The global corporations of today stand as the dominant institutional force at the center of human activity. Through their market power, billions of dollars in campaign contributions, public relations and advertising, and the sheer scale of their operations, corporations create the visions and institutions we live by and exert enormous influence over most of the political processes that rule us.
It is certainly fair to say, as David Korten and others have, that “global corporate rule” has effectively been achieved. This leaves society in the daunting position of serving a hierarchy of primary corporate values–expanding profit, hypergrowth, environmental exploitation, self-interest, disconnection from communities and workers–that are diametrically opposed to the principles of equity, democracy, transparency and the common good, the core values that can bring social and environmental sustainability to the planet. It is a basic task of any democracy and justice movement to confront the powers of this new global royalty, just as previous generations set out to eliminate the control of monarchies.
The first step in the process is to recognize the systemic nature of the problem. We are used to hearing powers that be–when faced with an Enron or WorldCom scandal–explain them away as simple problems of greedy individuals; the proverbial few rotten apples in the barrel; the exception, not the rule. In reality, the nature of the corporate structure, and the rules by which corporations routinely operate, make socially and environmentally beneficial outcomes the exception, not the norm.
Public corporations today–and their top executives–live or die based on certain imperatives, notably whether they are able to continuously attract investment capital by demonstrating increasing short-term profits, exponential growth, expanded territories and markets, and successful control of the domestic and international regulatory, investment and political climates. Questions of community welfare, worker rights and environmental impacts are nowhere in the equation. Given such a setup, Enron’s performance, like most other corporate behavior–especially among publicly held companies–was entirely predictable, indeed, almost inevitable. Enron executives were only doing what the system suggested they had to do. Corporations that can successfully defy these rules are the rare good apples in an otherwise rotting barrel.
That such structural imperatives should dominate the global economic system and the lives of billions of people is clearly a central problem of our time; any citizens’ agenda for achieving sustainability must be rooted in plans for fundamental structural change and the reversal of corporate rule.
New Citizen Movement
Around the world, the spectrum of anticorporate activity is broad, with strategies ranging from reformist to transformational to abolitionist. Reformist strategies include attempts to force increased corporate responsibility, accountability and transparency, and to strengthen the role of social and environmental values in corporate decision-making. Such strategies implicitly accept global corporations as here to stay in their current form and as having the potential to function as responsible citizens.