Movements From Anti-war to Democracy

by Mike Ferner

In his provocative bestseller, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,
Graphic: jarnocan on with assistance from Andy Mager

Chris Hedges explored how individual and national psyches are emotionally invested in war. Even the peace movement would do well to mark his point about the emotional hold of war. Put another way, could it be that because war's suffering is so horrible, opposing it gives activists' lives a heightened sense of purpose?

If so, what does that mean for the anti-war movement when our troops finally come home and US battlefield casualties stop? How do we do more than just react the next time Empire demands war? More fundamentally, will the peace movement and its sister organizations not only get better at opposing social ills, but learn how to prevent corporations from turning what's supposed to be our own government into our greatest obstacle?

The Struggle for Who's in Charge
Let's consider the modern environmental movement.

Environmentalists have become experts at fighting, on the corporate field of regulatory hearings, to reduce the poison in our air and water by a few parts per million, then go on to stop a toxic waste dump or a nuclear power plant, one at a time, until we are exhausted. We call that success.

But corporations continue gaining the economic and political power and the legal rights needed to beat us in every field of endeavor. Long ago we gave up fighting for democratic control of energy and transportation companies in favor of regulating the rate at which these companies destroy the planet. If we don't resume the struggle of who's in charge, we will be no more successful than the safe energy movement of the 1970s which greatly curtailed nuclear plant construction but could not generate sustainable energy policies, let alone put energy companies under democratic control.

Progressive Era activists and we, their political descendants, tried to keep the Armour Co. from selling rotten meat by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act; tried to require the Standard Oil Co. to dump a little less toxic waste into our air and water with the National Environmental Policy Act; and attempted to slow the rate at which members of the National Association of Manufacturers kill and maim workers on the job with the Occupational Safety and Health Act. While we were busy trying to rein in specific corporate behaviors, attorneys for these legal fictions took a more fundamental approach - they devised ways to expand the power of all corporations across the board, by getting the Supreme Court to "find" their clients in the Constitution.

Corporations As Persons
For example, corporate lawyers chaffed at the idea that only real human beings should be protected by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and so the best minds money could buy methodically advanced case after case through the federal judiciary until their fellow elites on the Supreme Court extended the amendment's equal protection provision to corporate "persons" (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad 1886, and Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad v. Beckwith, 1889).

If it seems crazy that a constitutional amendment passed to protect freed slaves was used in this way, keep in mind the modern slogan coined by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF): "Slavery is the fiction that a person is property. Corporate personhood is the fiction that property is a person."

With that, it was a relatively small step to argue that the entire Bill of Rights should protect corporate interests. So today, the 4th Amendment protects corporations from unreasonable searches (Hale v. Henkel, 1906) and the 1st Amendment has been twisted to protect "corporate speech" (Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Consumer Council, 1976), including such things as telling us what kind of energy policy we need (PG&E v. Public Utilities Commission, 1986), what kind of dairy products we can be warned about (International Dairy Foods Assoc. v Amestoy 1996), and how to vote on all manner of ballot initiatives (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 1977).

How did corporations achieve these victories? We know they exercised their vast wealth and political connections, but what long range legal strategies did they employ that are worth understanding? What lessons might we learn from reviewing the organizing and legal strategies people's movements used to oppose corporate power? What victories did they win? These are the histories we need to learn if we want to do more than end this war's suffering a few weeks sooner or perhaps postpone the next war a bit. We must learn how to strip corporations of their usurped privileges, dismantle their power to govern, and end forever their ability to direct our hard-earned wealth into butchery and empire.

Of course we can be content to be an anti-war movement and have the Empire define our existence and purpose. In that case, the drumbeats for the next war will reassemble social change activists from a hundred different fronts. We will throw ourselves once more into the fray, working against the government's well-oiled killing machine until we are exhausted. But when do we demand to be more than a brief parade of colorful banners and heartfelt slogans passing an empty White House?

Employees of the War Machine
Cindy Sheehan poignantly wrote, "I knew that our leaders were bought and paid for employees of the war machine, and yet, when Casey came of age, he put on the uniform and marched off to another senseless war to bring his employers that rich reward of money and power. The warning for American mothers and fathers is this: the war machine will get your children, if not now, then your grandchildren. It is a hard and steep price to pay for the certain knowledge that the people in power think of us, not as their employers and electorate whom they swear to serve, but as their tools to be used as cannon fodder whenever the impulse strikes them."

If we want Cindy's words to mean something, we have to learn how to transform the anti-war movement into a democracy movement. Our reward will be that we can finally move beyond opposing one war after another to build the kind of peaceful, just world we deserve…and the planet is waiting for us to create.

Mike works with the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy. His book, "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran for Peace Reports from Iraq" is just out. Contact Mike at