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Corporations Ain't People, So Why Do They Have the Power of Citizens?

Two anti-corporate activists discuss the abuses of corporate personhood and how we can shake their grip of power off of our democratic process.

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McClain: But is it possible that democracy has run its course? Between this ruling, the influence corporations have long had on our news media, and the fairly recent practice of threatening filibuster in the Senate to force legislation into a dead end, I'm starting to wonder. What next steps do we need to take to make people feel like they have a role in governance?

Brown:Provocative…I believe that corporate democracy is going to destroy the human race and planet, and if it won't die through global financial crisis then we have to evolve past it. But this is the crux of the issue - democracy is supposed to be government by the people. There's a reasonable argument to be made that we have never actually practiced democracy in the US - we've always had a representative version here, where the decisions are truly made by

an “informed”/elite body, not by the people. Grace Boggs always talks about how this is a society where the masses have primarily been seen as a labor force for the elite bodies of this nation, through both agricultural and industrial eras. The people have not been engaged and educated to truly be interested, active participants in the governance of the nation. Now corporations are a new electoral college - they have unlimited capacity to influence elections. "The people" have every reason to feel less and less engaged.

McClain:I wonder whether that’s the case. It’s easy to think that one reason more people aren’t up in arms over the growing influence of corporate power is that they don’t yet see it as a problem. They’re not educated to be engaged, as you suggest. But a few weeks after the Supreme Court issued its ruling, an ABC-Washington Post poll showed that 80% of those surveyed opposed (and 65% strongly opposed) the Citizens United decision. So people are aware and concerned. What can we do with that awareness? How can we harness and direct it?

Brown: Something I learned at Ruckus is that awareness isn't enough. We have to connect people's awareness to their behaviors, to their own lives and choices and the struggles they experience.  We have to move people past the inertia of their fear or sense of powerlessness by uplifting the viable alternative. There are so many people who are interested in the process of actual government by the people, but their relationship to it is that of a consumer, watching and reading about what is happening without feeling empowered to engage. The root of that potential power is education. Democracy relies upon education appropriate to the cultural make-up of the country, education that yields a population who can participate in governance, education that grows the capacity of people to thrive.

McClain: I know you find a lot of inspiration in science fiction and that you look to that genre to help generate new thinking around solutions. What would Octavia Butler say about the way corporate power is growing? What solutions would she write into a novel in which people who had for generations gained citizenship by virtue of their humanity and place of birth are slowly edged out of citizenship because they lack access to money?

Brown:Oh, she foresaw this. In the Parables she knew this was coming and warned us, in her way. Her solution was to rethink our purpose as human beings, and change how we live  - even if that means leaving what we perceive as safety. Part of why we held the Octavia Butler Symposium at the Allied Media Conference** last year was to explore how we connect ideas like hers to how we are living and organizing in the world. I feel like she did a powerful job, for instance, of challenging the idea that our future lies in the struggle to act as a nation, when our destiny might actually be something much more global, or universal. In her stories, our way to evolve is to leave behind the right-wing politics and struggles of earth and go to space. And that truly makes me pause - is corporate personhood even something to address through national organizing? Are we thinking too small? Look at how much energy we spend now demanding humane policies and programs in a country that still defaults towards borders, prisons, segregation and poverty.

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