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Corporations: Different Than You and Me


Russell Mokhiber

and Robert Weissman

Corporations

are fundamentally different than you and me.

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 neighbor. If they succeed in that effort at self-characterization, 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 authorized 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 behavior

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 behavior. 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 maximizing efforts.

Corporations

have no conscience, or 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 behaviors (such as actively enforced

environmental, consumer, worker safety regulations); limits on corporate size

and power (through vigorous antitrust 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

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 centers of people

power to balance concentrated corporate power: unions above all, plus consumer,

environmental, indigenous rights and other civic groups, organized in

conventional and novel formations.

And

there is the imperative of directly confronting the corporate claim to

personhood and community neighbor 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, D.C.-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 MegaProfits and the

Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).

 

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