Reversing the Corporate Takeover

We know what we’re against, but what are we for?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th April 2001

You can’t help admiring their nerve. Last week, the pharmaceutical companies sought to persuade us that, far from climbing down, they had simply reached an agreement with the South African government. The collapse of their court case was, they assured us, “a success for all parties”. If this is success, I can’t wait to see what failure looks like.

It’s true, however, that their humiliating victory doesn’t seem to have done the drugs firms much harm. On Sunday we learnt that Glaxo-SmithKline, one of the defeated plaintiffs, might launch a £150 billion bid for a rival company. Corporate power shows little sign of retreating.

The people’s movements now deployed against it are perhaps the biggest and most widespread popular risings the world has ever seen. Every major trade meeting is blockaded by protestors; every big corporation has attracted its own campaign. But there’s one problem we keep encountering: we all know what we’re against, but no one can agree what we’re for.

Our movements, as a result, have been defined in purely oppositional terms: we are anti-globalisation, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist. But protest (from the Latin TESTARE, to bear witness) means to testify FOR. Unless we start demanding solutions, our efforts will be wasted.

No one pretends that this is easy. To describe the anti-globalisation network as incoherent is not necessarily to denigrate it: its strength as well as its weakness lies in the extraordinary diversity of ideologies and interests it has mobilised. But the absence of a clearly visible collective agenda has encouraged some people to fill this vaccuum with wishful thinking and homeopathic magic.

The belief that the Zapatista revolution, which owes much of its success to regional identity, class loyalty and geographical isolation, can be reproduced among the deracinated people of post-industrial cities is as desperate as the hope that planting cannabis in Parliament Square will persuade global capitalism to come out with its hands in the air. Indeed, it’s hard to see, in most circumstances, how stateless self-organisation could help any but the strong. Imagine, for example, what would happen to an autonomous community of blacks, next door to an autonomous community of rednecks in South Carolina. Or, as a friend of mine suggests, “the moment the anarchist utopia arrives, every Daily Mail reader in the country will pick up a shotgun and shoot the nearest anarchist”.

So what should we be campaigning for? What is the antithesis of totalitarian capitalism? I believe that it isn’t anarchy and it isn’t a command economy. It’s market freedom.

As your paper hurtles towards the bin, I should hasten to explain that my conception of market freedom is rather different to that of the neoliberals. A genuine free market is surely one which is free for everyone, rather than one in which the powerful are free to squeeze the economic life out of everyone else. The prerequisite of freedom, in other words, is effective regulation.

This means that in some respects the state will have to become not weaker — as both the anarchists and the neoliberals insist — but stronger. It must be empowered to force both producers and consumers to carry their own costs, rather than dumping them onto other people or the environment. It must be allowed to distinguish between the protection of workers, consumers and the ecosystem and trade protectionism.

World trade agreements, in other words, must be reversed. Rather than setting only maximum standards for the defence of people and the environment, they should set minimum standards, to which multinational companies must subscribe before they are licensed to trade. Opponents of this idea, such as our own development secretary Clare Short, argue that this would penalise developing countries whose standards are lower than our own. But if we can accept that states should be subject to human rights laws, enforceable anywhere on earth, it’s hard to see why corporations should be allowed to maim and poison the people of weaker nations.

If we are to reverse world trade treaties, however, first we must seek to democratise global decision-making. Perhaps we should envisage a world parliament, rather like the European Parliament, governing the activities of global agencies.

True market freedom also demands that governments must stop rescuing corporations whenever they get into trouble. It requires that we remove such dispensations as limited liability (which allows corporations to wriggle out of their responsibilities) and ever more generous property rights (which grant them control over such fundamental commodities as knowledge, the genome, plant varieties, land and water). The privatisation of key public services, such as health and education, excludes most of the world’s people from any effective form of participation in the market.

Commercial confidentiality, currently used by corporations to defend themselves from public examination of all kinds, should be redefined to protect only the knowledge which would be sought by industrial spies. Otherwise, companies should be subject to freedom of information laws of the kind which permit US citizens to scrutinise the state.

The sheer scale of some corporations has now become an impediment to democracy, dwarfing the power of both citizens and competitors. We should, perhaps, set a global limit, forcing all companies above a certain size to divest parts of their business if they become too big. A global maximum wage, restricting managers and directors to a certain multiple of the salary of their lowest paid employees, would both restrain the coercive power of the rich and provide an incentive to raise the wages of the poor. And if a single corporate tax rate were set worldwide, companies would no longer be able to force governments to let them off the hook.

Most importantly, when a firm has caused significant public harm, states should be permitted, as once they were, to pronounce sentence of corporate death. The restrictive corporate charter, in other words, needs be reintroduced. None of these regulations will survive however, unless, like the deregulatory measures being forced through everywhere, they are implemented globally.

In other ways, the grip of the state should be relaxed. As corporations have been de-regulated, so citizens have been re-regulated, partly in order to prevent them from challenging corporate power. Power needs be devolved not only from international bodies to the state, but also from the state to its citizens. Community planning exercises, for example, better determine how a neighbourhood should develop than delegated authority. A protective state is not incompatible with enhanced autonomy.

Some people will suggest that these proposals are too ambitious, others that they are reformist and tame. But the will for sweeping political and economic change is manifest worldwide, and the state is mandated not by the corporations but by its citizens. Conversely, proposals which first require a complete transformation of human consciousness are simply a refined form of despair. The revolution has begun. Isn’t it time we had a programme?