Oliver Willis

The Corporate Death Penalty

I first remember hearing about this idea from, of all people, Ralph Nader. His personal foibles aside, in light of what we’ve gone through and the inadequacies of the reforms that have been passed – is it time for this idea?

We know what the death penalty for individuals means: Commit an egregious crime, die at the hands of the state. What does it mean to talk about the ”death penalty” for corporations? Simply this: Commit an egregious wrong, and have your charter revoked. In other words, lose the state’s permission to exist. It’s an intriguing concept, because most of us never think about corporations needing anyone’s permission to exist. But they do.

Throughout the nation’s history, the states have had — and still have — the authority to give birth to a corporation, by granting a corporate charter, and to impose the death penalty on a corporate wrongdoer by revoking its charter. Activist-author Richard Grossman points out that in 1890, for example, New York’s highest court revoked the charter of the North River Sugar Refining Corporation — referring to the judgment explicitly as one of ”corporate death.” It was once widely understood that the states had this power. ”New York, Ohio, Michigan and Nebraska revoked the charters of oil, match, sugar and whiskey trusts” in the 1800s, Grossman wrote in the pamphlet, ”Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation,” co-authored with Frank Adams.

For many decades now, this vital power has lain dormant in the public mind. But a small group of activists led by Grossman is hoping to resurrect it. They believe that to stem the tide of growing and unaccountable corporate power, it’s not enough to rely on regulation, litigation, legislation, and law enforcement. Grossman and his Cambridge-based Project on Corporations, Law and Democracy want citizens to reclaim the power to put corporations to death.

Our financial system still hangs by a thread, and while the rich on the top end of it have all the perks in the world – there’s nothing really protecting the rest of us from their mania. My guess is it is all going to come crashing down again for anything real to be done. Unfortunately.