Some local folks are starting an Ypsi/Arbor chapter of a national organization dedicated to the elimination of so-called “corporate personhood.” Their names are Reagan M. Sova and Joel Skene, and I thought that I’d take the opportunity to ask them some questions. Following is our brief, but dense conversation.
MARK: So, I hear that you’re starting a local chapter of Move to Amend. What’s that all about?
REAGAN: That’s correct. Move to Amend is a national organization whose goal is to amend the constitution in order to repeal corporate personhood, a scandalous doctrine that grants corporations inalienable constitutional rights, the same rights as flesh and blood human beings (immigrants notwithstanding). This doctrine affects us natural persons in a number of pernicious ways, perhaps most notably it grants multinational corporations the right to spend as much money as they want to influence our elections. The way Move to Amend works is that it’s kind of an organization of organizations, and it’s laying the groundwork to change this harmful doctrine. Amending the constitution is a serious undertaking which will require a sustained groundswell of popular support. That is why we are starting a Move to Amend affiliate group here in Michigan. You have to start somewhere; ours is the first in Michigan.
JOEL: Well for a long time I’ve believed, as I’m sure many of your readers do, that a major root cause of the problems we face as a country is the incredible concentration of power among the wealthy and multi-national corporations, and the large influence they have on our political process and public discourse. And the fact that under the 14th amendment corporations are considered people is a huge factor in how much power they have. We saw this especially clear in the recent –Citizens United case where the supreme court said that corporations, because they are people have unlimited free speech and therefore can donate and unlimited amount of money to a political campaign without disclosing it.
Equating corporations to people and money to speech is both damaging and completely absurd. We all know that a corporation isn’t a person, and money isn’t speech, but our constitution says otherwise. We want to try and change that so that we can put power back into the hands of real people. Then we think some real change is more likely to happen.
MARK: Can you remind me where this concept of corporate personhood first came about? I seem to recall – and I very well might be wrong – that it originated as a result of some fairly progressive thinking in the 1800s. Do you know the history?
REAGAN: The history behind corporate personhood is really interesting. It illuminates not just how undemocratic this doctrine is, but how off the mark this idea is from what the constitutional framers had intended. Laurence Goldstone, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, mentions in his book Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903 how the fourteenth amendment, adopted as a reconstruction amendment to protect freed slaves, was applied to corporations due to an erroneous headnote written by J.C. Bancroft Davis at the conclusion of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad in 1886. Bancroft Davis, no big surprise, was a former president of New York Railway, a major corporate player at the time, and his headnote falsely stating that the court agreed that corporations were people then became precedent in future Supreme Court trials. As a result, from 1890 to 1910, of the 307 fourteenth amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court, 19 were to protect freed slaves, 288 to help corporations become more powerful. So you have an amendment, intended to protect freed slaves becoming an unbelievable stepping stone for corporate power in the most undemocratic way. Bancroft Davis was not an elected official, and corporate personhood was established by his fraudulent headnote, subsequently corroborated by lawyers, judges – all unelected.
As far as progressive support for corporate personhood, that was crucial at its origins and is still a major factor today. I had a chance to ask Noam Chomsky (see video below) about this issue in April, and he mentioned that when corporate personhood was being established by courts and lawyers, progressives strongly supported it as part of their support for “organic institutions,” which were to be more important than individuals. He gave a solid historical overview, noting some of the landmark cases that shaped this doctrine like Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 which determined that money is speech, again a measure not decided by the voting public, and finally to the implications of the Citizens United decision in 2010. Citizens United is the culmination of a number of wrongheaded, nonsensical, and undemocratic historical precedents about corporate personhood, essentially concluding that because money is speech and because corporations are people, that to limit a corporation in any way from giving money to a political candidate would be to infringe on a ‘person’s’ free speech. And today, some progressives and free speech advocates support it, like the ACLU and others. Salon.com writer Glenn Greenwald, liberal by the New York Times’ standards, wrote an article defending the Citizens United ruling, and the reasons he gave for supporting it were pretty striking. He said that critics of Citizens United believe that money should not be considered speech and corporations should not be recognized as people, but that this position was “bizarre” because even the dissenting judges recognize those aforementioned precedents. For Greenwald, laws are laws and to look into how they were established and if they are detrimental to society is irrelevant. For me, that’s fascistic thinking. That’s saying it doesn’t matter what the people want or how something came to be in the first place, if the masters of mankind, to use Adam Smith’s phrase, want it, then we unquestioningly accept it, it’s sacrosanct, and that’s called “the rule of law.” And Greenwald is on the progressive end. It’s much worse when you get to the Fox News end of the spectrum, with their editorial writers praising free-speech for corporations and then calling for Julian Assange’s head.
