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Who Will Rule?

Citizen movements are proving that we can take on corporate power, and together build a future that works for all life.
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Read this article in Spanish. Lea este artículo en español


Illustration by Don Baker
Illustration by Don Baker for YES! Magazine.

Corporate power lies behind nearly every major problem we face—from stagnant wages and unaffordable health care to overconsumption and global warming. In some cases, it is the cause of the problem; in other cases, corporate power is a barrier to system-wide solutions. This dominance of corporate power is so pervasive, it has come to seem inevitable. We take it so much for granted, we fail to see it. Yet it is preventing solutions to some of the most pressing problems of our time.

With global warming a massive threat to our planet and a majority of U.S. citizens wanting action, why is the U.S. government so slow to address it? In large part because corporations use lobbying and campaign finance to constrain meaningful headway.

Why are jobs moving overseas, depressing wages at home, and leaving growing numbers under- or unemployed? In large part because trade treaties drafted in corporate-dominated back rooms have changed the rules of the global economy, allowing globalization to massively accelerate on corporation-friendly terms, at the expense of workers, communities, and the environment.

Why are unions declining and benefits disappearing? In large part because corporate power vastly overshadows the power of labor and governments, and corporations play one region off against another, busting unions to hold down labor costs while boosting profits, fueling a massive run-up in the stock market.

Why were electricity, the savings and loan industry, and other critical industries deregulated, contributing to major debacles whose costs are borne by the public? In large part because free market theory, enabled by campaign contributions and lobbying, seduced elected officials into trusting the marketplace to regulate itself.

With all this happening, why do we not read more about the pervasiveness of corporate power? In large part because even the “Fourth Estate,” our media establishment, is majority owned by a handful of mega-corporations.

Big corporations have become de facto governments, and the ethic that dominates corporations has come to dominate society. Maximizing profits, holding down wages, and externalizing costs onto the environment become the central dynamics for the entire economy and virtually the entire society.

What gets lost is the public good, the sense that life is about more than consumption, and the understanding that markets cannot manage all aspects of the social order.

What gets lost as well is the original purpose of corporations, which was to serve the public good.

Detail from illustration by Don Baker
Detail from Don Baker's illustration for YES! Magazine.

A Movement for the Public Good
The solution is to bring corporations back under citizen control and in service to the public good. The main components of such a movement already exist—including organized labor, environmentalists, religious activists, shareholder activists, students, farmers, consumer advocates, health activists, and community-based organizations.

We've seen the power of ordinary people working together on the streets of Seattle in 1999, challenging the World Trade Organization. We've seen them achieve impressive results curbing sweatshop abuses, limiting tobacco advertising, challenging predatory lending practices at home and abroad, and protecting millions of acres of forests, to name just a few successes.

We've also seen the growth of community-friendly economic designs like worker-owned enterprises, co-ops, and land trusts that, by design, put human and environmental well-being first.

Focus on Corporate Power
Each of these movements advocates for healthy communities, for a moral economy, and for the common good. If they acted together, they would possess enormous collective power. But as yet there is no whole, only disconnected parts. Despite many achievements, the gap in power between corporations and democratic forces has widened enormously in recent decades.

Activists and citizens are beginning to turn this around. We can build on this work. But if we are to close the gap in power, our strategies must evolve. We need to dream bigger, to speak with one voice across issue sectors, and to act more strategically. We need to focus less on symptoms of corporate abuse and more on the underlying cause—excessive corporate power. We must recognize that ultimately our struggle is for power. It is not just to make corporations more responsible, but to make them our servants, in much the same way that elected officials are public servants.

We need what the movement now lacks: a coherent vision of the role we want corporations to play in our society and a strategy for achieving that vision. It's about putting We the People back in charge of our future, rather than the robotic behemoths that set their sights on short-term growth and high profits, regardless of the consequences.

The streams of many small movements must flow together into a single river, creating a global movement to bring corporations back under the control of citizens and their elected governments. The urgent need for unified action impelled a small group of organizations to initiate a long-term Strategic Corporate Initiative (SCI), of which we are a part.

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