“Corporations are people, my friend.”
— Mitt Romney at Iowa State Fair
Corporations are obviously not people. But Romney is accurate in the sense that corporations have hijacked most of the rights of people while evading the responsibilities. An important part of the social justice agenda is democratizing corporations. This means we must radically change the laws so people can be in charge of corporations. We must strip them of corporate personhood and cut them down to size so democracy can work. People are taking action so democracy can regulate the size, scope and actions of corporations.
One of the most basic roles of society is to protect the people from harm. The massive size of many international corporations makes democratic control over them nearly impossible.
Corporate crime is widespread. The New York Times, ProPublica and others have revealed Wall Street giants like JPMorgan, Citigroup, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs have been charged with fraud many times only to get off by paying hundreds of millions. Professors at University of Virginia have documented hundreds of corporations which have been found guilty or pled guilty in federal courts.
Corporate abuse is even more widespread. For example, Corporate Accountability International named six to its Corporate Hall of Shame, including: Koch Industries for spending over $50 million to fund climate change denial; Monsanto for mass producing cancer causing chemicals; Chevron for dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Ecuadorian Amazon; Exxon Mobil for being the worst polluter; Blackwater (now Xe) for killing unarmed Iraqi civilians and hiring paramilitaries; and Halliburton, the nation’s leading war profiteer.
Making corporations responsible to democracy of the people is challenging considering Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest corporation, does more business itself annually than all but two dozen of the two hundred plus countries in the world. Without dramatic changes, how can we expect people in small or even big countries to force corporations like Wal-Mart, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, BP, Toyota or Chevron to live by the same rules all the people have to?
Justice demands we make sure corporations do not harm people. Democracy must require that they operate for the common good.
In order to cut corporations down to size, the people must strip corporations of the special artificial legal protections they have created for themselves.
The story of how corporations took the full rights of legal persons in one of the great perverse tragedies in legal history. Corporations have worked the courts mercilessly since 1819 to take a wide variety of constitutional rights that were designed to cover only people. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868 to make sure all citizens, particularly freed slaves and people of color, had full rights. There was no mention of protecting corporations. But corporations jumped on this opportunity resulting in a questionable Supreme Court decision that granted them legal personhood. At roughly the same time, the Supreme Court approved “separate but equal” racial segregation. Thus in thirty years, African Americans lost their legal personhood, while corporations acquired theirs.
Corporations now claim: 1st amendment free speech rights to advertise and influence elections: 4th amendment search and seizure rights to resist subpoenas and challenges to their criminal actions; 5th amendment rights to due process; 14th amendment rights to due process where corporations took the rights of former slaves and used them for corporate protection; plus rights under the Commerce and Contracts clauses of the constitution.
The most recent corporate judicial takeover of constitutional rights is the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission. The court ruled that corporations are protected by the First Amendment so they can use their money to influence elections.
Because of the bad Supreme Court decisions, it takes a constitutional amendment by the people to change the laws back. An amendment requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress to agree then three-quarters of the states must vote to ratify. This will take real work. But despite the growing size and unrestricted power of corporations, people are fighting back.
Dozens of groups are working to reverse Citizens United and restore limits on corporate election advocacy. In January 2011, groups delivered petitions signed by over 750,000 people calling on Congress to amend the Constitution and reverse the decision. More than 350 local events were held in late January 2012 to challenge the Citizens United decision.
Groups challenging this injustice include Code Pink, Common Cause, Free Speech for People, Moveon.org, Move to Amend, National Lawyers Guild, POCLAD, Public Citizen, People for American Way, The Center for Media and Democracy, and Women’s League for Peace and Freedom.
Many groups are asking for a broad constitutional amendment that makes it clear that corporations are not people and should not be given any constitutional rights. Representatives Ted Deutsch of Florida, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have sponsored bills in Congress to start the process for a constitutional amendment to make it clear that corporations are not people, are not entitled to the rights of people, and cannot contribute to political campaigns.
There are also many energetic actions at the state level. People for the American Way list organizational efforts in nearly all 50 states to end corporate influence in elections or amend the constitution.
Massive corporations now rule the earth. But they are recent arrivals which can and should be dispatched. It is time for people to again take control. The legal fiction of corporate personhood and the constitutional rights taken by corporations must cease. Join the efforts to cut them down to size and restore the right of the people to govern.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer who teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and works with the Center for Constitutional Rights. A version of this article with full sources is available. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. You can reach Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org