When the Roberts Supreme Court passed its disastrous Citizens United ruling, overturning a century of precedent to gift corporations with expanded "free speech" rights so they could have even more influence over America's political system than they do now, one of the first things that came to mind was the excellent 2003 documentary, the Corporation. A thorough examination of the concept of corporate personhood -- that under US law, corporations in the US are legally considered people and are granted many of the constitutional rights given a person -- as well as the impact of corporations on our lives, the Corporation asks a logical and essential question: if corporations are considered people, what kind of people are they? The film's answer to this question has done more to shape my perception of corporations than a lifetime of advertising and corporate propaganda.
Find out more about how the 14th Amendment, which was created to protect newly freed slaves, was twisted to apply to corporations, and how corporate personhood surreptitiously became law in 1886 through the case of Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad.
I find it hard to believe that anyone, let alone the five Supreme Court Justices in the majority in the Citizens United decision, could actually argue that corporations are people. Sure, corporations should be able to enter into binding legal agreements, sue or be sued and buy property, but that's a far cry from being deemed an actual person.
As Baron Thurlow was reported to have said: A corporation "has no soul to save and no body to incarcerate." Can you think of any human that fits that description? If corporations are people, why are they allowed to buy other corporations when slavery is illegal? How can they exist in several countries simultaneously? How can they chop off parts of themselves to start new corporations?
The answer, of course, is that corporations aren't people -- they're very special people with nonhuman abilities, and they are increasingly the only "people" that matter in this country. They can avoid paying taxes (like Enron); commit the premeditated mass murder of tens of millions of people (as in the case of tobacco companies) without spending a second in jail; and are completely unable to feel guilt for any of the damage they cause to the planet or any form of life living on it (like Union Carbide). And, because of the Citizens United ruling, the corporations' "voices" (meaning vast sums of money) will be able to drown out all others, allowing them to buy, sell and blackmail politicians with impunity. Essentially, a corporation is a legal construct that is able to concentrate and magnify the greed of a small number of people while removing any of the morals or ethics that prevent people from acting on that greed. And then, under US law, this unfettered greed becomes a person.
But if the Supreme Court is being open-minded about giving non-humans civil rights, let's keep going. Let's give trees, mountains, rivers and oceans rights as well. Let spokesmen for these entities defend their rights not to be cut down, blown up, destroyed and polluted. Let animals sue for having their homes destroyed and their offspring killed.
Oh, wait. Those things don't have bank accounts. So they have no free speech. Never mind.
In a rare example of corporate/anti-corporate synergy (while it lasts), you can watch the Corporation for free on Hulu.
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