Corporate Crackdown: A blueprint for breaking down corporate control.

Corporations are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we walk on. They are in the food, the clothes, the cars, the speed, the news, the music, the cool, the hype, the sex. But who are these legal fictions that we ourselves created? How did they get to be omnipotent? Do corporations serve us, or do we serve them? Kalle Lasn and Tom Liacas of Adbusters Media Foundation brings you the culture jammers perspective.

Corporations are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we walk on. They are in the food, the clothes, the cars, the speed, the news, the music, the cool, the hype, the sex. But who are these legal fictions that we ourselves created? How did they get to be omnipotent? Do corporations serve us, or do we serve them? Kalle Lasn and Tom Liacas of Adbusters Media Foundation brings you the culture jammers perspective.

Before the corporate “I”

To understand the nature of the beast, we must look to a time when corporations were not the all-powerful entities they are today. The first corporations, given license to operate in the 1600s, were strictly limited in scope and power by their charters. Corporations were kept on a very short leash right through the American Revolution and the early years of the new republic. When a corporation exceeded its powers or ceased to serve the public interest, its charter was revoked and its very right to exist was nullified. The people — not the corporations — were in control.

Why were corporations created?

The birth of the corporate “I” could not have been anticipated in 1600, when Queen Elizabeth I of England chartered the first corporations of the Anglo-American tradition, essentially to exploit and colonize foreign lands. As North America was colonized, corporations like the Massachusetts Bay Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company were there every step of the way. Most companies during that period had a charter life of 20 years to accomplish their goals. These early corporations were conceived as institutions serving the public interest. They were temporary structures granted the right to operate for a fixed period of time, with fixed capital, to achieve fixed goals.

How were corporations seen by the public?

North American colonials feared the new chartered entities known as corporations. They recognized the way British kings and their cronies used corporations as robotic arms to maintain their sovereignty and control over the affairs of the colonies. The American Revolution was in large part a revolt against what Thomas Jefferson called this “remote tyranny.”

The Declaration of Independence freed Americans not only from Britain but also from the control of British corporations, and for 100 years after the document’s signing, Americans remained deeply suspicious of corporate power.

How were corporations kept in line?

The 200 or so corporations operating in the US by the year 1800 weren’t allowed to participate in the political process. They couldn’t buy stock in other corporations. And if one of them acted improperly, the consequences were severe. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson vetoed a motion to extend the charter of the corrupt and tyrannical Second Bank of the United States, and was widely applauded for doing so. That same year the state of Pennsylvania revoked the charters of ten banks for operating contrary to the public interest.

Birth of the corporate “I”

Well before the advent of “personhood,” corporations had already been granted the privilege of limited liability — a key component of their immense legal power. What cemented the corporate position more than anything else, however, was the 1886 US Supreme Court ruling in a railbed dispute titled Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad. The ruling held that a private corporation was a “natural person” entitled to all the rights and privileges of a human being. It was one of the greatest blunders in legal history, and it triggered the corporations’ 100-year march to global power.

What is limited liability?

To lay claim to the whole of New World, the British Crown needed huge amounts of capital. To encourage investment in such a large and risky enterprise, the Crown agreed to insulate investors from legal and financial responsibility for the undertaking, beyond the amount of their investment. In other words, investors were not liable, in the last resort, for the debts of their company. That decision blew apart one of the bedrock principles of common law: individual responsibility. For the first time, business investors were privileged with limited liability.

What were corporations like before 1886?

By the middle of the 19th century, the nation’s commercial engine was humming, and corporations were becoming an indispensable part of business life. They pushed for and gained extended rights and freedoms in their charters. Then, in a series of landmark decisions, state legislators, one after another, enacted “free incorporation laws” that gave corporations the right to engage in any kind of business they wanted. This was a crucial step in the evolution of the corporate form. Corporations were no longer limited to activities that served the public good, yet they continued to enjoy the extraordinary “limited liability” exemption from investor responsibility that they had historically obtained in the name of public service. During the Civil War, corporations bagged huge profits from procurement contracts. They took advantage of the chaos and corruption of the times to buy judges, legislatures and even presidents. They forced amendments to laws limiting their profits and, in hundreds of cases, won minor legal victories extending their rights and privileges. They had immense political clout. Civil society was reeling, unable to keep up.

What is the significance of corporate “personhood”?

This granting of corporate “personhood” changed America fundamentally. From that moment on, the country’s citizens would have to think of corporations very differently. Every corporation — though it was still technically only an idea, a paper phantom — nonetheless had its own “life” now, its own “ego.” They could compete directly against real people and demand equal treatment under the law. Were corporations suddenly as powerful as people? No. Because of their vast financial resources, they were now much more powerful. They could defend and exploit their rights and freedoms more vigorously than any individual. In real terms, the corporation was actually more free than any private citizen. The whole intent of the American Constitution — that all citizens have one vote, and exercise an equal voice in public debates — had been undermined.

The Crisis Reached

By the end of the 20th century, a new corporate “superspecies” was competing with humans to survive and so powerful that it was able to set the world’s industrial, economic and cultural agendas. Civil society, which had been in retreat until now, fought back by scuttling the Mulitlateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and by taking to the streets in Seattle during the Millennium Round of the World Trade Organization Summit. As the growing unrest reached the public mind, many were still unaware of the new focus. Beyond government rulings on single issues such as the environment, human rights and global trade, the finger was coming around to point at the Corporation — the root cause of every issue was an entity of our own making.

