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Corporations Are Not Citizens in Humboldt County, Calif. 8 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Democracy, Politics, Social Sciences.

Measure T in Humboldt County, Calif., passed 55-45 last Tuesday. In a nutshell, a series of corporations have interfered in local politics since the late 1990s, and the citizens of the county took matters in their own hands a passed a law that contradicts a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 1870s. [See Los Angeles Times article from June 8 and John Nichol's blog at The Nation.com.]

Given the current state of the courts in the U.S., it is highly unlikely that the law will withstand judicial review. If it does miraculously stand up in court, the problem will be that Humboldt County will be the only jurisdiction limiting corporate power in elections, and they will likely feel the impact. This kind of sweeping shift in the relationship between democracy and economy will only be effective in the United States if it is enacted globally, from sea to shining sea, so that various jurisdictions will have equal footing. This is already a problem with things like tax breaks and corporate benefits from local governments, where jurisdictions who can give the most money to the corporation are able to lure the company in; but this often has devastating effects in the long term on the tax payers in the jurisdiction.

What I love about Humboldt County's action is that it's so Jeffersonian. I have confessed here before that I'm a Jeffersonian at heart, ever since reading Richard K. Matthews' book The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson argued that an effective democracy would only work in the long run at the level of local politics, where “ward republics” had radical democracy on the bottom, keeping the representational democracy on the top honest. He believed that the fundamental purpose of a democracy was to provide the best possible circumstances for human happiness, where happiness would have two facets. On one hand, public happiness would arise from the real participation in the society, really having a say and getting your hands dirty in working to create and maintain a society worth living in; public happiness comes from being recognized as a peer and equal among your fellow citizens. On the other hand, private happiness arises from the personal pursuits, such as intellectual or artistic development, conversation with friends, observing nature, playing with your children, becoming a better, more moral human being.

In order for an individual to both participate in the democracy and to seek personal freedom to develop the self, citizens must have leisure time. This is what undergird Jefferson's notion of an agrarian nation. He wasn't a romantic or taken with pastoral nostalgia; rather, he saw agrarian lifestyles as creating a population of people who were economically independent, and therefore free to participate in the public and seek person growth in private.

Having observed wage labor and combined wealth (i.e., corporations) at work in England, Jefferson feared (correctly) that the coming of corporations and wage labor system to American would create, instead of a free people, a society of de facto slaves to the pecuniary interests of the Owner Class. Wage labor would undercut real, material independence and, because wage laborers are dependent on owners and subject to the owners' whims, there would ultimately be no leisure time to, in any real sense, pursue meaningful happiness.

Obviously Madison's view of governmental organization won out in the framing of the constitution, and Hamilton's view of the economy won out during the first few administrations of the young nation, and so Jeffersonian Democracy died before Jefferson did. But United States (and other industrialized democracies) continues to question what the appropriate relationship between a capitalist economy and a real, responsive democracy should be. The U.S. has fallen far to the right of most industrialized nations, in a sort of “free-market fundamentalism.” The population of Humboldt County drew a small and relatively weak line in the sand, invigorated their democracy, and redefined citizenship within their jurisdiction. It is sad that American democracy is such that, for the time being, their efforts will most likely end in a glorious defeat.

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