A world that is all about you

A world that is all about you

The problem with ‘corporate personhood’ is what it’s doing to human personhood.
Doug Muder


In January, when the Supreme Court threw out restrictions on corporate political spending—basing their decision on the strange notion that corporations are persons under the law—every Unitarian Universalist group I belong to exploded with discussion. Face-to-face, on blogs, through email—for a week or two it seemed like there was nothing else to talk about.

Much of the discussion was practical: speculations about how this decision would affect future elections and what (if anything) should be done about it. Some was philosophical, wondering how corporations—entities created by law rather than nature or God—could possibly have inherent rights that the law couldn’t violate. Many of us responded with humor: sarcastic quips, biting satires, absurd analogies, and so on.

Throughout those discussions, a question I could not quite formulate kept gnawing at me. I felt as if I had missed the beginning of the conversation. I wanted to back up, look at the larger picture, and set the stage. But I didn’t know how. Now, more than a month later, I think I know where I want to back up to and the questions I want to ask.

Corporations as we know them didn’t exist until around the time of the Renaissance, and for centuries after that they were rare and exotic beasts chartered for specific purposes—the British East India Company being the outstanding example. Not until the nineteenth century did the number of corporations really take off, and only late in that century did the corporate form start to dominate our economy.

This is all just a heartbeat in the history of the human race.

So I want to ask: This whole experiment of organizing our economic activity via corporations, how is it going? And more specifically: What is it doing to us? How is it changing us as individuals, changing our relationships with each other, and changing the communities we belong to?

If we’re going to talk about expanding or contracting corporate rights and corporate power, shouldn’t we have at least some vague and preliminary thoughts about these questions?

I think there are a number of reasons why these questions are so seldom discussed. To a large number of people, the answers are so obvious that the questions seem silly: Corporations have facilitated the growth of a global market economy that has led to unprecedented wealth. And wealth is good, so what is there to talk about?

A second reason is that we are used to looking in the other direction. We think of human beings as shaping institutions rather than the other way around. We need things or want things, and so we create or change our institutions: governments, laws, corporations, markets, and so on. For example, one of the truths that the Declaration of Independence holds to be self-evident is: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” We want something (secure rights), so we create an institution (government).

But it works the other way too—our institutions change us—and that creates feedback loops that make everything much harder to think about. It also points out why that first answer may not be sufficient: Even if we grant the (debatable) proposition that corporations and the global market economy are making us (or our society, at least) wealthy, what if we don’t like the kind of wealthy people we are becoming?

A few weeks after the Court’s decision, I had occasion to think about how the global market economy has changed me and whether I like it.

My wife and I were on a long car trip. It was noon and we needed a break, so we stopped at one of those huge upscale outlet malls just off the Interstate. I am a sucker for the prospect of getting a rich man’s product for a middle-class price, so after lunch I wandered through the mall and ended up making two purchases: a pair of shoes that I would need when we got where we were going, and a jacket that I didn’t need at all. (But it was 70 percent off!)

With a bag in each hand, I came face-to-face with one of the mall’s internal billboards, the ones that advertise the mall to you even though you’re already there. It displayed a picture I forget, probably of some happy shopper, and a slogan I think I will always remember:

It’s all about you.

Whoever wrote that slogan had done their job too well, because it so precisely named the trance I was under that it snapped me out of it: I had been acting as if the entire mall and everything in it were all about me.

Had I thought at all about the people who made my new jacket and shoes? Of course not, because no one made them. They had been called into existence by the magic of my consumer demand. I had been, I suppose, pleasant to the clerks and waitresses who had served me, but their names and faces were already forgotten. I was not, after all, in an ancient village (where no transaction is ever really complete, but is just another chapter in an ongoing series of interactions). The instant my signature was on the credit card receipt, our relationship was over. I was hundreds of miles from home and would not return to this mall for years, if ever. What would be the point in remembering the people who work here?

The only relationships I was forming were with the mall chain and with the corporations that created the brands sold there—not with people. This mall, with all of its crowded corridors and parking lots, might as well have been unpopulated. Because it was all about me.

I tried to imagine what the mall would look like if the global economy had not so totally separated products from the processes that make them. What if a store was just a counter in front of a workshop, as it would have been in a medieval town? Behind one counter I might see contented adults operating their equipment in safety and comfort. Behind another, runaway peasant girls might be virtual prisoners, breathing in toxins while they fed material into dangerous and poorly maintained machines. In each store, I would be confronted not just with a product and a price, but with a process. Not just “Do I want this?” but “Do I want to be part of this?”

The actual mall assumes that these process considerations are none of my business. How would I even find out who made my jacket and shoes, and whether their treatment is something I want to be part of? My role is to be a consumer. I am supposed to have money and want things—nothing more.

My role is similarly circumscribed when I deal with the other side of the corporate world as an investor. My 401(k) offers a choice of dozens of mutual funds, each of which owns shares of more companies than I can comprehend, much less evaluate. I have little doubt that I profit from immoral or even criminal activities. But the legal principle of limited liability insures that even if the misdeeds of my corporations come to light, the victims have no claim on me. If I end up having to sell at a loss—as so many Enron shareholders did—I may even claim to be a victim myself.

In theory I am an owner, but I am not in any sense a proprietor. Again, my role is just to want things—a return on my investment, in this case. The process that produces that return is as invisible as the one that made my shoes and jacket. Unlike buying into a co-op or helping a friend start a business—neither of which is a 401(k) option—my corporate investments build no relationships. Relationships, from the corporate perspective, are messy things that I am better off not knowing about.

What kind of person am I describing here? Someone who thinks the world is all about him. Someone who wants things, but can’t be held responsible for how those things come to be.

I sound like a toddler. That is the role I am offered, the path of least resistance that the corporate system has laid out for me.

As corporations’ power to shape our society increases, I expect to see my toddlerization increase as well. The portion of my life in which I am expected, encouraged, or even allowed to act like an adult will continue to shrink—slowly, perhaps even invisibly, on a day-to-day basis. But decade-to-decade, how will it change me? Generation-to-generation, how will it change the human race?

Whether we eventually arrive there or take some other turn first, a dystopia sits at the end of this road: an economy where isolated individuals participate in isolated transactions, wanting things and perhaps even getting them, but building relationships only with brands and logos rather than with people.

If you watch corporate advertising carefully, and read between the lines of pro-corporate political rhetoric, you can catch glimpses of this world. It is disguised as a utopia, a world that is all about you, where all you have to do is want things.

When we discuss corporate personhood, we should keep the broader context in mind: human personhood. We’re really talking about what kind of people we are becoming, and what kind of people we want our descendants to be.

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