In early June, the conservative Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby wrote: "Enron has created a natural moment for a smart assault on capitalist excess. The wonder is that political leaders and social activists alike do not seem to have seized it." By July, President Bush signed Sen. Paul Sarbanes' (D-Md.) accounting-reform bill into law, but surely that small victory doesn't fit Mallaby's definition.
Why hasn't the moment been seized? It's been almost a year since Enron evaporated and two years since the "new" economy lost its giddiness. But where's the grass-roots groundswell? What happened to all of those daring anticorporate protesters who paralyzed Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings? If the polls are at all accurate, the public's perception of corporations has done a 180-degree turnaround and there's now an earthquake of citizen energy just waiting to rumble. Not only should liberals be using this opportunity to housebreak the corporate economy, they should also be re-creating themselves as the caretakers of the public good, dethroning market extremists in the process.
Although the free-market zealots have taken a beating in the op-ed pages, a fog has drifted over the grass roots, thickened by the distractions of September 11 and Iraq. But where's the lighthouse? Many activists express disappointment about the stalled domestic corporate-reform agenda. "We've already missed part of the train," says Jason Mark of Global Exchange, an international activist group. "We should have been on top of this months ago." Charlie Cray of Ralph Nader's democracy-building group Citizen Works agrees. "The media is doing the best job of pushing these issues. It's not happening at the grass roots," he says.
The aftershocks of 9-11 are only the most immediate of the obstacles. Money, certainly, is a perennial factor when you're challenging corporate power. But even if major angels descended from foundation heaven, they'd find only a few groups to which they'd give money -- not because few organizations are critical of corporate power but because few have an attainable domestic-reform agenda. Much of the outrage about corporate excess in the last decade has been dedicated either broadly to a critique of global financial institutions or narrowly to specific corporate crimes and consumer boycott campaigns. Campaign-finance reformers do an excellent job of unveiling the relationship between big money and congressional votes. But little attention has been given to organizing to reform the laws and court decisions that have allowed corporations to run wild.
Two clear exceptions are Nader's efforts and the AFL-CIO's. Although Nader himself is still being demonized by most of the powerful Democrats in Congress, his troops at Public Citizen and other organizations have a good sense of how to operate both in Congress and in the streets. For all his radicalism, Nader has always focused on achievable reforms. The AFL-CIO has invested more money in corporate reform than any other group. Its chief, John Sweeney, recently chose the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street in Manhattan to blast corporate titans and call for reforms -- from worker representation on corporate boards to the public financing of congressional campaigns. "The stock market loses $7 trillion in value as the White House drags its feet, and Congress refuses to rescind the $1.6 trillion tax break they gave to the same CEOs who are now stealing us blind," he declared. Indeed.
Ron Blackwell, who directs the AFL-CIO's corporate efforts, adds, "What we have to do now is deepen the public's understanding of the systemic problems of corporations." Blackwell and his colleagues emphasize pension reform, strengthened shareholder rights and constraints on stock options.
Other large nonprofits are slow to adapt to events as they unfold. As Nader notes, "It takes too much time to turn these big groups. They're like barges in the river." This slowness gives the opposition -- which in this case is as vast as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's network is powerful -- the ability to set the agenda.
Then there are rifts in the movement, the most insidious of which is between radicals and incrementalists. Each needs the other, but the incrementalists fear that radical language will lose them their more moderate financial supporters and distance them from media and legislators. The radicals, meanwhile, think the incrementalists are selling out. As Andy Burns, of the student group 180/Movement for Democracy and Education, says, "The fact that [the movement] isn't calling for more dramatic change is the fault of big labor and big [nongovernmental organizations] who aren't working on a radical agenda."
