Political power, wealth, and business interests are all intimately linked. Rarely do we see one without the others, which can have devastating effects on both democracies and citizens. To paraphrase radical historian Howard Zinn, “The interests of corporations and the interests of the people are not the same.”
I: The Corporate Assault on Democracy
To rise to the highest political positions, an official must have a great deal of money and be well-connected to established political players and business titans. While there are some upsets, the best-funded candidates win congressional elections 86-97% of the time. The same is virtually always true of presidential races.
Corporate donors therefore have a tremendous amount of power. In the Citizens United case of 2010, the Supreme Court allowed corporations to give as much money to political campaigns as they like. Therefore the richest corporations have the greatest ability to help decide elections, leaving poorer businesses, unions, organizations, not to mention the common people, in the dust. (Many problems with corporate influence in government also apply, to a lesser degree, to unions and organizations, from the UAW to the NRA. Solutions like public financing of elections [or perhaps only allowing small campaign donations from individuals] and lobbying reform must apply to all entities.) The 2013 McCutcheon v. F.E.C. case then allowed unlimited individual spending on elections, further empowering the rich to choose candidates.
However, capitalists cannot always know who will receive the most funding nor foresee with absolute certainty the victor, so corporations have long given money to both sides to assure whoever wins will aid their interests (public officials are keen to pay back donors, especially to secure funding for reelection campaigns). A senior vice president of International Telephone and Telegraph put it best in 1960 when he said his company board would “‘butter’ both sides so we’ll be in a good position whoever wins.” As the Center for Responsive politics reported on giving to the party governor associations, “High profile donors that give to both sides include Comcast, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Coca-Cola, AFLAC and Verizon. The majority of these corporations donate about the same amount of money to both sides with five corporations giving exactly 50%: Novartis Corp, Kolhberg & Co, KKR & Co, Jacobs Entertainment Inc. and Intuit Inc.”
Einstein wrote in 1949 that there existed an
…oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).
Corporations have methods of influencing public policy beyond candidate selection. They either are media companies or own the media (GE owns NBC and Comcast, Disney owns ABC, etc.), and fund think tanks, plus university departments and research institutes. They threaten to move to other cities, states, or countries if politicians don’t enact laws that benefit them; their departure could mean ruin for local economies and working families. Boeing, the largest employer in Wichita, Kansas, infamously held that city—and state—hostage in the early 2000s. Corporations employ armies of lobbyists to bribe politicians with campaign funds to enact or oppose specific policies, such as deregulating industries or putting exemptions into the tax code. Armies of lawyers and accountants then make sure companies are effectively using the loopholes to whittle down their taxes. This has been underway for decades, and now the largest companies pay no taxes, and even get tax refunds. Tax rates for rich individuals have likewise been significantly reduced. See “Giant Corporations Are Not Paying Taxes.”
Corporations lobby to make sure certain unethical and illegal actions can no longer be punished. In 1966, for instance, “auto industry lawyers persuaded members of Congress to delete the criminal penalty from the motor vehicle safety law, even for companies who knowingly sold defective cars or parts—and willfully declined to recall the cars even after their use resulted in injuries or death.” Increased product safety meant higher costs for capitalists, so it was important to minimize or eliminate criminal penalties once they decided to put workers or consumers at risk. Or take the deadly opioid crisis of the first two decades of the 21st century, in which pharmaceutical companies made a killing by ignoring government requirements to report suspiciously large orders of opioids (such as nine million hydrocodone pills over two years to a town of 392 people), which were going to shady pain clinics and thus to addicts. When the DEA began cracking down on this negligence, the pharmaceutical industry launched the usual bribery methods (lobbying, donations to politicians, job offers) to convince Congress to scale back the DEA’s regulatory and enforcement powers.
In addition to the trillions in subsidies and tax breaks they receive, corporations use the government (and taxpayer money) as a life raft when they run into trouble. In the 1980s through the early 2000s, the financial sector succeeded in deregulating the practices of Wall Street banks and insurance companies, allowing those entities to make predatory investments and loans with public money. It was fraud on an unimaginable scale: mortgage lenders handed out low-quality, high-cost (and overvalued) home loans to consumers. This reaped hundreds of billions in profits for the banks, but in 2008 destroyed the housing market when scammed borrowers facing enormously high interest rates and mounting credit couldn’t make their payments. These people lost their homes to foreclosure, millions of nice homes stood empty, and the demand for housing construction vanished. The housing market crashed, and with it nearly the entire national economy (the global economy took a hit as well). Americans who owned stock lost fortunes, the poor lost their homes, and the banks, which loaned and borrowed money from each other, collapsed like dominoes. Yet the government bailed out the largest financial institutions, handing over trillions in taxpayer funds to the very CEOs and boards of directors who created the crisis!
Corporate power players, after all, ran the Department of the Treasury. Former Goldman-Sachs executives, for instance, held many of the top positions in the department, per usual. (Phone records have revealed the heads of financial institutions like Goldman-Sachs, Citigroup, and JP Morgan can get the treasury secretary on the phone several times a day, something no ordinary American is privileged to.) The corporatists would stop at nothing to acquire the fortunes needed to save their corrupt institutions. Bailouts have been common practice for a long time—in 1999, Noam Chomsky pointed out that over 20 corporations on the Fortune 100 list would not still exist if not for public bailouts. Congress gave the banks a $700 billion bailout. Not only did they save their banks, the capitalists awarded themselves millions of dollars in record bonuses. Today, the same men still control the financial sector and the governmental body in charge of overseeing it. “Three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud,” reported Charles Ferguson in 2011 (Inside Job), “not a single financial executive has gone to jail.” Finally, one did in 2014. He got a sentence of 30 months.
Senator Bernie Sanders summarized the state of American politics well when he said, “Wall Street is extraordinarily powerful. Congress doesn’t regulate them… Wall Street regulates Congress,” in the same way Populist Party orator Mary Ellen Lease summarized it in 1890: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.” In the Trilateral Commission report of 1976, Samuel Huntington of Harvard, a consultant to the White House during the Vietnam War, wrote that the country was “governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s ‘Establishment.’” He was not being critical. He believed there was an “excess of democracy,” recommending “limits to the extension of political democracy.”
Corporations now design the very laws by which they must abide. Ralph Nader writes, “Few regulations are issued without heavy tinkering by corporate attorneys; the results are often obsolete before they are enacted” and “corporate lobbies have effected changes in the law that reduce or escape fines, cap damages under tort law, hold enforcement budgets down, appoint enforcers from their own executive ranks to head agencies, and pour money into the coffers of political parties and candidates.” In 2013, 70 of the 85 lines in a bill on financial reform came straight from a draft created by Citigroup lobbyists. Groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) bring together local lawmakers and business titans to draft legislation that ends up being voted on and thus benefiting the corporate designers. Corporate influence leads to all kinds of lunacy, from Obama pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which allowed corporations to sue governments, including the U.S., if their policies interfered with corporate profits, to the weakening of anti-trust (anti-monopoly) laws, allowing corporations to swallow up or eradicate competitors.
2013 research from Political Research Quarterly showed that both political parties follow the whims of their wealthy constituents and donors, and during the 111th Congress Democrats were worse than Republicans in serving lower-income, majority interests. A 2014 study from Northwestern University and Princeton University found that when economic elites overwhelmingly oppose a law, it only has an 18% chance of enactment. Researchers concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Corporate executives are regularly installed in high government positions and set about serving the interests of private capital. President Nixon appointed a businessman to head OSHA who “was hostile to OSHA’s aims. One of his first acts was to order the destruction of 100,000 government booklets pointing out the dangers of cotton dust to textile workers.” In 2013, President Obama announced that Tom Wheeler, former executive of (and Washington lobbyist for) cable and telecommunication giants, would be the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler, after all, raised almost three-quarters of $1 billion for Obama’s two presidential campaigns. A man who spent decades lobbying for deregulation for some of the wealthiest corporations was now head of the government agency responsible for overseeing and regulating the same industry. Within a year, Wheeler was leading the charge to further allow monopolistic practices among Internet, cable, and phone service corporations, and dismantle net neutrality regulations. A later FCC chair attempting to axe net neutrality, Ajit Pai, was a former lawyer for Verizon, one of the companies pushing for the same. Things of course reached an absurd level under President Trump. His secretary of energy was on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners and earlier said he wanted to abolish the Department of Energy. His head of the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t believe in climate change and was at the time suing the EPA over environmental and health regulations. His National Economic Council director, chief strategist, and treasury secretary were all Goldman Sachs boys. His education secretary favored private schooling without government oversight over public schools, and was in no way qualified for the job, but donated huge sums to the Republican Party. Most all were extraordinarily wealthy.
