If It Doesn’t Breathe

If It Doesn’t Breathe, It Doesn’t Deserve Free Speech

An Excerpt from “Of, By, and For the Corporations” in Shaking the Gates of Hell:  Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization

“Lacking the sort of physical, organic reality that characterizes human existence, this entity, this concept, this collection of paperwork called a corporation is not capable of feelings such as shame or remorse. Instead, corporations behave according to their own unique system of standards, rules, forms, and objectives, enshrined in state charters and confirmed through our legal structures.               Jerry Mander”[1]

Much of the power that corporations wield over human societies comes from our giving them the legal status of persons under the law.  A corporation is not really a person, but accumulated property: capital, money, wealth.  Just as slavery was the legal fiction that persons can be property, corporate personhood is the legal fiction that property can be persons.  As Joel Bakan says, “The corporation is not an independent “person” with its own rights, needs, and desires that regulators must respect.  It is a state-created tool for advancing social and economic policy.”[2]

Corporations, like all institutions, are created to serve life, not dominate it. But that is not possible under our current laws, which favor the rights of corporations above human and all other life. As corporations grow in wealth and power, they require more oversight, not less. There are many ways that human beings could limit corporate power.

Because corporations are chartered in a particular locale, they could be required to abide by the laws of the government where they are incorporated, no matter where they do business. Some have suggested that corporate charters in the United States take place at the federal level so that states are not competing with each other in a race to the bottom to provide the best terms. Charters should be revoked if a corporation does not serve the public good.

As stated above, corporate costs of doing business should be internalized, so that both costs and prices include environmental and social costs. Right–to-know laws could require annual public corporate reports and audits of the overall effects of a corporation on their many stakeholders, including workers, consumers, communities, and the environment. “Bad Boy” laws could be passed at any government level to prevent a corporation that repeatedly violates laws from doing business in their jurisdiction. Some locales have instituted such laws.

Limited liability could be lessened or eliminated, leaving both managers and investors vulnerable to being held liable for harm caused by the corporation. This would greatly change both individual and corporate financial decisions and could help protect people and the earth.

Corporate tax laws could be reformed and tax havens abolished. Various corporate tax deductions could be eliminated, including the deduction for corporate advertising. Corporations could be prohibited from engaging in political lobbying and from giving contributions to candidates. Corporate personhood, and the privileges that go with it, could be eliminated, allowing civil-rights laws to protect on natural persons, not corporations.

New, more democratic global trade and development institutions could be created under the auspices of the United Nations. Such institutions would provide oversight and rules for corporations to follow, based on just and sustainable principles, and would replace current bureaucracies and trade agreements that enable corporations to police governments.

I have heard it said, “If it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t deserve free speech.” I agree. And if its only conscience is the bottom line, it doesn’t deserve to determine the quality of life for future generations. It has been suggested that a simple six-word amendment to the U.S. Constitution would go a long way toward bringing change: “A corporation is not a person.”

[1]. Jerry Mander, in The Case Against the Global Economy and for a Turn to the Local, ed. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 314.

[2]. Bakan, The Corporation, 158.

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