|By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
As we move to the end of the millennium, it is important to remind
ourselves that this has been the century of the corporation, where
for-profit, largely unaccountable organizations with unlimited life, size
and power took control of the economy and of the political economy --
largely to the detriment of the individual consumer, worker, neighbor and
Let us again remind ourselves that corporations were the creation of
the citizenry. (Thanks here to Richard Grossman of the Project on
Corporations Law and Democracy for resurrecting and teaching us a history
we would have collectively forgotten.)
In the beginning, we the citizenry created the corporation to do the
public's work -- build a canal or a road -- and then go out of business.
We asked people with money to build the canal or road. If anything
went wrong, the liability of these people with money -- shareholders, we
call them -- would be limited to the amount of money they invested and no
more. This limited liability corporation is the bedrock of the market
economy. The markets would deflate like a punctured balloon if
corporations were stripped of limited liability for shareholders.
And what do we, the citizenry, get in return for this generous public
grant of limited liability? Originally, we told the corporation what to
do. You are to deliver the goods and then go out of business.
And then let humans live our lives.
But corporations gained power, broke through democratic controls, and
now roam around the world inflicting unspeakable damage on the earth.
Let us count the ways: price-fixing, chemical explosions, mercury
poisoning, oil spills, destruction of public transportation systems.
Need concrete examples? These are five of the most egregious of
Number five: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Price Fixing.
In October 1996, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the good people who
bring you National Public Radio, pled guilty and paid a $100 million
criminal fine -- at the time, the largest criminal antitrust fine ever --
for its role in conspiracies to fix prices to eliminate competition and
allocate sales in the lysine and citric acid markets worldwide.
Number four: Union Carbide and Bhopal.
In 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India released
90,000 pounds of the chemical methyl isocyanate. The resulting toxic cloud
killed several thousand people and injured hundreds of thousands.
Number Three: Chisso Corporation and Minamata.
Minamata, Japan was home to Chisso Corporation, a petrochemical company
and maker of plastics. In the 1950s, fish began floating dead in Minamata
Bay, cats began committing suicide, and children were getting rare forms
of brain cancer. Thousands were injured. The company had been dumping
mercury into the bay.
Number two: Exxon Corporation and Valdez Oil Spill.
Ten years ago, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound
Alaska and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil onto 1,500 miles of
Alaskan shoreline, killing birds and fish, and destroying the way of life
of thousands of Native Americans.
Number one: General Motors and the Destruction of Inner City Rail.
Seventy years ago, clean, quiet and efficient inner city rail systems
dotted the U.S. landscape. They were eliminated in the 1930s to make way
for dirty and noisy gasoline-powered automobiles and buses. The inner city
rail systems were destroyed by those very companies that would most
benefit from destruction of inner city rail -- oil, tire and automobile
companies, led by General Motors.
By 1949, GM had helped destroy 100 electric systems in New York,
Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Oakland, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles
In 1949, a federal grand jury in Chicago indicted and a jury
convicted GM, Standard Oil of California and Firestone, among others, of
criminally conspiring to replace electric transportation with gas- and
diesel-powered buses and to monopolize the sale of buses and related
products to transportation companies around the country.
GM and the other convicted companies were fined $5,000 each.
These are not unusual examples. Books have been written documenting
the ongoing destruction. The question remains -- how do we put a stop to
And the answer seems clear to us -- reassert public control over what
was originally a public institution.
The ideas on how to reassert such control are the subject of debate
and conflict, in Seattle and around the world. But it seems clear to us
that as the twentieth century was the century of the corporation, the
twenty-first promises to be the century where flesh-and-blood human beings
reassert sovereignty over their lives, their markets and their democracy.
Let us not forget that corporate control was never inevitable. They
took it from us, and it is our responsibility to take it back.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman