Not long ago, I began toying with an idea for an essay that would explore the implications of “corporate rights” as granted by federal law, but from the perspective of a thought exercise: think of the corporation as an individual, a flesh-and-blood citizen. In the law, take out the word “corporation” and replace it with “person.” Now, what would their rights, responsibilities, and societal obligations look like when compared to those of real individuals?
We — at least those of us in societies that descend from Greco-Roman and European traditions of law — tend to view our organizations as human analogues. Our organizational creations are like large-scale people. (The word corporate, after all, derives from the Latin word for body.) In a sense, though, we also view them as ideal people, not just as idealized ones. They are truly creations of and by us, and it’s inevitable that we project onto them the image of what we truly see ourselves to be, or what we want to be, as citizens.
So, with that in mind, I want to look at how the law has helped us define that ideal person — what the law expects from him, and what the law requires he be granted. The law defines the boundaries of the playing field; what does the playing field look like for Corporate Men?
I’m sure it won’t be surprising that this essay would be something of a polemic. I make no secret of, or apologies for, the fact that I am an old-school Progressive, for better and for worse. I have very strong feelings about this subject, but I am also sincerely interested in learning what the law of the land is here. I want to be surprised, and I expect that I will be.
What finally gelled everything and got me serious about researching and writing it was when I came across a reference to W.H. Auden’s short poem “August 1968,” which he wrote in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The poem begins:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
When I read that, it occurred to me that in the recent Citizens United ruling (which, as a name, has an unintended but deliciously creepy corporatist undertone to it, don’t you think?), we’ve just witnessed a majority of the Supreme Court advocate for giving the Ogre speech lessons.
Citizens are granted by law responsibilities, and by virtue of their very existence rights. But with Corporate Men, we have the power to assign both as we see fit. What rights and responsibilities have we given Corporate Men? And how do they compare with ours? This is what I want to explore.
Regardless of my political and social perspectives, I come to this essay with the intent of sounding a warning. I don’t see in the granting of rights to our golems a vast silent conspiracy. I don’t see a diabolical plan at work here, I really don’t. I just think there are a lot of people who are really excited about the possibilities inherent in a new legal entity — in creating artificial life through the law — and they want to be able to say that not only were they there at the beginning, they actually helped bring it about. They want to have their picture taken with the Corporate Men, smiling and waving.
But putting aside for the moment the excitement over being able to concoct new life in the laboratories of the law, I think there is a real long-term and unforeseen danger in all of this. Because to Corporate Men, we don’t look like Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals.
To Corporate Men, we look like white meat and dark meat.
I think this is a timely subject to be thinking about because the recent presidential election was, for all practical purposes, the first election in which Corporate Men had the franchise (albeit one granted through a constitutional back-door). And while we flesh-and-blood individuals were able to shout collectively louder than them this time, do not doubt for a moment that the Corporate Men are being tutored by their creators and handlers to speak much, much better next time.
November 6 demonstrated that the country is undergoing some seismic demographic shifts (which, not apologetically, I welcome). But there is potentially a much bigger shift coming — maybe not in 2016, maybe not for a decade or a few decades — and if we allow that one to come to pass, all of us, no matter where we stand, are going to lose.