In 1932, two men, Adolf A. Berle and Gardiner C. Means, published a book, The Modern Corporation & Private Property. This was at the beginning of the Great Depression after Franklin Roosevelt had been voted into office in a landslide victory against Herbert Hoover (with 57 percent of the popular vote). By the time Roosevelt took the oath of office and before he and his cabinet launched what became the New Deal, the authors wrote that corporations had “grown to tremendous proportions, [and that] there may be said to have evolved a ‘corporate system’ – as there once was a feudal system.
“We are examining this institution probably before it has attained its zenith,” they wrote. “Spectacular as its rise has been, every indication seems to be that the system will move forward to proportions which would stagger imagination today.”
Have we reached that point? Or is it possible that even as unemployed European youth rally, the Occupy Wall Street protests maintain their momentum and 700,000 Americans drop their commercial banks on Bank Transfer Day – all in an effort to challenge unbridled corporate power – that we have yet to reach the “zenith” the authors presciently predicted 80 years ago?
On Democracy Now this week, John Bonifaz of Free Speech for People, said that we are seeing “effectively a corporate takeover of our democracy,” referring to Citizens United vs FEC, in which the Supreme Court ruled in January 2010 that corporations are entitled to spend unlimited funds in our elections. (I don’t normally link to Wikipedia, but in this case it’s worthwhile.)
“The Supreme Court said last year that corporations are people with free speech rights, and can spend unlimited amounts of their money in our elections,” he said.
When asked what the Framers intended in granting corporations the same rights as persons, Bonifaz said: “To be clear, the Framers never granted that. James Madison spoke of corporations as a necessary evil, subject to proper limitations and guards. Thomas Jefferson talked about helping to crush in its birth the aristocracy of monied corporations.” He went on to say: “The Framers never intended this [Citizens United vs FEC]. This is a fabricated doctrine of recent time that the Supreme Court has enunciated really dating back to a memorandum in recent jurisprudence.
Bonifaz was here referring to the Powell Memo from 1971.
“Lewis Powell,” he went on, “then a private attorney writing for the [ U.S.] Chamber of Commerce, authored this memorandum [the Powell Memo] articulating what corporate America could do to fight back against environmental laws, healthcare laws, civil rights laws, consumer rights laws – and then he became Justice Lewis Powell [under Richard Nixon]. He became an architect of that doctrine, and for 30 years we’ve seen this erosion of the First Amendment in our Constitution.” (Powell was a native Virginian who was a representative for the tobacco industry, and sat on the boards of several corporations. His Powell Memo was not made public until after his confirmation as Supreme Court justice.)
Bonifaz concluded optimistically: “And, now, I think, people are ready to stand up, take our democracy back, take our Constitution back.”
To be sure, The History Current will be following this story.
For “A Century of U.S. Campaign Finance Law,” click here. Also, blogger Charles Riggs provides a list of links on the history of organized labor, populism, and the counter culture in a brief posting he calls “Occupy” (most of them to Wikipedia, but use it is a jumping off point.)