Richard Grossman, activist and thinker ahead of his time

by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
Research Associate, Institute for Social Ecology
November 17 2014

This month marks three years since the passing of my good friend, activist and valuable anti-corporate crusader Richard Grossman. What made his work unique was his research and critical thinking on the nature of the corporation. How on earth did the corporation, an entity that exists only on paper in the form of a charter of incorporation, get to have so much power?, he asked. Today corporations get to decide to a very large extent the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, how we access the internet, our societies’ transportation and energy policies, the synthetic additives and permissible levels of pesticide residue in the food we eat, the contents of the news we read and watch, and much more.

For Grossman, regulation was not the answer. He regarded it as a red herring that distracted from the real issue: the fiction of corporate personhood. He founded the Program on Corporations Law and Democracy (POCLAD), which in its web site describes itself as “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.” He also wrote Fear at Work, a book about job blackmail by employers and the need for an alliance of environmentalists and organized labor, and published the newsletter By What Authority, which questions basic assumptions about corporations.

His views were not all that popular among his peers. “Richard Grossman was one of those activist eccentrics who took democratic power so seriously that he knowingly marginalized himself”, said activist and author David Bollier in his defense (1). “Mainstream political culture regarded his positions as crazy or tactically unwise — but eventually the world began to catch up with him”.

I first met Grossman in the summer of 1993 at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont (which was then in the campus of Goddard College) at a symposium on alternative economics that also featured Roy Morrison and Susan Meeker-Lowry. I was there just for the ISE summer session but ended up staying in Vermont a few years, enrolling in the Goddard College Social Ecology MA program, and hosting a talk show on local community radio station WGDR.

In 1994 Grossman invited me to participate in an activist meeting/retreat that he organized in order to develop new thinking around the corporate charter, the very heart of corporations’ existence. In that retreat by the banks of the Hudson, just north of NYC, I met some very remarkable and committed activists, like Peter Montague, publisher of Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News, an invaluable source of information on chemical pollution. Also, Phil Mattera, a giant among researchers of corporate crime; sustainable transportation advocate Charlie Komanoff; Jane Perkins, who would later go on to direct Friends of the Earth USA; technology critic and polemicist David F. Noble; Hofstra law professor Carl Mayer; Ruth Caplan, executive director of Environmental Action; and Ronnie Cummins, a veteran of Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends who back then headed the Pure Food Campaign. Cummins would later found the Organic Consumers Association, which played a leading role in the 2012 campaign for California’s Proposition 37, a GMO food labeling measure that was narrowly defeated by the corporate-funded opposition.

In 1996 Grossman was a guest in my WGDR talk show; we talked at length about the importance of questioning corporate personhood and we took calls from the audience. We last met in person at a national conference of the International Forum on Globalization held at New York City’s Riverside Church in November 1995.

Grossman was featured in the 2003 documentary The Corporation along with Canadian author Naomi Klein, cancer activist doctor Samuel Epstein, Indian eco-feminist and anti-globalization icon Vandana Shiva, dissident extraordinaire Noam Chomsky, and free market economist Milton Friedman.

In 2011 we found each other again on the internet and talked about the recent passing of our mutual friend David Noble on December of the previous year. We exchanged some messages in the following months. His passing that November took me totally by surprise.

His ideas on corporate power and strategies to counter it seemed far-out to many in the activist world until the rise of the Occupy Movement and the unfortunate “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision in 2010. Since then, there has been a lively national dialogue in the US regarding corporations, a wide-ranging conversation that owes a lot to Grossman’s pioneering research and ideas.

“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”, said Bollier. “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 was a direct and profound inspiration for thousands of activists and people of conscience”, said community rights activist Paul Cienfuegos (2). “In 1994, I discovered the pioneering work of Richard and POCLAD… which fundamentally transformed my social change work. Until then, I had seen nothing wrong with focusing on numerous single issues. After my transformation, I realized that almost every issue I had ever worked on was a mere symptom of corporate rule… Through his writings and the organizations he founded and co-founded, Richard has helped lead tens of thousands more people to a clearer historical, cultural and legal analysis of the structural causes of – and potential remedies to – persistent social and economic disparity in power and wealth between We The People and the political and economic institutions the People are meant to govern.”

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist, author and environmental educator. He is a graduate of the Institute for Social Ecology’s MA program. He runs a bilingual blog dedicated to news and information of progressive and environmental interest (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/). His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz. For more information: http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/2013/09/a-brief-bio.html

Notes

1 David Bollier. “Richard Grossman, Remembered” December 23 2011. http://bollier.org/richard-grossman-remembered
2 Quoted in Peter Rothberg. “Remembering Richard Grossman” The Nation, November 29 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/164849/remembering-richard-grossman; also: Paul Cienfuegos, http://paulcienfuegos.com/About-Me.