I’ve been trying for months to write about why corporations are not people. The reason this is such a struggle, I fear, is because corporations actually are people. They are treated like people by other people; what more is there to know?
When the Citizens United case was decided, it resulted in an outcry of, “corporations are not people!” Other than that specific tag line, however, there’s little to suggest that this is true. Mind you, I do not believe that corporations are people (despite being legally a “body”), but the notion that they are is thoroughly embedded in our language, therefore in our thinking. If we wish to separate personhood for corporateness, we need to start with the words that shape our thoughts.
A few examples of language that empowers faceless entities to be treated as people:
- Someone taking over a local business in my community posted in a social media group, “We are a newly renovated laundromat in town which offers a variety of services.” I’m familiar with the storefront in question, but wasn’t aware it had signed up for Facebook, or even that the building was the requisite 13 years of age.
- How did NASA see the space station cross the eclipse? Had the organization become self-aware, or was it actually the dedicated workers there who deserve the credit?
- With what mouth does Exxon state a thing, or the White House deny an allegation?
- As a friend of my library, should I invite it over for dinner sometime?
- Exactly how does a legal fiction, possessing neither hands to write or a mind with which to think, make a decision about my medical coverage, and then notify me about it?
- How does an organization show pride?
- Discrimination is terrible, but can a bank really discriminate? Maybe it’s actually people doing all the discriminating?
Isn’t this all getting a bit personal?
Despite this purported personhood, corporations are not like humans. They cannot die a natural death, for one, and it’s awfully difficult to throw them in jail. Corporations, the name of which means “body,” have become in effect bodiless bodies, which Webster likened to golems]. In that insightful column, Webster commits the very same personalization to which I am referring: referencing a long-neglected automotive recall, he writes, “Rightly, many are horrified but few have the magical insight or the systems theory to understand how GM could be so stupid.” To wonder “how GM could be so stupid” is to presume that GM has sentience, is it not?
It’s language through which we grant agency, and through language that we ask spirit to enter what has been created. There’s a reason that corporations are compared to golems: we give them power, we give them life. What most of us fail to understand is that we don’t do that through law at all. It’s language which shapes thought to grant agency to corporations.
It was listening to Rush Limbaugh that got me thinking along these lines. (I highly recommend this as an intellectual exercise, especially for those of a different political bent than the man. Limbaugh is a slick debater, and understanding how to uses logical is instructive.) One of his ongoing routines at the time was about sports-utility vehicles. His intention was to salvage the reputation of the gas guzzlers, but his words planted a seed that took years to germinate in my mind.
What Limbaugh did was collect headlines about tragedies involving SUVs. They all had headlines which suggested the vehicle itself was responsible, such as “SUV plows into unsuspecting family.” Drawing upon the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” mindset, he drily proclaimed that these renegade vehicles needed to be stopped. I’ve never been a fan of SUVs, but I came to appreciate his point regardless. If it’s the SUV’s fault, then that means the SUV is a person.
Can humans create spirits? I suspect not, but they appear to be able to influence them by creating attractive hosts for them, the same way I can attract hummingbirds by putting sugar water in an attractive container, or ask that my patron deity dwell in a sacred image formed by my own two hands. Corporations, even more than SUVs, appear to be excellent hosts; they are all but accepted as having the same agency human persons possess. Given the varying ways humans treat other beings as commodities or property, that’s a big leg up.
When I think of corporations, I am actually imagining a wide variety of frameworks which are given rein to act in ways that humans do in our society; anything that has a corpora, or body, is a corporation. Nonprofits, churches, governments, committees, quilting groups, and cat-rescue operations fall into this broad definition, as do many forms of organizing that I know nothing about. If it’s conceived as an entity and is given agency through language or law, that’s all I need.
This isn’t just about the legal status of corporations, any more than enslaving a human being is entirely about laws that permit such an abomination. In his definitive work Animism, Graham Harvey presents the idea that what makes that particular worldview different is simply who is regarded as people. On a related note, in Debt: the First 5,000 Years David Graeber posits that slavery is only possible when the individual’s social connections are cut, thus rendering that individual a non-person It is the culture that permits humans to be treated as if they are property not people, and it is the culture which permits a collection of paperwork to be treated as if it were a person. In short, we are the ones feeding the golem.
Sometimes, when I try to articulate this problem in a conversation on the internet, I can all but see the eyes rolling as people dismiss the notion. Oh, it’s just a figure of speech, they say, and not the problem at all. Really? Is the idea that language shapes thought suddenly alien, then, or is it more difficult to accept one’s own culpability for this terrible situation we have created?
The figures of speech I’m referring to are the shorthand we use when referring to companies and other organizations. Exxon releases a statement, or the White House denies involvement in this week’s political dust-up. We like being considered a friend of our local library or NPR affiliate, perhaps, and get angry when an insurance company denies coverage for a procedure. When we learn about an unfamiliar corporation in the news, we immediately want to know who they are, and whether or not they’re evil.
I get that these are figures of speech, convenient shortcuts because we all know what they mean. I also get that when we look at the words of those who came before us, we do not necessarily know what they meant, and incorrect assumptions are frequently introduced due to a lack of context. In addition, I understand quite well that as much as language represents thought, it also shapes thought, and the evidence of that shaping culminated in the Citizens United decision. Corporations are people because we forgot that our figures of speech didn’t mean anything, and suddenly they did.
This convention is used as shorthand simply because it’s awkward to say that Exxon executives released a statement, a presidential spokesperson denied the allegations on his behalf, we donate regularly to support the library, and it was an insurance company employee who actually denied my Viagra (okay, that last was a bit ridiculous; I don’t think Viagra is ever denied). I know it’s awkward, because I’m a reporter and I have been trying for three years now to avoid personifying in prose that which is not a person in my mind. It’s not only awkward, it’s bloody difficult, too. However, in keeping with the idea that language shapes thought, I’m trying to reshape how I see the relationships in the world around me.
One tool I lean on is the passive voice, reviled because it removes the actor from the action. I prefer to talk about the people behind the veil, but if cannot ascertain their identities, passive voice reminds my readers that I’m not claiming that Skynet has become self-aware. A statement was issued from the corporate office, for example, or new unemployed statistics were simply released, actor inferred.
What I sit with is the fact that whether or not we are creating a new spirit with this collective thought process, we are creating a new way to shift responsibility — be it credit, or blame — away from individuals, and onto faceless entities.
If corporations are not people, then they are also not evil (or good, for that matter). It’s actually other people making the decisions and hiding behind that organizational smokescreen. People have faces. People live in the active voice. The lesson of history is that it’s a lot easier to commit atrocities if one has no face, just as it’s easier if the victim is invisible, faceless. If the faces of the victims cannot be erased, why do we erase the faces of the offenders?
Corporations are not people, but are we too lazy to prove it?