CORPORATE FOCUS: Anti-Corporate Activists

There is a new breed of activist roaming the land. These activists who believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with the large corporation itself -- that it is not what corporations do wrong that is the problem, it is corporations themselves that are the problem.These activists believe large corporations as they exist today are fundamentally undemocratic and cannot be reformed. These activists question whether corporations should be considered legal persons with the same rights of you and I and other living human beings. They question the very nature of the corporation.Richard Grossman and his colleagues at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy are travelling the country, encouraging activists of all stripes to begin asking fundamental questions about citizen control of corporations, to research the history of corporations, and to begin to question corporate control over the citizenry.In 1996, Grossman was in Columbus, Ohio, where he met with 25 activists from around the state for two days. One activist who attended was Greg Coleridge.Coleridge was born and raised and spent most of his life in Akron, Ohio. For the past 17 years, he has been an activist with the American Friends Service Committee -- the Quakers.After hearing Grossman speak, Coleridge and fellow activists in Ohio began researching the history of corporations in Ohio.They found a speech given by Williams Jennings Bryan to the 1912 Constitutional Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Ask yourself: Who today would speak in such a manner?This is what William Jennings Bryan had to say in 1912:"The first thing to understand is the difference between the natural person and the fictitious person, called the corporation. They differ in the purpose in which they are created, in the strength which they possess, and in the restraints under which they act. Man is the handiwork of God and was placed upon earth to carry out a Divine purpose. The corporation is the handiwork of man and was created to carry out a money-making policy. There is comparatively little difference in the strength of men. A corporation may be one hundred, one thousand, or even one million times stronger than the average man. Man acts under the restraints of conscience, and is influenced also by a belief in the future life. A corporation has no soul and cares nothing about the hereafter."They found that the Ohio Supreme Court stripped Standard Oil of Ohio of its charter for monopolizing the oil industry. The Standard Oil Trust fled to New Jersey, the Delaware of its day. And Standard Oil wasn't alone. The Ohio state legislature and courts had stripped dozens and dozens of corporations of their charters for wrongdoing. Don't do as we tell you and you're out!They found that the much ballyhooed Sherman Antitrust Act was a bone thrown to activists. The act was named after John Sherman, the Senator from Ohio. This is Senator Sherman urging his fellow members of the Senate to pass his legislation into law: The people "are feeling the power and grasp of these combinations, and are demanding of every [state] legislature and of Congress a remedy for this evil, only grown into huge proportions in recent times... You must heed their appeal, or be ready for the socialist, the communist, and the nihilist... Society is now disturbed by forces never felt before. The popular mind is agitated with problems that may disturb the social order. Among these, none is more threatening than the inequality of condition, wealth and opportunity" that has emerged from "the concentration of capital in vast combinations to control production and trade and to break down competition."Coleridge and his friends pulled together this information in a nifty little booklet called: Citizens Over Corporations: A Brief History of Democracy in Ohio and Challenges to Organizing in the Future."Corporations are a different kind of creation," Coleridge told us recently. "There is no surprise that corporations have ended up working against the human interest and against the common good."So Greg, if not corporations, what?"If we can ever get to the point of asking that question, we will have moved forward," Coleridge says. "Just as fish think water is necessary for existence, human beings have come to see corporations as necessary to economic existence. It is so much accepted as a given that we don't tend to believe that there is any other way."Right now, Grossman, Coleridge and like minded activists around have a lot of questions and few answers. They are busy researching how we got ourselves into this soup -- from a situation where we controlled corporations, to where corporations are controlling us.For his part, Coleridge is not ashamed to admit that he doesn't know the answer to corporate power. "The corporate culture is a century or more in the making," he said. "It is going to take a few years for us collectively and democratically to understand where we are, how we got here, and how to turn it around."Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

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