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Activists Gather in Washington to Debate the Future of the Corporation

Organized by Ralph Nader and the Center for Study of Responsive Law, more than 200 activists and scholars convened in Washington, DC, on April 2 for an all-day conference on “Controlling the Corporation.” Nader opened the conference, outlining the growing corporate role in everyday life. “Mega-corporations use the public’s own resources against it, planning intimately … Continued

Organized by Ralph Nader and the Center for Study of Responsive Law, more than 200 activists and scholars convened in Washington, DC, on April 2 for an all-day conference on “Controlling the Corporation.”

Nader opened the conference, outlining the growing corporate role in everyday life. “Mega-corporations use the public’s own resources against it, planning intimately and relentlessly our future,” exercised in many spheres, including “mass media, health care, transportation, tax code, housing, trade agreements,” even “patenting our genes.”

He also mentioned the historical, anti-corporate stances of such diverse figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Friedrich Hayek and Smedley Butler.

Nader explained that the conference would address these issues in two-pronged strategy. The first, highlighting ways to constrain corporate power through such means as campaign finance reform, prosecuting corporate crimes and protecting the commons from privatization. The second strategy involved “displacing” mega-corporations through “cooperatives, small entrepreneurs, new economies, local and renewable energies and democratic credit unions.”

Speakers on the first topic included former Congressman Bob Edgar (D-Pennsylvania), who proposed to amend the Constitution to declare that “corporations are not people, money is not speech and legislative bodies have the power to regulate financing.”

Activist and author Harvey Wasserman proposed further reforms, including abolition of the electoral college, automatic voter registration for all 18-year-olds, elimination of electronic ballots, weekend voting and authorizing national referenda. The discussion, moderated by Theresa Amato of Citizen Works, also aired ideas such as providing public financing, voting rights for felons and free airtime to political candidates.

A second panel examined ways to curtail corporate crime. Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter, for example, called for criminal prosecution of corporate malfeasance instead of deferred and non-prosecution agreements, arguing that criminal conviction sends a message that “a civil fine or a deferred and non prosecution does not.”

Bill Black, professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and renowned former bank regulator, contrasted the regulatory response to the savings and loans crisis of the late-1980s with the generalized impunity of the present.

“The Office of Thrift Supervision,” a branch of the Treasury Department, “made 30 thousand criminal referrals in four-and-a-half years, produced 3,000 felony convictions and went after the top 100 violators, said Black. “We brought 800 civil actions and $1 billion in recovery.” Despite the prevalence of present-day mortgage fraud, the same agency, according to Black, “made zero criminal referrals for this crisis.”

Marco Simons of EarthRights focused internationally: “Although corporations may be persons for influencing elections,” Simons said, “they are not bound by international human rights law like everyone else.” He added, “you can prosecute [them] for bribery, but it’s difficult for environmental crimes, genocide, torture, [and] crimes against humanity” abroad.

Kent Greenfield, professor at the Boston College Law School, championed ending limited liability for corporations. He explained that one could “disagree on limited liability for shareholders, but not when the corporation itself is a shareholder.” Often, during mergers and acquisitions, companies create “a wholly-owned subsidiary and merge the target into the subsidiary to enjoy limited liability.”

Robert Weissman of Public Citizen noted that companies like Pfizer, which paid a $2.3 billion fine in 2009 (or less than three weeks worth of sales), rely on the government for monopoly rights to their drugs for outsize profits. In cases of wrongdoing, such grants “could be rescinded.”

A third panel, titled “Protecting the ‘Commons’ from Insatiable Advocates of Privatization,” began with an account by David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on a decision by Fort Worth, Texas, to remove the word “public” from its public library to “keep up with the times” and because of its “potentially negative connotation.” He noted that he was pleased, however, by the Occupy movement’s effect of shifting the narrative.

Wenonah Hauter of the Food & Water Watch cited Willem Buiter, chief economist for Citibank, who said that he expects “to see a globally integrated market for fresh water … futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments … will follow” and argued for the need to maintain public control over water.

Dr. Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician and a lead organizer of the conference, discussed her advocacy for universal health care. She believes there are ways of connecting with concerned citizens across the political spectrum, recounting a personal anecdote of meeting older, right-wing protesters who enthusiastically supported extending Medicare for all US citizens.

The panel associated with “Actions” to advance the Occupy movement included Christopher Hedges, Kevin Zeese, Dean Baker and Mary Bottari. Hedges advocated for making the Occupy movement militantly nonviolent and imposing a zero-tolerance policy for other forms of action.

