The Trouble with Corporate Personhood
Freedom of Speech for a Fiction
By CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM
I often correspond with a long-time Washington DC operator named Leigh Ratiner, who spent 40 years in government, serving under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, with cabinet-level posts in the Defense Department, under the Secretary of the Interior, in the Department of Energy, and in the State Department.
Usually I’m prompted to contact him while investigating this or that instance of criminality or stupidity in the federal government. We’re in conversation a lot. “Chris, no disrespect intended,” Leigh once wrote, “but I'm not sure yet that you truly understand how profoundly corrupt the government really is.
Lying, perjury, devious deception, law breaking have been a constant pattern in the American government for several decades and have driven us to the point where it has become impossible for an intelligent person to trust the government.” Leigh sometimes goes on for pages like this.
In the annals of lying and devious deception we can now add what will hopefully be remembered as one of the foulest decisions – but not a surprising one – by the Supreme Court to be imposed on the American public, namely the majority opinion in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.
I’ll let the New York Times summarize: “Corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates.
If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.”
Or, better yet, as Leigh Ratiner puts it: “Obama’s failures amount to a thimble of sugar compared to this decision, which is equivalent to a truckload of oil barrels filled with rat poison.
The spending limits the court overturned were the unlimited sums of money that Lockheed, Boeing or Bank of America can take out of the corporate treasury and give to NBC in exchange for a two minute spot attacking a candidate without the stockholders’ permission. This is gigantic.”
Par for the course in the dying republic, where judges with the regularity of sun-up defend corporate interests against the public interest.
But what’s compelling here is that the decision hinges on another longstanding idea, which is that corporations have the rights of living breathing people.
The Supreme Court claims in this matter to be defending the corporate right of free speech.
The laws of corporate personhood go back to the 1860s, in decisions offered by judges with close ties to the very corporations whose rights they were asked to judge.
Corporate citizens, needless to say, have been a plague upon the land ever since (Joel Bakan, the law professor, has correctly observed that corporate citizenship often accords with sociopathic behavior, the kind of behavior that as a society we do not tolerate from individuals).
In any case, corporate freedom is not a constitutional right, and corporations do not very much care about freedom of speech, press or assembly as it involves the individual.
What a corporation cares about it is its collective endeavor.
To provide a collectivist institution with the rights of the individual, to announce a corporation as a citizen, is one of those wonderful juridical inventions that could only be taken seriously in a system where law is exploited to veil reality and to render lies as truth.
As Leigh Ratiner notes, no intelligent person can trust such a system.
And as regards “corporate persons,” Ratiner asks the right question: “If they are natural citizens and commit crimes, why don't we liquidate them as punishment (since they can’t be put in jail)?
Of course, the answer is that if you liquidate them it will hurt the economy and the innocent shareholders. But doesn’t that make it very clear that a corporation is not a person who can be put in a cage or hung by the neck until dead? That’s the kind of person the Founders were trying to protect.”
Right…so, for example, I can’t take a corporation out in the backyard and bury it alive.
I can’t smack a corporation flat across the face and break its nose.
I can’t take a corporation’s head and split it with an axe, nor can I chop off all its fingers, nor stab out its eyes with a rusty screwdriver, nor burn off its flesh with a blowtorch, nor flay it with an electric sander, nor stomp its kneecaps with a sledgehammer, nor cut its head off and parade it around the room on a broomstick, nor use its entrails as a rappel rope, nor smash its testicles with a spiked bat, nor do any of the things that really should be done to corporations these days – if they were people – but which one would never do to a human being.
If only corporate persons would finally show their fleshy faces.
Christopher Ketcham, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY, is writing a book about secessionist groups in the US. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.