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Who Owns America?


Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

The

other day, at our local bookstore, we passed a book. And then doubled back.

 The book is titled Who Owns America?: A Declaration of Independence.

Sounded like it was written by people we should know. But on further

investigation, we recognized none of the names on the cover.  

Who

Owns America? was written by 21 "conservative" decentralists. And it

was first published in 1936.  Re-released this year, with a new

introduction by Seton Hall University History Professor Edward S. Shapiro, Who

Owns America? (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 1999), is highly critical of

large corporate institutions that controlled the political economy in 1930s

America. Its publisher believes the book is as relevant today as the day it was

published.  

Edited

by Pulitizer Prize winning Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Herbert Agar and

southern poet Allen Tate, Who Owns America? puts forth the type of scathing

critique that you just can’t find in today’s political debates.  Like

today’s corporatist conservatives — George Will, James Glassman and Charles

Krauthammer — the conservatives who wrote Who Owns America? believed that the

specter of big government threatened individual freedom and the ideal America.

 But unlike the corporatists of today, Agar, Tate and their colleagues

understood that public authority was the only antidote to the excesses of big

corporate power.

Agar,

Tate and their colleagues argued that to attain the conservative goal of less

government, you’d first have to limit the size and power of the large corporate

institutions that were roaming the land.  

Typical

of the 1930s conservatives writing in this volume is the pro-decentralist

economist Richard Ransom. "The permanent lease on life which corporations

possess tends more and more to concentrate within a few hands the ownership and

control of general property," wrote Ransom in a chapter titled Corporate

and Individual Persons. "The disproportionate distribution of the national

wealth is very evidently due in large part to the corporate tendency to mass

larger and larger aggregates of ownership which are held together by corporate

permanence and corporate inertia. …"  

Ransom’s

solution to the problem of corporate control of the national wealth? Federal

chartering of corporations doing interstate business.  And what should the

states do about excessive corporate power? The states should limit the

"profitable business life of the corporations which they charter."

 And how could the states accomplish this end?  

"This

could perhaps be done by means of heavy selective inheritance taxation on the

transfer of corporate shares or assets," Ransom answers.  And what

would this achieve?  

"Such

a shorter term of corporate life, either accomplished indirectly as suggested

here or accomplished by more immediate means, will produce a more direct

personal responsibility in corporate managements," Ransom says.  Once

interstate corporations are federally chartered, Ransom proposes that the

personal liability of stockholders should be extended to an amount at least

equal to twice the proportionate investment of each stockholder (currently, you

can only lose what you put in.)  

Can

you imagine Will or Krauthammer contemplating these thoughts?  

Lyle

Lanier, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, wrote a chapter

titled "Big Business in the Property State," in which he observed that

"the American people have long recognized the danger to democracy of

economic power concentrated in the hands of big corporations."  Lawmakers

passed the antitrust laws at the turn of the century, "but these laws have

been impotent to stem the rising tide of big business organization," Lanier

wrote.  

Industrial

capitalism, Lanier wrote, "has followed a course of development which is

both self-destructive and dangerous to democratic institutions."  Lanier,

like his co-authors, finds hope in a Jeffersonian ideal of small business and

small farmers.  

The

publication of this volume today makes George Will, James Glassman and their

conservative contemporaries look like empty suits compared those who wrote Who

Owns America?.  Big corporations still roam the land and still threaten a

fragile democracy. But there is no Agar on the right to challenge them.  

Needless

to say, we cannot and do not agree with everything written by these 21

self-proclaimed "conservatives" of the 1930s.

But

we do agree with the conservative sentiment put forth in the book, as summarized

by Agar, that corporate concentration and democracy are at odds.

"When

democracy goes down before monopoly capitalism," Agar writes, "the

result has been a greedy tyranny, preserving all the vices of capitalism and

extinguishing its virtues."

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)