Thursday, February 4, 2010

Corporate "Personhood"

“Fascism should more properly be called Corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power” - Mussolini

The most recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision capped two weeks of depressing events, starting with the earthquake in Haiti, moving on to the political earthquake in Massachusetts and ending with this decision. I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications of it, or even what it overturned and what it kept in place. Most commentators seem to agree that the ruling is very problematic, but has some good elements, including a lot more transparency about who (or what) is funding whom. The decision was so complicated that the dissent alone, (by Justice John Paul Stevens), ran to 170 pages.

I am more interested in the notion of the full personhood of corporations which is a very flawed concept on the face of it. For me, with all due respect to lawyers and the law, this notion shows what a small role common sense plays in legal interpretation.

David Korten in his book, The Post-Corporate World, Life After Capitalism (pp.186) explains how bizarre this law really is:
The doctrine of corporate personhood creates an interesting legal contradiction. The corporation is owned by its shareholders and is therefore their property. If it is also a legal person, then it is a person owned by others and thus exists in a condition of slavery -- a status explicitly forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. So is a corporation a person illegally held in servitude by its shareholders? Or is it a person who enjoys the rights of personhood that take precedence over the presumed ownership rights of its shareholders? So far as I have been able to determine, this contradiction has not been directly addressed by the courts.
An ordinary person can tell the difference between a corporation and a person; yet, the majority of the Supreme Court Justices claim they cannot when it comes to First Amendment rights. But in commons thinking, rights cannot be truly enjoyed by all without at least rough social equity. There is no pretense of equality when some “people” (corporations) can speak so much more loudly than others (those of us who actually are people). Rights, without some kind of equal access to them, are meaningless. An ordinary person with a modicum of commonsense would say that, if there were any place that such a person might be heard.

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