Power to the Persons

One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy cover

 by Thomas Frank

 (New York: Doubleday, 2000)


Book Review by Marc Bedner, editor of Common Sentience


The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the states have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced.

These words opened the Populist Party Platform for the Presidential Election of 1892. The Populist Party was formed in an attempt to reverse the increasing political power of corporations. Six years before, in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the U.S. Supreme Court granted corporations legal rights as persons:

One of the points made and discussed at length in the brief of counsel for defendants in error was that "Corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States." Before argument MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE said: The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.

This legal situation has never changed, as U.S. courts continue to grant to corporations rights which are denied to living nonhuman (and some human) beings. This is not true in all parts of the world, of course. The European Union, at least in principle, recognizes a need "to ensure improved protection and respect for the welfare of animals as sentient beings." The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Consitution, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War to assure rights to former slaves, was recently cited by the Supreme Court to prevent challenges to the election of George W. Bush as President.

One of the planks of the Populist platform was a graduated income tax, which the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. In order to channel popular support for populist ideas into the established political parties, progressive Democrats and Republicans passed a consitutional amendment allowing the tax. Now that populist ideas are long forgotten, the Republicans, with little opposition from the Democrats, are moving to repeal the tax. Adopting populist rhetoric to promote its opposite, President Bush and his supporters claim to be "returning to the People" money which would otherwise be spent by "government bureaucrats."

Corporations now claim not only the rights of persons, but also the right to speak in the name of the People. As Thomas Frank points out in his book One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, populism has been turned into its opposite. Populism is no longer a political campaign to restrain corporations, but a marketing campaign to increase corporate power. Frank calls this phenomenon "market populism," which he describes as follows:

Market populism was just the thing for a social order requiring constant doses of legitimacy. Taking as a fact the notion that business gives people what they want, market populism proceeds to build all manner of populist fantasies. Of businessmen as public servants; of industrial and cultural production as a simple reflection of popular desire, of the box office as a voting booth. By consuming the fruits of industry we the people are endorsing the industrial system, voting for it in a plebiscite far more democratic than a mere election.

Market populists argue that a democratic society should abolish government regulations, allowing corporations, in the name of the consumers, to do whatever they wish. When logging companies cut forests and petrochemical companies produce greenhouse gases, they argue, it is in response to consumer demand. Any attempt to control this activity is the name of the common good is dismissed as elitism.

So-called New Economy entrepreneurs are particularly noteworthy for their use of libertarian and populist rhetoric to justify their practices. But increasingly it is also Old Economy capitalists, with the help of the politicians they have purchased, who are using the mantle of democracy to repeal the gains which the common people have made over the last century.



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