Corporate Power, Government Subservience

Most people want corporate power curbed — governments don't
November 1, 2013

Several years ago, an Ipsos Global Public Affairs poll disclosed that a large majority of the world's "most informed, engaged and connected" citizens believe corporations are far too powerful and that their activities should be more effectively regulated.

At the time, my reaction to that survey of social and political activists in 22 countries was a mixture of astonishment and elation. It was mind-blowing to learn that so many of the most informed and active people in so many countries (an awesome average of 74% of them) shared our deep concerns about excessive corporate power and wanted it curtailed.

The implication was that there was no longer any need to spend much time or effort exposing corporate infamy. Most people, according to Ipsos, were already fully aware of the social, economic and environmental harm that big business firms were causing -- and they wanted a prompt and concerted government crackdown.

It was exhilarating to learn that so many people in so many countries wanted corporate abuses stopped. But in the years that have passed since that poll, the majority worldwide opinion it reported still hasn't been translated into appropriate government action in most of the world's leading industrial nations.

Think about this political delinquency for a minute and you begin to see that the Ipsos poll was a deeply disturbing one. Its message was that corporate power is now so deeply entrenched that politicians shrink from challenging it, no matter how popular strong controls and regulation might be with the most informed and engaged voters.

Such voters admittedly comprise a minority of the people who actually cast ballots in most elections. But you have to assume they are also the most educated and influential citizens, and that, properly disseminated, their views would sway the less well-informed voters.

This indeed seems to be happening in some countries in Europe and Latin America, where populist left-leaning governments have started to crack down on the most damaging and irresponsible corporate wrongdoing. Even in most of these countries, however, the power vested in large global firms by their financial might and by international trade agreements still deters substantive government restraint.

In the United States and Canada, even modest efforts to reduce corporate power have been missing. If anything, Big Business has been given even greater freedom to run rampant over the public interest. The anti-corporate mindset revealed by the Ipsos poll is nowhere to be seen in government policies and priorities.

The CEOs are so confident their influence will prevail politically that they no longer care if they've lost broad public support. Their unbridled pursuit of profit at any cost has ravaged the environment, led to mass outsourcing and layoffs, soaring oil prices, and a prolonged recession. They shrug off multi-million-dollar CEO salaries, growing inequality, unfair tax systems, even corporate scandals. A few of the worst business rogues have been fined or jailed, but mainly because their misdeeds hurt other big investors, not because of the thousands of workers and pensioners who were victimized.

The business leaders probably laughed at the results of the global Ipsos poll: "So the best and brightest citizens don't like our methods. So what? The politicians they choose to elect to form governments are our pals or puppets. They either share our free-market ideology or they're too scared to confront us. Governments will never seriously get in our way, no matter how many people want them to."

Is this supreme arrogance warranted? Are the big corporations now so domineering that they can safely ignore public opinion? Has plutocracy really supplanted democracy?

Three-quarters of the well-informed citizens polled by Ipsos said they believe corporations are now more powerful than governments. That's true, however, only in the sense that most of this power was ceded to corporations by governments. When the first companies were set up, they had little independent power and were kept on a tight leash. But as time went by, business lobbying and bribery led to more and more power being conferred on companies. Laws and judicial decisions consolidated their strength, and deregulation and global trade deals vastly extended it.

It's true that the immense power governments have yielded to corporations can be taken back, or at least curbed. What's missing are politicians and governments willing to tackle this urgently-needed reform. There's no major political party in Canada, for example, that will even promise to withdraw from NAFTA, despite all its devastating economic impacts — and even though there's a built-in escape clause.

So there's a gaping disconnect between what informed voters want their governments to do to stop corporate abuse and what their governments are willing to do. Unless this political chasm is bridged — unless governments start governing for all citizens instead of just the corporate élite — simply exposing and denouncing corporate excesses will continue to be futile.

The Ekos Global Public Affairs survey revealed the worldwide extent of this problem. Workable solutions are obviously available, but not — in most developed Western nations — governments inclined to implement them.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)