Note: I recently received an email from Greg Coleridge, the Outreach Director for Move to Amend, asking if I could share a sermon that I preached back in 2010 in support of Move to Amend and in opposition to corporate personhood. I’ve posted it here so that Greg can share it and others can read it. It reflects a different preaching style than the one I use these days but it reflects my views.
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, April 11, 2010
There are times when I wonder if I have wandered into a science fiction story. The recent United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission was one of them. You have probably heard about the case. In this five-to-four decision the Supreme Court opened the door for corporate advocacy during elections. The court decided that restrictions on corporate spending for political advertising were violations of a corporation’s right to free speech. The court’s logic requires them to equate spending money with exercising free speech and accepting that corporations are legal persons with the same rights under the United States Constitution as human beings.
This decision, as the legal scholar Jamin Raskin argues, is “threatening a fundamental change in the character of American political democracy.” It will allow companies like Enron, Walmart, and Blackwater to take money directly from their corporate treasuries and put them into campaigns for political candidates. True, they still will not be allowed to contribute directly to a political candidate. However, they will be allowed to finance political ads endorsing and attacking candidates. This, as retiring Justice John Paul Stevens has written, could well lead to, “corporate domination of the electoral process.”
And if corporations dominate the electoral process it will be difficult to place checks upon their powers. It is hard to imagine Congress passing regulatory laws on anything that impedes corporate profits if all of its members owe their seats to corporate financing. Under such a scenario our elected officials could become little more than proxies for their corporate backers. The United States would cease, in any meaningful way, to be, in Lincoln’s memorable words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Instead it would become government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations. And any form of even rudimentary democracy might then perish from the Earth.
William Gibson imagines such a world in his cyberpunk novels. In works like his Sprawl Trilogy of “Neuromancer,” “Count Zero” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive” he envisions a society where corporations are sovereign states unto themselves. In this world, corporations retain their own armies, make their own laws and compete against each other for the most profitable competitive edge. Sometimes the competition grows violent and corporate soldiers kidnap or coerce a competitors prize employees or forcibly steal trade secrets. Human beings are reduced to their potential for generating profit. And all of humanity is divided into roughly three classes–the privileged elite that own the corporations, the less privileged middle classes who work for the corporations, and the masses who exist at the margins of society eking out an existence in low-wage factories, in dump heaps and in the ruins of the world’s great cities.
This world is not unlike our own. Some of the best of science fiction comes from observing current societal trends and following them to their logical conclusions. Gibson’s world is a projection of the path that we might take if society continues to progress along its present trajectory. It resembles our own but with a few crucial differences, differences that could eventually be rendered naught.
In Gibson’s world the environment has been completely despoiled in the pursuit of profit–even horses have gone extinct–and technology has become indistinguishable from what our ancestors would have called magic. Human flesh and machine mesh. Many people have computers directly wired into their brains. Microchips allow for the acquisition of language and motor skills. If you cannot fly a helicopter you can buy a chip that will automatically give you the skill to do so. Reality and virtual reality form one seamless whole. Computers create sensory experiences in individuals.
It is a dystopian future. Humanity has lost control of its destiny. The great rule the many and use them for their own ends with nothing–no unions, no governments, no civic organizations–to check their power.
I fear that court cases like that of Citizens United represent the birth pangs of such a dystopian world. Already many large corporations are more powerful than the majority of the world’s governments. The boundaries of the recent healthcare debate were set far more by the healthcare industry than they were by the public. Gibson’s future is, in some fashion, here. The vast inequities of global wealth are increasing. Sweatshop labor is replacing unionized manufacturing jobs. Ecological catastrophe looms–the Earth grows ever warmer and the Earth’s species ever fewer.
Whether a Gibsonian dystopia arrives fully born or whether a different world is coming depends on how we address the question of corporate power. Corporations, like any other human institution, are tools to accomplish specific purposes. Despite their many guises their purpose all boils down to the same thing: to achieve the highest profit margins possible. A corporation might make medical supplies, print school books, or sell organic foods. Its legal obligation is not to produce the best quality of these items it can. It is instead to provide the corporation’s owners, the stockholders, with the highest return on their investment possible.
