|Corporations: Different Than You and Me
By 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
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
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
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
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).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman