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Sarah van Gelder
YES! Magazine / Op-Ed
Published: Sunday 22 January 2012
“7 signs the corporatocracy is losing its legitimacy ... and 7 populist tools to help shut it down.”

Corporate Rule Is Not Inevitable

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You may remember that there was a time when apartheid in South Africa seemed unstoppable.

Sure, there were international boycotts of South African businesses, banks, and tourist attractions. There were heroic activists in South Africa, who were going to prison and even dying for freedom. But the conventional wisdom remained that these were principled gestures with little chance of upending the entrenched system of white rule.

“Be patient,” activists were told. “Don’t expect too much against powerful interests with a lot of money invested in the status quo.”

With hindsight, though, apartheid’s fall appears inevitable: the legitimacy of the system had already crumbled. It was harming too many for the benefit of too few. South Africa’s freedom fighters would not be silenced, and the global movement supporting them was likewise tenacious and principled.

In the same way, the legitimacy of rule by giant corporations and Wall Street banks is crumbling. This system of corporate rule also benefits few and harms many, affecting nearly every major issue in public life. Some examples:

  • Powerful corporations socialize their risks and costs, but privatize profits. That means we, the 99 percent, pick up the tab for environmental clean ups, for helping workers who aren’t paid enough to afford food or health care, for bailouts when risky speculation goes wrong. Meanwhile, profits go straight into the pockets of top executives and others in the 1 percent.
  • The financial collapse threw millions of Americans into poverty. 25 million are unemployed, under-employed, or have given up looking for work; four million have been unemployed for more than 12 months. Poverty increased 27 percent between 2006 and 2010. And students who graduated with student loans in 2010  had borrowed 5 percent more than the previous year’s graduating class—owing more than $25,000. Meanwhile, those who caused the collapse continue the same practices. And the unwillingness of the 1 percent to pay their fair share of taxes means the the public services we rely on are fraying.
  • Scientists say that we are on the brink of runaway climate change; we only have a few years to make the needed investments in clean power and energy efficiency. This transition could be a huge job creator—on the order of the investments made during World War II, which got us out of the Depression. But fossil fuel industries don’t want to see their investment in dirty energy undermined by the switch to clean energy and conservation. So far, by paying millions to climate deniers, lobbyists, and political campaigns, they’ve succeeded in stymieing change.
  • Agribusiness get taxpayer subsidies for foods that make us sick; for farming practices that destroy rivers, soils, the climate, and the oceans; and for trade practices that cause hunger at home and abroad.
  • Through ALEC, the private prison industry crafts state laws that boost the numbers behind bars, lengthen sentences, and privatize prisons.
  • Big Pharma jacks up prices; insurance companies raise premiums and delivers fewer benefits; the burden of inflated care drags down the economy and bankrupts families. But only a very few politicians stand up to the health care industry's war chests and advocate for Canadian-style single-payer health care, which would go a long way toward solving the cost problem.
  • Corporations and wealthy executives fund an army of lobbyists and election campaigns, spreading untruths and self-serving policy prescriptions.

It’s not that we, the people, haven’t noticed all this.

In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans said too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations. In a poll by Time Magazine, 86 percent of Americans said Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington.

And 80 percent of Americans oppose Citizens United, the pro-corporate Supreme Court ruling that turns two years old today. Eighty percent—that’s among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Some say corporations have such a strong grip on politicians and big media that it is impossible to challenge them, no matter how many of us there are.

But I believe we can do it. In the past few months, YES! Magazine has been researching ways that ordinary people can challenge corporate power (look for strategies in our spring issue, out in February). And we found that there are actually a lot of tools at our disposal:

  • Corporations were created by public law to provide a public benefit. If we the people no longer feel that a corporation is providing a benefit—or if we feel that it is operating in a lawless and destructive manner—we can revoke their charter. That’s what Free Speech for People has asked the attorney general of Delaware to do to Massey Energy, which has been one of the worst culprits in mountaintop removal and which has operated its mines in a lawless and negligent manner, resulting in 29 deaths at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
  • We can insist that, in exchange for use of our public airwaves, broadcasters provide free airtime to candidates for public office. If they don’t need to raise millions for media buys, they don’t need to be as beholden to the 1 percent.
  • We can get our governments to quit banking with Bank of America and Chase, and start our own state banks—14 states, including California and Washington, are considering such a move. And while we're at it, we can localize foodenergy, and other aspects of our economy so local, independent businesses and cooperatives can thrive.
  • We can stand up to specific parts of the corporate agenda by engaging in the sort of direct action that halted the KXL Pipeline.
  • We can call for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, corporate personhood, and the ridiculous notion that money is the same thing as speech. So far, Los AngelesNew York City, and about 50 other towns and cities have done so far.
  • We can use mechanisms like clean elections, electoral transparency, citizen review of legislation, and recalls to keep corporate control of our democracy in check.
  • Finally, the reason I am most hopeful today: We can take a cue from Occupy Wall Street and continue to name the source of political corruption—something the political establishment and mainstream media have refused to do. We can occupy homes that are slated for foreclosure, as people have been doing all over the country. We can mic check places like Walmarts that intimidate and fire workers who want to unionize. We can set up tents in public places and in other ways join with the Occupy movement to take a stand for a world that works for the 100 percent—a world where we all benefit.