Finally, that brings us to Move to Amend and the movement to repeal corporate personhood that seriously began to gain ground after Citizens United. One criticism of these movements or a question people usually have is what will take the place of corporate personhood if we get our wish. The answer is that it is up to people and communities to decide for themselves. When people make decisions democratically, I think the outcome in virtually every case will be better than if huge concentrations of capital or state power force what they want into place, against the will of the people.
MARK: And that was going to be my next question… While I instinctively agree that we need to end this concept of corporate personhood, I fear that, in undoing it, we might make things worse. It’s like with the recall of Governor Snyder. Given the changes he’s pushing, the thought of having him removed from office resonates with me. The more I look into it, though, and find out about the laws governing succession, I’m not so sure. (I believe, according to the law, if he’s removed, it wouldn’t mean a special election, but the promotion of the Lt. Governor. And, as that’s the case, I’d much rather that we focused our attention elsewhere, like on a ballot initiative in support of a graduated income tax in Michigan.) I guess what I’m trying to ask you is, how confident are you that we might not be making matters worse? If anything, the story you’ve told thus far, on the history of the 14th amendment, shows us that sometimes the best laid plans have unfortunate consequences.
REAGAN: It’s an important question to ask. Our country could change significantly for the better as a result of repealing corporate personhood. The main areas that could change pertain corporate rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments – speech, search and seizure, and discrimination. Citizens United was decided because as persons – corporations have a first amendment right to free speech. Corporate persons are immune from surprise or emergency searches and seizures that would protect consumers, workers, and the environment – because of their fourth amendment rights. Lastly, corporate persons muscling out local business, despite community opposition, results from their fourteenth amendment rights against ‘discrimination.’ In addition to these direct effects, repealing corporate personhood could significantly diminish corrupting corporate influence from the political process: corporate forces drive our wars, lobby for and secure trade policies that ship jobs overseas and have us essentially competing with prison labor, and block any health care legislation that does not operate within the for-profit, privatized system – all of which poll after poll indicate majority opinion differs from elite opinion.
But in answer to your question ‘how confident am I that repealing corporate personhood would not make things worse,’ the answer is I am very confident that repealing corporate personhood would make things better if people are willing to struggle for their rights before and after. William Meyer points out, I think correctly, in the supplement to his essay Santa Clara Blues: Corporate Personhood and Democracy that as long as there is a society, there will be a struggle over how resources, including political power, will be allocated. Repealing corporate personhood would be no more a magic bullet than Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954 was in securing rights for African-Americans. Meyer writes that though that case was important, “It took years of protests, court cases, legislative changes, changes in people’s awareness and semantics, and even many people’s murders at the hands of those who opposed change, before African-Americans began to be treated, legally, socially, and economically, as citizens and persons” – and he notes that some aspects of that struggle continue to this day. So, I am confident repealing corporate personhood would be a good thing, perhaps even the best way to mitigate corporate influence on politics and make corporations subordinate to natural persons, rather than the inverse, which is currently the case, but it would be a part of a multi-year, sustained movement that would not happen overnight, just like other popular struggles to improve the lives of ordinary people. I am confident we are gaining ground. Move to Amend has the support of dozens of repected organizations including the National Lawyers Guild, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as more than 123,000 petition signers, a number growing by the hour.
In the case of recalling Snyder, there is a fixed result if he is recalled, but with repealing corporate personhood, the result is not fixed for good or bad. Egyptians recently had to ask themselves if they would make things worse by ousting Mubarak, but I think they had a right – perhaps a duty – to do it. And even our next presidential election could have disastrous consequences if, say, Michele Bachmann was elected president. But even so, I would not advocate canceling the election. Quoting Jean Baudrillard, “It is always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.”
JOEL: I think that is an important question to ask, because it was originally progressives who supported the idea of corporate personhood and it has turned out to be quite a disaster for the American people. But the way I see it, right now corporations get all the benefits of being considered a person, but they don’t have to held responsible the way a person does.
