In a way, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling has done us all a favor when it comes to recruiting individual enrollment in the democratic process: Bring up campaign finance reform at a dinner party and you’re liable to be met by a roomful of glazed eyeballs, but pose the question as to whether a corporation is a person, and you’re much more likely to get some conversational engagement.
“I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”
—from a bumper sticker
On the face of it, the question is ridiculous. Corporations are artificial entities, and are patently not the same as human beings, although their roots in Western culture go as far back as the Roman empire. Mitt Romney made a famously tin-eared assertion that corporations are people during the campaign season of 2012 because as he said, “everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people.” It is true that corporations, being made up of people, can’t be separated from people… but Romney’s quote brings us to the nub: When corporations use their money as constitutionally protected speech, which people benefit? Not the bottom 99%, it’s safe to say.
Reality has begun to dawn throughout the country over the past three years. and even in the reddest of red states, the “blue dot” city has been agitating for reform. Utah’s own Ashley Sanders is one of the architects and prime movers of the nationwide campaign to undo this decision. In 2009, Sanders helped launch Move to Amend, a coalition of national organizations that have been fighting corporate personhood for 20 years now. The coalition seeks to abolish corporate constitutional rights, particularly in response to the Supreme Court’s flawed ruling which equates money with speech, unfettering corporate entities to spend from their general treasuries on political campaigns, and legitimizing disproportionate influence by the wealthy.
“We knew how the case was going to go because of the composition of the Supreme Court,” says Sanders, “so we took this opportunity to push the campaign to a national level in a coordinated way.”
Last year, Sanders and her associates at Salt Lake City Move to Amend gathered 11,400 signatures on an approved petition to get a resolution on the ballot…but because the measure would not have resulted in a new law, the city attorney and the Utah Supreme Court found cause to dismiss the petition.
The situation prompted the Salt Lake City Council to adopt an ordinance creating a city poll, which allows for this kind of democratic process in the city. In September, Move to Amend will sponsor the first city poll.
Although the new city poll can be used by anyone, it actually was designed with Move to Amend in mind, according to Sanders. “Ballot initiatives are a great way to get people educated and organized. Our aim is to show the grassroots support for reining in the corporations, and to prompt the city to pass ordinances that will go towards this.” Organizers plan to address the status of corporations at the county and state levels as well, and eventually sponsor a federal amendment.
US corporations actually have never been granted the rights of personhood in a formal declaration; rather, it was a doctrine adopted by the courts. Thomas Jefferson, understanding the dangers of corporate power, was in favor of an amendment that would have formally banned the concept. Unfortunately for flesh-and-blood human beings, the courts have interpreted various clauses within and amendments to the U.S. Constitution to cover these artificial entities. Corporations currently enjoy rights under the 1st, 4th, 5th and 14th amendments, and have been protected by interpretations of the Commerce Clause and the Contracts Clause. The reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment is particularly galling—these rights were originally enacted to free slaves from oppression (“equal protection under law to every person”), but by the late 19th century had been subverted and redirected to protect corporations (as “persons” themselves).
Move to Amend states four simple aims:
• Abolish corporate personhood
• Firmly establish that money is not speech
• Guarantee the right to vote and to a participatory democracy exclusively for individual citizens
• Protect the rights of local communities to govern themselves democratically within the framework of the U.S. Constitution
Sanders, a BYU graduate, knows a lot about community organization and the value of persistence in trying to effect change in the face of an entrenched establishment: She organized an alternative graduation ceremony for her class when she found out Dick Cheney was to be their commencement speaker, and she has been a political activist ever since. Sanders is confident that Salt Lake can repeat last year’s successful petition, this time to lasting effect.
One Day At A Time for addict corporations
Like Superman, a literary artificial entity, the legal artificial entity of the corporation is immensely strong, tireless, and possesses indefinite life. Unlike the Man of Steel, and most troublingly, the corporation is also immune to pain.
It is this immunity to pain that is the corporate form’s Achilles heel.
People have been banding together to form larger economic entities for thousands of years now, and it is not likely that as a species we will ever want to abandon the division of labor and the cultural benefits it’s brought us. However, in dealing with corporations, you can’t just call them “people” and have done with it. Individual cells have banded together to form your human body, but you don’t say that your entire body is functionally “the same as” one of the cells in your body.
However, if you cut your hand, your body informs you instantly of your mistake in disregarding your individual cells by providing you with pain. When you see someone else cut themselves, you empathize because you have experienced pain yourself. Corporations are provided with none of this natural wisdom and they have been getting themselves, and us, in trouble.
Drug addicts and alcoholics risk death and disability because they often can’t tell (or don’t care) when they’re hurting themselves—the substance they indulge in creates a condition of painlessness. Constitutionally protected corporations are currently stumbling around the economic landscape like unreconstructed alcoholic supermen. They regularly hurt individual humans in their communities because of the concept of “business externalities,” for example by rationalizing health-harming pollution in the name of commerce. But in an economy bounded by a single globe, there are no externalities any more—a corporation that hurts humans is hurting itself.
Just as it’s possible to achieve a state of fitness in your body—health for your individual cells as well as your body overall—it’s possible to achieve a state of economic fitness where corporations do not serially destroy the humans who comprise them. Building that will take persistence, an understanding that the corporate form cannot be privileged above the human one, and respect on all levels of organization. Let’s get to it.
Campaign launch June 13
The Move to Amend Summer Campaign launch will be held at the Washington Square Cafe, downstairs at the City County Building, on June 13 7-9:30pm. The “Speakeasy Pub Quiz” will test your knowledge of corporate monkey business through the ages. Beer, food, feathers, masks, and top hats will be provided so you can dress in your Gilded Age best, and donations are always appreciated.