FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

We Must Begin to Curb the Power of Corporations

The revelations of the Paradise papers, the earlier Panama Papers and numerous articles in the western mainstream and alternative media demonstrate just one dimension, tax evasion, of an increasingly obvious truth: global corporations have become the greatest threat to the planet. The deliberate starvation of government, climate change, grotesque inequality, Dickensian working conditions, environmental degradation, dwindling bio-diversity, the slow (or not so slow) death of the oceans and the creation of the security state on their behalf threaten not only the natural world but the our capacity to democratically govern ourselves while maintaining some semblance of civilization.

The advent of the corporate state was truly unleashed when Canada and the US signed the first ‘free trade’ agreement in 1989. In the twenty-eight years since hundreds of such agreements have been signed, all of them designed to erase borders for corporations and radically reduce the operational space for democratic governance.

Governments are the only institutions that can seriously challenge the power and reach of transnational corporations: they made them and they could unmake them. Only governments can curb their predatory nature, constrain their contempt for their workers, communities and the environment, and genuinely punish them when they openly break the law as part of their fiduciary ‘duty’ to their shareholders.

Of course it’s difficult to imagine current governments in any role other than the unindicted co-conspirator which have played for decades. The implementation over thirty years of neo-liberal policies by governments of virtually every stripe has liberated corporations, increasingly removing constraints designed to make them accountable to the broader society.

The tax avoidance/evasion tidal wave is just one example. This obscene anti-social conspiracy has not just been allowed by governments it has been facilitated by them. Much of it is actually legal, in other words sanctioned by governments we elect. Yet that does not absolve corporations from their responsibility. A recent study by Canadians for Tax Fairness (disclosure: I am on their board) revealed that the sixty largest public companies in Canada have 1,021 subsidiaries in a string of tax havens. Four had none; Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Sun Life Financial have over fifty each. According to the study,  “Canadian foreign direct investment (FDI) in tax havens grew from $2.1 billion in 1994 to $284 billion in 2016.”

By now most people know how these ‘profit shifting’ schemes work. Companies assign profits made elsewhere to tax haven subsidiaries in countries with low or no income taxes. They half-heartedly claim they actually do business in these countries but the numbers say otherwise. The study shows subsidiaries in non-tax haven countries employ between 1,244 to 2,760 employees per billion in assets; for tax-haven users the ratio is one to 250. In 2014, Canadian corporations held almost $31 billion in assets in Bermuda; their subsidiaries employed a total of 35 employees.

While the Trudeau government has made some moves in the right direction to track flesh-and-blood tax cheaters, it has does done virtually nothing to curb the immoral behaviour of so-called corporate citizens. This should hardly surprise us. Over the decades we have watched these ersatz ‘citizens’ develop into the institutional equivalent of psychopaths. This is not a subjective assessment; it is written into their legal DNA by our laws governing corporations. They don’t have social responsibility like ordinary citizens – only the fiduciary duty to their shareholders. They are citizens who live forever; once a corporation has a charter it can’t be revoked.

Twenty years ago of the 100 largest ‘economies’ in the world, 51 were corporations. I am sure that number is higher now. It was recently revealed that the Royal Bank is now, officially, ‘too big to fail’ – or more to the point free to be reckless knowing the taxpayer will bail it out.

In attempting to imagine how we can save our civilizations and ecosystems from corporate predation it may be helpful to know that  corporations haven’t always had such free reign. In 1809, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that if an applicant’s purpose in seeking a corporate charter “…is merely private or selfish; if it is detrimental to, or not promotive, of the public good, they have no adequate claim upon the legislature for the privileges.” Charters were routinely denied and in 1832, Pennsylvania revoked the charters of 10 banks for not serving the public good.

These strict limits on corporations — they could only engage in the single activity described in their charter — began to disappear in the late 1800s. The civil war resulted in corporations becoming much more powerful. States competed with each other for corporate investment and their judges systematically eliminated restrictions on corporate charters. They gradually re-interpreted the U.S. constitution and changed the common law to make corporations citizens.

Canada of course, actually started off as a corporate state – the Hudson’s Bay Company –  and they corporations have always had a cozy relationship with governments here. But it wasn’t until the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that they were considered ‘natural persons’ with the same human rights as you and I. The fight to get corporations to pay their fair share of taxes must continue. But we should set our sights a lot higher. A good start would be to find a compelling case to take to the Supreme Court and have corporations’ ‘natural persons’ status removed. And then put back into corporate law the power to revoke the charters of corporations which violate the public good.

More articles by:

MURRAY DOBBIN, now living in Powell River, BC has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over forty years.  He can be reached at murraydobbin@shaw.ca

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail