Vermont challenges corporate personhood

In a recent article in Truthdig, Christopher Ketcham reports on Vermont State Senator Virginia Lyons’ introduction of a resolution for passage in the Vermont Legislature. The resolution would amend the United States Constitution to provide that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States. This in response to the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision that gave corporations as “persons,” accorded the right to free speech under the first amendment, the right spend unlimited money to influence elections.

According to Ketcham, “the language in the Lyons resolution is unabashed.” It states that: “The profits and institutional survival of large corporations are often in direct conflict with the essential needs and rights of human beings.”

He quotes from the resolution, which, according to his sources, has a good chance of passing the Vermont legislature:

“Democratically elected governments” are rendered “ineffective in protecting their citizens against corporate harm to the environment, health, workers, independent business, and local and regional economies.” The resolution goes on to note that “large corporations own most of America’s mass media and employ those media to loudly express the corporate political agenda and to convince Americans that the primary role of human beings is that of consumer rather than sovereign citizens with democratic rights and responsibilities.”

Denouncing this situation as an “intolerable societal reality,” the document concludes that the “only way” toward a solution is the amendment of the Constitution “to define persons as human beings.”

Justice Stevens, in his dissent to the Citizen’s United decision, had this to say:

The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind. (37)

At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.  It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics. (90)

The science fiction qualities of the corporate super-person

To help underscore the dangerous consequences of the Citizen’s United decision, Ketcham describes the “weird metaphysics” of corporate personhood, which is at the heart of the decision. His characterization has the tone of a science fiction novel:

This astonishing fictional “person,” accorded all the rights of a human, can split off pieces of itself to form new fictional persons, can marry many other similar persons in a process called a merger, is immortal, can change its name and identity overnight, and can aggregate gigantic streams of capital with which it somehow has the right to speak. Strangely enough, the corporate person, who has neither soul nor body, is at the same time owned by many other persons called shareholders who buy and sell its parts every day—it is owned, in fact, much the way a slave is owned.

He goes on to define the reality in which we now live—one in which corporations enjoy the protections accorded individuals in the Bill of Rights but immunity from the often times destructive consequences of their actions. According to Ketcham, this fictional corporate person is one who can:

shut down whole communities by driving out business, can spread cancers in the air and water, can destroy fisheries or lay waste to forests, and do all of this with a degree of impunity provided under the vaunted protections of the Bill of Rights. The best-known and most insidious of these rights is that which allows the corporation under the First Amendment to speak freely using money—yet another twist of metaphysics masquerading as law, and one that has not gone unnoticed by the highest jurists in the land. . .

Mere humans are arrayed against a dangerous automaton army, the army of the fictional corporate super-persons that deploy power with real-world consequences. If corporate hegemony is rightly understood as the overarching threat to world democracy today—the threat from which all other threats derive when governments stand captured by corporatocracies—then it is the absurdist legality of corporate personhood that serves as the functional lever of that hegemony.

Vermont will be the first state to introduce at the legislative level a statement of principles that corporations are not persons and do not have constitutional rights. Ketcham quotes constitutional lawyer David Cobb who helped draft the resolution, “This is how a movement gets started. It’s the beginning of a revolutionary action completely and totally within the legal framework.”

According to a February, 2010 ABC News poll, 8 in 10 respondents oppose the Citizens United decision. Overturning Citizen’s United by way of a constitutional amendment may be the one single act that can restore democracy to the United States.