In a 5-4 vote in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court has struck down one hundred years of restrictions on corporate spending in election campaigns. On the surface, the Court has posed it as an issue of free speech rights. However, at root, the decision is more about the crushing power of corporations in the U.S. More than ever, we need to build a fight-back.
No sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of non-profit or for-profit corporations, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority that included both of President George W. Bush’s recent appointees. Also in the majority was the notorious reactionary, Justice Antonin Scalia, a major opponent of women’s and LGBT people’s rights, who also shamelessly helped steal the 2000 election for Bush.
The ruling has struck down federal regulations that restrict the amount of money corporations can spend on political advertising during elections. The ruling does not remove restrictions for direct contributions to candidates, nor does it change financial disclosure regulations. So corporations cannot simply give Joe Candidate a direct donation of $1 billion, but they can spend as much money as they wish on their own campaign ads on his behalf. This will certainly give the corporations another tool to hold over the heads of politicians who stray too far from the corporate line.
The idea peddled by some that this was simply a case about free speech protections under the First Amendment is complete nonsense. The elephant in the room at decision time, indicated by the headlines in all the major corporate media outlets, was the inevitable consequences the ruling would entail for the power wielded by massive corporations – hardly a force for the rights of ordinary Americans.
This was a victory for the Wal-Marts of the U.S. that fight against union rights and destroy small business. For the Exxon-Mobils that rake in record profits and obstruct demands for green energy. And, of course, it was a massive victory for the too big to fail Wall Street banks that can dole out billions in bonus pay for executives, but refuse to invest in socially useful production that would create jobs.
And for what reason do corporations need the right to unload their fat pockets on politics? Do they not have enough say in politics already? Even with the FEC regulations in place, corporations already completely dominated the two parties that control the political system. Up until now, regulations meant corporations had to find other ways of exercising their influence. The Citizens United ruling merely allows them a more direct, naked form of political domination.
In reaching their decisions, the Court affirmed its adherence to the concept of corporate personhood that gives the same rights to profit-driven corporations as to living, breathing, thinking, feeling human beings. According to this twisted logic, since political spending has already been ruled a form of protected free speech, corporations are entitled to the right to unleash the full capacity of their treasuries on U.S. politics.
While the rights of corporations are being expanded, what about the rights of working people? Thousands of ordinary Americans die every year simply because they cannot afford healthcare. Last year, the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, arrogantly reminded us that we have no right to healthcare under this system. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to healthcare, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This right has never existed in America (Wall Street Journal, 8/12/09).
However, progressives have pointed out again and again that the word corporation does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. So, how can it be that corporations are afforded rights not mentioned in the Constitution, but workers are left to suffer without healthcare or a guaranteed income?
Is it hopeless to fight back?
In the meantime, many people are wondering if the deck is now completely stacked in favor of corporations. But, why should we despair? Ordinary working people and the oppressed have never won gains by outspending corporations in political advertising campaigns. The source of our power is in our numbers and our social power, not our bank accounts.
It has only been through building powerful, massive, grassroots struggles that workers and the oppressed have won gains and the limited rights we have now. It was the mass militant strikes of workers that won the limited workplace and union rights we now enjoy. The massive civil rights movement defeated Jim Crow. The mass struggles for women’s rights forced the Supreme Court to legalize abortion rights in Roe v. Wade. As the radical abolitionist Frederick Douglas famously stated, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Obama and the Democrats
Sensing the growing anger and discontent among their voting base, the Democrats have been quick to denounce the ruling. ”With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special-interest money in politics,” said President Obama after the ruling. “It’s a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful institutions that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
But, Obama has never been a principled opponent of corporate influence in politics. The Democratic Party itself is awash in corporate cash.
The opposition to this decision among leading Democrats is based first on their own narrow electoral interests and fears that the ruling will benefit the Republicans more. Second, they fear the ruling goes too far in exposing the true nature of corporate domination over Washington. They would prefer some regulations on special interests so they can keep trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the working people whose votes they need in elections.
Some Democrats have called for an amendment to the Constitution that would restrict corporate donations. This would indeed be welcomed by millions who see the need to check corporate power in order to advance the interests of ordinary people. But, can we rely on the corporate-dominated Democratic Party to reign in Corporate America? This is the same Democratic Party that joined the Bush administration in supporting the bailout of Wall Street.
More importantly, it would be a mistake to simply base our strategy in the fight against corporate power solely on getting corporate money out of politics through election regulations. A better strategy would start with getting ourselves out of the corporate parties, breaking with the Democrats and Republicans once and for all.
This would free us to fully mobilize the massive independent power of working people, the only force that can defeat corporate politics. Such a strategy would require building mass movements for jobs, revitalizing the union movement, and building our own independent political party that refuses even a dime from the corporations.
Ultimately, defeating corporate power will require challenging the logic of capitalism and hitting them where their real source of power lies - their control over the economy. By taking the top 500 corporations and banks into public ownership under the democratic management of elected representatives of workers and the broad public, we could root out their power. This would also lay the basis for a new economy, based on democratic socialist planning to meet the needs of people and the environment, not profit.
In this economic crisis, corporations have destroyed millions of jobs to protect their profits. They have demanded tax breaks and bailouts that result in budget cuts for education and public services. Enough is enough. It’s time to turn up the level of working-class activism and grassroots struggle. Get involved in the fight against corporate domination and capitalism! Join Socialist Alternative today!