‘Corporations are people, my friend…’

Big businesses have long had the same economic rights as citizens, yet few of the moral responsibilities.

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney’s friendliness to corporations excuses them from bearing the responsibilities endowed upon them by the rights they are given as ‘persons’ under US law [AFP]

Thank God for Mitt Romney.

In a moment of candour he likely thought would win him much needed support from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, the presidential candidate explained his thinking to a heckler – who asked why he didn’t feel corporations should share more of the economic burden of reducing the deficit:

“Corporations are people, my friend … of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Human beings, my friend.”

In fact, he’s right. Corporations are people, or rather “legal persons”, which is not to be confused with “natural persons”, or as Romney terms us, “human beings”. The original Latin term is actually persona ficta, or artificial person, which I think has an even nicer ring, because it shows that, at the very least, they weren’t born the natural way. If you are one of the top one per cent of income earners in the US, UK, Israel or other advanced industrial country where so much of the countries’ wealth is distributed to corporate upper management, you might even consider them to have been immaculately conceived.

Ironically, the idea of a corporation as a person, however defined, originated with the need to ensure that the corporations that arose with capitalism – and especially with the growth of larger firms with the industrial revolution – could both assume debts and liabilities and be held legally responsible for them in the same way that natural persons would be.

This was an evolution of common law, where only a person could be sued or sue someone. Corporations began to be defined as people so they could be sued, like people. But the difference was that corporations also provided a shield for the people who owned them – as they were generally not responsible or liable for any debts the corporations incurred.

Traditionally, however, legal persons did not have all the same rights as natural people. They did not have civil rights, nor did they have human rights – they were not, sorry Mr Romney, human persons. In the US, corporations were, in fact, fairly tightly controlled well into the 19th century, when the growth of the railroads and other large industries gave corporations increasing power to shift the rules of the game towards their favour, or rather that of the human beings who controlled them.

The US is the vanguard of the ‘Corporate People’

Indeed, the US has long been at the vanguard of granting increasing rights to corporations, first considering corporations as citizens and residents of the states in which they live. By 1886, in the famous Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad case, Chief Justice Morrison Waite opened the proceedings by declaring: “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a state to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”

Justice Waite neglected to mention that the 14th Amendment was supposed to help protect the rights of freed slaves, not corporations – but twenty years after the Civil War and with the frontier quickly closing, it was money, not people, that those in power most cared about.

Corporate rights steadily increased in the ensuing century to the point that, in 2010, in the (in)famous Citizens United decision that corporations have the same free speech rights as human beings and therefore could not be limited in the amount of money they might wish to spend on advertising for various political purposes. It’s worth noting the dissent of Justice John Paul Stevens, which concluded that this view was:

“[A] rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognised a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.”

We are living in strange times indeed, my friends, because, while liberals have already begun to pounce on Romney for his statement of the obvious, most of the audience for whom the remarks were intended will find nothing wrong with it – even though the average white, middle class, bible-belt American has suffered as much from the wholesale corporatisation of American life as have the Democratic Party’s base in the minority working class.

Ironically, while conservatives claim fealty to the “founders” in all things related to law, few seem to have read Thomas Jefferson’s 1816 letter to Pennsylvanian politician George Logan, when he declared: “I hope we shall … crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

A product of the imperial age

The first major corporations were in fact geared largely towards colonial exploitation – the Dutch and the English East India companies, for example. The roots of modern corporations as entities – their ontology if you will – is inseparable from the colonial/imperialist roots of capitalism, which brought large swathes under the control of these entities, especially Africa (resources and slaves), the Americas (resources and agricultural products) and South and Southeast Asia (resources and agricultural products) – under the control of a narrow group of Europeans who controlled access to the capital, without which there could be no capitalism.

As Jean and Jane Comaroff explain in their fascinating new book Theory from the South, Africans found the entire European concept of corporations, and their attendant focus on contracts, titles, deeds and other capitalist legal texts particularly distasteful because it ripped people out of the social relations in which they were embedded, making human beings into fragile “paper persons” with much less power or rights than they enjoyed in their supposedly primitive, pre-modern communities.

Not surprisingly, if corporations have since the 1970s – the time of the last great economic crisis in the West, it’s worth noting – arrogated ever increasing amounts of economic and political and through them, social power to themselves through the rise of neoliberalism in the US and Europe (Thatcherism, Reaganism, and similar Continental ideologies), the same process has occurred with even greater power and devastation across the global south, leading one of Africa’s greatest writers, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to coin the term “corpolonialism” in his novel Wizard of the Crow to describe how the WTO, IMF, World Bank and corporations, and their local allies have imposed structural adjustment and other policies on the countries of the South.

Such policies have given corporations increasing access to local markets with little ability for citizens to regulate them or prevent them from exploiting them with little regard for the social, economic and environmental consequences for those most affected by untramelled capitalism.

As anyone who has been following the revolts across the Arab world and now Israel knows, the corruption, violence, and gross inegalitarianism and inequalities that corprolonialism have produced, not just in the developing world, but also in the West, are among the primary causes of the intifadas in Tunisia and Egypt. Simply put, the corruption, violence and greed cannot simply be kept safely “over there”; as in the imperial age, eventually it comes home to roost. And so we see not just Arab capitals in flames, but European cities as well.

Romney’s confusion, or ours?

If we return to Romney’s comment, the confusion within it is illustrative of the larger problem of considering corporations as people. First he argues that “everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people”. The people? As in “We, the People”? That is certainly how the wealthy would like us to imagine corporate wealth being distributed. Indeed, the most basic argument of the neoliberals is that corporations and corporate capitalism is the most efficient and equitable means available for ensuring the widest distribution of wealth and resources among the people.

But of course, as the bounding inequality in the United States makes clear, the wealth is not going to the people. It is going to very, very few people – who use corporations and their fictive personhood to help ensure that skewed distribution of wealth stays that way, no matter what the majority of Americans want. That’s why, in the next sentence, Romney inadvertently drops the “the” and just says the money goes in “people’s pockets – human beings, my friend”. He knows it’s not going to the people as a society, just to those with the ability to grab as much of it as they can.

A green future?

For some reason, hearing Romney speak these words reminded me of Charlton Heston’s famous line: “Soylent Green is people!” from the dystopian sci-fi thriller movie, Soylent Green. Heston screamed the line after realising that the remains of dead people – forcibly euthanised in the horribly overpopulated, polluted and poverty stricken world of 2022 – were being converted into food to be fed to the living.

When the book, on which the movie was based, was published in 1966 – and even when the movie itself was released in 1973 – such a future was a nightmare that could only be imagined and dramatised, because it still seemed far off and so fantastical that it couldn’t possibly come to pass. At least not by 2022.

Today, with people like Mitt Romney and his corporate friends – real and fictive – running the country and the world, 2022 seems frighteningly close indeed. Let’s hope the real people have the brains to put a stop to it before it’s too late.

(This article was edited 17:25 GMT, 8/12/11)

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.