“The resources of the state are tremendous and have been employed against the Occupy movement,” said Hedges, which included the “physical eradication of the encampments.” Hedges argued that those who engaged in acts of vandalism or covered their faces, unwittingly abetted the authorities’ ability to justify force when reacting.

The aim is “very clear,” for those in power, Hedges stated. It’s “to sever the Occupy movement from the mainstream. Because it is fundamentally a mainstream movement,” he asserted. “It articulates the aspirations and grievances of the majority of the US: Health care, jobs, the looting of treasury by Wall Street,” and the assault on civil liberties, exemplified by the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Hedges hoped the movement would proceed in a similar way to what he had witnessed, for example, in East Germany. “I saw the Stasi state,” he recalled. “It was the most pervasive security state in the history of humankind. For every 63 people, there was one Stasi informant – and yet the state fell.”

Zeese, a conference organizer, began by congratulating Occupy activists who had successfully blocked an eviction earlier that day. “The Occupy Our Homes project has saved a hundred people from being kicked out of their homes,” he added. He saw Occupy as an extension of the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and called for more development of “democratized economic institutions so people get control over their own lives.”

Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, thought Occupy Wall Street had wisely chosen a very appropriate target for anger. “We should see the financial sector as a real demon and it doesn’t take a lot to convince people these days,” Baker argued. “The financial sector got us here.”

“Now that we have five times as many resources in finance [relative to the size of the economy since the 1970s], is our money more secure?” Baker asked, rhetorically. “Is it easier to start a business? Is it easier to save for retirement? Public pension funds have been losing money because they pay so much in fees.”

Baker noted that “hedge fund managers make $3-4 billion a year.” Baker estimated that the median net wealth for a couple over 65 was $170,000, which meant that hedge fund managers “make in 10 minutes what a typical family would have accumulated over a lifetime.”

Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy discussed the “unique” consequence of the Wisconsin protests against the pro-corporate policies of Gov. Scott Walker, which led to Wisconsin state “Democrats with a backbone.”

Carl Mayer, a lawyer representing Hedges and other co-plaintiffs suing the Obama administration over the National Defense Authorization Act’s constitutionality, expressed his alarm at the criminalization of protest. He cited a City of London police report to the area’s business community, which listed al-Qaeda as a top international terrorist threat and referred to Occupy London as a top domestic threat. He quoted the document, which raised alarms against “individuals who would fit the anti-capitalist profile.”

Acrimonious exchanges characterized the question-and-answer period after this panel. Several rebutted Hedges’ condemnation of black bloc and anarchist tactics; others questioned the level of Zeese’s participation in the Occupy movement.

“It’s an attack on stupidity,” not anarchism, Hedges retorted. “When you carry out acts of feral or spontaneous vandalism, what you’re doing is taking the easy way out. It involves no planning or strategy,” he said to applause.

The following panel directly engaged on the question of building community wealth and alternative economic institutions. Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, noted, “Ralph used the term ‘displace,’ not simply ‘control.'” Alperovitz noted that the word “systemic” had not been mentioned. The goal, Alperovitz said, must be “changing the system, not just changing or controlling the corporation.”

“In the coming three decades,” Alperovitz declared, “we should lay the foundations for a fundamental base for a truly democratic economy.” State initiatives and battles for single-payer health care, Alperovitz noted, are one means to “displace corporate power,” as are the efforts to create public banks modeled after the Bank of North Dakota. Already, Alperovitz noted, there are “130 million Americans involved in co-ops,” and more workers with ownership stakes in their firms than there are union members in the private sector. These institutions, Alperovitz suggested, are ripe with political potential “waiting to be activated.”

Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First emphasized the role public money plays in subsidizing corporate giants. “Three-quarters of the for-profit private prisons in this country get economic development subsidies,” LeRoy said. He noted, however, that broad coalitions of labor, housing, civil rights and environmental activists and progressive developers can successfully organize to use public economic development funds instead to promote local hiring, affordable housing, living wages, local businesses and community facilities.

Gayle McLaughlin, mayor of Richmond, California, highlighted the success her city had in restraining the expansion of Chevron, which has a large oil refinery based in Richmond, to protect the local environment. McLaughlin also discussed the importance of building economic alternatives. Last year, McLaughlin visited Mondragón worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, a model that she hopes to see implemented in coming years in Richmond.

The conference closed with a panel titled “Mobilizing for Sustained Action,” with representatives from SumOfUs, the United Steelworkers and the Industrial Areas Foundations all making supportive remarks. Nader closed the conference. “Conferences have left and created new groups,” he concluded. “Young people have reoriented the trajectory of their lives” as a result.

For more information on the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, see:

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