Richard Grossman, Remembered

Richard Grossman was one of those activist eccentrics who took democratic power so seriously that he knowingly marginalized himself.  Mainstream political culture regarded his positions as crazy or tactically unwise -- but eventually the world began to catch up with him. 

The lack of constitutional authority for corporate power was Grossman's abiding passion. He began to dig into that issue by co-founding in the 1990s the activist research group POCLAD, the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. The group describes itself as “a group of 11 people instigating democratic conversations and actions that contest the authority of corporations to govern. Our analysis evolves through historical and legal research, writing, public speaking, and working with organizations to develop new strategies that assert people's rights over property interests.”

One of POCLAD's primary concerns has been “corporate personhood,” a topic that was long treated as a fringe activist concern. Corporate personhood had its roots in an 1819 U.S. Supreme Court case, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, which declared that corporations are creatures of private contract law, not public law. It was later given a boost with a controversial headnote in an 1886 case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case, which declared that corporations are “persons” in the constitutional sense, thus preventing government from regulating their rates.

After simmering in the background of law and politics for decades, corporate personhood suddenly became a hot issue in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 in the Citizens United case that corporations have First Amendment free speech rights, just like natural persons.  By this reasoning, corporations are constitutionally entitled to make unlimited campaign contributions to political candidates, the Roberts Court held.

Suddenly, Grossman's vigilance about corporate power didn't seem crazy so much as prophetic. Now there are spirited campaigns to amend the U.S. Constitution to roll back this latest expansion of corporate power.  

Grossman kept his focus on the Constitution and the sources of legal authority.  As he said in an interview a few weeks before his death: “There's no shortage of corruption and greed going all around,” he said. “But corruption and greed are not the problem. They are diversions. The essence of the power arrayed against the 99 percent are structures of minority-rule governance deeply rooted, honored and celebrated, even by, I suspect, many of the people who are occupying Wall Street today.

I'm referring to the great myths of this nation's founding and founders, of the U.S. Constitution and constitutional jurisprudence, the nonsense about limited governance, the sanctification of ‘the rule of law’ when lawmaking and interpreting and enforcing have been the special preserve in every generation of a small minority.”

I'm talking about the private ordering of economic decision making, the sweeping constitutional privileges wielded by directors of the ‘creatures of law’ we call chartered, incorporated businesses camouflaged as ‘free enterprise’ and ‘the invisible hand.’”

The leitmotif of Grossman's work is well-stated by a standing feature on the POCLAD website called, “By Whose Authority?”

Grossman ultimately decided that revoking corporate personhood was not enough; the corporate form itself needed to be outlawed. So he wrote a four-page draft bill. “If people want to go into business, fine,” Grossman told the Corporate Crime Reporter.  “But this law would strip away 500 years of Constitutional protections and privileges. No more limited liability for shareholders. No more perpetual life. No more Constitutional protections.”  Now that's a free market!  

If Grossman was often accused of being inflexible, his unwavering views showed how impotent the “flexible” approaches to corporate reform had been over the course of decades. Corporations simply annexed more and more legal authority at the expense of democracy and ordinary citizens. POCLAD's legal and historical analysis helped shine a bright light on this fact, and educate people about democratic powers that had been lost.

Richard Grossman passed away on November 22, 2011, at age 68.  His legacy will surely live on as the Occupy movement and others probe more deeply into the sources of democratic disempowerment and wealth inequality. 

Image of Richard Grossman by Robert Shetterly from his series, "Americans Who Tell the Truth."