The social system in most of Europe during the Middle Ages is known as feudalism. A similar system existed in Japan. A defining characteristic of this system is that a ruler holds all title to land and dispenses use of the land to retainers in return for their loyalty and service in support of the ruler. These retainers in turn have there own retainers on down the line until we reach the serf at the bottom of the pyramid. A person who works for and is dependent upon those above for their survival. Eventually this system gave way to one based on class, and theoretically now to one based on democracy for all citizens of legal age regardless of class or gender, giving them a say in how society operates.
History shows us that social systems are in continuous flux, some times one way and some times another, and some times faster or slower. Where our current system is going is a good question all of us should ask and think about.
Recently in the United States the Supreme Court issued a ruling that overturned the McCain — Feingold campaign finance reform law that limited the ability of corporations to spend money on political advertising. The ruling was based on the issue of free speech, which the court ruled applies to corporations — for over a century corporations have been considered persons under the law.
The idea that corporate groups have rights equal to those of real persons in a society is a threat to any form of democracy based on the equality of the individual, and is a step in social evolution backward towards the structures of the Middle Ages. Recognizing the rights of corporations as equal to those of actual persons increases the power of accumulated wealth to decide what the rules are that govern how we can live our lives. When corporations exercise their influence there is little doubt that when the question is between corporate interest and the well being of society, which way they will influence the decision.
The power of corporations is a direct threat to personal freedom. The more this power increases the more people are made dependent upon them and the less ability people have to deviate from what the corporations want them to do. As corporate power grows corporations absorb more and more of our infrastructure, buying up businesses and property and taking over government services. The end result could be a return to a feudal system where most of the population are serfs in the service of one corporation or another. Unlike the older feudal structures, however, instead of the ruler being at the top of the pile, in today’s developing feudal society the corporations own the rulers who are being reduced to corporate functionaries. The real power lies in the board rooms.
The recent Supreme Court ruling is a step in the direction of greater corporate influence in our lives, and not just American lives since the United States has such a great impact on world society, whatever happens there sends ripples throughout the rest of the world, particularly in Canada which is so closely bound to it.
The future will depend on whether the trend of increasing corporate wealth and power is allowed to continue. If it does, the ideals of freedom and democracy will be replaced with ones emphasizing compliance and loyalty to corporate will. Reversing the trend will require public pressure, a lot of it, to reduce corporate power and increase the power of the individual.
To maintain and expand our freedom we need to vote for politicians willing to change the legal status of corporations, and make them subservient to the public, not the other way around. We need leaders who will take away corporate personhood, who will make corporations justify their existence and go through a public review process before they are granted a charter, and go through it periodically to get their charter renewed. We need to put an end to limited liability and make those who own corporations responsible for corporate actions.
Jerry West is the publisher, editor and janitor for The Record, an independent, progressive regional publication for Nootka Sound and Canada’s West Coast.