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"A lot of what's wrong isn't illegal"

August 2, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

NORMAN SOLOMON, a syndicated columnist on media and politics, talked to Socialist Worker about the corporate crime scandals and what kind of impact they can have.

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WHY IS the corporate crime scandal getting attention now, and what will Washington try to do to contain it?

AS A general pattern, when there are splits within or between the two major political parties, that becomes mainstream news. In the absence of such splits, it's very difficult to gain high-profile media attention to specific issues.

I think the damage control strategy now includes mild reforms and throwing a few people behind bars. We already saw that on July 24 with the handcuffing of the CEO from Adelphia, the communications corporation. And I think we can see a few other instances of finding fall guys for the system.

That's part of the strategy--to show that we're going to clean up Dodge, the sheriff is on the horse, corporate bad-doers beware.

The issue is going to be framed by the corporate media and most politicians as a matter of preventing people in positions of corporate power from breaking the law. To me, the problem with that is that a lot of what's wrong with Corporate America isn't against the law--and won't be against the law.

Another way to put it is that the vast and often virulent inequities of the society, both in terms of political power and economic resources, are largely the result not of corporate dysfunction, but of corporate function.

The way that the economy is structured and the basic precepts of corporate capitalism mean that if everything goes well, you're going to have a lot of poor people. You're going to have some billionaires, and you're going to have a lot of people in this country--and of course, billions around the world--who are in dire straits in terms of basic health care and housing and so forth.

So I think that's a key difference between the agenda of the mainstream media--which just wants to tidy up a system that's fundamentally based on anti-democratic corporate rule--and a progressive agenda that I think is aiming at a fundamental restructuring of the economy and the political systems of power.

WHAT DO you think of the reform proposals like the legislation proposed by Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) that's being considered by Bush?

THE PROPOSALS are designed to shore up the stock market. I think it's probably better that the Sarbanes bill passed than if it didn't--accounting firms that do audits shouldn't also be hired by companies to perform other functions.

But in the scheme of things, it's a pretty minor step. It doesn't address the power of corporations in our political system--or for that matter in our economic life, where they're still running roughshod over the media and the public sphere.

The privatization of public space isn't a political concern of the powers that be, and it's not a mass media concern. The reason that AOL Time Warner is getting bad press right now isn't because it's part of the corporatization of consciousness--the corporate domination of ways that we do and don't get news and information--but because its share price dropped down to $10, when it used to be above $50 a year ago.

That's where the concerns are, and I think that this says a lot about the extreme limitations of what the news media tend to define as a problem.

WHEN DOES a scandal start to produce real changes--like, for example, when the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the exposure of Watergate shook Washington in the 1970s?

I THINK that a lot of it has to do with pressure from the grassroots--whether social movements are able or not able to widen the scope of concern.

In general terms, I believe that the pressure from above--from the superstructure and those with great wealth and corporate power--is to continually circumscribe the scope of discussion. They want to talk about a few bad apples and people of low moral character in high positions--as Bush said in his speech on Wall Street, "The system didn't fail, it's individuals who failed the system." There's a lot of pressure to keep defining things that way.

When progressive social movements are organizing and speaking out and conveying information and analysis, that pressure widens the scope of the discussion. So, for example, the Pentagon Papers battle was in the context of a strong antiwar movement that was creating enormous pressures on society.

The Nixon and the Johnson administration had overstepped, and because there was a strong enough social movement, there was more strength in what was called the Watergate class that came into Congress in the 1974 election. The more left-liberal elements in Congress, such as they were, challenged some of the most authoritarian elements of the government.

But I have to say that I think that the Watergate media coverage, for instance, was fairly circumscribed. It was an example of how a split between elites--i.e., between the Republican and Democratic Party hierarchies--turned into a huge issue.

But people have pointed out that the Socialist Workers Party for decades endured far more damaging burglaries and disruptions and dirty tricks than the Democratic Party ever did, but that was never a media issue because they weren't part of the elite.

So many situations have varied contexts, but I think the key is often the strength of social movements at the grassroots--and what kind of pressures those movements are able to bring to bear.

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