The Guardian May 23, 2001


Corporate citizens "Different from you and I"

by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Corporations are fundamentally different from you and I. That's a simple 
truth that Big Business leaders desperately hope the public will not 
perceive.

It helps companies immeasurably that the law in the United States and in 
many other countries confers upon them the same rights as human beings.

In the United States, this personhood treatment, established most 
importantly in a throwaway line in an 1886 Supreme Court decision, protects 
the corporate right to advertise (including the tobacco companies' right to 
market their deadly wares), corporations' ability to contribute monetarily 
to political campaigns, and interferes with regulators' facility inspection 
rights (via corporate rights against unreasonable search and seizure).

But even more important than the legal protections gained by faux 
personhood status are the political, social and cultural benefits.

Companies aggressively portray themselves as part of the community (every 
community), a friendly neighbour. If they succeed in that effort at self-
characterisation, they know what follows: a dramatically diminished 
likelihood of external constraints on their operations.

If a corporation is part of the community, then it is entitled to the same 
freedoms available to others, and the same presumption of non-interference 
that society appropriately affords real people.

Especially because corporations work so aggressively and intentionally to 
obscure the point, it is crucial to draw attention to the corporation as an 
institution with unique powers, motivations and attributes, and to point to 
the basic differences between human beings and the socially constituted and 
authorised institutions called corporations.

Here are 10 differences between corporations and real people:

1. Corporations have perpetual life.
2. Corporations can be in two or more places at the same time.
3. Corporations cannot be jailed.
4. Corporations have no conscience or sense of shame.
5. Corporations have no sense of altruism, nor willingness to adjust their 
behaviour to protect future generations.
6. Corporations pursue a single-minded goal, profit, and are typically 
legally prohibited from seeking other ends.
7. There are no limits, natural or otherwise, to corporations' potential 
size.
8. Because of their political power, they are able to define or at very 
least substantially affect, the civil and criminal regulations that define 
the boundaries of permissible behaviour. Virtually no individual criminal 
has such abilities.
9. Corporations can combine with each other, into bigger and more powerful 
entities.
10. Corporations can divide themselves, shedding subsidiaries or affiliates 
that are controversial, have brought them negative publicity or pose 
liability threats.

These unique attributes give corporations extraordinary power, and makes 
the challenge of checking their power all the more difficult. The 
institutions are much more powerful than individuals, which makes all the 
more frightening their single-minded profit maximising efforts.

Corporations have no conscience or, it has been famously said, no soul. As 
a result, they exercise little self-restraint.

Exacerbating the problem, because they have no conscience, many of the 
sanctions we impose on individuals  not just imprisonment, but the more 
important social norms of shame and community disapproval  have limited 
relevance to or impact on corporations.

The fact that corporations are not like us, their very unique 
characteristics, makes crucially important the development of an array of 
controls on corporations.

These include:

* precise limits on corporate behaviours (such as actively enforced 
environmental, consumer, worker safety regulations);

* limits on corporate size and power (through vigorous anti-trust and pro-
competition policy, including limits on the scope of intellectual property 
protections);

* restrictions and prohibitions on corporate political activity (including 
through comprehensive campaign finance reform);

* carefully tailored civil and criminal sanctions responsive to the 
particular traits of corporations including denying wrongdoing gives 
companies the ability to bid for government contracts;

* equity fines  fines paid in stock, not dollars; creative probation, 
with a court-appointed ombudsman given authority to order specific changes 
in corporate activities; and restrictions on corporations' ability to close 
or move facilities.

There is also the permanent challenge of building countervailing centres of 
people: unions above all, plus consumer, environmental, indigenous rights 
and other civic groups, organised in conventional and novel formations.

And there is the imperative of directly confronting the corporate claim to 
personhood and community neighbour status  both in the law and in the 
broader culture.

This is the beginning of a sketch of an ambitious agenda, but there is no 
alternative, if democracy is to be rescued from the corporate hijackers who 
masquerade as everyday citizens

* * *
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, DC-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D C-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Mega-Profits and the Attack on Democracy Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999

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