A year ago today [January 22], the Supreme Court issued its bizarre Citizens United decision, allowing unlimited corporate spending in elections as a form of “free speech” for the corporate “person.” Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the dissent, had the task of recalling the majority to planet earth and basic common sense.
“Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires,” wrote Stevens. “Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
Fortunately, movements are afoot to reverse a century of accumulated powers and protections granted to corporations by wacky judicial decisions.
In Vermont, state senator Virginia Lyons on Friday presented an anti-corporate personhood resolution for passage in the Vermont legislature. The resolution, the first of its kind, proposes “an amendment to the United States Constitution … which provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States.” Sources in the state house say it has a good chance of passing. This same body of lawmakers, after all, once voted to impeach George W. Bush, and is known for its anti-corporate legislation. Last year the Vermont senate became the first state legislature to weigh in on the future of a nuclear power plant, voting to shut down a poison-leeching plant run by Entergy Inc. Lyons’ Senate voted 26-4 to do it, demonstrating the level of political will of the state’s politicians to stand up to corporate power.
The language in the Lyons resolution is unabashed. “The profits and institutional survival of large corporations are often in direct conflict with the essential needs and rights of human beings,” it states, noting that corporations “have used their so-called rights to successfully seek the judicial reversal of democratically enacted laws.”
Thus the unfolding of the obvious: “democratically elected governments” are rendered “ineffective in protecting their citizens against corporate harm to the environment, health, workers, independent business, and local and regional economies.” The resolution goes on to note that “large corporations own most of America’s mass media and employ those media to loudly express the corporate political agenda and to convince Americans that the primary role of human beings is that of consumer rather than sovereign citizens with democratic rights and responsibilities.”
Denouncing this situation as an “intolerable societal reality,” the document concludes that the “only way” toward a solution is the amendment of the Constitution “to define persons as human beings.”
Constitutional lawyer David Cobb, the 2004 Green Party presidential candidate, recently traveled to Vermont to help draft the resolution. Cobb says it is an historic document. “This is the first state to introduce at the legislative level a statement of principles that corporations are not persons and do not have constitutional rights,” he told AlterNet. “This is how a movement gets started. It’s the beginning of a revolutionary action completely and totally within the legal framework.”
Such an amendment would be the 28th time we have corrected our founding document to reflect political reality and social change. In other words, we’ve done it 27 times before in answer to the call of history, and we can do it again. There is a groundswell of support: 76 percent of Americans, according to a recent ABC News poll, said they opposed the Citizens United decision.
The Total Weirdness of Corporate Personhood
The corporate person is the product of some plainly weird metaphysics. This astonishing fictional “person,” accorded all the rights of a human, can split off pieces of itself to form new fictional persons, can marry many other similar persons in a process called a merger, is immortal, can change its name and identity overnight, and can aggregate gigantic streams of capital with which it somehow has the right to speak. Strangely enough, the corporate person, who has neither soul nor body, is at the same time owned by many other persons called shareholders who buy and sell its parts every day — it is owned, in fact, much the way a slave is owned.
Additionally, the many-limbed, mercurial, shape-changing god-person-as-chattel can connive to murder wretched fleshy mortal persons and not be hanged by the neck or electrocuted in a chair or go to jail for life as punishment. Instead the corporate person pays out a paltry sum and goes about his or her blithe business as if no murder was committed, no crime accomplished. The corporate person can shut down whole communities by driving out business, can spread cancers in the air and water, can destroy fisheries or lay waste to forests, and do all of this with a degree of impunity provided under the vaunted protections of the Bill of Rights. The best-known and most insidious of these rights is that which allows the corporation under the First Amendment to speak freely using money — yet another twist of metaphysics masquerading as law, and one that has not gone unnoticed by the highest jurists in the land.
The “useful legal fictions,” launched into society as creatures of commerce and ostensibly at the beck and call of their creators, have freed themselves to wreak havoc on the people they were designed to help. Mere humans are arrayed against a dangerous automaton army, the army of the fictional corporate super-persons that deploy power with real-world consequences. If corporate hegemony is rightly understood as the overarching threat to world democracy today — the threat from which all other threats derive when governments stand captured by corporatocracies — then it is the absurdist legality of corporate personhood that serves as the functional lever of that hegemony. In this epochal battle for the future of planet earth, the humans against the corporations, the survival of the humans will depend on a dramatic legal assault, with nothing less than the murder of corporate personhood as the goal.
Christopher Ketcham has written for Vanity Fair, Harper’s, the Nation, Mother Jones, and many other publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.