Corporations have been around for a long time. They predate the founding of this country. Some have argued that the American Revolution was as much a rebellion against corporate power as it was against the colonial rule of the crown. The “British colonies were chartered by the king and given the right to govern…and…British law forced the colonists to trade under disadvantageous terms with the East India Company…the American Revolution overthrew not only King George III’s sovereignty…but also the power of the first huge corporations…”, writes Tom Stites, the former editor of the UU World.
After the American Revolution it took a long time for corporations to begin to re-establish their sovereignty. Some of the founders of the United States were quite skeptical of corporate power. Thomas Jefferson wanted to insert a clause about freedom from monopolies into the United States Constitution and wrote, “I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of moneyed corporations.” Jefferson was not heeded and as the country grew corporations gained in power.
The Industrial Revolution and Civil War brought corporations to a new level of size and development. Originally they had been chartered by individual states for a specific scope and period of time. Gradually business interests convinced state legislators to expand the corporate purview and grant charters that lasted in perpetuity. After the Civil War came the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment–aimed to ensure that freed slaves had full personhood and citizenship. In what some might regard as a perversion of the law, corporate lawyers used this amendment to gain personhood for corporations, affording them the same protections under the Bill of Rights as human beings. This greatly reduced the ability of city governments and state legislatures to regulate them.
I am not a lawyer. I find this logic difficult to grasp. I do not understand how a law clearly written with the intention of protecting the rights of freed slaves could be interpreted to bolster corporate power. The logic escaped some on the Supreme Court as well. Justice Hugo Black wrote that the “history of the amendment proves that the people were told that its purpose was to protect weak and helpless human beings and were not told that it was intended to remove corporations in any fashion from the control of state governments.” Black’s opinions were not those of the majority and corporate personhood remains a legal fact until the laws are changed.
The question of what makes someone or something a person has many dimensions. As Emily so aptly noted in her reflection earlier personhood is something that we bestow upon others. As a society we grant certain people but not others the right to participate as full members and enjoy the full protection of the law. Individuals or communities may bestow personhood on different entities than the state. The state may, in turn, hold some entities to be persons that individuals or communities do not.
The lens of the expansion of personhood provides an interesting interpretation of the history of the United States. At the country’s founding the only human beings who the law recognized as having full personhood were land owning white males. Through the course of much struggle, and the sacrifices of many brave souls, personhood was expanded. It shifted, under the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, to include white non-land owning males. Then, in the wake of the Civil War, it enlarged to include, in theory, African American males. With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment women gained personhood. The Civil Rights movement made the promises of the Fourteenth Amendment reality and African American women and men secured personhood. Today there are those like the ethicist Peter Singer who extend personhood to animals. There are also those in the anti-abortion movement who would claim personhood for human fetuses.
In the contemporary United States there continue to be many human beings who are not afforded full personhood by our society. Undocumented immigrants and enemy combatants are not guaranteed many of the protections of the Bill of Rights. This has left them vulnerable to torture, trials without juries or due process and loss of life and liberty. Here in Ohio, and elsewhere throughout the United States, members of the BGLT community lack the rights that those in heterosexual partnerships or with binary gender norms enjoy. Members of the BGLT community can be discriminated against in housing or in employment situations. They do not have the right to marry. Our society has also demonstrated that it does not respect the personhood of many in the developing world. Our willingness to tolerate sweatshop labor in the manufacture of consumer goods and our indifference at inflicting gross civilian casualties during wartime offer substantive proof of this.
It is perverse that with so many human beings still outside the circle of personhood corporations are allowed inside it. Large corporations–the big Wall Street firms, the large manufacturing companies, the airlines and oil combines–are far more the tools of the rich and powerful than they are of those on the margins of society. The recent mining disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia should here prove to be illustrative. On the one hand there is Massey Energy whose CEO Don Blankenship’s annual compensation approaches $10,000,000. On the other hand there are the miners who make about $60,000 a year. By granting personhood to corporations our society reinforces the dynamic whereby the wealthy have more voice than the rest of us. Massey Energy advocates for the ability of Blankenship to make ever more money selling coal. The Upper Big Branch miners, without a union, have little to advocate for them.
