Corporate Personhood and the Culture of Pathology
With drone attacks, torture and drug money laundering, the interlocking network of the military-industrial complex and banking cartels continue the age-old Western pattern of colonization around the world. From Iraq to Afghanistan; from Lybia to Mali, bloody resource wars are camouflaged behind the fear-based rhetoric of ‘national security’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’.
Western societies are rapidly losing their moral center. The employment of reason in the majority of society now seems divorced from the basic capacity for empathy. Government war criminals walk free, while whistleblowers reporting their crimes are punished. Bankers who commit massive fraud are bailed out while taxpayers have their futures foreclosed. When a culture rewards selfish deeds and immunizes the criminal acts of its leaders, it skews the norm toward depravity. How has this happened? How is it that Western civilization has devolved into something like a global rouge state?
Michael Nagler, professor and peace activist once said, “There is something deeper than our culture (at the root of the problem) and that is our spiritual predisposition, which means who we think we are”. We have seen deeply embedded racism, growing exploitation and militarism and an explosion of the gap between the rich and poor. So many social problems that have manifested in the world throughout the last century seem to have radiated from a particular view of humanity.
The State of Power 2013 report reveals the concentration of wealth and power in the world. Fewer than 1% of the world’s transnational corporations, mostly banks, control 40% of global businesses. .001% of the population control assets worth $14.6 trillion — or over 20% of the world’s annual GDP. Corporate institutions, with a narrow mandate of maximizing profit at great human or environmental cost are the real governing forces in most countries, controlling health, safety, environment, monetary systems and food supplies. This is affecting all aspects of our lives.
We are born into a corporate state. Children as early as three are prey to corporate marketing. Education in America and abroad has become a dumbing-down of creativity and reduced to a simple vocational training. Critical thinking is discouraged and most schools just offer skills for serving the corporate work force. The corporate-consumer mindset has grown exponentially and has insidiously worked itself into the very fabric of life.
The first beginnings of this ever-increasing spread of corporate power can be traced back to a pivotal moment in US history, when a little known Supreme Court clerk made a notation from an off-hand comment of a Supreme Court Judge in 1886, which launched the legal fiction of corporate personhood. Economist and author, David Korten (2000) outlined this crucial turning point:
“In 1886, . . . in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a private corporation is a person and entitled to the legal rights and protections the Constitutions affords to any person. …Thus it was that a two-sentence [off hand] assertion by a single judge elevated corporations to the status of persons under the law, prepared the way for the rise of global corporate rule, and thereby changed the course of history”. (pp. 185-186)
With this ruling, corporations were granted the Constitutional rights of personhood under the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Ever since then, corporations and the men that serve them have successfully drawn the notion of “We the People” in a direction determined by corporate motives of ‘profit at any cost.’ By defining these entities as artificial persons (corporations are not actual human beings), no one can be held accountable for their actions. Yet, they are afforded the freedoms and protections that the Constitution guarantees for each person, while wielding enormous power and resources not available to any one person.
Corporations were initially granted existence with short-term charters meant to serve the community. They often involved large projects such as building a bridge or a railroad. Then over time, through a series of legal maneuvers and this constructed fiction of corporate personhood, the tendency to monopolize markets through ever-expanding growth was cemented. Then, self-preservation was incorporated into their very structure. When the law of limited-liability and hierarchical style of management were implemented, the corporate character became prone to excess.
The ‘corporate mentality’ that has evolved now serves only selfish and narrow interests. The system filters out those CEOs and board members who don’t exhibit this kind of ruthless character. Thus, the people at the top tend to be those who have developed this limited mentality. The end result is a small number of giant companies that gain more money and power than whole countries.
The transnational corporation, with limited liability, an ethos of profit at any cost and the drive for insatiable expansion has become a callous machine. When these patterns of behavior are carefully examined, they can be seen as pathological in nature. The 2003 documentary film The Corporation psychoanalyzed the actions and patterns of this historically unique entity as if it were a person. It examined the personality and characteristic attributes of the corporation and concluded that its psychological orientation is a textbook example of a psychopath. It consistently meets the diagnostic criteria of psychopaths designated in the DSM-IV, namely a lack of empathy, conscience, the incapacity to feel guilt, as well as a callous disregard for safety of others.
