Monday, December 5, 2011

Richard Grossman, Compost in Peace

Richard Grossman, a noted political activist in the United States of America, died this November 22, 2011. Richard was known for his criticism of for-profit corporate control of the American (and global) political system, economy, and culture. Richard had no issues with criticizing other dissidents who did not agree with him on strategy and tactics. To honor his memory, I will not refrain from criticism (as is typical in a requiem) while I share my personal experiences about Richard.

Richard tried to influence the discourse of American environmental and pro-democracy dissidents, with varying degrees of success. I had never heard of him until my wife, Jan Edwards, began working with Alliance for Democracy and made herself the first modern crusader against the legal doctrine of corporate personhood (c. 1999). I could not say exactly when Richard came into the mix, as I was never "wowed" by him or his organization, POCLAD (Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy).

But at some point, when Jan was determined to get the City of Point Arena to pass a law against corporate personhood, I became aware that she was talking on the telephone to one Richard Grossman, among others. Richard never really adapted to computers (he was born on August 10, 1943), but large packages of xeroxed copies of old articles about corporate power began arriving at our house.

Jan had a fixed idea that corporate personhood was the central evil of the modern era. Richard did not agree with that; he tried to expand her attention to other issues of corporate power. But he did provide us with a lot of material about corporate personhood, notably Personalizing the Impersonal: Corporations and the Bill of Rights by Carl J. Mayer [Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 4, March 1990] and a series of articles from the 1950's by Howard Jay Graham. These were fine, but too much, too fast to serve as introductory material.

No one at POCLAD had written anything substantial about corporate personhood. Jan, assigning duties to our small local team of activists, decided I should write the first modern introduction to the topic. This resulted in Santa Clara Blues: Corporate Personhood versus Democracy.

With a million things going wrong in the world, do-gooders argue among themselves about priorities, strategies and tactics. Richard stated, strongly, that he thought the environmental and social justice movements were taking the wrong approaches. He believed that because of corporate power activists might win an occasional point (the Clean Air Act, or temporarily protecting an individual habitat) but were regularly losing ground on the whole.

Richard Grossman wanted to challenge fundamental legal doctrines that (with money) are the foundations of corporate power. These include, but are not limited to, corporate charters being treated as contracts, the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, limited liability, and the ability of corporate money to influence elections.

The question activists asked, in return, was how was that to be done? What was to be sacrificed (streams, mountaintops, oceans, human beings) in the meantime if activists stopped what they were doing and all ran to law libraries and spent a half-century arguing for legal reform?

Richard's point was not to train more environmental or social justice lawyers. They are plentiful enough, so much so that many can't earn a living, or even end up being employed by corporations. He did not want to fight corporations within the law. He wanted to change the law.

Changing the law really happens in only one of three ways. You can win Supreme Court cases. You can change the law with legislation. Or you can have a revolution and write the law anew.

The Revolution never came in Richard Grossman's lifetime. This is the sad fate of most revolutionaries. I cannot fault Richard for trying, and for thinking outside the usual boxes.

Knowing a little history, however, makes one wonder if Richard ever deserved to be the intellectual leader of American dissidents, as was clearly his wish. Richard moved from being the executive director of Greenpeace in the 1980's to a messenger of the nature of corporate power.

It was not a new message. You probably did not know old-time American Communist Party members, but they talked a lot about corporate power. It tied in well with their strategy of radicalizing labor unions so that the working class (or at least its authoritarian vanguard) could come to power in this bastion of capitalism. Anarchists, too, long pre-dated Grossman in their analysis of the System, but did not care to try to change obscure doctrines like corporate personhood. They wanted, and want, to go straight to building a new society out of the ashes of the old.

Without the legal framework of corporate power we would most likely just have private ownership of large businesses, much as is the case in the Soviet Union today.

How do you de-power the ruling class when they can buy politicians and courts and, yes, can even divert activist organizations simply by strategic donations of money? Richard could never answer that question. Perhaps simply raising taxes on the rich, in particular with estate taxes, would do the trick. Taxes could break up the growing "title of nobility" that the Constitution warns against in Article I, Section 9.

Perhaps with a third party. Perhaps with the tactics being practiced by CELDF or MoveToAmend (both groups spawned by Grossman). Perhaps by anarchists, or communists, or social democrats, or revolutionary environmentalists. Why, it is not absolutely impossible that reforms could come from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

No one knows. Richard Grossman's greatest trait was his willingness to revise his views. He kept revising them until the day he died. Maybe if more people did more thinking outside their usual boxes, we might collectively find a solution that can transition us to an environmentally sound, ecologically sustainable, and culturally rich world.

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