Saturday, June 26, 2010

The dark side of corporate personhood

by William P. Muhammad


Among common Americans, the contentious issue of corporate personhood is not a subject likely to find its way into everyday conversation. A topic that nevertheless impacts every person within the United States and beyond, the rights guaranteed to corporate entities have been, on many occasions, at variance with those of citizens.

After America’s founding, several political debates, such as those between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, various Supreme Court decisions and loose interpretations of the 14th Amendment, corporations have been given certain rights originally guaranteed to human beings. Regarding contracts, the freedom of speech, due process, lobbying, campaign finance and property rights, corporate money and power has grown as the common person’s ability to keep pace has proportionately declined.

As human, civil and environmental rights are often relegated to the political backseat, far too often big business consigns people to the status of assets or liabilities. In the eyes of American law and government, in many cases, corporate entities wield considerable power as new laws, international and domestic policy and strategic plans are implemented at the expense of the weak and the poor.

Furthermore, when individuals are seen as resources to be exploited or as problems to be managed, the dynamics between humans and corporations have become unbalanced and one-sided. With the legislative process weighted heavily in favor of lobbyists and money, regarding the representative form of government that rules America, the wealth backing the petitions of large corporate entities all but assure political access and favoritism.

Looking at the causes behind the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reflects one example of this dilemma. If the objective of BP was to maximize profits by reducing costs, while allegedly bypassing critical procedures and safety protocols, then it may be safe to deduce that the greatest environmental disaster in American history was caused, at least in part, by inordinate self-interest, political cronyism and a calculated disregard for consequences.

Regarding the financial crisis that led America into the greatest recession since the 1930s, corporate greed was once again the culprit as hundreds of thousands of home buyers bought into the promise of subprime mortgages. Often promoted by unscrupulous business practices that preyed upon the inexperience or ignorance of first time buyers, when customers could no longer afford to pay, massive foreclosure rates brought with them the collapse of the investment banking industry.

Subsequently requiring federal bailouts, private corporations received hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars through the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) initiated by the Bush administration in 2008. Nearly two years and a new administration later, the economy remains weak as corporations continue to leverage their influence through intense lobbying and a recent Supreme Court decision that relaxed campaign finance laws.

Deregulation, compromised government oversight and the drive for laissez faire capitalism all have contributed to the leviathan known as big business. If taken to its logical conclusion, corporations could also be described as artificial entities whose nature is that of a beast driven by a hunger for expansion, power and profits.

While the basic concept of a corporation is not necessarily bad or evil, it is the collective mindset of its leadership that determines its overall aim, purpose and impact. As those in control determine how big business will interact not only with human beings and the environment, but also with governments, corporate entities have both the potential and the wherewithal to affect the rise and fall of nations.

From international banking to multi-national enterprises, big business more often than not is cold and calculating. Viewing benevolence and empathy more as tools for advertising, marketing and public relations, the fundamental mindset upholding the corporatist ideology leans more in the direction of greed, a lust for power and selfish indifference.

Taking on the attributes of what many would call immoral values, when demonstrated by individuals, society accepts this behavior among corporations as good, particularly when it leads to the generation of wealth. Recognized as artificial persons under certain provisions of American law, dissatisfaction, enmity and discontent is regularly expressed by those unable to confront the giants whose character is often more than self-indulgent.

Regarding this relationship, it is the people without the resources who are made to endure the hardships. Without mass organization as a counterweight to the vast wealth and influence of large corporations, the end result is likely to reflect a society where the rights of man-made entities trump the rights of living breathing human beings.

As the world that is made in the image of the corporate mind attempts to supplant the concept of culture, refinement and probity, it is necessary for people to become proactive rather than reactive when wrestling for society’s soul. Within a system devoted to the making of money, at the expense of empathy and compassion, the dark side of American business may very well facilitate the end of free enterprise as we know it.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Change, illusion and the Obama presidency

by William P. Muhammad


When President Barack Obama entered into office January, 2009, it was clear the oft repeated campaign slogan of “change we can believe in” was overwhelmingly accepted both domestically and internationally. Now, 18 months into his presidency, with wars on multiple fronts, the largest environmental disaster in recent American history and an all but collapsed Middle East peace process, it is clear the honeymoon period afforded to the president in the wake of his election has come to a screeching halt.

As national and international events currently testing the Obama administration range from economic to military to environmental, none appear to have any solution or end in sight. Under the previous administration, as deregulation and corporate greed fed what became the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the so-called war on terror set the stage for confrontation not only on the basis of religion, but also on the basis of an unbridled and insatiable appetite for petroleum.

Furthermore, as oil profits appeared to take precedence over environmental and human rights concerns, a weak economy and continuous war have prompted the current president to stand in league with big business on one side of the equation while working to satisfy popular demands for justice and redress on the other. With America’s credibility and moral authority on the line, in a contradictory manner, the United States has both denounced and embraced corporatism, militarism and aspects of humanitarianism, all in order to preserve and promote the so-called national interest.

Regarding foreign policy, this paradox was recently witnessed in America’s weak response to a fatal commando raid, by Israel, upon a humanitarian relief convoy in international waters. Furthermore, in the name of combating “extremism,” many Muslim charities that aid beleaguered Muslim populations are similarly targeted for sanctions, if not negative propaganda, by the United States government.

In spite of Mr. Obama’s desire for a “new beginning” in the Muslim world, forces of politically motivated resistance within the United States are making that nearly impossible. As dissatisfaction at home and abroad continues to mount, America’s image overseas has suffered, particularly as conservative politicians exploit the ignorance of their constituencies and play to the basest levels of prejudice and fear.

The great divide between conservatives and progressives, as often depicted by media in terms of blue and red states, describes a much larger issue than that of simply Republicans versus Democrats. It actually exposes the strategies of those desiring to uphold an old system that is going out and the tactics required to maintain its perceived lock on power.

In the meantime, as those seeking real change become frustrated with the apparent lack of a progressive agenda, the passage of health care reform and improvements to student loan financing has been almost forgotten as the stalling created by those harboring the hard-line, tie up the legislative process.

While conservative and liberal ideologues continue to battle for the heart and soul of American policy, in order to appeal to the center-right prior to the 2010 and 2012 elections, the Obama administration has moved to the right regarding the prosecution of war, diplomacy and in fulfilling the desires of big business and finance. However, as what may be viewed as a pragmatic move for domestic consumption plays out on the international stage, the administration’s apparent desire to mollify conservatives and foreign interest groups may unfortunately backfire.

Continuing the policies of former President George W. Bush, but implementing them with softer and kinder words, creates only an illusion of change. In the face of high expectations, both inside and outside of America, the balancing act President Obama must engage in requires him to be all things to all people while actually pleasing no one. This unenviable position carries with it the burden of wanting to do the right thing, while at the same time being prevented from doing so. Thus, having his hands tied, the wiggle room Mr. Obama does enjoy forces him into compromises and watered down versions of his original campaign promises.

Making him appear weak to his supporters and two-faced to his opponents, the pressures upon President Obama often manifest themselves as realities contrasting against his original ideas. Nowhere is this felt more than beyond the shores of America, where foreign policy decisions and political agreements often take the form of bullets and bombs that far too often take the lives of innocent civilians.

In the meantime, as political pressure and staunch opposition attempt to hamstring his administration, promises take the appearance of illusions as ire mounts on each side of the political spectrum. With a conservative backlash and liberal dissatisfaction only heightening the gridlock, few are satisfied with the president’s ability to deliver as America teeters on the brink of more war, economic uncertainty and ballooning debt.