Psychoanalyst Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig (1990) said the defining characteristic of the psychopath is someone that does not have a capacity to feel guilt. He described how an element that “connects us to our environment” (p. 89) is lacking, then, manipulation, control and domination will take over (p. 92). He noted that many researchers recognized this lack of connection as primary characteristic of psychopathy.
Aside from the psychopathic element, the behaviors of corporate entities seem to consistently exhibit behavioral traits of a soul driven to addiction. In the thirst for ever-expanding material accumulation, we can see an internal hunger that is seemingly never satisfied. Like addicts that engage in destructive behaviors, lust for greed and power becomes an uncontrollable force and in many cases spins out of control.
Canadian physician Gabor Maté used the Buddhist mandala, the wheel of life as metaphor. He described addicts as inhabitants of the realm of hungry ghosts or the Buddhist version of hell:
“…. the creatures in it are depicted as people with large empty bellies, small mouths and scrawny thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They can never fill their bellies. They’re always hungry, always empty, always seeking it from the outside. That speaks to a part of us that I have and everybody in our society has, where we want satisfaction from the outside, where we’re empty, where we want to be soothed by something in the short term, but we can never feel that or fulfill that insatiety from the outside. The addicts are in that realm all the time”.
Corporate personhood sucks people into this false caricature of humanity and tends to shape their wills within the restricted neuro-pathways that repeat a vicious circle of obsessive pursuit of profits. Hungry ghosts, with their pathological need to fill ever-empty stomachs, will do anything for that goal at the expense of all others. Anyone who has lived with an addict understands how destructive their behaviors can be to those around them.
Huge segments of society have become cogs in the corporate machine. They are trained to execute efficiency through blocking feelings for their environment and care for others. This process divorces them from the development of social morality and they remain cut off from the consequences of their actions.
On January 21, 2010, the increase of corporate influence in political and social life reached a zenith in the US, with the ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Supreme Court proclaimed that corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution with their massive wealth to buy elections and run governments from behind a curtain of anonymity.
Unchecked corporate power is expanding around the globe. It seems to have morphed into a force of exploitation, similar to colonialism. Transnational corporations jump between countries; to China and Mexico for cheap labor and to occupation Green Zones like the Las Vegas of Baghdad, where the water of life decays into the Black-water of death. The corporate-state subverts laws and political structures and has turned the living earth into a materialized playground for consumption and exploitation. It seduces people to the vapid and soulless pursuit of power and preaches eternal life in the material kingdom. This artificial person pulls human beings into a false conception of their own humanity, one that is essentially inhuman.
When culture becomes pathological, morality is turned upside down. Cruelty and dehumanizing behaviors are rewarded, while kindness, justice and compassion are punished. Maté (2010) described the root cause of addictive behaviors: “At the core of all addictions there lies a spiritual void.” (p. 83). He explained how “Addiction floods in where self-knowledge — and therefore divine knowledge — are missing. To fill the unendurable void, we become attached to things of the world that cannot possibly compensate us for the loss of who we are.” (p. 413).
Maybe the true nature of corporate power is that of a rootless orphan whose destructive sociopathic behavior is a desperate call to be understood. When culture becomes pathological, restoring sanity starts from each person deeply connecting with what makes them truly human; what makes them real. Only then can we transform and heal our brutal, pathological society and create a humane culture embedded in communal values and connection to the earth.
Nozomi Hayase is a contributing writer to Culture Unplugged, and a global citizen blogger, at Journaling Between Worlds. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Guggenbuhl-Craig, A. (1999). The emptied soul: On the nature of the psychopath. Woodstock, CT: Spring.
Korten D. (2000). The post- corporate world, life after capitalism. SF: Berrett Koehler Publishers.
Mate, G. (2010). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.