The Nancho Consultations

Noam Chomsky

Nancho Lite

On Corporations as Collectivist Tyrannies

We met the good doctor in Kyoto again in May '99 and triggered this great riff at a local university symposium.

Nancho: There are currently a lot of people in the States, people like Richard Grossman, David Korten, people at the International Forum on globalization, who have been focusing on big corporations as entities competing with human beings in the new ecology, entities that have overtaken our institutions, our media, our educational systems, and obviously taken over our political system. To counter this, they are trying to come up with new tactics and strategies that would essentially deprive corporate beings of the Bill of Rights protections they have acquired over the last century, like their right to free speech or political participation. What do you think of this particular approach to disempowering corporate bodies?

Noam Chomsky: Well, the questions that they and many others are raising are very appropriate and legitimate questions. Corporations were given the rights of persons around the beginning of this century not by legislation but by radical judicial activism: by decisions of courts and lawyers and intellectuals. There was no legislation. Radical courts just made new decisions that gave corporations the rights of persons which is outrageous.

The reasons for that were that in the latter part of the nineteenth century there were radical market failures which convinced everyone including business that free markets can't possibly function without destroying society and destroying their own profits. That is why many huge corporations were formed: to administer markets. Business wanted to do it itself so it did it internally through collectivist structures. That is what these corporations are, collectivist entities for administering markets and preventing market mechanisms from destroying everyone. They were given the rights of persons so that they could carry out these operations.

At the time this was bitterly attacked by the working class movements, who wanted to take over control of production themselves, and it was also bitterly attacked by conservatives, that is the classical liberals, people who were then called conservatives in English. There is no one any more who is a conservative though they still use the term. But a century ago there were conservatives, people who believed in classical liberal ideals and markets and human rights and that kind of thing, but now there is no one left, just the word. But a century ago there were people, real conservatives and they attacked the new corporate rights as a form of communism and that was basically accurate.

If you look at the intellectual origins of corporations, they lie in Hegelian ideas about the rights of organic entities over and above individuals. These are the same ideas that underlie fascism and bolshevism, so the conservative criticism was accurate. The idea was to eliminate individual rights in favor of the rights of great organic entities and administer markets, because markets cannot be allowed to run freely or they will destroy everything.

So a corporation is an organic entity which has rights as against the rights of real people, like people of flesh and blood. These are collectivist entities which are granted the rights of persons, though they of course overwhelm all individual persons, and their purpose is first of all to administer markets and also to transfer public power into private hands. That is what big corporations are and do.

There is now finally much talk about corporations getting too many rights, you know, being granted rights that go too far. Which is true - the new trade agreements and so on, which are not "free trade" agreements at all, are efforts to assign even greater rights to collectivist entities which are unaccountable to the public. They are tyrannies, in effect, big tyrannies.

Take a big corporation like General Electric, internally it is a tyranny. It is about as tyrannical as any human institution has ever been. It is a dictatorship run from the top down like a fascist state and it is as close to the totalitarian ideal as any body humans has created, and the same is true of every other big corporation. It also has the nice feature that the public doesn't know what it is doing and has nothing to say about what it is doing, so it is not accountable. And current international agreements, trade agreements, for example, are an attempt to give them even more power.

Now when these corporations, these tyrannies, were given the rights of persons -- which they never had before -- that meant they were given the right of free speech which means the right to advertise, the right to carry out massive propaganda, the right to buy elections, the right to control your mind, and so on. That is what it means to give free speech to a huge collectivist tyranny.

There is currently protest about these entities being given too many rights, but that is not really the right approach. It is like saying a slave owner is too brutal and he should be nicer to his slaves. Or that a tyranny is too oppressive and it should be a little less oppressive. That is not the right demand. Regarding tyrannies or slave owners, we should not say they should be nicer, we must say that the institution itself should not exist.

The proposals that are being made are good in that they are opening up these questions for discussion. But there are two things that should be kept in mind. First, the problem is not that these corporations have too many rights, it is that they have any rights at all. The second point is that there is no use just saying let us put an end to these tyrannies. You have to have an alternative that is ready to operate. There have to be organized popular movements in the work force and in the communities that are ready to take over from these bodies and run the society in a free and democratic fashion.

- END -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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