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The Vote That Never Happens

A “global casino” is the way Fritjoj Capra, the well-known physicist and author, described the current trend toward globalization at a recent conference in San Rafael sponsored by Bioneers, an eclectic group of futurists. Colossal corporations, he explained, bet by buying the rights to the most fundamental of resources, such as seeds and large sources of fresh water, in efforts to gamble on securing profit from what was once deemed the commons.

There used to be 9,000 seed companies in the world, each based in specific countries where seed stocks reflected regional tastes, cultures, soil types, and rainfall. That number could be reduced to a just a handful if the corporate agenda of large transnational corporations such as DuPont and Monsanto succeeds.

The licensing of seeds is just one symptom of a trend in which mega-companies are emerging as rulers of this globe in ways that defy traditional means of governance. Did we Americans, or people from other countries, vote for global feedstocks that will encourage monocultures and, perhaps, ecological disaster?

The answer to that question is no. Yet corporations, even those that profess to be marching toward sustainability, are amassing more and more power over our lives.

“A corporate leader professing sustainability is often like someone who gives a dollar to a homeless person but then goes to a bar to get drunk and goes home to beat up his wife but identifies himself with the person that gave the homeless person a dollar.”

These are the words of Paul Hawken, a proponent of “natural capitalism,” the idea that markets should take cues from nature, and a man who has worked extensively with large corporations. At the Bioneers conference, Hawken was surprisingly relentless in his attack on corporate America.

“Why have our corporate leaders developed a business case for being the last generation on Earth? They have a created an economic system where it is cheaper to destroy in real time our planet’s resources than it is to preserve it.” Hawken was just warming up. “Our commons is being corrupted. Corporations believe they have a right to grow, a right higher than all other rights. They live by a lie. You cannot get to sustainability with an economic system based on making the most amount of money. I’ve come to the conclusion that a Fortune 500 company cannot be sustainable.”

Richard Grossman, co-founder and co-director of the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy, went even further to attack the fundamental concept of a corporation: “What are corporations? Corporations are not persons. They are nothing more than figments of a legal imagination that vacuum up resources and turn them into economic power. They are fundamentally anti-democratic and are not held responsible for what they do. They are swaddled in our nation’s Constitution and have rights that are greater than human beings! Multi-billion-dollar corporations frame our issues, run their candidates, and write our laws. I say we need to strip them of their first amendment rights.”

“No informed majority would approve an economic design whose operations have forced every living thing into decline,” said Jeff Gates, president of the Shared Capitalism Institute of Laguna Beach, commenting on the vote that never happens. “We desperately need to draw on humanity’s deepest insights in order to modify human behavior so that our presence will be life-giving and restorative. Instead, we see a steadily widening gap between a detached decision-making elite and a disillusioned populace who are slowly awakening to just how little they’ve benefited from this two-decades long policy-driven plutocratic boom -- and how much that boom has damaged the world.”

Gates is author of “Democracy at Risk.” Ironically enough, he argues that we need more capitalists -- not less. His answers are to increase employee ownership options for companies and change laws to encourage small, rather than global, business enterprises. He is pushing for a “capital commons user fee” to recoup some of the value of resources that have traditionally been considered part of the commons, but which large corporations are currently licensing and buying in order to create future profits.

Gates may be dreaming when it comes to chances for enacting some sort of fee to address the commodification of the commons, but his point is well taken. Something has to be done to address a global economy careening dangerously out-of-control. There was no market logic linking regional economic conditions to financial crisis in Asia, Brazil, Mexico, or Russia in the ‘90s. And the only group to benefit from the uncontrollable turbulence in capital markets in these countries was a global elite who always seems to profit even as the world teeters on the brink.

Enacting Gates’ reforms of increasing employee ownership and democratizing the economy by shifting from large to small businesses would, in essence, create opportunities for citizens to vote for business models that serve community, instead of giving away power to large, distant corporate enterprises whose only allegiance is to the almighty buck.

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Peter Asmus has written about business environmental issues for more than a decade. Among his past consulting clients have been Global Futures of San Francisco and the AHC Group of Saratoga, New York, both of which work with Fortune 500 companies to gain market advantage by moving beyond compliance with environmental laws.

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