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In the Age of the Corporateer
Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom…And What You Can Do About It.
By Jamie Court (Foreword by Michael Moore)
J.P. Tarcher, 2003 • 322 pages • $24.95
Most recent books examining corporate power have focused on corporations’ unprecedented economic might. What sets apart Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom... And What You Can Do About It, by Jamie Court ’89, is that it unearths the growing cultural power of corporations during the last two and one half decades—what Court calls “The Age of the Corporateer.”
Corporateering takes a historical and anthropological approach, examining how corporate cultural power has undermined the way Americans look at the world around them. Court’s contention is that “corporateering”—his word for how large corporations have changed social mores, ethical custom and the rule of law—has exploded during the last two decades. As a result, he says, the corporations’ commercial gain has been prioritized above the individual’s rights and society’s interests.
That’s a hard proposition to argue with when you consider the breadth of Court’s well-documented examples. For instance, Corporatering charts the way corporations have invaded the privacy rights of Americans—a concept almost unheard of a decade ago. If private medical and financial information is bought and sold by corporations without our permission, Court asks, haven’t corporations changed our ethical customs?
As a consumer activist, Court has a unique eyewitness perspective on the corporateering of American culture. For example, to demonstrate how all Americans’ privacy is at risk he recently garnered national publicity by announcing that he had bought the social security numbers of Attorney General John Ashcroft, CIA Director George Tenet and other cabinet officials on the Internet for as little as $26. Fighting an anti-privacy bill backed by Citigroup in the U.S. Senate, his consumer group hired a sky writer in October to display half the social security number of Citigroup’s CEO over the company’s Manhattan headquarters.
Court weaves these personal tales of his consumer group’s battles against big industries into Corporateering, and they are some of the book’s best material—including a ground-zero account of California’s electricity crisis and the deregulation scheme that Court claims precipitated it.
The author’s unique role as both participant and observer allows Corporateering to make the connection between the daily ways corporations inconvenience us, like telemarketing, and the larger ways big companies have foiled the proper functioning of government, the legal system and the free press. As filmmaker Michael Moore writes in the foreword, “If you want to understand the influence of corporate culture on American culture and the growing power of the corporation to impose its goals on every other sector of society, this is the book to read.”
The author is best at connecting dots that have never been linked before. For example, early on Court shows how many of the cultural grievances in the Declaration of Independence against King George III can also be made against modern corporations.
The book moves from such grand premises to insights about the way corporateering has changed popular perceptions in daily life. Court writes, “When an individual can no longer order a ‘small’ coffee at Starbucks because the smallest cup is a ‘tall’ and the medium is a ‘grande,’ what is the corporation teaching society about making hyperbole and deception a commonplace part of existence?”
Corporateering is loaded with tidbits that drop in and out of the news but which are drowned out by the $1 trillion in global marketing by American corporations designed to show us their bright side. For example, Court writes, “If the corporation did not believe that economic gain was more important than people’s lives, why did tobacco maker Phillip Morris report to the Czech government that tobacco use was good because it resulted in ‘health-care cost savings due to early mortality?’”
If not every ne will concede the importance of such items, Court’s survey of the commercialization of childhood—including how companies target young children to nag their parents into complying with purchases—is likely to rally devotees of Rush Limbaugh and Howard Dean alike to his cause.
Court’s book is full of such observations and examples. Although it is a complex exploration of the relationship between corporate abuses and harmful cultural changes, it is not an academic tome. He talks as an activist, commentator and journalist—through accessible prose.
One of the most eye-opening sections of Corporateering is Court’s recounting of how corporations got the upper hand.
For example, Court shows how corporations gained the constitutional rights of individuals in the mid 1970s, a development that recently led to a federal challenge to the national “do-not-call” list for telemarketing on the grounds that it infringed upon companies’ free speech rights.
In a revealing chapter, Court writes about a “confidential memorandum” sent to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971 by then corporate attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, whom Court describes as one of the architects of the corporateering movement. The memo—titled “Attack on the Free Enterprise System”—delineated, in Court’s words, “a three-decade-long plan by corporate America to take cultural and societal power from those who would regulate, criticize and reform the corporation.” For instance, Court quotes Powell discussing the need for the Chamber to constantly monitor textbooks and television programming and to demand changes in the same way the civil rights movement had.
The memo advocated taking control of the courts as well. “Under our Constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change,” Powell wrote. Later on, as a Supreme Court justice, Powell himself was in a position to further this goal by authoring many legal decisions extending constitutional rights, such as the right to free speech, to corporations. In the 1978 case of First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, for example, Powell authored the majority decision stating that the bank’s right to speak through money invalidated state limits on corporate spending for political referenda. It dealt a strong blow to campaign finance reform that is still felt today.
The ultimate goal for corporateers, Court notes, is “changing how individuals and society think about the corporation, the government, the law, the culture and the individual.” If a government did all this it would be considered totalitarian; however, Court points out, the corporate community in the United States has been doing it for 30 years with little notice.
Although it contains information and contentions that might unnerve many, Court’s book is neither an anti-corporate screed nor a plaintive whine that corporations have taken over. Rather, it is a meticulous and thoughtful examination of the problem and a fiery call to action.
The third part of his book, “Counter Corporateering,” goes into detail about what individuals and society can do to fight back. Drawing on his decade and a half in the trenches, he urges people to join together, tells them how, and delineates particular guidelines they should use.
As a consumer survival manual, Corporateering works well. For example, Court tells how to protect your privacy under current laws; how to write a Freedom of Information Act request; which businesses have set good examples; what government agencies to contact for which action; and many other approaches and solutions.
Court also sprinkles in thoughtful proposals for changing government, the workplace and society at large. His consumer group has already had success at implementing some of the public policy approaches Court recommends. In September, California Governor Gray Davis signed into place the toughest whistleblower protection law in the nation, which Court’s group sponsored in conjunction with the book’s release.
Other approaches have yet to succeed. Court believes, for example, that three-strikes laws should apply to corporations. “If a person can go to jail for life for three criminal convictions, why shouldn’t corporations face a similar standard?” he writes. “A corporate death penalty for any corporation convicted of three separate criminal offenses would set a new bar for corporate responsibility and deter the corporate crime waves of tomorrow.” State legislation attempting to implement this concept—sponsored by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which Court heads—failed just this year.
“If the market is society,” Court writes, “if commerce is culture, then individuals will become shareholders in America rather than citizens of the United States with inalienable rights.” Court makes a persuasive case that we can prevent this from happening, and shows us how we can hold onto our culture in the face of corporateering. Whether his word becomes a standard of the vocabulary remains to be seen, but Court’s ideas are sure to have resonance. Not everyone will agree with the book but it is well worth the time to read and contemplate its message.
—Sidney J. Lemelle is associate professor of history and black studies at Pomona College.