The Charge of the Left Brigade

Changing governments can bring change only in a democracy
April 1, 2011

George Bernard Shaw used to tell the story of how he encountered “the man who lost his keys.”

Walking home from the theatre one night, he came upon a man on his hands and knees under a lamp-post, obviously searching for something.

“I’ve lost my keys,” the man told Shaw.

The playwright joined in the search, but after several minutes it was apparent the keys were nowhere to be found.

“Are you sure you lost your keys here?” Shaw asked.

“Oh, no, I lost them in that dark alley over there,” the man replied, “but it’s a lot easier to look for them here under the lamp-light.”

I’m reminded of that anecdote every time I hear people complain about a government policy, or when I see protestors milling about in front of government buildings, or when I read about NGOs submitting briefs or petitions to parliamentary committees.

It is indeed much easier to look for the “keys” to a just society in the brightly-lit legislative chambers than in the secluded boardrooms of corporate power. But it’s a search that is just as futile as that of Shaw’s man under the lamp-post.

Canada has been under corporate rule for at least the past 35 years. All our governments since the mid-1970s, federal and provincial, have been committed to implementing the corporate agenda -- most willingly, others from fear of corporate retaliation. The pretense of democracy has been maintained, but the reality is that all governments in Canada for the past 35 years have been taking their instructions from the country’s top CEOs.

During all this time, the groups and individuals that wanted to preserve the relatively progressive society that was being created in the post-war “Golden Age” have protested the relentless wave of cutbacks, privatizations, and deregulations. They have done so by appealing to the politicians who have implemented these destructive policies on behalf of their corporate masters.

Whole forests have been felled to provide the paper for the thousands of briefs, letters, and petitions that have been presented to parliamentary committees. The telephones and computers have dispatched millions of angry calls and emails to the corporations’ political lackeys. The lawns in front of the legislatures have been trampled by hordes of noisy demonstrators.

All these “charges of the Left Brigade” have been to no avail. The politicians pay no heed to those who are harmed by the laws they enact and the policies they implement to advance corporate interests, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Occasionally, yes, to preserve the illusion of democracy, the politicians may introduce a harsher measure than their corporate overseers demand, so that they can later reduce it “in response to public appeals.” This makes political leaders look democratic. It also lets the protest leaders claim an occasional spurious “victory,” even though the corporate agenda is never seriously retarded.

There is an urgent need to restore democracy in Canada, but it will never happen as long as most Canadians fail to realize that the present system is no longer democratic. Protesting against and pleading with the political servants of the corporate empire merely helps maintain the illusion of democracy. It consolidates corporate rule rather than exposing and challenging it. The message it sends to the voters at election time is that, if they’re not satisfied with the prevailing government, all they have to do is replace it with another political party. That’s how democracy works.

Well, it might work if we really lived in a democracy. But in fact both major contenders in the next federal election are equally subservient to Big Business, so it doesn’t matter which of them garners the most votes. The NDP, of course, would not be nearly as ready to comply with corporate dictates in the unlikely event it emerged with the most seats. But there’s no evidence from its performance in government at the provincial level that the NDP would dare to challenge corporate rule in any meaningful way if it ever formed a federal government. Not as long as the majority of Canadians still believe they live in a democracy. Not as long as they fail to see that all the social, economic, and environmental problems they complain about are the result of excessive and virtually uncontrolled corporate power.

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Still, it’s encouraging that a growing number of people in recent years have become aware of corporate iniquity, fraud, and corruption. Many eyes have been opened by the exposure of greedy banks and currency traders as the perpetrators of the recent financial meltdown and prolonged economic slump. Books about the abuse of corporate power have made the bestseller lists, and documentaries of the same kind by Michael Moore and others have made the movie theatres and won film industry awards.

These revelations have started to break through the wall of secrecy behind which the corporations have wielded their power and manipulated the political system. But the mainstream media, owned and controlled by big corporations, still hide or minimize their misdeeds. So much so that the reality of corporate rule will not be a factor in the next election. It will not be on the campaign platform of any political party. It will not be an issue raised during the televised political debates. Clearly a great deal of public education about corporations remains to be done.

