COLERIDGE & HOUSER: Why ‘Occupiers’ Must Confront Fallacy of Corporate ‘Personhood’

November 3, 2011
Greg Coleridge & Gary Houser

Even from the mainstream media perspective, the "occupy" movement has been amazing to observe. Those outraged by the concentration of wealth and power have finally found their voice. They see a government that's been corrupted and captured by corporate money to the detriment of We the People's welfare.

But to those who've devoted lifetimes fighting corporate greed, something even deeper is happening. If "midnight" represents when the forces of greed triumph and the miraculous human experiment ends through global catastrophe, then we're surely in the last minute before. We may be witnessing a primal force deep within the heart of humanity, realizing — perhaps only subconsciously — how close we are to the precipice.

It's as if life on earth senses the enormity of the danger (i.e. mass extinction) and is rising up like antibodies in a bloodstream to fight off the invader/disease. The occupy movement is spreading because it provides a channel through which that deep organic wisdom can express itself.

The issue best illustrating the overwhelming danger of our situation is the climate. Seventeen Nobel Prize-winning scientists released an unusually urgent warning that carbon emissions are heating up the planet toward tipping points where monumentally destructive forces will begin to spin out of human control. At the very same time, corporations are using colossal profits to orchestrate campaigns aimed at confusing and deceiving the public.

The corporate form grinds on because it has no feelings, conscience or remorse. In short, it's not a person. Corporations are artificial legal entities created for the purpose of making money. To maximize this ability, our laws and Constitution have been perverted to declare that the corporate form should have many of the same inalienable human rights as an actual living, breathing person.

This floodgate opened 125 years ago when the Supreme Court first granted corporations constitutional equal-protection rights. Although these rights extended in several directions, their most destructive form was in the realm of First Amendment "free speech," the most recent example being the 2010 Citizens United decision. Corporations not only claim a right to take part in elections, but also that any attempt to curtail their financial contributions and political lobbying are violations of their "free speech." By spending money from vast treasuries (some larger than those of entire countries), they have overwhelmed the democratic process and gained a stranglehold on our government. Consequently, in many fundamental ways corporations now govern.

Corporations were never intended to possess inalienable constitutional rights or to rule. As legal creations of the state, most corporations were meant to be subordinate to We the People via charters issued by state legislatures. Charters stipulated the production of specific goods or services for a specific period of time. Lobbying, investing in election campaigns, writing laws and other forms of political engagement were prohibited, yielding charter revocations by both state legislatures and courts — including those in Ohio.

The Citizens United decision resulted in $300 million spent on political ads in the 2010 midterm elections. This so-called "free speech" drowned out the voices and aspirations of people without money. Conditions will only worsen during the 2012 elections.

"Corporations are not people" is a frequent sign at occupy sites. Only if we pretend that corporations are persons under our Constitution is limiting corporate speech a constitutional violation. Ending the twin legal fictions that corporations are people and money is speech are among the major objectives of the national coalition Move to Amend, and should be among the major goals of the occupy movement.

This approach calls for amending our Constitution, something that's essential but not imminent. Achievable in the short term is the passage of resolutions by organizations and political bodies as well as citizen ballot initiatives calling for an end to this twisting of our Constitution.

The enormity of the multiple environmental crises we face brings with it an enormity of opportunity to profoundly change our nation's rules toward authentic self-governance. Since corporations lack feelings, consciences and remorse, the task of ensuring that our lives, communities and the natural world that we live within survive and thrive falls on us — real humans beings with the ability to feel, aspire and act for the common good.

Editor's note: Gary "Spruce" Houser is a documentary producer currently working on climate tipping points and co-authored the first local ballot initiative in U.S. aimed at re-asserting democratic control over corporations (Arcata, Calif. in 1998). Greg Coleridge is director of the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee and coordinator of Move to Amend Ohio.