None of these actions will be easy. It will take time—potentially years of work—to make big change. But just as the legitimacy of apartheid crumbled well before the institutions of apartheid went down, the legitimacy of corporate rule is crumbling. So I’m convinced that, with you and me and all the others out there creating alternatives and taking a stand, we will see change.

Sarah van Gelder will deliver these comments at Seattle's rally on the second anniversary of the Citizens United ruling. Sarah is YES! Magazine's co-founder and executive editor, and editor of the new book: "This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement."

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ABOUT Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of YES! Magazine and has been its executive editor since it began publication in 1996. Her focus at YES! is on the solutions and innovations that address the most profound issues of our time.

Please give me examples

Please give me examples

I live in hope that this

I live in hope that this article portrays a true and possible vision of the future.

However, the truth is that black South Africans are barely better off today than they were under apartheid. Although they have civil freedom, the wealth disparity is actually WORSE than it was before, and it would be inaccurate to say that economic freedom has been achieved. Due to back-room negotiations with the former government, when Nelson Mandela took over the new regime was already fettered by economic deals that prevented the ANC from making the changes they had hoped for.

As recently as 2004, just 4 white-owned corporate conglomerates controlled 80% of the Jo'burg Stock Exchange, and only 4% of listed companies were black-owned. With corporate protections written in to their constitutions, South Africans have little hope of overcoming the staggering inherited debt and economic inequality present today.

Live in hope, but don't be fooled by the picture painted by neoliberalism (aka, neocolonialism, aka global corporatism). Living in a democratic AND economically just society has yet to be achieved anywhere, except perhaps in parts of Scandinavia.

For more information about all of this PLEASE read "The Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein (Ch. 10 about South Africa).

Thanks for this intriguing

Thanks for this intriguing article. The African National Congress in South Africa is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, reminding us how long political struggles can take – and that the struggle took many different forms over the years. Similarly, the international anti-apartheid movement was significant partly because it was continually creative, exploring new ways to confront the power of the apartheid regime and the corporations and governments that backed it – from bank campaigns, to the boycott by sports teams and performers, to mobilizing on campuses, to city and state divestment bills, all of which prepared the political terrain for the push on Congress to adopt the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986. The African Activist Archive Project ( is documenting 50 years of this movement in the United States; 4,800+ digital documents, images, and audio and video recordings produced by 340 organizations across the country are available here. We’re on Facebook, too (, where we are eager to continue this conversation. We should also pay attention to the many civic organizations that are continuing the struggle for economic justice in South Africa today.

Gandhi won independence for

Gandhi won independence for India from the great British empire, so we can deprive corporations of personhood and take back control of Congress from the oligarchs.

Nhpoet: Gandhi was a great

Nhpoet: Gandhi was a great man and his influence is with me always, but can you give me more examples of how we can deprive corporations of personhood.

The Following is a Letter I

The Following is a Letter I Wrote and Sent to Everyone I know to Encourage Them to Read This Article and More. Feel Free to use it to send to People You know if you think it Might Help Them to Become Informed or Well Informed: This Article Cannot Be Missed As It is Just too Important. It Clearly and Accurately States the Facts and Offers Steps That Can Be and Need to Be Taken. I really don't want to Ruin your Weekend but this Article and the One Prior I sent you are Very Informative and contain Knowledge that All Americans Need to Have. Consider this; What if what I, and Millions of Other Americans, have come to Believe through Researching the FACTS Are Right? Can you You Really Afford to Ignore Us? You will not find what I send you or Post in Facebook in the Mainstream Media and that in itself should tell you something. The Mainstream Media has even been able to change our Language by taking what has been called "Unearned Income" all of Our Lives, Our Parents Lives, and Before then, until very Recently and now you ONLY see this called Capitol Gains. Consider the Reasons it was until very recently called "Unearned Income". This is but one small example of the Mainstream Media's affect on our lives. The Truth is Out There But You Will Not Find It in the Mainstream Media. Go Online and Seek Answers to Your Questions in the Alternative Media. If you want to be an Informed Voter You Need to Start Now. Whatever Your Personal Political Beliefs Are I Hope You Will Choose at the Least to Become Well Informed. I Encourage You to Read Both Sides of Any Issue and Decide What Makes Sense to You. I have the Faith Each and Everyone of You Will Make the Best Choices If You Do This But That Is Not Possible To Do Without Enough Valid Information. Rory

This effort will be much

This effort will be much harder than apartheid because money is at the heart of our problems. For the present there is no way to break the link between money in all its forms and the government. Democracy has become a fraud - we now have all levels of government down to the city and county level including school boards beholden to the influence of money. We also have a supremely apathetic self-absorbed society that thrives on looking at their whatever is in their hands. Despite the polls quoted in the article the brain-dead electorate still elects people that are totally under the influence of money. In Wisconsin over a million signatures were collected to recall Walker and he went to Texas to get millions of dollars to fight it. In the last recall the people voted the recalled back into office and I am sure the same thing will happen again.

Go, Sarah, go! And at the

Go, Sarah, go! And at the rally, please add some verses to a great old song well fit there:

Were Woody Here Now

This land is your land, but you're no person
You're just a fiction, a corporation.
Too many serve you, as teach all biz schools
To see as numbers only you and me.

A well written article. Thank

A well written article. Thank you for expressing the hope which exists, as long as we continue to stay aware and work for the changes we require.

Excellent article, history

Excellent article, history shows that the 99%, even before we were called that, succeeded with three things, regardless of levels of difficulty. That is mass action, a sense of humor, and hope.

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