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.
- 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 Angeles, New 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.