Such tensions exist in all movements, and every movement needs its radicals to animate organizers and create new ways of framing issues, just as a small boat needs a big sail. But in this case the moderate boat that serves as the ballast is so undersized that the whole craft lurches wildly in the wind. For instance, the main event at the upcoming anti-International Money Fund-World Bank protest is dubbed "Anti-Capitalist Convergence." That kind of language will not be embraced by the public. But Ron Blackwell's might. "I think there's a real populist element here," he says. "I mean, Jesus, why can't [former General Electric CEO] Jack Welch buy his own Knicks' tickets [instead of letting GE pay for them]? What does he do with all that money?"
Ironically, many younger, democracy-loving activists think that working for change within the democratic process is a waste of time. "No one sees any real change coming out of Congress," said Burns, after ranting about the influence of big money. "Corporations should not be allowed to participate in the political process. They're not human beings." Who would argue with that? But how to make it happen? Herein lies a deadly catch-22 psychology that has infected too many organizers: They think that getting corporations out of the political process requires changing the political process -- which is so controlled by elites that there's no way of getting them out of it. On that basis, legislative change is dismissed.
Well, get over it. It's no longer enough to take on "corporate greed" in broad terms and then reject the possibility of change. As Global Exchange's Mark observes, "Seattle 1999 put the dialogue on the map, calling for big things like taking down the WTO. Now it's time to focus. It's time for corporate accountability to get into legislative reforms that dance on the edge of the possible."
Interestingly, too, anticorporate activism at the global level has far outpaced domestic efforts. Groups resisting corporate-style globalization have learned to make practical demands, work in coalitions and occasionally gain big victories on issues as diverse as third-world debt relief, sweatshops, environmental standards, and vaccines or HIV drugs. Yet in domestic politics, which unlike global politics is democratically accountable to voters, there has been little progress in fashioning a consensus agenda of corporate reform. That's why many activists are much more familiar with the term "structural-adjustment programs" (policies that the IMF imposes on poor countries to ensure debt repayment at the expense of social spending and development) than "corporate inversions" (schemes for U.S.-based firms to evade taxation by relocating their legal corporate bases to foreign countries)."There's not a lot of linkage between the big global analysis and what's going on at the domestic level," notes Cray.
What might a reasonable near-term agenda look like? A good place to start would be for groups to get behind Rep. Dick Gephardt's (D-Mo.) proposal, co-sponsored with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to create a national commission to study corporate reform. What else? Here are three ideas that many organizations seem to hold in common that also have traction on Capitol Hill: restricting tax havens, cracking down on stock options and strengthening corporate accountability to shareholders and stakeholders.
The public, of course, hates paying taxes, and one of the reasons people are paying more is that corporations have been providing a smaller portion of the government's overall tax income for the last five decades. Plenty of congressional Democrats want reform, and a leading Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), has said, "These corporate expatriations aren't illegal. But they're sure immoral. During a war on terrorism, coming out of a recession, everyone ought to be pulling together. But, instead, these companies are using recession and terrorism to get out of the United States. If companies don't have their hearts in America, they ought to get out."
Stock options seem like a good target right now, too. Cracking down on them would provide more of an ideological and political victory than a direct blow to corporate power. McCain is leading the charge to force corporations to list options as expenses. But given that many already do so, that all European companies will have to list them on the minus side by 2005 and that even Securities and Exchange Commission head Harvey Pitt thinks this is inevitable, there might be room to push for more than expensing. As the AFL-CIO's Blackwell says, "Expensing them is passé. It's already happening. We do think it's better to abolish them and then offer regular stock for CEOs."
The best immediate opportunity to strengthen shareholder rights seems to exist within the larger drive for pension reform. Mandating worker representation on the boards that govern 401(k) investments might be attached to other legislation this fall. "These funds control so much of the money that's in capital markets," says Blackwell. "If you want greater democracy over the markets, this is one place to start."
There is a real danger in waiting around for mainstream Democrats to cook up bold legislative plans. But the greater risk right now is that the grass-roots movement will fail to create -- and then aggressively back -- a realistic agenda that offers legislative victories. The bigger and broader conversation about corporations and democracy has strong legs now -- ones that can be strengthened by a tighter focus on short-term goals. Indeed, such a focus might be just what the movement needs to successfully march into the future.