Saturday, November 5, 2011

Artificial Persons

I was heartened yesterday to learn that Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks had created a group called Wolf-PAC with the aim of calling for a constitutional amendment through the state legislatures to abolish the absurd fiction that corporations are somehow persons — in effect ending corporations' ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to finance elections. (See Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.)

That two-thirds of the states must call for a convention, and then three-quarters of states must ratify the amendment makes the likelihood of such a thing happening perhaps small, but the mere fact that people are starting to push back and get directly involved in democracy makes me feel not a little hopeful — especially with my participation being limited so many miles and time zones away.

I've been listening to Thom Hartmann rail against the notion of corporate personhood for quite some time now. When I used to live in Montana, I'd drive around to the local bookstores and hear him and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders eloquently and it seemed fruitlessly pleading for the rights of regular, working class people. He argued (and continues to argue) that the only way we can restore a true democracy in America is to abolish the notion of corporate personhood.

From Hartmann's website:
The Supreme Court ruled on an obscure taxation issue in the Santa Clara County vs. The Union Pacific Railroad case, but the Recorder of the court - a man named J. C. Bancroft Davis, himself formerly the president of a small railroad - wrote into his personal commentary of the case (known as a headnote) that the Chief Justice had said that all the Justices agreed that corporations are persons.
And in so doing, he - not the Supreme Court, but its clerical recorder - inserted a statement that would change history and give corporations enormous powers that were not granted by Congress, not granted by the voters, and not even granted by the Supreme Court. Davis’s headnote, which had no legal standing, was taken as precedent by generations of jurists (including the Supreme Court) who followed and apparently read the headnote but not the decision.
What is especially ironic about this is that Davis knew the Court had not ruled on this issue. We found a handwritten note in the J.C. Bancroft Davis collection in the Library of Congress, from Chief Justice Waite to reporter Davis, explicitly saying, “we did not meet the constitutional issues in the case.” (In other words, the Court had decided the case on lesser grounds, which it always prefers to do when possible.)
Yet Davis wrote that the constitutional issue of corporate personhood had been decided, and his headnote was published the year Waite died, most likely after Waite’s death. The railroads were persons, he wrote (in the headnote), implying that they’re entitled to the same rights as persons. And Davis attributed this new legal reality to Chief Justice Waite who had specifically, in writing, disavowed it.
Another great irony of this event is that the Bill of Rights was designed to protect human persons because of their vulnerability in relations with other human persons who may be much more powerful. But corporations are bestowed with potential immortality, can change their identity in a day, or even tear off parts of themselves and instantly turn those parts into entirely new “persons.” Yet regardless of all these superhuman powers, corporations are now considered persons.
People are ethical, moral beings. Corporations are blind, amoral, entities whose sole reason of being is to maximize shareholder profit. Which is not to say that there are not unethical, immoral, or amoral people, or that there are not ethical corporations. There are both.
I think we need to go back to calling corporations what they are: artificial persons.

Or this is the story of your enslavement.

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