Slaves In All But Name: Abolishing the Corporate State in Rural Communities

Thomas Linzey January 21, 2016

On a rainy August night in 1800, slaves hud­dled in small groups on plan­ta­tions near Rich­mond, Va., wait­ing for a sig­nal to rise up. Led by a slave named Gabriel, and com­prised of close to a thou­sand slaves armed with tobac­co-cut­ting scythes, the insur­rec­tion planned to seize Richmond’s armory, cap­ture Gov­er­nor James Mon­roe and then ran­som him in return for the slaves’ per­ma­nent freedom.

Twen­ty years after Gabriel’s insur­rec­tion was cut short by a rain­storm that swept away key bridges between plan­ta­tions, Den­mark Vesey, a Charleston, S.C. slave, led an equal­ly ill-fat­ed revolt of thou­sands of slaves. They had planed to burn Charleston, escape on a cap­tured ship and flee to Haiti — the only place on the globe where a slave revolt had suc­ceed­ed in seiz­ing a colony from plan­ta­tion owners.

These insur­rec­tions were ener­gized by new free­dom move­ments sweep­ing the Atlantic coast. As sum­ma­rized by his­to­ri­an Patrick Rael in his Eighty-Eight Years: the Long Death of Slav­ery in the Unit­ed States, 1777 – 1865, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary rad­i­cal­ism of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, as well as revolts fueled by that rad­i­cal­ism in Haiti, St. Domingue, Puer­to Rico, Cuba, Mar­tinique and else­where, bol­stered a new gen­er­a­tion of slave insur­rec­tions in the Unit­ed States. As evi­dence of those direct links, Gabriel’s band of slaves adopt­ed the slo­gan Lib­er­ty to Slaves,” while Vesey’s rebel­lion was to begin on Bastille Day, in cel­e­bra­tion of the French Revolution’s end­ing of slav­ery in the French colonies.

Both revolts were fol­lowed by harsh ret­ri­bu­tion — Gabriel, Vesey, and sev­er­al hun­dred slaves were hunt­ed down and hanged. Short­ly after, the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture passed a law requir­ing all eman­ci­pat­ed slaves to either leave the state or be re-enslaved, while a law was passed in Charleston requir­ing all black sailors dock­ing in the city to be impris­oned for the length of their stay.

Of course, slave insur­rec­tions in the Amer­i­can South, giv­en the over­whelm­ing strength of state and local mili­tias, were doomed to fail. As Rael writes, “(S)lave rebel­lion was a risky, all-or-noth­ing gam­ble. Its chances of suc­cess were minus­cule, and the inevitable response to fail­ure was even greater repression…from with­in, slave behav­ior might shake the foun­da­tions of the insti­tu­tion, but alone it was insuf­fi­cient to destroy them.”

The ulti­mate destruc­tion of the slave sys­tem required white north­ern­ers to join with freed and enslaved African-Amer­i­cans to build a broad­er Abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, but with­out the slave revolts as a spark, abo­li­tion would have remained impossible.

A con­tem­po­rary revolt: the com­mu­ni­ty rights movement

Begin­ning in the late 1990s, peo­ple in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties — being tar­get­ed by agribusi­ness and oth­er cor­po­ra­tions — began to ban fac­to­ry farms, tox­ic waste dump­ing, water pump­ing oper­a­tions and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal­ly dam­ag­ing cor­po­rate prac­tices. In places like Belfast Town­ship, Penn­syl­va­nia, Barn­stead, New Hamp­shire, and Shap­leigh, Maine, peo­ple began to do what they had been told for over a hun­dred years that they could not do — adopt munic­i­pal laws to stop harm­ful cor­po­rate activities.

The rule of law under which munic­i­pal com­mu­ni­ties are pro­hib­it­ed from inter­fer­ing with cor­po­rate projects as long as those projects com­ply with state and fed­er­al law, is built from legal doc­trines man­u­fac­tured by the same cor­po­ra­tions pro­tect­ed by those doc­trines. Those doc­trines include the pro­tec­tion of cor­po­ra­tions with con­sti­tu­tion­al rights” and the pun­ish­ment of munic­i­pal­i­ties who inter­fere with those rights, as well as the out­right author­i­ty of state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments to nul­li­fy munic­i­pal laws.

(Image: Matt Wuerk­er)

Peo­ple who run cor­po­ra­tions have a menu of options at their dis­pos­al to elim­i­nate law­mak­ing that inter­feres” with cor­po­rate pre­rog­a­tive. They may either use state leg­is­la­tures to adopt new laws pre­empt­ing and nul­li­fy­ing local laws, or they can use their cor­po­rate rights” to get a court to over­turn local laws. Effec­tive­ly, local laws aren’t laws at all, but mere sug­ges­tions to cor­po­ra­tions regard­ing how and whether they should oper­ate in a com­mu­ni­ty. In many ways, they only have weight if cor­po­rate exec­u­tives vol­un­tar­i­ly agree to abide by them.