It’s not generally known, for example, that, when the first corporations were set up, centuries ago, they had none of the power and privilege they now enjoy. They were kept on a short leash. They had to apply for and obtain charters from governments that spelled out their limited purpose and rights. They were not allowed to participate in politics or education or any other activity not directly related to their business. A corporation that willfully strayed beyond the narrow scope of its charter, or did anything that was viewed as harmful to the public interest, had its charter revoked and was dissolved. In short, the people (through their elected representatives) controlled the corporations.

How did that relationship get reversed? It’s a long story, but basically what happened was that, in the latter half of the 1800s, the corporations were able to use their growing wealth to influence (i.e., buy) large numbers of politicians and judges. The outcome was a series of legal amendments and rulings that greatly expanded the freedom of business firms.

The most significant was the decision to give corporations the status and rights of “personhood,” which meant their non-business activities could no longer be prohibited. They could behave just like any individual person or citizen, even though they were immensely more affluent and influential. They were set free to extend their power into the political process, into the schools and universities, into the purchase of newspapers and radio and television networks.

One of the first victories of the newly empowered corporations was to escape from the limits and accountability built into their charters. They were not entirely freed from government restraints, but they could and did have the regulations on their activities weakened or left unenforced. Even in the unlikely event they were ever caught and charged with price-gouging or selling dangerously defective products or dumping toxic waste into rivers (and, even more unlikely, actually convicted), they would only have to pay a token fine and then could resume their illicit practices.

Freed from effective public constraints, the corporations grew in size and power, and, with the development of global free trade, became the dominant economic and financial organizations in the world. Inevitably, they also became the dominant political force. Democracy, wherever it had developed, was transformed into a corporate oligarchy.

The latest and most appalling extension of corporate power was the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that gave that country’s corporations the right to spend unlimited sums during elections to ensure that the candidates they favoured would win. Of course, business-backed candidates in the U.S. (in Canada, too) have always benefited from corporate financial support, but within certain limits that have now been removed.

It would be misleading, however, to portray the corporate rulers as now wielding so much power that they are completely beyond counterattack. Quite aside from the internal problems they’re having with the shaky global system they’ve created, they have not proved invulnerable to public opposition when it is properly and strategically focused. Some of their proposed trade deals have been scuttled. Some consumer boycotts of their most dangerous products have forced withdrawals or financial settlements.

Still, it must be conceded that rule by corporations has yet to be seriously challenged. They can afford to lose some skirmishes with civil society or consumer groups and still maintain their supremacy.

Potentially, their weakest point is still – even if now just nominally – the charters that give them the right to exist and operate.

These charters, once granted only for a fixed term, are now granted in perpetuity, contain few obligations or conditions, and are only technically subject to government review. Their wording, however, could (theoretically) be amended to incorporate limits and penalties comparable to those that were included in the business charters of the past. They could be denied the protection of limited liability, banned from participating in elections and lobbying, and kicked out of schools.

The problem, of course, is that such amendments to corporate charters can only be enacted by governments that serve the people rather than the corporations. And, unfortunately, such governments no longer exist at the national level (although those in Scandinavia come close). At regional and local levels, however, some politicians can surprisingly be found who are both willing and able to get tough with misbehaving business firms. In the U.S., of all places, there have been a few such incidents.

The town council of Wayne, Pennsylvania, for example, has enacted a bylaw that bans corporations from doing business in the town if they have been found guilty of violating labour, environmental, health and safety, tax, or consumer regulations. Citizens of Arcata, California, also voted by a 61% majority to monitor all companies doing business in the city with a view to banning any of their practices that harm or threaten the well-being of the inhabitants or the environment.

The same trend is evident in the decision by numerous municipalities in the U.S. and Canada to declare themselves “sweatshop-free zones” by refusing to purchase goods made in countries that exploit and mistreat their workers. Also significant is the “Living Wage” campaign in which cities commit to having their employees and those of contractors doing municipal work paid a wage that enables their families to meet actual living costs. Hundreds of cities around the world, including some in the U.S. and a few in Canada, have signed onto this campaign.

As the struggle against corporate rule slowly gains momentum, it may therefore be advisable to “think globally, act locally.” Actions taken at the community level – particularly those that challenge the legal and constitutional legitimacy of corporate “rights” – may not have the same headline-grabbing impact that a national or international project could, but they seem to be the most promising in terms of mustering public support and participation.

And they set examples and precedents that the broader movement against corporate rule needs to build on in the years ahead.

Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.