Friday, January 22, 2010

The Trouble with Corporate Personhood

The Trouble with Corporate Personhood
Freedom of Speech for a Fiction

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

1 comment:

Alan said...

Ratiner is right --- and it leads inexerably to fascist EMPIRE.

One can not overstate the assault on democracy that has been launched in this pre-planned attack that will "live in infamy" from the ruling-elite's Global corporate/financial/militarist Empire ---- which until now has been only guilefully controlling 'our' country by hiding behind the facade of its two-party 'Vichy' sham of democracy(aided by much of the equally 'Vichy' corporatist MSM).

Yes, there are significant differences between the events in Germany of the 1930’s and America today:

1. The evolving Empire in Germany was nationalist in scope, though global in appetite and claims (“Thousand Year Reich”), while the evolving Empire, only currently headquartered here, is overtly global in scope from the get go (since Empire is a pathology of economics first and politics only second, and must be global if planned by any but a mad-man).

2. The fast evolving Empire HQ in America is following a far more modern, sophisticated, long-term and guileful path than a Blitzkrieg and occupation of another country (competing national empire) with a crude first-generation, one-party ‘Vichy’ thin-veil of disguise. The Empire is also “Friendly Fascism” (Bertram Gross), so far --- although only in the U.S. However, Hannah Arendt’s prescient truth about empire must be taken very serious now, “Empire abroad (always) entails tyranny at home”.

3. Naturally, given the superior long term planning and non-human corporatist nature of this modern beast, there are many structural differences in the political manipulations, modern ‘shock doctrine’ pseudo-events, and infinitely more polished (softer) propaganda techniques that have been employed in the current global Empire take-over than were common to the Nazi path to power. No single human Chancellor was overtly appointed. There was no Reichstag fire was used (although some wonder and research 9/11). The rein of Gleichschaltung, and other extra-judicial rulings have not so obviously been applied, despite ‘signing statements’ few overt actions were needed.

4. There’s possibly a bit more time (and willingness) for the U.S. citizens (and a Global People’s Movement) to confront this Global corporatist Empire --- as I wrote before the supreme court ruling:

“We are not quite yet in a situation like those trapped in Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, Dachau, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the only choice was between the "least worst" of the Nazis or their non-German guards.

However, we do not have the luxury that any formerly comfortable population might have enjoyed, of depending on their robust civil freedoms in a stable Republic, calling on their normal financial resources, and support of democracy in a Republic sliding down-hill fast on a slippery slope. The surprise can come quicker than the population of such a country senses, as it did in the 1930’s in Germany --- until it is too late --- and today, there is no boat to the freedom and safety of a by-gone America that even one as smart as Einstein can take.

Everyone in America needs to put all their best efforts, financial resources, and the "good will of men" (as Kennedy said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that caught even him by a surprise of corporate/financial/militarist Empire) to the task of saving democracy and our 'shared' world from Global Empire. It is only through the solidarity of a Global People's Movement to confront Global Empire that we can mutually survive the coming Holocaust being planned by this Global Empire.

As was presciently and poetically said by Martin Neimoller:

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out.”

Alan MacDonald
Sanford, Maine