Not only do corporate millionaires and billionaires become powerful politicians and federal agency heads, many public officials retire and join corporate lobbying firms. The politicians who once at least put up a façade of serving the public make millions using their political connections to influence legislation to the benefit of corporations. It is called the “revolving door.” It is a two-way street of corruption and client politics. In 1974, only 3% of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists, but now it’s 50% of Senators and over 40% of House Representatives. A 2012 article from the Nation reminded us, “Politicians never have to disclose job negotiations while in office, and never have to disclose how much they’re paid after leaving office,” leaving corporations free to
…secretly promise [politicians] a million dollars or more in pay if they come to work for [them] after they leave office. Once a public official makes a deal to go to work for a lobbying firm or corporation after leaving office, he or she becomes loyal to the future employer. And since those deals are done in secret, legislators are largely free to pass laws, special tax cuts, or earmarks that benefit their future employer with little or no accountability to the public.
The average increase in salary for a lawmaker-turned-lobbyist in 2011 was 1,452%. This is just an example of the rich getting richer, however. In 2009, nearly half of all 535 congressmen were millionaires, with a median net worth of $1.8 million for senators and over $620,000 for house representatives. In 2012, over half of Congresspersons were millionaires.
It also takes money to preserve political careers, a large part of the problem. Congressmen spend 25% to 50% of their time in office fundraising, possibly more during election years. Even congressmen who have no chance of being voted out of office still are required to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their party, to be used to support tight races. Thus politicians spend enormous amounts of time at dinners where donors pay huge sums of money per plate, or on the phone asking for contributions, instead of focusing on legislation the people desire.
The Center for Responsive Politics tracks lobbying and corporate spending to influence law, and found the financial and real estate sector spent nearly $500 million in 2013 alone. The health care industry spent about the same. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone spent nearly $75 million on lobbying, the National Association of Realtors $38.5 million, Blue Cross/Blue Shield $22.5 million. Thousands of firms poured a collective $3.21 billion into lobbying. Campaign coffers overflowed with legalized bribes: the 113th Congress got $30 million worth of contributions from law firms, $16.5 million from real estate firms, $14 million from insurance powers. Nearly 130 senior staff (aides and advisors who work for lawmakers) of the 112th Congress were former lobbyists. The White House and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, State, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture have each employed over 1,000 people who were once lobbyists or went on to become lobbyists. The CIA, the Army, the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Education, Treasury, Transportation—virtually every agency—is infested with officials with business associations and interests.
This can have enormous effects. Take the construction of the transcontinental railroad, one of the most important achievements for the development of our nation. Railroad companies
became dependents on government, using their initial capital not to start construction, but to bribe legislators…the first transcontinental railroad was not built by laissez-faire. The railroad capitalists did it with government land and money…the Central Pacific, starting on the West Coast, got 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in loans (after spending $200,000 in Washington for bribes).
The Union Pacific railroad sold shares to congressmen at discounted rates because, as one congressman involved in the bribe said, “There is no difficulty in getting men to look after their own property” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States)!
Indeed, the deals and favors border on the absurd. After Reagan removed controls on oil prices, essentially awarding $2 billion to the oil industry, twenty three oil executives donated over a quarter-million dollars to redecorate the White House living quarters; the owner of the Core Oil and Gas Company said, “The top man of this country ought to live in one of the top places. Mr. Reagan has helped the energy business.” Lobbying is an extraordinarily important practice for oil and gas companies in the face of the environmentalist movement, as massive sums of cash help keep politicians in line with industry objectives and garner profitable subsidies. The industry spent nearly $41 million on politicians’ campaigns in 2013 and 2014. Total, the industry spent over $326 million lobbying the U.S. government. The government spent nearly $34 billion on the fossil fuel industry in the same time period, in the form of subsidies, a nice return on an investment. University of Kansas Law School researchers found that for every dollar spent on lobbying, companies received $220 in tax breaks—a return of 22,000%.
That is the corporate assault on our democracy. It is dangerous because in a democracy decision-making power is supposed to rest with the people, who send public officials to Washington to represent them. Those with greater wealth are not supposed to have more influence and control over the process. If the majority of the people want to protect the environment but oil companies do not, who should win?