Strip­ping com­mu­ni­ties of the legal author­i­ty to stop cor­po­rate projects not only uproots people’s abil­i­ty to decide the future of their munic­i­pal­i­ty, it sup­plants it with cor­po­rate author­i­ty imposed from out­side the com­mu­ni­ty. Thus, com­mu­ni­ties stopped from say­ing no” to big box stores are pre­vent­ed from build­ing vibrant, sus­tain­able down­towns; com­mu­ni­ties unable to say no” to cor­po­rate fac­to­ry farms are pre­vent­ed from build­ing and sup­port­ing small-scale, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture; and com­mu­ni­ties unable to say no” to gas frack­ing oper­a­tions are pre­vent­ed from pro­tect­ing clean water and breath­able air.

Lack­ing the author­i­ty to decide what hap­pens, com­mu­ni­ties are trans­formed into mere resource colonies, while res­i­dents are con­vert­ed into squat­ters on their own land, mere­ly endur­ing what­ev­er the cor­po­ra­tion choos­es to give them.

The slave state” trans­forms into the cor­po­rate state”

Just as the Abo­li­tion­ist com­mu­ni­ty faced not just the behav­ior of indi­vid­ual slave­own­ers, but a sys­tem of law that pro­tect­ed the prac­tice of slav­ery, com­mu­ni­ties today face not just the behav­ior of indi­vid­ual cor­po­ra­tions, but a sys­tem of law that insu­lates cor­po­rate pow­er from demo­c­ra­t­ic control.

Slaves and Abo­li­tion­ists con­front­ed a sys­tem of law that con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly dis­en­fran­chised the enslaved pop­u­la­tion and placed the fed­er­al army at the dis­pos­al of states to put down insur­rec­tions. Aligned with such polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary pow­er was nation­al eco­nom­ic pow­er. North­ern banks and tex­tile cor­po­ra­tions amassed enor­mous for­tunes from the south­ern cot­ton trade, New Eng­land ship­ping cor­po­ra­tions were heav­i­ly invest­ed in the slave trade, and ear­ly agribusi­ness cor­po­ra­tions made for­tunes from the grow­ing and ship­ping of food to plan­ta­tions in the West Indies. In the words of his­to­ri­an Richard Gross­man, the sys­tem cre­at­ed and main­tained a slave state,” where gov­ern­ing pow­er was held by those invest­ed not only in the exis­tence but in the busi­ness of slavery.

The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tect­ed the busi­ness side of slav­ery by afford­ing com­merce the high­est con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tions. The cre­ation of the com­merce clause” with­in the Con­sti­tu­tion, which bans local and state gov­ern­ments from direct­ly reg­u­lat­ing large areas of indus­try, can be direct­ly traced to some of the wealth­i­est found­ing fathers,” who sought to pre­vent local and state gov­ern­ments from inter­fer­ing with com­merce and indus­try. Wash­ing­ton him­self, anx­ious to pre­vent state bick­er­ing from impe­ing the Potomac canal projects he deemed vital to trade — projects in which he was per­son­al­ly invest­ed — sought the pow­er to over­ride them. Those com­mer­cial pro­tec­tions, far from being destroyed by those who even­tu­al­ly brought down the slave state, mor­phed to pro­tect ris­ing indus­tri­al and com­mer­cial pow­ers, which now exist in the form of corporations.

Giv­en the struc­ture of con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tion, the recog­ni­tion of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights for cor­po­ra­tions by courts and judges wasn’t a mis­take, but a nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion of the law. After all, if com­mer­cial rights were pro­tect­ed by the high­est con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tions, why would those pro­tec­tions not be extend­ed to the nation’s largest com­mer­cial actors, the cor­po­ra­tions themselves?

To stop harm­ful cor­po­rate projects, there­fore, com­mu­ni­ties must defeat not just a sin­gle cor­po­ra­tion, but a struc­ture of law which ele­vates the rights” of a cor­po­ra­tion above the rights of the com­mu­ni­ty. While slaves, free blacks, and Abo­li­tion­ists faced off against the slave state,” com­mu­ni­ties today must face off against a cor­po­rate state.”

Slave revolts and the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, com­mu­ni­ty revolts and the com­mu­ni­ty rights movement

Slaves had to join forces with scores of free blacks and white Abo­li­tion­ists, for slave revolts to turn into a move­ment pow­er­ful enough to dis­man­tle the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly-enabled slave state.” Like­wise, while not putting their lives on the line, as slaves were forced to do, thou­sands of peo­ple today in close to 200 com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try have begun to lib­er­ate them­selves from the cor­po­rate state.” Small, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties like Grant Town­ship, Pa. are har­ness­ing the pow­er of their munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment to adopt local bills of rights ban­ning frack waste­water injec­tion wells, cor­po­rate fac­to­ry farms and cor­po­rate water with­drawals. Those munic­i­pal laws ele­vate the rights of res­i­dents above the claimed rights” of cor­po­ra­tions, while open­ly reject­ing the author­i­ty of the state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to pro­hib­it the com­mu­ni­ty from ban­ning those harm­ful projects.

