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Self Interview: On The Rampage


Q: How did you come to write On the Rampage?

Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman: About seven years ago, we decided to call a weekly column that we were planning, “Focus on the Corporation.” A conservative group gaining prominence (and more prominent now than then) went by the name Focus on the Family, and it seemed to us that news coverage and political discussion of social, economic and political problems focused on just about everything but the corporation.

That seemed upside down to us. As longtime editors of Corporate Crime Reporter (Russell) and Multinational Monitor (Robert), we have come to believe that corporations are the driving force in the political economy, as well as the primary shaper of the prevailing culture.

We put together a collection of our first couple year’s columns in Corporate Predators, which was published in 1999.

On the Rampage is a “best of” collection of our columns published since Corporate Predators appeared.

Q: Why do you focus on corporations, as opposed to, say, politics more generally?

Mokhiber and Weissman: A huge portion of the world’s problems can be traced in significant part to abuse of corporate power. Some of those problems we hear a lot about — like crime, or corruption — but we hear far too little about the corporate role in perpetuating those problems.

For example, corporate crime and violence inflicts far more damage on society, whether measured in dollars or lives, than street crime.

And then there are the many corporate-related problems that we too infrequently hear about: the re-colonization of the developing countries, the contamination of our food supply with pesticides and genetically engineered organisms, the routine denial of the legalized guaranteed right to organize in the United States, not to mention the Third World.

We wanted to call attention to the role of corporations in lowering our living standards and endangering the planet.

Not many of the world’s problems just happen. There’s usually a party responsible. And in many, many cases, that party is a multinational corporation — or a group of multinationals.

Q: Why do you focus so much on corporate crime?

Mokhiber and Weissman: The first reason is the horrific toll taken by corporate crime and violence. The second is that politicians and the media focus so much on street crime — which is a serious and frightening problem, especially in poorer neighborhoods where most street crime is concentrated. By contrast, with the recent exception of Enron, Martha Stewart, and the financial fraud cases, there is little attention paid to corporate crime and violence, and barely any of the moral outrage that animates discussions about street crime.

Virtually never do the politicians puffing bromides like “Get tough on crime” or “More money for crime fighting” mean that the nation should get tough on corporate crime, that more money should be made available to the staggeringly under funded corporate crime police in the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and other corporate crime-fighting federal agencies, or that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Department of Agriculture need more inspectors to crack down on corporations endangering their employees through unsafe workplaces or imperiling consumers by selling them dirty food.

Horrible though the toll of street crime may be, corporate crime and violence inflicts far more damage on society. While there are approximately 20,000 homicides in the United States attributed to street crime a year, air pollution takes more than 50,000 lives a year in the United States and an even greater number die annually from workplace-related disease. Burglary and robbery cost victims approximately $3 billion a year, while healthcare fraud takes more than $100 billion from taxpayers and consumers.

Q: What do you mean when you talk about the spread of corporate culture?

Mokhiber and Weissman: Step by step, the corporate culture has, unannounced, engulfed us — we have junk food pushers in the schools, tort deformers educating judges, oil companies cleaning up in public museums, big companies of all stripes taking over public interest groups — the list is endless.

One important manifestation of corporate culture is rampant commercialism — now so excessive that it is difficult to parody.

But it is not just commercialism. It is the ideological framework that large corporations are the natural way to organize an economy, and the logical way to get things done. You can see the encroachment of the corporate culture in areas where it hasn’t previously predominated. For example, in the United States and around the world, drinking water has traditionally been delivered by municipal systems.

Now private water companies are trying to gain control of these systems. Central to their rationale for why they should be in control is claim they are more efficient. They make this claim through simple assertion, drawing on a culture that posits corporations are efficient and government is not. In fact, the government record in this area is mixed — but in many cases municipal systems have been extremely efficient — but the corporate record is one of almost unmitigated failure and inefficiency. And that is not even to bring up the issue of guarantees for low-income groups, and guarantees that the human right to water, one of life’s essentials, is not undermined.

Q: Commercialism may sometimes be a bit distasteful, but does it really matter?

Mokhiber and Weissman: We think so. It degrades our public space and displaces non-commercial values such as cooperation, community, altruism. And, in ways we do not realize, it constricts our sense of the politically possible and the politically unpalatable.

Corporations routinely sponsor community events and community institutions — from softball tournaments to chili cook-offs, from schools to public beaches — to advertise their products, including to captive audiences of schoolchildren. They also seek by their sponsorships to gain a reputation as a responsible member of the community — it is important for their political positioning that, to the extent possible, people see the companies as “one of us,” not an intrusive outsider.

Thus, one outgrowth of the colonization of public space is the colonization of our minds. Ways of arranging life that do not involve corporations or do not serve corporate interests — whether in the traditional economy, provision of public services, entertainment — become harder and harder to conceptualize.

Corporate sponsorships may also undermine public institutions themselves, stripping them of their essential public character, or at least putting their mission at risk. The creeping corporate takeover of the Smithsonian is a case in point.

Q: Why do you focus on the concept of corporate form?

Mokhiber and Weissman: Although the law often treats corporations as if they were actual human beings, and despite corporate efforts to portray themselves as part of the community (every community), corporations are fundamentally different than real, live people.

For example:

* Corporations have perpetual life.

* Corporations can be in two or more places at the same time.

* Corporations cannot be jailed.

* Corporations have no conscience or sense of shame.

