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.