The Corporate Emperors Have No Clothes

Since the US Supreme Court lifted restrictions on corporate political contributions in its 2010 Citizens United ruling, concerns about corporate political power have been growing in this country. And not just among activists: the vast majority of US voters across the political spectrum believe that corporate money is a major threat to our electoral process. As a 20-year veteran of corporate campaigning, I share these concerns, although the focus on election spending strikes me as overly narrow. Political spending is only one of the ways corporations influence our policies and our very perceptions. From junk science to revolving door relationships to PR and outright ownership of the media, the threat is real, but it is not new.

Citizens United and the rulings that preceded it rest on the legal extension of “personhood” to allow corporations to usurp citizens’ Constitutional protections, with little of the accountability. In 1911, Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” Today’s transnational giants wield exponentially more wealth and power – political, economic, legal and cultural – but Bierce still holds a critical insight: corporations aren’t persons, but their beneficiaries are.

One of the most important precedents for Citizens United was the 1978 Bellotti case, in which First National Bank successfully challenged state restrictions on corporate political spending by means of a First Amendment claim that such spending constituted protected speech. Of course a bank doesn’t have opinions, it represents the interests of its owners and managers: that is who gains extra access and extra representation under this legal regime, through their association with this fictional “person.” If First National, now Bank of America, were a person, it would have been locked up years ago for mistreatment of its employees, customers, competitors, regulators, and the communities in which it operates. This list chronicles the bank’s dozens of fines, settlements and misdeeds since the financial crisis and bailout. And those are just the legal infractions, it doesn’t even capture BoA’s environmentally destructive investments and its equally destructive pollution of our democratic process.

Of course if Bank of America were a person, it would be hard-pressed to find a safety net equal to the 2008 bailout. The fact that we are incarcerating, disenfranchising and abandoning our fellow human beings at heartbreaking and globally unprecedented rates while these serial offenders continue their rampage virtually unchecked should give us all cause for outrage. Unaccountable elites have hidden behind the corporate shield for generations. Granting political rights to structurally amoral, profit-seeking organizations corrupts one of our most important mechanisms for protecting the public interest and pursuing progress. Government of, by and for the people may be an unfulfilled ideal, but moving toward that goal requires a movement that encompasses a breadth of creative strategies and forms of activism. Whether we’re building local solutions, challenging specific harms or building toward broader policies like a Constitutional Amendment, it is we – the human persons on whose consent this government exists – who must make the rules.

I’ll end on a hopeful note because I truly believe in the power of organized (human) people. Do yourself a favor and check out Twice Thou’s the Bank Attack, written for a national protest against Bank of America and starring inspiring organizers from City Life/Vida Urbana, which is fighting back against foreclosures and building strong communities in Boston.

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