Sunday, June 26, 2005

We, the corporations, of the United States of America

I had a discussion with my partner, Ben, two days ago about the documentary The Corporation, which I had seen in the theater awhile back. [The film is definitely worth seeing by the way if you haven’t already. It is slightly disorganized at times and definitely programmatic, but still does a really nice job of explaining problems posed by big business and multinationals, while presenting a variety of different voices on the subject.] Our point of contention was whether or not corporations should be legally treated as persons and thereby enjoy all of the same rights and liberties as an individual citizen, or whether they should be legislated differently. The beginning of The Corporation traces this conceptual move from the corporation as a group of collaborating individuals to individuals in and of themselves. In 1968, just three years after slavery was abolished in the US, the 14th amendment was introduced, which stated (in part): Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Up until this time corporations had been rising in size and power, but because they were chartered by state legislatures and thus government creations, they were still limited by their accountability to the people. Before the civil war corporations were often required to do public services such as building a road or a bridge in order to gain the privileges enjoyed by corporate share-holding. In order to increase their powers, corporations needed to shift from the government duties side of the legislation to the citizens side of individual rights. This was accomplished using the 14th amendment. Almost immediately following the establishment of the new amendment, corporate trial lawyers began to argue that corporations should also be given the same rights as persons under the law. The landmark decision in this discussion came with the 1886 case Santa Clara County versus Southern Pacific Railroad, in which it was declared that… The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Although the case itself was not about corporate personhood, this decision set a precedent and corporate personhood became the accepted legal doctrine. [A great discussion of all of this can be found in the article “Abolish Corporate Personhood" by Jan Edwards and Molly Morgan.]
One of the major problems with legally conceiving of the corporation as an individual (and this is the argument at the base of the documentary) is that corporations are not punishable in the same way that an individual is. You can punish individuals within the corporation, but those individuals are expendable. Like profit-driven hydras, they sprout new heads, and even new hands and feet and carry on.
As legal individuals corporations have been able to escape surprise inspections by government organizations such as OSHA and EPA based on the 4th amendment protection against search without a warrant. They have been granted the same political rights as individuals including the ability to lobby and make campaign contributions. Concerns about the hijacking of presidential elections through technological means seem less dire, when we consider that all elections are effectively run by whoever is contributing the most money and which candidates are being bought positive media coverage.
The modern development of corporate power takes the question of rights beyond the scope of state or national authority. With the growth of multinational organizations such as the WTO, the jurisdiction of corporations has been taken from the hands of democratically elected governments and a global rule by the wealthy elite is being formed. As Ralph Nader has argued (back before the ego-weirdness of the last election): Concentrating power in distant international organizations tends to remove critical decisions from citizen control. You can talk to your city council representative but not to some faceless international trade bureaucrat at the WTO in Geneva.

In many cases the WTO has managed to override national law, for example they have declared it illegal for a country to ban a product for non-commercial values such as matters of human rights and the political affiliation of a given company. Such multinational bodies aim at increasing world-wide inequality by exploiting free trade to use less developed countries as sources of cheap labor and relaxed environmental policies.

On the topic of inequality within the US, the New York Times started a series of articles this month on the issue of class in America. One of the finds is a trend towards decreasing social mobility in recent years. The myth of the American Dream where anyone and everyone can work hard and move ahead seems to be more dream than reality anymore. In fact, the United States does not seem to have significantly more social mobility than Europe as a whole and in fact has less than the Scandinavian countries. (A part of the world that pays enormous taxes in order to enjoy the benefits of socialization.) Yet, with every coporate tax break we are told that it will be good for the economy and will increase wealth.

We can only hope that Americans will some day surrender the myth that more big business means more economic growth for nations as a whole and we will start finding solutions for international human rights, rather than just corporate rights.

Okay, I am down off my soap box now.


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