A truly populist movement would take on the abusive power of corporations, as our forebears challenged the East India Company. Today's Tea Party falls short. **Check out New Deal 2.0 series "Founding Finance", which highlights early Americans who stood up to financial elites.
Don't believe illusion
Too much is for real
Stop your cheap comment
We know what we feel
-- Pretty Vacant
I'll start by saying I have little idea of what the Tea Party is. I certainly know the New York Times doesn't know what it is, or for that matter most of the political class. I know components of it, such as the Koch brothers or the various elements of the Republican and conservative political class who quickly glommed onto it, helping elect a Republican majority to Congress. But I would suggest at one point, and maybe only briefly, a legitimate vocalizing and activating of Americans occurred. Citizens were concerned about the direction of our country.
So I watched with interest the other day when CSPAN televised a Tea Party "Town Hall" from DC, which one can already see is problematic. I scratched my head when I saw the participants. Some may legitimately be considered "of" the movement, such as Rand Paul, Mike Lee who took out the Republican incumbent in Utah, and Alan West of Florida. But there was also five-term incumbent Steve King from Iowa, three-term incumbent Michele Bachmann from Minnesota, and adding a sublime degree of the incredulous to the whole affair, three-decade Utah incumbent Orrin Hatch.
However you want to define the Tea Party, if you do it with Orrin Hatch you're saying it has no meaning. No doubt after watching his fellow Utah senator go down in a blaze of defeat, Orrin's got one thing on his mind. You have to give it to anyone who has the audacity after serving three and half decades in the US Senate to start his speech stating, "We live in perilous times" and "We've run this country into the ground." And you want to be reelected senator? Phew!
The rest of the Tea Partiers were fairly short on specifics and long on rhetoric. There was a lot of references to America's founding and its "founding documents," all said with an overall sense that the federal government has extended the boundaries set for it. It's a point that is difficult to argue with, but what exactly it means needs extensive discussion.
Mike Lee of Utah tied the movement of today to its historical antecedent stating:
The Tea Party movement started not February 2009, it started in 1773 when a group of Americans decided they were overtaxed and over regulated, by a distant government not based in Washington DC, but London, and that government was oppressive to the people, slow to their concerns and people decided to take action.
A simple enough historical description and an accurate expression of how many, if not at times most, Americans feel about Washington DC today. But Mr. Lee's tying the present into the past Tea Party made something click. This present Tea Party voiced important and legitimate concerns about the bank bailouts and the power of corporations in America. As Dick Armey, another Republican political class member glomming onto the movement, told John Stewart, "TARP! TARP! TARP!" was a rallying crying across the country for the nascent movement. Yet both in the corporate media's coverage and the rhetoric of the movement's self-proclaimed representatives, I hear little about this concern.
That wasn't the case for our revolutionary forebears. The past's Tea Party understood implicitly the tea they were throwing into the Boston Harbor that night belonged to the East India Company, not the crown. In Nick Robins' excellent history of the East India Company, "The Corporation That Changed the World", he writes how the American colonial press was filled with vitriol against the East India Company, which the English crown had given monopoly control of the tea trade.
From October onwards, newspapers and handbills provided the citizens of the 13 colonies with a barrage of analysis and polemic. The Boston Evening Post of 18 October 1773, for example, contained a powerful article from 'Reclusus' exposing the folly of Lord North's plan. "Though the first Teas may be sold at a low rate to make a popular entry" he acknowledged, "yet when this mode of receiving tea is well established, they, as all other Monopolists do, will mediate a greater profit on their goods, and set them at what price they please."
Lord North's plan was an attempt by the crown to lesson the unpopular taxes, but was meant with more opposition than the original Stamp Act of eight years before. Robins adds another railing and accurate colonist's critique against the "Company":
Writing in The Alarm newsletter, 'Rusitcus' underlined how 'their conduct in Asia for some years past, has given simple proof, how little they regard the laws of nations, the rights, liberties, or lives of men'. 'They have levied War, for the sake of gain,' adding: 'fifteen hundred thousands, it is said, perished by famine in one year, not because the earth denied its fruits, but this company and their servants engulfed all the necessities of life, and set them at so high a rate that the poor could not purchase them.'
As Robins points out, the colonials actions against the Company preceding the Tea Party had been so highly effective that "Legal imports of the Company's tea plummeted from a record 869,000 lb in 1768 to just 108,000 lb in 1770."
It's an interesting fact that the American colonists' important and vivid critiques and opposition to the power of the East India Company have mostly been lost to history, as in fact has the history of the Company itself. Both are relevant to our age and to anyone concerned with the questions of freedom, liberty, and democracy. The East India Company set the precedent and became the model for the global mega-corporation of our age in both its productivity and in corruption, and its completely anti-democratic structures and behaviors. The East India Company existed for over two and half centuries. In that time, with and without the help of the English government, the Company gained monopoly control over Asian trade, conquered and impoverished vast chunks of India, causing the largest famine of India's history, and fought two wars with China to keep the illegal and despicable opium trade open, enslaving millions of Chinese people.
