Magazine article The American Prospect

Where's the Movement? Corporate Reformers Need to Target the Radically Possible. (ComonWealth)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Where's the Movement? Corporate Reformers Need to Target the Radically Possible. (ComonWealth)

Article excerpt

IN EARLY JUNE, THE CONSERVATIVE WASHINGTON POST columnist Sebastian Mallaby wrote: "Enron has created a natural moment for a smart assault on capitalist excess. The wonder is that political leaders and social activists alike do not seem to have seized it." By July, President Bush signed Sen. Paul Sarbanes' (D-Md.) accounting-reform bill into law, but surely that small victory doesn't fit Mallaby's definition.

Why hasn't the moment been seized? It's been almost a year since Enron evaporated and two years since the "new" economy lost its giddiness. But where's the grass-roots groundswell? What happened to all of those daring anticorporate protesters who paralyzed Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings? If the polls are at all accurate, the public's perception of corporations has done a 180-degree turnaround and there's now an earthquake of citizen energy just waiting to rumble. Not only should liberals be using this opportunity to housebreak the corporate economy, they should also be re-creating themselves as the caretakers of the public good, dethroning market extremists in the process.

Although the free-market zealots have taken a beating in the op-ed pages, a fog has drifted over the grass roots, thickened by the distractions of September 11 and Iraq. But where's the lighthouse? Many activists express disappointment about the stalled domestic corporate-reform agenda. "We've already missed part of the train," says Jason Mark of Global Exchange, an international activist group. "We should have been on top of this months ago." Charlie Cray of Ralph Nader's democracy-building group Citizen Works agrees. "The media is doing the best job of pushing these issues. It's not happening at the grass roots," he says.

The aftershocks of 9-11 are only the most immediate of the obstacles. Money, certainly, is a perennial factor when you're challenging corporate power. But even if major angels descended from foundation heaven, they'd find only a few groups to which they'd give money--not because few organizations are critical of corporate power but because few have an attainable domestic-reform agenda. Much of the outrage about corporate excess in the last decade has been dedicated either broadly to a critique of global financial institutions or narrowly to specific corporate crimes and consumer boycott campaigns. Campaign-finance reformers do an excellent job of unveiling the relationship between big money and congressional votes. But little attention has been given to organizing to reform the laws and court decisions that have allowed corporations to run wild.

Two clear exceptions are Nader's efforts and the AFL-CIO's. Although Nader himself is still being demonized by most of the powerful Democrats in Congress, his troops at Public Citizen and other organizations have a good sense of how to operate both in Congress and in the streets. For all his radicalism, Nader has always focused on achievable reforms. The AFL-CIO has invested more money in corporate reform than any other group. Its chief, John Sweeney, recently chose the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street in Manhattan to blast corporate titans and call for reforms--from worker representation on corporate boards to the public financing of congressional campaigns. "The stock market loses $7 trillion in value as the White House drags its feet, and Congress refuses to rescind the $1.6 trillion tax break they gave to the same CEOs who are now stealing us blind," he declared. Indeed.

Ron Blackwell, who directs the AFL-CIO's corporate efforts, adds, "What we have to do now is deepen the public's understanding of the systemic problems of corporations." Blackwell and his colleagues emphasize pension reform, strengthened shareholder rights and constraints on stock options.

Other large nonprofits are slow to adapt to events as they unfold. As Nader notes, "It takes too much time to turn these big groups. …

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