by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
Exxon merges with Mobil. Citicorp marries Travelers. Daimler Benz gobbles up Chrysler. NationsBank takes over BankAmerica. WorldCom eats MCI.
Corporations are getting bigger and bigger, and their influence over our lives continues to grow. America is in an era of corporate ascendancy, the likes of which we haven't seen since the Gilded Age.
Charles Derber, a professor of sociology at Boston College, believes that, contrary to the lessons our civics teacher taught us, it is undemocratic corporations, not governments, that are dominating and controlling society.
In his most recent book, Corporation Nation (St. Martin's Press, 1998), Derber argues that the consequence of the growing power of giant corporate multinationals is increased disparity in wealth, rampant downsizing and million dollar CEOs making billion dollar decisions with little regard for average American.
A couple of years ago, Derber wrote The Wilding of America (St. Martin's Press, 1996) in which he argued that the American Dream had transmuted into a semi-criminal, semi-violent virus that is afflicting large parts of the elites of the country.
That book tried to call attention to the extent to which violent behavior could be understood as a product of oversocialization.
"The problem was not that they had been underexposed to American values, but that they could not buffer themselves from those values," Derber told us. "They had lost the ability to constrain any kind of anti-social behavior -- because of obsessions with success -- the American Dream."
By anti-social behavior, Derber means the epitome of Reaganism -- "a kind of warping of the more healthy forms of individualism in our culture into a hyperindividualism in which people asserted their own interests without regard to its impact on others."
At the time, Derber was interviewed on a Geraldo show about paid assassins -- people who killed for money.
"It was scary to be around young people who confessed to killing for relatively small amounts of money -- a few thousand dollars," Derber said. "They said things like -- 'you have to understand, this is just a business, everybody has to make money.' I pointed out on the show that this was the language that business usually uses."
At the same time, Newsweek ran a cover story titled "Corporate Killers." On the cover, Newsweek ran the mug shots of four CEOs who had downsized in profitable periods and upped their own salaries.
"These corporate executives tended to use the same language as the paid assassins on the Geraldo show, 'I feel fine about this because I'm just doing what the market requires,'" Derber explains. "I develop an analogy between paid assassins on the street and those in the suites. In the most general sense, these corporate executives are paid hitmen who use very much the same language and rationalization. I argue that corporations are exemplifying a form of anti-social behavior which is undermining a great deal of the social fabric and civilized values that we would hope to sustain."
With the hitmen parallel fresh in his mind, Derber began writing Corporation Nation. In it, Derber points to the parallels between today and the age of the robber barons 100 years ago -- the wave of corporate mergers, the widening gulf between rich and poor (Bill Gates' net worth (well over $50 billion) is more than that of the bottom 100 million Americans), the enormous influence of corporations over democratic institutions, both major parties bought off by big business, and a Democratic President closely aligned with big business (Grover Cleveland then, Bill Clinton today).
One big difference between then and now: back then, a real grassroots populist movement rose up to challenge corporate power, though it did not succeed in attaining its core goals.
Today, while there are many isolated movements challenging individual corporate crimes, there is no mass movement attacking the corporation as the cause of the wealth disparity, destruction of the environment, and all the many other corporate driven ills afflicting society.
Derber, a professor of sociology at Boston College, says that when he asks his students, "Have you ever thought about the question of whether corporations in general have too much power," they uniformly say they have never had that question raised.
Derber says that one good way to again build a populist movement to attack corporate power is to study the language and tactics of the populists of 100 years ago. He has, and he makes clear in his book that the original conception of the corporation was one of a public -- not private -- entity.
We the people created the corporation to build roads, and bridges, and deliver the goods. If the corporation didn't do as we said, we yanked their charter.
The corporate lawyers quickly got their hands around that idea, smashed it, and replaced it with the current conception of the corporation, a private person under the law, with the rights and privileges of any other living and breathing citizen.
Thus, a quick transformation from "we decide" to "they decide."
Derber is a bit too modest to say it, so we will: perhaps the best way to rebuild a strong, vibrant and populist movement is to get this book into the hands of people who care about democracy. The corporations have us on the run, but we should pause for a moment or two, find a quiet place, and read this book.