For example, if a person commits a crime that kills a dozen people, that person would be absolved as a citizen. They would be thrown in jail, their right would be taken away, and in a lot of ways they would not be able to act as a person in our society. But if a corporation acts illegally and causes a dozen or a hundred or a thousand deaths, what usually happens is they pay might pay a fine that they can easily pay, and then are allowed to continue operating with all the same rights in our society. Amending the constitution would end that imbalance, and would say that if corporations don’t have to suffer the responsibility of being people, they shouldn’t the rights that go along with it.
MARK: How many amendments are we talking about, do you already have the language, and what need to happen to see them adopted?
REAGAN: Move to Amend states that, “A number of different versions of democracy amendments dealing with corporate personhood, voting rights, and local democracy are currently under discussion. We deliberately have not chosen specific language at this time because we believe that the drafting process must involve many diverse individuals and organizations. Yes, lawyers and law professors are among our steering committee and our wider circle of counselors; however, their opinions are not the only ones that we will take into account in offering model language for the democracy amendments.” There are seven drafts of amendments Move to Amend is considering but have not endorsed listed on their website, all of which aim to democratize the U.S. Constitution in some way.
As far as what needs to happen, or when we will know we have reached the goal, that is less easy to answer. As I mentioned, to those interested in democracy and creating a decent and free society, this needs to be a long, sustained endeavor that will not come overnight. Article V of the constitution lays out two ways amendments can be proposed and ratified. In the first one, two-thirds of both houses of congress propose an amendment and then three fourths of the state’s legislatures approve it, or ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states approve it. The second method, having two-thirds of the state legislatures ask Congress to call a national convention to propose amendments, has never been done. So it’s pretty tough stuff to pull off, but we’re gaining ground.
In addition to going the congressional route, a number of municipalities, colleges, unions, and church groups are acting locally, passing resolutions and ordinances abolishing corporate personhood. The Move to Amend website has a map populated with a few dozen places where such measures have passed or are pending.
Lastly, individuals can join the 123,000+ petition signers at movetoamend.org, join or start an affiliate group like we are doing here in Ypsi/Ann Arbor, write letters to newspapers and elected officials, demonstrate, propose an ordinance or resolution in their community – basically all the things that make popular movements happen, people working in their communities. I think the more airtime this issue gets and the more it enters public discourse, the more it gains support from ordinary people.
JOEL: Yeah, we don’t know the specifics of exactly what this bill is going to look like yet, and in a way that’s exciting because it means we can help shape it. And even if the language isn’t there at the moment, it’s important to bring this issue into the public dialogue, because it’s not going to happen if we wait for politicians who take money from corporations to do this, we have to take the lead here.
MARK: This isn’t exactly related, but would I be completely off base in assuming that, somewhere in the world, the person who named you Reagan is at least a little disappointed in how you’re choosing to spend your time these days?
REAGAN: I’m not sure. I don’t think about it a lot. I know that when I was a child, my father was a fairly active republican and had some correspondence with Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan’s Press Secretary. She once shared a letter from him with Nancy and the President, and the President wrote me a note sending his regards. It is interesting to think though, that conservatives bitterly condemned corporate personhood at its origins. So my parents would have to concede that they are disappointed their son, Reagan, turned out to be a true conservative.
MARK: You mentioned earlier that you spoke with Chomsky. Is he involved with the Move to Amend, and, if so, how?
REAGAN: Chomsky, to my knowledge, is not involved with Move to Amend. Though I would not be surprised if he signed the petition or something, but I’m not sure. When I asked him about corporate personhood, he did refer to it as “a real scandal” and said that amending the constitution or legislation of some kind to repeal corporate personhood would be a great idea, though he stressed the enormous amount of work and popular support that it would take.
MARK: So, do I understand that you have a public meeting coming up? When and where will it be taking place, and what should people expect in terms of the agenda?
JOEL: We are having a meeting on Sunday August 14th here in Ypsilanti at Frenchies (Sidetrack) at 8pm. All are welcome, and if you’re a facebook user we would appreciate it if you would RSVP so we can reserve enough space.
We plan to first off, get to know each other. If we are going to work together on such a large goal we should probably understand where each of us is coming from and what motivates us all to be involved. We will also have some materials from Move To Amend and we’ll take imput and discuss how we as a group want to push the issue. There are lots of different ways we can pressure our representitives, and we want to get everyone’s ideas. Then we’ll create a plan of action and tasks to complete within a specific time frame.
Too often these movements end up being people who get together every month just to complain. We’re going to make sure our meetings and actions are focused so that we make real progress and don’t waste anyone’s time. We hope to see you and your readers there.
And here’s that Chomsky video that I promised earlier: