Is the greatest obstacle to liberty government or corporations? Is our constitution an inspired or a seriously flawed document? Should we amend the constitution or simply return to its basic principles? Should we pursue greater democracy, or should we fear it?
Tonight I attended a discussion about the role of corporations in our society, and more specifically aimed at amending the U.S. Constitution to specify that corporations are not people and should not be entitled to the rights or privileges afforded by the constitution to “the people.” Let me say right off the bat that I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that such an amendment is important and necessary to the advancement of our society. However, I would like to take some issue with some of the ideas that came up tonight.
The primary sponsor of the event was MoveToAmend, and the speaker from that organization was David Cobb, who was the Green Party’s 2004 presidential candidate, and who I knew before that from our time working together in the Harris County Green Party in Houston, Texas. If you haven’t seen Cobb speak, you should. He is the son of a minister, and a lawyer as well as a political activist. These factors probably contribute a great deal to his engaging speaking style.
During his presentation, his only real prop, aside from an impromptu grabbing of a chair, bag, and a stack of papers to demonstrate the endless cycle of desire that is consumerism, was a large tablet on an easel like you may have seen in meetings at work. On it, he created two columns. On the left he put “We the people” and on the right, he put “government” (Though he is on the political left, there was no suggestion that this placement had any right-left political undertones). Also on the left, he put sovereignty, individual rights, and private interests. On the other side, he put “subordinate and accountable” [to the people], collective duties, and the public interest.
The point of this dichotomy was to show that some things are characteristic of individual persons, and others are characteristic of the broader society, and to explain that corporations were originally [in American history] required to undergo much more public scrutiny in acquiring and maintaining their charters, and in their purposes and actions, and were thus “public” entities, and that the current notion, as expressed by the Supreme Court in Citizens United vs. FEC, that corporations are private entities entitled to First Amendment protection of the right to free speech, specifically through political contributions, is a distortion of the original intent of the constitution and its framers.
I will discuss the merits of “original intent” later, but first, I want to point out that if we really believe in the notion of popular sovereignty, then we must work to transform our constitutional republic into a constitutional democratic republic. The constitution, theoretically at least, protects a handful of individual rights, but it does not protect popular sovereignty, and without that, those individual rights become harder to protect. Part of the intent of the framers was to protect individual rights from popular sovereignty (i.e. democracy), but what they either could not see from their perspective or were trying to disguise (or more likely, a little of both) is that without democracy, the system set up by the constitution would be an oligarchy. Of course, it has in fact always been an oligarchy, originally an electoral aristocracy that has gradually morphed into an electoral plutocracy.
As Mr. Cobb mentioned this evening, the right to vote in this country was originally limited to property-owning white males, but even when it was extended to the non-propertied, other races, and to women, simply having the right to vote has never been sufficient to protect the liberty and justice that the constitution ostensibly intended to guarantee. Voting is merely the chance to select between a set of choices predetermined by the ruling elite, who eliminate or marginalize those choices that would threaten their mechanisms for guiding politics, economics, laws, and society in general. Even those rights we consider most basic, such as free speech and habeas corpus have been extended only when the elite finds it politically expedient, and have been rescinded when necessary for the maintenance of the oligarchy.
I contend that only “the people” can have the interests of “the people” at heart, and only through popular sovereignty can justice and liberty be assured; therefore, only through the democratization of our constitutional republic can we protect our rights, and that any form of government that is not a democracy is a form of tyranny. Given that, our goal must not be to highlight the dichotomous nature of the relationship between “we the people” and “government,” but rather to strive for the eradication of any distinction between them. We must become the government. We must recognize that the private interests of individual rights and liberties can only be realized, sustained, and assured through the public interests of universal and equal justice and our collective duty to each and all of us.
This does not necessarily mean that Cobb was wrong to categorize these things. It does mean that we need to have a Taoist understanding of how these things which may seem to be polar opposites are intrinsically interdependent. An important part in redesigning our society and our government to achieve to achieve a constitutional democratic republic out of our existing constitutional plutocratic republic certainly involves recognizing that corporations are not people, and that they should not be afforded the rights and privileges recognized in our constitution as belonging to “the people.” I attended the forum tonight because I thought it was probably the most important part in that process. I realize now that I was wrong. It is a key step, but it is just one of many steps, and it is not the most important or even the first step.
The Ruling Elite
During the question and answer period, one audience member commented that corporations are not actually the enemy, but are merely a tool of the ultra-wealthy elite who own controlling interests in most of the mega-corporations that dominate our government. Cobb acknowledged this fact and used an analogy of a knife which might be used to slice food to share, or to commit a violent attack on another. In his example, the knife is not intrinsically evil. The real problem is the person wielding it, but the first thing the potential victim must do is neutralize the threat from the knife, and only then can the would-be attacker be addressed. Indeed, the modern multinational corporation is a weapon wielded by the elite, and part of achieving democracy will entail neutralizing the political threat to our sovereignty from that weapon, but the analogy oversimplifies both the problem and the solution.
In a similar vein, many on both the far right and the far left often demonize “the government” as the enemy of the people and/or liberty. Of course, given the current reality, it is not hard to see it that way. Again, however, we must realize that the government as it currently exists, and as it has always existed in this country, is a tool of the elite. Rather than striving for the elimination of government, we should strive for the elimination of the distinction between government and the people. This will entail not one, but many amendments to the existing constitution.
Many Americans venerate the constitution as an inspired, nearly flawless document crafted by extraordinarily gifted and irreproachable individuals, believe that the problems of our modern society and government stem from a deviation from the principles of that constitution, and advocate a return to those principles as the avenue of our deliverance. Although even most of these people readily acknowledge the constitution’s most glaring flaw – it’s codification and legitimation of chattel slavery – they naively ignore the harsh reality that whatever problems we may currently face can be directly or indirectly attributed to that document. Whether you believe that the greatest tragedy of our political history was Marbury vs. Madison, the repeal of Taft-Hartley, the establishment of the IRS, Citizens United vs. FEC, or the New Deal (or any number of other things), these things were all results of the system of electing and appointing people to positions of power, and the rules provided for the operation of governmental institutions, as established by the constitution. A different constitution would likely have yielded different outcomes, some worse and some better, but in most cases, certainly different. A constitution that established a government that could more accurately be called a constitutional democratic republic would surely have done a better job at protecting the interests of the people rather instead of those of the ultra-wealthy than the one we currently have.
However, the constitution we have is the one with which we must work. So how do we transform it into the document we ought to have? Two other questions from tonight’s Q&A should help in answering this question. My own question to David was (loosely paraphrased): what strategy does Move To Amend have, or should “we the people” have, in trying to establish the immense grasstroots network of support that will be required to either pressure elected officials or to specifically elect people to office to amend the constitution, given that it will require 2/3 of both houses of Congress to propose it and majorities in 3/4 of state legislatures to ratify it? Part of his answer was to point out that a constitutional convention called by 2/3 of the states is another avenue available in Article V for proposing amendments, and that 3/4 of state conventions provide an alternative method of ratification. While true, this does not change the fact that either method of proposal basically requires 2/3 of the country, and either method of ratification requires the approval of 3/4 of the states. Granted, due to the nature of our majoritarian system, 2/3 of Congress or of state legislatures might be elected by something closer to 1/3 of the electorate, and 3/4 of state legislatures or state conventions might, in the worst case, actually represent less than 40% of voters, and given a 50% voter turnout, all these numbers might be achieved with the support of less than 20% of the population. However, achieving results with such a low percentage of support would require extremely (and unrealistically) fortunate placement of that support. Furthermore, as a movement aimed at enhancing the democratic nature of our government, would we even want to “win” with such a small minority?
The other relevant question that came up during Q&A was raised by several people, and is intimately related to my question about building a massive supermajority of popular support: how do we (in this case meaning the political left, though the support that we will need to build must certainly include left, right, and center) include communities of color into this effort? The question was initially raised because although the meeting was held in a community recreation center in a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood, the room was full of white faces, with only three exceptions. The apparent conclusion must be that either the organizers of the event did not reach out to these communities, or that the issue does not resonate in them. The ensuing discussion suggested that it was a bit of both. One of the two black gentlemen in the audience made a very important point. He pointed out that while most Blacks recognized that corporate power perpetuates the system of inequality that results in inordinate proportions of unemployment, poverty, and crime in communities of color, the average Black American is forced by circumstance to dedicate their energies to meeting the more basic necessities of life than to political activism. Further, those Blacks who are able to become politically active, because of their experiences, are usually more inclined to work on solutions to those problems that are more directly evident in their communities. I would add to his comments that the rise of the corporation as the primary tool of the elite for dominating American government did not make life worse in Black communities. Their problems predate the modern multinational. Various analyses are possible, but I would guess that either racism or capitalism, or both, would seem the logical target for Blacks whose activism is informed by history, and that corporate power would seem a distant third when determining which problems require the most urgent attention.
Consequently, since the movement for democracy both implies social and political equality and will require massive support, which will likely be impossible without the Black and Hispanic communities, and which will probably also necessarily include the LGBTQ community, the primary issue we must address in order to eventually pursue democracy in this country is equality. We must eliminate racism, sexism, and homophobia in our laws, and in our society.
As more than one person tonight suggested, this means that white political activists (not all, perhaps, but many) must temporarily set aside other issues (or at least recognize them as secondary in importance), including renewable energy, peace, and yes, corporate power, however important they may seem, to get involved in communities of color, learn what their issues are, and build solidarity in the pursuit of those issues. It may be presumptuous of me, but I would bet that the underlying theme of most of those specific issues is equality.
Elites have demonstrated throughout history that the people’s issues are not their issues, and they will give them attention only when forced by sheer magnitude of public demand. Thus, our various issues will require a massive democratic grassroots movement, which will not get off the ground until mainstream progressives and libertarians (both little and capital L) show that they are willing to make a serious committment to equality. We have many steps to take to transform our society into one that exemplifies the ideals set out in the preamble to our constitution, or that meets the standards of “liberty and justice for all” as expressed in the Pledge of Allegiance most of us recited so many times in our youth, and which many of us believed for so long to be the truth. As David Cobb expressed it this evening, even when we realized it was not true, most of us still believe it is what we deserve. The first step in achieving that dream is to realize that the partners we need to win our battle for democracy cannot help us until we help them. The second step is to get involved in those marginalized communities and develop solidarity with them in their struggles. We may not need to fully realize the dream of equality to get our brothers and sisters of color (including the colors of the rainbow) involved with the struggle for democracy, but we need to achieve it if democracy is to be real and meaningful. And to get there, we have to start with baby steps.