This is a problem. Whatever is in Massey’s best interest is what will make Massey’s shareholders the most money. The best interest of the miners are different. The more money Massey pays the miners the less the company’s owners will earn in profits. More troubling, the greater the company’s expenditures on safety, the lower its’ profit margins. Last night on NPR’s “All Things Considered” Gerald Stern, a lawyer who represents the families of the victims of mine disasters, described the dynamic this way: “You don’t find anybody becoming President of a coal company who came up through the safety side of the industry. You come up through the production side. That incentive, to focus on production and not to reward those who say I need to close the mine for a day or two to… make sure the mine is safe, that is the problem here.”
The situation reminds me of another science fiction story, this time from the British television show Doctor Who. The episode, called “The Green Death” and made in the early 1970s, unfolds when the Doctor and his companion Jo travel to South Wales to investigate the mysterious death of a miner in an abandoned coal mine. Once in Wales the Doctor and Jo discover that the mine is filled with some sort of strange glowing material that kills all who contact it. As the plot unfolds they learn that Global Chemical, a nearby oil company, has been pumping the mine full of waste from a secret energy project.
In order to pursue maximum efficiency and obtain the highest profits the head of Global Chemicals has turned operations of the company over to a computer system named BOSS. BOSS shows little regard for human life and either brainwashes or kills all who stand its way. Nothing is to be allowed to impede maximum efficiency.
BOSS is an almost perfect metaphor for corporate personhood. Like the corporation, it blindly pursues its end without regard to the human consequences. And like the corporation, in the pursuit of this end many people get hurt.
Here I think we come to the primary problem of corporate personhood. While the legal fiction affords corporations with many of the rights of human beings it does not couple the corporation with human limitations. Corporations can live forever. Corporations are, ironically, non-corporal and need not breath, eat, seek shelter or sleep to perpetuate themselves. Most importantly, corporations lack conscience.
Considering this issue Tom Stites has written, “The right of conscience is the essence of freedom…it is the essence of what makes us human. No other creatures are known to have consciences; corporations certainly do not.” The absence of conscience means that if corporations are to consider anything other than maximizing their profits then it must be outside forces that compel them to do so.
This a political problem but it is also a spiritual one. It is a political problem because how decisions are made, and who gets to make them, are ultimately questions of politics. Restraining corporate power, and ending corporate personhood, will only come about if people organize to do so. With the Supreme Court on the side corporate personhood it is clear that change will not come from the courts. Instead what is needed is a constitutional amendment delineating that corporations are not afforded protection under the Bill of Rights. Currently the grassroots campaign Move to Amend is pushing just such an amendment. Whether they succeed or not will depend upon how much support they get.
It is a spiritual problem because what differentiates us humans from corporations is spirit. The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning breath. Spirit is often equated with the force that propels life forward. Corporations lack this force. They follow a different trajectory. It is trajectory that leads towards a Gibsonian dystopia where the richest live in abundance, the masses in squalor and the planet is threatened with extinction.
The alternative is a world where spirit reigns and the life force is honored above profit. In such a world, to quote Emily, “humanity and personhood… [might] not completely overlap” but personhood would be limited to those entities that either have or serve spirit. With personhood so limited we would not fear that profits would be valued over people or that the environment would be despoiled to enrich the few. Instead of profit decisions would be guided by what is best for the many.
Which world will come to be? The decision is ours. What we choose is a matter of our conscience. Conscience is something we all have. It is something we can use to build a better society. Reflecting on the crisis of fascism and its relationship to conscience the German poet Bertolt Brecht once wrote:
General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect;
It needs a driver.
General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect;
It needs a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill,
But he has one defect;
He can think.
This defect is something that all of us share. It is what makes us humans and renders corporations mere legal fictions. Let us remember this. In doing so we might serve the spirit–the breath of life–and bring about not a science fiction dystopia but a life-affirming world where justice flows like a river and peace like a ever flowing stream.
May it be so.