The East India Company was so notorious in its day that it gained the opposition of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Karl Marx -- not exactly an historical coalition that would spring quickly to anyone's mind. Edmund Burke, one of the patron saints of American conservatism, would lead the charge in the English parliament for six years in a case to prosecute the head of the Company. Burke and his partner Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Compared Hastings [the Company's chairman] to the 'writhing obliquity of the serpent' and damned him for a character that was all 'shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious, and little'. And as for the Company, it combined 'the meanness of a pedlar and the profligacy of pirates... wielding a truncheon with one hand, and picking a pocket with the other.'
Meanwhile Adam Smith, the tremendously misinterpreted and wrongly deified advocate of "free markets," wrote of the Company (my bold):
The result of this anti-competitive behavior was to raise profits above the natural level, amounting to [Smith writes] 'an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow citizens.' Cartels are thus an ever present danger in a market economy and in Smith's immortal words, 'people of the same trade seldom meet together, but the conversation ends in conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.'
An absurd tax on the rest of us! What can better describe the control of the American economy by the descendants of the East India Company, our own era's global mega-corporations? As Robins states about our present economy, "Over 60 percent of international commerce now takes place within corporations rather than in the open marketplace, making it idle to talk of free markets."
Sounding as relevant today as two centuries ago, Robins adds of the company's operations:
It was the speculative behavior of corporate insiders and short-term investors that emerged as the most powerful factor in the Company's spectacular fall from grace in the middle of the 18th century. Financial engineering, flimsy managerial controls and inadequate regulation all played their part... the same passion for aggressive acquisitions, the same obsession with executive perks for corporate insiders, and the same focus on executive self-preservation as ordinary shareholders started to suffer the consequences of excess.
And what did this financial engineering, inadequate regulation, and corporate insiderism lead to? Repeated bailouts by the government, the largest at the end of the 18th century. Robins writes:
To avoid a run on the stock, [Prime Minister] Pitt pushed through legislation extending the Company's ability to raise debt, and so pay its regular dividend at 8 percent. Of course, this measure made little financial sense as the Company was paying dividends out of debt. But it helped to stabilize the situation.
The East India Company, like all corporations following it, was chartered by the English government, which was a monarchy, and thus the Company had plenty of monarchical characteristics. Our modern US mega-corporations are all also chartered by government, though with what at this point can only be called a quirk of history, they are all chartered through our state governments. With this chartering through the states, it was hoped corporations might be more functionally democratic.
The birth of the modern corporation and the American republic were roughly contemporaneous. The early republic, outside its dealings with the East India Company, had some understanding of these new entities, but a half-century later understood much more. The grandsons of John Adams, the republic's second president, wrote:
And yet already our great corporations are fast emancipating themselves from the State, or rather subjecting the State to their own control, while individual capitalists, who long ago abandoned the attempt to compete with them, will next seek to control them. In this dangerous path of centralization Vanderbilt has taken the latest step in advance. He has combined the natural power of the individual with the factitious power of the corporation. The famous "L'Etat, c'est moi" of Louis XIV represents Vanderbilt's position in regard to his railroads. Unconsciously he has introduced Caesarism into corporate life. He has, however, but pointed out the way which others will tread. The individual will hereafter be engrafted on the corporation, democracy running its course, and resulting in imperialism; and Vanderbilt is but the precursor of a class of men who will wield within the State a power created by the State, but too great for its control. He is the founder of a dynasty.
However, it wasn't Vanderbilt who introduced Caesarism into corporate life, it was there in the corporate structure from its monarchical inception with the East India Company. We live in a time with not one corporation (and while quite powerful the Company still had a relatively small grip on the overall British economy), but an economy that is completely dominated by several hundred massive corporate structures that are riddled with corruption, insiderism and speculation, to such a degree that their "absurd tax" on the rest of us dwarfs the taxes of DC.
Yet there is no American politics against "oppressive" corporate power. Both parties are completely in the pockets of the corporate oligarchy and if there were or are concerns expressed by the present Tea Party, they've been completely censored by the corporate media and the more loathsomely decadent Republican political class.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we must, like this republic's founding generation, step up to talk about and take action concerning our corrupted and dysfunctional political system. It must include all aspects of power, and that includes the enormous power of the modern global mega-corporation. We would do well to follow their example -- the America tradition -- that the first step to dealing with unaccountable power is to break it up. That is the tradition set by the colonial Tea Party; it is a necessity of self-government. Our present Tea Partiers might find it useful to go back and read more of America's "founding documents," all the newspapers, letters, and pamphlets written in the years leading to the revolution. They would find that the founders, not just those in the pantheon but the thousands scattered up and down the eastern seaboard, had as much concern about the unaccountable power of the nascent corporation as they did of their ancient King.
Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean’s effort in 2004.