Corporations as Uber-Citizens

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 30 January 2010

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling was positive in one respect: it made law out of what was already happening. While corporations earned “personhood” back in the 1860s when a (likely bribed) court clerk added this language into the margins of another court decision, they never quite had the rights of citizenship before. They already write our laws (through lobbies) elect our leaders (with money) and create public opinion (with money and PR). (If you’re interested in how and why that happened, please read my book Life Inc.) But they have always tended to do so by working around government’s efforts to limit their influence.

It was a losing game for a government by the people, of course, because almost no one gets into office without the kind of corporate assistance they need to pay back if they want to get into office again. Meanwhile, while corporations have enjoyed the benefits of personhood for over a century, they don’t suffer the main pitfalls: chiefly, death—but also despair, fatigue, and the need to feed their kids. They could outrun or at least outlast any effort to curb their influence. That’s how the railroads got to trample States’ rights to their own land, how GE got out of cleaning the Hudson River, and so on. They just wait, make a little progress, and then wait some more.

The era of Obama seemed to promise something different. Here was candidate who, at least initially, raised more cash through decentralized means than by appealing to large centralized corporations. As a candidate funded through small donations by real people, he seemed to offer an antidote to business as usual. If a few million people donating small amounts could, in aggregate, raise more money than a couple of hundred mega-corporations, then democracy stood a chance even as the PR and money driven spectacle it has become. Of course, Obama’s later donations turned out to be just as corporate as anyone else’s (if for no other reason than that they smelled a winner), and his hands almost as tied. He raised so much, he rejected the campaign finance tenets he had promised to adhere to back when he thought he’d be the underfunded candidate.

But the lasting sense was still that real people might be able to exercise at least some influence over who gets elected to office. Maybe, just maybe, the net and a new spirit of participation could play some small role in the democratic process and even make incremental progress in developing campaign finance reforms. Meanwhile, over the last thirty years, legislators on both sides of the aisle have sought to free themselves of corporate influence, and passed what legislation they could limiting corporate campaign contributions (especially by non-humans).

Luckily for corporations, the activist justices appointed by an earlier version of our corporatist government (the Bush 2 regime) have decided to reverse this process. Instead of acting as as stopgap to preserve constitutional rights, they are serving as a new legislative branch—rewriting the law by declaring it unconstitutional. It is a violation of corporations’ civil liberties to limit their influence over the political process. Even though they are artificial entities, with greater access to capital, infinite longevity, and no interest in or connection to humanity, we now guarantee them the right of free speech.

Of course, the right of free speech was created in order for human beings to have the ability to talk back to the corporation—the British East India Trading Company—that was running the colonies before the Revolutionary War. And it was upheld a century later so that laborers could organize unions or speak out against industrial abuses without fear of getting killed. It was a way for human beings to guarantee their ability speak out against largely systemic and structural repression. Now, that structural repression itself has that same guarantee.

All this does is make centralized government even less relevant to our plight as human beings. I admire folks like Larry Lessig for their faith in our ability to reclaim a government by the people, to use the net to expose and even reverse corporate influence in the political process, and for us to legislate a commons back into human affairs (even though it has been on the decline for the past 600 years).

But I’ve got more faith in our ability, as people, to rebuild our society and economy from the bottom up, without the participation or approval of a corporate-funded and corporate-driven central government. We can rebuild local economies based on the abundance of our labor and resources rather than the scarcity of centrally issued currency. We can rebuild local agriculture based on the quality of the topsoil, the features of the climate, and the nutritional needs of people rather than corn lobby laws. And we can rebuild our mechanisms for making meaning based on our shared hopes and values rather than those developed by PR firms to make us compete for false, individualistic goals.

In short, I say screw ’em. Let’s do this ourselves.