then came the vote count nightmare: 498, 451 YES and 496,223 NO. The vote was so close that the Channel 2 website summarized the count as 50% YES and 50% NO. The constitutional amendment enshrining corporate control of Missouri’s environment passed by one of the narrowest margins in the state’s history: 2825 votes, barely ¼ of 1% of those cast.
The two Democratic Party betrayals plus Sierra Club standoffishness snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It is possible that any one of them by itself could have changed the outcome. And how sweet it would have been to have rebuffed the grab for megafarm supremacy in Monsanto’s home state.
Though there was no shortage of anger at Democratic Party bigwhigs during the days following the election, it is important to remember that sleazy maneuvers is what it takes to rise in the world of professional politicians. Should you be any more surprised that a Democrat politico backstabs than a rattlesnake bites or a scorpion stings? That’s what they do. Stepping on the faces of little people is how they climb their political ladder.
What was truly disturbing was Sierra. As a group that was central to opposing NAFTA, has protected wilderness areas across the country, and has mobilized for countless political campaigns, its aloofness toward No-on-One in Missouri was egregious. One apology is that Sierra could not have garnered 2600 additional votes. This is wrong on multiple counts.
First, people were not only making up their minds two weeks before the election — they were making up their minds when they were at the polls. Handing out literature urging people to vote for a President, Governor or Senator rarely accomplishes anything since people know who they are going to vote for. Not so with ballot initiatives. Many people go to the polls knowing only the candidates while paying little or no attention to amendments. Those who worked the polls reported multiple interactions with voters who changed their mind. Many more than 1% of voters would have changed their vote on Amendment 1 if someone had spoken to them.
Second, the reason for soliciting Sierra’s active involvement was to build a movement that would build enthusiasm as it got larger. This happened; but, without the Sierra Club (which touts itself as being the largest and most effective grassroots organization in the US) this movement did not grow nearly as large as it might have. The point was not just to get more Sierra members to work the polls but to get them to do organizing work prior to voting day so that many, many more people would work the polls.
The third illustration of how Sierra involvement might have tipped the scales is that an early poll showed 80% of Missourians favoring Amendment 1 and only 20% opposing it. If a coalition boycotted by the largest environmental group in the state could increase public opposition from 20% to 50% in 2–3 months, there can be no doubt, that if that organization had actively participated, the “No” vote would have won.
The skirmish is not over in Missouri as voting irregularities could lead to a recount. The closer an election is, the more easily computer software can introduce random changes to fix the outcome. Be as confident that the “Right to Farm” gang honestly won the vote as you are certain that George W. Bush was fairly elected President twice in a row.
“Right to Farm” barely scratches surface of the potential of third wave corporatocracy. Changing state constitutions to destroy environmental rights can be extended to undoing all gains made during the last century regarding labor, civil rights and human welfare as well as prohibiting future progressive legislation. In Missouri, right wingers had barely wolfed down the destruction of environmental legislation when they began drooling at the vision of a constitutional amendment to require that teacher pay be based on supervisor evaluations.
Waves of corporatocracy have not been distinct in the sense that one wave stops when the next one starts. Rather, each wave has developed within the context of the previous wave while seeking to resolve its contradictions. The first wave for “corporate personhood” focused inward on US law, which left unresolved US domination of the globe. It was not until after World War II, when the US established its economic supremacy, that it could focus outward on trade deals. Yet, this left open the possibility of citizens of rich countries insisting on their ability to protect themselves and the survival of their offspring. Rather than merely overturning such laws, third wave corporatocracy seeks to prevent such laws from ever being written.
Of course, rulers of every society seek to gain more and more control over those they subjugate; and, in this sense corporatocracy is not unique. But corporatocracy, especially its second and third waves, is different in that it goes against the general grain of capitalism, revealing a phase of decay. Most typically, capitalism rules best when it rules indirectly via a stratum of professional politicians whose life work is to wheal and deal while convincing those they swindle that they are their friend. But in crisis periods of declining profits and declining investment opportunities, the 1% become nervous about the “normal” political process and seek to rule directly, along with their allies in the top 2–3%. The early 21st century is characterized by increasing economic instability and an energy exhaustion that allows expanded investment if and only if corporations are willing to yank fossil fuels from the bowels of the Earth in ways that threaten the existence of humanity.
Corporations are unraveling the biology of Life by slaughtering millions for the crime of living atop fossil fuels that they crave, subjecting unknown numbers of species to extinction or lives of torture, and producing chemicals and food that poison their own children. It is in this context of the most extreme moral depravity that the world has ever seen that corporations are demanding to rule directly, to increase their “rights” as persons, to expand the power of rich countries to overturn laws of poor countries, and, now, to seek constitutional amendments which disallow citizens from protecting their rights and health.
Just as each wave has developed its own contradictions for those who control, each has opened new opportunities of struggle for corporate victims. The first wave hammered home the way that corporations self-serve by purchasing politicians and judges. The second wave expanded the link between labor, environmental, and human rights groups in a way that had never happened before.
The third wave occurs in the midst of declining US economic power. As laws such as “Right to Farm” invite non-US corporations to dominate the well-being of those in Missouri and other states, it dramatizes the way US business practices have decimated the status of US workers. It emphasizes that the fight against capital is international and that struggles here must join hands with those across the globe if they are to succeed. It is time to ask why we must work overtime so that our neighbors loose their jobs while we produce goods that fall apart sooner and are manufactured through industrial processes that poison our communities.
Forging a coalition that is strong enough to win will likely require struggling within many labor, human rights, and environmental organizations to change their orientation from choosing the least bad politico to one of actually confronting economic and political powers. It may even mean Sierra Club members’ dragging their local leaders kicking and screaming into meaningful battles. If we can build the sort of coalition we need to stop the right wing onslaught, we will be setting the stage for that coalition to ask what sort of new society it needs to midwife.
Don Fitz is a member of the Missouri Green Party and Sierra Club, Eastern Missouri Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org