II: The Corporate Assault on Human Beings
Yet the dangers of capitalist control of government are overshadowed by the physical perils of the profit motive (distinct from the theft that constitutes capitalistic exploitation). Corporate abuse harms and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent people worldwide each year and can work against positive social goals, like ending drug addiction, establishing safer workplaces, or protecting the environment (we’ve seen elsewhere the damage capitalism is doing to our planet). Corporate abuse takes place to increase profits, and weak regulations and harmless consequences allow it to continue.
Profit is why corporations sell addictive, deadly cigarettes, which kill more people than all illegal drugs combined. Profit is why tobacco companies kept knowledge of cancer and other dangers secret. Profit is why the National Football League tried to bury findings on CTE, the brain injury many players sustain. Profit is why Big Oil buried its own findings that manmade CO2 was contributing to climate change. Profit is why the quality of fast food is so poor, why much of it is packed with dangerously addictive levels of sugar, salt, and fat, as well as chemical additives and preservatives. Profit is why innocent people are dropped from their health insurance coverage when they get sick or denied insurance when applying for it, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths each year. Profit is why energy companies want inefficient modes of transit and electricity, and therefore fight tooth and nail against cleaner, more efficient forms of energy, higher MPG requirements, and stricter environmental standards. General Motors and Chevron bought up and destroyed Los Angeles’ public rail system to make way for their products.
Laws with no teeth allow corporations to dump toxic waste or install garbage incinerators in poor minority areas, and to poison our air, water, and soil with pollutants, pesticides, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) toxins. Profit is the reason drug companies “promote off-label or unapproved uses for their medicines through their salespeople and physicians,” resulting in tens of thousands of deaths each year. It’s why drug companies focus research and development on medicine for minor problems that have to be bought continuously over a lifetime, and focus less on drugs for diseases like malaria, whose victims have no money. It’s why some companies research ways to make their products wear out faster, so people have to buy more—“planned obsolescence.” It’s why oil companies sometimes conspire to hold back production to keep prices up—this has been done not just by Arabian oil cartels but also by American firms.
Weak regulations are why employers casually violate rules for worker safety, leading to everything from lead and asbestos poisoning to maiming, blindness, and death. “In the ’80s, the Reagan administration essentially informed the business world that it was not going to prosecute violations of OSHA regulations. As a result, the number of industrial accidents went up rather dramatically…working days lost to injury almost doubled from 1983 to 1986…” In 2014, Congress changed safety rules for truck drivers, raising the number of hours per week an employee could drive from 70 to 82—despite recent deaths on the roads caused by exhausted truck drivers. Businesses had money to make. In 2016, Oxfam reported that American workers in poultry plants were denied bathroom breaks so often that workers had to wear diapers. Oxfam said that “the cost of cheap chicken in the U.S. is workers who face low wages, suffer elevated rates of injury and illness and face a climate of fear in the workplace.” It reported that
…unnamed workers from Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Perdue Farms Inc. and Sanderson Farms Inc… said that supervisors mock them, ignore requests and threaten punishment or firing. When they can go, they wait in long lines even though they are given limited time, sometimes 10 minutes, according to the report. Some workers have urinated or defecated themselves while working because they can’t hold on any longer… Some workers “restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees”…
Employers often find it more profitable to put worker lives on the line and simply risk paying pennies in fines (illegal immigrants can have it even worse). Nader writes:
Roughly sixty thousand Americans die each year due to workplace-related toxins and trauma. OSHA has an annual budget of $550 million to diminish the occupational disease, death, and injury epidemic, but only a portion of that budget is used for actual inspections and enforcement. Violations that pose a substantial probability of death or serious injury incur an average penalty of only $910.
60,000 Americans a year. The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, estimates over 650,000 workers around the world die each year from workplace hazards and toxins; 160 million people grow ill. No, not all these deaths are due to capitalist negligence in the name of profit – accidents happen, and many jobs are dangerous by nature – but some are. For example, from 2009 to 2010, 137 Apple workers were poisoned by inhaling hexane, a chemical in gasoline used to clean the glass cases on iPhones. Apple favored hexane over something safer, like alcohol, because hexane dries very quickly, meaning faster production.
