We aren’t very far into the year, and signs of this coming true are all around. The “Occupy” movement seems to have found a central theme to its 2012 movement around overturning “the corporation as a person,” and some legislators are supporting that concept.
We’ll see if this goes anywhere, but I wanted to note, as I didn’t fairly do in my prediction post, the role that “The Corporation” played in my thinking. I finally watched this 2003 documentary over the holidays. Its promoters still maintain an ongoing community here, and it doesn’t take long to determine that this film has a very strong, classically liberal point of view about the role corporations play in our society.
Amidst all the chaos, tragedy, and tumult that was 2011, I noticed one very clear theme: Most of us are struggling with the role corporations play in our society. The 14th Amendment (yes, the one that banished slavery) established corporations, in the US, as “persons” in the legal sense. In 2010, Citizens v. United sanctified corporations as equivalent to you and I in terms of political speech; in 2011, we began to see the impact of that decision on our political process here in the US (in short, follow the money). The freedom to “associate in corporate form,” as it is termed in portions of the Citizens decision, is one I sense all of us are not entirely certain about. Corporations are utterly undemocratic organizations, and being a part of one is often not a choice, but a necessity. Does joining a corporation mean that you must defend that corporations’ point of view and now Constitutionally-protected right to speech?
Usually, at least in practice, the answer is yes. That corporation is paying your salary, and keeping food on your family’s table. Speaking out against it would be folly. This creates a tension in society that is clearly starting to surface. We overthrew the feudal system in the 1600s, and the theocracy in the 1700s. But currently, corporations play similar roles in many of our lives, either directly or indirectly.
Certainly the Occupy Wall Street movement is one expression of this tension, but I’m not certain it will be the only one. Corporations are arguably the most powerful institutions in human history, more powerful than all but the largest governments. If that sounds silly, remember that the cash and cash equivalent hoard of the Internet Big Five – $180 billion and counting – is larger than the GDP of all but 50 countries. And that doesn’t account for leverage. The top 1000 corporations in the US are holding nearly a trillion dollars in pure cash.