Why the analogy of a “superspecies”?

This new species has a number of capacities and powers that we mortal humans can only dream of. For one thing, it can “live” in many places simultaneously. It can change its body at will — shed an arm or a leg or even a head without harm. It can morph into a variety of new forms, absorb other members of its species, or be absorbed itself. Most astoundingly, it can live forever. To remain alive, it only needs to meet one condition: its income must exceed its expenditures over the long run.

How did corporations become so powerful?

Between 1890 and 1930, America was transformed, at lightning speed, by a corporate invasion of everyday life. Giant companies like DuPont, US Steel and Standard Oil grew to dominate commerce. Factories, hotels, department stores and amusement parks began to dot the landscape. Streetlights, electric signs, the telegraph, mail-order catalogs, fashion shows — all celebrated the new industrial message.

By the 1930s, corporations employed more than 80 percent of the people and produced most of America’s wealth. The large corporations were now too big and powerful to challenge in the courts. During this period, many of the original ideals of the American Revolution were forgotten or watered down, and America was increasingly a corporate state, governed by a coalition of government and business interests.

In the post World War II years, corporations merged, consolidated, restructured and metamorphosed into ever larger and more complex units of resource extraction, production, distribution and marketing. In the 1990s, corporations put aside their traditional competitive feelings toward each other and forged tens of thousands of co-branding deals, marketing alliances, co-manufacturing projects and R&D agreements, and created a global network of common interests.

By 1997, 51 of the world’s largest economies were not countries but corporations. Today, the top 100 companies control 33 percent of the world’s assets, but employ only one percent of the world’s workforce. General Motors is larger than Denmark; Wal-Mart bigger than South Africa. The mega-corporations roam freely around the globe, lobbying legislators, bankrolling elections and playing governments off against each other to get the best deals. Their private hands control the bulk of the world’s news and information flows.

Which are more powerful, countries or corporations?

In an age where money equals power, corporations are rapidly gaining on sovereign nations. More than half of the world’s 100 largest economies are the internal economies of corporations and the ratio is closing year by year. Listed below are figures for the annual revenue of selected corporations compared with the GDP of certain countries.

Corporations Countries
General Motors $189 Denmark $173
Thailand $168
Wal-Mart Stores $166
Exxon Mobil $163
Ford Motors $162
Norway $146
South Africa $133
Poland $177
General Electric $111 Iran $105
Portugal $102
Singapore $85
Citigroup $82 Venezuela $76
Pakistan $68
Chile $67
AT&T $62
Phillip Morriss $61
New Zealand $60
[numbers in billions]

The Crackdown

Six months after the Battle in Seattle, protests have erupted in London, Davos and Washington, D.C. Clearly this is more than a series of isolated outbursts of rambunctious dissent. It is a revolt that at once harkens back to the American Revolution, and hangs in the air with a hot new excitement.

To crack the Corporate “I,” to bring these entities back under our control, several things need to happen. If you’re a culture jammer, help jump start the crucial push to bring awareness of corporate rule into the popular consciousness. Community organizers can educate others about the impact of corporate power on a local level and reassert the citizens’ right to govern themselves. If you have a mind to work with legislation, you can participate in the project to rewrite your country’s blueprint of corporate powers.

Background on Adbusters Media Foundation

The Media Foundation is a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age. Their aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.

To this end, Adbusters Media Foundation publishes Adbusters magazine, operates a website and offers its creative services through PowerShift, their advocacy advertising agency.

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Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Adbusters is a not-for-profit, reader-supported, 60,000-circulation magazine concerned about the erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces. Their work has been embraced by organizations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, has been featured on MTV and PBS, in the Wall Street Journal and Wired, and in hundreds of other newspapers, magazines, and television and radio shows around the world.

While two-thirds of Adbusters’ readers reside in the United States, the magazine has subscribers in 60 other countries, with one of the most diverse readerships of any publication. Adbusters’ readers are professors and students; activists and politicians; environmentalists and media professionals; corporate watch dogs and industry insiders; kids who love our slick ad parodies and parents who worry about their children logging too many hours a day in the electronic environment.

Adbusters offers incisive philosophical articles as well as activist commentary from around the world addressing issues ranging from genetically modified foods to media concentration. In addition, their annual social marketing campaigns like Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week have made them an important activist networking group.

Ultimately, though, Adbusters is an ecological magazine, dedicated to examining the relationship between human beings and their physical and mental environment. They want a world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance. They try to coax people from spectator to participant in this quest. They want folks to get mad about corporate disinformation, injustices in the global economy, and any industry that pollutes our physical or mental commons.

Editor: Kalle Lasn

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Managing Editor: Dominique Ritter

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The folks at Adbusters delight in helping other organizations deliver the messages the world needs to hear — and these same folks at Adbusters all lend their talents to PowerShift. If your communications are not-for-profit, consider PowerShift when you call for agencies. We’re a full-service shop, ready to create your next campaign — if the cause is right.

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Culture Jammers Headquarters

This site was designed to help you turn the drab number cruncher you’re staring at right now into the most versatile activist tool ever reckoned with. From cyberpetitions to Critical Mass tips, from disseminating corporate propaganda, to downshifting your lifestyle and treading lightly on the planet, we hope this site will inspire you to move — upon your return to the real world — from spectator to participant.

Hook in and Culture Jam – the connectivity is at your fingertips, educate-agitate-organize.

Author: Kalle Lasn and Tom Liacas

News Service: Adbusters


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