As with the slave insur­rec­tions, these beach­heads will not sur­vive with­out the sol­i­dar­i­ty of thou­sands of oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, and with­out the sup­port of the broad­er polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty — both lib­er­al and conservative.

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While pro­fess­ing to believe in local, grass­roots, demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol, most main­stream groups have failed to sup­port the grow­ing move­ment for com­mu­ni­ty rights. Pro­fes­sion­al envi­ron­men­tal­ists with­in the Big Green” groups — groups that held so much promise in the 1970s — have been at the fore­front of steer­ing com­mu­ni­ties away from chal­leng­ing the exist­ing struc­ture of law and gov­ern­ment. Because of that stance, it is those groups that now share more sim­i­lar­i­ties with the cor­po­ra­tions exploit­ing com­mu­ni­ties than with the com­mu­ni­ties them­selves. Both are con­tent to bat­tle it out with­in reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies, where the ulti­mate deci­sion has almost noth­ing to do with whether the com­mu­ni­ty can reject cor­po­rate projects, but only with how the project will proceed.

Slaves, free blacks and Abo­li­tion­ists faced their own fox in sheep’s cloth­ing — a group called the Amer­i­can Col­o­niza­tion Soci­ety. As with the big envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions of today, the group was backed by promi­nent nation­al fig­ures includ­ing James Mon­roe, John Jay and Daniel Web­ster. Buy­ing land in Africa to relo­cate new­ly freed slaves, the orga­ni­za­tion tout­ed itself as putting blacks into a bet­ter sit­u­a­tion.” The pri­ma­ry motive of the orga­ni­za­tion, as described by the group itself, was to be cleared” of all African-Amer­i­cans by ship­ping them overseas.

Rather than pre­tend­ing that the Soci­ety had the same goals as the Abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, lead­ing white Abo­li­tion­ists, like William Lloyd Gar­ri­son, called out the Soci­ety direct­ly, accus­ing it of embrac­ing the sec­ond-class sta­tus of African-Amer­i­cans and per­pet­u­at­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and prej­u­dice. Even­tu­al­ly, under the onslaught of the free black com­mu­ni­ty in the North and white Abo­li­tion­ists, the Amer­i­can Col­o­niza­tion Soci­ety was forced to dissolve.

A sim­i­lar dri­ve must be led to clear the land­scape of big envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, whose goals are not the same as those work­ing to rec­og­nize the legal author­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ties. Bet­ter reg­u­la­tion” of ener­gy, agri­cul­ture, and trans­porta­tion cor­po­ra­tions only val­i­dates the author­i­ty of those cor­po­ra­tions, and the high­est lev­els of gov­ern­ment, to con­tin­ue on the same path. Unless we change the deci­sion mak­ers, our march toward eco­log­i­cal destruc­tion and the elim­i­na­tion of demo­c­ra­t­ic self-gov­ern­ment will con­tin­ue to accel­er­ate on its way off the cliff.

Lead, fol­low, or get out of the way

In response to slave insur­rec­tions in the South, in Feb­ru­ary 1834, stu­dents at Lane Sem­i­nary in Cincin­nati spon­sored a debate about whether slav­ery should be imme­di­ate­ly abol­ished. In return, they were threat­ened with expul­sion. In response, they with­drew and enrolled at Ober­lin Col­lege where Ted Weld and a small band of a dozen oth­ers laid the ground­work for an evan­gel­i­cal Abo­li­tion­ist move­ment that would even­tu­al­ly reach into church­es, lofts and school­hous­es across the North.

Today, the small band of com­mu­ni­ties tak­ing on the world’s largest cor­po­ra­tions have upped the ante, much as Weld and his brood did in the ear­ly 1830s.

Com­mu­ni­ties in sev­en states have now joined hands to cre­ate statewide com­mu­ni­ty rights net­works. Those net­works are now propos­ing state con­sti­tu­tion­al changes which would ele­vate the rights of com­mu­ni­ties above those of cor­po­ra­tions. They have also come togeth­er to pro­pose a fed­er­al con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment that would rec­og­nize the legal author­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ties to ban harm­ful cor­po­rate projects and rede­fine cor­po­rate rights” at the munic­i­pal level.

It’s time to under­stand that the com­mu­ni­ty rights move­ment is the move­ment that we’ve been wait­ing for — one not lim­it­ed just to envi­ron­men­tal issues, but one which can be used to advance indige­nous rights, expand work­place rights, impose police account­abil­i­ty, chal­lenge bank fore­clo­sures and estab­lish rights to hous­ing and healthcare.

Along the way, it promis­es to final­ly lib­er­ate us from the peo­ple that we’ve become — slaves in all but name.

Thomas Linzey, a con­tribut­ing writer to Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times, is the exec­u­tive direc­tor and co-founder of the Com­mu­ni­ty Envi­ron­men­tal Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and serves as the organization’s chief legal counsel.
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