If it’s not the employees at risk, it’s the consumers. In the 1970s, after defective fuel tanks in Ford Pintos were revealed to explode in some accidents, Ford calculated that it would be cheaper to pay lawsuit settlements ($200,000 for each case) than recall and repair the cars ($137 million). Ford did not fix the problem. 180 innocent people died each year from explosions linked to the defective fuel tanks.
None of this is new. As capitalism matured, industrializing nations saw horrific suffering as armies of poor men, women, and children were worked to exhaustion in factories, plants, and mines. Dying or losing limbs on the job and starving to death at home were the realities for millions of human beings during the Industrial Revolution. Ordinary people saw their employers grow rich, while they were given barely enough to stay alive. Victor Hugo in the 1880s told the rich of England:
The workers of this world whose fruits you enjoy live in death. There are little girls who begin at eight by prostitution, and who end at twenty by old age. Who among you have been to Newcastle-on-Tyne? There are men in the mines who chew coal, to fill their stomach and cheat hunger. Look you in Lancashire. Misery everywhere. Are you aware that the Harlech fishermen eat grass when the fishery fails? Are you aware that at Burton- Lazers there are still certain lepers driven into the woods, who are fired at if they come out of their dens? In Peckridge there are no beds in the hovels, and holes are dug in the ground for little children to sleep in; so that, in place of beginning with the cradle, they begin with the tomb.
In 1904, 27,000 American workers were killed at work; in 1914, 35,000 died in industrial accidents. In the U.S. and across the world, workers had to organize, unionize, strike, protest, and riot for government regulations, for safer working conditions, decent pay, shorter days, weekends, the end of child labor, and equal opportunity and treatment for minorities and women.
At times the deaths of employees can be profitable to capitalists in a more direct way. “Dead peasant insurance” (or “corporate-owned life insurance”) is used when a corporation takes out a life insurance policy on an employee or former employee and receives cash upon his or her death. It was originally a way to insure the lives of top executives and buffer against turmoil and collapse in the case of an executive death, but it was later extended to cover even the lowest-paid employees because it was profitable to do so. Capitalism: A Love Story stresses this is a common practice in corporate America, with Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, AT&T, and Citibank among the many guilty firms. It tells the tale of Daniel Johnson, whose employer received $1.5 million upon his death, and explains how corporate owners compare worker deaths and insurance rewards against “expected mortality” estimates to increase the efficacy and profitability of the system. From a 2002 Wall Street Journal report we learned that when former employee Filipe Tillman died of AIDS, Camelot Music collected $339,302; when store clerk William Smith was murdered at work, National Convenience Stores collected $250,000; when nurse Peggy Stillwagoner died in a car wreck, Advantage Medical Services collected $200,000. It is difficult to call our society civilized when corporations actively find ways to profit from worker deaths. Government regulation in 2006 required employers to get employee consent before taking out a policy and restricted the use to higher-paid employees. But this effort was weak, as it left a deplorable practice completely legal. In 2011, the owner of an oil-change business tried to hire a hit man to murder a former employee so the owner could collect $250,000.
A 2016 CBS News investigation found mass fraud throughout the life insurance industry. Firms like MetLife, Prudential, and John Hancock didn’t pay death benefits to family members of the deceased who weren’t aware they were beneficiaries. Instead of honoring the deceased, who paid for the policies to make sure their families would have money in case something happened to them, the companies cancelled the unclaimed policies and kept the sums. Millions of such policies were wrongfully and knowingly cancelled, saving the companies billions. 25 companies settled lawsuits and paid $7.5 billion in owed death benefits. 35 more were under investigation that year.
Clearly, the interests of corporations and the interests of the people are not the same.
 Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 548
 Einstein, Why Socialism?
 Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, 86-88
 Nader, Seventeen Solutions
 Maass, Case for Socialism, 93.
 Chomsky, The Common Good, 73
 Zinn, People’s, 288
 Zinn, People’s 559-560
 Nader, Seventeen Solutions
 Zinn, People’s, 575
 Alan Maass, Case for Socialism, 106
 Zinn, People’s, 577
 Chomsky, Common Good, 59
 Nader, Seventeen Solutions
 Imagine, 181
 Imagine, 181
 Zinn, People’s, 549
 Chomsky, Common Good
 Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, 232
 Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 74
 How socialist was Hugo? See http://isreview.org/issue/89/enduring-relevance-victor-hugo
 Hugo, “The Rich”
 Zinn, People’s, 327