February 24, 2006

The Corporation

At the end of the film The Corporation, Ray Anderson, Founder and Chairman of Interface, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, tells a group of business people that we need another industrial revolution, that the first industrial revolution got it wrong, and that we need to get it right this time around. He tells these business people that we have created a world in which corporations are all behaving in ways that are unsustainable for the planet and that our very future is at stake.

Anderson is one of the leaders of a small green revolution among corporations, a pioneer with a passion for changing the world's corporate culture away from a merely profit-driven exploitation and waste of earth's resources and toward a corporate sustainability that, at the very least, does no harm, but which, at best, begins to reverse the adverse environmental and social consequences of corporate abuses.

The Interface website describes its motivations this way:

Inspired chiefly by Paul Hawken's treatise, The Ecology of Commerce, Ray heightened the company's awareness and led changes in technology in an effort to move toward being environmentally sustainable. Admittedly, Interface is not there yet; however, the company is developing processes and technologies to get it there. What this means, primarily, is learning to harness solar, wind, biomass and other forms of green energy and providing raw material needs by harvesting and recycling carpet and other petrochemical products, while eliminating waste and harmful emissions from its operations. Ray believes that if Interface, a petro-intensive company, can get it right, it will never have to take another drop of oil from the earth. The philosophy guiding Ray's passion for this cause is simply that it is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing, too.

Corporations have taken over every part of our daily lives and constitute an unelected center of power that impinges on every thing in our lives. From the corporate control of our media -- what we see, hear, and read -- to what we eat -- agribusiness controlling the production, distribution, and quality of our food, what chemicals are used in that production without our knowledge and against our will, we have little choice but to ingest their products. From the pharmaceutical companies that control the quality and prices of medical discoveries paid for in large part through taxpayer subsidies, and which, at the same time, are buying patented control and ownership of the genetic code of human life to the corporations in every industry that have bought and paid for influence in every strata of our national, state and local legislatures and governments.

Using what is perhaps one of the most terrible mistakes of history, namely the Supreme Court decision that established the corporation as a "person," the corporation has aggrandized for itself a series of "rights and privileges" that have helped it avoid citizen oversight and control. It has become a power in and of itself that has acquired rights (such as free speech) that were intended for human citizens of the United States. Like individual citizens, corporations are allowed to own property, pay taxes, exercise certain Constitutional rights like free speech, enter into contracts, and otherwise behave as if they were a person. One of the few things they cannot do is become a citizen and vote. Of course, I would argue that their intensive and overwhelming financial involvement in the electoral process makes this last point irrelevant.

As such, corporations have become immune to the normal controls that would require them to work in the "public interest," the original intent of the laws governing the chartering of corporations over 150 years ago. Today, the "public interest" is so low on the list of priorities for corporations as to make it invisible. In everything corporations do --whether it is inventing new drugs to cure disease, publishing newspapers to provide us information, giving money to candidates for public office, producing a new pesticide, building a new factory, hiring new employees, establishing workplace safety standards, setting new wages for workers -- corporations make decisions based on one overriding thing: profit.

And, moreover, they are required by law to make a profit, first and foremost.

Jeff Milchen of ReclaimDemocracy says:

Because maximizing return to shareholders is legally required of corporate officers, profit must be the ultimate measure of all corporate decisions. Profit necessarily takes precedence over community well-being, worker safety, public health, peace, environmental preservation, and national security.

What Ray Anderson is doing is "the smart thing," but it is also the tiniest of things in comparison to what needs to be done. The vast majority of corporations have yet to experience Ray Anderson's personal revelation and conversion, and the likelihood of their doing it on their own, like Anderson, is pretty slim. It is going to take citizen action unlike any we are seeing now, the overthrow of corporate dominated national and state legislatures, the repeal of old laws and court decisions, the passage of new laws, and a media that is an ally of this kind of citizen action.

How we get to that point is the challenge we face. But it needs to begin this coming November. If you are not involved in any campaign for a candidate that will work toward this end, get involved. If you don't have the time, donate money. If you are broke, write letters to the editor about why these changes need to happen and why new people need to be elected to make these changes.

If you suspect that I have just had the opportunity to watch the film, The Corporation, you would be right. It is a film every American should watch. It will confirm what most Americans feel in their gut, know in their hearts, and understand in their heads about how corporations have become an undemocratic and unacceptable presence in their lives.

Buy the DVD here.

I have also created a list of excellent links on the left side of this blog under the heading Overthrowing Corporate Rule.

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