* Corporations pursue a single-minded goal, profit, and are typically legally prohibited from seeking other ends.

* There are no limits, natural or otherwise, to corporations’ potential size.

* Because of their political power, they are able to define or at very least substantially affect, the civil and criminal regulations that define the boundaries of permissible behavior. Virtually no individual criminal has such abilities.

* Corporations can combine with each other, into bigger and more powerful entities.

These unique attributes give corporations extraordinary power, and makes the challenge of checking their power all the more difficult. The institutions are much more powerful than individuals, which makes all the more frightening their single-minded profit-maximizing efforts. Compounding the problem, many of the sanctions we impose on individuals — not just imprisonment, but the more important social norms of shame and community disapproval — have limited relevance to or impact on corporations.

Highlighting the corporate form is important in identifying the sources of corporate power, and also in articulating why corporations should not be provided the same rights as real persons.

For example, corporations have managed to escape a lot of sound regulation on advertising — related to tobacco, pharmaceuticals, or just excessive advertising — by claiming that sensible advertising restrictions violate their First Amendment rights. We don’t think corporations should be able to claim First Amendment rights for advertising. If you think of a corporation as just a group of people, our position may not make sense. If you recognize the unique attributes of corporations, then it may seem more logical.

Q: How is economic globalization affecting efforts to constrain corporate power?

Mokhiber and Weissman: Corporate globalization is driven in considerable part by corporate efforts to escape limits imposed on their activities.

Working people in industrialized countries have organized for and won a certain wage floor: corporations want to move to developing countries where they will not face such wage obligations.

Just as important, they want to use the threat of moving offshore to hold down wages and break unions or stop organizing drives. Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner has found that in more than two-thirds of U.S. union organizing drives in mobile industries — consisting of manufacturing and other companies that can credibly threaten to shift production abroad — companies threaten to close their plants if workers vote to join a union.

The same story holds for environmental protections.

In developing countries, which are desperately striving to attract foreign investment, the story is far worse. Wages are miniscule, working conditions are brutal, disrespect for the environment is abysmal. When citizens in those countries try to do something to remedy the conditions, just as in the United States, they are told the companies will simply move elsewhere. And they do.

The other key component of corporate globalization is the institutionalization of unaccountable global governance systems that deny democracies the option of raising living standards. The rules of the World Trade Organization, as well as a long list of bilateral and regional investment and trade agreements, are basically designed to prevent countries from adopting worker, environmental or consumer protections that go beyond what corporations are willing to accept.

Thus WTO rules can be used against national food safety laws for being too protective of consumer interests. They can be used against environmental measures that attempt to deal with the way multinational corporations manufacture products. They can be used against countries for not providing strong enough patent protection — even if the result is poor people are denied access to AIDS and other essential medicines. They can even be used against national efforts to regulate gambling, according to a recent WTO ruling. It is never the case under WTO rules that a country can be found to be doing too little for consumers, the environment, public health or worker protection.

As bad as this democratic constraint is for rich countries, it is far worse for poor ones. They face not only the impositions of the WTO and trade agreements, but the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which impose cookie-cutter market fundamentalist policies on developing countries, without apparent regard to their abysmal record.

These are life-and-death matters. When the World Bank encourages countries to charge fees for access to basic healthcare, people in poor countries go without care. When the IMF’s shock therapy sends the Russian economy into a tailspin, the number of Russians in poverty rises from two million to more than 50 million. When the IMF demands countries allocate aid money to pay off foreign debt or acquire foreign currency rather than invest in public health and education, people suffer.

Q: You paint a gloomy picture. Do you think there is there hope?

Mokhiber and Weissman: For all the amassed power of Big Business, it has never been the case that a docile citizenry has uniformly accepted the corporate hegemonic project. And that’s why we remain hopeful.

Communities across the United States, and the world, have resisted efforts to use their lands for garbage dumps, to rip out their natural resources without due compensation or respect for the environment, to gouge them in the provision of essential goods and services. Workers have stood up to demands for givebacks, strikebreaking and union-busting schemes, and management efforts to skirt safe practices. In some countries, popular movements have contested for, and occasionally won, political power. Global solidarity campaigns have supported citizen movements in flashpoint conflicts: sweatshop workers in Indonesia or Nicaragua, producing for companies like Nike, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s, indigenous groups in the Amazon resisting encroachment on the forest, a Bolivian town resisting a water privatization scheme designed by Bechtel and the World Bank, health workers in poor countries trying to deliver essential medicines to sick people, U.S. workers striking against UPS, French farmers who refuse to allow McDonald’s and the corporate food industry to homogenize the world’s food supply.

But always the issue is the scope of the resistance, and its level of organization.

The November-December 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization appear to have ushered in a new and impressive worldwide level of resistance. Seattle was followed by an April 2000 demonstration against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, D.C., protests at the Republican and Democratic conventions, a September 2000 mobilization in Melbourne against the World Business Forum, the September 2000 protests in Prague at the IMF/World Bank annual meetings, plus many similar, smaller mobilizations.

The protests were colorful, creative, dynamic and filled with youthful enthusiasm and energy. They seem the manifestation of a growing rejection of a corporatized economy, politics and culture.

The future of the disparate movement against corporate power is unsure. Certainly, it has a long way to go before reversing the corporate stranglehold over society. But it our best hope to rescue our lives, and our planet, from the corporate grip.

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